With MAC Media Day kicking off the conference’s season on Thursday in Detroit, it’s time to take a final look at some of the bigger stories around the league heading into fall camp, starting with...
1. 2016 is the Year of the Fleck
This season is a pivotal season for Western Michigan, as the team was selected to win the MAC as a result of the phenomenal run on the recruiting trail that P. J. Fleck has had since he arrived in Kalamazoo. With a couple of the top teams in the league expecting to experience a downturn (such as Toledo and Bowling Green), this could be the best chance for the Broncos to break through in the league.
However, if WMU doesn’t manage to win the MAC West with all the talent they have and their somewhat favorable schedule (they draw Akron, Buffalo, and Kent State out of the East this season), there needs to be questions asked about Fleck’s ability to develop players and coach them up.
2. NIU is still pretty good
The MAC West champions for six straight seasons (tied for the NCAA record) are flying a bit under the radar as they were tabbed to finish third in the division for 2016 for the second consecutive year behind WMU and Toledo. The Huskies return a lot for this season, with the only real question mark for them is the inexperience at center, right tackle, and outside linebacker.
There’s plenty of potential trip-ups on the schedule though, taking on Neu-look Ball State on the road to open conference play, then at Western Michigan and back home to take on a tough Central Michigan team. Then there’s the back-to-back weekday games against Bowling Green and Toledo, with the latter taking place at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.
3. A two-horse race in the East
Bowling Green and Ohio both received double-digit votes on Sunday to win the MAC East, with BGSU getting the edge in two votes. Tipping the scales in the Falcons’ favor was their experienced offensive line (which boasts the most starts by an offensive line in the country) and their talent at the skill positions. Their schedule looks really rough however, with games at Ohio, at Toledo, at NIU, and at Akron.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats are also an older team, with some inexperience at left tackle, free safety, and both corners. 2016 could be a big year for Frank Solich if they don’t at least win the MAC East in one of its weaker seasons, combined with how the rest of the league is outpacing the ‘Cats on the recruiting trail. Ohio’s schedule sets up a lot of traps for the team with games at Miami the week before hosting Bowling Green, as well as road contests at Toledo and Central Michigan.
4. The dark horses
Central Michigan and Toledo have the potential to squash Western Michigan’s hopes while Akron is a wild-card in the East despite coming off an 8-5 season. Central returns a lot of production on offense and is coming off of a 2015 season where it made things difficult on WMU and NIU. The team isn’t flawless though, with some youth at the skill positions on defense, and has to deal with a rough schedule, which includes the MAC opener against the Broncos, consecutive road games at NIU and Toledo, the game at Miami on a short week, and follows that up with a home meeting with Ohio.
Toledo, on the other hand, has to deal with a good bit of turnover this season with losses on both sides of the ball as well as a new head coach in Jason Candle. The Rockets also got the short end of the stick by drawing Bowling Green, Ohio, and Akron out of the East (the latter two are on weeknights with a road game at the Zips) and round out the season with weeknight games at NIU, against Ball State, and at Western Michigan. However, let’s not count out a team with Kareem Hunt to make plenty of noise in the fall.
While the media is really high on Akron (four first-place votes in the East plus a vote to win the MAC title), there’s a lot of stumbling blocks for the Zips. They have to replace a ton of production on defense and draw WMU, Ball State and Toledo out of the West in 2016. Then you have the issue of developing team chemistry when you have so many transfers (Akron has 32 on the roster), so we can only wait and see whether a program like this can be sustainable in the MAC.
Miami has the potential to be a really intriguing team in 2016, with the job that Chuck Martin has done on the recruiting trail since he arrived in Oxford and a really favorable MAC schedule with getting Ohio and CMU at home, with the Chippewas coming up on a short week, while it wraps up the season with an improving Ball State on a Tuesday night following a bye.
“When we got here, it was like we need everything, let’s recruit as many good players as we can,” Martin said in regards to recruiting in an interview Thursday. “But we’re now at the point we do have some needs... we’re being more specific, that’s kind of our focus moving forward.”
The RedHawks had a lot of turnover on the defensive side of the ball, however, and time will tell is the offensive line will improve with more experience and the graduate transfers that they have picked up. “Hopefully they’ll add something,” Martin said. “Not something in my experience I typically count on... if he becomes a starter, that’s great...”.