August 11, 2011

MAC preview: Year of the quarterback

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This could be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the MAC.

Eleven of the league's 13 schools welcome back their starting quarterback, and keep a close eye on Miami's Zac Dysert, Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish and Western Michigan's Alex Carder.

After suffering a lacerated spleen, Dysert missed the last two regular-season games, the MAC title game and bowl contest. He still has to show that he's OK, but he has the talent to be an All-MAC performer. Harnish, who led NIU to a school-record 11 victories in 2010, is the most efficient quarterback in the MAC and the only returning signal-caller who is a senior. Carder plays in a pass-happy attack and could throw for 3,700 yards this fall after throwing for 3,334 last season.

If you're looking for a league champ, history says to keep an eye on Ohio and Miami. In the past eight seasons, those schools have combined for six titles; the only exceptions have been in 2005 (Akron) and 2008 (Buffalo).

Central Michigan and Northern Illinois have been the MAC's other dominant schools of late. The Chippewas have played in three MAC title games, while the Huskies have played in two.

This season's race should be wide open. Miami surprised almost everybody by winning the 2010 crown, going from 1-11 in 2009 to 10-4 last season. Could another team pull a similar surprise this fall? It's possible, as new coaches are expected to energize several schools.

The MAC experienced the most coaching turnover of any conference in the nation, with five changes. Steve Addazio takes over at Temple, Dave Doeren at Northern Illinois, Don Treadwell at Miami, Pete Lembo at Ball State and Darrell Hazell at Kent State. Lembo had been coach at FCS member Elon, while the others were assistants at Big Six schools. Doeren, Hazell and Treadwell were at Big Ten programs.

Six other league coaches are entering their second (Buffalo's Jeff Quinn, Central Michigan's Dan Enos and Akron's Rob Ianello) or third seasons (Toledo's Tim Beckman, Bowling Green's Dave Clawson, Eastern Michigan's Ron English).

That makes Western Michigan's Bill Cubit and Ohio's Frank Solich the MAC's graybeard coaches, with each entering his seventh season at his school.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Toledo WR Eric Page. He is a playmaker who can score every time he touches the ball. Page caught 99 passes for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns in 2010 as a sophomore. It was the second consecutive 1,000-yard season for Page, who also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Kent State T Roosevelt Nix. As a true freshman last season, Nix won MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors, notching 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Nix is small (6-0/255), but has a quick first step and is explosive at the point of attack.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Temple QB Mike Gerardi. Gerardi, a former walk-on, held his own in 2010, hitting 93-of-156 passes for 1,290 yards and 10 TD passes in five starts. But the Owls need more out of the position. If Gerardi can't do it, Temple may turn to Chester Stewart, who started six games last fall, or touted JC transfer Clinton Granger.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Ohio LB Noah Keller. He missed all but three games last season because of a toe injury. The fiery Keller, who made 155 tackles in 2009 and is a three-year captain and two-time All-MAC honoree, needs to return to form. He's a tremendous leader and a relentless sideline-to-sideline defender. The Bobcats have just two starters back on defense, so Keller must be productive and a leader.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Toledo RB Adonis Thomas. The Rockets, who welcome back 19 starters, are loaded with speed at the skill positions. Thomas is one of their top speedsters. Thomas will have a few marquee non-league games to show the nation how good he is, including contests against Ohio State, Boise State and Syracuse.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Miami T Austin Brown. He was a big reason the RedHawks had a strong defense in 2010, one that ranked fourth in the MAC and 28th in the nation (338.2 ypg). Brown, a junior, notched 10 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2010 and is poised for bigger things this season.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Buffalo QB Chazz Anderson. He transferred from Cincinnati to play for Jeff Quinn, who was his offensive coordinator with the Bearcats before leaving for the Bulls' job. Anderson, who has one season of eligibility after playing behind Tony Pike and Zach Collaros at Cincinnati, enjoyed his best season in 2008, when he hit 46-of-75 passes for 520 yards in two wins. Anderson may be the playmaker the Buffalo offense needs.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Toledo E Andre Sturdivant. He was a four-star prospect out of Cleveland Glenville who surprisingly signed with the Rockets. Toledo appears set at both end spots, but players with Sturdivant's potential don't usually sign with MAC schools, so you can bet Rockets coaches will find a way to get him on the field this fall.

