#79 Toledo Rockets





HEAD COACH: Jason Candle, First year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Anthony Johnson, Brian Wright | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian George

One of the MAC’s most consistent program doesn’t show signs of slowing down despite another coaching change. Matt Campbell has left for Iowa State, passing the job to offensive coordinator Jason Candle. The new coach’s offense will be loaded as usual in Toledo, but he’ll have big shoes to fill. The Rockets have won at least nine games in four of the last five years.

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Previewing Toledo’s Offense in 2016

New Toledo head coach Jason Candle’s offense is loaded with experience, all-conference talent and an explosive running attack. Candle won’t need any introductions — he was the Rockets’ offensive coordinator before replacing Matt Campbell in the top job at Toledo when Campbell departed for the same job at Iowa State. Candle has the luxury of two All-MAC running backs to work with since senior Kareem Hunt battled injuries for part of 2015 after piling up 1,631 yards and averaging 8.0 yards per carry the previous season. While Hunt was sidelined, junior Terry Swanson rushed for 923 yards and 6.5 yards per carry, and Hunt managed to gain 973 yards despite missing significant time. 

The dynamic duo will run behind a veteran line that Candle expects to provide the offense’s real leadership. That group is anchored by first-team All-MAC left tackle Storm Norton and three additional returning starters. 

The quarterback job goes to junior Logan Woodside, who was listed as the backup but did not play in the 2015 season after going 8–2 as the starter in 2014, when he threw for 2,263 yards and 19 TDs. When the Rockets go to the air, Woodside’s primary target will be wide receiver Corey Jones, whose speed and quickness have led to 123 pass receptions and 10 TDs the past two seasons. Junior Cody Thompson is a big-play specialist, averaging 22.3 yards per catch in 2015, third-best in the country.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Toledo’s Defense in 2016

Toledo relied on a dominant group up front to lead its defense a year ago, but graduation has thinned the ranks and opened the door for a rush of new talent to audition. Two-time All-MAC senior tackle Treyvon Hester is a well proven entity, with 23.5 tackles for a loss and 16 quarterback hurries over the past three seasons. While Hester will demand the attention of opposing offensive lines, senior Earl Moore, a graduate transfer from Miami (Fla.), and sophomore end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi will have to be disruptive. 

Things are a little more settled at linebacker, where senior Jaylen Coleman and junior Ja’Wuan Woodley are both proven tacklers and pursuit artists. Candle has stressed the need for solid coverage in a secondary that is led by senior safety DeJuan Rogers, who notched 67 stops last season and earned third-team All-MAC honors. Senior safeties Connery Swift and Delando Johnson are expected to quickly assume active roles in the back end of the defense, while junior cornerback Jordan Martin returns after starting in 2014 and missing last season with an injury.


Previewing Toledo’s Specialists in 2016

Stability reigns in this area as the Rockets return all their specialists, a group led by senior punter Nick Ellis, who displayed his accuracy in field position exchanges. Sophomore placekicker Jameson Vest is back after taking care of the field goal and extra point work in 2015. Jones, a first-team All-MAC pick last season, is dynamic in the return game.

Final Analysis

The Rockets’ new head coach brings little in the way of major change since Candle has been with the program since 2009. This is his offense, and it is talented and solid, so Candle won’t mess with what has worked so well. Under Candle’s direction, Toledo produced 35.0 points and 460.9 yards of offense per game in 2015, and he will keep his foot on the throttle. The real challenges come on the defensive side, where too many new faces could force the Rockets to have to outscore their opponents until they figure out how to stop them. Non-league dates with Fresno State and BYU will test Toledo early in the season, but the Rockets are good enough to challenge for a MAC West title once again.


#113 Buffalo Bulls





HEAD COACH: Lance Leipold, 5-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Kotelnicki | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Borland

Buffalo didn't go to a bowl game last season, but Lance Leipold's first season as an FBS head coach can still be labeled a success as the Bulls went 5-7 and lost several one-score games. The foundation for sustained success has been laid, but 2016 will rely heavily on the success of an inexperienced offense.

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Previewing Buffalo’s Offense for 2016

The Bulls aren’t merely breaking in a new quarterback. The entire unit is undergoing a dramatic change under second-year coach Lance Leipold. The competition to replace four-year starter Joe Licata, who owns nearly every passing record in school history, will be a two-way battle between redshirt freshmen Tyree Jackson and Chris Merchant. Both Jackson and Merchant were solid during the spring as they learned the intricacies of the offense.

