Miami University football coach Chuck Martin had a blunt answer when asked how the 2017 Mid-American Conference football media day differed from last year’s version.
“Not everybody thinks we suck,” Martin said with a laugh.
In a media poll announced Wednesday, Martin’s team was picked to finish second in the MAC East, trailing preseason favorite Ohio by just two points. The RedHawks received one more first-place vote than the Bobcats (12 to 11) while Bowling Green also appeared at the top of one ballot.
That type of optimism about Miami was just about unimaginable as recently as the middle of last season.
The RedHawks were 0-6 after losing 35-13 at Akron on Oct. 8, a defeat that left them 5-25 in Martin’s first 2 ½ years in Oxford.
One loss was by four to Eastern Illinois, and there were seven-point defeats at the hands of Western Kentucky and Cincinnati.
Then came a breakthrough 18-14 win over Kent State on Oct. 15. That started a six-game winning streak that wasn’t snapped until the dying moments of the St. Petersburg Bowl, where Mississippi State blocked a field goal to preserve a 17-16 lead.
“Obviously we’re all excited about the way we finished last year,” said Martin, whose team returns 17 starters. “The biggest thing moving forward is the confidence of our whole program. The confidence of our kids. As opposed to trying to convince our kids we can do this, (telling them), ‘We’re gonna do this,’ now the kids know we were 6-2 (in the MAC), we were conference (division) co-champs with OU, we won six straight games, we made history. We almost beat an SEC team, so now they believe. That’s the biggest factor moving forward.
“We’re excited about the expectations. We’re excited we got second. No one used to talk to us on media day. Now people want to talk to us.”
• Among the players expected to be a leader for the RedHawks this fall is cornerback Heath Harding, a fifth-year senior from Dayton Christian. He had four interceptions and 67 tackles last season, and this year he is on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards.
“The sky’s the limit for Heath,” Martin said, “and not just in football. In a lot of other areas of his life, he’s pretty darn talented.”
• Quarterback Gus Ragland’s impact isn’t hard to see. The RedHawks were 0-6 without him last season and 6-1 after he returned from a knee injury.
The Moeller product threw for 1,537 yards with 17 touchdowns and just one interception. He also ran for 202 yards, and Martin credited that threat with changing the types of defensive strategies opponents could use against his team.
“We were this close to being a good team, and then he got there and our guys were like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this,’” Martin said. “Then even in games, if 14 is out there, you feel like you’ve got a chance to win.”
• Ohio returns 17 starters from a 2016 squad that went 8-6 and won the division.
The Bobcats lost the MAC championship game 29-23 to Western Michigan then dropped a 31-29 decision against Troy in the Dollar General Bowl.
Coach Frank Solich’s team accomplished that largely without A.J. Oullette, a running back from Covington who walked onto the team three years ago and became the No. 1 running back by the end of his freshman season.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder led the Bobcats in rushing in 2014 and ’15 but suffered a season-ending foot injury in the first game of 2016.
Healthy now, he is excited about getting back on the field.
“I’m stronger than last year and my speed stayed exactly the same, so health-wise I’m 100 percent heading into the season,” he said.
• Toledo was chosen to win the MAC West, garnering 22 of 24 first-place votes.
The Rockets will be led by quarterback Logan Whiteside, who directed an offense that averaged 38 points and more than 500 yards per game last season.
Defending champion Western Michigan (which lost coach P.J. Fleck to Minnesota) received one first-place vote while Northern Illinois earned the other.