(Order of finish based on preseason media poll)
OHIO — After winning their first seven games of 2012, the injury-plagued Bobcats sputtered, dropping four of their last five regular-season games. But Coach Frank Solich’s squad is favored to win the MAC East yet again. Ohio returns 16 starters, including the dynamic senior trio of quarterback Tyler Tettleton, running back Beau Blankenship, and receiver Donte Foster.
BOWLING GREEN — The Falcons are on the upswing, increasing their win total by three in each of the last two seasons. Bowling Green led the MAC in defense last year, and ranked sixth nationally in total defense. Star defensive tackle Chris Jones may have graduated, but the Falcons return just about every other key contributor from that unit, including nine starters.
KENT STATE — Coach Darrell Hazell departed for Purdue after leading the Golden Flashes to their first bowl game since 1972. But Kent State returns its top offensive threats: the potent running back tandem of Dri Archer and Trayion Durham. The school already launched a Heisman campaign for Archer, who was among the nation’s leaders in all-purpose yards last season with 184 per game.
BUFFALO — The Bulls will rely on defense, yet again. Buffalo returns nine defensive starters from a unit that allowed only 363.7 yards per game last season. Their marquee player is linebacker Khalil Mack, the conference’s top defensive NFL prospect. Mack needs 19 tackles for loss in his senior season to set the NCAA record.
MIAMI (OHIO) — Coach Don Treadwell is 8-16 in his first two seasons. Will Year 3 bring improvement? At quarterback, Austin Boucher is poised to replace four-year starter Zac Dysert. That’s no simple task: Dysert threw for nearly 3,500 yards last season. Other areas of concern: the backfield, the offensive line, and nearly every defensive position.
AKRON — Over the last three seasons, the Zips have posted a 3-33 record, including 1-23 in conference play. They feel they can turn a corner under second-year coach Terry Bowden (son of legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden). Wins won’t be easy. Akron’s 11 FBS opponents went a combined 90-54 in 2012.
UMASS — Entering Year 2 of its transition into the FBS, UMass hopes to improve upon a 1-11 campaign. The Minutemen graduated No. 1 running back Michael Cox and top receiver Deion Walker, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn should improve in his second year running the spread offense. His go-to target? Senior tight end Rob Blanchflower, the Minutemen’s lone captain.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS — Expectations are high for the Huskies, who crashed last year’s BCS party with a berth the Orange Bowl (a 31-10 loss to Florida State). Northern Illinois returns a ton of talent, including quarterback Jordan Lynch. Last season, the Chicago native became the first player in FBS history to throw for at least 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,500 yards in a season.
TOLEDO — With one of the league’s strongest offensive lines and a standout tailback, the Rockets look to play in their fourth straight bowl game. Senior David Fluellen ran for 1,498 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, accounting for more than 60 percent of the team’s rushing yards.
BALL STATE — Featuring a balanced attack (Ball State ranked fourth in the MAC in both rushing and passing last season) the Cardinals return key pieces in 2013, including senior quarterback Keith Wenning, receiver Willie Snead (89 catches in 2012), and a 1,000-yard rusher in Jahwan Edwards. One area of concern: Ball State returns just one starter on the offensive line.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN — The Chippewas hope to keep moving forward after an impressive 2012 season that featured an upset of Iowa on the road and earning a berth in the Little Caesars Bowl. Keep an eye on senior running back Zurlon Tipton, who ran for 1,492 yards last season — including 763 yards and 12 touchdowns in the last five regular-season games.
WESTERN MICHIGAN — P.J. Fleck is the first FBS coach to be born in the 1980s. The 32-year-old hopes to inject energy into a team that won two conference games last season. Senior quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen will lead the offense, but must develop chemistry with a revolving group of wide receivers.
EASTERN MICHIGAN — The Eagles are 10-38 in four years under Ron English. The coach could be on the hot seat; his contract expires on New Year’s Eve. Improvements must come on defense. Last season, the Eagles allowed 478.9 yards of total offense and 37.6 points per game, registering only seven interceptions and seven sacks for the entire season.