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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 118: Akron

Akron hired a Bowden to clean up the mess. No, not that Bowden. Bobby’s done: he’s hung up his whistle, though I’d wager he’d love to be back on the sidelines at Doak Campbell Stadium – it is Bobby Bowden Field at the Doak, after all. It’s the other Bowden. No, not that one. Tommy, who’s been out of coaching since he was fired at Clemson midway through the 2008 season, will surface sooner or later; I thought he should have been Tulane’s pick this offseason, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s the other Bowden. You know, Terry, formerly of Auburn, where his debut in 1993 remains the most inexplicable undefeated season in college football history. After winning 29 games over three years at North Alabama, Terry’s back in the F.B.S. – in the MAC, but still. Terry’s not Bobby, but he’s not Jeff, either. Though Jeff, Terry’s brother, is on his staff with the Zips.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Akron, Oh.

Nickname
Zips

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 119

2011 record
(1-11, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 120

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    U.C.F.
  • Sept. 8
    at F.I.U.
  • Sept. 15
    Morgan St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Tennessee
  • Sept. 29
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 6
    Bowling Green
  • Oct. 13
    at Ohio
  • Oct. 20
    Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 27
    at Central Michigan
  • Nov. 3
    at Kent St.
  • Nov. 10
    UMass
  • Nov. 20
    at Toledo

Last year’s prediction

Depth remains an issue, but Akron really needs to place a focus on not just making stops but making plays: this defense won’t dominate, so forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback — major problems last fall — should be a primary goal. Don’t expect miracles in 2011, and don’t even expect a widely improved team in the win column. I said last summer that it might take more than one year for Ianello to rebuild this program; it will clearly take at least two years, we can safely say.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Well, that’s over. The Zips’ lone win came over V.M.I., a program whose lone claim to fame remains holding the F.C.S. individual record for punts in a season – Jim Bailey punted 101 times in 1969. That win was surrounded by 11 defeats of varying margins, including one, against Central Michigan, by a single point. Another came by only 10 points. A third by 17 points, a fourth by 18 points. Two came by 32 points. One by 38 points, one by 42 points, one by 49 points. Want to know how bad Akron was in 2011? The Zips lost to Buffalo by 41 points. That total seems unfathomable in hindsight, but believe me: it happened. Rob Ianello was fired hours after the season finale, taking with him two wins in as many years and leaving Akron with far more questions than answers. One question: How did Akron get so bad?

High point A 36-13 win over V.M.I. on Sept. 24. The Zips gained 534 yards of total offense, by far the team’s most on the season. It was also Akron’s lone win on the season, as you know.

Low point A 51-10 loss to Buffalo qualifies not only as Akron’s low point – the lowest point of a season full of low points – but the worst F.B.S. loss of the 2011 season. Buffalo was abysmal, which means Akron inhabited a level four or five steps lower than abysmal. A new word may need to be coined to properly express just how bad the Zips were in 2011.

Tidbit Akron hasn’t had a quarterback throw for 300 or more yards in a game since Oct. 6, 2007, when then-starter Chris Jacquemain threw for 389 yards in a win over Western Michigan. That’s a span of 54 games. The Zips were one of four MAC teams to not have a 300-yard passer in 2011, joining Eastern Michigan, Temple and Kent State. Eastern Michigan and Temple last had a 300-yard passer in 2008; Kent State had one in 2009.

Former players in the N.F.L.

2 LB Chase Blackburn (New York Giants), WR Domenik Hixon (New York Giants).

Arbitrary top five list

Ugliest non-B.C.S. conference losses in 2011
1. Buffalo 51, Akron 10.
2. New Mexico 21, U.N.L.V. 14.
3. Tulane 49, U.A.B. 10.
4. U.N.L.V. 40, Hawaii 20.
5. Middle Tennessee State 38, Florida Atlantic 14.

