Leading up to the start of the season, Rotoworld will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst-case scenarios. This week: The Middle Atlantic.
Middle Atlantic Fantasy Projections
Middle Atlantic Projected Standings
2018 record: 9-4 (6-2 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: There may be a lineman that has slightly better odds of being drafted, but QB Nathan Rourke (6'2/208) is the name that will be most talked about. Rourke is a legit dual-threat quarterback. He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and rushed for 860 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. There's a chance an NFL team sees Rourke as a Taysom Hill-type weapon, giving him a chance to be a Day 3 pick. However, he's more likely to end up as an undrafted free agent.
The case for: Nathan Rourke is the most important player in the MAC, and he'll have the Bobcats, at least, competitive in almost all conference games. Rourke is the ultimate teammate elevator, keeping opposing defenses honest with his rushing ability and putting his receivers in good positions to win one-on-one matchups. Rourke should flirt with 30+ touchdowns in 2019.
Rourke provides the ceiling, but coach Frank Solich provides the floor. Solich is back for his 15th season with the program, and they've won at least six games in 10-straight seasons. The stability helps with recruiting -- we can expect a few freshmen to be starters and a few sophomores to be difference makers -- and game planning.
On defense, the Bobcats have youth on their side with seven returning starters. Last season, the defense was well below average, so there's room for the youngsters to elevate, even if that means a slightly below-average defense. Look for up-and-coming pass defenders to partially mask weaknesses on the interior. Overall, the defense should be just good enough to hang in there while letting Rourke take over on offense.
The case against: Offensive turnover. And I'm not talking interceptions and fumbles. Ohio lost a few capable running backs, Papi White, and three All-Conference linemen. Of the three losses, the linemen are by far the bigger issue. Rourke is good enough to elevate his running backs (or just run it himself) and receivers but a bad o-line would leave the door open to more than a few losses. If Ohio can't get average linemen play, it will be tough for Ohio to repeat its 2018 offensive output. And ultimately wins.
Vegas over/under win total: 7.5
2018 record: 10-4 (7-1 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: OT Kayode Awosika (6'5/300) can add some bulk, but he was still an above-average run-blocker last year. Pro Football Focus noted Awosika had the best run-blocking grade in 2018 among returning MAC tackles. Awosika could be in play for the 2021 NFL Draft if he can improve as a pass-blocker. Ultimately, he's probably just a UDFA prospect.
The case for: As the win total (6) indicates, there's almost no way Buffalo wins 10 games as they did last year, but this is how Buffalo can stay competitive for a MAC title: Buffalo returns a really strong offensive line -- arguably the best in the conference actually -- and the running game should be among the best in the conference with RB Jaret Patterson running behind the o-line. The rushing game, especially in the cold weather, should keep games within reach even when they're projected to lose.
Buffalo could also get lucky with their next quarterback following the loss of Tyree Jackson. As of now, HC Lance Leipold hasn't made a starting quarterback decision with three options battling it out. It's a competition that probably will go down to the wire, and possibly into the season. My guess is that Kyle Vantrease (6'3/232) wins the starting job.
The Bulls are an average to above-average MAC defense with solid talent at all three levels of the defense. If the youngsters take a step forward -- and there are a lot of youngsters stepping into bigger roles -- then this defense can go from aggressively solid to aggressively strong. Last year, Buffalo was
The case against: Offensive and defensive turnover. QB Tyree Jackson, WR Anthony Johnson, and LB Khalil Hodge were awesome and productive talents, and there's zero expectation that their replacements will even fill 90% of their production. Only having seven returning starters is bad news.
Vegas over/under win total: 6
2018 record: 6-6 (6-2 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Andrew Homer (6'6/248) is more likely to enter the 2021 draft, but there's an outside chance Homer does enough this season to warrant an early declaration. Homer has NFL size and posted a 16-231-3 receiving line with over 200 blocking reps as a sophomore. Consider Homer a 2021 UDFA prospect for now.
The case for: The RedHawks receiving options are better than most in the conference. That starts with receiver Jack Sorenson and emerging tight end Andrew Homer, who I just outlined above. Sorenson managed to pick up 742 yards on 53 receptions as a sophomore last year. He has enough skill to (minimally) elevate his starting quarterback… whoever that will be.
The case against: Quarterback play could be a major problem. Gus Ragland, last season's starter, had the best adjusted completion percentage in the conference, so it's unlikely that the 2019 starter will match his play. Currently, the projected starter is Jackson Williamson, who has zero in-game experience. Competing with Williams are freshmen AJ Mayer and Brett Gabbert. It's a unit that's largely wait-and-see. There's very little to analyze given the inexperience.