Leipold still plans to rely on the running game, perhaps moreso considering that the quarterback will likely go through growing pains. Senior Jordan Johnson rushed for 811 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as the backup to All-MAC tailback Anthone Taylor. The former high school quarterback is a punishing runner who can reach the second level of the defense in a hiccup. Taylor’s power is complemented by the speed of sophomore Johnathan Hawkins, who showed flashes as a true freshman and will also handle some kick return duties. 

Quality depth along the line and at wide receiver is an area of concern. Center James O’Hagan is the only returning offensive lineman to start every game. Brandon Manosalvas started 10 games — six at right guard and four at left guard — while Roubbens Joseph started four games at right guard. After those three, it’s slim pickings on the line in terms of experience. 

Tight end Matt Weiser and wideout Ron Willoughby, who combined for 125 receptions for 1,438 yards and nine touchdowns last season, must be replaced. The leading returning receiver is Marcus McGill (50 catches in 2015), but the receiving corps suffered a blow when Collin Lisa (31 catches for 325 yards and two touchdowns) transferred back to UAB in May.  

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Buffalo’s Defense for 2016

The Bulls made considerable strides under coordinator Brian Borland in spring practice. But will that carry over to the season? The defense was more aggressive and physical in the spring due in part to new additions and schematic adjustments. Like last season, the secondary should be a strength. Senior corner Boise Ross, arguably the best athlete on the team, ranked eighth in the country in passes defended. 

Both starting safeties are back, including Ryan Williamson, who ranked fourth on the team in tackles last season with 83. Andrews Dadeboe started nine games at safety and had 36 tackles and two interceptions. Two starters are gone at linebacker, but the Bulls do return All-MAC selection Brandon Berry, a converted safety. 

The defensive line is experienced but needs to be stout against the run and create a consistent pass rush. End Brandon Crawford finished with 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks. Crawford anchors the line along with 307-pound junior Chris Ford at tackle.  

Buffalo is dealing with the tragic loss of linebacker Solomon Jackson, who was hospitalized after a medical emergency during offseason conditioning and died a week later. The Bulls have dedicated their season to the memory of Jackson. 


Previewing Buffalo’s Specialists for 2016  

Conor Clarke and Kyle Deween, a pair of junior-college transfers, battled for the punting job in the spring, and fellow newcomer Taylor Sheets joins the fray in the fall. Adam Mitcheson was 13-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season. 

Final Analysis

Leipold, a highly respected Division III coach, is a proven winner and difference-maker, so it’s only a matter of time before Buffalo is back in the hunt for a MAC East title. Since Turner Gill left the program in 2009, the Bulls have challenged for a spot in the league championship game just once (2013). The Bulls’ success in ’15 will hinge on the readiness of the new quarterback and wide receivers, and whether the defense can create a pass rush. 


#69 Western Michigan Broncos





HEAD COACH: P.J. Fleck, 17-21 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kirk Ciarrocca | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ed Pinkham

Previewing Western Michigan’s Offense for 2016

Western Michigan lost one-half of its dynamic receiving duo to the NFL. And Corey Davis easily could have followed Daniel Braverman to the draft. Instead, the nation’s active leader in receiving yards returns for his senior season, giving the Broncos a big-play weapon to feature in an offense that should again be among the most potent and balanced in the Mid-American Conference.

“I think he’s got to win the ball more, and he’s got to be able to play stronger, which sounds crazy,” WMU fourth-year coach P.J. Fleck says of the 6'3" Davis, who caught 90 passes for 1,436 yards as a junior. “I think he understands that. And I think that’s why he came back.”

It’s unclear who will emerge as a second option, though there are other proven weapons elsewhere on an offense that was second in the MAC in scoring and total offense a year ago.

Quarterback Zach Terrell, with 32 career starts, returns for his senior year after throwing for 3,526 yards, 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He’ll be protected by three returning starters on the offensive line and more depth up front than in any of Fleck’s previous three seasons.
The Broncos’ top two rushers from a year ago — diminutive sophomore Jamauri Bogan (1,051 yards, 16 TDs) and junior Jarvion Franklin (735 yards) — both return, having helped WMU averaged better than 200 yards per game on the ground last season. Bogan, last year’s MAC Freshman of the Year, is ahead of Franklin on the depth chart, though two years ago Franklin rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns during a dazzling season.