Coaching

Terry Bowden (West Virginia ’78), entering his first season. Bowden brings to Akron 18 years of experience as a college head coach, including six seasons at Auburn, where he went 47-17-1 from 1993-98. He had one of the most amazing debuts in SEC history in 1993, when Auburn, racked by post-Pat Dye probation – the Tigers were ineligible for any sort of postseason play – went 11-0, beating Alabama for the first time in four years. While the Tigers never matched those heights, Bowden did win 35 games over the next four years, even earning a spot in the SEC title game in 1997. That Bowden had won so many games while leading the program from the brink of disaster after Dye’s missteps didn’t matter to the university, which kowtowed to powerful booster Bobby Lowder in opting to fire Bowden after a 1-5 start to the 1998 season. Following his dismissal, Bowden entered the hinterlands – or entered the world of television, to be more precise. It would be more than a decade later, in 2009, before he returned to coaching. He was hired by North Alabama on the final day of 2008, replacing Mississippi State-bound Mark Hudspeth, and continued the program’s recent winning tradition: 11 wins in 2009, 9 in each of the last two years. Add North Alabama and Auburn to his three years at Samford, his first head coaching job – Samford was also where he father got his start – and Bowden holds a career record of 140-62-2. That’s a career winning percentage just shy of 70 percent: if Bowden wins 70 percent of his games at Akron, well, he won’t be at Akron too long. This isn’t like Bob Davie being hired at New Mexico; Bowden has been back in the game since 2009. It still feels strange, as if a cousin you haven’t seen since childhood suddenly shows up for dinner. It’s interesting, to say the least.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The only new Akron assistant without some past tie to Bowden is running backs coach Trent Boykin, who spent last season in the same capacity at Wayne State. The remaining eight assistants can be connected by no more than one degree of separation. Chuck Amato, the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, spent 21 years as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley starred at F.S.U. from 1989-91. Offensive line coach Alan Arrington, as well as Jeff Bowden, the outside receivers coach and special teams coordinator, were on Bowden’s staff at North Alabama. Quarterbacks coach A.J. Milwee was a graduate assistant at U.N.A. from 2009-10. Defensive line coach Todd Stroud was the strength and conditioning coach at Auburn in 1993. Mike Woodford served alongside Bowden at Akron in 1986, when the Zips were led by Gerry Faust. Finally, inside receivers coach and recruiting coordinator John Pont, whose grandfather was the head coach at Northwestern and Indiana, is married to Bowden’s daughter, Tera.

Players to watch

Akron fans will like this offense. It’s pass-first and fairly pass-heavy while still retaining a focus on the running game, meaning, in short, that Akron’s new offensive approach should feel right home in the MAC. Last year, Bowden’s offense at North Alabama averaged 295.5 passing yards per game with another 128.2 yards per game on the ground. If not like the offenses at Toledo and Northern Illinois – both start with the run and work to the pass – Akron should theoretically resemble Ohio and Western Michigan, two passing teams that have shown an ability to run the ball with consistency when needed.

What this offense demands, and what Akron doesn’t have, is depth at every position. The system is not defined as much by its spread tenets as by its tempo: quick to the line, quick to snap and quick to start again, to run at full capacity the offense needs to go at least two or three players deep across the board. One position that has depth, barring injury, is running back. Thanks to lingering injuries to junior Broderick Alexander, sophomore Jawon Chisholm was forced to carry the load for the Zips last fall. He responded with 961 yards and 5 scores on 4.4 yards per carry, strong totals in an offense that misfired in nearly every capacity. With Alexander, a bruising, straight-ahead runner, back in the fold, Akron can count on two capable backs to drive the running game forward.

One way to combat a lack of a true top option at wide receiver is to simply throw numbers at the problem, though that’s a temporary solution. At some point, and in this offense in particular, the Zips will need a go-to option in the passing game. If that receiver exists on this roster, he’s yet to be unearthed. Instead, Akron has targets like Keith Sconiers (47 receptions for 639 yards), Marquelo Suel (34 for 417) and A.J. Price (12 for 196); experienced receivers, perhaps, but none bring the sort of speed and elusiveness Bowden needs from his receivers in this offense.