East Division

1. Miami [ Team Preview ]

2. Temple [ Team Preview ]

3. Ohio [ Team Preview ]

4. Kent State [ Team Preview ]

5. Bowling Green [ Team Preview ]

6. Buffalo [ Team Preview ]

7. Akron [ Team Preview ]

West Division

1. Northern Illinois [ Team Preview ]

2. Toledo [ Team Preview ]

3. Western Michigan [ Team Preview ]

4. Central Michigan [ Team Preview ]

5. Ball State [ Team Preview ]

6. Eastern Michigan [ Team Preview ]

Championship game

Northern Illinois over Miami

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Bowling Green's Dave Clawson. In two seasons, Clawson is 9-16 with the Falcons. He guided them to a bowl in his first season, but the offense was an unmitigated disaster last season, when the Falcons went 2-10. This remains a young team, with 60 freshmen and sophomores on the roster. Still, Clawson needs a strong season to show he has the program on track.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Ohio. Frank Solich has enjoyed success in his six seasons in Athens, with a 30-18 mark in league play and three bowl appearances. Tim Albin is an innovative offensive coordinator, while Jimmy Burrow is an underrated defensive coordinator.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Northern Illinois' Matt Canada. This will be the second stint at NIU for Canada, who ran some dynamic attacks at Indiana in recent seasons. Canada was NIU's coordinator in 2003, when the Huskies finished 10th in the final BCS standings under Joe Novak.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Temple's Chuck Heater. A great teacher and fiery leader, Heater arrives in Philly after serving as co-coordinator at Florida last season. Heater has 35 years of experience and has been on staffs that have won three national titles (two at Florida; one at Notre Dame).

BEST POSITION COACH: Central Michigan QB coach Morris Watts. A 41-year veteran who began coaching in 1961, Watts is in his first season with CMU after stops in the Big Ten, SEC, Big Eight, NFL and even the USFL. He's a sage veteran who has seen it all. He has a good pupil this season in Chippewas QB Ryan Radcliff, and getting Radcliff to cut down on his interceptions (17 last season) is Watts' first priority.

THE OTHER STUFF

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Central Michigan. The Chips flopped across the finish line with eight losses in their last nine games in Dan Enos' debut season in 2010. But there is some talent, headed by QB Ryan Radcliff and a promising passing game. The big key is amping up the ground game and replacing three linebackers.

Miami at Missouri, Sept. 3

Boise State at Toledo, Sept. 17

Miami at Minnesota, Sept. 17

Cincinnati at Miami, Oct. 1

Miami at Toledo, Oct. 22

Northern Illinois at Toledo, Nov. 1

Temple at Ohio, Nov. 2

Miami at Temple, Nov. 9

Western Michigan at Miami, Nov. 16

Miami at Ohio, Nov. 22

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Temple. Al Golden made the Owls into one of the top programs in the MAC, but he is gone, to Miami. Temple has turned to Steve Addazio, who had been offensive coordinator at Florida. He has built a strong staff and inherits a solid roster, but is switching schemes and it's tough to imagine the Owls winning the East in a transition season.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Miami at Toledo, Oct. 22. This matchup between long-time MAC foes could be a preview of the league championship game. The RedHawks are the defending league champ but have a new coach. The Rockets are a rising power in the West under Tim Beckman, who may be the hottest coaching commodity in the MAC.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Ball State. The non-conference schedule abounds with challenges, highlighted by trips to USF and Oklahoma. There also is a late-season run that features three road games in a row. Home games include visits from Temple and Toledo. Good luck, Cardinals.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Ohio. The Bobcats have a good shot to go 3-1 or maybe 4-0 in non-conference action (at New Mexico State, Gardner-Webb, Marshall, at Rutgers). And every MAC road game is winnable. Visits from Temple and Miami are the toughest league contests.

