#94 Ball State Cardinals





HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, 30-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joey Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Kelly

Ball State returns 17 starters from last season's team that finished strong, winning four of its final six games. The Cardinals hope to be a factor in the MAC West again, but will have to do so without its top playmaker from a year ago. Pete Lembo will rely on a veteran offensive line and improving defense as Ball State looks to get back to a bowl game this season.

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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2015


For the second year in a row, Ball State must adjust after losing one of its all-time great skill-position players. While the Cardinals struggled last season to find a successor for quarterback Keith Wenning, they’re in a better position this fall to handle the graduation of tailback Jahwan Edwards (4,558 career rushing yards, 51 TDs).

Coach Pete Lembo believes the tag team of bulked-up junior Teddy Williamson, scatback sophomore Darian Green and prized freshman James Gilbert will handle the load, even though they’ve combined for 328 yards and one touchdown to date. “We’ve got a veteran offensive line and tight ends,” Lembo says. “We expect our running backs to step in and be productive.”

Not only do the Cardinals welcome back all of their starting linemen and top three tight ends, they also retain the two quarterbacks who split last season and all of their wide receivers. Sophomore Jack Milas began last season as junior Ozzie Mann’s backup, but the coaches decided to make a change at quarterback after Ball State’s 1–4 start. Milas jumped in and threw for 326 yards and four scores in his first start. But he endured some growing pains, as well as literal pain when he broke his wrist in Week 11. Mann led the Cards to a season-ending win at Bowling Green, but Milas keeps the starting job. He has two All-MAC receivers in Jordan Williams (second team) and KeVonn Mabon (third team), but don’t be surprised if sophomores Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue produce just as much.

Center Jacob Richard, a third-team all-league pick the last two seasons, spearheads a line that boasts 101 career starts.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2015

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During league play last season, Ball State’s defense ranked among the MAC’s bottom four in all the major categories. While the Cardinals dealt with some extenuating circumstances — free safety Dae’Shaun Hurley tore his ACL in Week 1, third-team All-MAC cornerback Eric Patterson went out for the year in Week 9 — it’s fair to say injuries weren’t the sole cause of their relative ineffectiveness.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Lembo says. “We started off pretty solid. Once the injuries started piling up, it really took its toll on us. A lot of guys were thrown in ahead of their time.”

Ball State welcomes back seven starters, including all but one member of the front seven. The Cardinals managed just 16 sacks last year, so they’re looking for more from senior defensive tackle Darnell Smith (4.0 sacks) and senior rush end Michael Ayers (2.0 sacks).

Senior weak-side linebacker Ben Ingle was a second-team all-league pick in 2013 but produced 29 fewer tackles last fall and received no honors. He and junior middle linebacker Zack Ryan have the capability to deliver more. Hurley’s solid rehab suggests he’ll be ready at free safety, while sophomore Dedrick Cromartie, who stepped up after the injuries, shifts to strong safety.

“The key here is to build more depth and more cohesiveness,” Lembo says.

Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2015


MAC Special Teams Player of the Year Scott Secor has graduated, leaving true freshman Morgan Hagee and junior walk-on Alex Egan battling to be the kicker. Junior punter Kyle Schmidt posted a 41.5-yard average in his first two years.

Final Analysis


Blessed with 17 returning starters from a group that won four of its final six games, Ball State ought to be able to shrug off last year’s step back and be a factor in the tough MAC West. The key is how Milas grows into the starting quarterback role. “I’m not going to say he has arrived by any means,” Lembo says, “but he’s more comfortable out there.”


#92 UMass Minutemen





HEAD COACH: Mark Whipple, 52-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Whipple | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Masella

With just five wins in three seasons on the FBS level, could this be the year UMass takes a big step forward? The Minutemen return 18 starters, as Mark Whipple's team hopes to secure the program's first bowl appearance since 1972.

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Previewing UMass’ Offense for 2015


Before coach Mark Whipple and quarterback Blake Frohnapfel arrived, the Minutemen had the 12th-ranked passing attack in the MAC in 2013. The arrival of the coach-quarterback tandem elevated the Minutemen to the No. 1 passing offense in the conference. Frohnapfel, a transfer from Marshall, led the league with 334.5 passing yards per game. He threw 23 touchdowns with 10 interceptions before missing the last two games with a broken leg.

