Created:Thursday, July 25, 2013 10:59 p.m.CDT
Updated:Friday, July 26, 2013 11:38 a.m.CDT
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NITZ: MAC West will be tough to navigate

By STEVE NITZ – snitz@shawmedia.com

DETROIT – Northern Illinois was picked to win the Mid-American Conference in the league’s preseason poll, which was announced at Tuesday’s MAC Media Day.

Shocking, I know.

Even though it seems Toledo gets a ton of preseason love (the Rockets were picked to win the MAC West the past two seasons, despite NIU’s dominance in the division), it was going to be impossible for the league’s media to ignore what the Huskies accomplished last season, and what Rod Carey’s team has coming back.

I didn’t really have to think too much when I slotted NIU first in my preseason poll. However, I don’t really feel the Huskies are going to automatically run away with the division as some seem to think. I really like the squad Ball State has, and the MAC West is a deep division.

In November, I may look at this column and just shake my head, but here is my MAC preseason poll with some thoughts. Feel free to dissect this all you want.

WEST DIVISION

1. Northern Illinois

The Huskies lost their coach, Dave Doeren, after last year’s MAC Championship game and some defensive talent, but I don’t see how I couldn’t pick NIU to make its fourth consecutive trip to Detroit with the offense it has coming back. While the defense loses players like corner Rashaan Melvin, defensive ends Alan Baxter and Sean Progar, who are in NFL camps, it’s still a talented group.

2. Ball State

Circle Nov. 13 on your calendar. When Ball State heads to DeKalb, it may decide the MAC West. This team could have very easily beaten the Huskies the past two seasons, instead blowing fourth-quarter leads in both games.

BSU’s QB Keith Wenning is the best quarterback in the MAC not named Jordan Lynch, and Cardinals coach Pete Lembo could be the next MAC coach to jump to a BCS school.

3. Toledo

Another November shootout at the Glass Bowl? Both NIU and Toledo have the offensive talent to make it happen, as the Rockets return QB Terrance Owens, running back David Fluellen and wide receiver Bernard Reedy – three legit playmakers.

Rockets defensive coordinator and former Huskies assistant Tom Matukewicz has his work cut out for him with a defense which ranked 12th in the conference in total yards last season – and lost seven starters.

4. Western Michigan

How far will the Broncos row their boat this season? Sorry, I had to to mention it. P.J. Fleck has arrived, and he was the star of MAC Media Day. The Broncos return just one starter each on the offensive and defensive lines and have to fight through a grueling non-conference schedule (at Michigan State, at Northwestern, at Iowa) before league play even begins.

5. Central Michigan

I could have easily slotted the Chippewas higher. Maybe I should have, after they won four in a row to end the 2012 season, including a victory over Western Kentucky in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

6. Eastern Michigan

There was some optimism in Ypsilanti prior to last season, when the Eagles were coming off a 6-6 campaign. After last season’s 2-10 mark, coach Ron English may start feeling some heat.

EAST DIVISION

1. Ohio

The Bobcats have a rare breed in coach Frank Solich – a very good coach (117-63 career record), who is beginning his ninth year in Athens and seems content there. I think the MAC East is wide open, but I felt the Bobcats, with Solich and the offensive talent they have coming back (QB Tyler Tettleton, RB Beau Blankenship for starters) gives them the lead here.

2. Bowling Green

I could have easily picked the Falcons first and not second-guessed myself. There’s talent everywhere with 18 starters back, though 2012 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Jones is now with the Houston Texans.

3. Miami (Ohio)

Third-team All-MAC quarterback Zac Dysert is gone, but NIU fans remember senior Austin Boucher, who filled in for an injured Dysert at the 2010 MAC Championship and led the RedHawks to that huge upset.

4. Kent State

Why would I pick a team that was on the cusp of a BCS appearance last year fourth in its own division? The Golden Flashes lost a lot of talent on defense, as well as 2012 MAC Coach of the Year Darrell Hazell, who’s now at Purdue. In reality, it wouldn’t surprise me if any of the first four teams in my poll were in Detroit Dec. 6.

5. Buffalo

The Bulls do return 19 starters, including stud tailback Branden Oliver. However, there’s nothing this program has done in recent memory (save for the fluke 2008 MAC title) that leads me to believe the Bulls will be relevant.

6. Akron

The past three seasons have been a complete disaster for Akron, with a combined three wins. Yes, the Zips have won just three contests since 2010. I did like the Terry Bowden hire and Akron does have 14 starters coming back, so I think that at least keeps the Zips out of the cellar.

7. UMass

The Minutemen won a game in 2012, the program’s first in FBS, and the season really should be considered a success considering they didn’t play an FCS school. The good news for UMass fans is the fact they’ll be playing some games on campus starting next year, instead of in front of a bunch of empty blue seats at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

Who will start at QB for NIU against Presbyterian?
Matt McIntosh
Anthony Maddie
Drew Hare