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2017 Mid-American Conference Football Preview: East Division

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Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

The MAC East wasn’t as strong as it has been in years past during the 2016 season as Ohio won the East with a 6-2 conference record (8-6 overall). That said, the Bobcats did give Western Michigan a scare in the title game (29-23) and heading into this season, the top couple of teams look primed to vie for the conference title once again.

Contenders

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QB Quinton Maxwell of the Ohio Bobcats. Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ohio Bobcats

Frank Solich’s group went back to the MAC* title game for the first time since 2011. Under Solich, the Bobcats have had just two losing seasons (2005, 2008) and have made eight bowl appearances. Solich has consistently found a way to win, particularly within the conference and you can expect more of the same in 2017.

Last year, the Bobcats used a dual-QB approach with Greg Windham and Quinton Maxwell. Windham moves on, but Maxwell is back and he’ll have the advantage of a hopefully healthier running backs corps after all three guys missed time last season. With an offensive line featuring three returning starters in front of them, the Bobcats should improve on the 168 yards per game they averaged on the ground last year. They do lose three of the top four wide receivers, but RB Papi White, who was the team’s 2nd leading receiver last year, could see more time at wideout this season.

Defensively, the big losses are DE Tarell Basham and LB Blair Brown, both of whom were NFL draft choices in April. The linebackers should be fine with both Quentin Poling and Chad Moore returning, it’s the front four that I have questions about. That said, the secondary loses just one starter and as long as they find a group up front that can get to the passer, they should have no problems coming close to last year’s 22.6 PPG allowed. The schedule is relatively easy with their two hardest conference games (Miami, Toledo) coming at home. Solich’s crew should surpass that win total. Over 7.5 wins

*(a previous version of this post misstated that the Bobcats returned to the C-USA title game. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. They returned to the MAC title game for the first time since 2011.)

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Wide receiver James Gardner #81 of the Miami (Oh) Redhawks. Credit: Joseph Garnett, Jr./Getty Images

Miami (OH) Red Hawks

This team was an amazing story last year, starting 0-6 before ripping off six straight victories to get to a bowl game. It took a missed extra point for them to fall in the St. Petersburg Bowl to Mississippi State, and there are 17 starters back from that squad.

Junior QB Gus Ragland was the engine behind that 6-1 stretch run as he completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 1,537 yards with 17 TDs and just one (!) INT in those seven games. He’s back under center behind a line that returns four starters from last year’s group. Aside from the loss of number three receiver Rokeem Williams, Ragland has all of his weapons back and they should easily improve upon the 22.8 PPG and 367.4 YPG they averaged last season.

The defense is a similar story in terms of returning talent with all three linebackers and three out of four secondary guys back including what might be the best pair of corners in the league in 1st team MAC selection Heath Harding and Deondre Daniels (17 PBU 5 INT combined). The biggest losses are on the defensive line where they lose both defensive ends in JT Jones and Austin Gearing, who combined for 10.5 sacks last year. They get the benefit of hosting the Zips, but do have to hit the road to take on the Bobcats on Halloween, which will likely be massive in the division race. Push 8 wins 

Bowl Teams

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Thomas Woodson #4 of the Akron Zips. Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Akron Zips

Terry Bowden has made a habit of building his Zips teams with major-college transfers in his six years at the helm and 2016 was certainly no different. Unfortunately, injuries to the running back and multiple defensive linemen derailed the hopes of a division crown. This year, more transfers are here looking to make an impact alongside plenty of returnees.

Senior QB Thomas Woodson is back (60.3% 2,079 yards 18 TD 6 INT) and he looks primed to start, though he could be pushed by Virginia transfer Nick Johns or redshirt freshman Kato Nelson. Regardless, the best news for the Zips is the return to health of former Ohio State transfer Warren Ball at running back. Ball was expected to do big things last year before being lost for the year in Week 2. This season, he’ll run behind a veteran offensive line (4 starters) and should live up to expectations. They lost their top two receivers, but former QB Tra’Von Chapman is joining that group and could provide a spark.

The run defense was atrocious last year thanks to the line injuries (224.8 YPG 5.1 YPC) and because of that, the defense overall suffered, allowing 33.8 PPG. This season, two starters return on the defensive line along with Pitt transfer Jamal Davis. Better health there should lead to better numbers especially with star LB Ulysses Gilbert (122 tackles 7.5 TFL 4 sacks) being joined by Miami (FL) transfer James King. The secondary does lose both starting corners which is a concern. They get the Bobcats at home, but they draw both Western Michigan and Toledo (both on the road) from the West and that might keep them from pushing seriously for the division. But, I think they beat five wins. Over 5 wins.

