Saturday, August 16, 2008

2008 MAC Preview


Miami (Ohio)
The Redhawks won the MAC East last season, but missed out on a bowl game thanks to their loss in the MAC Championship Game to Central Michigan. Miami finished 6-7, but 4 of their 7 losses were to BCS-conference foes (Minnesota, Cincinnati, Colorado, and Vanderbilt). With a multitude of returning talent, the Redhawks look to put 2 seasons of disappointment behind them and qualify for their first bowl game under Shane Montgomery.

Last season there was a large disconnect between the Redhawk offense on a down-to-down basis and their scoring proficiency. Miami gained 367 yards per game (81st in the nation), but scored only 19.2 points per game (108th in the nation). That trend held true in conference games too where the Redhawks finished 6th in yards per game against conference foes, but only 10th in points. Part of it had to with field position—the Redhawks finished 80th in the nation in average kickoff return, and part of it was turnovers—thy turned the ball over 28 times on the year (90th in the nation). The Miami quarterbacks, Mike Kokal and Daniel Raudabaugh, combined to throw 19 interceptions. Kokal was especially heinous in his senior season, throwing 7 in only 99 pass attempts. Raudabaugh added 12, but his came in 382 attempts. Kokal is gone and Raudabaugh returns for his junior season, but he will be challenged by redshirt freshman Clay Belton, a highly ranked recruit. Whomever wins the starting job will have every player who caught at least 15 passes last season back. The offensive line also returns 3 starters and the only significant loss is at running back where the Redhawks must replace their top-3 rushers. Miami should be much improved on the offensive side of the ball in 2008.

Defensively, the Redhawks were tops in the MAC by a wide margin in 2007. The table below lists MAC foes based on the yards they allowed per game in conference play. As you can see, Miami was nearly 50 yards per game better than the second best defense. That unit should once again be stout as 9 starters, including the top-6 tacklers, return. Last season, Miami led all MAC schools with 32 sacks (31st in the nation), and with all but 2 of last year’s sacks accounted for on this team, they should once again terrorize opposing quarterbacks.

Prediction: Miami opens with a very intriguing and winnable home game against Vanderbilt. They then sandwich a home game with Charleston Southern between likely road whippings at Michigan and Cincinnati. The Redhawks have a fighting chance of emerging from the non-conference slate at 2-2. In conference play, they avoid the 2 likely strongest teams from the West (Central Michigan and Western Michigan), but they must face divisional rival Bowling Green on the road. Still, even if they fall in that game, the pieces are in place for another division title.

Bowling Green
Despite their blowout loss in the GMAC Bowl, the Falcons did win 8 games in 2007. That was their highest win total since 2004. Can they build last upon season and get back to the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2003?

Credit head coach Gregg Brandon with getting his 2 best players onto the field in 2007. The quarterback from 2006, Anthony Turner, was replaced in 2007 by Tyler Sheehan. Turner didn’t sulk and was instead moved to running back where he led the team with 519 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns. Turner was emphasized much more down the stretch, gaining 364 of his rushing yards and getting the bulk of his 106 carries (72) in the final 5 games. Meanwhile, Sheehan performed quite well in his first season as a starter. His passer rating of 132.59 ranked 45th in the nation and 4th in the MAC. The Falcons return both Turner and Sheehan, as well as the team’s second leading rusher (Willie Geter) and every receiver who caught at least 12 passes. The only potential area of concern on the offense is along the line, where only 2 starters (both guards) return. The Falcons allowed 32 sacks last season (97th in the nation) and could continue to struggle protecting Sheehan.

The Falcons defense was in the lower half of the MAC last season (8th in yards allowed per game in league play) and kept them from winning the division. In the game that eventually cost them the division title, they permitted Miami to roll up 499 yards in a 47-14 whitewashing. They were again exposed in the bowl game, giving up 562 yards and 63 points to Tulsa. The good news for the Falcons is that the defense should be better in 2008. 9 starters are back, with the entire secondary returning intact. They must improve their pass defense that allowed opposing passers to post an efficiency rating of 138.49 (93rd in the nation) last season.

