After last season, the primary question anyone is asking of the Mid-America Conference is whether Northern Illinois can repeat that oh-so-magic season and make another appearance in a BCS bowl game, the last year of the controversial systemís existence before a national playoff system begins.
Given the prestige (and huge payday) associated with a bowl game, thereís little doubt thatís what the Huskies will be seeking this season.
Will anyone rise up to stop them?
Hereís a look at the MAC West in projected order of finish.
Last year: 12-2, 8-0.
Key games: Kent State (Oct. 5), Ball State (Nov. 13), Toledo (Nov. 20).
What to watch: Newly appointed coach Rod Carey. The team should have little trouble adapting to the situation because Northern Illinois hired from within with Carey, the former offensive coordinator. Carey coached the team in its Orange Bowl loss against Florida State. Offensively, the man who makes things go, Jordan Lynch, who was recently added to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Watch List, returns to try to duplicate the feat of rushing for 1,500 yards and passing for more than 3,000 in a season ó the only FBS quarterback to accomplish that. Importantly for him, his offensive line remains intact from last year. The Huskies lost two of Jordanís receivers, but reports say that Copley High School alum Aregeros Turner could see the field early at that position.
Outlook: With the Huskiesí line and quarterback position stable for another year, there should be little drop-off in production for the MACís most potent offense. Look for Northern Illinois to repeat.
Last year: 9-4, 6-2.
Key games: Bowling Green (Oct. 26), Northern Illinois (Nov. 20).
What to watch: The Rockets return a whopping nine offensive starters. That should make things easier for quarterback Terrance Owens, a senior who battled two ankle injuries last season. Running back David Fluellen stepped up to rush for nearly 1,500 yards for the season and added 12 touchdowns for good measure.
The Rockets absorbed a hit defensively, losing eight starters, and there could be a gaping hole at linebacker, according to observers.
Outlook: The Rocketsí chances at a MAC championship hinge on whether an inexperienced defense can step up to fill the void.
Last year: 9-4, 6-2.
Key games: Toledo (Sept. 28), Northern Illinois (Nov. 13).
What to watch: The good news for the Cardinals: They return senior quarterback Keith Wenning (3,095 yards, 24 touchdowns). The bad? The four starters that they lost on offense all come from the line. Tailback Jahwan Edwards rushed for more than 1,400 yards and prolific receiver Willie Snead caught 89 passes for more than 1,100 yards. Defensively, the Cardinals struggled, giving up more than 460 yards per game. The defensive secondary allowed 28 scores on the year.
Outlook: The defense will have to show some improvement for the Cardinals to make a serious run at the MAC championship. More important, however, is that the offensive line will have to come together ó quickly ó so that the offense doesnít miss a beat.
Last year: 7-6, 4-4.
Key games: Toledo (Sept. 21), Northern Illinois (Oct. 19).
What to watch: The Chippewas lost a talented offensive lineman to the NFL and a three-year starting quarterback. They also pummeled the University of Akron in probably one of the Zipsí worst performances of a 1-11 season. They return eight starters on offense, but an adjustment period is likely with a new starting quarterback and right tackle. Quarterback Cody Kater needs to step up, and Central Michigan has to fill that hole at left tackle. People are bemoaning the loss of Eric Fisher, but he had four other guys playing with him. On offense, keep an eye on Titus Davis, a wide receiver with the ability to lead the Chippewas.
Outlook: The Chippewas will need to play better defense and their quarterback will have to settle in quickly as the starter. The Central Michigan defense, overall, will have to improve.
Last year: 4-8, 2-6.
What to watch: After a disappointing season, the Broncos sent their coach packing and hired P.J. Fleck, who was the wide receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lead the team. He arrives to coach a team that lost more than half of its starting offensive talent from last year, including a group of wide receivers. Tyler Van Tubbergen will lead the offense from the quarterback position.
Defensively, the Broncos lost three starters on the defensive line, leaving them little in the way of experience.
Outlook: Whatever he does, Fleck will have his work cut out for him this season.
Last year: 2-10, 1-7.
What to watch: The only team officially better than the University of Akron and UMass, according to the standings, had high hopes for last year, according to reports. But the Eagles struggled to find any type of consistency on offense or defense. They lost six defensive starters on a unit that struggled to stop offenses, ranking dead last in overall defense and second to last in the MAC in scoring defense. Offensively, Eastern Michigan wasnít much better, averaging just 21.3 points per game in a conference known for high-scoring games.
Outlook: Itís probably more of the same for the Eagles.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at https://ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.