Created:Friday, August 3, 2012 5:30 a.m.CDT
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TAKE 2: West loaded, but champ may be in East

By JOHN SAHLY and STEVE NITZ - sports@daily-chronicle.com
NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch throws a pass during the football team's first practice of the spring March 28 in DeKalb. ( Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com )

Daily Chronicle sports editor John Sahly and sports reporter Steve Nitz spend their days covering the area’s sports scene. Occasionally, they give their viewpoints on those local sports.

In this installment of their Take 2 column, they discuss the upcoming Mid-American Conference football season.

Nitz: John, when I filled out my MAC preseason poll, it was a tough choice between Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo in the West Division. However, I went with NIU, the defending champs.

I think Jordan Lynch should do fine taking over for Chandler Harnish, and with what should be an improved defense, I think the Huskies are the favorite. Plus, their MAC crossover schedule (UMass, Buffalo, at Akron) is ridiculously easy.

John, who is the favorite in the MAC West?

Sahly: Steve, for the first time in a few years, I’m actually excited about that question, because the MAC West is a loaded division. You mentioned your top three, but would you be shocked if Ball State won the division? Eastern Michigan? Of course not. Central Michigan is bad again, but even the Chips proved last year they’re capable of beating any team that doesn’t mentally show up when they beat the MAC champion Huskies.

I can’t pick Toledo until I see the Rockets on the field under first-year coach Matt Campbell. Project all you want, but until I see film on the Rockets, I don’t know where to put them. Western Michigan has done a heck of a job proving it can’t win the big one in conference play over the past few years, so I’m going to take NIU despite the unknowns on the offensive line. There’s no juggernaut here. Every team has questions, every team has flaws, which could make things really interesting. Steve, do you see a tight race all the way through Thanksgiving this year?

Nitz: John, I fully expect the MAC West title to be settled the last weekend of the regular season. Who knows, NIU very well could be playing in Ypsilanti, Mich., the day after Thanksgiving with Eastern Michigan actually in the hunt for the conference title. You asked if I would be shocked if Ball State won the division, and the answer is no. Heck, even Central Michigan returns 18 starters.

Look, NIU suffered some serious losses on offense. But Toledo, which was picked to win the division in the preseason poll, lost 13 starters from last season, as well as its head coach. Western Michigan has possibly the best quarterback in the MAC in Alex Carder, yet the Broncos lost a good chunk of their receiving production, including Jordan White.

Watching this race from September-November will be fun, that’s for sure. What could make the difference is the crossover schedule, which I referenced earlier. The Huskies get three games in which they should be heavy favorites, while Toledo gets Bowling Green and Western Michigan has to visit Kent State. The Broncos and Rockets should be favored in those contests, but Bowling Green and Kent State are better than any of the MAC East teams the Huskies have to deal with.

Speaking of which, we both predict NIU will represent the MAC West in the league’s championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. John, who do you expect to be representing the East Division?
Sahly:
I’d be surprised if it was anyone but Ohio. The Bobcats seemed like they were a year away from a championship last year, and ended up a second-half collapse in Detroit from winning the conference. In a weaker division, Ohio should win with a game, maybe two, to spare.

Nitz: To me, Ohio is a clear favorite, while teams such as Kent State, Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio) will compete for second place.

So, we both agree on division winners. Who takes home the MAC title at Ford Field? Does NIU go back-to-back or will the Bobcats win their first MAC crown since 1968?
Sahly:
Well, it’s August, so this is subject to change, but I’ll agree with the media pollsters and take Ohio over NIU in a Detroit rematch. How about you?

Nitz: I went with the Bobcats when I filled out my preseason poll. I think Ohio is the most complete team with a good quarterback in Tyler Tettleton, so I foresee a big party in Athens, Ohio, the night of the MAC Championship Game.

But hey, last season the media picked Miami to win the East Division and everyone saw how that turned out, with the RedHawks finishing 4-8. The MAC is just an unpredictable league with a lot of parity. In reality, there’s a decent chance both of us look back at this in December and wonder what we were thinking.

Will the NIU football team play for the MAC title this year?
Yes
No
Too soon to tell