Prediction: The first part of the schedule is quite treacherous. The Falcons open with a road trip at Pittsburgh before hosting Minnesota (who will be out for revenge after last year’s defeat) and traveling to Boise State and Wyoming. An 0-4 start is a real possibility for the Falcons. In league play, they do avoid Central Michigan from the West, and also host their biggest division threat in Miami. However, they do face road tests at Toledo (41-6 last 8 years at home) and Ohio. The Falcons finished 6-2 in MAC play last year despite only being an average team as measured by SDPI. They outgained their conference foes by only about 1 and half yards per game last year. Those are hardly numbers befitting a team that won 75% of their conference games. Bowling Green should be better on both offense and defense in 2008, but their luck and schedule will keep them from winning the division and will likely keep them out of a bowl game.

Kent State
Under head coach Doug Martin, the Golden Flashes seem to post respectable records in even years and horrendous records in odd years. In 2004 and 2006, Kent State posted a combined 11-12 record (9-7 in MAC play) and in 2005 and 2007 they went a collective 4-19 (1-15 in MAC play). That trend should continue in 2008 as the Golden Flashes are poised to be one of the MAC’s breakout teams.

Last season Kent State struggled offensively, finishing 10th in yards per game in MAC play. However, those numbers are pulled down by the final 4 games which quarterback Julian Edelman missed with a broken arm. The table below lists Kent State’s offensive splits with and without Edelman, first in all games and then in conference games only. As you can see, without Edelman, the offense struggled. Edelman does most of his damage on the ground (412 yards rushing in 2007). He posted a passer rating of only 113.13 last season (95th in the nation) after having a 124.45 rating in 2006 (53rd in the nation). Joining Edelman in the backfield is lilliputian running back Eugene Jarvis. The 5’5” Jarvis gained 1669 yards on the ground last season and averaged a robust 5.98 yards per rush. Jarvis also led the team with 306 receiving yards. That dynamic duo along with 3 starting offensive linemen return, so if Edelman can remain healthy, the Golden Flashes could top the 200 yards per game they gained on the ground last season (22nd in the nation). 2 starting wide receivers also return, led by Phil Garner (no, not that Phil Garner) and his team-high 27 catches. Kent State should be one of the most improved offenses in the country and should average their most points per game since 2004 (30.5 per game).

The Kent State defense was just a shade below average for MAC teams last season. They were 7th among MAC teams in yards allowed per game n conference play. In 2008, they return 8 starters including 5 of their top-6 tacklers. The Kent State defense should also fare better at forcing turnovers in 2008. They forced only 15 all season (111th in the nation). A few more turnovers will not only make the defense look better, but it will also set the offense up in more favorable scoring positions.

Prediction: The Golden Flashes open the year against a pair of BCS-conference foes—Boston College and Iowa State. The Boston College game is in Cleveland, and Kent State did beat Iowa State last season. The Golden Flashes probably won’t beat either team, but an upset is within the realm of possibility. Following those 2 stiff tests, the Golden Flashes host Delaware State (IAA) and travel to take on Sun Belt foe Louisiana-Lafayette. They should beat the Hornets from Delaware State and will definitely be in contention to knock off the Ragin’ Cajuns. In conference play, Kent State only faces two foes from the MAC West (thanks to the quirky schedule required for a 13-team conference) and neither of them is Central Michigan or Western Michigan. Kent State has a lot of positive indicators for success in 2008. They were 1-4 in one-score games last year, had a pitiful turnover margin (-11), and lost their quarterback for the final 3rd of the season. Kent State should finish bowl eligible and could participate in their first bowl game since 1972.

The culture has certainly changed in Athens, Ohio. Last year’s 6-6 campaign was seen as somewhat of a disappointment. This despite the fact that it was the second most wins the Bobcats have produced since 2000. Can Frank Solich lead the Bobcats to another division title in 2008?

Last year’s Ohio team was built around the running attack of Kalvin McRae. McRae gained over 1400 yards on the ground and rushed for 19 touchdowns last season. He departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher, having topped 1000 yards rushing in each season of the Solich regime. McRae’s departure, as well as that of quarterback Brad Bower leaves a big void in the Bobcat backfield. Theo Scott will replace Bower under center. Scott saw action in 10 games last season, posting decent numbers (passer rating of 124.70 would have 70th in the nation with enough attempts to qualify). Scott should adequately replace Bower, but there will be no replacing McRae. Chris Garrett will do his best, but with only 196 career rushing yards, the running attack will take a step back. The Bobcats do bring back their top-2 receivers (tight end Andrew Mooney and wideout Taylor Price), so the passing attack should pick up some of the slack left by the running game. On the whole though, the offense should decline from last year’s production.

