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Football Sunday: What’s this? A race for the East crown?

All this talk about the MAC West, but what about the division w/ the reigning MAC champs?

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-South Alabama vs Bowling Green Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

When Ken Mather from the Mid-American Conference asked what they think the MAC’s final standings would look like at season’s end, Western Michigan was the consensus. Out of 26 submissions, 19 had them winning the West and the conference title. Two people picked Northern Illinois to win it all, two said Toledo and one person had Central Michigan. Our editor, Alan Rucker, has Akron over NIU in the championship game and the last ballot goes to Bowling Green.

That’s one vote for the defending MAC champs and 19 to the team that hasn’t been to the championship game since 2000. There’s plenty of context missing from that statement, but it’s still a weird thought. The West division has received a lot of attention, and not always because of WMU. Northern Illinois going to the MAC Championship has become less of an expectation and more of a norm. Central Michigan has been through a lot with Coach Bonamego’s cancer treatment and the death of Derrick Nash, and comes into the season with big (and reasonable) hopes. Toledo won 10 games last year, and should continue to impress this year.

But when the look at the East, I smell uncertainty. The Falcons held only a 2-point lead over Ohio in the polls and one more first place vote than them. It’s basically a coin flip between those two at the top, Akron being the obligatory team to be third in the weaker division that screams "well what about us?!" which is a fun thought project.

Casting a ballot for the MAC media polls, for me, was both a great privilege and huge, stupid reminder that none of us really know what these teams are going to look like until September rolls around and it’s all one big guessing game where we can’t do much else until then. Waiting sucks. As we wait, we can only assume a few things and ask more questions about what’s to come. After devoting a lot of time to some West teams heading into the season, it’s time we take a look at the other side and see that there’s a lot of doubt thrown their way, and we could be in for more of a race to Detroit than we anticipate.

What Bowling Green has

It’s been talked about time and time again about what the defending MAC champions don’t have on their team in 2016. Losing that sort of talent and leadership with a new coach that’s getting his first taste of collegiate head coaching at the Division 1 level can be scary for just about any team, and that’s completely justified. Does that mean picking BGSU in this situation is irrational?

When people think ‘new coaching staff’, the trigger thought is ‘new playbook’. BGSU picked up where they left off when they hired Dino Babers and went to the MAC championship in his two years, second and third straight trips to Detroit for the fan base. Mike Jinks was hired away from Texas Tech, whose system is similar in the sense that both up-tempo teams ran over 80 plays per game, and wants his unit to be "Falcon Faster". Jinks hints that the offense will keep it on the ground more this year than next year, but throwing the ball is going to make this offense work in the long run.

And they have a quarterback that’s been able to do that before. The first year Babers came to BG, Matt Johnson got hurt in the first game and James Knapke had to pick it up and go. He picked things up, went 5-0 against the East, including a 31-13 win at Ohio, and went on to the championship game in Detroit. Now, they weren’t able to beat anybody from the West (5-3 MAC record) or NIU in Detroit, but Knapke had 368 yards with 2 TD in the Camellia Bowl, and was named MVP in the win over South Alabama.

If BGSU can be just good enough without the flashy playmakers that they had last year and their defense do better than giving up over 400 yards per game, this team might be headed towards NIU territory.

Last year’s East game to watch: Akron vs. Ohio

Many had that one circled down on their calendars. The winner of this one, they said, would win the East. Well, neither of them won the East. (Ohio won 14-12). Ohio had a rough October with their pile of injured players, and Akron’s 5-game win streak came in a little too late to salvage them from from starting 1-3 in MAC play. The Zips and Bobcats would both come out with 5-3 MAC records while BGSU shamed the importance of a game played on October 3 by going 7-1 against the MAC.

This year, they meet in the regular season finale: Tuesday, November 22 at Peden Stadium.

Both are expected to have solid defensive units, but Akron’s could be more fragile having to replace key pieces, like Jatavis Brown, and Ohio has some experience coming back on both sides of the ball. Akron fans saw Tommy Woodson have a solid first year as the starting quarterback, but having an entirely new offensive line in front of him could change the way he and the skilled players around him work.

How much can Miami screw things up?

One good win for Miami is a moment that somebody else has to crawl themselves out from. It’d be a lot of fun to watch a young team go on and win it all, but it’s hard to place bets on the RedHawks when they have 45 true and redshirt freshmen on their roster— 38 sophomores, 15 juniors, 11 seniors— which doesn’t bring in high expectations from the outsiders quite yet.

Home MAC games for the RedHawks include: Ohio, Kent State, Central Michigan and Ball State. The only team in the East that they face in November is Buffalo. Watching really young teams like this, I like to hope that they can salvage two wins in the final third of the season, and if they're good, or even just lucky, enough to take anything early on from other East foes, it'll make things much more entertaining for everybody involved.

More than anything else this year, I’d be looking to see how the offense makes its progressions throughout the season. A win or two in November might not mean a whole lot for their title chances if they end up finishing, say, 3-5 in the MAC, but that would be at least some improvement after posting 2-6 in Chuck Martin’s first two seasons in Miami. And I like to think that they won’t be the team to be upsetting to watch like they have in recent memory. At some point, Billy Bahl is going to win a big game in the division and it’ll be a big moment of confidence for him if he is able to pull of an upset as a sophomore. It’ll be a big testament to their offense if their running backs are able to average near/over 100 yards per game with regularity. It’ll be upsetting for the opposing defenses if the offensive line (5 of 20 are upperclassmen) is able to give the skilled players opportunities to make plays.

There’s a lot of "if"s in preseason jargon, and it’s annoying. Unfortunately, we can’t be proven anything in the summertime. September, please hurry.