If Nix doesn't draw two blockers on every play, he’ll cause all kinds of havoc in opposing backfields. After earning first-team All-MAC honors from his freshman through junior seasons, he has a chance to add to his already impressive career résumé this fall. Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is another strong candidate here, so don’t be surprised if Nix and Mack make it a two-man race for Defensive Player of the Year, regardless of who ends up ultimately taking home the honor.
Three Key Nonconference Games
Northern Illinois at Iowa
Saturday, Aug. 31
3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Iowa escaped with a one-point win over Northern Illinois in 2012, and the Huskies have had this game circled on their calendar ever since. NIU wants to prove its Orange Bowl season was no fluke, and beating a Kirk Ferentz-led team would be a great start.
Ohio at Louisville
Sunday, Sept. 1
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The numbers like Ohio to beat Louisville, but the Cards won't let Frank Solich's team sneak up on them. All offseason, Louisville has heard about how easy its schedule is. The Bobcats probably have taken that to heart a bit. The first half could be awfully close, but the Cardinals have a wealth of offensive firepower. It will be tough for Ohio to keep up.
Connecticut at Buffalo
Saturday, Sept. 28
3:30 p.m. ET
Head coach Paul Pasqualoni is on the ropes at UConn, and this is Buffalo's best shot at a marquee nonconference win. The Buffalo defense is good, but the Bulls need to show they can move the ball offensively in Jeff Quinn's fourth year at the helm.
Key Conference Game
Northern Illinois at Toledo
Wednesday, Nov. 20
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
There is a very good chance this game could determine the West division, and possibly the conference as a whole. Toledo is out to prove the Rockets are the real deal under Matt Campbell. This Wednesday night tilt should shed light as to why the term MACtion was coined in the first place.
Three Key Questions
Where does Toledo go from here? Campbell inherited the Rockets from former coach Tim Beckman before last season and immediately smashed every possible expectation anyone could have set. Now Campbell is recruiting at an elite level -- he signed 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman safety Delando Johnson, who should bolster a secondary in search of big plays -- and brings back plenty of athletes. Toledo's new goal is to win the West and the conference title. That's a steep but encouraging learning curve for one of the nation's most promising young coaches.
Can Northern Illinois avoid getting complacent? If the mantra the players and new coach Rod Carey have been preaching all offseason rings true, complacency isn't an option for the Huskies. But everyone in the MAC wants to take down the back-to-back conference champs coming off a BCS berth. It could be tough for NIU to keep a chip on its shoulder when it's taking opponents' best shots week in and week out in 2013.
Can Ohio stay healthy? For the first half of the 2012 season, it looked as though Ohio was the mid-major darling of the year. The Bobcats raced to a 7-0 start, including a win over Penn State, and mostly feasted on easy competition. But the injury bug hit the Bobcats and the latter half of the schedule took its toll; Ohio finished 1-4 before beating Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. Most of the team's key personnel comes back, so if coach Solich can keep his best players from missing time the Bobcats should contend in the East.
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