Ohio was in the middle of the MAC pack defensively last season. They were 6th in yards allowed per game in conference play. They return 7 starters in 2008, but do lose 3 of their top-5 tacklers, including leading tackler Todd Koenig. Koenig is the lone departure from the secondary, but the defensive line loses both of its interior players—Landon Cohen and Brett Sykes. Cohen led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss in 2007 and Sykes was 4th with 6.5. The Ohio defense should be about the same as last season; neither appreciably worse nor better.

Prediction: Ohio faces 3 very tough non-conference road games (Wyoming, Ohio State, and Northwestern) and a home date with VMI (IAA). An eternal optimist would see the Wyoming game as winnable, but the Bobcats will be facing what should be an improved offensive team in Laramie. 1-3 seems like a better guess at the non-conference record. In league play, the Bobcats have the misfortune of playing both Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the West, but playing in a division that includes Buffalo, Temple, and Akron, the Bobcats should find themselves in the middle of the MAC East once again.

The Bulls, not Bills mind you, resurgence under Turner Gill from laughingstock to competent MAC team nearly got the former Nebraska star a job at his alma mater. Will Gill continue to raise the Buffalo program or are they destined to take a step back in 2008?

Despite the presence of a competent quarterback (Drew Willy posted a passer rating of 135.69 in 2007—33rd in the nation) and a 1000-yards running back (James Starks), the Bulls were decidedly below average offensively. In MAC play, only 2 teams gained fewer yards per game (Akron and Temple). The good news for Buffalo is that they should see marked improvement in 2008. 10 starters return, with the only loss being center Jamey Richard (7th round NFL draft pick). Richard will certainly be missed, but with everyone else back, both aspects of the offense should be better in 2008.

Defensively, the Bulls were very solid in 2008. In MAC play, they ranked 5th in yards allowed per game. That unit returns 8 starters, but does lose perhaps its 2 best players in defensive end Trevor Scott (team-leading 10 sacks in 2007) and linebacker Larry Hutchinson (team-leading 19 tackles for loss in 2007). The 8 returning starters are certainly a positive indicatior of continued success under Gill, but losing 2 players the caliber of Scott and Hutchinson should keep the defense from improving this year.

Prediction: Outside the MAC, Buffalo has the unenviable task of traveling to Pittsburgh and Missouri. Their other non-conference clashes offer a much better opportunity for wins—UTEP and Army. If a bowl bid is the goal for 2008, they must win both of those. In MAC play, the Bulls face the daunting task of taking on both Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the MAC West. That alone is reason to predict a slight regression for the team in 2008. Couple that with the fact that the Bulls were better than their record in 2007 (8th in SDPI for yardage, but tied for the 2nd most wins in the league), and it stands to reason that 2009, at the earliest, will be the year the Bulls qualify for their first bowl game.

In 2007, the Owls won as many games (4) as they did between 2003 and 2006. Are they close to rounding the proverbial corner and becoming a yearly contender in the MAC?

Temple was the antithesis of balance in 2007. In MAC play, they gained the fewest yards per game, but also managed to allow the second fewest. The offense was a little more than 58 yards per game worse than Akron (the second least efficient offense). The difference between Akron and Western Michigan (the 4th best offense) was only 63 yards per game. The Temple quarterbacks, Adam DiMichele and Vaughn Charlton, helped the team post a solid passer rating of 124.24 (69th in the nation), but were sacked 45 times (113th in the nation). Those sack numbers contributed to the Owls atrocious rushing numbers—2.65 yards per rush (114th in the nation). Of course, that’s still much better than the numbers they put up in 2006 when they only gained 1.87 yards per rush (119th or dead last in the nation). The Owls return an incredible 11 starters on offense in 2007. DiMichele clearly established himself as the starting quarterback until he was injured in the team’s 8th game against Miami (Ohio) and missed the remainder of the season. The following table lists Temple’s offensive performance with and without DiMichele in 2007. DiMichele threw only 4 passes against Miami before leaving so that game is included in the missed section. As you can see, the offense was substantially better with him at the controls. His return, combined with that of every other offensive starter should mean Temple is one of the MAC’s most improved offensive squads.

