|Frank Solich, entering his seventh season in Athens, gives Ohio rare continuity. (Getty Images)|
When it comes to the notion of stability in the world of NCAA football, it would be unusual to look toward the non-BCS conferences for permanence and strength. These conferences aren't guaranteed BCS money, after all, so theoretically, there's less and less incentive to stay in an FBS conference that struggles more and more to produce teams that go to BCS bowls.
A conference with precisely zero BCS bowl appearances since the system's inception in 1998, then, should be something of a pariah among FBS conferences: consistently in peril of losing its most productive and ambitious members, and struggling to provide competitive media deals.
And yet, there stands the Mid-American Conference, a stalwart of consistency and even, yes, growth in today's tumultuous landscape. In 1973, the MAC had 10 members -- Ohio, Miami, Western Michigan, Kent State, Toledo, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and Ball State. Nearly 40 years later, all 10 of these schools are still members (though, it should be noted, NIU had a 12-year dalliance with independence and membership in the short-lived Big West conference before returning to the MAC in 1997).
If that fact -- 10 current conference members who were present 38 years ago -- doesn't seem terribly remarkable, consider this: only the SEC and Big Ten can say the same thing. Even the Pac-12 was still the Pac-8 until 1978 (the same year the Big East came into existence), when the conference grudgingly accepted Arizona and Arizona State.
Even more remarkably, the MAC is growing and at a faster rate than its contemporaries at the SEC and Big Ten. Those two conferences are sitting at 12 schools; the MAC has 13 schools now, with Akron, Buffalo and Temple joining the ranks over time. And the MAC will be adding Massachusetts in football in 2012.
That macro-level stability, however, belies the near-perpetual transitional nature of football in the conference on a team-to-team basis. College football is already a sport prone to short cycles of success, with its four-year eligibility rules facilitating such a rate of roster turnover that even with redshirt years and medical redshirt waivers, schools are allowed to recruit 25 new players a year to an 85-scholarship team. And yet recruits in the MAC face an even greater level of uncertainty and flux than usual. Among the 13 MAC schools, only two have head coaches that have been leading their respective programs for more than three seasons: Bill Cubit at Western Michigan and Frank Solich at Ohio (both in their seventh years). Past that, there are three third-year coaches, three second-year coaches and a jarring five coaches in the first year with their teams. In other words, there are 11 classes of seniors among the 13 teams with at least their second head coach. That's not exactly ideal.
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Success, too, is a fleeting concept in the MAC. In the past three seasons, only two programs have managed to even go .500 in conference every year -- Temple and Western Michigan -- and both programs have experienced a double-digit loss season since 2004. Former conference member Marshall put together one of the best strings of success in MAC history, winning four MAC championships in five years from 1998-2002 (only Miami can claim the same, from 1973-1977), but even the Thundering Herd limped to a 6-6 finish in 2004 before heading to its present-day Conference USA affiliation.
And yet the conference soldiers on, one year to the next, almost impervious to the vagaries of yearly change its member programs bring. Further, there's a difference between success being fleeting and nonexistent; 11 of the 13 conference members have been to a bowl since 2004, including previously hapless Buffalo and Temple (the Owls didn't even join the MAC until 2007). There have been five different conference championship winners in the past seven years. If nothing else, that's parity.
Ohio and Western Michigan were mentioned before as boasting (by far) the longest-tenured coaches in the MAC. Those teams are also presumptive favorites in their respective divisions, and if either team takes the crown, that'll make six different conference champions in the past eight years. Again, parity.
Western Michigan is buoyed by a bevy of skill-position talent, starting with quarterback Alex Carder. Carder set fire to MAC defenses in 2010, throwing 22 touchdowns to only seven interceptions (four of which came in the conference opener against Toledo), and his top three receivers (Jordan White, Robert Arnheim, and Ansel Ponder) have combined for 40 starts at WMU; the passing attack should be every bit as dangerous this year. The Broncos' defense returns a bevy of players with starting experience from a rather middling unit last year; if there's any week-to-week consistency in the starting lineup this season, it'll be one of the MAC's best defensive groups.
Ohio, meanwhile, returns its entire starting offensive line (including 2010 first-team All-MAC tackle Joe Flading). In an especially cyclical conference like the MAC, such a complete unit is a major advantage. Solich has to replace his entire starting defensive line and the secondary needs to be retooled, but there are so many first-year coaches in the MAC East that Ohio's almost a prohibitive favorite only because Solich is one of a few coaches that actually knows all his players' names. That's a joke, mostly, but first-year coaches routinely struggle in the MAC regardless of their future success rate, and Solich's status as the dean of the MAC East will be a major benefit for the Bobcats.
