To be good on one side of the ball, a team must work together in multiple areas. Say we're debating about somebody's defense, and we know that talking about very basic statistics like sacks and interceptions just aren't enough. The nose guard lines up on the center's weak-side shoulder with an assignment to get over to the B gap, making two offensive linemen to open up a hole for the running back to go up the middle. The linebacker wants this to happen, because he's responsible for that A gap, right where the running back could be headed. If he notices that hole has been plugged, he'll have to go to the left or right, and maybe there's an end or a safety that's containing the outside. If that NG doesn't do his part, then that might throw the LB off his rhythm, or the LB not doing his part leaves the players that were going to get the carrier on his cutback side without the stop that they would've had if everybody worked together.
Of course, that's a very simple view of how detailed aspects of the game work, but we know how pieces have to work cohesively just to get to the next play. Having talent is great, but sometimes depth is the difference. A balanced back might give that defense more problems than somebody who's 5-foot-8 and weighs around 180 pounds. At that point, we're not even talking about a run up the middle, and the defense also has a different play call to force the running back inside rather than getting him to bounce outside.
Looking at these units also takes college experience into consideration. Maybe Riley Neal is a better athlete than Brogan Roback, but Roback is entering his third season with the same playbook while Neal is coming off of a [truthfully] decent freshman year, but is losing his top receiver. Ball State still has their offensive coordinator, Joey Lynch, but Roback has had the luxury of having more time to study the opposing defenses and potentially mature into a better quarterback than what he was as, like Neal, the top-rated recruit in his signing class.
Now, let's get dirty.
Top 5: WMU, CMU, NIU, Toledo, EMU
Question mark: Ohio
More than any other position, the one starting player in this position carries the bulk in these rankings. Every once in a while, Zach Terrell comes out for Tom Flacco to run the ball, but Flacco might be able to pass the ball a little bit more this year. Cooper Rush might be the best NFL prospect in this position and impressed many last year as he was second in the MAC with 3,848 pass yards (25 TD, 11 INT) without Titus Davis. A healthy Drew Hare could spoil things for the West, missing the rest of the season as he went down with an ACL tear against Toledo; picked off only six times as a 2-year starter. Brogan Roback only had one receiver break 500 yards last year (Eddie Daugherty 37 receptions), but he has potential to have big days.
JD Sprague comes into the season with 21 games played and eight starts under his belt, and should be QB1 in his final season with the Bobcats. The bonus for him is that there's plenty of talent surrounding him.
Click here to read more about this year's MAC quarterbacks.
Top 5: Toledo, WMU NIU, Ohio, Ball State
Question marks: EMU, Miami
I'll take Kareem hunt over any back in the MAC on any given Saturday (er, Tuesdays or Wednesdays too. Sometimes Thursday. You get the point.) All five teams I've mentioned have depth at the position, at least 2-deep. WMU would have taken the top spot if incoming freshman Matt Falcon wasn't coming off of a high school season with a pair of knee injuries. Alas, WMU's group of running backs are talented with Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin (MAC PoY 2014). The only real concern I have is that RB coach Mike Hart left for Syracuse. I like what NIU's been able to accomplish with both Joel Bouagnon and Jordan Huff (combined 5.38 yards/carry). Huff isn't on the roster, but NIU's consistently one of the best rushing teams in the conference, and I'm confident that the next RB2 will be just as fine as Huff was. A.J. Ouellette is a top-tier back in the MAC, and Papi White had a promising true freshman year. Ball State's 1-2 punch includes Darian Green and James Gilbert, but Teddy Williamson might be asked to help out in short-yardage situations.
I'd be very curious to see if Breck Turner doesn't make the two-deep to play along with Shaq Vann. With the state of their OL (123 combined starts), it could be an impressive group, but for now it's too many "if"s to confidently bet on. The RedHawks return both Alonzo Smith and Maurice Thomas as sophomores. Since 2008, the team has only averaged over 100 yards per game in just two seasons, including last year where they finished with 129.7.
WIDE RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS
Top 5: Ohio, Toledo, CMU, NIU, WMU
Question marks: BGSU, Akron
Yes, I know who Corey Davis is; he's easily the best WR in the conference and one of the nation's best. I also know that Michael Henry is WR2 on the Broncos with Daniel Braverman in the NFL, and Henry was third on the team last year with 18 catches. Ohio's receivers in Sebastian Smith and Jordan Reid aren't praised nearly enough, and they both serve as big 6-foot-3 targets, as does Brendan Cope at 6-foot-2, Troy Mangen (TE) at 6-foot-5, and potentially Elijah Ball at 6-foot-1 who was redshirted last year as a freshman. I'd hate to obsess over height, but there aren't that many defensive backs with that kind of height to continually cover the tall throws. Toledo loses Alonzo Russell, but still keep Corey Jones (led with 55 rec.) and Cody Thompson (led with 825 yards). I'm also a big fan of tight end Michael Roberts, who could finish his senior season with back-to-back First Team All-MAC seasons. Cooper Rush is obviously comfortable with the receivers he has to throw to, and they could have a slam dunk if 6-foot-6 Austin Stewart ends up making big plays in small doses.