Vegas over/under win total: 6
2018 record: 2-10 (1-7 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Jo-El Shaw (6'1/230) is a powerful, goalline back who was more opportunity for a more productive season as the top back on the roster. Last year, Shaw took care of the football and was able to pick up a respectable 3.34 yards after contact. There's a chance Shaw ends up with double-digit touchdowns and receptions in 2019. Consider Shaw a UDFA prospect.
The case for: Former four-star and Auburn commit Woody Barrett is projected for the second-most fantasy points in the conference, and his upside is a lot higher than what I projected above. Barrett was wild as a passer last year, but he was his first season and he was only a sophomore. As I showed, quarterbacks take bigger leaps when they're young, so I'm expecting Barrett to be more efficient passing in 2019. But even if he's a similar passer, Barrett showed high-end rushing ability, posting 503 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Barrett has 15/10 passing/rushing touchdown upside.
Helping Barrett out will be running back Jo-El Shaw and a capable receiving group. Shaw will be walking into a bigger workload with the depth chart opening up, and he's shown enough power to be cautiously optimistic that he's ready for 125-175 touches. Isaiah McKoy, Mike Carrigan, and Antwan Davis return at receiver, giving them an opportunity to be more dynamic with another offseason with Barrett. Overall, the offense returns eight starters.
On defense, there's only one way to go and that's up. Last year's defense was killed by an offense that couldn't keep them off the field. Well, the offense should be better. But more importantly, the defense returns a lot of starters, especially in the secondary. Overall, the defense should go from horrendous to bad, which should be the difference of a win or two.
The case against: Well, the team was really bad last year and it's rare for one-year turnarounds. The offense was somewhat explosive but lacked consistency. Losing running back Justin Rankin doesn't help. And the defense was bad all the way around. The Golden Flashes haven't won five games since 2012.
Vegas over/under win total: 4
2018 record: 4-8 (2-6 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: OT/OG Trevor Brown (6'5/300) will be a three-year starter after this season, but he might need to add weight before the draft as he likely will go from tackle to guard. Overall, strength has been an issue for Brown and it shows up even more so against the run. Brown is nothing more than a UDFA prospect unless he takes major strides in 2019.
The case for: Akron isn't expected to be very competitive in 2019, unless new head coach Tom Arth exceeds expectations. Arth is an Ohio guy. He's played football in the state, coached in the state, and should be able to recruit in the state… eventually. As for year one, Arth is going to need his players to buy in to his culture and rally a group that was 2-6 in conference last year.
Luckily, there is some talent and returning players on the roster. They're just young. Not ideal when it comes to projecting the 2019 season, but it's also the type of players who buy in to a new coaching staff since they have years with it. Perhaps no group is better than the receivers, lead by Andre Williams, who I have projected for 673 yards. His ability to win deep is the best way the Zips can move the ball. Williams and quarterback Kato Nelson should continue to grow together. Hopefully they show more consistency instead of relying on the big play.
There's a new defensive coordinator in town as well, and he had some success in 2018. Matt Feeney led a Chattanooga defense that saw it's opponent's points per game drop by 4.8 last year. Pretty impressive. Will that happen in Akron, too? Probably not, but it's a coaching staff that should be developing with their eyes on the 2020 season.
The case against: It's hard for a new coaching staff to get results in year one, especially when so many defensive players are gone. That includes Ulysees Gilbert III (7th Round) but it didn't stop there. The result: depth problems at all levels. A few injuries would really send this defense towards the bottom, and there's a decent chance the defense regresses no matter what. The secondary is basically all brand new and it shouldn't be a surprise to see that unit among the worst in college football.
Vegas over/under win total: 3.5
2018 record: 3-9 (2-6 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Karl Brooks (6'4/235) won't be eligible for a few years, but there wasn't a clear draft prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft so bare with me. As a freshman, Brooks made 3.5 sacks and 32 total tackles (4.5 TFLs), earning above-average grades from PFF. Brooks has time to bulk up and add to his draft profile.
The case for: There's a new head coach, which is an automatic upgrade over Mike Jinks who was simply just over his head. Scot Loeffler -- that's the new HC -- is an offensive mind with experience all over the place. The former Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach should begin fixing up the critical issues in 2019 before putting in more wrinkles down the road. The expectation is the offense will be physical. That can be good… sometimes.
