There is some imbalance in the socialist utopia known as the Mid-American Conference: it appears that at least the top three teams in the league are all in the west. Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan are the three best teams for me, especially with Temple and Miami breaking in new coaches. It's going to be an interesting year, even though I'm pretty sure that in the below profiles I said 11 of 13 teams are "a year away." Look out for the MAC in 2012, I guess.
Five Predictions for the MAC in 2011:
1. The October 1 battle between Kent State and Ohio will decide the MAC East. (That's how much I like Roosevelt Nix and the Kent State defense.)
2. The November 8 battle between Western Michigan and Toledo will decide the MAC West.
3. Four West teams will go bowling.
4. The November 1 battle between Northern Illinois and Toledo will produce over 80 points.
5. Toledo will beat Ohio to take the MAC title. (And due to self-inflicted wounds, Toledo and their two-QB system will make me feel very, very queasy about my pick in just about every game.)
So Akron actually experienced a bit of turnover luck in 2010 -- looking at their fumble recoveries and generally awful defense, things could have been worse in that regard. Not that we'd have noticed much of a difference on the scoreboard. The Zips have a few things going for them -- a YPP margin that should turn around at least a bit, a decent front seven, and recruiting rankings that, at the very least, suggest they could be a little better than they have been. But like other teams that hit rock bottom, the Zips weren't particularly young in 2010, and they will have to do quite a bit more rebuilding, especially at offensive skill positions, in 2011. That's not good.
Honestly, I think there's hope for the defense; Cosgrove's a decent-not-great defensive coordinator, and he should be able to make something out of the front seven. But until I see reason to have at least a smidge of hope in the offense, I can't imagine the Zips will have much of a ceiling this fall. VMI's on the schedule, and they have winnable home games in Central Michigan and Kent State. Win those, and you've made progress. Hell, two wins is progress, so let's aim for that.
So Bowling Green went 2-10 while getting a little bit of fumbles luck and experiencing a rather normal YPP margin. In other words, they were just bad. The ray of sunshine is that they were also incredibly young. Since I've already referenced Missouri a couple of times (and since I always reference Missouri a couple of times), I'll mention that at one point in 2009, the Tigers had 36 freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep. When the level of experience grew across the board in 2010, they went 10-3. They didn't really get better in one specific better; they just got better and more experienced in every area. If Clawson's 2011 squad improves, it will be in the same way -- they just get better everywhere. Hell, just look at the example Miami (Ohio) set last year for when youth becomes experience.
There is reason for optimism in players like Matt Schilz, Kamar Jorden, , Dwayne Woods, and the young cornerbacks; but there is little reason to think BGSU will be an all-around solid team just yet, not with such question marks on the offensive line and in the defensive depth as a whole. They fell far enough behind in 2010 that a nice bounce back probably only gets them into the middle of the MAC. (Then again, Miami...) Even if Clawson ends up being the right man for the job, a mediocre 2012 is probably still in order.
Further reinforcing the "cannot possibly be worse" meme, Buffalo had by far the worst YPP margin in the country last year (only Memphis and Colorado State were above +7.5), and that will almost certainly not be the case again in 2011. If the yards and points match up a little more cleanly for the Bulls this fall, they will improve almost by default. Of course, after losing eight games by double digits, marginal improvement will only take the Bulls so far.
Perhaps the worst news here is just that the base of talent is, to say the least, lacking (Gill was good at making the most of what he had, but he didn't even remotely upgrade recruiting other than landing diamonds in the rough like Roosevelt and Starks). Buffalo has ranked below even the service academies in recruiting these past few years, and while they have developed talent rather effectively -- they have produced more NFL players than most of the lowest-ranked recruiting teams -- it still means a constant uphill battle. There are some interesting pieces here -- Rivers and Neutz at receiver, Mack and Pettigrew at linebacker -- but the odds are stacked against Buffalo in 2011. This is the MAC, so their time will probably come again soon enough, but ... probably not this fall.
Kent State rose from horrendous to just below average in Martin's tenure, but that's not exactly inspiring improvement. Regardless, their recruiting averages aren't terrible for a MAC team, and their YPP margin should improve a bit. Throw in an improved offense that could offset some regression on defense, and you've got ... well, you've got a team right around the quality of last year's.
When Miami (Ohio) surged forward in 2010, they didn't do it by actually improving that much; they did it by taking better advantage of their opportunities. They ranked 90th and went 10-4 while Kent ranked 93rd and went 5-7. If the Golden Flashes can keep things tight and close out better (often a Tressell Ball specialty), then they could very easily compete for the division title. But that might be a lot to ask for a team bereft of recent success and breaking in a new staff. Give them a year, then look out. Nix is but a sophomore, and perhaps the next-best player, receiver Tyshon Goode, is a junior. The foundation is reasonably solid, but it might take a year for everything to gel.