Temple’s defense was what allowed them to win 4 conference games in 2007. In their finest performance on the season, they held Kent State to a mere 124 yards. Like the offense, the Temple defense also returns 11 starters in 2008. Every significant player returns, highlighted by defensive end Junior Galette, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season. Despite the numbers, Temple probably played a little above their talent level last season and may actually see their defensive performance dip somewhat.

Prediction: Temple faces 2 service academies (Army and Navy), Connecticut, and Penn State in their non-conference schedule. Temple faced those same 4 teams in 2007, and lost to each one. However, if not for a blown call, they could very well have beaten Connecticut. Temple also has the potential to knock off Army. 2 wins outside the league may be a stretch, but the Owls should at least get one. In conference play, the Owls draw both Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the MAC West, a sure-fire way to kill any championship aspirations. In addition, the Owls were also a bit lucky in 2007. 3 of their 4 wins were by 7 points or less, and they had a stellar 3-1 mark in one-score games. The Owls are in much better shape than they were just a season ago, but the MAC as a whole is also improved and that will keep Temple near the basement in the MAC East.

After winning their first ever conference title in 2005, the Zips have gone just 9-15 (6-10 in MAC play) and could be in for their 3rd straight losing season in 2008. Can JD Brookhart right the ship or is it sinking fast?

Despite their 3 conference wins last season, the Zips were arguably one of the league’s worst teams last season. On offense, only Temple gained fewer yards per game in MAC play. The major problem for the offense was a limited aerial attack. As a team, the Zips averaged a meager 5.9 yards per pass (106th in the nation) and completed only 53.7% of their passes (101st in the nation). The bad news for Akron is that despite 8 returning starters on the offensive unit, they do lose leading receiver Jabari Arthur. Arthur caught 86 passes for 1171 yards last season. That yardage total represented over half (53.1%) of the teams total yardage through the air (2206 yards). With Arthur gone, quarterback Chris Jacquemain will have a hard time improving in his junior season. The Zips also lose their leading rusher from last season, Bryan Williams, who has moved to safety. Replacing him in the backfield is Miami (Florida) transfer Andrew Johnson. Johnson carried the ball only 35 times in his Hurricane career, so he is somewhat of an unknown quantity. However, with 4 starting offensive linemen back, he should post solid numbers at worst. The offense may be a little better in 2008, but the absence of Arthur will keep the unit from improving significantly.

Akron was also pretty bad on defense in 2007. In MAC play they were 10th in yards allowed per game. Only Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Toledo allowed more yards in conference play. The Zips return only 5 starters in 2008 (which may be a good thing depending on your point of view). The most significant loss is at linebacker where Brion Stokes, who led the team in tackles and sacks in 2007, has exhausted his eligibility. The defense may improve, but should remain at about the same level as its predecessor.

Prediction: The Zips face Wisconsin, Syracuse, Army, and Cincinnati outside the league. Wisconsin and Cincinnati are likely losses, but the other 2 are winnable. In conference play, the Zips avoid Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the MAC West, but do face potent offenses in Ball State and Toledo. The Zips should be very similar to last year’s team, but worse luck should send them to the basement.


Central Michigan
Is a three-peat in the works for the Chippewas? The past 2 seasons, the Chips have lost only twice in conference play. Can they continue their dominance in 2008?

I doubt most college football observers would be shocked to learn that Central Michigan possessed the MAC’s most potent offense in 2007. Behind the running and passing of Dan LeFevour (the MAC’s version Tim Tebow), the offense did not miss a beat under head coach Butch Jones who took over for the departed Brian Kelly. LeFevour rushed for over 1100 yards and scored 19 touchdowns to go along with over 3600 passing yards and an additional 27 touchdowns. Returning along with LeFevour in 2008 are 4 starting offensive linemen, running back Justin Hoskins (second leading rusher in 2007) and a pair of 1000+ yard receivers (Bryan Anderson and Antonio Brown). The offense should remain among the elite in the MAC even if LeFevour does not quite match his numbers from last season.

