Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Excitement surrounding Mid-American Conference football was at an all-time high last season.
With a player like Buffalo's Khalil Mack firmly entrenched near the top of the draft, the conference name was once again thrown around early, following a 2013 that saw Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher go first overall to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Mack was a transformative player at UB, who ended up there because of a coaching shift. The former coach at Liberty (Robert Wimberly) made the switch to Buffalo, where Mack followed and became a staple for not just the Buffalo athletic department, but the conference as a whole.
The same scenario unfolded at Northern Illinois with quarterback Jordan Lynch.
The run-oriented quarterback for the Huskies not only finished fourth in the conference in passer rating, but was tops in the conference in rushing yards per game (137.1), with 23 rushing scores on the year.
He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Boston College's Andre Williams and Florida State's Jameis Winston, who took home the award.
Mack was the fifth-overall draft choice in the 2014 NFL Draft, selected by the Oakland Raiders. Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward was taken a little later in the first round - 30th overall - by the San Francisco 49ers.
Five more players were taken in the seven-round draft from the MAC in May, and a handful of others were tagged with undrafted free agent offers following the culmination of the event. It was a good time to be associated with football and the conference.
The question now is simple: following a player with a third-place finish in the Heisman voting and a fifth-overall draft selection, what's next for the MAC? And more specifically, WHO is next in line in the MAC's newly established hierarchy of players?
It's obvious the direction in which the conference is trending is up in terms of overall talent. A great number of players who found success in the conference last season are returning for more playing time in 2014, including some of the top finishers statistically on both offense and defense.
The reality of this upcoming season, though, is that there likely won't be a player who garners as much draft hype in the conference as Mack. There's still a long way to go for the MAC to be considered a hot bed for professional prospects.
But the excitement hasn't faded away yet.
Offensively, this could be a breakout year for Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson. The redshirt junior signal caller is the top returning quarterback in the conference in terms of passer efficiency (161.7 rating), and in passing touchdowns (25).
Buffalo's Joe Lincata tossed 24 scoring passes last season against just eight interceptions, but Johnson's 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions is the best for a returning QB in the conference.
With Travis Greene coming back as the team's top option out of the backfield, and receiving threats such as redshirt junior Chris Gallon and sophomore Ronnie Moore, Johnson could likely see a jump in his passing stats in 2014. Not to mention his new coach, Dino Babers, worked with Robert Griffin III at Baylor and then led Eastern Illinois to a record-breaking year offensively in 2013.
Still, the 6-foot Johnson could be a tough sell to NFL teams. The prospect of a next-level professional may be found however, in Central Michigan receiver Titus Davis.
Davis is coming off a phenomenal season for the Chippewas in 2013, in which he averaged 100.8 receiving yards per game. He caught 61 passes last year for a total of 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns, and is the conference's top returner in receiving yards and yards per game.
Draft insider Tony Pauline has Davis ranked as a fourth- to fifth-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, but his stock could seriously improve with another solid season. Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush (213.5 passing ypg, 15 TD, 15 INT in 2013) is back under center this year, so there's at least the familiarity factor for Davis.
Ball State running back Jahwan Edwards is the MAC's leading returner in rushing touchdowns (14 in 2013) and rushing yards (1,594). With star quarterback Keith Wenning now a member of the Baltimore Ravens camp, Edwards will likely see his workload increase a bit.
Mack set the bar high defensively for the conference a year ago, so the drop off between him and the "next Mack" will be not only apparent, but giant.
Two Toledo defenders stand out in defensive lineman Treyvon Hester and defensive back/linebacker Junior Sylvestre. Hester, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, received a fifth- to sixth-round draft grade from Pauline. He was named to the All-MAC third-team as a freshman in 2013 after totaling 39 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as part of the interior defensive line. As a sophomore, Hester may want to stay in school to build up his stock if he's looking for a football future beyond the collegiate level.
Sylvestre, a 6-foot, 222-pound defensive back/linebacker, is listed as the No. 1 inside linebacker on the Toledo preseason depth chart. He earned first-team All-MAC honors last season after accumulating 118 tackles and five sacks. His 9.8 tackles per game in 2013 is third-best among returning conference players.
With Mack now across the country, watch for Buffalo linebacker Adam Redden to make a serious jump in stats and playmaking ability. After a season in which he posted eight tackles for loss, he could easily take over as the anchor of Buffalo's defense.
Ohio redshirt junior cornerback Devin Bass registered 15 pass breakups a year ago, and returns to the team looking to improve his draft stock as well.
The MAC is frequently an overlooked conference in college football. But with the recognition brought on by some of the top names in the country of late, the conference's play and popularity might be ready for a spike.