SQ MAC Preview
The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. Just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. Monday we covered the Sun Belt; today, we're focusing on the MAC.
What Happened in 2014:
Conference Champion: Northern Illinois 11-3 (7-1); defeated Bowling Green in MAC title game 51-17
Coach of the Year: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Just a year removed from going 1-11 (1-7 MAC), Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck brought the Broncos out of the cellar and made them a contender. Fleck led the Broncos to an 8-5 record, including a 6-2 mark in conference play. The second-year head coach guided Western Michigan to its first bowl game since 2011, but was defeated by Air Force.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
Franklin was a key cog in the revamped offense that Western Michigan unleashed last season. He may have finished third in the conference in rushing yards (1,551), but finished atop the MAC in rushing touchdowns (24) and total offensive yards (1,714). On top of that, Franklin set a Western Michigan freshman record for rushing yards in a season.
Defensive Player of the Year: CB Quinten Rollins, Miami (Ohio)
Rollins was one of the premier ball-hawking corners in the country last season, nabbing seven interceptions. That number of picks not only led the MAC, but was tied for third in the nation as well. Rollins tacked on nine pass breakups and 72 tackles to add to his resume, winding up a second-round draft choice by the Green Bay Packers in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Three Memorable Games:
1. Toledo 20 vs. Western Michigan 19 OT, Oct. 4th - The only overtime game in the MAC last season didn't disappoint. Western Michigan thought it had the game won when they hit a 33-yard field goal with 1:11 remaining on the clock, but Toledo's kicker, Jeremiah Detmer, hit a 37-yard field goal as time expired, sending the game to overtime. It didn't take long for Toledo to score in OT, as Logan Woodside threw a 22-yard touchdown pass. Western Michigan was quick to answer with a 20-yard touchdown pass of its own, but the ensuing extra point attempt was missed, handing Toledo the victory.
2. Miami (Ohio) 42 vs. UMass 41, Oct. 4th - One of the highest scoring affairs in the MAC last season, Miami was able to come out on top after being down early. UMass dominated at the start, leading the game 41-21 at the end of the first half. However, Miami shutout the Minutemen in the second half which kept the game within reach. A pair of fourth quarter turnovers by UMass led to the game-tying and game-winning scores by Miami. Quarterback Andrew Hendrix was the MVP for Miami, throwing for 437 yards while tossing 4 touchdowns.
3. Kent State 27 vs. Akron 24, Nov. 28th - This contest saw Kent State and Akron trading blows until the final minute of the game. After Akron RB Jawon Chisholm scampered into the endzone on an 80-yard touchdown run, Kent State QB Colin Reardon completed a five-yard touchdown pass to Chris Humphrey to cap off a 10-play 77-yard drive. The score put the Golden Flashes up 27-24 with a just a minute remaining in the game, which is where the scoring would end.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Conference Favorite: Toledo
Normally this spot is reserved for Northern Illinois, especially after the Huskies have won three of the last five MAC titles, but we at SQ think that a changing of the guard is a legitimate possibility in 2015. The Rockets offense will be just as explosive as it was last season, as the team returns the conference's leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, and gets back QB Phillip Ely, who missed most of 2014 due to injury.
On defense, the Rockets return 10 starters to the field, a unit that contains two of the conference's best playmakers. Defensive end Trent Voss (4.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss) and defensive tackle Orion Jones (6 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) return to anchor the defensive line, a key component to the Rockets success defensively.
The only question mark for Toledo is the offensive line. Replacing the whole line, after all five starters graduated, is going to be a tall order. But if the line can find a way to hold it together, the Rockets will definitely be a title contender.
Conference Dark Horse: Western Michigan
After an impressive turnaround season in 2014, Western Michigan still has some unfinished business. Finishing third in the MAC West is nice, but capturing that elusive MAC title
is the ultimate goal for this team. Doing just that isn't that far of a stretch either, especially with the high-powered offense and a defense that ranked third in the conference in scoring (allowed 24.9 ppg).
The offense has a great one-two punch in QB Zach Terrell (3,443 passing yards, 26 TD's) and RB Jarvion Franklin. Defensively, the Broncos are deep at linebacker with Grant DePalma (102 tackles) and Robert Spillane (4 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss) set to return. Although DT Cleveland Smith will be back up front, Western Michigan has just one other starter that joins him, leaving a couple spots up for grabs.
