By Tony Mejia
CBS Staff Writer
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Record-setting Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed a near-perfect run through his rookie season in the NFL, with every completed pass and victory elevating the Mid-American Conference's reputation. Although Marshall has defected from the league, both Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich cut their teeth against MAC competition.

MAC East
Predicted Finish
1. Bowling Green
2. Miami (Ohio)
3. Ohio
4. Arkron
5. Kent State
6. Buffalo
MAC West
Predicted Finish
1. Toledo
2. Northern Illinois
3. Eastern Michigan
4. Western Michigan
5. Central Michigan
6. Ball State
Off. player of year:
Omar Jacobs, Bowling Green
Def. player of year:
Justin Parrish, Kent State
Coach of the year:
Gregg Brandon, Bowling Green
Very soon, Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs will join them in carrying the flag for the league at the next level. At 6-feet-4 and packing a powerful, accurate arm, he's projected a first-round pick whenever he turns pro. There is considerable buzz surrounding him after a sophomore season in which he threw for over 4,000 yards and 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Even if he does leave early, the junior's aim -- while people whisper his name as a dark-horse Heisman candidate -- is to lead the Falcons to a conference championship. Everything else is secondary.

"We've challenged him," said Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon. "How many championships has he won? Can he do that? Can he lead a team to a championship? That is what he has got to get done for us."

Bowling Green switches divisions this season -- with Marshall and Central Florida gone -- and has immediately been installed as the East favorite over two-time reigning champ Miami. While some might have expected the program to take a tumble once Urban Meyer left for Utah, the Falcons have remained a power under former assistant Brandon, accumulating a 20-6 mark in his two seasons. They still run the same complex offense that made Meyer a household name, and based on Jacobs' production, do so just as efficiently.

Omar Jacobs celebrated last year's bowl victory with coach Gregg Brandon. (Provided to SportsLine)
In fact, Bowling Green has the potential to accomplish what Meyer's Utah team did last year, bullying its way into the BCS. Senior tailbacks P.J. Pope and B.J. Lane and receivers Charles Sharon and Steve Sanders rejoin Jacobs on an offense that produced over 500 yards a game, second in the nation. The Falcons could be an unruly guest in visits to Wisconsin and Boise State in the season's first month. If they are able to escape unscathed, they will captivate attention similar to last year's Utes entering their tougher conference tests in November.

"Conference games are the most important games on our schedule, because that will dictate the bowl opportunities and the success of our season," said Brandon. "I'm not going to get all caught up in the hype of Boise and Wisconsin. Those are going to be great football games and our guys are going to go in and play our tails off. [But] I'm going to emphasize that we've got to be ready to play Ball State (Sept. 10) and we've got to be ready in October for the conference schedule."

Miami figures to be their most dangerous foe, especially if Roethlisberger's successor, senior Josh Betts, continues to make strides. Ohio, now directed by former Nebraska coach Frank Solich, will also be a tough out.

In the West, mainstays Toledo and Northern Illinois should again be strong, giving the conference a solid stable of teams that will allow it to hold on to its ever-growing status as a dangerous, quality mid-major league. If Jacobs crashes the Heisman party while leading Bowling Green to unprecedented heights, the MAC might just be a part of the news all season.

Conference Previews
Big East Pac-10
Big Ten SEC
Big 12 Sun Belt
MAC Indep.
Predicted order of finish:

1. Bowling Green: The Falcons' main concern will be replacing three key members of the offensive line, which will need to protect Jacobs.

2. Miami (Ohio): Terry Hoeppner left new coach Shane Montgomery a full cupboard of talent before leaving for Indiana, so don't expect the RedHawks to surrender their superiority in the East without a fight.

3. Ohio: With eight starters returning on defense, Solich has a solid foundation on which to build. He's switching to a 4-3 that will no doubt take its lumps from the likes of Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech before conference play begins.

4. Akron: The presence of running back Brett Biggs and Domenik Hixon should ease the transition of Pitt transfer Luke Getsy, taking over at quarterback for NFL draftee Charlie Frye.

5. Kent State: Joshua Cribbs' departure tempers enthusiasm gained by the four-game winning streak that ended last season. It will be interesting to see whether second-year coach Doug Martin will be able to find a replacement.

6. Buffalo: The Bulls return a number of members from a defense that had its share of positive moments a year ago, particularly top corner Gemara Williams. Strides are being made, but there is still much work to be done.

1. Toledo: Star receiver Lance Moore is gone, but star QB Bruce Gradkowski should still put up major numbers, leading a potent attack that helped deliver last year's conference championship.

2. Northern Illinois: The Huskies are turning into a running back factory, and the latest star is junior Garrett Wolfe, who came out of obscurity to gain over 1,600 yards a year ago. NIU should again be able to win big by pounding the ball on the ground and playing sturdy defense.

Will Bowling Green get into a BCS bowl?

Only if they get lucky
They'll fall just short
They are a sure thing

3. Eastern Michigan: Eric Deslauriers might just be the league's most talented receiver, giving the Eagles a big-play threat. EMU will need plenty from him, as the porous defense isn't expected to be much better.

4. Western Michigan: New coach Bill Cubit will have his son, Rutgers transfer Ryan, to help get the Broncos back to respectability following last year's 1-10 debacle.

5. Central Michigan: The loss of star running back Jerry Seymour, suspended indefinitely after pleading no contest to lying to a grand jury, is a crippling blow. It remains to be seen how long he will be held out, but he was absent when the team began practicing.

6. Ball State: Good news is nine starters are back on defense. Bad? The Cardinals gave up 30 or more points in eight of their 11 games last season.

Team of note
Temple: The Owls won't be able to compete for the league title until 2007, but will get their feet wet with four games against MAC competition this year, their first after getting booted from the Big East.