2011 MAC Conference Preview

TJ and I are very partial to this conference since we are MAC alumni (Bowling Green classes of 2006 and 2007 respectively). So I will try to be impartial here, but it will be tough. Regardless, this is a conference that’s always been pretty wide open. Eight of the league’s thirteen teams have made it to the MAC title game in the last six years and the title race this year is no different with five squads having a legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy at Ford Field in December.
Conference Overview:
First of all, all teams will be playing a balanced slate of eight conference games this year thankfully. It will be this way for two years until Umass joins in 2013. For the first time in a few years, the MAC looks balanced with three legit championship contenders in each division with a possible surprise or two under that. The West will get the attention again with a deep Toledo team leading the way. Last season’s most dominant squad in Northern Illinois won’t slide backwards too much, as they still have Chandler Harnish calling signals. Western Michigan is stacked with vets, and if Central Michigan can manage the brutal first half of their schedule, they have a shot to make some noise. In the East, it’s Ohio and Temple battling for the top spot, while Miami will try to replicate the success of last year’s 10-4 surprise team. And behind them are two teams in Kent State and Bowling Green that are more talented than their records last year indicate. Much like the WAC and Conference-USA, the MAC will play some of the best football you’ll never see on a Saturday again this season.

Teams to Watch:
As much as this hurts me to have to talk about that Other Team Up North, the Rockets are in prime position to regain the MAC throne. They have 18 starters coming back (1st in the MAC), a settled quarterback situation with Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens settling into their roles in the QB-by-committee scheme and two-time 1st team All-MAC wideout Eric Page as their main target. The rest of their top seven receivers also return, along with their top five rushers from last season. The only real question mark for Toledo is the defense’s consistency. They were 36th in the nation in rush defense, yet allowed three 500+ yard games. The veteran secondary (4 seniors) should be able to clamp down on the pass game. A ten-win season is not out of the question, as they’ll likely be favored in seven of their eight MAC games (NIU at home, maybe a trip to Temple Oct. 1 could see them as dogs). They should be able to get out of the non-conference slate at 2-2 (New Hampshire, @ Ohio St., Boise State in the Glass Bowl, & @ Syracuse) and a relatively soft conference schedule.
If you would have told me in 2007 when the Owls joined the MAC that they would be title contenders for 2 straight years, I would have laughed. When Temple joined the conference, they had won just 23 games in the previous decade and hadn’t had more then four wins a year in that span. Little did we know they’d find their home in the MAC and go from 5-7 in their first season in conference to 9-4 and 8-4 with an Eaglebank Bowl appearance, although they deserved a bowl last year as well. They have to replace first round draft pick DT Muhammad Wilkerson (Jets) and second round pick SS Jaiquawn Jarrett (Eagles). This is still a solid D-line, with a linebacking corps that is inexperienced (only 5 returning starters on D). However, 2009 MAC Freshman of the Year RB Bernard Pierce will look to improve on last year’s 728 yards and 10 TD’s. Despite having only 12 starters back, this is still one of the more talented teams in the league. A Tuesday affair at Ohio on November 2nd will likely be the East title game.
Players to Watch
WR Eric Page, Toledo
I said a little bit about him before, but Page is the most pro-ready receiver to come of the MAC in a number of years. Seemingly undersized at 5-10, 180, Page is coming off of a 1,105 yard, 8 TD season where he accounted for more than 75% of Toledo’s receptions. Oh yeah, he also threw for 3 more scores. He’s also one of the top kick returners in the country, with 871 return yards, 3 touchdowns putting 3rd in the FBS. Rivals.com named him the 91st best player in college football coming into this season. A burner with incredible hands, he made history as the only Rocket ever named to the Walter Camp watchlist last year. He’ll get just as many looks and even face double teams but will get his yards.
QB Chandler Harnish, Northern Illinois
The best quarterback in the MAC a year ago, Harnish will try to do it all again for the defending MAC West champs. Harnish threw for over 2,500 yards and has a TD-INT ratio of 21-5 last season, adding another 836 yards on the ground and 7 more scores. While he’ll have to learn a new offense under new head coach Dave Doeren, he’s got his top three targets back this year and will be the favorite to repeat as a 1st team All-MAC selection.
Conference Title Game:
As I said before, the MAC is wide open and there are five or six different teams that could be at Ford Field on December. However, I looked at scheduling here and even though Toledo has NIU and Western back-to-back, I think they manage, bring back the mystique of the Glass Bowl and make it back to the MAC title game for the first time since 2004. On the other side, I said the East title game would pretty much be Temple and Ohio in October. Although Miami could make the title chase interesting, they will not repeat as East champs and Temple will get to their first MAC Title game. And I’ll take the Rockets (even though it hurts to) as your 2011 MAC Champions.
Bowl Picture:
The MAC has contracts with three bowls and could send a 4th team to the New Mexico Bowl should the PAC-12 not be able to fulfill its obligations. With that in mind, Northern Illinois will head out west on December 17 to meet a WAC team in the Idaho Potato Bowl, Toledo will return to the Little Caesars Bowl (in what’s almost a home game) to face a Big 10 team, and Temple will get a consolation prize of the BBVA Compass Bowl on January 8 against a Sun Belt team. And if there’s a 4th team that gets the call, I’d say its Ohio.

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