Realignment brought Massachusetts to the MAC to replace Temple which returns to the Big East. The Minutemen will not be eligible for the conference title or a bowl game as they transition from the FCS under first-year head coach Charley Molnar. Molnar was Notre Dame's offensive coordinator the last two seasons.
The MAC has been difficult to gauge with champions like Miami (2010) and Buffalo (2008) coming from out of nowhere. The last time the computer's MAC champion prognostication was correct was in 2009 when Central Michigan claimed the title.
Last year, Toledo was expected to take it all and would have played for the title, had it not been for a ridiculous 63-60 shootout loss that gave Northern Illinois the division tie-breaker. The Huskies went on to defeat Ohio 23-20 in the championship game on a 33-yard field goal as time expired, capping a comeback from a 20-0 halftime deficit. It was NIU's second-ever MAC title and first since 1983. The Huskies went on to defeat Sun Belt champion Arkansas State 38-20 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl to finish 11-3 under first-year head coach Dave Doeren who replaced Jerry Kill when he left DeKalb to go to Minnesota. NIU also finished 11-3 in 2010.
Ohio pulled off a comeback of its own when quarterback Tyler Tettleton's 1-yard keeper for a touchdown with 13 seconds left provided a 24-23 win over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the Bobcats' first-ever bowl win (1-5). It was the first lead of the game for Ohio which fell behind 9-0 quickly in the first quarter and trailed 23-10 more than halfway through the 3rd quarter.
Overall, five MAC teams advanced to the bowl season.
Temple and Toledo also pocketed victories as the Owls beat Wyoming 37-15 in the New Mexico Bowl and the Rockets edged Air Force 42-41 in the Military Bowl. Western Michigan was the conference's only bowl loser, falling 37-32 to Purdue in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl.
Toledo secured its victory when Air Force fumbled the ball out-of-bounds on an attempted 2-point conversion off a fake kick with 52 seconds left. The Rockets' defense, usually an oxymoron, sniffed out the fake and, when holder David Baska found himself with nowhere to run, the ball squirted out and toward the sideline as kicker Parker Herrington tried to chase it down. The victory made Matt Campbell a winner in his head coaching debut after the 32-year old was promoted from offensive coordinator when Tim Beckman left to replace Ron Zook at Illinois.
Temple opened the bowl season by destroying Wyoming as the Owls took a quick 21-0 lead and never looked back. In Steve Addazio's first year as head coach, the former Florida offensive coordinator led Temple to its first bowl win since 1979 and a 9-4 season overall record. The Owls are 26-12 over the last three seasons, exceeding the 25 total victories for the school from 2000-2008.
The bowl season continued to jinx Western Michigan which fell to 0-5 all-time in bowl games. The Broncos had 4 passes picked off, lost 3 fumbles, and failed to cover 2 Purdue onside kicks. Purdue also lost 4 fumbles in the often sloppy contest.
Last year's Congrove Computer Rankings forecast nailed the exact records of 3 teams and missed on five other schools by a single loss.
Conversely, Miami finished just 4-8 after being projected to go 10-2 and win the MAC East. The RedHawks have had their ups and downs over the last three seasons, going 1-11 in 2009 and 10-4 in 2010.
This year, the computer tabs Ohio to gain redemption for 2011's last-second loss. The Bobcats are favored to knock off Western Michigan by 5.13 points in Detroit after claiming the east division title by 2 games over Bowling Green. All of the other east teams begin the season at least 7.68 power points behind Ohio.
It isn't out of the realm of possibility, but heads will surely turn when they see that the computer's Ohio forecast calls for a 7.82-point win at Penn State and a 1.05-point loss at Marshall.
What appears to be a rosy 7-5 forecast for Kent State could easily turn to 3-9. The 7 victories are predicated on four swing games that the computer has leaning ever-so-slightly toward the Golden Flashes - at Kentucky (0.85), at Buffalo (1.28), at Army (0.65) and at home over Western Michigan (0.30).
Buffalo gets the other end of that stick as the computer's 2-10 forecast includes 5 home losses by less than 4 points - Kent State (1.28), Pittsburgh (2.71), Toledo (2.72), the Miami RedHawks (1.43) and Western Michigan (3.98).
The west division is much closer as Western Michigan doesn't even bring that group's highest power rating into the opening week of action. The Broncos (67.30) trail Northern Illinois (69.09) and Eastern Michigan (68.53), while only possessing a slight edge over Toledo (66.04). The schedule tilts the season in WMU's favor as it hosts all three of those teams. However, the Broncos are favored by less than 2 points in road games against Ball State and Central Michigan, and at home in contests versus Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan.
The computer favors Western Michigan by just 1.22 over the Huskies in the game that it believes will determine the division title. Over the last two season, Northern Illinois is 22-6 overall and 15-1 in MAC games.
The race in the west is tight enough to suggest that the division winner could conceivably come from almost any team. Central Michigan and Ball State are barely outside of striking distance with power ratings of 62.94 and 62.60, respectively. The computer sticks Ball State with a 1-11 record that forecasts 8 conference losses by less than 7 points, and 4 of those are by fewer than 4 points. Could the Cardinals be this year's MAC surprise?
Northern Illinois enters 2012 with streaks of 9 straight wins overall, 8 straight conference wins and 15 straight home wins. The Huskies open as the season as slim 1.67-point upset favorites over Iowa at Soldier Field in Chicago. That would be a much more satisfying result for the Huskies than last year's 49-7 blowout loss to Wisconsin at Soldier Field in week 3.
Aside from Campbell at Toledo and Molnar at UMass, the conference welcomes a new head coach at Akron. The Zips unceremoniously dumped head coach Rob Ianello after he completed his second campaign with a second consecutive 1-11 record as predicted by the computer. Last year's only victory came against VMI and 8 straight losses followed. Ianello was 1-21 vs. FBS teams and 1-1 vs. FCS schools.
Terry Bowden was somehow lured out of retirement to take his place, signaling Bowden's return to the FBS for the first time since coaching Auburn from 1993 through the midway point of the 1998 season when he was fired after a 1-5 start. His 47-17-1 record with the Tigers included an undefeated 11-0 campaign in his inaugural year.
Even with the change at the top, Akron still gets saddled with the prediction of yet another 1-11 season and winless MAC campaign, falling even to newcomer UMass at home by the smallest of margins (0.58).
After serving as an analyst with ABC, Bowden returned to the sidelines as the head coach of Division II North Alabama in 2009 and he compiled a record of 29-10 over three seasons with three playoff berths. Bowden was an assistant at Akron in 1986 in Gerry Faust's first season after Faust was fired from Notre Dame and replaced by Lou Holtz.