A little preseason drama is playing out in the Mid-America Conference’s East Division in football as the games are set to begin Thursday night.
In the West, everyone expects Northern Illinois to three-peat as division champions. Kent State isn’t being given the same consideration.
In fact, the preseason poll of the conference’s writers shows that many expect coach Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats to claim the title with Bowling Green as runner-up. That leaves Kent State riding in third.
Golden Flashes defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix was none too happy about it on MAC Media Day.
“I just think a lot of people don’t respect us yet,” he said. “They just think it was one of those good years. We’ll definitely have to bring it again to solidify our name in the conference. Just doing it again would definitely let people know we were here to stay.”
The proving for Kent State begins Thursday night at home against Liberty, while the University of Akron takes on Central Florida in Orlando, Fla.
As for the Zips, they’re still getting nothing in the way of respect. One website that covers the league expects UMass to beat UA.
Here’s a look at the MAC East in projected order of finish, but do not take this to heart. All teams had key losses, and from available information, the East could be a toss-up for that reason.
Last year: 9-4, 4-4.
Key games: Circle late-season games against Bowling Green (Nov. 12) and Kent State (Nov. 19).
What to watch: The Bobcats are young in the middle of the offensive line (guards and center) and on defensive line.
But quarterback Tyler Tettleton is back.
“He’s excited about the year and wants to accept all of the challenges that will come about with the season that we’re going to have and obviously the schedule we’re going to have,” Solich said of Tettleton. “So he’s just a great guy to have in terms of grounding your football team as you go into a game like this [against Louisville this Sunday].”
That intermingling extends to the defense as Ohio lost five starters, most across the line.
The Bobcats purred along for seven consecutive wins, matching KSU victory for victory. Then they ran into the conference buzz saw, losing four of five games and eventually landing a spot in the Independence Bowl.
Outlook: “We have intermingled a lot of young guys in the system, trying to bring them along as quickly as possible. I think we’ll be a team that will get better as the season goes along due to the fact that in both lines there is rebuilding going on,” Solich said.
Last year: 8-5, 6-2.
Key games: An early season date with Kent State (Sept. 7) and a late season soiree with Ohio (Nov. 12).
What to watch: The Falcons were run heavy last year because it was their strength. Coach Dave Clawson has four tailbacks to use to help spark his offense, he said, including converted wide receiver Travis Greene. Overall they return nine starters on offense. The Falcons are looking for more balance in their offensive attack. Quarterback Matt Schilz will be under the gun.
The defense should be tough because it has experience. Although they lost key players on the line, at linebacker and in the defensive secondary, it shouldn’t be enough to hurt the Falcons.
Outlook: “We did not have a lot of explosive plays last year. We didn’t score easy points. All of our drives were 4 yards, 5 yards and it’s tough to score points if you don’t make many big plays. The one thing Travis did consistently in camp is he made people miss. He makes vertical cuts. He doesn’t dance in the backfield and for a little guy, he’s got a lot of toughness. ... I’m hoping he’ll make people miss at the second and third level,” Clawson said.
Last year: 11-3, 8-0.
Key games: Bowling Green (Sept. 7), Ohio (Nov. 19).
What to watch: Senior Dri Archer is a threat to score any time he gets his hands on the ball, be it on special teams or playing offense. If he can do it often on offense, it will take some pressure off redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Reardon, who won the job over fifth-year senior David Fisher.
“Colin and David, we feel comfortable with both of those guys running this program. We’re in a unique situation because there can only be one guy out there at that position, but we feel really comfortable with both of them,” coach Paul Haynes said. “I just felt comfortable with his presence in the huddle and I really felt comfortable about him leading this team and managing the offense.”
Nix, an all-world defensive lineman, returns with a chip on his shoulder in the hopes of improving a defense that gave up more than 3,000 yards through the air and better than 1,900 on the ground.
Outlook: With a first-year coach in Haynes and a quarterback situation that will continue to play out through the season, most wouldn’t have a lot of confidence that they could duplicate last year’s success. But wait, they do have a Heisman Trophy candidate in Archer.
Last year: 4-8, 3-5.
Key games: Bowling Green (Nov. 5), Kent State (Nov. 13).
What to watch: Quarterback Zac Dysert is gone. That would be a tough blow for any team, but it’s the reality the RedHawks face in the coming season.
But coach Don Treadwell has confidence in new starter Austin Boucher.
“He’s had a lot of intangibles all along. It’s not like he just emerged this season,” Treadwell said. “In his role as a backup the past couple of years behind the scenes, he’s always been a very strong leader. For him to take the reins and take the role of quarterback is really a nice ending to a nice story.”
Despite the loss of Dysert, there’s reason to be optimistic as the RedHawks return eight starters on offense.
The defensive unit started off slowly at the beginning of the season and gradually improved, but against the Zips, it gave up 49 points in a game that evolved into a shootout.
Outlook: Miami’s success depends on how quickly Boucher develops.
Last year: 4-8, 3-5.
Key games: Stony Brook (Sept. 14) offers a chance for them to build some momentum.
What to watch: Last year, the injury bug might have delayed the Bulls’ development under coach Jeff Quinn, who is now in his fourth year. It looks as if Jeff Licata locked down the starting quarterback job after leading the Bulls to three consecutive wins to close out last year. The Bulls ranked 12th in scoring offense just ahead of UMass, and 10th in overall offense. Needless to say by averaging 21.3 points per game, they didn’t put fear into many conference defenses. However, their defense did exactly that, ranking sixth in scoring defense and second in overall defense.
Outlook: Quinn will need consistency from Licata and for that defense to continue to play lights out for the Bulls to make any kind of noise in the MAC East. But they can start by shocking the world against No. 2 Ohio State this weekend in Columbus.
Last year: 1-11, 0-8.
Key games: James Madison (Sept. 7), Louisiana (Sept. 21); two winnable games that can help build confidence.
What to watch: When fifth-year senior Dalton Williams arrived to quarterback the Zips last year, coach Terry Bowden might as well have hit the lottery. Williams often ran the offense masterfully. But he’s gone and the big question is whether redshirt sophomore Kyle Pohl can do the same. Bowden likes Pohl’s arm and said that he has made all the right decisions in fall camp, so the confidence is there. If he can be successful, he has some offensive weapons with which to work. Fifth-year senior J.D. Dillard leads an experienced set of receivers, and the Zips are stable at running back with Jawon Chisholm who rushed for almost 1,000 yards last season in Bowden’s spread offense.
Bowden and his staff added depth more than anything. The defensive line was solid last year, but it lacked backups who could fill in capably. So when someone like defensive tackle Nico Caponi or defensive end Albert Presley were injured, a noticeable fall off in play happened. Enter ends C.J. James and Nordly Capi — each fast and strong. Inside, if defensive tackle Moses McCray can stay healthy, he will fit nicely into that rotation.
Outlook: Will the Zips light up the MAC East? No one knows, but a lot of this season’s success depends on the performance of Pohl. The defense might have to carry the Zips the first few games.
Last year: 1-11, 1-7.
Key games: Wisconsin (Aug. 31), Kansas State (Sept. 14), Vanderbilt (Sept. 21).
What to watch: The Minutemen could find things a tougher go their second year in FBS play. They lost seven offensive starters. However, they do retain quarterback Mike Wegzyn. Still it’s difficult to avoid several realities: they ranked last in total offense and scoring offense in the league.
The other thing: They beat the Zips.
On defense, the stats aren’t much better, but there was less of an exodus on that side of the ball.
Outlook: Many expect UMass and UA to grapple for the bottom of the division.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.