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MAC Conference Preview (West Division)

   by Matt Fargo - 08/11/2009

Starting off the MAC East Preview I mentioned that there is a lot of parity in the conference and that did not only pertain to the East Division. The West has seen teams rise and fall and then rise again. Last year in was Ball St. going 8-0 in the MAC and winning the West. Prior to that, Central Michigan won back-to-back crowns after Toledo did the same thing in 2004 and 2005. The conference was realigned in 2005 to try and move some of the stronger teams into the weaker East Division and that was a great plan as it has caused the titles to come down to the final weeks for a majority of the teams. The West is a little top heavy this year but don’t worry, there will be upsets.

Central Michigan Chippewas 8-5 SU, 5-7 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: From top to bottom, Central Michigan is the class of not only the West but of the entire MAC. That would normally mean a runaway title but the Chippewas do not have an easy road as the schedulemakers did them no favors as explained later. Dan LeFevour is the best quarterback in the conference and one of the best in the country and should get some Heisman consideration. The offense is explosive but the defense returns nine starters to a unit that finished 104th in the country last season. That could be good or bad as it may mean another average season or it could mean vast improvement. Either way, Central Michigan is the team to beat. Whether the Chippewas run the table depends on a lot of factors.

Schedule: This is where the division is no lock for the Chippewas as the schedule is absolutely brutal. Not only do they have only five home games but the four toughest conference games are all on the road as they travel to Buffalo, Western Michigan, Bowling Green and Ball St. If that isn’t bad enough, non-conference trips include Arizona, Michigan St. and Boston College.

Bottom Line: After going 3-26 on the road between 2000 and 2004, Central Michigan has gone 16-11 away from home since then which is pretty impressive. That kind of road success no doubt bodes well for this year as it is going to take some big road wins for the Chippewas to reclaim the MAC. It won’t be easy but I think there is enough there to get it done.

Betting Forecast: Central Michigan is coming off its first losing road conference ATS record in four years. With the tough road slate this year, another slide is likely.

Western Michigan Broncos 9-4 SU, 5-7 ATS, 7-5 O/U

Summary: If there is a team in the West that can take down the Chippewas, it is most likely Western Michigan. Head coach Bill Cubit has turned around a program that went 1-10 in 2004 and then led the Broncos to two bowl games in the last three years. The offense ranked 28th in the nation a season ago and will be the strength again led by quarterback Tim Hiller and running back Brandon West. The problem for Western Michigan is the defense. They finished 87th in the country in total defense last year and now must replace eight starters on that unit. Change can be good and may actually help considering the defense was just as bad the previous year.

Schedule: The schedule is by no means easy but it does not compare to the difficult slate Central Michigan has. Three non-conference games are on the road against Big Ten teams including a late one in November at Michigan St. The tough MAC roadies are at Northern Illinois and Toledo, both of which aren’t horrible. Getting the Chippewas at home is huge but there are no byes on the schedule.

Bottom Line: The schedule sets up great for Western Michigan to make a run at the West title. I think it is a very realistic goal. My hesitation from putting them at the top is the defense and whether or not it can get better. The MAC is loaded with solid offenses this year so any lapses from the stop unit could be detrimental. The offense will be great but it can’t outscore everyone.

Betting Forecast: I expect to see a lot of points in Broncos games this season with a strong offense and a potential bad defense. Keep an eye on those totals.

Northern Illinois Huskies 6-7 SU, 6-6 ATS, 5-6-1 O/U

Summary: Northern Illinois heads the second tier of teams in the West. Following a 2-10 record in 2007, the Huskies overachieved with a young team last year and actually made it to a bowl game where it lost to Louisiana Tech despite outplaying the Bulldogs. A repeat of that will be tough as Northern Illinois is still a very young team. There are only three senior starters on offense, none at the skill positions and after returning all 11 starters on defense a season ago, the Huskies return only three this year. Head coach Jerry Kill did a fantastic job in 2008 to make that huge turnaround and while it isn’t going to be a huge step back, any step forward in 2009 is pretty unlikely.

Schedule: Northern Illinois gets two breaks in its non-conference schedule as it hosts Idaho and Western Illinois so it will be 2-2 heading into the MAC slate since it will not win at Wisconsin or at Purdue. The first MAC game is homecoming against Western Michigan and while the next five games are doable, the Huskies close at Ohio and at Central Michigan.

Bottom Line: An upset at home against Western Michigan is definitely possible and that could mean a showdown against Central Michigan at the end of the year. The problem is there are a lot of games in-between meaning a lot of places to slip up. I believe this team is simply too young on both sides of the ball to make a serious run this year but Northern Illinois is going to one to look out for in the next couple years.

