Toledo had a great year in 2017, going 10-2 in the regular season and crushing Akron in the MAC Championship Game before falling to Appalachian State in the Dollar General Bowl. Quarterback Logan Woodside is off to the NFL after throwing for over 10,000 career yards with the Rockets. The only returning QB that has completed a pass at the FBS level is junior Mitchell Guadagni, but Illinois transfer Eli Peters will compete for the starting job as well. The winner of the quarterback competition will be blessed with one of the best receiving groups in the conference, if not the country. The top five all return, including three All-MAC contenders in the projected starters: Diontae Johnson, Jon’Vea Johnson, and Cody Thompson (combined for 22 touchdowns and over 2,500 yards in 2017). Because of the star at quarterback, the running back group didn’t stand out last year, but with two 600+ yard rushers returning (Art Thompkins, Shakif Seymour) returning and the addition of Kentucky transfer Bryant Koback, I expect it to step up with an inexperienced QB at the helm of the offense.
All-MAC DE Olasunkanmi Adeniyi is gone, along with two other starters on the defensive line. The Rockets’ only returnee is DT Nate Childress, although they do get back senior end Tuzar Skipper, who was out for the year with an injury last year. The secondary should be improved this year, with four of five starters back including S Kahlil Robinson (67 tackles, four interceptions last year). CB Justin Clark will step into a bigger role after snagging two picks as a freshman. Toledo has averaged ten wins over the past three years, and with a trip to the MAC Title game likely and a bowl bid a sure thing, I would bet on the Rockets to do that again.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (6-2 MAC)
Northern Illinois has struggled with quarterback injuries the past two years, but Huskies managed to overcome them last year en route to an 8-5 record. One of the main pieces to that success was the emergence of Marcus Childers after Ryan Graham went down with an injury. Childers started the final seven (1,674 yards passing, 473 yards rushing, 21 combined touchdowns, five interceptions) and impressed, making him likely to start over Graham this season in Graham’s senior year. The run game was pretty good too last year but they lose starter Jordan Huff. Marcus Jones, Huff’s #2 from last year, is likely to get the start, but you can expect a slight step back as they lose an All-MAC running back.
Northern Illinois’ defense was tremendous last year, leading the MAC in both opponent ypg and ppg. All four starters return from the defensive line including MAC Defensive Player of the Year Sutton Smith. Smith, a former running back, racked up 63 tackles, 14 sacks, and an FBS best 15.5 tackles for loss in 2017. The D-Line may be the best in the conference, but the linebacking group loses all three starters, and two starters are gone from the secondary including Shawun Lurry. This defense will still be one of the best in the conference, and while the team as a whole will probably improve, a really tough non-conference schedule with Iowa, BYU, Utah, and Florida State may drag down their record.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 MAC)
After a 13-1 record in 2016, the Broncos fell to 6-6 in 2017 as they lost a lot of key talent including head coach PJ Fleck and top-ten pick Corey Davis. QB Jon Wassink is back after starting eight last year (1,411 passing yards, 14 passing touchdowns, four interceptions) before going down with an injury. Star running back Jarvion Franklin has graduated, but his #2 and #3 return after combining for over 1,000 yards in relief last year. Both are undersized backs with good speed. The receiving core should be improved as they return everybody other than #2 D’Wayne Eskridge and add highly touted transfer Drake Harris (Michigan). The offensive line returns four of five and adds Penn State recruit AJ Reed to replace NFL LT Chukwuma Okorafor.
