Northern Illinois is looking to become the first back-to-back conference champion in the MAC since Central Michigan pulled off two straight titles in 2006 and 2007. Four different schools have won the conference championship each of the past four seasons, proving that the MAC can be wide open and up for grabs on an annual basis.
Conference Champion: Northern Illinois (def. Ohio)
Northern Illinois certainly never made anything easy in 2011. In late October and early November Northern Illinois pulled out road victories in dramatic fashion. First was a 31-30 victory at Buffalo and that was followed by an offensive shootout ending with a 63-60 victory at Toledo. The Huskies would hang on for a win against Ball State (41-38) and Eastern Michigan (18-12) Eastern Michigan to advance to the MAC Championship Game, where they trailed Ohio 20-0 at the half before coming back to win 23-20 in typical MAC-wild fashion.
Bowl Game Review
The MAC's lone loss in the bowl season came against the Big Ten, with Purdue defeating Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, 37-32. The MAC got off to a good start with Temple dominating Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl, and picked up a wild win with Toledo outlasting Air Force in the Military Bowl and Ohio rallying to take down Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Northern Illinois capped the MAC's successful postseason by pulling away from Sun Belt champion Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Team on the Rise: Western Michigan
The Broncos have finished with a higher win total each of the past three seasons and returned to a bowl game for the first time since the 2008 season. The Broncos finished third in the MAC West last season, but this year the schedule may play in their favor with home games against Northern Illinois and Toledo. Western Michigan could have a decent enough offense to outlast most of their opponents if their passing game is in sync. Quarterback Alex Carder led the MAC in passing with 3,873 yards and 31 touchdowns. Despite losing receiver Jordan White, the offense still has some valuable options to choose from.
Team on the Decline: Northern Illinois
With all due respect to the reigning conference champions, the 2011 season will be a tough act to follow after losing all-everything quarterback Chandler Harnish. Harnish completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,2116 yards and 28 touchdowns and added 1,379 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, and the team's second-leading rusher, Jasmin Hopkins (956 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns) is also gone, which means that is a lot of offense to replace and the defense struggled to slow down the opposition (30.3 points per game allowed, 85th in the nation).
Changes for 2012
The MAC bids farewell to the Temple Owls, who will join the Big East this fall years after being forced out. The Big East has always been the target for Temple, with the MAC serving as a solid home for football while the program reshaped their operations. The Owls would have been declared our team on the rise as Steve Addazio looks to continue building on the restoration process started by Al Golden, but instead Temple will look to start building a program worthy of a Big East title run, despite never meeting title expectations in the MAC.
Taking their spot, in a sense, will be the Massachusetts Minutemen, who will move up from the FCS ranks this fall. UMass will be ineligible for postseason play in their first year but the program hopes to follow a similar path as Temple and Connecticut in time.
With the loss of Temple and addition of UMass this fall, the MAC will reshuffle their divisions slightly by adding Bowling Green back to the West Division, and place UMass in the East Division.
Two new head coaches will join the MAC coaching circle this fall as well. Toledo promoted offensive coordinator Matt Campbell to the head coach position following Tim Beckman being hired by Illinois. Akron fired Rob Ianello and replaced him with Terry Bowden, form Division 2 North Alabama.
Kevin McGuire is a national college football writer for Examiner.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Submit your mailbag questions via Tumblr. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.