I've already previewed Marshall, the clear-cut favorite in the Mid-American Conference. Now, here are shorter looks at the other 13 schools in the MAC (schools listed by division in order of my predicted finish).
MAC East Division
The University of Central Florida football program began in 1979, moved to Division I-A in 1996 and now joins the MAC, where coach Mike Kruczek's Golden Knights hope to be the primary challenger to Marshall in the East Division.
Offensively, everything is in place for the Golden Knights to field a potent attack. QB Ryan Schneider effectively manages the attack, while hard-charging sophomore RB Alex Haynes provides the necessary balance, with highly regarded freshman RB Dontavius Wilcox providing quality depth. If Haynes remains at full strength the entire way, Wilcox could redshirt.
At WR, the Golden Knights go four-deep with proven performers. Senior Doug Gabriel is the most gifted, demonstrating explosive talent last season after coming over from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. A physically gifted 6-2, 200-pounder with an NFL future, Gabriel averaged an amazing 28.7 yards per catch and hauled in nine TDs last year. He also averaged 27.2 yards per kickoff return. As a pure wideout, Gabriel needs to show more polish and consistency, eliminating the costly drops that were evident at times last season.
Major contributors at WR also include senior Jimmy Fryzel and sophomores Tavaris Capers and Luther Huggins. Blue-chip junior TE Michael Gaines and senior TE Mario Jackson are major-league talents. Gaines, like Gabriel, should eventually play in the NFL. Three senior starters return up front: OT Brian Huff, OG Taylor Robertson and C Mike Mabry.
Defensively, a number of key starters have moved on, most notably DT Josh McKibben, MLB Tito Rodriguez and CB Travis Fisher, who went in the second round of the 2002 NFL draft to the St. Louis Rams.
But the most dominating performer returns: senior DE Alton Patterson (6-1½, 270). Cat-quick and super strong (bench presses over 400 pounds), Patterson recorded 85 tackles last season, 21 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 25 QB hurries, nine sacks and five forced fumbles. And sophomore DE Rashad Jeanty is drawing rave notices.
The key though, is the MLB spot, where all eyes are on Chad Mascoe (6-3, 255), a transfer from Southwest Mississippi Junior College. The physically gifted Mascoe participated in spring practice and enters the fall with a head start in his understanding of the defensive scheme. Mascoe could be one of the top newcomers in the MAC.
The secondary will miss Fisher, who excelled in man coverage and seemed to thrive on the pressure that comes from operating on an island. The lead cornerback now becomes senior Asante Samuel (5-10½, 185). In 2001, he broke up 13 passes and nabbed two interceptions. Rugged sophomore SS Atari Bigby (5-10½, 215) has displayed potential with outstanding speed.
Last year, the RedHawks came within a whisker of putting together a 10-win season, dropping their final three games to Marshall (27-21), Hawaii (52-51) and Kent State (24-20) to close things out with a final record of 7-5. Along the way were satisfying victories over the bowl-bound Cincinnati Bearcats (21-14) and a Bowling Green (24-21) squad that is the favorite this season to win the MAC's Western Division.
The key performer on the RedHawk offense is sophomore QB Ben Roethlisberger. His primary target is 6-5, 215-pound senior Jason Branch, with 5-8, 165-pound sophomore Michael Larkin also a vital contributor. While three starters return up front, the running game has some questions to answer. It needs to take some pressure off Roethlisberger, providing the necessary balance that was lacking last year. The burden rests with juniors Cal Murray and Luke Clemens.
Defensively, the front seven looks solid on paper, with standout senior LB Matt Robillard the major headliner. Improvement is needed in the secondary, where two starters return: senior CB Milt Bowen and sophomore SS Matt Pusateri.
The Golden Flashes showed remarkable improvement in 2001 under head coach Dean Pees, finishing with a 6-5 record (their first winning campaign in 15 years) after going just 3-19 the previous two seasons. After a 1-4 start, the Golden Flashes won five of their last six games, with the only loss coming against Marshall.
In the super-tough MAC East with Marshall, UCF and Miami (Ohio), the Golden Flashes are fighting an uphill battle, but they return a true igniter, sophomore QB Joshua Cribbs, which makes them a dangerous foe any time out.
Cribbs is one of the top offensive players in the MAC, while junior David Alston provides a solid option at RB. But Alston has been sidelined virtually all of preseason practice with an ankle injury that will keep him out of action for the season opener against New Hampshire on Aug. 29. Sophomore Eddie Beccles will start in his place. I'm told that Alston could return in early-to-mid September.
Defensively, former Michigan State transfer Pierre Wilson was expected to be the headliner at DE, with the 6-3, 275-pound senior being counted on to generate outside pass pressure. But Wilson is sidelined with an ankle injury that will keep him on the sidelines until early September. LB is a questionable area, with standout James Harrison a critical graduation loss
The secondary returns intact, with sophomore FS Shannon Davis ready to make his mark as one of the best young defensive players in the MAC. Davis is a lights-out hitter.
