DETROIT — For the last five years, the West Division of the Mid-American Conference has belonged to the Huskies of Northern Illinois.
A sixth straight title isn't going to be easy.
The conference released its preseason poll at Wednesday's media day at Ford Field, and Northern Illinois is picked to finish third, behind Toledo and Western Michigan.
"We know it is going to be a great challenge," said Huskies coach Rod Carey. "But this place has been good to us over the last five years, and we know that if we are playing in this building we've achieved something. Our expectation every year is to be here in December, and that hasn't changed."
Toledo received 11 of the 24 first-place voters, with Western Michigan getting eight to Northern Illinois' four. Central Michigan picked up the final first-place vote.
"It is all about culture now," said Toledo coach Matt Franklin. "We overcame a lot of adversity to tie for the division title, and this year we're challenging every player on our team to get a little better and get us into that championship game."
Western Michigan jumped from one win in 2013 to eight in 2014. Much of that was due to freshman running back Jarvion Franklin, who rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns while becoming the first player in conference history to win Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in the same season.
"I only had one goal coming into my freshman year," Franklin said. "I wanted to make a difference on the field, and that's my goal again this year."
Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, who graduated from Northern Illinois in 2003, is one of the country's youngest coaches at 34.
"I think that helps me relate to my players," he said. "They know that, during their lifetimes, I played in this conference, I was an academic All-American in this conference, I played in the NFL and now I'm coaching in this conference, so I have dealt with the same issues they face every day."
Eastern Michigan is picked last in the West after a 2-10 record in 2014, but coach Chris Creighton got some national attention recently with an open letter to the mothers of potential football players. The letter talked about Creighton's struggles to persuade his mother to let him play football, and the positives that it eventually brought to his life.
The letter also discussed how Creighton feels football is "under attack" over concussion concerns, pointing out that riding a bike has a higher risk.
"It has become a big issue, but a lot of that is because we have a much better understanding of head injuries," Creighton said Wednesday. "In the past, we just thought a guy had his bell rung, but now we know that we need to get him checked out immediately."
Creighton said that the letter has gotten great feedback from inside the football community, but it hasn't been out long enough to affect recruiting efforts.
In the East, Bowling Green is a favorite to reach its third straight conference championship game. The Falcons got 18 first-place votes, ahead of three for UMass, two for Akron and one for Ohio.
"It has been incredible to represent the East twice in a row, and it will be even better if we can do it for a third time," said Falcons coach Dino Babers. "I don't believe that has ever been done before in the East, so we want to be the first."
Babers took over the program last year, but with quarterback Matt Johnson and running back Travis Greene, he didn't have any problem implementing his high-paced offense.
"As soon as I saw them in practice, I knew this was going to be a good fit," Babers said.
MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher announced that the conference would use eight officials this season, including "several" women.