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VIEWS: Packed race in MAC West

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Filling out my Mid-American Conference preseason ballot wasn’t easy.

I thought about it for awhile, switching back and forth on who I thought would represent the MAC West in the conference championship game. In the end, I decided on Northern Illinois, the team that had won the division in 2010 and 2011 and came away with a MAC championship last season.

It wasn’t easy. To me, Toledo (who was picked first by the league’s media) and Western Michigan would have been solid picks. Even Ball State and Eastern Michigan looked like they would have improved teams.

The division was cloudy then, and believe it or not, the race for the title is even more unpredictable with conference play about to start.

NIU stands at 3-1 and easily could be unbeaten. Toledo has the same record, with its only defeat coming in overtime in Arizona, which has been ranked in the Top 25. Western Michigan stands at 2-2, but both losses were on the road against Big Ten teams.

How about Ball State, which is 3-1? The Cardinals could be considered the most impressive MAC West team during nonconference play, gaining victories over Indiana and South Florida. Their only loss was on the road against a good Clemson team, and the Cards already are 1-0 in the MAC after a win over Eastern Michigan in the first week of the season.

And after Saturday’s win at Iowa, Central Michigan is looking like an improved squad after consecutive 3-9 seasons.

I’m not going to change my prediction, I still think NIU is the favorite. Anyone who thought quarterback Jordan Lynch would be a question mark can sit back and relax. The offensive line also has performed above expectations.

The Huskies’ defense, which was downright awful at times early last season, is an improved group, although it needs to start forcing turnovers. NIU has yet to get a turnover against a Football Bowl Subdivision team.

In my mind, the only thing that’s changed since the season started is how much deeper the MAC West looks, and I thought it was deep before the season.

NIU coach Dave Doeren also noted the strength of the MAC West during Monday’s coaches teleconference.

“I think there’s a lot of balance on our side. ...There’s a lot of people that can win it,” Doeren said. “I think like every year, you don’t know.”

There might be five teams that could represent the strong MAC West in Detroit. Even Eastern Michigan could give some teams a battle.

The next couple months will see a number of good, hard-fought games to decide who takes the division crown. That team’s reward? Probably getting to face Ohio, which very well could be unbeaten and hearing some BCS buzz.

• Steve Nitz is the Northern Illinois beat writer for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at snitz@shawmedia.com.

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