Previewing Western Michigan’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

If the Broncos hadn’t allowed two second-half scores against both Bowling Green and Northern Illinois last season, they would have played for a MAC championship. Fleck believes he finally has the difference-makers and maturity on defense to avoid those late-game swoons. “There’s a ton of depth and a ton of competition,” he says. “We’ve never had that.”

Safety Asantay Brown and linebacker Robert Spillane, both juniors, are the catalysts. Spillane, who played outside linebacker a year ago, moves inside. Brown anchors a secondary that also returns junior Darius Phillips, whose play at corner is starting to catch up to his electrifying returns. The Broncos are less proven at the other two spots, which are expected to be occupied by a pair of freshmen.

Previewing Western Michigan’s Specialists for 2016

Phillips has become an All-MAC corner, but he’ll play in the NFL because he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball in the return game. He’s expected to handle both punt and kickoff returns. Freshman Butch Hampton, who enrolled early, takes over the kicking duties with high expectations after a stellar spring. Former minor league baseball player Derrick Mitchell, who tied the school record with 36 touchbacks as a 28-year-old freshman last season, will also punt this year.

Final Analysis

WMU took a major step by winning eight games for the second straight year. The Broncos finished in a three-way tie atop the MAC’s West Division, then picked up the program’s first bowl win, keeping momentum despite a schedule that featured Ohio State and Michigan State in non-conference action and road dates against MAC West rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo.

This year, WMU has a legitimate chance at its first conference championship since 1988 and first double-digit-win season in program history. The Broncos get Northern Illinois and Toledo at home, and they have more manageable non-conference games against Northwestern and Illinois. 

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been since I’ve been here,” Fleck says. 


#98 Akron Zips





HEAD COACH: Terry Bowden, 19-30 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: A.J. Milwee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Amato

Terry Bowden's team broke through with eight wins last season, including a 23-21 victory over Utah State in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. But with just six starters returning, the Zips' progress could be stymied this fall.

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Previewing Akron’s Offense for 2016

The Zips return only two offensive starters, but there are plenty of transfers and experienced upperclassmen to step in and provide a positive answer to major question marks.

It is a surprise to say that the two key returnees are quarterback Thomas Woodson and receiver Jerome Lane, both juniors. It’s a surprise because after spring practice a year ago, Woodson was third string and Lane was a strong safety. A change in their status in 2015 was instrumental in the Zips recording an 8–5 mark — the program’s first winning season since 2005. Woodson, who took over as the full-time starter in the fourth game, threw for 2,202 yards and 16 touchdowns and ran for 591 yards and three scores. Lane moved to offense in preseason camp and caught 39 passes for 782 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. His 20.1 yards-per-catch average ranked 12th nationally. Lane likely will pair with transfer JoJo Natson to provide Akron with two deep threats. Natson was dismissed at Utah State after last season for his third violation of team rules, but he was a solid producer for the Aggies when he was in the lineup. 

The running game could get a boost from Warren Ball, a graduate transfer from Ohio State. A former four-star recruit, Ball played sparingly during his career in Columbus.

The offensive line is the prime overall concern for coach Terry Bowden, because all five starters were seniors in 2015. Tackle Kyle Ritz, guard LaVonne Gauthney and center Stephen Ericksen have had spot starts but must prove they can produce over the course of a season. Several junior college transfers also will be in the mix.


Previewing Akron’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

There are also a limited number of returning starters on defense (four), but there is not quite as much optimism as on the offensive side.

Last year, the Zips ranked No. 3 nationally in rushing defense (92.9 ypg) and No. 15 in total defense (331.5 ypg). But six of the top seven tacklers are gone, including all three linebackers. A drop-off at those three positions is probable, although middle linebacker John Racha has plenty of experience.

The defensive line will be anchored by ends Jamal Marcus (third-team All-MAC in 2015) and Se’Von Pittman (a former Ohio State Buckeye), who give the Zips a pair of bookends that rival any in the conference. Bowden likes the potential of junior Darius Copeland and sophomore Brock Boxen on the interior of the line.

The secondary has the chance to be solid if the regulars can stay healthy. Corner DeAndre Scott led the team with six interceptions.

Previewing Akron’s Specialists for 2016

Kicker Robert Stein and punter Zach Paul were two of the best in school history. Both must be replaced. Tom O’Leary has limited experience but likely will hold the placekicking job in the fall. The punting duties will go to one of three sophomores. Natson gives Akron a punt returner who can change field position in a hurry. His 11.7 yards per return in 2014 for Utah State ranked No. 11 nationally.