If there's a roadblock to Western Michigan's potential run at the MAC title, it's two tough road games in back-to-back weeks. The Broncos will hit the road to face both Northern Illinois and Toledo to close out the season. Losing either one of these games could cost Western Michigan the division.
Most Improved Team: UMass
Entering its final season in the MAC, UMass should finally have a decent showing. Up until now, the Minutemen have gone just 5-31 since joining the MAC. However, 2014 showed that the team isn't that far off from at least competing in the MAC East.
Looking back at last season, the Minutemen lost three games that were within three points - Colorado, Vanderbilt and Miami (Ohio) - while two more within a touchdown (Bowling Green and Toledo). Star QB Blake Frohnapfel (334.5 yards per game) is entering his final season of eligibility, but looks to be the force that will propel the team into a bowl game.
The prodigal son returned, when head coach Mark Whipple, who had once coached from 1998 to 2003, came back to the team. Whipple already doubled the team's win total in the FBS in his first year back, and some think he can do the same this season. UMass has the talent on hand this season and should be rearing to compete.
Freshmen to Watch:
1. Justin Tranquill, DB, Western Michigan - Tranquill is one of the more interesting freshmen to keep an eye out for this season after he missed his senior season of high school with a knee injury. The highest rated recruit in program history (rated a 4-star DB by Scout), Tranquill has the chance to push for early playing time as the Broncos have a need in the defensive backfield. A former two-way player in high school, Tranquill showed great explosiveness as a running back (1,400 yards rushing), but was also a force on defense, nabbing three interceptions and breaking up 11 passes.
2. Deontai Williams, DB, Ohio - Williams finally found a home in Athens, Ohio when he committed to the Bobcats on National Signing Day. This was Williams' third and final decision after already decommitting from Florida and Georgia earlier in his recruitment. The speedy defensive back could find some playing time at safety this year with that position being quite thin for Ohio. Williams has a nose for the ball and can snuff out plays before the ball gets back to the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by the nine tackles for loss he registered in high school.
3. Spencer Tears, WR, Northern Illinois - Tears is another recruit who could've chosen, and in fact did at one point, to play at a power-five program. Instead, Tears ended up with the Huskies at Northern Illinois, to their delight. Northern Illinois already has depth at receiver, but Tears' ability to be a dynamic playmaker could give him a shot at early playing time. He's fun to watch when he has the ball in his hands, and can make a lot of guys miss with his speed.
Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
Picking a player for this sort of honor is usually tricky, but not after the guy who should've won the award last year was slighted. Kareem Hunt was not just one of the best running backs in the MAC last season, he was top-10 back in the country, statistically speaking. With 1,631 yards rushing, Hunt ranked 10th in the nation, while averaging 163.1 yards per game (3rd in the nation). Hunt is the driving force behind Toledo's offense and he will carry the Rockets again this season.
Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Trent Voss, LB, Toledo
It's no coincidence that Voss and Hunt are both listed as the Players of the Year for both sides of the ball, as Toledo truly has one of the best squads in the MAC heading into 2015. Voss has a nose for getting into the backfield and making a quarterback's day miserable. To go along with the 4.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, Voss also added eight QB hurries to his resume last season.
Three Games to Watch:
1. Bowling Green vs. Toledo, Nov. 16th - This game might not be the only time these two face off in 2015. Both teams are slated as the favorite in their respective divisions and could very well play each other in Detroit for the MAC title. Last year's game saw Kareem Hunt run for 265 yards against Bowling Green, and you can bet he's looking to running all over the Falcons again this year.
2. Northern Illinois vs. Western Michigan, Nov. 18th - After racing out to 21-7 lead in last year's contest, Western Michigan fell apart and gave up 24 unanswered points, losing 31-21 to Northern Illinois. The Broncos are out to prove they belong atop the MAC West and a late season win over their division rival could do it. This will be the first of two tough road games Western Michigan plays in consecutive weeks, having to play at Toledo the following week.
3. Toledo vs. Western Michigan, Nov. 26th - A Thanksgiving matchup between these two teams could have one opponent giving thanks to the other for getting the chance to play in the MAC title game. This late-season division contest should be one of the best games to watch as the winner of this game could go on to represent the MAC West in a chance to win the MAC championship. Kareem Hunt versus Jarvion Franklin is without a doubt one of the best running back matchups you will see all season.