Don't look now, but the Mid-American Conference has a lot of teams who expect to contend for the league title this fall.
Defending champ Central Michigan looks loaded on offense, and so does Ball State. If either of those teams can improve their defenses this spring, they could be springing some upsets on "bigger" schools this fall.
Here's a look at the MAC heading into spring drills.
Akron: March 4-April 5. Ball State: March 20-April 12. Bowling Green: March 18-April 19. Buffalo: March 21-April 12. Central Michigan: March 18-April 19. Eastern Michigan: March 8-April 5. Kent State: March 26-April 19. Miami: March 29-April 25. Northern Illinois: March 24-April 26. Ohio U.: April 1-April 26. Temple: March 18-April 19. Toledo: March 14-April 14. Western Michigan: March 13-April 12.
Jerry Kill, Northern Illinois: He was hired away from Division I-AA Southern Illinois to coach the Huskies and replaces Joe Novak, who was at NIU for 12 seasons. Kill, who has battled cancer, resurrected a moribund program at SIU and now will try to do the same thing at NIU. When Novak took over, NIU was horrible. He built them into one of the MAC's best programs, but it has slid a bit recently. Kill is a good recruiter and motivator, and should have success at NIU. The MAC isn't exactly brimming with high-caliber programs, so this rebuilding job might not take that long.
Ball State: The Cardinals' defense too often resembled a sieve last season, so coaches need some youngsters to step up. A lot is expected of DE Justin Woodard, and Marcus McClure should get the first shot at the open free safety job. Finding a new middle linebacker might take a while, though.
Bowling Green: The Falcons need three new starters on the offensive line. Junior college transfer Casey McHugh, who already is enrolled, looks good for one tackle spot. Aaron Kent and Tyler Donahue also should be in the mix. The center spot is up in the air.
Buffalo: The linebacking corps has to be retooled as the Bulls look to get better against the run. Josh Copeland and David Hubbard were top reserves last season, and they should get first dibs on the two open linebacker jobs. Copeland, though, needs to add weight and bulk.
Central Michigan: Given the Chippewas' offensive prowess, revamping a porous defense is vital. The most important thing this spring is to find two new starting linebackers. Eric Fraser could be one of them.
Eastern Michigan: Finding a new starting tailback and making improvements in the passing game should be the offensive priorities. The top tailback candidates look to be Terrence Blevins and Dwayne Priest, who combined for 264 yards and no TDs last season.
Kent State: The Golden Flashes need to improve their passing attack to lessen the load on 5-foot-5 TB Eugene Jarvis. Finding a new cornerback and a new nose tackle are the keys on defense. Kirk Belgrave is the front-runner at corner, though nose tackle is up in the air.
Miami: Coach Shane Montgomery has to find a new starting tailback after his top three rushers ran out of eligibility. True freshman TB Dan Green already is enrolled and will get a shot. Junior Andre Bratton, who suffered a knee injury early last season, seems the likely starter, though.
Northern Illinois: Twenty starters return for the Huskies, including all 11 on defense. Then again, this is a team that won just twice and has a new coach. Coach Jerry Kill says every job is open, but then again, what is a new coach going to say? A top priority is finding a way to stop the run.
Ohio U.: Coach Frank Solich and his staff have a lot of work to do. Junior college transfer Boo Jackson looks to be the front-runner for the quarterback job. Who's going to replace leading rusher Kalvin McRae, who had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons? The right side of the offensive line also has to be rebuilt. The Bobcats also need to find two new starting defensive tackles. Junior college transfer Corey Moncrief will be in the mix at tackle.
Temple: New offensive coordinator Matt Rhule has to find a way to improve the rushing attack. Twenty-one starters return, so there shouldn't be much open competition.
Toledo: Replacing 1,000-yard rusher Jalen Parmele is important for the Rockets. DaJuane Collins rushed for 636 yards and seven TDs as Parmele's backup last season and has first dibs. Gordon Warner also will get a chance. Warner is a former all-county player at Miami Central High.
Western Michigan: There are some spots open on the offensive line. Tackles Andy Laue and Anthony Parker - who were a spot starter and a backup, respectively, last season - could end up as full-time starters this season.
FIVE PLAYERS WHO SHOULD EMERGE THIS SPRING
Bowling Green TB Anthony Turner: He began the 2007 season as the team's backup quarterback and finished the season as the Falcons' starting tailback. Turner, a senior, had 519 yards and nine TDs, and should be far more productive this season.
Central Michigan WR Kito Poblah: Poblah, one of numerous Floridians on the Chippewas' roster, caught 14 passes last season as a redshirt freshman. But nine of those came in the final four games of the season and three went for TDs, including one in the MAC Championship Game. Poblah, who was recruited as a corner, is a speedster with good size (6-2/200) and could give CMU one of the deepest receiving corps in the nation.
Western Michigan TB Brandon West: He had a school-record 2,119 all-purpose yards as a sophomore last season and even more is expected this season. West, a good receiver, is a legit candidate for all-league honors and should be a 1,000-yard back.
Ball State DE Justin Woodard: Woodard, a sophomore, played sparingly last season but heads into the spring listed as a starter. Woodard has big-play potential because of his speed off the edge. He made just six tackles last season, but two were for a loss and one was a sack.
Miami WR Dustin Woods: Woods, a sophomore, is the RedHawks' No. 2 returning receiver, but coaches expect him to make the leap to all-league candidate this season. He has great speed and should become a top-flight deep threat – assuming Miami finds a quarterback who consistently can get him the ball.
FIVE IMPACT NEWCOMERS THIS SPRING
Toledo DE Albertson Alexandre: Alexandre, who played his high school ball in Miami, is a junior college transfer who already is enrolled; he has three seasons of eligibility remaining. Alexandre had 15 sacks at Foothill College in Los Altos Hill, Calif., last season.
Miami QB Clay Belton: Miami won the MAC East in 2007 despite inconsistent quarterback play. Belton, a redshirt freshman, is a big guy (6 feet 5, 231 pounds) with a strong arm and could win the starting job.
Ohio U. QB Boo Jackson: Jackson, a JC transfer who will be enrolled before spring practice begins, threw 23 TD passes last season at El Camino (Calif.) College. With starting QB Brad Bower out of eligibility, the job is there for the taking for Jackson, whose first name is Franshaw.
Bowling Green OT Casey McHugh: McHugh is a junior college transfer who already is enrolled. He will be in the mix for a starting tackle job.
Central Michigan G/T Joe McMahon: McMahon, a junior, is a transfer from Iowa State who sat out last season. The Chippewas return four starters on the offensive line, and McMahon – who was CMU's offensive scout team player of the year in 2007 – has a good shot to nab the open starting spot.