Aug. 7, 2004
By Tony Mejia
SportsLine.com Staff Writer
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MAC schools enter the 2004 season hearing they won't be able to duplicate last year's success. While it's true the conference is coming off a dream campaign featuring a record number of Top 25 appearances and NFL first-round draft picks, expecting it to recede significantly would be a bad assumption.

Mid-American
Predicted Finish
East West
1. Miami (Ohio) 1. Toledo
2. Marshall 2. N. Illinois
3. C. Florida 3. Bowling Green
4. Akron 4. W. Michigan
5. Kent State 5. E. Michigan
6. Ohio 6. Ball State
7. Buffalo 7. C. Michigan
Off. Player of Year:
Bruce Gradkowski, Toledo
Def. Player of Year:
Terna Nande, Miami (Ohio)
Coach of the Year:
Tom Amstutz, Toledo

Skeptics will dismiss last season's success as a one-year wonder, and indeed the talent well isn't quite as plentiful this time around. Replacements must be found for the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, arguably the top quarterback in college football in '03, versatile play-making QB Josh Harris, workhorse tailback Michael Turner and pass-rusher Jason Babin. All proved that major talents could prosper in a mid-major league.

Despite its seemingly annual upsets of Big Ten competition, the MAC is typically cast aside as a league filled with crummy directional schools and mediocre athletes. Ask Kansas State if it shares that sentiment. Or Purdue, Maryland, Pittsbugh, Colorado State, Louisville and Iowa State. All were MAC victims last season.

Whether the conference can do it again remains to be seen, but the league has put itself in position to register another blockbuster upset. Miami (Ohio) visits Michigan. Marshall travels to Ohio State and Georgia on consecutive weekends. Bowling Green will be at Oklahoma. Central Florida and Akron both pay their respects to Joe Paterno in Happy Valley. Northern Illinois gives Maryland a chance to even the score.

Oh, and Toledo, provided it can get past road games at Minnesota and Kansas to start the season, could very well be undefeated and in the Top 15 entering November. Quietly, the Rockets have crept up to MAC-daddy status, displacing Marshall as the team to beat.

Current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel orchestrated the turnaround, and longtime assistant Tom Amstutz has kept the program operating at a high level, winning at least eight games in each of his three seasons. In all, the Rockets are 37-12 over the past four years, the sixth-best record in the nation during that span.

Returning arguably the league's top quarterback, tailback, wide receiver and offensive lineman, Toledo has an opportunity to field the country's most prolific attack. Junior quarterback Bruce Gradkowski completed 71.2 percent of his passes in his first year, throwing for a school-record 29 touchdowns. The Rockets run a virtually unstoppable spread offense, peppering in draws and short passes to top back Trinity Dawson with downfield strikes to Nick Moore and Steve Odom, who combined for 165 catches and over 2,000 yards last season.

With four national television appearances this season, Toledo is the best bet to register within the national consciousness, which is good news for the league given the pending departure of Marshall and UCF to Conference USA.

Their chief competition in the West figures to be Northern Illinois, which was unfairly snubbed by the bowls despite a 10-2 record last season and a nearly season-long residence in the national rankings. The Huskies return QB Josh Haldi for his senior year; his 18-6 record as starter is something to behold considering the school was 20-46 in the six seasons before he took over.

In the East, Marshall fields a strong team as it looks to end its MAC run with a championship, something it failed to win last season for the first time since joining the conference in 1997.

Miami (Ohio) ended the Thundering Herd's run and returns 17 starters from a team that was unbeaten in league play, finished 13-1 and owns the nation's longest winning streak (13). Roethlisberger is a substantial missing piece, but if understudy Josh Betts does his part, the RedHawks will again be a force.

UCF, essentially starting over under George O'Leary, has enough in place to be a dangerous spoiler but is still a couple of years away from serious contention.

Team-by-team:
East

1. Miami (Ohio): The RedHawks' defense was overshadowed by Roethlisberger and Co. last year but held opponents to 10 points or fewer on four occasions, helped the team finish third nationally in turnover margin and did its best work in a 45-6 defeat of Marshall. Nine starters return.

2. Marshall: Stan Hill is no Byron Leftwich but proved to be more than serviceable under center and may have a pro future himself. With Josh Davis back for a run at a couple of NCAA receiving records, the Herd promise to be explosive.

3. UCF: O'Leary has invigorated the Golden Knights, but holes up front and at linebacker make immediate success unlikely. Not to worry though; Orlando will soon have a big winner to support.

4. Akron: Charlie Frye might be the best quarterback you've never heard of, but there is little else in Zip-land. Unless you count a really porous defense that promises to give new coach J.D. Brookhart a fair share of headaches.

5. Kent State: QB Joshua Cribbs has his legal problems behind him but missed out on valuable preparation time dealing with the courts. Still, he's by far the best the Golden Flashes have and should make new coach Doug Martin's offense go.

6. Ohio: The Bobcats infamous triple-option attack is gone, replaced by a dropback passing attack. At the very least, it should make the team's games longer.

7. Buffalo: The Bulls are making progress, albeit slowly. Two victories are probably their ceiling, but hey, it would be one more than last year.

West

1. Toledo: For all the skill on the offensive side of the ball, senior tackle Nick Kaczur has the best pro future. A likely first-rounder, expect him to earn All-MAC honors for the fourth consecutive year.

2. Northern Illinois: Whoever replaces Turner will have a strong offensive line to run behind, ensuring that the Huskies will still be able to employ their physical football and out-tough opponents.

3. Bowling Green: Josh Harris' ability to run Gregg Brandon's multi-faceted attack made the Falcons great. With him gone, they won't be averaging 500 yards per game. The schedule doesn't help either, with trips to Oklahoma, Northern Illinois and Toledo.

4. Western Michigan: Rutgers transfer Ryan Cubit is expected to emerge as the team's starting QB and will have an impressive stable of receivers to throw to in Gary Darnell's pass-happy attack.

5. Eastern Michigan: Anthony Sherrell rushed for nearly 1,600 yards in 2003 and will again be the workhorse for the Eagles. Unfortunately, he gets little help.

6. Ball State: Second-year coach Brady Hoke has brought in a new offensive coordinator, but the only QB on the roster with any experience has thrown just three passes and there's even a possibility one of two true freshmen will start.

7. Central Michigan: The Chippewas do return a host of starters, but that's not exactly great news; the team beat just one I-A opponent last year.