The past year was one that will be remembered for a long time by Mid-American Conference fans. The league put a team (Northern Illinois) in a BCS bowl game for the first time and a conference player (Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher) was the first player taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Don't look for either to happen again soon -- or, frankly, ever again.
NIU and Toledo have top-25 potential this fall, thanks to a handful of NFL draft hopefuls. But the best NFL possibilities appear to be Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack and Kent State running back Dri Archer. Both are Florida natives who were bypassed by the state schools in the recruiting process. Mack is a big-play guy with good physical ability, while Archer has excellent speed and is one of the most explosive players in the nation.
The league as a whole has a shot at some national attention early in the season, when MAC teams face top-25 teams Florida and Louisville and also get opportunities for upsets against Missouri and Iowa.
Top senior prospects
Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack: A case can be made that Mack (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) is one of the 10 most underrated players in college football. He has been a big-play machine in his three seasons as a starter, racking up 18 sacks, 56 tackles for loss, 11 forced fumbles, two blocked kicks and an interception in his career. He is 19 tackles for loss shy of setting the NCAA career record. Mack has a good first step off the edge and also is physical. Mack, from Fort Pierce, Fla., was a third-team all-state pick in high school. Mack is currently listed as the 19th best college player in the nation on NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah's Talented Top 50 list.
Kent State RB Dri Archer: He's another underrated player who burst on the scene in a big way last season. Archer (5-8, 175) redshirted in 2011 after rushing for a combined 386 yards in his first two seasons, then proceeded to run for 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. A new coaching staff plans to use him more in the slot this fall. Archer has big-time speed and elusiveness (he led the nation with 10 runs of 40-plus yards last season, per cfbstats.com), and also is a dangerous receiver and kick returner (three touchdowns on 16 returns last season). His size precludes him from being an every-down back -- he averaged only 11.3 carries per game last fall -- but his explosiveness makes him an intriguing pro prospect. He played in the same backfield at Venice (Fla.) High as Florida H-back Trey Burton. Archer's speed is real: He finished second in the state in 2009 in the 100 meters, one spot ahead of Denard Robinson -- the winner in state-record time was Dentarius Locke, now one of the nation's top college sprinters at Florida State.
Toledo C Zac Kerin: Kerin (6-5, 300) is one of the nation's top 10 centers and a physical load in the middle of the line. He will be a three-year starter and is equally proficient in blocking for the run or the pass. He also could play guard at the next level.
Toledo WR Bernard Reedy: Reedy (5-9, 175) is one of the most exciting players in the nation. He has excellent speed (sub-4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and scored 10 total touchdowns last season -- six as a receiver and four as a return man. Last season was his first as the Rockets' go-to receiver and he responded with an 88-catch season. While he's listed at 5-9, he probably is an inch shorter and has to work on becoming more physical. He's another Florida high school product bypassed by the state schools.
Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch: He will be one of the most closely scrutinized quarterbacks in the nation this fall. NIU already has begun a Heisman "campaign" for Lynch (6-0, 216) -- called "Lynch for Six" -- and he is coming off a season in which he finished second in the nation in total yards (behind only Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy-winning Johnny Manziel) and seventh in Heisman voting. Lynch threw for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns and added 1,815 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground as a first-time starter. But he struggled mightily in games against "big six" teams Iowa and Florida State, especially as a passer (a combined 21-of-57 for 230 yards), and his lack of height and arm strength is worrisome.
Talented Top 50
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Ohio CB Travis Carrie: Carrie (5-11, 212), a sixth-year senior, missed last season with a shoulder injury but is the most complete corner in the MAC when healthy. He has good speed and owns five interceptions and 19 pass breakups in his career. He also is willing in run support, but his injury history is a red flag.
Bowling Green P Brian Schmiedebusch: He is one of the best punters in the nation -- has has a career average of 42.8 yards per attempt. He began his career at Division II Findlay (Ohio) before transferring to Bowling Green for his sophomore season. A third of his 129 career punts have landed inside the 20-yard line and 29 percent have traveled at least 50 yards.