Frohnapfel is healthy again for his senior season and will lead an offense that loses tight end Jean Sifrin but not much else. Rodney Mills moves from H-back, where he was a reliable receiving threat, to take over for Sifrin at tight end. Senior wideout Tajae Sharpe, who caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and seven touchdowns, figures to be one of the MAC’s top receivers again.

Running back is the biggest offensive question for the Minutemen. They return four backs who started at least one game last year, but nobody could stay healthy or consistent enough to hold onto the job. Shadrach Abrokwah, who worked his way from walk-on freshman in 2013 to starter a year ago, will likely get first crack at the job. He rushed for 578 yards on 122 carries in eight games. Jamal Wilson, who was UMass’ No. 1 back before tearing up his knee in September, will certainly be in the mix as well.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UMass’ Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

UMass returns nine of 11 starters from a unit whose statistics were slightly tainted by the amount of time it spent on the field.

Jovan Santos-Knox, who was second in the MAC with 11.9 tackles per game last year, takes over middle linebacker responsibilities from Stanley Andre, who graduated. The return of Shane Huber, who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury, should help defray the impact of Andre’s departure at inside linebacker.

UMass struggled to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year. It’s hoped that outside linebackers Kassan Messiah and Trey Seals can add to last season’s 5.5 combined sacks.

All-conference cornerback Randall Jette leads a secondary that needs to cut down on big plays allowed. Trey Dudley-Giles, who moved between safety and corner last season, should be at corner full time, while UAB transfer Kelton Brackett will likely get a chance to make an immediate impact.

The Minutemen’s inexperience and smallish stature on the defensive line was exposed at times last year when they played against bigger, more veteran offensive lines. They’ll get bigger with 307-pound Robert Kitching taking over at nose tackle. UMass is counting on junior Peter Angeh and sophomore Sha-Ki Holines to improve with a year of added experience under their belts.

Previewing UMass’ Specialists for 2015


UMass tried three placekickers over the course of 2014, and none of them earned any trust. True freshman Michael Caggiano, a high school record-setter in New Jersey, will get every chance to win the job. Logan Laurent takes over at punter hoping to improve on the Minutemen’s struggles there. UMass was 12th in the MAC in punting average (37.1).

Final Analysis


UMass won just one game in each of its first two FBS seasons. Last year it jumped up to three wins and nearly had more as a play or two might have changed the results of several games. With most of last year’s team returning, the Minutemen have a chance to take a significant step forward. It’s a critical year for UMass, which is leaving the MAC after the season for an undetermined stretch as an Independent. It’s hoped that a strong year capped by UMass’ first bowl appearance since 1972 might pique the interest of a conference willing to offer permanent membership.


#81 Western Michigan Broncos





HEAD COACH: P.J. Fleck, 9-16 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kirk Ciarrocca | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ed Pinkham

P.J. Fleck orchestrated quite the turnaround at Western Michigan last season. The Broncos won eight games in 2014, after picking up just one victory in Fleck's 2013 rookie campaign. Now the next step for this Broncos program is to maintain that success and emerge as a legitimate contender in the MAC West. Fleck appears to have the horses to possibly do that this fall, with 16 starters returning and his staff's efforts on the recruiting trail ready to pay dividends on the field.

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Previewing Western Michigan’s Offense for 2015

Western Michigan’s players were “finally able to touch faith” last season, third-year coach P.J. Fleck says, after living on faith alone during the first year-and-a-half he was at the helm. The Broncos’ seven-game improvement in 2014 took place in large part because their quarterback, Zach Terrell, and offensive line were surprisingly effective, and freshman running back Jarvion Franklin arrived on campus and dazzled. Nine starters return from an offense that ranked second in the MAC in scoring (33.8 ppg). That includes Terrell, Franklin, all three starting wideouts and three offensive linemen.

Terrell took hold of the offense during his sophomore season. He passed for 3,443 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the MAC in passing efficiency. Terrell’s two dynamic targets from a year ago are again at his disposal, juniors Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman. Davis led the MAC in receiving yards (1,408), Braverman in receptions (86).