Final Analysis

Bowden has changed the culture at an Akron program that went 3–33 from 2010-12. The Zips went 5–7 in both 2013 and ’14 and then broke through with eight wins last fall. He has taken some chances on transfers — both from FBS schools and the junior college ranks — but that has translated into a more talented roster that has made this program competitive in the MAC East.  Another successful season is possible — if the offensive line develops, if Woodson continues his maturation and if the linebacking corps can at least be steady. It helps that Akron has Bowling Green and West powers Toledo and Western Michigan at home.


#97 Bowling Green Falcons





HEAD COACH: Mike Jinks, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Kilmer, Andy Padron | DEF. COORDINATOR: Perry Eliano, Marcus White

Dino Babers led  to the MAC championship last season and then left to become the head coach at Syracuse. Mike Jinks, former associate head coach/running backs coach at Texas Tech, has taken over the reigns of the Falcons and will look to keep the program's momentum going. Jinks' debut will likely have its share of growing pains, however, with just 10 starters returning.

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Previewing Bowling Green’s Offense for 2016

There is a very good reason that Texas native Mike Jinks is now stationed deep in the heart of the Midwest and running the program at Bowling Green — the rapid-fire offense the Falcons run is very familiar to Jinks, who spent the past three seasons at Texas Tech and is the new head coach at BG. His predecessor, Dino Babers, brought the Baylor look to Bowling Green, and Jinks sees no reason for an offensive overhaul to take place. But there will be a significant personnel shuffle, since the Falcons need to replace a quarterback who set school and conference passing records, along with five of the top six pass catchers from a year ago. 

Senior James Knapke is poised to take over at quarterback after making 13 starts in 2014 when the record-setting Matt Johnson was injured. Knapke’s 280 completions for 3,173 yards and 15 touchdowns that year left little doubt he could do the job. Senior Fred Coppet moves in at tailback after rolling up 825 yards and scoring five touchdowns in a backup role in 2015. 

The biggest holes are at receiver, where Roger Lewis left early for the NFL after finishing with 85 catches for 1,544 receiving yards in 2015. Possession man Gehrig Dieter led the team with 94 catches, but he chose to play his graduate year at Alabama. That leaves Jinks to lean on dynamic senior Ronnie Moore, who had 72 grabs for 954 yards last season, and junior Teo Redding, who made his first start last season in the bowl game and responded with 13 catches for 222 yards and three touchdowns. 

The line is a veteran group with four returning starters who are well accustomed to the fast tempo Jinks prefers.


Previewing Bowling Green’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The emphasis has been on establishing a solid foundation with the fundamentals of sound tackling, physical play and dogged pursuit, and all indications are that the Falcons are buying into what the new staff has been pushing. Bowling Green returns first team All-MAC linebacker Austin Valdez, who had 13 tackles in his first start against Tennessee, and he should be one of the league’s top defenders on a veteran unit. He is joined by senior Trenton Greene, another all-conference pick after his 127-tackle performance in 2015, and James Sanford, a third returning starter at linebacker. 

The secondary is also anchored by proven veterans, with cornerbacks Alfonso Mack, the team leader last season with six interceptions, and Clint Stephens, who has six picks in his career. 

Most of the rebuilding is taking place up front, where senior Terrance Bush is the lone returning starter after making 68 stops a year ago. 

Previewing Bowling Green’s Specialists for 2016

Punter Joseph Davidson led the conference last season with a 46-yard average and had 17 punts over 50 yards. Departed placekicker Tyler Tate converted only 8-of-15 field goal attempts last year. Sophomore Jake Suder is next in line.

Final Analysis

About four years ago, Jinks was coaching high school football in his native Texas. Now he is the head coach of a solid mid-major program in the Midwest, and he was hand-picked for the job due to his high degree of familiarity with the offensive approach. 

There is no rebuild necessary at Bowling Green. Instead, Jinks is looking to build on the winning culture, and maybe crank things up a tad faster with the frenetic offense. The Falcons are the defending MAC champs and have won 17 straight games against their fellow MAC East members. The bar is set pretty high for Jinks in his head coaching debut, but the system and the personnel on hand would seem to put Bowling Green in a strong position once again.