MAC EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the MAC. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Toledo
Tom Dienhart: Toledo
David Fox: Toledo
Mike Huguenin: Northern Illinois
Steve Megargee: Toledo

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: Miami
Tom Dienhart: Temple
David Fox: Miami
Mike Huguenin: Ohio
Steve Megargee: Temple

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: 10th
Tom Dienhart: 10th
David Fox: Ninth
Mike Huguenin: 10th
Steve Megargee: Ninth

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Temple RB Bernard Pierce
Tom Dienhart: Toledo WR Eric Page
David Fox: Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish
Mike Huguenin: Toledo WR Eric Page
Steve Megargee: Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: Temple RB Bernard Pierce
Tom Dienhart: Toledo RB Adonis Thomas
David Fox: Toledo RB Adonis Thomas
Mike Huguenin: Northern Illinois TB Jasmin Hopkins
Steve Megargee: Toledo RB Adonis Thomas

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: Western Michigan's Alex Carder
Tom Dienhart: Western Michigan's Alex Carder
David Fox: Western Michigan's Alex Carder
Mike Huguenin: Western Michigan's Alex Carder
Steve Megargee: Western Michigan's Alex Carder
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: Toledo WR Eric Page
Tom Dienhart: Toledo WR Eric Page
David Fox: Toledo WR Eric Page
Mike Huguenin: Western Michigan WR Jordan White
Steve Megargee: Toledo WR Eric Page

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: Toledo LB Dan Molls
Tom Dienhart: Bowling Green LB Dwayne Woods
David Fox: Bowling Green LB Dwayne Woods
Mike Huguenin: Akron LB Brian Wagner
Steve Megargee: Akron LB Brian Wagner

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: Ball State
Tom Dienhart: Ohio
David Fox: Miami
Mike Huguenin: Northern Illinois
Steve Megargee: Akron

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: Miami
Tom Dienhart: Temple
David Fox: Miami
Mike Huguenin: Miami
Steve Megargee: Miami

THE WORST?
Olin Buchanan: Eastern Michigan
Tom Dienhart: Eastern Michigan
David Fox: Eastern Michigan
Mike Huguenin: Eastern Michigan
Steve Megargee: Eastern Michigan

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBChandler Harnish, Northern Illinois (6-2/221, Sr.)
RBBernard Pierce, Temple (6-0/218, Jr.)
RBAdonis Thomas, Toledo (5-10/185, Sr.)
WREric Page, Toledo (5-10/180, Sr.)
WRJordan White, Western Michigan (6-0/215, Sr.)
WRCody Wilson, Central Michigan (5-10/186, Jr.)
T Trevor Olson, Northern Illinois (6-6/302, Sr.)
TJoe Flading, Ohio (6-4/290, Jr.)
GBrandon Brooks, Miami (6-5/325, Sr.)
GAnthony Parker, Western Michigan (6-5/325, Sr.)
CScott Wedige, Northern Illinois (6-4/314, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
ESean Progar, Northern Illinois (6-3/260, Jr.)
TRoosevelt Nix, Kent State (6-0/255, Soph.)
EAdrian Robinson, Temple (6-2/250, Sr.)
LBNoah Keller, Ohio (6-1/246, Sr.)
LBKhalil Mack, Buffalo (6-3/241, Soph.)
LBJerrell Wedge, Miami (5-11/222, Sr.)
LBDwayne Woods, Bowling Green (6-1/220, Jr.)
CBJason Pinkston, Ball State (6-2/177, Jr.)
CBLewis Toler, Western Michigan (5-10/172, Soph.)
FSTommy Davis, Northern Illinois (5-11/201, Jr.)
SSSean Baker, Ball State (6-1/204, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KJohn Potter, Western Michigan (6-2/182, Sr.)
PPaul Hershey, Ohio (6-3/198, Sr.)
KREric Page, Toledo (5-10/180, Sr.)
PRLaVon Brazill, Ohio (5-11/191, Sr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Northern Illinois: Yes, the Huskies have to replace TB Chad Spann, but NIU may have the league's top quarterback in Chandler Harnish and a promising tailback in Jasmin Hopkins in a new no-huddle attack.

