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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Forecasting the MAC in 2011

Finding the MAC favorite in August is never an issue: Temple played this role to perfection last fall, but ended the year third in its own division and home for bowl play. Projecting the end-of-year MAC champion has always been far more difficult, perhaps more so in this conference than in any other league in the country. A.C.C.? It may not be Virginia Tech every year, but taking the Hokies in August is typically a pretty safe bet. Big 12? Easy: Texas or Oklahoma. WAC? Well, Boise State has run that show for years; the conference opens up a bit more beginning in 2011. Even the Sun Belt, the one conference that the MAC can trump in terms of top-to-bottom talent and coaching, has Troy as the clear top dog followed by a revolving cast of would-be contenders.

The MAC? It changes by the year; it changes by the month, even, if not the week. Take a look at 2011: Ohio, Toledo and Northern Illinois — three pretty clear bowl teams. Toledo is the best of the bunch, but the Rockets are stymied by a tough non-conference schedule. Ohio? A lock for at least eight wins, but it’ll be one of the weaker eight-win seasons, based on degree of difficulty, that you’ve ever seen. The Huskies? If Jerry Kill were back, the Huskies would be the favorite. But he’s not, so they’re not. Long story short: the MAC is as wide open as the league has ever been. Good thing? Maybe. But the league could use a powerhouse every now and then.

Most likely to succeed

Ohio Is it because of the schedule? Well, it’s not entirely because of the schedule — but it sure doesn’t hurt. Ohio is the lucky beneficiary of the nation’s easiest schedule, one that leaves even this slightly above-average team with a substantial shot at double-digit wins. But there’s more than just the schedule, albeit not that much more: Ohio is wonderfully coached, has an outstanding offensive line, is terrific on special teams and returns a few integral players from injuries suffered a year ago. So while the schedule will be the primary reason why Ohio will challenge for 10 wins, it’s not quite the only reason.

Most likely to struggle

Akron There may not be a worse team in the country. As at Memphis — the only team in the F.B.S. ranked worse than Akron, by the way — the Zips are trying to regroup on the fly under a second-year coach whose debut season could not have gone much worse. As at Memphis, there’s absolutely no reason to think that Rob Ianello is going to have Akron back in conference contention in his second season. Here’s the really troubling thing: after last season, it’s clear that Ianello and Akron have a long, long way to go before factoring into the MAC mix.

Best team, top-to-bottom

Toledo And it’s not all that close, though Northern Illinois, Ohio and Western Michigan warrant being mentioned along the second tier. Toledo has it all: coaching, speed, talent, confidence. What the Rockets lack is the sort of schedule conducive to doing what the Bobcats will do in 2010 — win nine games, if not more. If Toledo had Ohio’s schedule, the Rockets could very well run the table. That’s not the case, of course, but the two teams should meet in the MAC title game; it’s there that we’ll see if Ohio’s 10-2 season is for real, or whether Toledo’s 7-5 regular season is misleading.

Wait until next year

Ball State And I’m not completely sure why: maybe it’s Pete Lembo, the former Elon coach whose track record of success on college football’s lower levels is intriguing. Yeah, that’s why. Lembo reminds me in some part of Jerry Kill, who took Northern Illinois from 2-10 to 11-3 over three quick years before taking the job at Minnesota. Like Kill, Lembo has been extremely successful at stops like Lehigh, Georgetown and Elon — the latter a coaching wasteland on the F.C.S. ranks. Lembo also has a somewhat simple offense that gets results; again, like Kill. Can Lembo lure recruits to Muncie? It won’t be easy, but it’s not as if Kill was reeling in the big names with the Huskies.

Best coach

Frank Solich, Ohio It’s the whole body of work that stands out: Nebraska and Ohio. What Solich achieved at the former stop has been covered, in this space and elsewhere; what is mentioned with far less frequency is the work he’s done building Ohio — little, long-dismissed Ohio — into one of the strongest programs in the MAC. Has it been easy? Far from it: the Bobcats have been on-again, off-again, but have nevertheless showed far more consistency that most of their conference brethren. Where Ohio stands now is the result of many, many years of careful recruiting, solid player development and the installation of a coaching philosophy that simply works, in Lincoln, Athens and anywhere else.

Coach not long for the MAC (promoted)

Tim Beckman, Toledo If one individual MAC coach is going to land a B.C.S. conference position after the 2011 season, it’s going to be Beckman. For one, his Toledo team is going to make some noise this fall; secondly, he’s done a great job rebuilding this program over two full seasons; and three, he has the sort of solid head coaching and assistant experience that B.C.S. conference programs covet. I think Beckman is very much a young coaching name to watch nationally: he’d probably be tabbed for a B.C.S. conference job in the Midwest, but Beckman’s name might be seen associated with many big-name job openings over the next year or two.