Betting Forecast: The Huskies used to have a strong home field edge but they have gone 1-9 ATS the last three years as a home chalk. Expect that to continue.

Toledo Rockets 3-9 SU, 6-6 ATS, 3-8-1 O/U

Summary: After 12 straight winning seasons, tough times have fallen on the Rockets. They have endured three straight losing seasons and it will take a monumental effort this season to avoid a fourth. Head coach Tom Amstutz left after eight seasons and while the cupboards were not left bare for incumbent Tim Beckman, it will be no cakewalk. Toledo does return 17 starters from last season and that is very positive but improving by three wins is difficult, especially in this conference and with its tough schedule. Of its nine losses last season, six were by 17 or more points so Toledo was not competitive very often. I do expect some improvements from the Rockets but not enough to make a major move up.

Schedule: Toledo has a tough start to the schedule as it faces Purdue, Colorado and Ohio St. The MAC slate is definitely easier but three of the road games are at Ball St., Central Michigan and Bowling Green. The good news is that the Rockets miss both Ohio and Buffalo from the East while catching both division cellar mates Miami and Eastern Michigan.

Bottom Line: I want to like this team more but something is holding me back. There is a lot of experience coming back including senior quarterback Aaron Opelt and 1,000-yard rusher Morgan Williams as well as eight players on defense but there looks like there is too much ground to make up. The offensive line is still young and there is hardly any depth and that is where it all starts.

Betting Forecast: Toledo is 31-15 ATS at home since 2000 and there has not been an ATS dropoff in recent years. The Glass Bowl still has its presence.

Ball St. Cardinals 12-2 SU, 9-4 ATS, 6-7 O/U

Summary: Ball St. was one of the surprises in the country last season as it ran out to a 12-0 record and had BCS aspirations. The Cardinals lost to Buffalo in the MAC Championship despite winning the yardage battle by over 200 yards and they were then blown out in the GMAC Bowl against Tulsa. They were without head coach Brady Hoke in that bowl game who left for San Diego St. and they were led by offensive coordinator Stan Parrish who is now the new head man. It is certainly looking like a rebuilding season in Muncie especially after the early departure of quarterback Nate Davis. Ball St. won’t go from first to worst but it will take a tumble with only 11 total starters returning and still having a bullseye on its back.

Schedule: Ball St. will likely start the year 3-0 again as it faces North Texas, New Hampshire and Army in its first three games. It then travels to Auburn before the MAC season begins with a homecoming game against Toledo. A 2-2 split in the first four conference games is likely but the bottom four games are all extremely tough and a winless finish is not farfetched.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals snuck up on a lot of teams last season because not many saw it coming. Even though the talent won’t be there this season, the Cardinals won’t have that same luxury. The potential is there with a strong running game and a solid defensive line so replacing Davis will be next to impossible after the incredible season he had. At least Eastern Michigan is in the division.

Betting Forecast: Ball St. has gone 23-13 ATS the last three years including a 7-2 ATS mark as a road chalk. The Cardinals will be overvalued and those runs both reverse themselves.

Eastern Michigan Eagles 3-9 SU, 4-7 ATS, 4-7 O/U

Summary: It is pretty safe to say that Eastern Michigan’s string of 22 seasons without a conference title will be extended. The Eagles have been close to breaking though on a few occasions but have been unable to get over that hump. Out went head coach Jeff Genyk and in came Ron English who has served as defensive coordinator at Michigan and Louisville the last three years. Genyk did not hurt the program but he was unable to turn it around and they are hoping English can accomplish that. It isn’t going to happen this season despite 16 returning starters. The defense finished 109th in scoring last season and won’t be much better. Quarterback Andy Schmidt is a bright spot and led the Eagles to 52 and 56 points in their final two games last season.

Schedule: The schedule is not impossible but it certainly is close. A win over Army at home in the opener could provide some needed confidence before hitting the road to play at Northwestern and Michigan the next two weeks. Three of the next four games are at home but none are easy and then the Eagles close with four of their final five games on the road including a game at Arkansas.

Bottom Line: The Eagles do have the potential to be a better team in 2009 but it might not be portrayed in the win column. Even with all of the returning starters, only nine are seniors so there will be a nucleus coming back in 2010. Eastern Michigan nearly upset Michigan two years ago and did upset Central Michigan last season so we could definitely see a surprise or two this year.

Betting Forecast: Eastern Michigan is 5-17 ATS in its last 22 non-conference games but don’t count the Eagles out as the offense is strong enough for some possible backdoor covers.

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