All things considered, I think the Falcons have a pretty decent receiving corps, even without Roger Lewis. And Gehrig Dieter. And Ryan Burbrink. And Derek Lee. And Travis Greene out of the backfield. And Robbie Rhodes. They could have a good offense this year, but will it be enough to take care of the East and win their crucial road games? Jerome Lane switched from linebacker to receiver and finished last season with over 20 yards per reception for Akron. They return Austin Wolf, who caught 10 balls for 212 yards last year, and add a 5-foot-8 transfer in JoJo Natson (Utah State).
Top 5: Toledo, BGSU, NIU, WMU, EMU
Question mark: Akron
Ruben Carter was only around for one year, playing center as a Florida State transfer. The group didn't allow a sack until November, and return everybody except for him. If they crumble, it could be due to Tom Manning (OL coach) following Matt Campbell to Iowa State. BGSU's OL is full of upperclassmen, and is one of the most experienced OLs in the nation.
Akron has one OL senior on their roster, and I wouldn't doubt it if Michael Casimos didn't see too much of the field. Moreover, they have to replace the entire starting five up front this year. That's not to say it can't be done, because Toledo was in a very similar position last year; this just seems like it'll be a group that'll have growing pains as the players develop into 2017 and 2018.
Top 5: Akron, Ohio, CMU, Toledo, Buffalo
Question marks: EMU, Kent State
Jamal Marcus might be one of the best defensive talents int he MAC, previously played at Ohio State. Se'Von Pittman is also an OSU transfer to play on the other side of the DL. But wait, there's more; Jelani Hamilton is a graduate transfer from Miami (FL). Akron's cherry-picking of defensive players worked for them last year, and they'll need this formula to work to help replace what Cody Grice and Rodney Coe have been able to do. Ohio's DL is full of senior starters including Tarell Basham, who had 5.5 sacks in 2015. Tom Strobel is a new face, graduate transfer from Michigan, and adds size up the middle (6-foot-5, 280+ pounds). Buffalo seems like a very average squad overall, but they provide plenty of experience at this position, and Torey Hendrick might be a gem of a JUCO addition, an Chris Ford could plug up the middle as he's just north of 300 pounds. Speaking of transfers, Toledo's got one at DE with Jhonny Williams from Notre Dame.
Pat O'Connor missed all of last year, Jeremiah missed most of 2015 with injuries for EMU. Both come back, including Joe Keels who transferred from Nebraska. This is a great opportunity for them to make the new 4-2-5 system work to their advantage, and already had promising talent last year. Kent State loses Nate Terhune, but have some talent staying with Chris Fairchild and Jon Cunningham.
Top 5: BGSU, Ball State, Ohio, Kent State, Toledo
Question mark: Akron
It's very possible that Austin Valdez (MAC-best 144 tackles last year) turns out to be an NFL Draft pick, whether he leaves Bowling Green this season or stays for his senior year. BGSU also has another All-MAC performer in Trenton Greene (combined 16.5 TFL). Dorian Hendrix is a sophomore that adds depth, Kentucky transfer. The Bobcats are more top-heavy with junior Quentin Poling and Blair Brown, but must replace Jovon Johnson and Chad Moore will hopefully improve against the pass. Ball State loses Ben Ingle, but returns three experienced LBs (Zack Ryan, Aaron Taylor, Sean Wiggins) that all enter their senior seasons.
I expect Akron to do well on defense, it's more of a lack of experience in this position and having to replace Jatavis Brown, Dylan Evans and Darryl Monroe, the team's top three tacklers from last year. It wouldn't surprise me if at least one of Brian Bell or Ulysses Gilbert had All-MAC seasons.
Top 5: Kent State, NIU, Ball State, Buffalo, Miami
Question mark: Toledo
You can't ignore Kent State here. As bad as they've been since 2012, there's still reason to acknowledge that they've been one of the better teams at defending the pass. Najee Murray was a solid pickup from Ohio State, and able to breakup nine passes while Demetrius Monday was a First Team All-MAC performer with six interceptions. They've also got Nate Holley returning at free safety (2nd in MAC with 141 tackles) and Juantez McRae showed why he was a big part of their 2015 signing class. While the Huskies have an All-American in Shawun Lurry (9 INT), the Huskies have some roster turnover here. That doesn't make QBs want to throw to his side of the field, in any case. Ball State brings experience to the table and could make their West battles more interesting.
The Rockets do have one of the MAC's finest safeties in DeJuan Rogers (11 pass breakups), but lose Cheatham Norrils, Chaz Whittaker and others, but the upperclassmen that should be starting are all 6-foot or taller, not to mentioned pretty talented.