Coach not long for the MAC (dismissed)

Dan Enos, Central Michigan There has been plenty of coaching turnover since the end of last season: Don Treadwell at Miami (Ohio), Steve Addazio at Temple, Darrell Hazell at Kent State, Dave Doeren at Northern Illinois and Pete Lembo at Ball State. Five of 13 MAC coaches are in their first season, in other words. A good portion of those that remained are pretty safe, by and large, though Ron English could use some wins at Eastern Michigan and Dave Clawson might want to reverse Bowling Green’s slide from bowl play to 2-10. In terms of being on the hot seat, however, I’m not sure if there’s another MAC coach needing a bounce-back year more than Enos, the second-year coach who took a 12-win team and turned into a bottom-feeder with speed and ease. Enos had a dreadful first season — his year might have been worse than Ianello’s, considering what situation each coach stepped into.

Offensive player of the year

Eric Page, Toledo He does it all, folks. He throws touchdown passes; three last season. He catches touchdown passes. He’s run for scores on occasion. And he’s the best in country on kick returns. Page does it all, does it with ease, does it in the shadows and does it as well as any player in the nation. So he’s a player you must keep an eye on in 2011. Another thing: if Toledo can find a viable second option at receiver, Page might have an enormous season.

Defensive player of the year

Noah Keller, Ohio Here’s betting that the all-MAC linebacker makes a full recovery from the foot injury that cost him all but the first handful of games in 2011. Two years ago, Keller was the MAC’s most productive linebacker. I worry a bit about whether he can reclaim that sort of production a year removed from his injury, but even at less than 100 percent Keller is going to make all sorts of plays for this Ohio defense. Like Jerrell Wedge at Miami (Ohio), Keller’s in line to make an even larger impact because of a weaker front four. Keller will need to be a big factor against the run; here’s betting he’ll back, not missing a beat, and right back among the MAC’s leading tacklers.

Five biggest non-conference games

Toledo at Ohio State Sept. 10
Boise State at Toledo Sept. 17
Western Michigan at Michigan Sept. 3
Northern Illinois vs. Wisconsin (in Chicago)
 Sept. 17
Western Michigan at Illinois Sept. 24

Five biggest conference games

Northern Illinois at Toledo Nov. 1
Western Michigan at Toledo Nov. 6
Western Michigan at Northern Illinois Oct. 15
Temple at Ohio Nov. 2
Toledo at Temple
 Oct. 1

Projected order of finish

Miami (Ohio)
Bowling Green
Kent State

Northern Illinois
Western Michigan
Ball State

Eastern Michigan
Central Michigan

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  1. Josh Hines says:

    Very nice write up. I’ve been following you since one of the ESPN writers mentioned your site. You do a great job. Keep it up. :)

    Now my question is, who is the underdog, in your opinion, that has the best chance of surprising and creating some upsets? Full disclosure, I have graduated from Ball State and so I just feel that they do though I agree that the first year coach leaves question marks that will hopefully be answered quickly. I also think that the Ball State/Oklahoma or South Florida game could pass the WMU/IL game. Will Ball State lose to Oklahoma? Almost certainly haha. But Ball State does have a tendency to play more towards the level of their competition. Just see the Ball State/Michigan game or Ball State/Nebraska game. A few others as well. A lot will be answered in the first game against IU most probably.

    I kinda got off track there but my original question still stands. :)

  2. BocaRocket says:

    As I mentioned in response to the Toledo Preview, the Rockets have won 12 straight against Ohio U. Solich is 0-3 vs Toledo,with 2 losses in Athens.The Bobcat Offense is right out of the Stone Age. Stolich has failed to recruit/develop a star QB that could have put
    the Bobcats over the top. Even with maybe the weakest schedules in Division 1, the Bobcats will probably be an 8 game winner.

  3. WashingtonDCduck says:

    Western Michigan is going to surprise some people. I wouldn’t be shocked if they go into Ann Arbor and wreck the next weekend party for Michigan (Notre Dame comes to Ann Arbor the following Saturday for a game under the lights in a historic game). Western Michigan has the QB and athletes around him to score a lot of points. I think their defense will be much improved and they will challenge Toledo and Northern Ill for their division crown.

  4. Zach says:

    I forget if you were one of the ones who thought Ianello was a good hire or not. All I ever heard was how great of a recruiter he was. Never once did I hear about how well he could coach. I will make a prediction: if Ianello wins less than 5 wins this season and he isn’t fired, Akron will eventually drop football. He’s putting the program into an unrecoverable tailspin and more than one more year will be its death. He MUST be fired after this season if he can’t turn it around in a big way.

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