We’re now in the second “half” of the 2012 season, so the time for contenders and pretenders to be “unmasked” is here, if it hasn’t happened already. There still is time for teams to make a late charge –- both going up or down in the standings is possible, mind you -– but teams are starting to reveal their stripes.
As a result, I’ve made some changes in the rankings, especially in the upper echelon. The teams at the bottom of the rankings will play one another enough to sort things out, but at the top? That's why I get paid the big bucks, isn't it?
Here is a look at the league’s 13 teams, presented in the order I would rank them at this point in the season. …
1. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (6-1, 3-0) (LW #3): Last week I wrote that “style” mattered, especially when you are splitting hairs between the top teams in the league. Well, the Huskies have been the most “stylish” team in the MAC in recent weeks, and they really were stylin’ in a 45-3 home romp over Buffalo. But the game that has stuck in my mind was the 12-point victory at Ball State … it reinforced the notion that this team is wearing down opponents and pulling away late, even against good teams. And the not-so-good teams? NIU has buried them, something the two other top contenders haven’t been doing.
2. OHIO (7-0, 3-0) (LW #2): Congrats to the Bobcat on earning a spot in the Top 25 for the first time in 40 years. Congrats especially on putting together that fine record despite a rash of injuries that few MAC teams could handle. But again, when it comes to style … Ohio has been lacking. For the third week in a row the Bobcats won a relatively narrow victory against an inferior foe. Here’s a stat to chew on: The past three weeks have seen OU claim single-digit victories against three teams that have combined for two wins this season – and both of those wins were against FCS teams. Notice I’ve never said this team won’t go 12-0 or won’t win the MAC … but to this point the Bobcats haven’t dominated in the way you might expect.
3. TOLEDO (6-1, 4-0) (LW #1): I gave the Rockets a pass when they struggled to beat Central Michigan. But I called last Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan a “bye week,” and instead it was a full-fledged challenge, especially for the UT defense, before the Rockets knocked off a winless team. Again, style points: The Eagles were a team Toledo should have dominated and didn’t, in the same way the Chippewas the week before were a team the Rockets should have dominated. A lackluster performance at home against Cincinnati week isn’t going to get it done, but I warn fans of Northern Illinois and Ohio: If the Rockets pull off the upset, well, style matters.
4. KENT STATE (5-1, 3-0) (LW #5): I really like the way the Golden Flashes scored a convincing road victory over an Army team that nearly beat Northern Illinois in mid-September. At this point Dri Archer has become a force of nature returning kickoffs and running the ball, while this defense clearly is one of the best in the MAC. They will be challenged again in the next few weeks, hosting Western Michigan this Saturday before hitting the road to take on Rutgers the following week. I am strongly tempted to make the MAC’s “Top Three” a quartet; if KSU wins the next two weeks, it’s going to happen.
5. BALL STATE (4-3, 2-2) (LW #6): The Cardinals found a way to win a must-win game by beating Western Michigan in a contest that saw both teams make amazing late pushes to force overtime. Now BSU hits the road for three weeks in a row, starting with another must-win game at Central Michigan. The two losses this team has suffered in league play probably will cost the Cards a shot at the West Division title, but a potential bowl bid likely hangs in the balance of a three-game stretch that includes games at Army, at Toledo and at home against Ohio. Ball State can get to six wins even if it loses all three of those contests, but without a signature win –- and any of those three games would be a signature win –- the Cards may be too unappealing to earn a bowl bid.
6. WESTERN MICHIGAN (3-4, 1-2) (LW #4): Last week Ball State was the best team with a 1-2 MAC record, and this week the Broncos earn that honor after a heartbreaking overtime loss at Ball State. WMU needs to regroup quickly, as it will face another tough challenge at Kent State Saturday, following by a critical contest at home against Northern Illinois the following week. If the Broncos lose those two games, they still could win their final three (at Central Michigan, at Buffalo and home against Eastern Michigan) and reach bowl eligibility with six victories. But, like the Cardinals, WMU would lack a signature win that would make it a more enticing team for potential bowl suitors.
7. BOWLING GREEN (4-3, 2-1) (LW #8): The Falcons seem to have things rolling thanks to a convincing win over Miami, a victory made even tougher since BG was without one of its top defenders in senior LB Dwayne Woods. But Bowling Green is about to enter the “trap” portion of the schedule, playing at UMass this Saturday and home against Eastern Michigan the next. Seems like two sure victories, right? Well, overlooking either of those two teams would be disastrous if the Falcons still wish to win the East, since their two games after that feature stout tests at Ohio and at home against Kent State.
8. MIAMI (3-4, 2-1) (LW #7): The RedHawks suffered a disappointing loss at Bowling Green Saturday, failing to generate much offense and giving up the final 20 points of the game. Miami will benefit from a bye this week as it prepares for a contest at home against Ohio the following Saturday. If this team retains its aspirations for a division title and a bowl bid, now is the time to get things turned around and heading in the right direction. Looming on the horizon are other tough contests besides the game against the Bobcats, most notably matchups against Ball State and Kent State.
9. BUFFALO (1-5, 0-3) (LW #9): The Bulls had been playing well in recent weeks, but they weren’t able to put up much of a fight in suffering a lopsided loss at Northern Illinois last week. Yes, they miss running back Brandon Oliver, and yes, the schedule has been a meat-grinder. I will leave them in this spot based on strong efforts against UConn and Ohio in the past –- and the fact that none of the teams below the Bulls have proven to be worthy of surpassing them, although Akron is close. But UB needs to return to that effort level from earlier in the season as it hits a stretch of home games against tough opponents in Pittsburgh, Toledo, Miami and Western Michigan.
10. AKRON (1-6, 0-3) (LW #11): The Zips don’t have a record significantly different than last season, but they obviously are significantly better. Their string of solid efforts that made better opponents squirm continued for the fourth week in a row when Akron went to Ohio, and gave the Bobcats a tussle before falling. Things don’t get any easier for UA this week as the Zips host Northern Illinois, but there are still some winnable games on the schedule if this team continues to give effort at this level.
11. CENTRAL MICHIGAN (2-4, 0-2) (LW #10): The Chippewas continued to struggle with turnovers and mistakes in a home loss to Navy on national TV Friday. Yes, this group is young at a lot of positions, but it just doesn’t seem to be close to finding a solution to its problems. CMU has three straight home games on the schedule, starting this Saturday against a Ball State team that should provide a good test, followed by Akron and Western Michigan. Things get easier at the end of the season … but will anyone in Mt. Pleasant care at that point?
12. EASTERN MICHIGAN (0-6, 0-3) (LW #12): Listen, I’m done making predictions about this team. I thought the Eagles would be improved, and instead they have struggled. I thought EMU would give Kent State a battle, and instead it rolled over and lost at home by 27 points. So I thought Toledo would roll them, and instead Eastern Michigan did the rolling, scoring 47 points –- more than it has in any TWO other games combined this season. Was that performance real or a mirage? I have a feeling we’ll get an answer this Saturday when the Eagles host Army.
13. MASSACHUSETTS (0-6, 0-3) (LW #13): The Minutemen have had a week to lick their wounds after getting pounded at Western Michigan. But UMass had looked better in the previous weeks, giving Miami and Ohio fits before losing. Will the combination of a difficult loss, an extra week to prepare and a home game help UMass claim that elusive first victory since joining the FBS ranks when Bowling Green comes to town Saturday?Agree? Disagree? Want to add to the discussion? Use the "Post a Comment" area below to voice your opinions. Keep it clean, keep it civil, and it will be all good. Join in NOW!