Franklin is a shifty 6'0", 220-pound back with deceptive speed. He rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns — fourth-most in college football last season. The reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year should spend his sophomore year running behind a mostly seasoned offensive line, including seniors James Kristof and Willie Beavers at left guard and tackle, respectively. WMU intends to start a true freshman at center, John Keenoy, an early enrollee who surprised coaches with his readiness during the spring. Sophomore right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, entering his first year as a full-time starter, might be the best of the group. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Western Michigan’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Broncos’ defense has a few more holes to plug. All-MAC defensive backs Justin Currie and Donald Celiscar and nose tackle Richard Ash (a graduate transfer from Michigan) were staples of a defense that saw its points allowed drop from 35.4 in 2013 to 24.9 in ’14.

Middle linebacker Grant DePalma tallied 102 tackles, benefiting from the work of Ash and his cohorts up front. Two starters return on the line, including tackle Cleveland Smith (5.5 sacks), but “a lot of guys that haven’t seen a lot of playing time need to get in there and go,” Fleck says.

WMU’s secondary is still expected to be the strength of this unit. Two starters return on the back end — all-league corner Ronald Zamort (tied for the MAC lead in pass breakups last season) and safety Rontavious Atkins. The most intriguing piece is sophomore Darius Phillips, the fastest player on the team. Phillips is being groomed to play both corner and wideout. He also led the MAC in kickoff return average last season (26.4 ypr).

Previewing Western Michigan’s Specialists for 2015

Senior kicker Andrew Haldeman has made 30-of-37 field goals the last two years, while classmate J. Schroeder averaged a career-best 42.8 yards per punt last season. The best story among this crew, however, is kickoff specialist Derrick Mitchell, a 28-year-old once-touted minor league baseball prospect who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2005. Mitchell is only six years younger than Fleck.

Final Analysis

WMU won eight games in 2014, but “we probably won more games on paper than what kind of football team we actually had,” Fleck says. “We kind of got on a roll.” This year’s team might be better and win less. The schedule is unforgiving. In an apparent effort to win the Big Ten’s East Division, the Broncos get Michigan State and Ohio State in September, opening with the Spartans in Kalamazoo. They close with midweek road games at division rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo, both of which Fleck has yet to beat. “We’ve done all the work to earn expectations,” Fleck says. Meeting them will be a bear.

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#78 Bowling Green Falcons





HEAD COACH: Dino Babers, 8-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Lynch, Sean Lewis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Ward

Dino Babers won eight games in his first season at Bowling Green, led the Falcons to their second straight MAC East title and first bowl victory in a decade, but his team enters 2015 with even loftier goals in mind. An experienced offense welcomes back just about every key contributor, while five starters return on a defense that finished near the bottom in every major category. If the offense continues to produce and the defense rebounds, Bowling Green could be a MAC champion once again.

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Previewing Bowling Green’s Offense for 2015


It is hard to hide the wealth on this unit, so the Falcons won’t try. They have two quarterbacks with extensive starting experience. Matt Johnson, who started 13 games two years ago but suffered a season-ending injury in last year’s opener, returns healthy. The backup is the MVP from last year’s Camellia Bowl win, James Knapke, who also led the team to eight wins and a second straight MAC East title after Johnson’s injury.

The Falcons quarterbacks have plenty of viable targets, as the top four receivers return. Roger Lewis was a first team all-conference selection a year ago when he was the first freshman in school history to reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Veteran Chris Gallon, who missed last season due to injury, and Baylor transfer Robbie Rhodes also join a veteran group.

Running back Travis Greene has put up almost 2,600 yards rushing and scored 26 total touchdowns over the past two seasons and accounted for a pair of scores in the Camellia Bowl victory. The key to it all on offense for the Falcons is likely their considerable strength up front. Bowling Green had the same five linemen start all 14 games a year ago, and they all return. This solid group is led by guard Alex Huettel, a two-time all-conference choice. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Bowling Green’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Falcons took a significant graduation hit on this side of the ball. Seven starters are gone from last year’s unit that struggled more than intermittently, allowing the opposition 33.5 points and nearly 500 yards of offense per game. This is a major area of concern, since a mediocre defense just got a whole lot younger and less experienced.

Bowling Green lacked an intimidating pass rush last season (just 28 sacks), and the top four ends are gone, along with two linebackers, both safeties and one cornerback. Zach Colvin, Taylor Royster and Mike Minns should man the interior line posts, with Bryan Baird and Bryan Thomas (if he returns to the team after an off-field incident) expected to see plenty of time at end.

