Championship game: Central Michigan over Bowling Green
It's all about change in the MAC - coaching changes.
No conference underwent as much offseason transition, with five MAC schools hiring new coaches. The conference hadn't had this much coaching tumult since 2005, when the same number of schools switched coaches.
The lone school that saw its coach leave for a better job was Ball State, with Brady Hoke leaving for San Diego State. Veteran offensive coordinator Stan Parrish was promoted to take over for Hoke.
The other four schools parted company with their previous coach, with Bowling Green hiring former Tennessee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, Eastern Michigan tabbing Louisville defensive coordinator Ron English, Miami naming Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood and Toledo hiring Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Tim Beckman.
The new blood could help the MAC continue to grow solid quarterbacks. This is a league that has produced the likes of Marshall's Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, Miami's Ben Roethlisberger and Bowling Green's Josh Harris, among others. And with nine conference squads welcoming back last season's starter, there's a chance for MAC quarterbacks to be headliners once again following a season in which the conference posted a record four victories against Big Ten opponents.
The top quarterback in the league is Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, who needs 2,437 yards to pass Leftwich as the MAC's leading career passer.
Western Michigan's Tim Hiller is another good bet to put up big numbers; a 4,000-yard, 40-TD season is a possibility if a rebuilt receiving corps comes through. Akron's Chris Jacquemain and Bowling Green's Tyler Sheehan are others who have a legitimate shot at throwing for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Central Michigan QB Dan LeFevour. He has lifted the program to another level, guiding the Chippewas to consecutive bowl trips for the first time in school history. He ranks first in completions, attempts and total offense among active Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks. He has been the team's leading rusher each of the past two seasons and has a solid chance to finish second on the NCAA's career list for total offense. He needs 3,039 yards to pass third-place Colt Brennan (14,740) and 3,898 to pass second-place Graham Harrell (15,599). LeFevour has passed for 9,467 yards and 74 TDs and run for 2,235 yards and 32 scores. He and Vince Young are the only players to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Central Michigan LB Nick Bellore. He is a throwback player from a black-and-white era whose hard work and tenacity help mask any physical shortcomings. Bellore, a 6-foot-1, 241-pound junior, led the MAC in tackles and was a first-team all-league selection last season.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Akron QB Chris Jacquemain. Jacquemain, a senior, is entering his third season as a starter and must play like it for a program that needs a big season as it moves into a new stadium. Jacquemain has underrated skills, but he must cut down on his picks (a MAC-high 14 last season).
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Ohio LB Noah Keller. If the Bobcats are going to be as good as some analysts think, Keller must lead a spirited effort by the defense for a program that is at a crossroads under Frank Solich. Keller, a junior, made 104 tackles last season en route to earning second-team All-MAC honors.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Ball State QB Kelly Page. Page, a redshirt freshman from Texas, knows the offense and has talent. However, he will be hard-pressed to match the production and playmaking skills of Nate Davis - last season's MAC Offensive Player of the Year.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Central Michigan RB Bryan Schroeder. The Chippewas stripped off his redshirt in the sixth game of the season. Later in '08, he burned Western Michigan for 106 rushing yards. It was the only 100-yard rushing effort by a Central Michigan player all season. Now, Schroeder becomes the main man as a sophomore. Watch him shine.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Northern Illinois DE Brandon Bice. Though he started just one game last season, Bice impressed enough to earn third-team All-MAC honors. With Larry English off to the NFL, look for Bice to become a full-fledged star as a senior.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Akron RB DeVoe Torrence. Torrence, an Ohio State transfer, has a blend of size (6-1/215) and speed (4.4) rarely seen in MAC running backs. He'll team with another transfer in the backfield, former Louisville player Dale Martin, to provide the Zips with what should be a dynamic 1-2 punch.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Ball State LB Travis Freeman. Cardinals coach Stan Parrish has called the true freshman the "Nate Davis of this year's freshmen." Freeman (6-0/212) has speed to burn and can run sideline to sideline.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Eastern Michigan WR Jacory Stone. It's difficult to say any player in the MAC is overrated. But Stone is receiving some preseason all-league mentions based on his 88-catch effort last fall. But he averaged just 10.7 yards per grab and had just three touchdown receptions.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Toledo WR Stephen Williams. Williams is one of the best at his position in the MAC - 144 catches and 15 touchdown receptions in the past two seasons. But new coach Tim Beckman doesn't think Williams' skill set has been utilized properly; thus, expect Williams to get more opportunities this season.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Kent State's Doug Martin. He has a 19-39 mark in five seasons at Kent, and many felt he would be out of a job after last season. But Martin is back, getting what figures to be one last shot.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Akron. Zips coach J.D. Brookhart has compiled an all-star staff that includes former Pitt and Stanford coach Walt Harris as passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach and former Miami University coach Shane Montgomery as offensive coordinator. And Brookhart also hired former Colorado, Illinois and Northwestern defensive coordinator Vince Okruch as linebacker coach.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Central Michigan's Mike Bajakian. He pushes the buttons for a high-powered offense. In the past two seasons, CMU has tallied at least 30 points 16 times, at least 40 seven times and at least 50 three times. Bajakian is Dan LeFevour's quarterback coach, too.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Temple's Mark D'Onofrio. D'Onofrio, a former Penn State linebacker, is a rising star in the coaching ranks who understands how to match scheme with personnel.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Central Michigan at Bowling Green, Oct. 24. This shapes up as a preview of the MAC title game. The Chippewas have been the bellwether program in the MAC this decade, while the Falcons want to show they are back on track under new coach Dave Clawson. Keep an eye on the quarterback battle between CMU's Dan LeFevour and Bowling Green's Tyler Sheehan.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Miami. This has been an issue for several seasons in Oxford, as the RedHawks play a non-conference schedule that's too ambitious. This fall, Miami plays Kentucky, Boise State, Cincinnati and Northwestern. Good luck to new coach Mike Haywood.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Ball State. There is just one non-league game that looks un-winnable: at Auburn. But visits from North Texas and New Hampshire and a trip to Army are doable.
MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Coastal Carolina at Kent State, Sept. 3. That matchup begs this question: If a game is played and no one is there to watch it, did it really happen?