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MAC East Preview

   by Tom Stryker - 08/27/2006

We're less than a week away from the start of the 2006 College Football Season. MAC Specialist Tom Stryker takes an inside look at the East Conference.

Akron Zips
When you talk about the potential Mid-American Conference football champion for this fall, your discussion better include Akron. A surprise MAC titlist a year ago, Coach J.D. Brookhart has nearly everyone back.

Zips fans are buzzing. They took some 15,000 to the GMAC Bowl at the end of last season, but came away with a 38-31 setback at the hands of Memphis. The Zips earned their way to the GMAC Bowl by edging Northern Illinois, 31-30, in the MAC championship game.

Akron liked the taste of success and is anxious to get going again this fall.

The Zips will be good - darn good - but face a tough schedule. Akron opens at Penn State, then travels to North Carolina State. Later it goes to Cincinnati and must visit Toledo in conference action.

Luke Getsy returns for his senior season at quarterback. He passed for 3,455 yards and 23 touchdowns a year ago and expects to continue his climb through the Akron record book.

One of the only apparent holes on the Zips offense is the lack of experienced running backs. Brett Biggs, who gained 1,230 yards last fall, is gone and his productivity will be hard to replace. Sophomore Dennis Kennedy (45 carries last season) appears to be the heir apparent for Biggs slot.

One other area for concern is at wide receiver, where the top three pass catchers a year ago all are gone. Junior Jabari Arthur is the best of the returnees (he gained 180 yards on catches in the GMAC bowl), and tight end Kris Kasparek (27 receptions in 2005) could help.

There is a ton of experience, however, on the offensive line. All five interior line starters return to protect Getsy and hopefully open some holes for the relatively inexperienced running backs. The best of the bunch may be left tackle Tim Crouch, who has made 33 starts.

With at least nine starters back, the defense looks sound and could improve upon some fancy numbers posted during the 7-6 2005 campaign. Last year Akron finished 16th in the nation in pass defense and 32nd in total defense.

Nose guard Kiki Gonzalez, along with end Jermaine Reid helped the Zips tie for the top spot in the MAC with 31 sacks.

All of last year’s starting linebackers return, along with seven of the top eight defensive backs. Davanzo Tate, a West Virginia transfer, and leading tackler John Mackey (a junior) may be the best of the bunch.

One of the areas receiving the most attention in preseason workouts is the special teams area, where the Zips lost their punter, placekicker and return men from last season. Sophomore Andy Hildreth may get the nod at punter, while junior Matt Domonkos seems to be the most consistent place kicker. Domenik Hixon, who returned both punts and kickoffs last fall, is gone.

At 13-11 entering his third season, Brookhart knows that record will get better this year. Conference action opens for the Zips on Sept. 16 at Central Michigan.

Bowling Green Falcons
A whole host of problems beset Bowling Green’s football program in 2005. The final 6-5 tally was very un-Falcon like. Even though Bowling Green tied for the East Division crown, it wasn’t a happy season for the Falcons.

First, quarterback Omar Jacobs was hurt and didn’t play much during a 1-4 losing run late in the season. The Falcons dropped their final game to Toledo, 44-41, in double overtime.

Head coach Gregg Brandon entered last season with a 20-6 record (now 26-11), so you know it wasn’t a typical year for Bowling Green. Jacobs departed early for the NFL, only 10 starters are on hand and the Falcons play a remarkably strange schedule that has them away from home for eight games.

A recipe for disaster?

Not the case if you listen to those close to the Bowling Green program. They have come to expect success. But Brandon and his staff know that most skilled positions have to be replaced, there is major work to do along the line and the defense has to be retooled. Not only will the defense be young, but it must improve upon the 26.7 points per game alllowed in 2005!

Back to some good news.

Sophomore Anthony Turner is blessed with plenty of talent. Filling in for Jacobs last fall, he completed 61 percent of his passes for nearly 500 yards. That’s one spot filled.

But the top two pass catchers are gone (Charles Sharon and Steve Sanders), so Turner must look to sophomore Corey Partridge (23 catches in 2005) and senior Ruben Ruiz (11 catches) to fill those shoes.