Toledo RB David Fluellen: Fluellen (6-0, 214) has been a key part of some powerful offenses since arriving at Toledo. He was a busy reserve in his first two seasons, then became the featured back last season and rushed for 1,498 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is a solid receiver. He has average speed but can turn the corner, and also is a proficient inside runner. As for handling a heavy workload, Fluellen had at least 20 carries in 10 games last season and had two games with at least 34.
Northern Illinois SS Jimmie Ward: Ward (5-11, 192) will be a three-year starter for the Huskies and has made 204 tackles in the past two seasons. He is physical against the run and has four interceptions and 16 pass breakups in his career. He also has blocked four kicks. Ward lacks top-flight speed but does pack a punch when tackling.
Western Michigan SS Johnnie Simon: A new staff is changing the Broncos' defensive scheme from a 3-3-5 to a conventional 4-3, and Simon (6-0, 197) is moving from the rover position to an outside linebacker spot. Simon is a physical player whose best NFL position would be strong safety. He has been extremely productive the past two seasons (217 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three picks, 10 pass breakups). He is good against the run, but he lacks top-flight speed.
Miami CB Dayonne Nunley: He might be the best cover corner in the league, but his size (5-8, 181) and lack of top-end speed are concerns. He will be a four-year starter and has 12 picks -- which leads all current players nationally -- and 25 pass breakups in his career. Despite his lack of size, he has been solid in run support, too, as he has 19 tackles for loss.
Ball State OG Jordan Hansel: Hansel (6-4, 326) is a middle-of-the-line mauler who has good size and is especially proficient as a run blocker. Hansel, who never redshirted and will be a four-year starter, has gained 50 pounds since signing with the Cardinals. His pass blocking needs some work.
Kent State DT Roosevelt Nix: Nix certainly can play but his size (5-11, 267) is an issue. He has 20.5 sacks, 52 tackles for loss and 10 forced fumbles in his career, and has played mostly at tackle for the Golden Flashes. He was the MAC defensive player of the year as a true freshman in 2010. Can he play end or outside linebacker at the next level? He certainly can't be a tackle in the NFL.
Bowling Green SS Jerry "BooBoo" Gates: Gates (5-11, 213) will be a three-year starter for the Falcons, and while he has been a solid player in the secondary, it's his special-teams work that makes him an NFL draft possibility. He has returned two kickoffs and one punt for scores. He has five picks and five pass breakups in his career.
Buffalo RB Branden Oliver: Oliver (5-8, 202) was bothered by a leg injury, and missed five full games and part of four others last season, yet still rushed for 821 yards and five touchdowns. He ran for 1,395 yards and 13 touchdowns as the full-time starter in 2011. Oliver has 12 100-yard games in his career and showed excellent potential as a receiver in 2011. He has good speed and has gained almost 25 pounds since signing with Buffalo out of high school in Miami. Oliver is the cousin of NFL WR Roscoe Parrish.
Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton: Tettleton (6-0, 198) slumped a bit last season after a sterling sophomore campaign. He has thrown 46 touchdown passes and run for 15 scores in his career. He is an accurate passer with good mobility, but suffered last season from a lack of receiving options and some unease in the pocket. His lack of height and arm strength are concerns. He is the son of former major-league catcher Mickey Tettleton.
Kent State FB Trayion Durham: Durham (6-0, 248) was part of a devastating 1-2 rushing attack with Archer last season, finishing with 1,346 yards and 14 touchdowns and helping Kent State finish 18th in the nation in rushing offense. Durham, a junior, has been asked to lose some weight as Kent State tweaks its offense in an effort to let Archer play in space more. In that scenario, Durham -- whose blocking remains a bit of a concern -- will see more time as the featured back. Durham's receiving ability is a question, too.
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Central Michigan C Nick Beamish: Beamish (6-3, 305) started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season and gained notice for his solid play. He is strong at the point of attack and moves people around in the running game. He has the potential to be a top-10 center as a senior.
Central Michigan WR Titus Davis: Davis (6-2, 190), a junior, is an intriguing prospect. He has nice size and athleticism, and while he's not a blazer, he can get deep: He averaged 20 yards per catch last season, the highest average in the nation for anyone with more than 40 receptions (he had 43 for 860 yards and eight touchdowns). He also caught eight touchdown passes as a true freshman in 2011. Davis was suspended for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl last season for a violation of team rules.