With Akron’s recent quarterback situation – more on that in a moment – it would clearly behoove Bowden to hit the recruiting trail in search of more quick-twitch, explosive receivers. At North Alabama, Bowden primarily looked for smaller, quicker receivers rather than the bigger options that top Akron’s depth chart. For now, the offense will enter the summer with Sconiers entrenched as the de facto go-to target, with Suel and Price his running mates in the starting lineup. Each is bigger than 6’1; Suel and Price are 6’3 and 6’4, respectively.

Of course, any talent at receiver means nothing if Akron doesn’t have a quarterback capable of shouldering the load in what will be a far more demanding offense. Even if the Zips lean more towards the run in the early going, whether Bowden and his staff can get more out of its returning quarterbacks will decide Akron’s season. Now that would-be senior Patrick Nicely has transferred, the Zips are down to two options at the position: Clayton Moore, last year’s starter, and senior Dalton Williams, a recent transfer. Moore struggled – or worse – as a first-year starter, completing less than 48 percent of his 309 attempts and, against Ohio State, Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan, putting together three of the worst single-game passing lines of any quarterback in the country.

Can a transfer from Stephen F. Austin step right in and win the starting job at an F.B.S. school? What if the transfer was a reserve at Stephen F. Austin? Williams, who transferred into the program this offseason and has one year of eligibility remaining, backed up starters Brady Attaway and Jeremy Moses over the last two seasons. He attempted 78 passes over his career at S.F.A., throwing for 257 yards and 3 scores in 2011. In terms of experience, Moore trumps Williams. But thanks to his F.C.S. career, Williams is very well-versed in the spread. Will that be enough for him to claim the starting job? And what does it say about Akron’s quarterback situation if the backup at an F.C.S. school is named the starter? If the Zips are playing for the future, then Bowden should throw the keys to redshirt freshman Kyle Pohl and roll with the punches.

Chuck Amato is a strong position coach – even if his recent turn as an F.S.U. assistant went horribly – but is he a good defensive coordinator? He was once, as an assistant under the late Bo Rein at N.C. State, but that was more than 30 years ago. Amato hasn’t held this position since 1979; while there’s no doubting the football knowledge, that’s a long time to go between stints at defensive coordinator. If Amato does need a learning curve, he’ll need to get in line: Akron remains extremely youthful and inexperienced, which are two labels you don’t want to carry in the offensively prolific MAC.

Job one: Amato must rebuild the interior of the defensive line. This task takes on increased importance now that the Zips have lost all-MAC linebacker Brian Wagner, the heart and soul of the defense over the last four years. Wagner, a tackling machine, delivered with more punctuality than the postal service, though he often did so alone. With Wagner gone, taking with him an ungodly sum of tackles, the Zips need to form a more stout and hardy defensive line.

Akron has five linemen who could theoretically play inside; each is either a true freshman, a redshirt freshman or a sophomore. Because of the lack of experience, look for sophomores Dajour Morris and Isaiah Williams (13 tackles), if the latter can move inside, to shoulder the load in the early going. Whether the freshmen – like James Price and Mike Davis, for example – can move into the starting lineup depends on how they fare during spring ball and fall camp. The interior of the line has promise, seeing that it’s so young, but don’t look for the Zips to take too substantial a step forward from last fall, when they ranked 108th nationally against the run.

Williams played end last fall, but I’m thinking that he’ll move inside out of necessity. But he could remain at end, should one of the freshmen step up, which would give the Zips three experienced options at the position. Last fall, junior Nico Caponi (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and senior John Griggs (28 tackles) combined to make 17 starts. It would be nice if both progressed to the point where Williams wouldn’t be needed, but that’s a decision Bowden and Amato will make heading into September.

Wagner leaves an enormous hole at middle linebacker. He’s simply irreplaceable: players like Wagner don’t often walk through the door at Akron, and there certainly isn’t another player with his ability currently rising up through the ranks. For now, sophomore Gary Ransom (15 tackles), last year’s understudy, will get first crack at stepping into Wagner’s shoes. What the Zips really need is a big year from senior weak side linebacker Troy Gilmer (71 tackles), the new leader of this revamped linebacker corps. With Wagner and strong side starter Matt Little gone, Gilmer needs to ramp up his production. Another sophomore, Justin March, is a logical replacement for Little on the strong side.