The offense starts at running back with Andrew Clair leading the way. He'll be running behind a very large group of linemen and it won't be surprising to see Clair as one of the better backs in the conference. I currently project him for 674 yards. That number would be higher if Bowling Green was expected to be in the lead more often. Maybe new quarterback Grant Loy can surprise.
On defense, there is some hope that the returning production in the front seven can mask the issues in the secondary. In particular, the defensive line could be a potential strength with experienced seniors leading the way.
The case against: Where to begin? As always, it's tough to be competitive in year one of a coaching change, especially when the starting quarterback transfers out. The passing offense is expected to struggle with a new quarterback in and WR Scott Miller (7th Round) out.
The secondary is expected to be really, really bad. It's basically a new group and they'll need the defensive line to step up in a big way to survive in coverage. The defensive line could be bad, not terrible, but expecting this unit to put enough pressure on the quarterback to hide the secondary is asking a lot.
Vegas over/under win total: 3
2018 record: 7-6 (5-3 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: C Bryce Harris (6'3/285) is a UDFA prospect with three years of experience at Toledo coming at both guard and center. Per Pro Football Focus, Harris only allowed one sack on 494 pass-blocking snaps last year.
The case for: Toledo's offense will be among the best in the conference, and that begins with running back Bryant Koback. The former Kentucky signee took over in the second half of the season and was the team's best way of straightening out so-so quarterback play. In 2019, the quarterback play should be more consistent since Mitchell Guadagni returns, but I'm expecting Koback to be the focal point. I project Koback for 1,131 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019.
Guadagni isn't afraid to take risks as a passer and scrambler. That can be good… if it's controlled. Last year, it arguably wasn't. But I'm anticipating more controlled chaos with an offseason to develop. If he doesn't produce, Toledo has a capable backup in Eli Peters, who averaged 6.4 yards per attempt last year.
On defense, the strength is in the secondary with a nice mix of juniors/seniors and talented youngsters. If the offense remains solid as we expect, then it will be hard for teams to come back against this secondary when Toledo has a lead.
The case against: While the secondary should be able to hold its own, there is worry that the front seven will struggle. The unit is both inexperienced and undersized, especially at linebacker. Toledo could find stopping the run difficult in 2019, just as it did last year. It's a big enough weakness for me to take the under on the Toledo win total.
Vegas over/under win total: 8
2018 record: 7-6 (5-3 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: RB LeVante Bellamy (5'9/190) has a chance to be a special teamer or, perhaps, a third-down back in the NFL. Bellamy reportedly has run a 4.28 forty with a 41.5-inch vertical jump. Those are NFL-caliber numbers. Unfortunately, Bellamy has little early-age production since he didn't breakout until 2018, his redshirt junior season. The 1,228 rushing yards from last season are nice, but teams will be focusing on his receiving ability after catching 30 passes in 2018. Ultimately, Bellamy is a UDFA prospect with a shot of sliding into Day 3.
The case for: Western Michigan returns a ton of production, and they'll not only be one of the oldest teams in the conference but of the country as well. When everyone is healthy, Western Michigan will have more than one dozen starters with prior starting experience. Most of the other teams have six to nine returning players. That's a big advantage.
As outlined above, LeVante Bellamy is an absolute difference maker as possibly the most athletic player in the conference. Bellamy, who I have projected for over 1,000 yards, can create his own yards, but he also has a strong offensive line to run behind. When Western Michigan jumps out to a lead, it's going to be difficult to come back with Bellamy running out the clock.
Defensively, Western Michigan will be among the best at stopping the run. Both the defensive line and linebackers are strengths of the team, and they should be able to hide the average secondary. With the offense looking decent and with the run defense looking great, Western Michigan looks like they'll keep games close all season long.
The case against: There aren't many holes overall, but the secondary is the biggest one. Last year, Western Michigan was playing players out of position in an attempt to find something that worked. Unfortunately, it didn't. The good news is that there are some veterans on the back end, but it's a group that hasn't played well, so improvements would be pretty unexpected.
Vegas over/under win total: 7.5
2018 record: 8-6 (6-2 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: LB/S Marshe Terry (6'4/220) has the highest ceiling on the team, but he's transferring in after being injured at UConn. If he can match his 2017 production (60 tackles, three pass deflections), there's a chance Terry earns an invite to the Senior Bowl. Consider Terry an undrafted free agent prospect for now.
The case for: Northern Illinois will have the advantage in the trenches most weeks, especially on defense. The defensive line will be among the best in the conference and there are safeties and linebackers that can help against the run as well. And yes, that includes transfer Marshe Terry. NIU's defense will swarm and slow down opposing offenses. It's an above-average group at the very least.
