We've already talked here about how the death of the UAB program has repercussions beyond Birmingham, and how a handful of teams that scheduled the Blazers out of conference have been scrambling to find replacements. Two very, very different schools-- Tennessee and Georgia State-- have both elected to turn to the MAC to fill the Blazer-sized holes in their schedules in 2015.
Tennessee's a team that's going to get a ton of hype before the season kicks off. The Volunteers were remarkably young in 2014, and limped out to a 3-5 start before winning four of their last five games, capping the season off with a 45-28 trouncing of Iowa that wasn't even as close as the final score would indicate.
They'll return a ludicrous amount of weapons on offense-- quarterback Josh Dobbs, who took over midway through the season and accounted for 17 total touchdowns, was a sophomore, and halfback Jalen Hurd, who finished with well over 1,000 total yards, was a freshman. Even more impressive: of the Vols' top ten (!!) pass-catchers in 2014, there wasn't a single senior in the bunch. Combine that with a defense that finished an impressive 24th in defensive S&P+ and a not-exactly-imposing SEC East, and you're looking at 2015's preseason media darling.
The Vols were all set to kick off their much-anticipated 2015 season with UAB, which really would've been a game worth watching. Tennessee could've tested their skills against a quality mid-major opponent, while the Blazers would've had a chance to further validate their breakout 2014 campaign with a game against one of the sports' blue bloods. Alas, it wasn't meant to me, and the Vols reached an agreement to open their season with a neutral-site game (if only by definition-- it's being played at LP Field in Nashville) against Bowling Green.
On paper, Bowling Green's about as good a replacement as Tennessee could've hoped for. The Falcons, of course, are a traditionally solid mid-major-- they've gone bowling three straight seasons now, and made two consecutive appearances in the MAC Championship game. 2014 wasn't quite as exciting as the past few years for BGSU fans, but the Falcons still managed to go 8-6 and end the season with a nice win over South Alabama in the Camellia Bowl.
They made a bit of a habit of feasting on weak competition, though, with no regular season wins over bowl teams and a pretty mediocre finish in F/+ at 98th (UAB, for contrast, finished 79th). Much of Bowling Green's success in 2015 will be determined by whether or not they can fix a defense that surrendered 33.5 points per game, but the Falcons are far from a pushover and return an impressive passing attack led by either Matt Johnson or James Knapke, who passed for over 3,000 yards last season.
The 2014 edition of BGSU wasn't quite on the Blazers' level, but they're a more than adequate replacement on the Vols' schedule, and are certainly explosive enough to give the still-maturing SEC squad some trouble. If the Vols don't bring their A-game against the Falcons they'll still likely escape with a win, but they'll have to shore up their issues quickly-- Oklahoma visits Knoxville the next week in a game that's sure to draw the nation's attention.
Georgia State, meanwhile, has still yet to score a victory over an FBS team in their two seasons at the FBS level. They went 1-11 in 2014, which was actually an improvement from 2013's 0-12 record. Progress is progress, right?
The Panthers likely expected a game against the Blazers to be winnable, as UAB hadn't been bowling in ten years before the program's untimely demise. Amusingly enough, the Blazers probably would've outclassed GSU in 2015 (the Panthers finished 122nd in F/+, which, yikes), but instead have been replaced on the Panthers' schedule by a traditionally strong mid-major program that's fallen upon tough times-- Ball State.
Expectations were high for the Cardinals after they won a remarkable 19 games in two years before the 2014 season. Ball State struggled all over the field, however-- they finished in triple digits in both offensive and defensive S&P+-- and ended up 5-7, missing out on bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
The Cardinals will likely be at least mildly improved in 2015, but the Panthers should probably be happy with how the swap turned out for them. One win in two seasons, even for a program in its infancy, is not a good sign for GSU head coach Trent Miles, and he'll likely need to show some degree of progress in 2015 to keep the Panther faithful happy. As ludicrous as the idea might've seemed a few seasons ago, replacing UAB with Ball State should provide GSU with one more winnable game, which is invaluable for such a young team.