That's not to say this is a two-team conference race, however. Toledo brings back starters at 18 of 22 positions, but the Rockets' depth might be most dangerous at quarterback. They boast a two-QB tandem in Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens, and while it hasn't been coach Tim Beckman's modus operandi to use the QBs in a platoon -- Owens got the vast majority of his snaps when Dantin was injured last season -- the Toledo coach might not have a choice but to use both, as they were productive last season. Being that Dantin's a junior and Owens is a sophomore, it would behoove Beckman to keep both quarterbacks happy, and that likely will mean something approaching a situational platoon setup of sorts in 2011.
Miami went 10-4 last season, and while incoming head coach Don Treadwell (formerly the offensive coordinator -- and interim head coach during Mark Dantonio's heart-attack recovery -- at Michigan State) has a slew of defensive talent to work with and a returning starter at quarterback in junior Zac Dysert, he doesn't have a whole lot else. The RedHawks likely will struggle to score, and a schedule that features road dates at Ohio and Toledo plus a Wednesday showdown in November against Western Michigan could be enough to doom the RedHawks' goal of returning to the MAC Championship Game.
All in all, it should be a compelling season, and we mean that genuinely. The quality of competition in the MAC generally suffers when compared to the BCS conferences, and it has never been a haven for a program to make a run at national prominence the way the WAC and Mountain West have -- just look at each conference's BCS bowl appearances for proof there. And yet in its own bubble, among these 13 teams, there'll be drama, upsets and intrigue, just like everywhere else. And as the Big 12 threatens to crumble, the WAC teeters on dissolution and even the Big East and ACC stand near-daily rumors of losing their most high-profile members to other conferences, the MAC churns along. As long as there's an NCAA, there's probably going to be a MAC, and that is no small thing.
CBSSports.com's Jerry Hinnen predicts the order of finish
Thanks to his bumbling two-year stint as Florida's play-caller, Steve Addazio drew more than a few derisive chuckles from college football fans when he was hired to replace Al Golden. But we would like to think the laughing stopped when Addaizo unveiled his coordinators: highly respected veterans Scot Loeffler (offense) and Chuck Heater (defense), who had been previously rumored to take the same positions at schools like Florida and Michigan. Thanks to Golden's good recruiting work, Addazio also inherits one of the most talented rosters in the MAC, with players like running back Bernard Pierce, defensive end Adrian Robinson and center John Palumbo among the league's best at their positions. The guess here is that Addazio gets the last laugh.
If the standings were arranged strictly according to schedule, you could pencil the Bobcats in for the MAC title game right now; both the Owls and Miami visit Athens, while Ohio's road games come against four teams with a combined 2010 MAC record of 5-27. With all five starters returning on the offensive line and former All-MAC linebacker Noah Keller back from injury, there's more to like than just the slate, too. But with an entirely new defensive front to break in and the Bobcats' leading passer, rusher and receiver from a year ago all departed, Frank Solich's squad looks a little too green (if you'll pardon the pun) to win the division.
3. Miami (Ohio)
It's a scary proposition ranking the RedHawks third in their own division, considering that 1) They're the defending MAC champs; 2) They return 17 total starters, including quarterback Zac Dysert and six members of their rugged front seven; 3) New head coach Don Treadwell was one of the nation's most underrated assistants at Michigan State. But despite their record, Miami was far from a dominant team last season (Five-point win over Akron? Seven-point win over EMU?) and their chances of finishing both plus-11 in turnover margin and 6-0 in one-possession games again are nil. Then there's the schedule, which sends them to Toledo, Temple and Ohio. Miami will be a better team, but might have a tough time putting together the record to prove it.
4. Kent State
There haven't been many reasons to watch the Golden Flashes over the years -- KSU hasn't been bowling since 1972 and hasn't had a winning season since 2001 -- but we can give you four this season: Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix and Roosevelt Nix. The sophomore defensive tackle is one of the nation's best, having racked up a stunning 20 tackles-for-loss (10th-best nationally) and nine sacks, earning him MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a true freshman. With Nix and nine returning starts offensively, the Flashes could finally end the bowl drought if the transition to new head coach Darrell Hazell (Jim Tressel's former receivers coach) goes smoothly.
For a program with just one losing season in its previous nine, 2010's 2-10 record was tough to take. Unfortunately, 2011 might not go down any more smoothly. For one thing, the Falcons miss Akron entirely and draw Toledo, NIU and WMU out of the West, giving them the toughest schedule in the conference. For another, the only returning tailback with a carry, sophomore Jordan Hopgood, averaged just 2.2 yards per his 76 attempts last year. But quarterback Matt Schilz, receiver Kamer Jordan and a veteran line should produce a lively passing game. Tackling machine linebacker Dwayne Woods leads what should be a much-improved defense. The record might not improve all that much, but the Falcons surely will.
