College football’s new four-team playoff may have increased the gap between the power conference teams and the programs from conferences like the MAC, but the opportunity is still there for a team from outside the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC to make a splash on the national stage.
Northern Illinois crashed the BCS for the MAC during the 2012 season, and Bowling Green should be in contention for the top spot from teams outside of the power conferences. With college football’s new postseason format, the highest-ranked team from the five non-power conferences will play in one of college football’s top bowl games each year.
Guided by first-year coach Dino Babers, the Falcons are Athlon’s pick to win the MAC. Bowling Green averaged 34.8 points per game under former coach Dave Clawson, but with Babers at the controls and the return of quarterback Matt Johnson, the Falcons could push for 40 points a contest in 2014. Bowling Green’s schedule is very favorable, as a road trip to Toledo in late November is the toughest game on the slate.
After Bowling Green, the East appears to be up for grabs. Ohio versus Akron for the No. 2 spot was a huge debate in Athlon’s preseason prediction meeting, as the Bobcats have five consecutive winning seasons, while the Zips are making steady progress under Terry Bowden. The Nov. 18 road date in Athens could decide whether Ohio edges Akron for the No. 2 spot, or if the Zips are the biggest challenger to Bowling Green in the East.
Buffalo loses a handful of key players – including linebacker Khalil Mack and running back Branden Oliver – but Jeff Quinn’s team should remain in bowl contention. The Bulls return 11 starters, and quarterback Joe Licata threw only eight interceptions on 402 attempts last season. Buffalo will ask more of Licata in 2014, but a revamped receiving corps and a defense with seven new starters will be critical to the Bulls’ position in the MAC standings.
Kent State, Miami (Ohio) and UMass are the final three teams in the East predictions. The Minutemen and RedHawks should improve under new coaching staffs, while the Golden Flashes need to restock the offensive line and navigate a tough schedule that features crossover games against Northern Illinois and Toledo. The RedHawks were active in the transfer department under new coach Chuck Martin, with Notre Dame’s Andrew Hendrix (QB) and Lo Wood (CB) expected to play key roles in 2014. The Minutemen also landed a new quarterback in former Marshall product Blake Frohnapfel.
While the East Division pecking order seems to be more clear, the West Division is up for grabs. Three teams – Toledo, Ball State and Northern Illinois – are the frontrunners in 2014. However, there’s not much separation among those three programs. The Cardinals need to replace quarterback Keith Winning and receiver Willie Snead, but Pete Lembo – the No. 1 coach in the MAC, should find enough answers early in the year to keep Ball State in contention for the West Division title.
Toledo is Athlon’s pick to win the West, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Northern Illinois or Ball State finish No. 1. The Rockets should be explosive on offense with a standout offensive line and a solid set of skill players. Finding a new quarterback is the top priority for coach Matt Campbell.
Northern Illinois loses quarterback Jordan Lynch and safety Jimmie Ward, but there’s enough returning talent to compete for the West Division title. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the Huskies’ MAC West title hopes that Toledo visits DeKalb in November.
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Central Michigan returns 16 starters and should have a chance to get back to bowl eligibility in 2014. However, the Chippewas are just 1-11 under Dan Enos against the top three teams in the MAC West. For Central Michigan to take the next step under Enos, quarterback Cooper Rush needs to develop after a promising freshman season, and the defense has to get better against the run.
Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan rank as the bottom teams in the West Division, but there are signs of progress at both programs. The Broncos signed the MAC’s top recruiting class, while the Eagles seem to have found the right coach in Chris Creighton.