And don’t look now, but the top two running backs from last season are gone too. B.J. Lane and P.J. Pope accounted for more than 1,100 rushing yards. Who will become the featured running back is at best a guess at this point. Junior Dan Macon could get the nod.

There are, however, a host of proven performers on the offensive line. And those veterans, like Derrick Markray and Kory Lichtensteiger, have to do yeoman duty until the skilled positions find their niche in the offense. In fact, eight of the top 10 offensive linemen from a year ago return - and that will help the Falcons.

Only five starters return on the defensive side of the Bowling Green lineup. Most of the strength is in the defensive line and at linebacker. And that’s a good thing because Bowling Green gave up nearly 175 rushing yards a game, 86th in the nation.

End Devon Parks, tackle Brad Williams and linebacker Terrel White are the most experienced of the bunch. White led the Falcons in 2005 with 100 tackles.

The defensive backfield will be new. However, Deaudre Perry, a junior, is back at safety. And sophomore Antonio Smith is back at corner.

The news isn’t much better on special teams where new kickers and return players have to be established.

Still, BG is expected to compete and most will be surprised if a winning record isn’t posted. Included in the murderous eight games away from home are road battles at Ohio State and Wisconsin (at Cleveland Browns Stadium). The Falcons also play MAC toughies Akron and Toledo on the road.

Buffalo Bulls
Offense may sell tickets, but defense wins games. And if Buffalo is going to escape the basement of the East Division of the Mid-American Conference it will have to grow up on defense - and fast.

New coach Turner Gill has only five starters back on the defense from last year’s 1-10 Bulls team. And those starters will have to learn his new system. Gill came to Buffalo after a year in Green Bay. That followed a long stint as an assistant at the University of Nebraska.

And Gill gets to start his first season knowing that Buffalo may be playing the toughest schedule in its history. Buffalo’s non-conference schedule includes games at Auburn, at Boston College and at Wisconsin. If that’s not tough enough, the Bulls will meet conference toughies Northern Illinois, Akron and Bowling Green all on the road, too.

Gill replaces Jim Hofher, who was released with one year left on his contract.

There are bright spots for the Bulls, including seven returning starters on the offensive side, but there is a sizeable hill to climb before the Bulls can be competitive with the MAC’s best.

One bright spot may be quarterback Drew Willy. Only a sophomore, Willy completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,481 yards a year ago. But as a freshman he only threw six touchdown passes (compared to 12 interceptions).

There is plenty of good news in the offensive backfield as well. Leading rusher Steven King (532 yards) returns, along with Jared Patterson (374 yards). In addition, senior Chris McDuffie, who sat out the entire 2005 campaign with an injury is back in the fold and looks strong.

Another positive is in the receiving corps where the top three pass catchers from last season return. Brett Hamlin (38 catches), Chad Upshaw (37 catches) and Evan Wallace (25 catches) all expect to build on those numbers during the 2006 season.

A relatively new offensive line will be learning its third new system in as many years. Center Jamey Richard and sophomore Jeff Niedermier are the only returnees to that unit.

The bulk of the work then, falls on the shoulders of a young defense, one that ranked 84th in the nation against scoring (29.7) and 99th in the nation against the run (189.6 yards per game). And the season will start with no veterans on the interior line. All the starters have departed and the line will be the singular biggest question mark on the team during 2006.

Four of the top six linebackers are in camp and will hold the early key to Bulls fortunes. Ramon Guzman, a senior, and Jeff Bublavi, who started 10 games last year, are the best of the ‘backers.

The Buffalo secondary was a bright spot last fall, finishing ninth in the country against the pass (173.6 yards per game). Juniors Kareem Byrom and Jesse Imes will man the safety spots.

The Buffalo special teams suffered some losses, too. Punter Ben Woods is back, but a new placekicker is needed and a new return specialist. The graduated Dave Dawson was the primary kickoff and punt returner for Buffalo.

Gill will get his first test as a head coach on Aug. 31 when the Bulls host Temple.

Kent State Golden Flashes
Is it realistic that a team can go from the basement to the Mid-American Conference East Division title? Many around Kent, Ohio, think that’s exactly what the Golden Flashes may do in 2006.

After a bitter 1-10 season last year, Coach Doug Martin is chomping at the bit for his third campaign with the Flashes (6-16). Five of those 10 losses were by a combined 27 points and all the experience coming back this year could turn those tables around.