The defense, on the other hand, was another story. One season after finishing a solid 67th in total defense (343 yards allowed per game), the Chips became a sieve. They allowed 460 yards per game (109th in the nation) and in MAC play were 9th in yards allowed per game. The defense returns 8 starters in 2008, but loses its top-2 tacklers in linebackers Red Keith and Ike Brown. Both had over 100 tackles last season and Keith was 5th in the nation with 148 stops. With the majority of the starters back, the unit could see some minor improvement, but the loss of Keith and Brown should curb expectations for the defense.

Prediction: Central Michigan opens with Eastern Illinois in what will likely be their lone victory outside the league. Their other non-conference games are at Georgia, at Purdue, and at Indiana. While the Chips certainly gave Purdue a game in the Motor City Bowl (lost 51-48 on a last second field goal), they were still outgained by 150 yards and can thank Purdue’s 3 turnovers (to their none) for keeping it close. It’s conceivable the Chips could beat either the Boilermakers or Hoosiers, but it would likely require the opponent to significantly shoot themselves in the foot. In MAC play, the Chips get to host their 2 biggest divisional threats (Western Michigan and Ball State) and have a favorable slate of MAC East foes (Ohio, Buffalo, and Temple). A 3rd straight title game appearance is in their future.

Western Michigan
After a combined 15-9 record (11-5 in MAC play) and a bowl appearance in his first 2 seasons as coach, Bill Cubit suffered a bit of a slump in 2007 as the Broncos fell to 5-7. Still, 3 of their losses came to BCS conference foes (West Virginia, Indiana, and Missouri); 2 of which played in BCS games. The Broncos also defeated Iowa which kept the Hawkeyes out of a bowl game. With some better luck in 2008, the Broncos will be back in contention for the league title.

While the offense was somewhat disappointing in 2007, it was still 4th in yard per game in MAC play. Quarterback Tim Hiller returned after missing the entire 2006 season with a knee injury. He was unable to reach the meteoric heights he glimpsed in 2005. His 2005 passer rating of 180.03 would have been tops in the nation if he had enough pass attempts to qualify. But alas, small sample size and extreme performances have a way of bottoming out. Hiller posted a passer rating of 132.25 in 2007 (47th in the nation). That’s still not bad for a guy who missed an entire year. Hiller should improve upon his 2007 numbers, but shouldn’t approach his amazing numbers from his freshman season. Along with Hiller, the Broncos also return their starting running back (Brandon West) and two leading receivers (Jamarko Simmons and tight end Branden Ledbetter). The team does lose 3 starting offensive linemen so protection could be a concern. Still, with another year of seasoning, Hiller should lead the Broncos to near the top of the league in offensive production.

The Broncos were also reasonably tough defensively in 2007. In conference play they ranked 4th in yards allowed per game. Only Miami, Temple, and Ball State allowed fewer yards per game to MAC foes. The defense has an amazing 10 starters set to return in 2008. The only loss is linebacker Anthony Gebhart, who finished 2nd on the team in tackles in 2007. The Broncos should be one of, and possibly, the best defensive units in the MAC in 2008.

Prediction: Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee Tech, and Illinois dot the non-conference schedule. The Broncos should definitely win 2 of those, and the Illinois game is in Kalamazoo, so who knows? In conference play, the Broncos must travel to Central Michigan and Ball State, which will severely hamper their chances to win the division. Still, the Broncos were beset by poor luck last season (-6 turnover margin in league play ranked 11th among 13 teams and 1-3 record in one-score games), and should be one of the most improved teams record-wise in the MAC.

For a while Tom Amstutz could do no wrong at Toledo. In his first 5 seasons, his teams went a collective 45-18, with the lowest win total an 8-win campaign in 2002. His team’s were also 31-8 in MAC play and participated in 4 bowl games, winning 2. However, the past 2 seasons have produced identical 5-7 records (3-5 in MAC play both seasons). Can Amstutz right the ship and get the Rockets back into bowl contention?

