The MAC is known for its high-scoring offenses and midweek games, but more attention should be paid to the depth of this league for 2015.
Northern Illinois has dominated the MAC in recent years, claiming five consecutive appearances in the conference championship. The Huskies are once again among the league’s best, but Bowling Green, Toledo and Western Michigan will push Rod Carey’s team this season. UMass is also expected to improve in coach Mark Whipple’s season year, and Ball State will rebound after a 5-7 mark in 2014.
Three of the four top teams in the league hail from the West Division, while the Falcons are the clear pick in the East.
5 Key Questions That Will Shape the MAC in 2015
1. Matt Johnson’s Return at Bowling Green
Bowling Green’s offense was dealt a significant setback last season, as quarterback Matt Johnson was lost for the year after a hip injury in the opener against Western Kentucky. After throwing for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013, Johnson was among the preseason favorites to win MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors last season. But despite Johnson’s absence, Bowling Green won the East and finished 8-6 overall. With Johnson back in the lineup, the Falcons are the pick to repeat as East champs. But is Johnson’s return enough to lift coach Dino Babers’ team to the MAC title? The offense will have no trouble scoring points. However, a defense that allowed 33.5 points per game in 2014 has to improve.
It’s a close call at the top of the West Division. Athlon Sports is picking Toledo, but a strong case could be made for Northern Illinois or Western Michigan. Provided the line is a quick rebuild after losing all five starters, the Rockets will be explosive on offense. Quarterback Phillip Ely returns after missing most of 2014 due to injury, and Kareem Hunt is one of the top running backs in the nation. Coach Matt Campbell’s defense also gets a boost with the return of cornerbacks Cheatham Norrils and Cameron Cole. Western Michigan was one of the nation’s most-improved programs last year and returns 16 starters for 2015. But the Broncos have a tough schedule, including back-to-back games at Northern Illinois and Toledo to close the regular season. Northern Illinois returns a strong core, and quarterback Drew Hare will be better with another offseason to work as the starter. However, the Huskies have a few personnel issues, as first-team All-MAC end Jason Meehan and standout safety Dechane Durante must be replaced. Additionally, three starters on the offensive line are gone. Expect the West Division to go down to the final week.
3. UMass…Potential MAC East Contender?
After winning just two games from 2012-13, UMass improved to 3-9 in coach Mark Whipple’s return to Amherst. But the Minutemen were much closer to .500 than the final record indicated. UMass lost by three points in matchups against Vanderbilt and Colorado and was suffered three defeats by a touchdown or less in MAC games. The Minutemen are departing the conference after 2015, and it’s critical for the program to show progress with a handful of seniors – including star quarterback Blake Frohnapfel – out of eligibility at the end of this season. While UMass has a road date at Bowling Green, it misses Ohio in conference action and doesn’t play Western Michigan or Northern Illinois. A winning record wouldn’t be a surprise for Whipple’s team in 2015.
4. Buffalo and Akron use Different Methods to Find Improvement
The “wild card” tag would be appropriate when examining the prospects of Akron and Buffalo in 2015. The Bulls should be explosive on offense behind quarterback Joe Licata and running back Anthone Taylor. And new coach Lance Leipold was one of the offseason’s top hires, which should help the program take a step forward after a 5-6 mark in 2014. Buffalo does have question marks on defense and on the offensive line, but a good quarterback and coach can mask some of the issues in a league like the MAC. While the Bulls are turning to a new coach for improvement, Akron is dipping in the transfer market for talent upgrades after a 5-7 record in 2014. The Zips won at Pittsburgh in late September but did not beat a team with a winning record in MAC games. How will transfers Tra’Von Chapman (QB), Rodney Coe (DT), Jamal Marcus (DE) and Larry Hope (Miami) blend with the returning talent? Akron has enough pieces to get to a bowl if coach Terry Bowden is able to improve an offense that finished ninth in the MAC in scoring last year.
5. Signs of Progress at EMU, Miami (Ohio) and Kent State?
Kent State, Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan rank at the bottom of Athlon’s 128 power rankings and the MAC for 2015. However, there’s reason for optimism at all three programs. The Eagles return promising sophomore quarterback Reginald Bell and tackling machine Great Ibe at linebacker. There’s also a favorable home slate in 2015, which should allow coach Chris Creighton’s team to take a step forward. Miami (Ohio) loses standout quarterback Andrew Hendrix, but the RedHawks are trending in the right direction in coach Chuck Martin’s second year. Kent State has won only six games in coach Paul Haynes’ two seasons. With the addition of coordinator Don Treadwell and the return of running back Trayion Durham, the Golden Flashes could double their win total from 2014 (two).
MAC 2015 Team Previews
Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2015 National College Football Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 128 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year.
MAC Football 2015 Predictions
MAC 2015 Superlatives and Season Predictions
Coach of the Year
Coach on Hot Seat
Top Coordinator Hire
Key Position to Watch
Hardest to Evaluate
Coach on the Rise
Ranking the MAC's Coaches for 2015
1. Pete Lembo, Ball State
2. Rod Carey, Northern Illinois
3. Frank Solich, Ohio
4. Terry Bowden, Akron
5. Matt Campbell, Toledo
6. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Ranking the MAC's Quarterbacks for 2015
1. Blake Frohnapfel, UMass
2. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
3. Zach Terrell, Western Michigan
4. Joe Licata, Buffalo
5. Cooper Rush, Central Michigan
6. Drew Hare, Northern Illinois
Ranking the MAC's Running Backs for 2015
1. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
2. Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
3. Travis Greene, Bowling Green
4. Anthone Taylor, Buffalo
5. A.J. Ouellette, Ohio
MAC's Top 5 Non-Conference Games for 2015
1. Michigan State at Western Michigan - Sept. 4
2. Northern Illinois at Ohio State - Sept. 19
3. Toledo at Arkansas - Sept. 12
4. Western Michigan at Ohio State - Sept. 26
5. UMass at Notre Dame - Sept. 26
Key Coordinator Hires for 2015
1. Don Treadwell, Offensive Coordinator, Kent State
2. Brian Ward, Defensive Coordinator, Bowling Green
3. Brian Borland, Defensive Coordinator, Buffalo
Top Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)
1. James Morgan, QB, Bowling Green
2. Justin Tranquill, DB, Western Michigan
3. Deontai Williams, DB, Ohio
4. Spencer Tears, WR, Northern Illinois
5. LeVante Bellamy, WR, Western Michigan
6. Juantez McRae, DB, Kent State
7. Aaron Covington, DB, Toledo
8. Chris Green, LB, Toledo
9. Brandon Childress, WR, Central Michigan
10. Jeff Christian, DB, Ohio