Tuesday, July 15, 2008

COLLEGE FOOTBALL '08: MID-AMERICAN

Welcome to The Ciskie Blog's 2008 College Football Preview. As usual, you can expect a rundown of every Division I-A (or "Football Bowl Subdivision", if you prefer) conference, as well as a brief look at the independents. Some of the information used to compile these previews came from various football preview publications that I took the time to review this summer. I give a full endorsement to Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the national edition, as well as his various regional magazines). I also have looked at Sporting News, Athlon Sports, and Blue Ribbon (via ESPN Insider). Information was also gathered from local newspapers and school websites. Please use the comments section or e-mail for feedback, questions, and any corrections you feel need to be noted.

EAST DIVISION
1. Miami (Ohio)
2. Bowling Green
3. Buffalo
4. Temple
5. Kent State
6. Ohio
7. Akron

WEST DIVISION
1. Ball State
2. Central Michigan
3. Western Michigan
4. Toledo
5. Northern Illinois
6. Eastern Michigan

TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN MID-AMERICAN
Temple and Buffalo. There's no better way to describe this storyline than by simply saying "Temple and Buffalo". By themselves, and without any attached context, this means nothing to most of you. Temple hasn't had a winning season for 17 years. They haven't even won more than four games in a season since 1990. On its surface, a four-win season isn't anything special. But for Temple, who endured a myriad of injuries, started a slew of freshmen, and started 0-5, a 4-8 finish is something to build on. The Owls are the only Division I-A team to return all 11 starters on each side of the ball. A bowl game is not out of sight, believe it or not. The same could be said for Buffalo. The Bulls don't have 22 starters back, but they do have 18. They won five MAC games a year ago, matching their total from the previous four years combined. The Bulls have a senior QB in Drew Willy (pictured) who has started 28 games over three years. Coach Turner Gill appeared to be a favorite for the Nebraska job (his alma mater) before deciding to stay in Buffalo. He should reap the benefits of his decision this year, as the Bulls have the tools to at least be bowl-eligible, and they'll challenge Miami and Bowling Green for the league title.

LeFevour fever. A 1-3 start, featuring blowout losses to Kansas, Purdue, and North Dakota State (!), left the Chippewas reeling under first-year coach Butch Jones. CMU rallied, winning five of six, claiming the West Division title, and blowing by Miami in the MAC title game. Despite a porous defense, the Chips gave Purdue all they could handle in the Motor City Bowl thanks to QB Dan LeFevour (right), who is the latest in a long line of elite MAC QBs. He threw for 300 or more yards in four games, topped 3,600 yards passing, and chipped in over 1,100 yards on the ground. LeFevour's 46 total TDs included 19 scores on the ground, placing him only behind Tim Tebow among Division I-A quarterbacks. LeFevour has already started 26 games, and he's mastered the Chippewas' spread offense. Expect more big numbers this year, as CMU returns all their top skill-position players and four starters on the offensive line.

QB experience all over the MAC. While many of the MAC's 13 teams struggled to generate a consistent passing game last year, they'll all have a great opportunity to improve in 2008. 12 of the league's 13 teams return their starting quarterback from 2007. Among them are West Division stars LeFevour and Nate Davis (Ball State). Tim Hiller (Western Michigan) disappointed coaches with some of his decision-making, but he returns for another season. Toledo's Aaron Opelt needs to stay healthy. Tyler Sheehan (Bowling Green) should become an Omar Jacobs-like star this year. Willy and Adam DiMichele (Temple) both have the chance to continue their teams' respective surges. Daniel Raudabaugh (Miami) may have to fend off a freshman (Clay Belton) to even keep his job. Ohio is the only team that has to replace last year's starter.

Ball State's offense should continue to shine. Off their first winning season since 1996, the Cardinals have the goods to make the leap atop the MAC West this season. QB Nate Davis has room to improve (completion percentage around 57), but he takes care of the football (nine picks in over 700 career attempts). He's the triggerman for an offense that is as formidable as any in this league. Ball State gets all eleven starters back, including 100-catch WR Dante Love, a TE in Darius Hill who scored 11 times last year. The Cardinals need to get more consistency out of the running game (held under 100 yards in four of their last six regular-season games), and they're banking on the idea that seven returning starters will bolster a defense that was flat-out abused against the run (204 yards per game, including over 200 yards in six of 13 games). Phil Steele wants to point out that the Cardinals were plus-17 in turnover ratio last year, meaning they're likely in for a less fortunate season, too. That said, they're ready to make the leap, and this year might be their best chance.