There is plenty of reason for optimism - especially when Kent State fans look at a roster with nine starters back on both sides of the ball.

There is also a better schedule than many MAC teams face. Kent does host Minnesota in non-conference action, and it does have to travel to Virginia Tech, but the other two non-conference foes are Army and Temple. Another bright spot on the schedule is that Kent hosts Ohio University, another team with division title aspirations.

The offense gets junior Michael Machen back at quarterback. Machen posted huge numbers a season ago, completing 200 passes for 2,078 yards and 11 touchdowns. One area that he must improve in is throwing interceptions. He was picked 18 times a year ago.

The Golden Flashes had one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation a year ago. Kent averaged only 45.9 yards per game - 117th in the nation. That part of their attack could be much stronger in 2006. All the top rushers are back, including Jerry Flowers (304 yards), but look for Michigan State transfer Tony Howard and incoming freshman Eugene Jarvis to bypass any of last year’s incumbents.

The receiving corps is talented and intact from last fall. The threesome of Najah Pruden, Marcus Hill and Cameron Bobb (three of the top four receives from last year) combined a year ago for 89 catches and more than 1,200 yards.

It will be up the Kent State offensive line to give Machen time to throw and to open holes for the highly-touted new running backs. Nine of last year’s top 10 offensive linemen return - and seven of them top the scales at 300 pounds or more, making it one of the biggest groups in the MAC.

Despite some heavy graduation losses, many expect Kent State’s defensive lines to be near the top in the conference. End Daniel Muir leads the returnees, but Colin Ferrell and Pittsburgh transfer Damian Matuschek will help.

The linebacking corps will be solid despite the loss of Jon Sessler and Andre Kirkland.

And, the entire defensive backfield returns for the Golden Flashes. Safety Fritz Jacques may be the best of the bunch, Jack Williams, Usama Young, Andre Kirkland and Rico Murray are all better with last season under their belts. In addition to the above group, Andre Kirkland, a solid tackler last season has been moved from his linebacking spot to free safety.

On special teams, Kent State has plenty of holes to fill. It must find a replacement for the more-than-solid Josh Brazen, who averaged 42.4 yards per punt a year ago. They must also replace field goal kicker Travis Mayle, who was 8 for 11 last season. Shawn Bayes and Shawn Lewis, who shared kickoff returns in 2005, both are back for another season, but punt returner Derrick Bush is gone.

Kent opens the season at home in a Thursday night (Aug. 31) meeting with Minnesota, then travels to Army before beginning conference play.

Miami Ohio RedHawks
If you like streaks, Miami’s (Ohio) RedHawks, have a host of successful ones.

First of all, the RedHawks have posted 12 straight winning seasons (fifth longest in the nation); they have won or shared the MAC East title three straight years; and Miami is 18-1 over current MAC East rivals in the past four seasons.

But second-year coach Shane Montgomery knows he and his staff have plenty of work to do if those streaks are going to grow. Coming off a 7-4 season and a share of the East crown, Miami is in a strange place - not being favored to win their division. Graduation has decimated the RedHawks, who have only five returning starters total - on offense and defense combined. That could spell trouble for a school that must face Northwestern, Purdue, Syracuse and Cincinnati in non-conference play - all but Northwestern on the road.

Those are not collegiate gridiron giants, but Miami is in a strange position this year - looking for starters everywhere.

On offense, quarterback Josh Betts must be replaced. Betts passed for 3,178 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. The three-way race at signal caller is between junior Mike Kokal, sophomore Jared Elliott and redshirt frosh Daniel Raudabaugh.

Whoever wins that job will have to be introduced to an offensive line that loses four starters from a season ago. Graduated are center Todd Londot, guard Nate Bunce, tackle Mark Kracium and tight end Dan Tyler.

Rebuilding that line will be a priority because holes will be needed for diminutive running back Brandon Murphy, who hopes to improve upon his 107-yard-per-game average from 2005.

One sure strong point for Montgomery and Miami is the collection of talent he has in his receiving corps. Five of the top six pass catchers return, with senior Ryne Robinson clearly the headliner. Robinson caught 75 passes in 2005 for 1,119 yards and eight touchdowns. Josh Williams also returns. He averaged more than 16 yards a catch for his 19 receptions last fall.