The offense lacks explosiveness, but a new offensive coordinator should get the most out of the limited talent. Quarterback Marcus Childers was brutal last year, yet went off in the MAC Championship. Perhaps that's a sign that the game has begun slowing down. I doubt that, but Childers should be a tad better with an offseason to grow.
Running back Tre Harbison is a 1,000-yard candidate again, and he's among the best at closing games when NIU has a lead. In addition to him, Childers adds value on scrambles, especially in short-yardage situations where he can use his 222-pound frame to fall forward.
The case against: Northern Illinois is losing two players that are all-timers in OT Max Scharping (5th Round) and EDGE Sutton Smith (6th Round). Of the two, Smith is the bigger loss. He was able to rush the passer unlike anyone on the roster, and there's no way the unit is as productive in 2019. But don't get me wrong. Scharping is a big loss, too. In fact, his absence alone was enough for me to drop Harbison's production from 2018.
Vegas over/under win total: 7
2018 record: 7-6 (5-3 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: OT Sidy Sow (6'5/336) probably won't declare for the 2020 NFL Draft, but scouts are intrigued by Sow's size and fundamentals. At Eastern Michigan last year, Sow played at left tackle, but he may be an interior lineman at the next level. Pro Football Focus gave Sow average grades against the pass and run, making him more of a projection than a finished product.
The case for: Eastern Michigan is very well-coached and are due to win some more close games after getting unlucky last year. The difference between good and bad luck could be quarterback play and many are calling a breakout season for Mike Glass. The senior averaged 8.8 yards per attempt last season, but I'm also excited about his rushing ability.
At receiver, Glass will be targeting a capable senior in Arthur Jackson, who offers the most explosiveness on the team. Jackson's ability to get downfield will open up lanes for running back Shaq Vann and Glass. This balance is certainly an advantage.
Defensively, the secondary might be the best in the conference. It's an older group, especially at safety, and they know when to get aggressive. Two of the three top corners are back and they get some additional help with a few transfers. There is both talent and depth here.
The case against: Eastern Michigan is losing a lot of talent and production on defense, especially in the front seven. The biggest loss is edge rusher Maxx Crosby, who was able to get to the quarterback consistently in 2018. There's no way EMU finds a talent like Crosby in 2019, so the pass defense is in the hands of the secondary.
Vegas over/under win total: 6.5
2018 record: 4-8 (3-5 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: OLB Christian Albright (6'2/233) was productive as a sophomore last year, totaling 67 tackles (8.0 TFLs) and 5.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus believes Albright can improve as a tackler, but they did give him above-average grades as a pass-rusher. Albright is a UDFA-level prospect with a Day 3 ceiling. It's likely that we won't see him declare until the 2021 NFL Draft.
The case for: Ball State hasn't been good, but there is a lot of returning production this season. How much does returning production matter when it's not exactly great returning production? Well, we'll have to find out. But I'm guessing that there are a few upsets in reach for the Cardinals.
Easily the biggest strength of the team is at receiver. Riley Miller and Justin Hall are my first and second projected receivers in the conference, and they should elevate new quarterback Drew Plitt, who has some breakout potential. Last year, Miller erupted for 878 yards and Hall caught 69 passes.
The case against: Losing UDFA prospect quarterback Riley Neal to the transfer portal hurts the offensive ceiling, especially when running back James Gilbert leaves, too. The duo combined for 18 touchdowns last year, and Neal didn't even play a full season.
Vegas over/under win total: 4
2018 record: 1-11 (0-8 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: S Devonni Smith is an up-and-coming NFL prospect after posting 96 total tackles as a redshirt freshman last year. Smith could enter the 2020 NFL Draft in theory, but he needs to add some weight to his frame to have a chance at being drafted. Pro Football Focus gave Reed slightly above average grades in coverage and against the run.
The case for: The offense has to get better… by default. Central Michigan averaged 15.0 points per game last year, the third-worst in the entire country. The best player on the team is probably just regression. That, of course, is a problem. Finding reasons for optimism is just about impossible. It's a team to bet against.
The case against: Central Michigan losing not one, but two corners to the NFL is a huge, huge deal. CB Sean Bunting (2nd Round) and CB Xavier Crawford (6th Round) are as good as it gets in the MAC, and Central Michigan went 1-11 with them. Not good, especially with how balanced the rest of the MAC West looks on paper. It's hard to find easy in-conference wins.
Vegas over/under win total: 4