#91 Ohio Bobcats





HEAD COACH: Frank Solich, 80-61 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Albin, Scott Isphording | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jimmy Burrow

didn't win the MAC East in 2015 but the Bobcats did make their sixth bowl appearance in the last seven seasons. Another postseason trip should be in the cards for 2016, as Frank Solich's team could very well represent the East in the MAC Championship Game.

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Previewing Ohio’s Offense for 2016

Ohio was better offensively, improving its point production by a touchdown per game in 2015. With the bulk of the skill-position talent returning, and an offensive line that appears capable of replacing three starters, the Bobcats could make another jump up this season. But the quarterback question lingers; Ohio has two seniors who could potentially start. Greg Windham played in a handful of games last fall. He has arm talent but is prone to forcing throws. J.D. Sprague has started 12 games over the last two seasons and has the skill set Ohio desires to run its option-influenced, one-back, no-huddle offense. But Sprague had offseason surgery on his shoulder and missed spring practice. It’s not a given he’ll be at the top of the depth chart in August. 

The QB issue is the biggest surrounding the offense, which returns junior running back A.J. Ouellette and all three starting wide receivers. Ouellette has been dependable if unspectacular and has led Ohio in rushing each of the past two seasons. Sophomore Papi White had more big plays than any other back on the team last year. 

At receiver, Ohio has good talent in place with seniors Sebastian Smith, Jordan Reid and junior Brendan Cope. They combined for 1,905 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Smith is an All-MAC talent. Junior tight end Troy Mangen, a two-year starter, is expected back after missing 2015 with a knee injury.

On the offensive line, senior Troy Watson and Durrell Wood return at right tackle and guard, respectively, but the Bobcats need to find three new starters. Junior Jake Pruehs, a starter in 2014 at guard, will move to center. 


Previewing Ohio’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Ohio’s defense hoped for more in 2015, but a midseason swoon keyed by a rash of injuries at linebacker left the Bobcats looking a lot like their 2014 counterparts. Still, Ohio should have perhaps the MAC’s best front seven. The Bobcats return three starters on the defensive line and eight of the 10 players it used in rotation along the line. Seniors Tarell Basham and Kurt Laseak at end and senior Casey Sayles at tackle give the unit a great foundation on which to build. 

Ohio returns junior middle linebacker Quentin Poling, a contender for MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. Senior weak-side force Blair Brown returns as well, and new strong-side starter Chad Moore has played starter’s reps as a multi-positional backup over the past two seasons.

The questions regard the secondary where Ohio has to replace its top four cornerbacks. Langston Provitt, an expected starter at corner, left the team in the spring.

Previewing Ohio’s Specialists for 2016

Ohio will have talented but unproven newcomers in the kicking department. Redshirt freshman Louie Zervos will replace the dependable Josiah Yazdani as the placekicker and proved to be accurate inside of 40 yards during spring camp. Redshirt freshman punter Michael Farkas initially signed with Cincinnati out of high school. New options will get plenty of chances in the return game, but White — the team’s best open-field threat — is clearly the favorite to get the bulk of the opportunities.

Final Analysis

The Bobcats will be once again among the top tier of MAC contenders. In a watered-down East Division and with three-time division champ Bowling Green in rebuild mode, Ohio may very well be the preseason favorite. Whether the Bobcats can turn an expected seven- or eight-win season into something more substantial depends on solving the quarterback issue and hoping young talent takes hold in the secondary. But a top-of-the-MAC front seven and quality offensive skill-position talent means Ohio can expect yet another bowl bid this season.


#127 UMass Minutemen



Independent PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Mark Whipple, 55-44 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Whipple | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Masella

UMass' last season in the MAC did not go according to plan, as the Minutemen's bowl aspirations were replaced by a 3-9 showing. Now UMass embarks on its journey as an FBS Independent, and it does not figure to be a smooth debut with just six returning starters and a schedule that features teams from the ACC and SEC, as well as BYU.

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Previewing UMass’ Offense for 2016

UMass is going to be inexperienced throughout its offense with only three returning starters. Tailback Marquis Young showed star potential at the end of the 2015 season, emerging as the team’s featured back. UMass rode his 240-yard, three-touchdown performance to upset Buffalo in the final game. The Minutemen will likely use him a lot, especially early, as the rest of the offense finds its way. Fellow sophomore back Sekai Lindsay, whose role had been gradually increasing before a season-ending knee injury, complements Young well. Lindsay is a bigger, between-the-tackles runner, while Young thrives in space.