Miami was 20th in the nation in scoring a year ago (33.7) and 15th in passing (291.6 yards per game). Those numbers will be hard to match this fall.

On the defensive side of the Miami lineup, only two starters return - defensive end Carig Mester and free safety Joey Card. Last year a solid Miami defense was +13 in turnovers - fifth in the nation. The D will be hard pressed to match last year’s numbers.

Senior Dontae Wright has the most experience of a depleted linebacking unit.

On special teams, field goal kicker Todd Soderquist (19 for 27) has graduated, but punter Jacob Richardson (38.4) does return. The RedHawks are in good hands with Robinson returning punts. However, leading kickoff returner Ryan Redd has graduated.

The rugged schedule begins on Thursday, Aug. 31, at home against Northwestern. Miami will benefit from playing its first two MAC games at home - Sept. 16 against Kent State and Oct. 7 against Northern Illinois.

Ohio University Bobcats
Many around Athens, Ohio, think the honeymoon is over. And for Frank Solich, the second-year coach at Ohio University, the time is now.

Solich, the former six-year head coach at Nebraska, returned to his home state last year to lead the Bobcats. But a 4-7 record wasn't what he expected. Solich went into his first year with only six starters and he put in the third offensive system his players encountered in as many years.

The results were predictable. With a young team, lacking in speed as well as experience, the Bobcats only scored 17.5 points a game - 105th in the nation.

But Solich knows that things will be better this time around. He has 18 starters back to launch his second season - and he recruited both speed and toughness.

His Bobcats don't have to play Toledo or Central Michigan in the East Division, and their non-conference schedule is manageable. Ohio plays Tennessee-Martin, Rutgers, Missouri and Illinois outside the conference.

Unlike many MAC teams, Ohio won't be built around a quarterback. Their starter, likely to be incumbent Austen Everson, will be challenged by junior Brad Bower. Last year, Everson only completed 47.7 percent of his passes (only three touchdowns) so a lot of improvement is necessary.

But the Bobcats do have junior Kalvin McRae back at tailback. McRae is the real deal, and he gained 1,153 yards last season and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Ohio needs him to have another strong year if a bowl-eligible record is to be achieved. Voncarie Owens also returns, he ran for 228 yards in limited action, but did break one 75-yard touchdown run.

There is more good news for the offense. A number of key receivers return, especially Scott Mayle and Justin Fitgerald, the top two pass-catchers in 2005. Mayle, a speedster, grabbed 21 passes in the run-oriented offense, averaging nearly 17 yards a catch. Fitzgerald caught 19, averaging 12.4.

The best news for the offense may be in the strength of the offensive line. At least a half-dozen linemen who helped Ohio average 174.1 yards on the ground a year ago (30th in the nation) return. Matt Coppage, a tackle, along with center J.J. Knabb and guard Matt Miller are expected to anchor that offensive unit.

Nine starters also return to the defense, a unit that has to have major improvement for the Bobcats to be successful. Last season, Ohio didn't rank better than 80th among Division 1 teams in any major defensive category.

All three linebackers return, with Matt Muncy hoping to improve upon his 114 tackles from a season ago - best in the MAC. His running mates Michael Graham and Tyler Russ also are back.

Only defensive end Seth Ream is gone from the top eight defensive linemen so that unit should be a solid one, too. The leaders of that defensive line are likely to be sixth-year senior nose tackle Shane Yates, along with tackle Landon Cohen and Jameson Hartke.

In the defensive backfield, Solich can count on seven of his top eight players from last fall, along with Virginia Tech transfer Michael Hinton. Junior Todd Koenig will be the safety, playing with veterans T.J. Wright and cornerback Marcquis Parham.

Special teams are getting plenty of attention in preseason camp, as punt return man Dion Byrum is gone. But Mayle is back to return kickoffs. Last year he averaged 27.2 yards per return, 18th in the nation. Matthew Miller handled both punts and field goals and he has to be replaced.

Ohio is thought to be a solid contender in the East. And if the defense improves, the Bobcats should be in the thick of it. Ohio has to be ready early, as three of its first four games are on the road, including the conference opener Sept. 9 at tough Northern Illinois.

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