CANTON, Ohio (AP) - Western Michigan wants to show it's not a one-hit wonder. But Mid-American Conference West rival Toledo, with one of the nation's best quarterbacks, seems to have all the right pieces to grab the spotlight back from the Broncos.
The planets finally aligned for long-suffering Western Michigan in 2016. Embracing indefatigable coach P.J. Fleck's "row the boat" mantra, the Broncos finished 13-1 and won the MAC for the first time since 1988 and only the second time in history. Their MAC West title broke Northern Illinois' string of six appearances in the conference championship game.
Fleck was snapped up by Minnesota after the season and took a half-dozen assistants and some top recruits with him. New coach Tim Lester, who played quarterback for the Broncos in the 1990s, will find out if Fleck left enough behind to keep them a contender in the MAC West.
Lester must replace quarterback Zach Terrell and top target Corey Davis. With the transfer of junior Tom Flacco, younger brother of Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco, the door opens for redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink and other untested candidates.
"I really don't worry a ton about following the magical season," Lester said Wednesday at MAC Media Day. "Whether I was here or someone else was here, when Corey Davis and Zach walk out the door, you're going to be a different team. My biggest thing is getting the team to move on from that season. We're really focusing a ton on getting the new leaders to step up."
On the bright side, the Broncos return running backs Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin, who rushed for 1,300 yards and a dozen TDs, as well as eight starters on defense. Franklin could be one of the best in the country.
Toledo - the preseason media poll favorite - is loaded and ready to challenge.
The Rockets, looking for their first MAC West title since 2004, are led by fifth-year senior quarterback Logan Woodside and one of the best receiving corps in the conference.
"He led the country in touchdown passes last year, he's very cerebral, very smart," Toledo coach Jason Candle said. "A tremendous player, a tremendous leader, a very important piece to what we've got going forward."
The nationally televised meeting between Toledo and Western Michigan in the Glass Bowl the day after Thanksgiving could serve as an entertaining MAC West championship game.
"From an offensive standpoint, we've got some leaders on that team, we've got a lot of older guys and people who have played a whole lot to take that next step on offense, to be one of the best offenses in the country," Woodside said. "As of right now, we've got a long fall camp to worry about, we've got a lot of fundamentals to get better at. We're really excited."
In the MAC East, Ohio topped the preseason media poll, just edging Miami (Ohio). The Redhawks had a terrific second half last year when quarterback Gus Ragland returned after a knee injury. They return 17 starters.
Ohio, which won the East last year and was edged by Western Michigan in the MAC Championship Game, sorely needs consistent play from sophomore quarterback Quinton Maxwell. The Bobcats are still looking for their first conference crown since 1968.
"I'm not satisfied with not having gotten that done," said coach Frank Solich, who has led the team to three divisional titles in a dozen seasons in Athens. "We need to continue moving this program forward and take another step."
The Bobcats are buoyed by the return of marquee running back A.J. Oullette, who was injured on the first play of the season last year and didn't return.
"I like the makeup of our team," Solich said. "I like what they're all about in terms of leadership and ability. That's always a great place to start."
From the MAC:
Canton, Ohio – The Toledo Rockets and Ohio Bobcats have been selected to win the West and East Divisions respectfully in the 2017 Mid-American Conference Football Preseason Poll. The poll was announced at the league’s annual MAC Football Media Day at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and was determined by members of the league’s media members. Toledo was also selected to win the 2017 Marathon MAC Football Championship Game.
In the East Division, defending East Division Champion Ohio was selected first with 131 total points, only two points greater that second-place selection Miami RedHawks with 129 total points. Bowling Green finished third with 88 points, followed by Akron with 79 points, then Buffalo and Kent State.
In the West Division, Toledo was selected first in the Division and led the entire poll with 142 total points. Following the Rockets, defending West Champion Western Michigan finished second with 107 points, while the NIU Huskies were third with 89 points. Eastern Michigan ranked fourth with 74 points, followed by Central Michigan and Ball State.
This reflects on the competitive nature of the MAC. In the last six years, the Conference has witnessed five different programs compete in the Marathon MAC Football Championship Game and every football program has received an invitation to a bowl game.
Ohio garnered 11 first-place votes in the East Division. The Bobcats return 39 letter-winners and 17 starters from last year’s 8-6 team that won the MAC East Division, dropped a narrow 29-23 decision to Western Michigan in the 2016 Marathon MAC Football Championship Game and suffered a 31-29 setback to Troy in the 2016 Dollar General Bowl. Ohio Head Coach Frank Solich is in his 13th year in leading the Ohio football program and is the third-winningest coach in MAC history with 88 career wins. Solich and his Bobcats are searching for Ohio’s first MAC football championship since 1968. The Bobcats will have offensive threats from running backs A.J. Ouellette and Papi White, while defensively linebackers Quentin Poling, Chad Moore and last year’s Freshman of the Year, safety Javon Hagan will lead the Ohio defense.
Toledo racked up 22 first-place votes in the West Division to launch the Rockets to first place with a league-best 142 total points. Toledo welcomes back 44 letter-winners and 15 starters from last year’s team that went 9-4 overall, finished second in the MAC West and suffered a 31-28 loss to Appalachian State in the 2016 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. Second-year head coach Jason Candle and his Rockets are looking for the program’s first MAC football championship since 2004. Candle will look to his offense to lead the Rockets as senior quarterback Logan Woodside threw for 4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns last season. His targets will be wide receivers Cody Thompson (1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Jon’Vea Johnson (773 yards and 10 touchdowns). Defensively, Toledo linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley and defensive end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi will lead the Rockets.
The 2017 season kicks off on Thursday, August 31 with three games as Central Michigan hosts Rhode Island (7:00 pm on ESPN3), Toledo welcomes Elon (7:00 pm on ESPN3) and Buffalo travels to Minnesota (7:00 pm on Big Ten Network). The 2017 Marathon MAC Football Championship Game is Saturday, December 2 (time and television TBA) from Ford Field in Detroit.
The complete poll follows:
Team (First Place Votes) Points
MAC East Division
1. Ohio (11) 131
2. Miami (12) 129
3. Bowling Green (1) 88
4. Akron 79
5. Buffalo 41
6. Kent State 36
MAC West Division
1. Toledo (22) 142
2. Western Michigan (1) 107
3. Northern Illinois (1) 89
4. Eastern Michigan 74
5. Central Michigan 62
6. Ball State 30
2017 MAC Championship Game Winner: Toledo (21); Western Michigan (1); Bowling Green (1); Miami (1).