Ohio, Northern Illinois picked as MAC preseason favorites

DETROIT (AP) — Northern Illinois is hoping to re-establish its recent run of Mid-American Conference dominance with a return to the Motor City in November.

For Ohio, the championship history is more in the distant past.

The two teams are the divisional favorites in the media's preseason poll released Tuesday, when the MAC held its media day at Ford Field in Detroit. The stadium is also the site of the Nov. 30 conference championship game.

Northern Illinois made the MAC title game for six straight seasons from 2010-15, winning it three times in that span. Ohio hasn't won a MAC title since 1968.

Although the conference is known for midweek offensive fireworks, Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said defense is the key to getting back to Detroit, where Toledo topped Akron 45-28 for last season's championship.

"I think historically if you look at it, the team that always ends up winning the league is the team that plays the best defense," Carey said. "They might not have a great defense, but they play the best defense."

NIU will be led by defensive end Sutton Smith, a second-team All-American who led the nation with 29.5 tackles for loss and had 16 sacks. Carey said he's been pleased with the work ethic of Smith, who said he added 20 pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I'm just trying to get bigger, faster, stronger and know the game more than I ever have before," Smith said.

Under coach Frank Solich, Ohio led the MAC with 37.4 points per game last season. Returning at quarterback is Nathan Rourke, a Canadian who rushed for 21 touchdowns last season in his first year as a starter.

"I'm just trying to learn the offense a little bit better," Rourke said. "Last year, I just kind of got my feet wet a little bit, and now I'm just trying to dive in and get to the point where I can teach it to our young guys."

The 73-year-old Solich said he doesn't dwell much on the program's 50-year title drought, noting that the Bobcats have reached Detroit four times in his 13 seasons at the helm.

"We had our opportunities," Solich said. "We're going to have more opportunities coming up and we'll get it done at some point."

In the East Division, Ohio received 21 first-place votes and 140 total points from the 24 media voters; Buffalo was second (one first-place vote, 112 total); Miami was third (two, 95); Akron was fourth (74); Bowling Green was fifth (58); and Kent State finished sixth (25).

In the West, Northern Illinois earned 15 first-place votes and 133 total points; Toledo was second (seven, 125); Western Michigan was third (one, 87); Eastern Michigan was fourth (67); Central Michigan was fifth (one, 58); and Ball State was sixth (34).

Ohio was the most common pick to win the championship game with 13 votes, followed by Toledo (five), Northern Illinois (four), Miami (one) and Central Michigan (one).

The league has been balanced — six teams have made the championship game over the last three years and every team has made a bowl in the last six seasons — but MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher would not follow the marketing lead of the American Athletic Conference. The AAC touts itself as a member of a so-called Power Six , along with the five major conferences granted autonomous voting rights by the NCAA in 2014.

Steinbrecher wasn't going down that road, although he was sympathetic to the AAC's attitude.

"I get what they're trying to do. They're trying to fight back on this idea that, just because we have this governmental designation, doesn't mean that we're not a quality team," Steinbrecher said. "Look at what Central Florida did last year. They had a great year. Good for them. Bang the drum on that. What we did with Western Michigan or Northern Illinois years before — fact of the matter is, the top teams in our league or other leagues, can play with anybody in the country."

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

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