MAC woes continue. Despite some on-field success and more exciting offenses, the MAC continues to struggle against the big boys. In 2007, the MAC went 5-37 against teams from BCS conferences, but didn't win a single game against a BCS team that finished with a winning record. They also went 0-3 in bowl games, including Bowling Green's 63-7 waxing at the hands of Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. This year doesn't look good, with such doozies as Miami at Michigan, Miami at Cincinnati, Temple at Penn State, Bowling Green at Pittsburgh, Ohio at Ohio State, Akron at Wisconsin, Boston College at Kent State, Central Michigan at Georgia, etc. Good luck, MAC. Hopefully, your improved football teams can spring an upset or two.

BEST OF THE REST
I mentioned the potential QB controversy at Miami, as Belton tries to snatch some snaps away from Raudabaugh, who struggled mightily at times last year. Whoever gets the job has talent to throw to, led by sophomore Eugene Harris and junior Dustin Woods. The RedHawks will battle Bowling Green for the East Division title again. Sheehan (right) is an accurate thrower in an offense that demands accuracy. The Falcons' spread attack does rely on the ability to run the ball and keep the offense diverse, and they didn't do such a good job of that last year, averaging 40 pass attempts per game (50 or more in four of their first five games). Kent State won their opener at Iowa State last year, started 2-1, and finished the season 3-9 thanks to a scattershot passing game and a secondary that seemed to get worse throughout the season. To improve, it would be super if they could stay healthy at QB, where four different players started games last year. Frank Solich seems to have the offense tuned up at Ohio, as the Bobcats topped 30 points a game last year. A defense that allowed 30 or more points in five of six losses sunk their bowl hopes. Solich hopes senior LB Michael Brown will lead an improvement. A rebuilding process is underway at Akron, where the Zips will play in the Rubber Bowl for the last time this year. Coach JD Brookhart seeks improvement from QB Chris Jacquemain, who leads a passing game that has to get something positive going without leading receiver Jabari Arthur. There are too many losses on defense for the Zips to be much of an East Division factor. If Hiller doesn't watch out, sophomore Drew Burdi might wrestle the QB job away from him at Western Michigan. He has a top target in Jamarko Simmons to go along with the emerging Schneider Julien. The Broncos are another team that needs to show improvement on defense. A late-season upset at Iowa last year may help propel WMU to the bowl picture. Tom Amstutz has hit a bump in the road at Toledo for the first time. Injuries have ravaged the QB position, and now they have to deal with the loss of leading rusher Jalen Parmele. Amstutz knows the run defense has to improve after finishing last in the MAC (215 yards per game allowed), and his team also has to survive a brutal schedule (at Arizona, vs. Fresno State, at Michigan in non-conference play). Jerry Kill comes from a successful Southern Illinois program to take over at Northern Illinois. The cupboard isn't bare with the departure of Joe Novak, as the Huskies have a staggering 21 starters back. If Kill can guide this team through the first five games (four on the road) without their confidence taking a hit, they could be a surprise team. The seat is warming quickly for Jeff Genyk at Eastern Michigan. Genyk is very optimistic about the upcoming year, but the odds of EMU earning their first postseason trip since 1987 are not good. If they're going to build a winner, expect it to be done with an improved offense. QB Andy Schmitt needs to stay healthy and improve his consistency. If he doesn't, sophomore Kyle McMahon has the edge in mobility and may steal the job.

PRESEASON AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Offensive Player of the Year: Dan LeFevour, QB, Central Michigan
Defensive Player of the Year: Larry English, DE, Northern Illinois
Coach of the Year: Turner Gill, Buffalo
Coach on the Hot Seat: Jeff Genyk, Eastern Michigan
Best Non-Conference Game: UTEP at Buffalo, August 28
Worst Non-Conference Game: Northeastern at Ball State, August 28