Rebuilding

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Bowling Green Falcons wide receiver Scott Miller #21. Credit: Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Bowling Green Falcons

Mike Jinks enters his second year with some good vibes after his team won three straight games to wrap up the 2016 season following a 1-8 start. This year, he’s got a returning QB and some good returning talent on both sides of the ball. This year could be another step in the right direction building off the end of last year.

Sophomore QB James Morgan (56.1% 2,082 yards 16 TD 15 INT) is back and with some experience under his belt, those numbers should improve. Two of the top three running backs are back, along with six of the top seven receivers, so plenty of weapons are at Morgan’s disposal. Just one problem: the offensive line. Only two starters return, which means it could take some time for the new group to coalesce. The quicker that happens, them more potent this unit will be.

The defense was a mess, particularly against the pass last year allowing opponents to complete 63.9 percent of their passes for an average of 273.3 YPG (38.3 PPG). Losing two corners would normally big a bigger worry in that department but, it’s hard to get much worse. Plus, they’ll get CB Clinton Stephens, who missed all of last year, back from injury so that should help. The linebacker group took a bit of a hit as well as OLB Trenton Greene and MLB Austin Valdez depart. There still some questions to answer here, but this group should be better than last season. The schedule does them no favors in trying to past the Vegas line of five wins though. Out of conference games against Michigan State, Northwestern, MTSU all on the road and conference road games against Miami, OH and Eastern Michigan are potentially all losses. Add homes games against Akron, Ohio and Toledo and it’s hard to see five victories. Under 5 wins.

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Justin Rankin #11 of the Kent State Golden Flashes. Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Kent State Golden Flashes

Kent State used four different QBs last season including converting one (Nick Holley) from receiver. That’s always going to make it tough to win football games and that was certainly the case for the Golden Flashes in 2016. This season, better health luck should help the production, but the schedule could have them fighting for three wins once again.

Holley returns and will likely start the year as the man under center. He’ll have his top three tailbacks at his disposal and that should make for a more potent ground attack (167.5 YPG last year). The question mark comes in the passing game as one wasn’t really generated last year due to all the injuries to the various QBs. Developing more of a rhythm with one guy should help that, but it remains to be seen how effective Holley can be (49.3% last year).

On defense, the losses are heavy as their top four tacklers are gone from last year’s unit. DT Jon Morgan-Cunningham (34 tackles 3.5 TFL 1 sack) is their leading returning defensive lineman, while Haynes will hope to get a return to form from CB Demetrius Monday, after a down year last year. The loss of so much production makes it difficult for me to predict an improvement in their per game stats, and the schedule doesn’t help. Out of conference against Clemson, Marshall and Louisville, followed by conference road trips to NIU, Ohio, WMU and Akron. It’s hard to look at their schedule and point out more than three potential wins. Under 3.5 wins. 

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Tyree Jackson #3 of the Buffalo Bulls. Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Buffalo Bulls

Last year’s Bulls team had one of the worst offenses in the country averaging just 16.5 PPG and 353.8 YPG largely due to the fact that they were replacing a four year starter at QB and half of their offensive line. This season, Lance Leipold’s group is much more experienced and should be much more competitive.

Sophomore QB Tyree Jackson had his struggles with accuracy in his first year under center (53.1% completions), but getting nearly a full year’s worth of starts should allow him to take a big step forward in his second year. The offensive line in front of him will be better with four starters returning. But, he’ll need to develop chemistry with a new group of top receivers as his top three targets from last year depart as well as last year’s top rusher. Junior tailback Jonathan Hawkins (74 carries 338 yards 4.6 YPC) should be able to capably fill the workhorse back role, but the questions about which receivers will step up remain. Nonetheless, the scoring should go up with a more experienced QB and a better line in front of him.

The defense’s Achilles heel last season was the run game as they allowed opponents to rush for 253.3 YPG en route to scoring 32.3 PPG. The defensive line loses a couple of starters from that unit, but it’s hard to get much worse at stopping the run than they were last season. Plus, they have an extremely productive group of linebackers in 2nd team MAC selection Khalil Hodge, Ishmael Hargrove and Jarrett Franklin (301 tackles 11.5 TFL 4 sacks). The secondary is experienced as well losing just one starter and I’d expect improvement across the board from this unit. The Bulls draw WMU and NIU out of the West (both at home) and face road games against East foes Miami and Akron. They end the year with the Bobcats at home. The out of conference slate has tough Minnesota and Army teams on the road. It’s hard to see the four wins necessary to beat the over. Under 3.5 wins.

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