2. Toledo

3. Western Michigan

4. Miami

5. Central Michigan

6. Temple

7. Ohio

8. Kent State

9. Ball State

10. Eastern Michigan

11. Buffalo

12. Akron

13. Bowling Green

Receivers

1. Western Michigan: A deep unit is led by Jordan White, who caught 94 passes for 1,378 yards and 10 TDs in 2010. Ansel Ponder and Robert Arnheim are vets who will compensate for the loss of 1,000-yard receiver Juan Nunez.

2. Toledo

3. Miami

4. Central Michigan

5. Temple

6. Ohio

7. Bowling Green

8. Northern Illinois

9. Kent State

10. Ball State

11. Buffalo

12. Eastern Michigan

13. Akron

Offensive line

1. Northern Illinois: All five starters are back on a massive front. LT Trevor Olson is the leader of a unit that helped the Huskies pace the MAC in rushing (260.4 ypg) and rank seventh in the nation in 2010. C Scott Wedige and G Joe Pawlak are other potential all-league guys.

2. Ohio

3. Toledo

4. Kent State

5. Temple

6. Miami

7. Ball State

8. Western Michigan

9. Eastern Michigan

10. Bowling Green

11. Central Michigan

12. Buffalo

13. Akron

Defensive line

1. Kent State: T Roosevelt Nix burst onto the scene last year as a freshman, earning MAC Defensive Player of the Year accolades with 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. T Dana Brown, E Lee Stalker and NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen round out the front. And staffers think sophomore E Richard Gray could be special.

2. Toledo

3. Western Michigan

4. Temple

5. Miami

6. Northern Illinois

7. Central Michigan

8. Akron

9. Buffalo

10. Eastern Michigan

11. Ohio

12. Ball State

13. Bowling Green

Linebackers

1. Miami: All three starters are back in Evan Harris, Ryan Kennedy and Jerrell Wedge. Even with that trio back, coaches expect plenty of competition in a unit that goes 10 deep.

2. Ohio

3. Toledo

4. Buffalo

5. Bowling Green

6. Western Michigan

7. Ball State

8. Northern Illinois

9. Akron

10. Temple

11. Kent State

12. Central Michigan

13. Eastern Michigan

Secondary

1. Miami: CB Dayonne Nunley is small (5-8) but a playmaker, notching six interceptions last season. SS Pat Hinkel, who made 72 tackles in 2010 with three picks, is another returning starter, and depth looks good.

2. Western Michigan

3. Toledo

4. Temple

5. Eastern Michigan

6. Ball State

7. Kent State

8. Bowling Green

9. Ohio

10. Northern Illinois

11. Central Michigan

12. Akron

13. Buffalo

Special teams

1. Ohio: No team in the league has a better kicker/punter tandem than Matt Weller and Paul Hershey. Weller nailed 11-of-14 field-goal attempts last year and didn't miss a kick inside of 37 yards. He also has range to 50 yards. One out of every five Hershey punts travelled 50 yards. And over a third of his punts ended up in fair catches. LaVon Brazill is a big-time punt returner. The coverage teams are strong, too.

2. Temple

3. Western Michigan

4. Kent State

5. Ball State

6. Northern Illinois

7. Toledo

8. Central Michigan

9. Eastern Michigan

10. Bowling Green

11. Miami

12. Buffalo

13. Akron

Coaching staff

1. Ohio: Frank Solich is a veteran coach who led Nebraska to the 2001 national title game. He has forged a nice "second career" in Athens, going 40-36 overall and 30-18 in MAC action in six seasons; there also have been three bowls and two MAC title game appearances. Tim Albin is an underrated offensive coordinator, and Jimmy Burrow is a solid defensive coordinator.

2. Western Michigan

3. Toledo

4. Bowling Green

5. Central Michigan

6. Temple

7. Akron

8. Miami

9. Northern Illinois

10. Eastern Michigan

11. Ball State

12. Kent State

13. Buffalo

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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