James Sanford, Nate Locke and Austin Valdez have all seen time at linebacker in their careers, with Sanford the most experienced of the group. On the back end of the defense, corner Darrell Hunter had eight starts last season, while Clint Stephens intercepted four passes while seeing plenty of playing time as true freshmen in 2014.

Previewing Bowling Green’s Specialists for 2015


Expect this to be a very strong area for the Falcons. Placekicker Tyler Tate is back after booting 23 field goals (in 29 attempts) last season. Punter Joseph Davidson also returns after setting records for attempts and punt yardage in 2014, when he knocked 14 punts 50 or more yards. Long snapper Greg Hohenstein adds further experience and continuity to the group.

Final Analysis


How the expectations have changed. The Falcons won at least eight games for the third straight season, claimed a second consecutive MAC East crown and won their first bowl game in a decade — but it wasn’t enough to reach the team’s lofty goals.

When coach Dino Babers and his fast-paced, high-powered offense arrived following the MAC championship season of 2013, visions of 50 points per game and another league title were prevalent. For 2015, Babers has the personnel to pull off that kind of explosive scoring. The Falcons have just about everyone back on an offense that should be among the best in the league. The young and inexperienced defense is suspect, however. Babers will be plugging holes with players he hopes possess the skill set to solidify the defense. If that happens, this should be a championship-caliber team that once again flirts with fulfilling those lofty expectations.


#75 Toledo Rockets





HEAD COACH: Matt Campbell, 26-13 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jason Candle | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Heacock

As consistent as Toledo has been as a program — five consecutive winning seasons — the Rockets are more than 10 years removed from their last MAC championship and last division title. After winning nine games and finishing 7-1 in the league, Toledo has the goods to contend again, provided the Rockets can find an answer on a completely rebuilt offensive line.

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Previewing Toledo’s Offense in 2015

The most important person around the Rockets’ program in the offseason was offensive line coach Tom Manning, since his unit likely holds the key to Toledo’s 2015 season. The Rockets have a wealth of experienced and proven skill position players but lost five senior starters on the offensive line, including three all-conference performers. 

The rebuild could not be more significant. Left tackle Storm Norton filled in for three games last season due to an injury, but beyond him the Rockets hope to get rapid development and productive play from a host of newcomers. Depending on that line will be running back Kareem Hunt, a first team all-conference pick and 1,600-yard rusher a season ago who had 271 yards and five touchdowns in the GoDaddy Bowl win over Arkansas State.

Phillip Ely and Logan Woodside both started and were productive at quarterback last season before injuries forced them to the sidelines. Ely returns from knee surgery, while Woodside rehabs a serious ankle injury. Ely, who transferred from Alabama two years ago, might have the edge in the derby to earn the starting job, but both he and Woodside have demonstrated they can make this offense explosive.

The fireworks through the air usually involve three-time all-conference wide receiver Alonzo Russell, a 6'4" target who caught 51 passes for 770 yards and eight scores last season. Speedy slot receiver Corey Jones had a team-high 68 receptions a year ago.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Toledo’s Defense in 2015

Toledo’s deck is full of options on this side of the ball, where depth and athleticism are plentiful. The crew up front comprises the deepest and likely the most talented unit in the program, and the group is led by returning all-conference tackles Treyvon Hester and Orion Jones. End Trent Voss led MAC linemen in tackles last season with 77. Adding depth at tackle are Chris Collins and Marquise Moore, both of whom have starting experience, while returning starter Allen Covington had 29 stops last season at end. 

The Rockets return veteran Chase Murdock at linebacker, where he could be joined by Jaylen Coleman, Ju’Wuan Woodley or Zach Quinn once the position battles play out. 

After being decimated by injuries the last two seasons, the secondary boasts four cornerbacks with significant starting credentials — Cheatham Norrils and Cameron Cole, the 2013 starters who missed last season with injuries, and 2014 starters Jordan Martin and Christian Dukes. The safeties will come from the group of Chaz Whittaker, UAB transfer Rolan Milligan, DeJuan Rogers and Delando Johnson.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Toledo’s Specialists in 2015

The kicking game is a big question mark after the departure of three-time All-MAC kicker Jeremiah Detmer. Sophomore Sam Vucelich has the inside track to man that position. Junior Nick Ellis returns at punter, but he needs to improve on his league-worst 36.6-yard average. The strength of the special teams is likely the return game. Jones averaged 11.8 yards on his league-high 24 punt returns in 2014.

