Despite losing their head coach to Wake Forest shortly after winning the 2013 MAC Championship, the Bowling Green Falcons seemed poised for a repeat in 2014.
They replaced Dave Clawson with offensive mastermind Dino Babers, whose Baylor-style offense elevated Eastern Illinois into an FCS power in two short seasons. They returned 13 starters in all, including Travis Greene (who smashed the Falcons' single season rushing record in 2013) and starting quarterback Matt Johnson, whom we named the best player in the MAC heading into this season. The media overwhelmingly favored the Falcons to win the MAC East again and repeat as MAC champions in 2013. Excitement was in the air of Bowling Green, Ohio heading into the 2014 season, and for good reason.
Then the Falcons got smashed 59-31 in their season opener at Western Kentucky this past Friday; a game in which they were favored by 7.5 points. The Falcons defense gave up over 700 yards of offense, and 40 first downs in the loss. The offense started painfully slow, and there were obvious kinks. Suddenly, many were worried about the Falcons' chances.
On Wednesday, more bad news came out for Bowling Green fans. Falcons' head coach Dino Babers announced Johnson was likely done for the season after suffering a hip injury in the fourth quarter of the WKU game.
Now that BG's without their star quarterback, in a new highly complex offensive system, and with a defense that has some serious flaws, it may be time to readjust our view of the MAC East landscape. It's no longer safe to say that Bowling Green is the clear favorite. In fact, there may be reason to doubt BG can win the division at all.
Who should be the favorite in the East right now? It's still too early to pick a favorite, in my opinion. Yes, BGSU's defense looked awful, and yes, losing Matt Johnson is a terrible blow to the Falcons, but it's still really early, and there are too many questions all around the East. One thing I do think we can all say with some level of certainty though, the MAC East just got a lot more interesting.
Akron was the dark horse favorite to win the East in the media poll this summer. Still way behind BGSU in first place votes, the Zips were the clear favorite to finish second. Terry Bowden's team took massive steps forward in 2013, winning its last three games of the year and finishing 5-7 on the season; the Zips best record in years. On Thursday the Zips looked phenomenal in its 41-0 win over Howard, but again, it was against Howard.
Kyle Pohl appears to have taken the next step as a quarterback, and very well could be the best quarterback in the MAC now with Johnson out. The Zips defense looked spectacular as well, shutting Howard out, and doing so in an impressive fashion. Justin March and Jatavis Brown give Akron one of the best linebacking corps in the MAC, and it should be a huge strength for them this season. But as great as Akron looked against an FCS team, the Zips couldn't really run the ball all too well. Jawon Chisholm may not be capable of being Akron's go-to back, and if he isn't, that's going to hurt Akron this fall.
Ohio lost a lot on offense, but did return eight starters on defense. That defensive unit looked good against Kent State in Week 1, holding the Golden Flashes to 31 yards rushing for the game. Kent State only scored twice, and one of those was the benefit of a short field given to the Golden Flashes thanks to an Ohio turnover.
On offense Derrius Vick looked good at quarterback for the Bobcats as well, but the running backs fumbled four times in the second half, which is a gigantic red flag moving forward. There's some issues there that will need to be addressed immediately if Ohio wants to be a factor in the MAC East race. Then of course, there's the issue of the Bobcats' recent crumbles in November. One thing really going for Ohio this fall: The 'Cats get Bowling Green, Akron and Buffalo at home this year.
Speaking of Buffalo, the Bulls were last year's MAC East runners up. People liked Buffalo as the second-best MAC East team heading into the season, but the Bulls struggled to put away Duquesne in Week 1. The defense was torched through the air for 322 yards and three touchdowns; though it did hold the Dukes to 51 yards rushing. On offense, Licata looked alright against an FCS defense, but certainly not great. Ron Willoughby gives Buffalo a true No. 1 wideout, but unless some other receivers step up, Buffalo's offense could be forced to become one-dimensional at points of the season.
Kent State put up a good fight against Ohio in Week 1. The Golden Flashes defense appeared to be just fine, in spite of some serious losses at all three levels. Colin Reardon looked great, having arguably the best performance of his career. The defense forced four second-half fumbles, but the offense, with no real rushing attack, was unable to put those to use. The defense will be alright, but unless Trayion Durham can come back and carry the load on the ground, there's aren't enough weapons around Reardon to give him a fair shot. The Flashes will pull off a few upsets along the way, but still have a long road to winning the east.
Same goes with Miami. The RedHawks put up a good fight against Marshall on Saturday, and Andrew Hendrix looks legit for them at quarterback, but there are still too many holes for Miami to make the jump from winless, to winning the MAC East. The offensive line is too small, and that was evident in the running game where Miami averaged 2.8 yards per carry. The defense looked surprisingly aggressive, getting after Rakeem Cato often in the second half. Miami will be better, but still won't be good enough to challenge for the MAC East title.
Lastly, there's UMass. The media picked the third-year FBS team to finish last in the East this year, and Saturday against Boston College, the Minutemen showed why. Their quarterbacking situation is still no better than it has been in previous seasons. The defense is still outmatched, and the team as a whole is too young. Factor in the fact that they lost their biggest offseason addition, Drew Harris, before the season began and it's hard to see the Minutemen finishing anywhere above sixth in the East, even with BG's woes.
Basically, the MAC East race is probably a four, maybe even five team race now. Luckily for Bowling Green, their MAC play is still a few weeks away, and who knows, the Falcons could be back on track by then. But for now, the rest of the MAC East's odds of getting to Detroit just went up significantly.