We're trying to imagine a worse way of finishing a season than with back-to-back defeats to one-win Eastern Michigan (at home, no less) and zero-win Akron, as the Bulls did in 2010. Short of Buffalo fans pelting their team with the proverbial rotten tomatoes, we can't. But at least there's nowhere to go from that kind of humiliation but up, and Jeff Quinn has some building blocks to work with on offense; his top six receivers, top three rushers, and leading passer (junior QB Jerry Davis) all return. But the defense is still the definition of patchwork (just three starters return) and as suggested by the Bulls' 2-10 mark in 2010 -- not just straight up but against the spread as well -- there's a long way to go.
First, the good news: the Zips weren't quite as bad as their 1-11 record last season, losing two games in overtime and a third to MAC titlist Miami 19-14. And a defense that returns eight starters should get a boost from new defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, who features DC stints at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota on his résumé. Now, the bad news: The Zips did go 1-11 last season. They did finish No. 119 out of 120 in FBS total offense. (Thanks, New Mexico!) They've lost their top six rushers from a year ago. And their best two chances at MAC wins on the schedule -- Eastern Michigan and Buffalo -- are both on the road. But other than that, hey, everything's swell.
Nearly all preseason prognostication eventually boils down to this formula: returning starters multiplied by schedule difficulty equals results. By that formula, the Rockets are the favorites. Not only do they return nine starters on each side of the ball, but their MAC slate brings fellow West contenders Northern Illinois and Western Michigan to the Glass Bowl, while three of their four road trips go to projected also-rans Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Ball State. If that wasn't enough, Toledo also boasts a pair of trump cards in receiver/returner Eric Page -- the potential conference Player of the Year -- and the continuity of a coaching staff that has featured the same head coach and coordinators for three seasons. (Among the 2011 crop of MAC contenders, that's the exception rather than the rule.) Tim Beckman has already taken the Rockets from three to five to eight wins during his brief tenure, and that upward trend should continue to the tune of his first MAC title.
How much of an impact can Dave Doeren have in one offseason? If the former Wisconsin defensive coordinator and first-hear head man can forge a respectable defense out of a unit that returns just two starters from last year's West champions, the Huskies could claim the MAC title they no doubt felt they should have won in 2010. Because even if the Huskies field a defense that gives up points here or there, they should also field an offense that puts up points far more often than that. Reigning first-team All-MAC quarterback Chandler Harnish is the league's best, a threat with either his arm or legs; the offensive line returns all five starters, including three first-team all-MAC players; and new starting running back Jasmin Hopkins averaged 9.6 yards per attempt on his limited carries a year ago.
Not all 5-3 conference records are created equal -- not when a team wins those five games by an average of 32 points and loses the three by an average of just 8, as Bill Cubit's Broncos did last year. And if it wasn't already good enough news that WMU was better than their record in 2010, 15 returning starters means they should be even better than that in 2011. Quarterback Alex Carder and running back Tevin Drake are maybe the MAC's best QB-RB combo, and the inside-outside combo of end Paul Hazel and tackle Travonte Boles give the Broncos one of the MAC's best defensive lines. Too bad the schedule hands them visits to both NIU and Toledo, or they would be serious West contenders -- and they probably are anyway.
4. Ball State
It's not often a head coach doubles his win total in Year 2 and gets fired, but when you only go from two wins to four and lose to Eastern Michigan in the process, Stan Parrish can't have many complaints. In his place steps Pete Lembo, who took FCS Elon from virtual nonexistence to a playoff berth and won't find the cupboard entirely bare in Muncie; 10 starters return on offense and the top three tacklers return on defense, including outstanding middle linebacker Travis Freeman. Lembo also won't have to waste time getting on the same page with his coordinators, since both served under him for five years at Elon. Barring a huge leap forward from sophomore quarterback Keith Wenning, BSU may not improve on those four wins. But they likely won't take a step back in the Lembo transition, either.
There's rude awakenings, and then there's what the Chippewas got in 2010, when Butch Jones' 12-2 swansong gave way to Dan Enos' 3-9 debut. The good news is that most of the players baptized in that unhappy fire are back, including junior quarterback Ryan Radcliff, senior defensive tackle John Williams and junior wide receiver Cody Wilson. The bad news is that Wilson is the only player on the roster to have earned any kind of All-MAC nod in 2010 (second team), while stars like linebacker Matt Berning (the team's top tackler and pass rusher) or Colin Miller (a four-year starter at center) have moved on. Unless the Chips can pull a major home upset (Toledo, NIU and Ohio visit), the awakening may only get ruder.
For most non-AQ teams, going a decade and a half without a bowl berth would be misery. But the Eagles merely laugh at such trifling failures; not only have they not gone bowling since 1987, they've gone those same 15 years without even topping the four-win mark. Hope springs eternal under Ron English, though, and there's the slimmest of chances that streak ends this year. Dual-threat quarterback Alex Gillett returns for his junior year after leading the team in rushing as well as passing, Kinsman Thomas represents a legitimate big-play receiving threat and the schedule that brings two FCS squads (as well as Buffalo and Akron) to Ypsilanti. But keep in mind, this is still EMU -- when we say those chances are slim, we mean it.