MAC Football 2017 Preview: Getting Back to MACtion

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Last year, the MAC was dominated by one boat-rowing football program. For all the chaos that ensued in the 2016 regular season, Western Michigan — the nation’s only undefeated once the postseason began — was the constant.

With P.J. Fleck at the helm, nobody in the MAC could touch the Broncos. Fleck finally had the program set up the way he envisioned when taking over in 2013. Despite a 1-win initial campaign, the energetic Fleck’s vision paid off with the program’s first ever 10-win season (which became 13 wins once all was done) and a Cotton Bowl appearance.

The Broncos ran roughshod over everybody in the MAC. They shutout Akron and Buffalo, dropped 55 on Toledo and 52 on Ball State.

Unfortunately for Western Michigan, they don’t have Fleck, who went to Minnesota, and they don’t have their greatest playmaker in school history, wide receiver Corey Davis. It’s going to look like a much different team in 2017, which means a much different outlook for the MAC

Six teams from the MAC participated in bowls last season. Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Miami (OH), Ohio and Toledo all took part, one fewer compared to the 2015 season.

Western Michigan was the only team to reach the 10-win mark. Toledo came close with nine, but was the only team other than WMU to hit even that mark.The bowl season didn’t go well for the MAC, either, as its members lost all six games.

By comparison, the conference had three victories during the 2015 bowl season.

It was undoubtedly a tough way for the MAC to end 2016, especially with the attention the Broncos received. The league has work to do if it wants to warrant the national attention it got with Western Michigan last season.

What’s more important is seeing some competitive and fun football. It’s about getting back to #MACtion.

Team to Beat: Toledo Rockets

Even with Western Michigan dominating the headlines, Toledo still had a pretty noteworthy 2016 — and did so with Jason Candle taking over the program in his first full season as coach.

The Rockets did as much possible to hang with Western Michigan in the Western division, keeping pace with the Broncos until their meeting in the last regular season game.The 20-point loss was Toledo’s worst of the season and their only by double digits.

In the other three, Toledo lost by five points or less. The Rockets were involved in a classic with BYU, losing 55-53 on a night in which Mack Brown had to leave early.

Toledo lost by five to Ohio and by three to Sun Belt favorite Appalachian State in the Camellia Bowl. Take one of those close losses and change them to a win and Toledo gets to 10 for the second straight season.

The Rockets have one of the top quarterbacks in the conference back in senior Logan Woodside, who can lead them back to the double-digit-win mark.

Last season, Woodside, who is also on the Maxwell Award Watch List for this season, led the MAC in passing yards (4,129) and touchdowns (45), the latter stat also leading the NCAA.

The good news for Whiteside is he’ll have his favorite receiver back in Cody Thompson, who finished second in the conference in receiving yards with 1,269.

The 2017 season could be the year Candle lights up the Rockets and fires them to the top of the MAC.

Team Most Likely to Surprise: Northern Illinois Huskies

Very few teams had the kind of nightmare start to the season the Huskies had in 2016. They lost four straight games and six of their first seven to start, including to FCS Western Illinois.

The Huskies rebounded by winning four of their last five games, but it wasn’t enough to go bowling. Flip one of those losses early on into a win and Northern Illinois would’ve been bowl eligible.

The Huskies only had one double-digit-point loss in conference, and that was to dominant Western Michigan. Northern Illinois’s other two conference losses were by six to Central Michigan and seven to Toledo. Even two of those non-conference games were within a touchdown.

Northern Illinois stayed competitive all season, and this usually is not a program that goes 5-7. It wasn’t that long ago that they went to the Orange Bowl (2012) and produced a Heisman Trophy finalist (Jordan Lynch in 2013).

This season’s non-conference schedule features Boston College, Eastern Illinois, Nebraska and San Diego State, the latter two being on the road. They should at least be able to get one win on that non-conference schedule.

Team Most Likely to Disappoint: Western Michigan Broncos

It’s going to be hard for the Broncos to live up to what they did in 2016. It’s unfair, especially if you look at their non-conference schedule.

The Broncos get to go to the Coliseum to play a USC Trojans bunch heavily-favored to win the Pac-12 . This game would’ve been more fun if Fleck was still coach, and Zach Terrell and Corey Davis were still donning Bronco brown.

Western Michigan follows that the next week with a trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State. It’s hard not to imagine Sparty bouncing back after their disastrous 2016 season.

It’s possible that the Broncos start the season 0-2 before they play their first home game against Idaho.

Offensive Player to Watch: Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan

Western Michigan as a whole and running back Jarvion Franklin specifically no doubt benefited from the offensive threat that Davis brought, as defending the pass was the primary concern of Bronco opponents. Even without the other offensive weapons, Franklin should still have a solid 2017 season.

Last season, he finished second in the MAC in rushing yards with 1,353, and led the conference with 12 rushing touchdowns.

In addition, Franklin has been a fixture for Western Michigan ever since his freshman year, when he won the MAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Franklin can make a lot of noise in the ground game this season for the Broncos.

Defensive Player to Watch: Ulysees Gilbert III- Akron

There weren’t a lot of bright spots for Akron last season. It probably won’t go much better for the Zips this season. However, Ulysees Gilbert III might be one of those positives for Arkon in this coming season.

As a sophomore in 2016, Gilbert led the team in tackles (121) and tied for fourth in solo tackles (65) in the MAC.

Additionally, Gilbert was one of three players in the conference on the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy.

With Gilbert being a junior, he has a chance to really step up for Akron and earn some national buzz.