There is quite a bit to like about Miami this year -- an outstanding front seven, two solid quarterbacks, and a potential go-to receiver, to name three. But it is certainly worth reiterating that the Redhawks went 6-0 in close games last year and, from an F/+ perspective, really did not improve as much as their record would indicate. The improvement they did make is likely rather sustainable, but it was still only a step or two forward.
I really, really like Don Treadwell. I like the job he did in a fluid situation at Michigan State last year (head coach Mark D'Antonio suffered a heart attack, and Treadwell served as interim coach, beating Wisconsin in the process), and I think he could be capable of very good things in Oxford (and, therefore, the major conference job that he would naturally inherit in a few years). They are by no means a runaway favorite in the MAC, but they'll have a very good chance to defend their East Division crown. Our initial projections suggest an impressive four-way race between Miami, Temple, Ohio and Kent State, and that sounds about right to me.
Ohio U.Ohio probably wasn't as good as their eight wins suggest last year, but while their YPP margin suggests some luck was involved, their negative fumbles luck -- and a couple of devastating injuries -- probably balance that out. The MAC East race could be a highly entertaining one this year, and Ohio should be right in the thick of the hunt, along with Temple, Miami and maybe Kent State. (Everybody but Buffalo and Akron, basically.)
The Ohio offense is a complete question mark right now, but no matter which direction the quarterback race goes, there are enough athletes to make the machine run rather well. Whether Ohio wins the East or not could simply come down to how the defense rebounds from a year of serious regression and injury. For what it's worth, the schedule sets up nicely -- Temple, Miami and Kent State all, amazingly, come to Athens this fall, and aside from maybe the trip to Rutgers, there isn't a single unwinnable game on the slate.
Even with a team that ranked just 91st, Ohio managed eight wins last year. With a friendly schedule and a better defense, they should be able to match that. And if they can sneak into the 70s range, then double-digit wins are certainly possible. Ohio could be playing some more high-visibility games in November and December this year -- is this the year the Bobcats break through and win them?
You look at the above chart, and you just cannot help but applaud the job Al Golden did. He took over a terrible program in 2005, and it immediately got worse. But the Owls made significant strides in 2007 and 2008, then learned how to win in 2009. In three years, they went from horrid to downright decent.
Addazio may not have proven himself to be the best offensive coordinator at Florida, but he's no longer an offensive coordinator; he's the head guy, and his job will be to maintain, maintain, maintain. With so much talent lost on defense and a YPP margin suggesting they were unlucky (though their fumble recovery percentage suggests the opposite), it wouldn't surprise me if Temple were to take a step or two backwards this year even if Addazio turns out to be a great coach. If the offense is sparked by a healthy Pierce and a lovely Aaron Hernandez impression from Evan Rodriguez, then that could account for the defensive loss, but we'll see. Temple's turnaround was so quick and decisive that they should be able to live with a temporary step backwards.
Ball State fell from 12-0 and No. 12 in the country to hopeless, from home attendance of 19,000 per game to 8,900, in less time than it takes my wife to buy a digital camera. The goal for Pete Lembo in 2012 is not necessarily a certain number of wins and losses; it's simply the restoration of hope. There are some winnable conference home games and plenty of opportunities to create some momentum, but only if they survive a brutal opening month. This year's non-conference slate: vs Indiana in Indianapolis, at South Florida, Army, at Oklahoma.
With a healthy number of starters returning and a healthy four-year performance average, it's not impossible to think that the baseline for this Cardinals team is a lot higher than we assume, a lot higher than they've shown in the last two years. But now they have to prove it. This team fell off a cliff recently, and now begins the climb back toward the top of the MAC.
You can rise and fall quickly in the socialist utopia known as the Mid-American Conference, and honestly, Central Michigan has as much of a chance to rise as anybody else in a wide open MAC West. Northern Illinois should regress, and while both Western Michigan and Toledo should be solid, they are not likely to run away with the division. Central should find themselves right in the mix for the division crown, especially with home games against NIU and Toledo.
There is little standard deviation in recruiting rankings among MAC teams -- 11 of 13 teams rank between 86th and 112th in five-year recruiting average (only No. 68 Toledo and No. 120 Buffalo stray from that pack) -- and CMU did not derive much of an advantage in this regard while they were winning. They won because of individual breakthrough players, and they have to hope that guys like Radcliff and Wilson indeed break through in 2011. They'll have solid lines and decent backfields, and the experience level as a whole should be better, but whether they win their fourth MAC title in six years or finish 4-8 again will depend as much on a few key individuals as anything else.
