MAC features mid-major powers

ESPN.com analyst Jim Donnan predicts the Mid-American Conference champion, award winners and more:

And the winner is ...

The Rockets, 37-12 since 2000, have a difference-maker in quarterback Bruce Gradkowski who should lead his team over Miami (Ohio) in the MAC championship game. Miami returns a gang of good players but lost QB Ben Roethlisberger in the first round of the NFL draft, while Toledo is among the nation's best all-around teams.

But I wouldn't be surprised ...
If Marshall won
The Thundering Herd could play spoiler this year after dominating the league since 1997. Marshall is headed to Conference USA in 2005, but this year has a stout defense and a healthy Stan Hill at QB, meaning the Herd could be back on top. But two key tough-money games against Ohio State and Georgia in consecutive weeks will be key to the health of the Herd.

Most Valuable Player ...
Charlie Frye, QB, Akron
Frye gets the nod over Gradkowski after deciding not to go pro. Frye is the top returning total offense player (319.8 ypg) in the nation and has a chance for another big year.

Most Important Player ...
Josh Betts, QB, Miami (Ohio)
Has the tall task of replacing Roethlisberger and with most of the rest of the team back Betts will be under pressure to perform.

Coach of the Year ...
Tom Amstutz, Toledo
The Rockets continue to impress with their consistent play, giving Amstutz a slight advantage over Terry Hoeppner of Miami (Ohio).

Assistant You Should Know ...
Shane Montgomery, offensive coordinator, Miami (Ohio)
Montgomery was a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant last season and is a great innovator who is a terrific game-day coach. A big key for the Red Hawks will be how Montgomery handles new starting QB Josh Betts.

Player I'd pay to watch ...
Martin Nance, WR, Miami (Ohio)
Nance is a 6-5 talent with all the tools. He can make the tough catch, can go deep and has "NFL" written all over him. Only a junior but still a dominant player.

Toughest Place to play ...
Joan Edwards Stadium, Marshall
This facility has produced an amazing advantage since the first game was played there in 1991. It's hard to beat the Herd any time, but next to impossible in this stadium.

Game of the Year ...
Toledo at Miami (Ohio), Nov. 2
A prelude to the conference championship game. Also keep an eye on Bowling Green's Sept. 21 visit to Northern Illinois.

ESPN.com college football analyst Jim Donnan takes part in chats and makes observations on Saturdays as part of College GameDay Live.