Toledo WR Alonzo Russell: Russell has good size (6-4, 190) and was highly productive as a redshirt freshman last season (56 receptions, 960 yards, five touchdowns -- he and Reedy form an impressive 1-2 receiving duo. Russell runs well and can get deep, but he remains a bit raw as a route runner. Russell was a three-star recruit out of prep school in New York and received offers from, among others, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina State.
Western Michigan WR Jaime Wilson: Wilson (5-11, 196) made an immediate impact as a true freshman last season, leading the pass-happy Broncos in receptions (67), receiving yards (792) and receiving touchdowns (six). He also led the MAC in punt-return average and was named the league's freshman of the year. Wilson was a three-star prospect in high school at tradition-laden Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Central. He has good speed and is an advanced route runner for his age, but he needs to show he can be a true deep threat.
Bowling Green WR Chris Gallon: Gallon has impressive size (6-4, 221), and while he isn't a burner, he has decent speed and knows how to use his size to his advantage. He started as a redshirt freshman last season and led the Falcons in receptions (54), receiving yards (720) and receiving touchdowns (six). Gallon played at prep powerhouse Orlando Dr. Phillips, and he had some off-field issues in high school related to eligibility concerns and a hazing incident.
Toledo OG Greg Mancz: Mancz (6-5, 295), a junior, is heading into his third season as a starter. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2010, he received freshman All-America mention in 2011, when Rockets coaches say he played as well as anyone on a veteran line. He is physical and aggressive, and also could play center. His pass protection needs some work.
Bowling Green OLB Gabe Martin: Martin (6-1, 224) was a first-time starter as a sophomore last season at the Falcons' rover position and earned All-MAC honors. He had a knack for the big play -- finishing with 4.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, an interception and two forced fumbles -- and was a big reason the Falcons finished sixth nationally in total defense.
Western Michigan SS Justin Currie: Currie (6-2, 204), a junior, has good size and runs relatively well. He is active in run support but needs to improve his coverage skills.
Toledo K Jeremiah Detmer: The junior is a little guy (5-8, 170) with a big leg. Detmer is 29-of-35 in his career, with two field goals of 50-plus yards; he is 9-of-12 from 40-plus yards in two seasons. A bit more than 27 percent of his 85 kickoffs last season were touchbacks. He kicked a school-record 24 field goals last season.
Eight must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31, Toledo at Florida: This won't be an easy opener for Florida. Toledo's strong offensive interior will be going against a remade Florida defensive line. It also is a chance for Toledo's skill-position guys (Fluellen, Reedy and Russell) to make some national noise against what should be an excellent secondary.
Aug. 31, Northern Illinois at Iowa: Lynch struggled throwing the ball in a one-point loss to Iowa last season, and he needs to play well against a big-school opponent. Ward will have a chance to go against one of the nation's top ends in Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Aug. 31, Buffalo at Ohio State: In seven career games against "big six" opponents, Mack has three sacks. He will be going against the best offensive line he has seen in this one. This also is a chance for Oliver to gain some national attention.
Sept. 7, Toledo at Missouri: This will be the second road game in a row for the Rockets against an SEC team. One plus for Toledo: Mizzou's defense shouldn't be anything close to as good as Florida's, so the Rockets' offensive playmakers could have big days.
Sept. 14, Kent State at LSU: This will be the best defense Archer and Durham see all season. Can they make an impact? It also will be the best offensive line Nix sees this fall. What will he do? Against national champion Alabama in 2011, Nix had six tackles and a sack.
Sept. 21, Kent State at Penn State: This is another chance for Archer, Durham and Nix to show their wares. Penn State's strong defensive front seven will look to bottle up Archer and Durham.
Nov. 12, Ohio at Bowling Green: This might determine the MAC East title. Tettleton will be going against what should be a stingy defense, and Carrie should have his hands full with Gallon.
Nov. 20, Northern Illinois at Toledo: These are the two most talented teams in the league, and the winner of this one almost certainly wins the MAC West title. Lynch rolled up a season-high 569 yards of total offense in a win over the Rockets last fall.