Defensively, the Broncos will have a back-heavy unit with three starters returning in the secondary and just two returning everywhere else. CB Sam Beal was expected to step into the #1 role after two picks last year, but after declaring for the supplemental draft, I’d circle FS Stefan Claiborne (64 tackles) as the name to keep an eye on for this Bronco defense. As I mentioned, the front seven looks quite weak and the Broncos are likely to rely on a handful of sophomores to plug the leaks caused by a mass exodus of talent over the past two seasons. I see the offense taking a step forward and the defense taking a step back in year two for Tim Lester. With two winnable games in the non-conference, this team is probably a toss up to make a bowl again, but getting the top three teams in the conference at home as well as Syracuse will mean they have plenty of chances to pull an upset.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 MAC)
Nine of Eastern Michigan’s 12 games were decided by one possession last year, making them a team I was watching at least partly nearly every week. The Eagles went just 3-6 in those games, and finished the year at 5-7. Head Coach Chris Creighton has a 15-34 record in four years in Ypsilanti and has been bowl eligible just once (2016), placing him squarely on the hot seat. The Eagles return all four running backs that saw the field last year, including the senior duo of Ian Eriksen and Shaq Vann (1,330 combined yards, 11 touchdowns last year). EMU does lose #2 career passer Brogan Roback who threw for 8,653 yards and 57 touchdowns while with the team. Iowa grad transfer Tyler Wiegers comes in to replace Roback, and the highly-touted senior who saw very limited playing time with the Hawkeyes will look to shine in his final year of eligibility.
Eastern Michigan’s defense was #2 in the conference in both opponent ypg and ppg last year, and the Eagles return the majority of their starters from that group, including their star defensive end combo of Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris, who will both contend for All-MAC honors after combining for 12 tackles for loss, 17 sacks, and over 100 tackles last year. The linebacking core is my biggest question mark on this side of the ball, as the Eagles lose both starters including their #1 tackler from 2017. Two seniors with playing time experience will come in, but the group will still probably take a step back. Overall I see this team improving from last year, but they have the top two teams in the conference at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-4 MAC)
Central Michigan has low key been one of the most consistent teams in the country, the Chippewas have been bowl eligible six years in a row. RB Jonathan Ward is the star of this year’s team. Ward rushed for ten touchdowns and over 1,000 yards last season and he returns, along with pretty much every other notable piece from the running game. The passing attack, on the other hand, is likely to take a massive hit as the Chippewas bring in a new starter at quarterback in converted WR Tony Poljan. He is a dual-threat, and will probably need to utilize his legs a lot as the top returning WR is junior Cameron Cole, who had just 104 yards last year. TE Logan Hessbrook will likely be the top overall target after 132 yards last year and RB Devon Spalding will change positions to play out wide. I expect this offense to take a step back in 2018.
Last year’s pass defense, which was ranked #1 in the conference, will almost certainly take a step back this year as they return just one starter, CB Sean Bunting, who had five interceptions last year. A group of experienced backups will try and plug the holes, but I would expect the secondary, and the defense as a whole to take a step back this year. After six straight bowl eligible years, losing most of the top unit on your team as well as your entire passing game will do bad things to a team, and with three power-five opponents in the non-conference, this team would have to go .500 in the conference at a minimum to make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 MAC)
A string of injuries to the offense led to the Cardinals going 2-10 last season (0-8 in the MAC). QB Riley Neal is back after passing for 659 yards and six touchdowns in three starts last year before going down with an injury. He returns, along with RB James Gilbert, who rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016 before going down for the season after three games in 2017. Caleb Huntley stepped up in his absence, running for over 1,000 yards as a freshman. Pretty much the entire receiving core is back for Neal to throw to as well as four starters on the offensive line. TE Danny Pinter added weight in the offseason to step into the RT role, and as long as this offense stays relatively healthy this should be one of the most improved in the nation.
After ranking 125th in the country in opponent ppg (40.7) last year, there aren’t many places to go but up for the Cardinal. About half of the starters return from that group, meaning Ball State will be relying on a lot of underclassmen in the two-deep, as this will be one of the more inexperienced defense you will see. The return of their top three tacklers should help smooth the transition to the next generation, and we should see some mild improvement from this group. A tough out of conference schedule (Notre Dame, Indiana, Western Kentucky) will make a bowl bid very difficult, but I expect Ball State to double their wins from last season, and with a young defense, the future looks bright.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (3-5 MAC)