First, the good news: in Howard, Alabama State, Akron, Western Michigan, Ball State and Buffalo, EMU has perhaps the easiest home slate of six games in the country. An average team would potentially sweep to 6-0 with that schedule. EMU is not an average team, but even they should be able to go at least 3-3, therefore winning more games in 2011 than they did in 2009-10 combined.
More good news: their YPP margin shows that, in addition to having less talent and athleticism than their opponents, they also had less luck. Just by means of regression (progression?) toward the mean, EMU should get a few more bounces and turn a few more yards into actual points.
Even more good news: there's nowhere to go but up here. Skydiving Ron English has had almost no success whatsoever in his first two years, but this job has been, in recent decades, a coaching graveyard. They have been the second-worst team in the country over the last five years, and English has only been there for two years. The offense took legitimate steps forward, and while the Eagles probably won't contend for bowl eligibility by any means, there is just enough to like here to assume that they'll get to three or four wins, demonstrable progress, in English's third season.
The offense really will be fun to watch in 2011, but I have no idea what to make of the team for two reasons: 1) The defense is almost certainly going to regress, and 2) perhaps the two most well-stocked MAC teams not named Northern Illinois also reside in the MAC West. NIU gets WMU at home and Toledo on the road. Really, two small stretches will define NIU's 2011 season: the opening combination of Army-@Kansas, and the three game, Buffalo-Toledo-BGSU road trip in late-October and early-November. If the defense is competent early, they could quite easily start 2-0, but anything less than that could hint at trouble down the line. (Let's face it: at this moment in time, they're just better than Kansas and should be favored in that game unless they lose to a tricky Army squad.) Meanwhile, NIU should take down Buffalo, but Toledo's good and Bowling Green is tricky. Go 5-0 in these five games, and they're almost certainly in the MAC title game and winning 10 games again. But 1-4 or 2-3 are also in play -- that's how questionable the defense is.
The peripheral stats don't do a lot of favors to NIU either -- they haven't recruited at a high level, even for a MAC team, and they benefited both from YPP luck and fumbles luck. I see almost no way they avoid regression in 2011, but they were so far ahead of the rest of the conference as a whole that they could regress a bit and still be the best team. It all depends on how quickly Jay Niemann can make something of the defense.
I'm really talking myself into Toledo. They are fast and experienced, and while their step forward in 2010 was something not much more than a baby step (they certainly benefited from some fumbles luck along the way), it certainly seems as if Tim Beckman is methodically putting the pieces together.
Lord knows they'll have an opportunity to prove themselves. After a tune-up against New Hampshire, here are their next four games: at Ohio State (Big Ten Network), Boise State (ESPN), at Syracuse, at Temple. If they are standing at 3-2 after this, then they're well on their way to double-digit wins, but really, this stretch is about survival. They could be pretty decent and still start 1-4, and their season will be defined by how well they bounce back. They are potentially more talented than each of their last seven conference opponents, but numbers sometimes don't matter when negativity takes over. Survive, then thrive.
As with Toledo, I seem to be talking myself into Western Michigan. This has been a kooky team in recent years, usually good (aside from the end of the Darnell era), but usually not too good. If the secondary is indeed improved, and if Tevin Drake's encore is as good as his debut, then perhaps only Toledo has a higher ceiling than the Broncos. But if the secondary isn't any better, and if the quality on the offensive line plummets, then things look a lot different.
One thing is certain: WMU has plenty of chances to prove itself this fall, mostly away from Kalamazoo. The non-conference season includes trips to Michigan, Illinois and UConn, three solid teams who could easily be vulnerable to an upset if the stars align. Upsets or no, however, the season could be defined the most by a Tuesday night trip to Toledo on November 8. If Northern Illinois takes a step backwards without Jerry Kill, then the Broncos-Rockets winner could be in the driver's seat in the MAC West.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this team, however, has little to do with 2011. If the projected starting lineups hold true as expected, then WMU will return another 14-16 starters next year. Carder is a junior, and the aforementioned load of sophomores will be around a while longer. There will be work to do in the receiving corps, but otherwise the table is set for a nice run for Cubit and company.
Predicted Order Of Finish
NOTE: These predictions have nothing to do with the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections released recently (now on Amazon!) -- these are just based on my own impressions of each team as I was writing up the previews. It is intended to be more of a power poll than a set of predictions based on a lengthy look at the schedules. And it will change 17 more times between now and when the season starts.
2. Kent State
3. Miami (Ohio)
5. Bowling Green
2. Western Michigan
3. Northern Illinois
4. Central Michigan
5. Ball State
6. Eastern Michigan