How in the world does one rank the conference based on entire collections of "specialists," when some of the moving parts have no interaction with each other, and there is hardly a quantifiable way to take into account all the random factors that have a noticeable impact in the kicking/punting/returning/kicking again game? Well...one guesses. Or one creates a highly (non)scientific formula based on last year's data and more guesses which will of course end up being wrong. But that's the fun of it, right?
13. Buffalo - The New York Bulls of Buffalo had a rough go of it last season, and without graduating any of their leg men, fans have to hope there will be changes made to the way they do things in the third third of the game. The Bulls had the worst punting average in the MAC in 2012, and their coverage units let up the most yards along with a couple scores. Even with another year of experience under their belts, I don't see them making a big jump up the ladder.
12. Akron - It makes sense that one of the worst teams in the conference would be down here. Akron is another team that retained its main special teams performers from last season, the same guys who managed to approach 40 net yards for each returned kickoff, but also had one of the worst kick and punt returning performances. Booting more than one out of every three kickoffs into the end zone doesn't help, either.
11. Western Michigan - The Broncos were one of the better teams in the conference on kickoffs, but then they went and produced the worst field goal percentage in the MAC. While it is likely they will improve that ugly 62.5% conversion rate, it's up to Andrew Haldeman to prove that a second offseason in the WMU system will be beneficial to his development. Good thing they are returning one of the best punters in the conference.
10. Central Michigan - Last season: average things, average things. One of the better gross punting averages in the conference, sure, but you can't forget the 2.6 yards per punt return. As the team that was trying to return the ball. And when you let the other team get 10 more yards than that when you punt, you're doing something right. Wait. No you're not!
9. Miami (Ohio) - 2.6 yards per punt return is bad, sure, but 3.2 is really not much better, and that is how things went for the Redhawks last season. Unlike CMU, Miami was beastly at covering their own punts, allowing a measly 4.5 yards per return. Of course, they somehow allowed over 21 yards per kickoff return (fourth worst in the MAC). Maybe they should just have the punt return team cover kickoffs this season. The good news? They never let an opponent bring one of those kicks into the end zone, so there is hope.
8. Eastern Michigan - The easternmost of the Directional Michigans had by far the lowest touchback rate on kickoffs last year, and they'll be bringing back Kody Fulkerson to continue that trend and also have an awesome name. Jay Karutz is gone as the punter, which is too bad, since he had the longest punt average in the MAC after UMass' Colter Johnson. The return of a subpar punt return average and an arm-tackle-happy kick coverage unit keep these guys in the middle of the pack for this upcoming season.
7. Ohio - Ohio graduated everyone. Not really, but they did lose Matt Weller, who handled both kickoff and field goal duty last season, and did so respectably. Their punter, Grant Venham, is back, and he's now a sophomore so maybe he's learned things like how to kick farther. I will say that the Bobcats' punt coverage team was fantastic, holding opponents to only 3.3 yards per return. I'm not sure why this trend of good-punt-coverage-bad-kick-coverage exists, but Ohio was another prime example.
6. UMass - Whoa, UMass is in the top half of something! If you've been paying attention to Hustle Belt this offseason, you've probably heard of Colter Johnson, who's deservedly sitting on the Ray Guy Watch List for this season. Add that to the fact that they haven't graduated anyone in 12 years, and these guys are due to show an improvement in every facet of the game. Right? Yeah you're right, probably not. Either way, if the Minutemen let up another three return touchdowns, I'll buy each of the commenters of this post a pint of ice cream from Ben and Jerry's.
5. Ball State - Here's where we start to get to the "good" units. I hesitated putting Ball State in the Top 5, only because they lost both their field goal kicker AND their punter to NCAA ageism, but I couldn't put UMass in the Top 5 of anything just yet, so here we are. The Cardinals held opponents to one yard per punt return in 2012. Yep, just one yard. They also managed to have the best combined return yardage (punts plus kickoffs) in the MAC. If I knew what the hell was going on with the people who actually kick the ball, they might be even higher.
4. Bowling Green - Bowling Green feel a bit short of expectations last year, but you can't blame their kickers. Only 13% of kickoffs permanently went into the end zone, their punter knocked about 41 yards out per punt, and Tyler Tate, their probable field goal kicker this year, hit 70% of his tries last season. One of the better return averages in the conference last year coupled with the return of a stingy kick coverage squad puts the Falcons squarely in the Top 5 for 2013.
3. Northern Illinois - You know, you'd think maybe you don't need great special teams if you have a potential Heisman candidate and the guy who got my imaginary vote for conference Player of the Year last season. Luckily for NIU, they don't have to worry about either. Though they did lose their punter, Ryan Neir, that might not be a bad thing as Neir finished the season second-to-last in the conference in yards per punt. The Huskies were another phenomenal coverage team, letting up only 2 yards per punt return and just over 17 yards per kickoff. Uncertainty in coaching and punting leaves them at a certainly solid number three overall.
2. Toledo - Toledo is fun to watch. I hope they stay that way. Last season, Sophomore Jeremiah Detmer was the best kickoff man in the league last year as far as average length goes. Their returners combined had more touchdowns than any other unit in the conference, and almost had more average yards than anyone else. So why not number one? Well, they could have been a bit more stingy on kick coverage, and maybe they could have hit another field goal or two. They will be awesome again, don't worry.
1. Kent State - Obviously, because Dri Archer, but also because they're just a force on special teams overall. Yes, they lost Freddy Cortez from kickoffs and field goals. But Dri Archer! Few teams in all of football have a returner who puts enough fear into the opposing kicker to actually affect the kickoff. Kent State has that player. The Flashes also have the second-best returning punter and one of the best kick coverage teams in the MAC. Plus, there's a possibility April Goss could be kicking for Kent State this year, which is more than enough to put them over the top in my eyes. Number one: Your Kent State Golden Flashes.