Final Analysis

Toledo has the luxury of playing seven home games in 2015, and the Rockets return of plenty of playmakers on defense and some extremely talented individuals at running back and receiver. But all of the optimism has to be tempered by the fact that Toledo has gone from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country last year with five senior starters to having one of the least experienced this time around. The development of that new line is the key to the season. If the offensive line grows up fast, the Rockets should be a championship-caliber team in 2015.


#80 Northern Illinois Huskies





HEAD COACH: Rod Carey, 23-6 (2+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bob Cole | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Niemann

Northern Illinois reigned supreme in the MAC in 2014, although a blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl ended last season on a disappointing note. The path to the MAC West division crown figures to go through the Huskies once again this fall, as Rod Carey's team returns 14 starters from a team that is used to winning. Northern Illinois is in search of its sixth straight division crown and its fourth MAC championship in the past five years.

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Previewing Northern Illinois’ Offense for 2015


Northern Illinois has remained one of the best offensive units in the MAC through several coaching changes over the last decade. The offense should keep on piling up points and yardage in 2015, but it will have a slightly different look.

Unlike last season, there won’t be any uncertainty at quarterback. Drew Hare won a three-player competition with his performance in the second half of a win at Northwestern in Week 2. Hare doesn’t possess the running ability of past stars Jordan Lynch or Chandler Harnish, but he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

“He’s a completely different quarterback,” NIU coach Rod Carey says. “He has the confidence of knowing he’s the quarterback.”

The offense should be more pass-heavy because of the athleticism and depth at wide receiver. Senior Tommylee Lewis, who had 86 receptions in 2013, is back after missing most of last season with a toe injury. Senior Juwan Brescacin is a big-play threat, junior Chad Beebe is a solid possession receiver and North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay’s size makes him an instant red-zone threat.

The Huskies’ success on offense usually hinges on their ability to run the ball and the development of the line. They finished 16th in the country in rushing offense last season, averaging 249.1 yards per game, but they must replace running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels. Northern Illinois will employ a committee approach, with Keith Harris Jr., Joel Bouagnon, Draco Smith and Jordan Huff splitting carries early in the season.

Questions surround the offensive line as center Andrew Ness and left guard Aidan Conlon are the lone returning starters.  Right guard Josh Ruka, right tackle Lincoln Howard and left tackle Levon Myers all gained valuable experience as reserves last season.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Northern Illinois’ Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

While eight starters return from a unit that finished 51st in the country in scoring defense, the Huskies must replace defensive end Jason Meehan and free safety Dechane Durante, although the core of a defense that forced 24 takeaways and registered 32 sacks last season is mostly back. Up front, the Huskies need defensive ends Cameron Clinton-Earl and Perez Ford to apply pressure. Rasheen Lemon, the second-leading tackler last season, headlines a solid group of linebackers.

The secondary is a position of strength, with three starters back from a unit that picked off the majority of the 14 interceptions last season. Strong safety Marlon Moore, who led the Huskies with 99 tackles, is the anchor, and all-conference cornerback Paris Logan is a proven defender.

Previewing Northern Illinois’ Specialists for 2015


Kicker Christian Hagan emerged late last season to become a reliable option. Redshirt freshman punter Peter Deppe is the leading candidate to take over for Tyler Wedel. The return game could use an upgrade after finishing 91st on kickoff returns and 74th on punt returns.

Final Analysis


Despite the Huskies’ loss of most of their playmakers on offense and top sack specialist, the road to the MAC West title still goes through Northern Illinois. The offense has the potential to be formidable again with a solid group of running backs, an explosive corps of receivers and Hare benefiting from a full offseason as the starting quarterback. Defensively, the Huskies are solid in the secondary with a few spots to fill at linebacker and along the defensive line.

The Huskies have lost three straight bowl games, including a 52–23 blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl last season. Carey is not shying away from using that as motivation. The conference schedule is favorable for a run at a sixth straight West title and fourth conference championship in five years.