Junior college transfer Andrew Ford, who redshirted at Virginia Tech in 2014, is a good bet to start at quarterback. He was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, and coach Mark Whipple has a history of starting transfers in two stints at UMass. But Ford will be learning on the fly behind an offensive line that returns three starters.

Senior Jalen Williams, who missed all of last season with a leg injury, caught 20 passes in 2014 and figures to be a key piece of a receiving corps that lost Tajae Sharpe, who left with most of the Minutemen’s career receiving records. Sophomore speedster Andy Isabella (a converted running back), Hawaii transfer Darrian Josey and redshirt freshman Lamarriel Taylor could all figure prominently.

Travis Reynolds, a sophomore and former Australian rules player, will try to be the latest player from Down Under to make an impact stateside. Whipple likes to have a pass-catching tight end, and the 6'5" Reynolds could fill that spot.


Previewing UMass’ Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Like the offense, the UMass defense will break in quite a few new players after graduating eight starters. New blood might be a good thing, as the Minutemen were in the bottom third of the MAC in scoring defense (31.4 ppg) and total defense (447.8 ypg).

Junior college transfer Teddy Lowery is coming off a strong spring and figures to make an instant impact at outside linebacker. Shane Huber, who is UMass’ leading returning tackler with 95, takes over for all-conference linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox inside.

UMass missed free safety Khary Bailey-Smith after the ball-hawking playmaker went down with a season-ending knee injury in the season’s second game last year. After taking a medical redshirt, he’ll return to the lineup and lead a young secondary. Lee Moses takes over at strong safety following a promising freshman season.

Jackson Porter started at corner as a freshman in 2014 before moving to receiver last year. He’s back at corner this season and should start alongside junior Jordin Hamilton.

UMass was 12th in the MAC last year in quarterback sacks with just 15. The Minutemen are hoping junior college transfer Ali Ali-Musa can help spark the pass rush as he joins a defensive line anchored by junior Sha-Ki Holines.

Previewing UMass’ Specialists for 2016

Junior Logan Laurent appears to have both kicking jobs locked down after solidifying UMass’ placekicking midway through last season. Speedsters James Oliphant and Isabella both looked good in the return game as rookies last year and will try to build off of that.

Final Analysis

UMass’ hopes for a bowl appearance in its final season in the MAC came up well short, and the Minutemen’s first season as an FBS Independent looks to be a daunting one. With a young roster, they will play six road games in four different time zones and a difficult home slate as well. Three games against SEC teams (at Florida, at South Carolina and Mississippi State at home) will help keep the Minutemen afloat financially while they search for a new league, but they’ll make it hard to produce a winning record.


#124 Eastern Michigan Eagles





HEAD COACH: Chris Creighton, 3-21 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kalen DeBoer | DEF. COORDINATOR: Neal Neathery

After winning just one game last season, there's only one direction for to go. The good news for Chris Creighton's team is that the schedule at least offers several opportunities to claim more than one victory. The bad news is to do that one of the nation's worst defenses in 2015 must get better (and quickly) for that to happen.

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Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Offense for 2016

As poor as Eastern Michigan’s season went in winning only one game in 2015, much of the blame can be pointed at the other side of the ball. The Eagles certainly had their deficiencies offensively, which included turning the ball over a total of 25 times, third-worst in the MAC. But overall, they sported a middle-of-the-pack offense that compiled some impressive performances while also often being tasked with trying to rally from deficits. 

A big asset for EMU is that the offensive line should be on the same page from the outset, as five returning starters, all seniors, return to man their spots. They helped the Eagles to 380 yards and 25.4 points per game last year, not eye-popping totals but also numbers that should have been good enough for more than one victory.

Additionally, back in the fold is junior quarterback Brogan Roback, who arrived at EMU in 2013 as the highest-rated recruit in program history. He had a solid sophomore campaign, throwing for 2,304 yards and 16 TDs against 11 INTs. Roback’s upside suggests he has 3,000-yard potential.

Shaq Vann showed flashes of being a productive running back last season and will step into the starting role. The biggest key for the Eagles offensively will be the production they receive from a wide receiver corps that is chock-full of underclassmen.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Defense for 2016

The Eagles were nothing short of a disaster defensively a season ago, surrendering an average of 42.1 points and getting torched on the ground to the tune of 316.6 yards per game. Through the air, EMU was actually second in the MAC in yards allowed per game (202.8), but much of that was due to opposing teams holding leads and knowing they could churn out yards on the ground.

