Early MAC West Preview
Joe Nelson
Posted: 2018-07-11

The MAC produced the top Group of Five squad two years ago before the conference had a less distinguished campaign in 2017 led by Toledo's league title. The Rockets along with the rest of the MAC other than Ohio had a disappointing bowl season however.

All six MAC West teams can make a case for being in the division race with coaching stability at all six programs but likely new quarterbacks at most programs as the top returning signal callers in the conference are all on the East side. This has been a multi-team race the past few years and it should again be a competitive field although the East might be gaining ground in the overall MAC picture. Here is an early look at the six MAC West programs looking ahead to the 2018 season.

Northern Illinois: The Huskies were a near automatic choice to win the MAC West much of the last decade and after a down 2016 season Northern Illinois returned to the postseason last year. Rod Carey enters year six in DeKalb with good returning experience and a stellar track record at home. A very tough non-conference schedule could leave the postseason margin for error quite thin for the Huskies but Marcus Childers is back at quarterback and the run defense was exceptional last season. The schedule is difficult with three of the better East teams on the schedule while the four home dates in MAC play will all come against quality teams. Northern Illinois had some good fortune last season with a number of narrow wins and while they are likely the top threat in the West, this isn't going to be a runaway race.

Western Michigan: Tim Lester stepped into a tough situation with Western Michigan taking over for P.J. Fleck after an undefeated season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. His 2017 Broncos went 6-6 but didn't get a bowl invite and the team was fortunate with a pair of overtime victories in league play. The statistics for the Broncos were favorable despite the even record as Western Michigan played USC and Michigan State while also facing a very difficult set of road games in MAC play. The Broncos have the ability to rise to the top this season with one of the few returning quarterbacks in the West and the opportunity to host the toughest MAC games. Western Michigan is +26 in turnovers the past two seasons for some good fortune however but in a muddled race where 6-2 is probably enough to win this division, the Broncos are a serious contender to get back on top.

Toledo: The Rockets won 11 games last season and more importantly retained Jason Candle as head coach. Replacing all-time passing leader Logan Woodside will be a tough task however for Toledo in 2018. There is a strong receiving corps to work with and Toledo has a preferable draw from the MAC East but they will need to beat the other West threats on the road to repeat as the division champion. Toledo won with a mediocre defense the past two seasons but most of the top players from last year's defense are gone as the Rockets will likely play in shootouts this season with an unproven quarterback. Candle is 14-3 in MAC games and Toledo has won at least five MAC games in eight straight seasons as they remain a chief threat.

Eastern Michigan: It has taken time but Chris Creighton has restored the Eastern Michigan program to a respectable level. This was a much better team than the 5-7 record indicated last season as the Eagles lost three overtime games and were competitive in every defeat. The Eagles will break in a new quarterback but the East draw offers promise relative to their peers in the West and Toledo and NIU both have to visit Ypsilanti. Eastern Michigan will face four road games in a five-week stretch early in the year but late season momentum is likely and this defense has a lot of potential after allowing only 23 points per game last season. A rise to the top isn't out of the question for the Eagles hinging on the outcomes of three huge games in succession early in the conference season.

Ball State: The Cardinals nearly beat Illinois, beat UAB, and then nearly beat Western Kentucky last September. An incredible amount of injuries piled up as the Cardinals eventually went through four quarterbacks and a disastrous 0-8 MAC season followed a very respectable non-conference first month. This will be one of the most experienced teams in the conference with quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert back from injuries. This was a team poised for a 2017 breakthrough before the injuries and Mike Neu has an opportunity to lead major improvement in his third season. The non-conference draw is difficult and three of the four home dates will be against division heavyweights while also pulling Ohio and Miami from the East. The schedule could take a toll but last season's numbers should be thrown out the window in evaluating this team as a competitive season should be ahead.

Central Michigan: John Bonamego was a surprise hire in Mt. Pleasant but he has led the Chippewas to three straight bowl seasons. Central Michigan won the final five regular season games last season to finish 6-2 in MAC play but this looks like the least experienced team in the conference with only running back Jonathan Ward a notable returnee for the offense. All four MAC road games are of the difficult variety but Central Michigan avoids Ohio and Miami from the East draw for a preferable league slate. Bonamego seems to get the most out of his players and the gap between the top and bottom of this division doesn't look significant.

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