Last season, Toledo was a lot like eventual league champ Central Michigan. They had a proficient offense (2nd in the MAC in yards per game in conference play) and a bad defense (13th or last in the MAC in yards allowed per game in conference play). Unlike Central Michigan, their defense was too atrocious for their dynamic offense to bail it out. Still, the Rockets did outgain their conference brethren by about 50 yards per game (4th in the league), so they could have finished much better than 3-5 in conference play. The offense should once again be strong in 2008. 6 starters return, including quarterback Aaron Opelt who improved substantially from his freshman to sophomore years. As a freshman in 2006, Opelt produced a grotesque passer rating of 98.56 (not in the top-100 nationally). That number improved to 127.35 in 2007 (59th in the nation). Opelt will not see quite as big an increase in 2008, but his numbers should continue to improve. Joining Opelt on the offensive unit are 3 returning starters on the offensive line and last season’s top-2 receivers, Stephen Williams and Nick Moore. The major loss for the offense is running back Jalen Parmele. Parmele topped 1500 yards on the ground last season and his production will be missed. The Toledo running game should drop off some in 2008, but with the improvements in the passing attack Toledo should remain near the top of the conference in offensive proficiency.

As mentioned earlier, defense was the major crutch of the team in 2007. They held only a single opponent, Liberty (IAA) to under 300 yards of total offense. 9 of their 12 opponents topped 400 yards, with Iowa State coming within an eyelash of hitting the mark (397 yards). The good news is that the defense is bound to improve in 2008. 9 starters, including 5 of the top-6 tacklers return. The Rockets sacked opposing quarterbacks a nationwide low 9 times in 2007, but should improve upon the number with 5 members of the front 7 back.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule features 2 road trips against BCS-conference foes—Arizona and Michigan. The Rockets will be underdogs in both those games, but could pose a threat if their offense is clicking. The other 2 non-conference games are at home against Fresno State and Florida International. The game against Florida International should be a gimme, and despite the preseason love for Fresno State, the Rockets have a very good chance of knocking off the Bulldogs. In conference play, the Rockets have the benefit of hosting league favorite Central Michigan, but unfortunately draw two of the stronger squads from the MAC East—Miami and Bowling Green. Toledo’s defense won’t be good enough for them to win the division, but they should attain bowl eligibility.

Ball State
Led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, the Ball State Cardinals made it to a bowl game for the first time in 11 years this past season. Can they get to another bowl game and perhaps challenge for the conference crown?

The Ball State offense was led by their sensational quarterback, Nate Davis. In his sophomore season, Davis posted a passer rating of 139.13 (26th in the nation) and led all MAC quarterbacks with 30 touchdown passes. His favorite target was receiver Dante Love who hauled in 100 passes for 1398 yards. Tight end Darius Hill was also a frequent recipient of Davis’ passes, catching 65 balls for 926 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. Those 3 players and the rest of the starting offense return in 2008. The Cardinals should once again boast one of the league’s best offensive units.

The Cardinals were also pretty proficient on defense (at least against MAC foes). They were 3rd in yards allowed per game in conference play. Against more talented, or better scheming foes, they were undone. Against 4 BCS-conference foes (Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and Rutgers) and Navy, the Cardinals allowed an average of 533 yards per game (compared to 364 per game against MAC foes). Fortunately for Ball State, they still reside in the MAC, and they bring back 7 starters, including 5 of their top-6 tacklers. The Cardinals may drop a notch defensively, but that has more to do with the improvement elsewhere in the league. Returning 7 starters is a relatively low number in 2008.

Prediction: Ball State faces Northeastern (IAA), Navy, Indiana, and Western Kentucky outside the league in 2008. That’s a recipe for a .500 finish outside the league at worst. The potential is there for a 3-1 or with some good fortune, a 4-0 record in non-conference play. Inside the MAC, the Cardinals must travel to Central Michigan and Toledo in the West and Miami in one of their games against the MAC East. Couple that tough schedule with some regression in the turnover department (+17 turnover margin ranked 4th in the nation last year) and the Cardinals won’t win the division this season.

