It's all about earning respect - and getting back into the Top 25 - for the always-proud and always-plucky MAC. And both could happen this fall.
The MAC will get 10 shots at teams ranked in the preseason coaches' poll, beginning with preseason league favorite Central Michigan playing at No. 1 Georgia on Sept. 6. It may be too much to expect the Chippewas to topple the Bulldogs. But CMU will have great opportunities for victory when it visits Indiana and Purdue later in the season. And don't be shocked if Ball State dumps the Hoosiers when it visits Bloomington, Ind.
It will take a victory like that – along with a dominating effort in league play – for a MAC team to finish in the final polls. How long has it been since a MAC school enjoyed such a distinction? It was 2003, when Miami finished No. 10 and Bowling Green No. 23.
The MAC's hopes for big things this fall are buoyed by a strong collection of quarterbacks, led by Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour and Ball State's Nate Davis. Those guys could play for almost any school.
But the MAC's collection of strong quarterbacks doesn't end there. Keep an eye on Bowling Green's Tyler Sheehan, Eastern Michigan's Andy Schmitt, Buffalo's Drew Willy, Western Michigan's Tim Hiller, Kent State's Julian Edelman and Toledo's Aaron Opelt.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour. He is a BCS talent masquerading in a non-BCS world. He's a polished passer who also possesses impressive athletic ability, making him a dual threat in Butch Jones' dynamic attack. LeFevour threw for 3,652 yards and 27 TDs last season. He ran for 1,122 yards and 19 scores. Oh, and he also caught a TD pass.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Toledo strong safety Barry Church. When it comes to big hits, few deliver with the ferocity of Church. While he lacks blazing speed, Church is adept at coverage because of good technique. He is entering his third season as a starter and one day will play on Sundays.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Western Michigan quarterback Tim Hiller. Looking for a sleeper to win the MAC? Look no further than Western Michigan. The Broncos will have one of the best defenses in the conference, but the offense has concerns. And none is bigger than quarterback. It looks like the job again will go to Hiller, a 6-foot-5, 228-pound junior who wowed coach Bill Cubit with a strong spring. Hiller may be ready to put it all together after an inconsistent start to his career.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Bowling Green end Diyral Briggs. Offensively, Bowling Green is loaded for a run at its first MAC championship since 1992. The question? The defense. The Falcons have playmakers in a secondary that returns all four starters, but that talented unit only will be as good as the line. That means Briggs must lead a consistent push for a unit that looks thin.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Ohio's tailback. It's this simple – Ohio U. has no one who will come close to duplicating the production of Kalvin McRae, who left as the school's leading career rusher. Look for a committee approach. Bobcat coach Frank Solich will have several speedy options. Keep an eye on 5-8 Chris Garrett, a converted receiver with big-play ability.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Toledo running back DaJuane Collins. With Jalen Parmele departed, the path is clear for Collins to emerge as one of the MAC's top running backs. At 5-10 and 218 pounds, Collins is built for the long haul. He possesses a low, powerful center of gravity.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Miami end Joe Coniglio. They are thinking MAC title in Oxford, Ohio. But if that's to happen, the defense must shine. That's Coniglio's cue to step up. He is a primo pass rusher who is capable of disrupting the flow of an offense for a defense that features nine returning starters.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Central Michigan running back Jahleel Addae. He enrolled early at Central Michigan, giving him a great chance to have a big impact on what already looks to be a standout offense. Addae initially committed to West Virginia, where older brother Jahmile was a defensive back. But CMU won out for the Tampa native.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Akron tackle Ryan Bain. In the spring, Bain showed the skills that made him one of the top recruits in the Midwest coming out of high school. He signed with Iowa, but things didn't work out. Now a junior, the 6-2, 305-pounder is ready to take the MAC by storm for an improving Zips team.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Toledo's Tom Amstutz. It wasn't long ago that "Toledo Tom" was the toast of town, guiding the Rockets to MAC crowns in 2001 and '04, MAC West titles in '02 and '05 and four bowls from 2001-05. But the past two seasons have produced consecutive 5-7 records and some off-field issues, which have some grumbling. Amstutz still is a beloved figure, an alum who was an assistant at the school from 1977-86 and 1990-2000 before becoming coach. But there's a sense of urgency for him to show Toledo still is a MAC force.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Western Michigan. Coach Bill Cubit doesn't get the respect he deserves. He slowly is making the Broncos a powerful program, thanks to his masterful teaching and demanding standards. Cubit has more than 30 years of experience, including stints as an assistant at places such as Florida, Stanford, Rutgers and Missouri. Cubit, who is 20-16 in three seasons in Kalamazoo, has an up-and-coming assistant in Steve Morrison, who begins his first year as defensive coordinator. Watch him become a star.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ball State's Stan Parrish. Few assistants have a résumé to match; Parrish has more than 30 years in the sport. Parrish has been coach at Wabash (1978-82), Marshall (1983-85) and Kansas State (1986-88). He also has been an assistant at Michigan (1996-2001) and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002-03). Parrish's guile and savvy have made the Cardinals' offense one of the best in the MAC, and he has played a huge role in the development of quarterback Nate Davis.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Temple's Mark D'Onofrio. Keep your eye on D'Onofrio. He has learned from some of the best, starring at linebacker for JoePa at Penn State (1988-91) and coaching at Rutgers (Greg Schiano) and Virginia (Al Groh) for defense-minded coaches. D'Onofrio's defense led the MAC in 2007 during a breakout season for the program. The fiery and passionate D'Onofrio, an aggressive recruiter who played for the Green Bay Packers from 1992-94, is a head coach in the making.
ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Central Michigan defensive coordinator Tim Banks. It wouldn't be far-fetched if Central Michigan coach Butch Jones landed a "Big Six" job after this season. If that happens, don't be shocked if CMU officials promote Banks to coach. He's a smart, young coach who possesses all the skills to run a program.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Ball State at Central Michigan, Nov. 19. This could be a de facto MAC West title game, which will feature what figures to be the best teams in the conference. The quarterback battle between CMU's Dan LeFevour and Ball State's Nate Davis will be special.
Central Michigan at Purdue, Sept. 20
Miami at Cincinnati, Sept. 20
Ball State at Indiana, Sept. 20
Ball State at Toledo, Oct. 4
Western Michigan at Central Michigan, Oct. 18
Central Michigan at Toledo, Oct. 25
Ball State at Miami, Nov. 11
Ball State at Central Michigan, Nov. 19
Miami at Toledo, Nov. 21
Western Michigan at Ball State, Nov. 25
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: If Bowling Green is going to enjoy a banner season, it will earn it. The Falcons play three of their first four games on the road, traveling to Pitt, Boise State and Wyoming. There also is an early season visit from Minnesota, the first time in history that a Big Ten team plays at Bowling Green. A visit from Miami on Oct. 18 could determine the MAC East title.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Central Michigan. There isn't a huge difference in many of these schedules, but CMU looks to have an edge in MAC games. The Chippewas don't play Bowling Green, Miami or Kent State and they play host to Ball State. CMU's non-conference schedule compensates with three trips to "Big Six" schools: Georgia, Purdue and Indiana. But the Chippewas could win when they travel to West Lafayette, Ind., and Bloomington, Ind.
WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Ball State. Again, it's all relative. But the Cardinals play just one "Big Six" team (Indiana, which they can beat), a I-AA program (Northeastern), a team making the transition to I-A (Western Kentucky) and Navy (Ball State beat the Middies 34-31 in OT last season). It's easy to pick the worst non-conference game: If Indiana State plays at Eastern Michigan and no one is there to watch it, will the game really have happened? We'll find out Aug. 28, when the Sycamores visit the Eagles. Indiana State is 1-32 in the past three seasons, and EMU has had one winning record (1995) since 1990. You know what this means: All fans in attendance must wear paper bags over their heads.
BIGGEST MISMATCH: Ohio at Ohio State, Sept. 6. There may not be much difference in their names, but the chasm in talent, facilities, resources and traditions is gargantuan. Say your prayers for Frank Solich and his Ohio Bobcats.
PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Temple. If Temple were a stock, the Big East castoff would be a must-buy. The program is coming off a 4-4 MAC record and welcomes back 21 starters. Credit coach Al Golden. He's a tough-nosed Al Groh disciple who has the Owls poised to enjoy their best season since 1990, when Temple enjoyed its last winning season (7-4).
PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Toledo. Earlier this decade, Toledo was the top program in the MAC. The Rockets won conference crowns in 2001 and 2004 and MAC West banners in 2002 and 2005. There also were four bowl appearances from 2001-05. Now, questions abound for a program that's coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons. Where have you gone, Rockets?
IN THREE YEARS, BOWLING GREEN WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: Since winning back-to-back MAC crowns in 1991-92, the Falcons have failed to win a league title. But school officials believe in Gregg Brandon, an underrated coach who received a new contract within the past year. Don't be shocked if the Falcons win the MAC this fall and Brandon becomes a hot commodity.