The Zips finished with a 4-7 record last season but were competitive in losses to Miami (Ohio) (30-27) and Bowling Green (16-11). Coach Lee Owens' squad has some offensive firepower with blue-chip sophomore QB Charlie Frye and fifth-year senior RB Brandon Payne, who is returning from a knee injury that sidelined him after the fifth game last season.
Junior Bob Hendry is also in the mix at RB along with highly regarded Minnesota transfer Marcus Sanders. WR Matt Cherry, a 6-1, 185-pound junior, is Frye's primary target in the pass offense. The potential problem area is the offensive line. Four starters were lost to graduation, including standout Konrad Dean.
On defense, junior Marques Hayes and sophomore Dwayne LeFall are capable outside pass rushers. LeFall returns to action this season after sitting out the 2001 campaign. Senior MLB Ryan Myers provides toughness and leadership, but the secondary -- a major liability last season -- remains a question mark. Two years ago, Dwight Smith (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) was a prime-time cornerback and special-teams performer. His graduation loss was definitely felt in 2001.
With a rugged schedule that includes nonconference road trips to Iowa, Maryland and Virginia, a .500 mark would have to viewed as a successful campaign. In reality, with very few seniors on the two-deep roster, Owens has the Zips built to make strides in 2003.
The Bobcats lost a heartbreaker in the season opener last year to Akron (31-29) while also falling in close ones to bowl-bound squads Iowa State (31-28) and Toledo (48-41). After so many demoralizing setbacks, it's no surprise they paid the price over the final three weeks of the season, when they were outscored 86-25 against Bowling Green, Marshall and N.C. State. Their final record was 1-10.
This season, the Bobcats will rely on the veteran presence of seniors Dontrell Jackson and Fred Ray splitting time at QB, with hard-nosed Chad Brinker the primary running threat. Up front, though, only two starters return.
Defensively, only three starters return, all seniors. There's no question that big years are needed from DT Lamar Martin, SS Joe Sellers and blue-chip CB Bop White, an NFL prospect. Ohio State transfer Rob Stover will seek to provide an impact at the bandit position.
Coach Jim Hofher enters his second year as head coach of the Bulls, who are coming off a 3-8 record in 2001 (with victories over Connecticut, Ohio and Army). Sophomore QB Randall Secky, last year's backup who shows decent arm strength, leads the way on offense.
While talented juco transfer Azzaam Stallsworth could provide an impact at WR to complement senior Andre Forde, Secky's favorite target figures to be top-flight senior TE Chad Bartoszek, a sure-handed 6-6, 257-pounder who had the second-most catches in '01 (42) of any returning TE this year. Scat-back Marquis Dwarte (5-6, 173) has demonstrated surprising durability for a RB his dimensions.
The defense returns just four starters and will feature a completely rebuilt front four, where Omari Jordan's graduation loss was the most critical. Junior MLB Lamar Wilcher is solid, with SS J.J. Gibson and FS Mark Graham the other headliners.
MAC West Division
Under second-year head coach Urban Meyer -- who came to Bowling Green from Notre Dame, where he was a key offensive assistant -- the Falcons have a good chance to finish first in the MAC West. There's no question that Meyer has significantly upgraded the talent base, while benefiting from quality holdovers such as QB Josh Harris, RB Joe Alls and WR Robert Redd.
When Harris became the starter late last season, everything came together for the Falcons' offense. They posted season highs with 43 points against Northwestern and 56 points in the finale against Toledo. Redd and Alls offer exciting skill-position talent, while talented freshman RB P.J. Pope has emerged during preseason practice as a quality backup to Alls. With three starters returning up front, where senior Jon Mazur is a blue-chip center, the Falcons should be able to light up the scoreboard consistently.
And unlike last year, where the situation early on was reversed, the Falcons might have to be prepared to outscore the opposition until the restructured defense comes together. There are concerns about how strong they'll be up front, with three new starters to go along with standout DT Alex Glantzis. They'll also be breaking in two new starters at LB, although top-flight MLB Chris Haneline returns. Reliable, talented junior CB Janssen Patton is regarded as one of the MAC's elite defensive players.
Following a 10-2 campaign that included the MAC championship and a victory over Cincinnati in the Motor City Bowl, coach Tom Amstutz's Rockets need to restructure if they hope to defend the crown. The reason is simple: It's practically impossible in one year to make up for the loss of superlative performers like QB Tavares Bolden and RB Chester Taylor. Bolden was a multidimensional signal caller who gave defenses fits, while Taylor will go down as one of the top players in MAC history.
So the pressure is on their replacements, senior QB Brian Jones and sixth-year senior RB William Bratton. Jones, a southpaw and former juco transfer, played the entire game against Bowling Green last year while filling in for the injured Bolden. The Rockets lost that game 56-21, with Jones tossing three TDs and three interceptions. Bratton opens as the starting RB after gaining a medical redshirt last year due to a back injury sustained in the 2001 season opener against Minnesota. Fortunately for Jones, the Rockets return a solid offensive line and a talented, proven WR tandem (seniors Carl Ford and Donta Greene).