Injuries caused major issues, as 12 contributors missed part or all of the season, including leaders Pat O’Connor and Ike Spearman. As long as Eastern Michigan can remain relatively healthy, there is no reason why the Eagles can’t show significant improvement.

Also in place is a new defensive coordinator in Neal Neathery, who served in the same capacity at UTSA last season. He plans on implementing a 4-2-5 base defense, which is a welcome change from the odd-front scheme used the previous two seasons.

Eastern Michigan must figure out how to better stop the run under Neathery. If it does, significant strides should follow with the added talent and depth of a healthy roster.

Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Specialists for 2016

The pint-sized Eddie Daugherty should provide a threat in the kick return game if he can find some openings. Blake Banham is the frontrunner to return punts for a second straight season after gaining 76 yards on eight returns a year ago, one of which he brought back 35 yards. Austin Barnes has been a steady punter for the green and white since 2013, booting it an average of 43.6 yards on 45 attempts last year. The placekicking job is up for grabs and figures to be a battle between senior kickoff specialist Brendan Renius and redshirt freshman Brian Alsobrooks.

Final Analysis 
Well, it can’t get much worse than a combined 3–21 record over the past two seasons under third-year head coach Chris Creighton. But losing has been so commonplace at Eastern Michigan — which is one of the most difficult places to win in college football — that it has not been met with much surprise or pressure to show immediate results. There are reasons for optimism in Ypsilanti — most notably at the quarterback position — but this program still has a long way to go before it can shake the deserved reputation of being a perennial cellar dweller. 


#118 Kent State Golden Flashes





HEAD COACH: Paul Haynes, 9-26 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Don Treadwell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ben Needham

With just nine wins in three seasons, head coach Paul Haynes is squarely on the hot seat at . The Golden Flashes welcome back 17 starters from 2015's 3-9 team, including eight on a defense that ranked among the top in the MAC. The key to a significant turnaround, however, is getting more out of an offense that struggled mightily to move the ball or score last season.

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Previewing Kent State’s Offense for 2016

Nine starters return on this unit, but optimism about 2016 should be tempered by the fact that Kent State ranked 127th in the nation in total offense last season at 270.8 yards per game. That spoiled a solid defensive effort and doomed the Golden Flashes to their third consecutive losing season and a tie for last place in the MAC East.

An early season injury to 2014 leading rusher Nick Holley and an ineffective Trayion Durham at fullback meant Kent State needed to pass more to move the ball. That failed miserably, as quarterbacks Colin Reardon and George Bollas completed only 51 percent of their passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). KSU finished No. 121 nationally in passing efficiency.

Reardon and Bollas are back, but coach Paul Haynes hopes that redshirt freshman Mylik Mitchell or true freshman Justin Agner will emerge in fall camp. Reardon played some at receiver in the spring.

Improvement at quarterback could mean a relative resurgence on offense, because many playmakers are back. Holley returns at tailback, and quality backups Myles Washington, Will Matthews and Justin Rankin are behind him. In addition, Kent State has recruited well at receiver and tight end in recent years. The top nine pass catchers are back, led by Antwan Dixon, Kris White, Ernest Calhoun, Johnny Woods and converted running back Raekwon James.

The offensive line returns four of five starters. Seniors Reno Reda and Wayne Scott and juniors Nathan Puthoff and Brock Macaulay are building blocks.

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Previewing Kent State’s Defense for 2016

This unit is loaded with eight returning starters and plenty of reserves who saw productive time in 2015. That defense was dominant at times last season and finished No. 27 nationally in total yards allowed at 350.1 per game.

The top returnees are three first-team All-MAC performers: end Terence Waugh, free safety Nate Holley (Nick’s twin brother) and corner Demetrius Monday. Waugh led the team in tackles for a loss (12) and sacks (9.0) despite missing two games with injuries. Holley led in tackles (141), and Monday led in interceptions (six).

The front four also brings back Chris Fairchild, Jon Cunningham and Theo Eboigbe. The linebacking corps will miss Matt Dellinger in the middle, but productive senior Elcee Refuge will move there from the outside.

Holley and Monday give Kent State a secondary that has the potential to be one of the conference’s best. In addition, senior Najee Murray (team-high nine pass breakups) is a returning starter at the Apache position, a combination of corner and linebacker.