Northern Illinois
The Joe Novak era ended with a whimper. It was an unfortunate end to the most sustained run of success the Huskies have known. From 2000-2006, the Huskies posted 7 straight winning seasons and appeared in 2 bowl games. The Huskies endured injuries and poor luck (-17 turnover margin and a 2-5 record in one-score games) to finish 2-10 in Novak’s final season. Novak’s replacement is Jerry Kill, the former head coach at Southern Illinois. Kill coached the Salukis for 7 seasons, and the team made the playoffs in each of the last 5 years. Can he return the Huskies to prominence or is this a rebuilding year in DeKalb?

If there is one thing the Huskies could always count on under Novak, it was producing a quality rushing attack. Last season, running back Justin Anderson gained 1245 yards. Before that, Garrett Wolfe gained over 1500 yards in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Michael Turner topped 1500 yards in 2002 and 2003. And Thomas Hammock broke the 1000-yard barrier in 2000 and 2001. Anderson should continue upon this outstanding recent history as the Huskies return 10 of 11 offensive starters. The lone loss is at left tackle. However, to contend for the league title, they need to get better play out of the quarterback position. Dan Nicholson posted a passer rating of only 116.89 (88th in the nation) after posting a rating of 103.42 (would have ranked 97th in the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify) in limited action in 2006. Nicholson must show he is more than an adequate passer for the offense to really take off.

In MAC play last season, the Huskies only fared better than Toledo in terms of yards allowed per game. The good news is that the Huskies bring back all their defensive starters in 2008. The best player is defensive end Larry English, who led the team with 10.5 sacks last season. The defense should improve and be at least an average MAC squad in 2008.

Prediction: The Huskies non-conference slate includes Minnesota, Indiana State (IAA), Tennessee, and Navy. The Huskies should beat the Sycamores and could beat the Midshipmen. Asking them to win in the Metrodome may be too much, but 2-2 outside the league is a real possibility. In conference play, the Huskies have a shot at pulling some upsets as they host Central Michigan and Toledo. Unfortunately, they draw the likely 3 strongest teams from the MAC East—Bowling Green, Miami, and Kent State. With a proven coach, better health, better turnover margin, and better luck, the Huskies should see last season’s win total triple at minimum.

Eastern Michigan
Last season the Eagles quadrupled their win total from 2006 and likely saved head coach Jeff Genyk’s job. Can they continue to improve and post their first winning season since 1995?

Eastern Michigan actually swept their directional brethren last season (Central Michigan and Western Michigan) en route to a 3rd place finish in the division. However, Eastern Michigan was statistically much worse than every team in the MAC West save Northern Illinois. The Eagles were slightly below average offensively, finishing 7th in yards per game in conference play. However, they did receive quality quarterback play. Andy Schmitt posted a passer rating of 129.57 (54th in the nation) and the team’s efficiency rating of 116.78 was a substantial improvement upon the numbers they produced in 2006 (102.69 rating). Schmitt is only a junior and with 4 starting offensive linemen back in the fold as well as the team’s three leading receivers from last season, he could post even better numbers. The Eagles do lose their leading rusher (Pierre Walker), but the 4 returning starters on the line should nullify that effect. The offense in 2008 is likely the best the Eagles have employed since 2004 (428 yards per game ranked 21st in the nation).

On the other side of the ball, Eastern Michigan had one of the worst defenses in the MAC. Only Northern Illinois and Toledo allowed more yards per game to conference opponents. They were especially poor against the run, allowing 196 yards per game (97th in the nation). The Eagles bring back 8 starters in 2008, but lose 2 of their top-4 tacklers. All the losses are up front (2 linemen and a linebacker), so the secondary returns entirely intact. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the run was their main weakness in 2008. The defense may improve slightly with so many starters back, but they should still be near the bottom of the league.

Prediction: Eastern Michigan plays Indiana Stats (IAA), Michigan State, Maryland, and Army outside the league. 2 of those games are very winnable and 2 are sure to be blowouts. If the Eagles stumble to either Army or Indiana State, they stand a real shot at incurring double digit losses. Eastern Michigan is improved, but so is everyone else in the MAC West. The Eagles were only better than Northern Illinois last season, and while the Huskies have ton of positive indicators, the Eagles conversely have an especially negative indicator (+11 turnover margin in MAC play was the second best in the league). Eastern Michigan should fall back to the basement of the MAC West.

Predicted Records:

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