Defensively, the back seven should be in good shape, highlighted by linebackers Tom Ward and David Gardner (Defensive MVP of Motor City Bowl) and CB Brandon Hefflin. But the front four is a huge question mark, since every starter was lost to graduation.
With 18 starters returning -- including nine on a defense that finished second in the MAC last year, when it created four TDs -- coach Joe Novak's Huskies have a chance to surprise some people in the MAC West. This is contingent, however, on the ability of sophomore Josh Haldi adequately replaces Chris Finlen at QB. Haldi has played in just three games, taking a grand total of just 20 snaps.
Haldi does have a decent supporting cast to take the pressure off. 1,000-yard rusher Thomas Hammock returns for his final campaign in DeKalb, while backup Michael Turner proved himself two years ago when he galloped for 985 yards.
The primary target for Haldi will be senior P.J. Fleck (59 receptions in 2001). Last year at this time, the offensive line, minus standout Ryan Diem (who had moved on to the NFL), was a major source of concern. This year, it's much more stable, with four starters returning up front.
MLB Nick Duffy and SS Akil Grant set the tone for the veteran defense. Of the Huskies' six wins last year, five were come-from-behind victories, so this team has plenty of confidence at gut-check time. Proven junior PK Steve Azar connected on 20-of-26 FGs last season.
The Cardinals are aiming for their first winning season since 1996 (8-4 overall, including a loss to Nevada in the Las Vegas Bowl), thanks to the return of super blue-chip senior RB Marcus Merriweather (6-1, 215). Merriweather, who figures to be the workhorse of Ball State's offense, needs 1,000 yards this season to break the school career rushing record held by Bernie Parmalee.
With opponents keying on Merriweather, junior QB Talmadge Hill will be called on to provide the necessary consistency. Hill could have a big-time target if redshirt freshman wideout Ryan Hahaj (6-4, 195) can make a big splash.
Defensively, the Cardinals lost six starters to graduation, with the primary concern being the defensive front. Quality play at LB is supplied by productive junior Lorenzo Scott, while Steve Monson and Jesse Avant return at CB.
Last year, coach Gary Darnell's squad suffered its first losing season since 1996. Considering the brutal 2002 nonconference schedule and the loss of so many starters on offense, getting back into contention in the MAC West will prove challenging. The Broncos travel to the Big House to take on Michigan and also face Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette. Virginia Tech comes to Kalamazoo in late September.
Junior QB Jon Drach has been bothered by a tender elbow and figures to split time, at least early in the season, with juco transfer Chad Munson, who joined the team in August. Drach gained some starting experience last year, so that should help. But he'll be working behind an inexperienced line that returns just two starters.
Depending on how the line holds up, Drach has some weapons at his disposal: blue-chip senior TE Mobolaji Afariogun and senior WR Jermaine Lewis (6-4, 205), who shifted from DB. Junior Phil Reed (5-10, 210), regarded as one of the team's strongest players, takes over as the starting tailback.
The Broncos would have had the top defensive line in the Mid-American Conference, but athletic senior DE Anthony Allsbury went down with a season-ending knee injury in early August. That's a huge blow, because he was the best player on a defense that lost three key performers in the secondary to graduation.
Entering his third year as head coach of the Chippewas, Mike DeBord is hoping to improve on a 3-8 '01 campaign, due in large part to the return of 18 starters and the place-kicker and punter.
The offense is led by junior RB Terrence Jackson, senior WR Rob Turner and senior OG Kyle Croskey. Turner hauled in 50 receptions, earning first team Academic All-American honors. Jackson set a school record last year, rushing for over 100 yards in seven straight games. But Jackson suffered a broken foot, which required surgery, during preseason practice and doesn't figure to return until late September or early October. Until Jackson is back in the starting lineup, Kenan Lawhorne will be filling in along with Robbie Mixon.
The concern offensively is at QB, where Derrick Vickers will seek to prove he can get it done over the long haul. Last year, he started the first six games before finishing on the injury list. Senior Derek Gorney was also expected to be in the mix, but he's been hampered by a sprained ankle.
Defensively, the strength is along the interior at DT and at LB. Senior LB Darvin Lewis, who is back at full strength from a 2001 knee injury, ranks as the top defensive player in the MAC when it comes to projecting to the NFL. With his awesome talent, Lewis could even see action at SS in certain defensive schemes. The other headliners include senior DT Marvin Smith and senior ILB Jovan Clarke.
The Eagles finished just 2-9 last season; they were shut out by Connecticut 19-0 and lost to Division I-AA Indiana State 21-14. Over the past three years, the Eagles are just 9-24. The lone victories in 2001 came against Southeast Missouri State (16-12) and Buffalo (24-20).
While senior Kevin Walter ranks as one of the MAC's top wideouts, we'll have to see if the Eagles find a QB who can get him the football consistently. Senior Troy Edwards beat out junior Jeff Crooks for the starting job. Crooks started the first three games of 2001 before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. The offensive line, which is being completely rebuilt, is a major question mark.
Defensively, four starters return up front, but the back seven has to be a major source of concern with so much inexperience.