Previewing Kent State’s Specialists for 2016

The state of the Kent State offense is reflected in the fact that returning placekicker Shane Hynes led the team in scoring with 34 points. He did that despite not coming close to overusing his leg, attempting only 13 extra points, making them all, and hitting 7-of-11 field goals. One of the best punters in school history, Anthony Melchiori, is gone, leaving the position up for grabs.

Final Analysis
Haynes is popular in the Kent State community, but this may be his make-or-break year. His 9–26 record in three seasons puts him squarely on the hot seat.

It is not an overstatement to say that the success of this team rests on improvement at quarterback. More mediocrity at the position would doom the offense to another season of frustration despite the presence of an experienced line and playmakers at running back, tight end and receiver. The defense likely will continue to be a strength, but there is always the uncertainty of whether the success of 2015 can be duplicated, especially since there is a new coordinator in Ben Needham.


#116 Ball State Cardinals





HEAD COACH: Mike Neu, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joey Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Daoust

A disappointing 3-9 showing was followed by the unexpected departure of former head coach Pete Lembo. Mike Neu returns to his alma mater, looking to return  to the top of the MAC. The Cardinals should be productive enough on offense, but the key to a significant turnaround lies on the other side of the ball.

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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2016

Mike Neu spent the last 12 years in New Orleans and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Saints as a scout in 2009, so it was going to take someplace special for Neu to leave the Big Easy. Then Ball State head coach Pete Lembo opted in December to become Maryland’s assistant head coach. Neu jumped at the chance to return to Ball State, where he won the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year award while leading the Cardinals to the 1993 conference title.

Neu retained offensive coordinator Joey Lynch and plans to merge the Cardinals’ previous offense with the Saints’ passing game concepts that fit Ball State’s personnel. Judging by Neu’s thoughts on sophomore quarterback Riley Neal, who threw for 2,276 yards, rushed for 399 yards and accounted for 18 TDs, everything might fit. “He has got a big, big, big-time arm,” says Neu, who coached for two seasons at Tulane before rejoining the Saints in 2014. “He can make all the throws. He has a great combo of arm strength and touch.”

Ball State’s top receiver (Jordan Williams) has graduated, but Neal can count on a big target in KeVonn Mabon (70 catches) and slot man Corey Lacanaria (45). 

The Cardinals also welcome back all of their running backs. Elusive junior Darian Green and powerful sophomore James Gilbert split the carries last year, but Neu envisions senior Teddy Williamson giving Ball State a three-headed monster in the backfield.

The Cardinals must replace a trio of graduated offensive linemen, including second-team All-MAC center Jacob Richard. The battles at center, right guard and right tackle could extend throughout camp, which could put additional pressure on senior left tackle Drake Miller and junior left guard Vinnie Palazeti.


Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2016

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On the recommendation of Saints offensive line coach and former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar and former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer, Neu interviewed Orange assistant head coach Tim Daoust for the defensive coordinator job. “In the first five minutes, I knew he was the guy I wanted to hire,” Neu says.

Daoust has implemented an attacking 4-3 style that resembles Michigan State’s scheme. He has nine returning starters to fill the new roles, but it’s a group that surrendered 518 yards and 35.8 points per game.

First-team All-MAC linebacker Sean Wiggins finished last season in the middle, but he’s moving to the weak side alongside fellow seniors Zack Ryan and Aaron Taylor. They’re the strength of this bunch.

Senior defensive end Joshua Posley also earned first-team All-MAC honors last year with nine tackles for a loss and six quarterback hurries. The Cardinals aren’t afraid to give newcomers such as junior college transfers John Swisher and Reggie McGee and freshmen Chris Crumb and James Jennette III the chance to carve out roles on the defensive line.

The secondary didn’t lose any starters, but roles are changing to fit the scheme. Senior boundary safety Martez Hester (22 starts) and senior cornerback Tyree Holder (21) bring the most credentials.

Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2016

Sophomore kicker Morgan Hagee drilled 14-of-15 field goals inside 40 yards but hit just 2-of-6 of his long-distance tries. Four-year punter Kyle Schmidt’s averaged dropped to 39.7 yards, but he put 21 inside the 20-yard line. Mabon earned third-team All-MAC kudos as a returner.

Final Analysis

Ball State has enough offensive talent to get back to .500, but it’s very difficult to win when allowing opponents to average 5.3 yards per carry and complete 70 percent of their passes. It’s going to take time for Ball State to put Michigan State’s schemes to good use.