2018 Mid American Conference Preview
The MAC hasn't had a repeat champion since 2011-12, and it's likely that streak extends to five years in a row in 2018. That's due to Ohio taking the top spot in the 2018 MAC predictions as the favorite to win the league. The Bobcats fell just short of reaching the league title game last season and are a heavy favorite in the East Division. Buffalo and Miami aren't far behind the Bobcats, with Akron in the next tier.
The picture is a little cloudier at the top of the West Division. Toledo is the defending conference champion but must replace standout quarterback Logan Woodside. Northern Illinois returns one of the MAC's top defenses, while the development of quarterback Marcus Childers could help coach Rod Carey's team win the West once again.
Ohio is the Clear Favorite to win the MAC
In Athlon's MAC prediction meeting, there was little debate about the projected champion for 2018. Ohio was the clear favorite in the East and is Athlon's pick to win the league this fall. The Bobcats haven't claimed a conference title since 1968, but the drought should end this season. Coach Frank Solich's team has not recorded a losing record since 2008 and lost all three of its MAC contests last year by seven points or less. Ohio's offense led the conference by averaging 39.1 points a game last season and could be even better in 2018 with a full year of quarterback Nathan Rourke under center. The Bobcats also return one of the MAC's top running backs in A.J. Ouellette, the league's top offensive line and one of the conference's best receiving corps. Solich does have a few holes to fill on defense, especially in the front seven after the departure of linebacker Quentin Poling. Road trips to Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois will be tough, but Ohio has a good shot to win 10 games for the first time since 2011.
Buffalo or Miami at No. 2?
While Ohio is the clear favorite in the East, choosing between Buffalo or Miami for second in the division was a tough call. The RedHawks got the nod, largely due to a defense that should be among the best in the conference with eight returning starters. Also, Miami had some bad fortune on its side last fall. After winning six out of the final seven games in 2016, coach Chuck Martin's team was poised to take a step forward in '17. However, an injury to quarterback Gus Ragland limited Miami to 5-7, with five of those defeats coming by eight points or less. Buffalo also had its share of bad luck and injuries at the quarterback spot last fall, but this program is poised to take off in 2018. Fourth-year coach Lance Leipold returns one of the top pass-catch combinations in the Group of 5 ranks in quarterback Tyree Jackson and receiver Anthony Johnson. Senior linebacker Khalil Hodge is a candidate for All-America honors, anchoring a defense that returns six starters after giving up just 24.8 points a game last fall. Buffalo has to stop the run better after giving up 194.8 yards a game in 2017, but Leipold's team doesn't have many glaring concerns. The Oct. 30 game in Buffalo between these two teams could decide which team finishes behind Ohio in the East.
What's Next for Akron…the Defending MAC East Champs?
Most of the preseason buzz in the MAC East is centers around Ohio, Buffalo and Miami (Ohio). However, the defending champs (Akron) are still in the mix to win the division crown once again. Under coach Terry Bowden, the Zips have earned bowl trips in two out of the last three years and used a timely victory over Ohio last November in order to secure the program's first berth in the conference title game since 2005. Akron did have a little good fortune to get to seven wins last fall, using a plus-10 turnover margin to win four games by 10 points or less. Sophomore quarterback Kato Nelson is a rising star, but Bowden has some retooling to do in the supporting cast. The defense is led by linebacker Ulysees Gilbert, who leads a unit with nine returning starters for 2018. After giving up 28 points a game last fall, this group should take a step forward this season. Akron's schedule features non-conference games against Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa State, along with road trips to Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Ohio. Don't count out the Zips from the East title picture, but the path to a bowl is challenging.
Toledo or Northern Illinois at No. 1 in the West?
This was the toughest decision of Athlon's MAC prediction meeting for 2018. For the most part, Northern Illinois (outside of the 2016 season for Western Michigan and Toledo last fall) has dominated the MAC West. Thanks to a high-powered offense, the Rockets won the conference last season and finished 11-3 overall. However, a key cog (quarterback Logan Woodside) has finished his eligibility. Toledo has one of the nation's top receiving corps and a solid group of running backs to ease the transition for the new quarterback. However, the edge in the West is likely to swing back to DeKalb. The Huskies return six starters – including standout end Sutton Smith – from a defense that allowed only 22 points a game in 2017. The offense should take a step forward under sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers. Toledo does not have to play Ohio – the projected MAC champion – in the regular season but takes on Northern Illinois on the road. The homefield advantage for the Huskies could decide which team wins the West.
The state of Michigan
It's no secret the strength of the MAC West is at the top with Toledo and Northern Illinois. Additionally, there's a bit of a gap to the next tier of teams, headlined by Western Michigan. As expected, the Broncos took a step back last fall from their 13-1 record in 2016. Under first-year coach Tim Lester, Western Michigan fell to 6-6 and lost three out of its last four games. An injury to quarterback Jon Wassink hindered the offense during that late stretch, but the junior is set to return to full strength in 2018. Wassink should improve in his second year as the starter, and the offense is led by one of the MAC's top lines and running back units. The biggest concerns for Lester rest on defense. The Broncos return four starters after giving up 29 points a game in 2017 and lost cornerback Sam Beal to the NFL Supplemental Draft. Will Western Michigan take a step forward and rebound into a winning record? If the Broncos slip, Central Michigan or Eastern Michigan would be next in line for the No. 3 spot in the West. The Chippewas must replace quarterback Shane Morris and a couple of key receivers, but coach John Bonamego returns a solid foundation on defense. The development of quarterback Tony Poljan could decide whether or not CMU returns to a bowl game in 2018. Eastern Michigan had its share of bad luck last fall, slipping to 5-7 after reaching the postseason in 2016. The Eagles lost all seven games by 12 points or less, including a five-point defeat to MAC champ Toledo. Coach Chris Creighton's team is a wild card team to watch this fall. The Eagles are strong in the trenches, but need to break in a new quarterback after Brogan Roback's departure. Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers is expected to start. Similar to rival Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan's bowl hopes could hinge on how fast the offense develops under a new signal-caller.
Improvement at Ball State and Bowling Green
Bowling Green and Ball State both finished 2-10 last season, but both programs could show small improvement in 2018. The Cardinals were hit hard by injuries on offense last fall, losing quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert for most of the season. As a result, Ball State slumped to 11th in the MAC in scoring, averaging only 17.9 points a game. With Neal and Gilbert back in the mix, that should take some pressure off a defense that surrendered 40.7 points a game last fall. Bowling Green's hopes of improvement hinge on the sophomore duo of quarterback Jarret Doege and running back Andrew Clair. Regardless of how the development of those two players, the Falcons need new coordinator Carl Pelini to improve a defense that gave up 38 points a game in 2017. While both teams won't challenge for the league title, doubling the win total from last fall is a realistic expectati