Last year’s pass defense ranked 39th nationally in yards allowed per game, but don’t let that fool you: teams could have passed for days on this secondary. That the front seven was so sieve-like against the run allowed opposing quarterbacks to take the day off, more often than not. The Zips allowed 8.1 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 107th nationally. The defense as a whole intercepted two passes all season, the fewest in the country, and gave up 23 touchdowns. By many standards, last year’s defense was the worst in the F.B.S.

Good luck, Terrell Buckley, and yes, you’re going to need it. Akron’s only hope is that last year’s ineptitude – the experienced gained while playing horribly – pays dividends come September. The Zips do have some returning experience, to be fair. Sophomore Devonte Morgan (69 tackles) started the final seven games of last season at free safety. Another sophomore, Johnny Robinson, made six starts at strong safety. A third sophomore, L.T. Smith, started three games at free safety; junior Bre’ Ford made two starts at strong safety. After getting rained on a year ago, perhaps these safeties will be better in 2012. But they, along with returning cornerbacks Emmanuel Lartey, Anthony Holmes and Seth Cunningham, were pretty bad last fall.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line We’ve seen this from a few teams thus far: Akron, like New Mexico and Texas State, lacks numbers along the offensive line. While the Zips shuffled their starting five last fall, with eight players making at least one start, four seniors that spent most of last season in the starting lineup must be replaced. The right side of the line takes the biggest hit: Jake Anderson started all 12 games at right tackle, while Zac Kasparek started nine games at guard. In addition, Akron lost left tackle Patrick McCloskey and left guard Paul Simkovich. The lone returning starter is senior center Adam Bice, who is one of nine linemen on the roster altogether. It’s time for a wing, a prayer and a healthy amount of duct tape.

Put Bice back at center. There’s one spot down. Thanks to a strong spring camp, redshirt freshman Dylan Brumbaugh holds the edge at right tackle, replacing Anderson. Senior Vinnie Rizzo, a three-game starter at both guard spots last fall, should take over for Kasparek at right guard. That would move sophomore Travis Switzer over to left guard, where he started two games as a rookie. As for left tackle, Bowden can hold an open audition between senior Mitch Straight, junior Jarrod Pughsley and sophomore Micah Lio. In terms of size – he’s 6’7, 300 – Lio stands out. But Straight has started in the past, which could give him the edge. Even if the Zips can find a starting five, one or two injuries could decimate the offensive front.

Game(s) to watch

A winless season is in play if Akron doesn’t get past Morgan State, though that seems unlikely. What does seem likely is that the Zips will continue to flounder against the premier teams on the schedule – Tennessee, Ohio, Northern Illinois and Toledo, if not also Florida International, if we’re being kind. That makes games against the MAC’s lower half must-wins for Akron if the program wants to make a drastic, one-year turnaround. That list includes Massachusetts, Central Michigan and Kent State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Bowden’s setting the bar awfully low, saying that his goal is to win one more game than in 2011, and that’s a good thing. When it comes to this fall, the only thing keeping Akron from being the clear pick to finish last in the MAC East is the presence of Massachusetts, a rookie member of the F.B.S. – and, to be honest, there’s not much separating the Zips from the Minutemen. Both are teams largely devoid of any discernable talent entering their first season under a new coaching staff; as in Amherst, the Zips are due to hit a significant learning curve in this new offensive system. The only position that seems ready for this spread, up-tempo offense is running back, where the Zips have two steady options. The offensive line, already an issue, is one injury away from implosion. The only MAC receiver corps with bigger issues is the one at UMass; again, the two teams inhabit the conference’s bottom rung. The less said of the quarterback situation the better, though it’s hard to get excited over the prospects of Akron being led by the former backup at Stephen F. Austin. What’s really frightening to consider is that the defense may be worse off than the offense. There will be no Auburn-like miracle here. Bowden has his hands full with this rebuilding job. He wanted back in? Well, he’s back in. Good luck.

Dream season As at Auburn in 1993, Bowden pulls off one of the most amazing first seasons in college football history. Akron goes 8-4, 5-3 in the MAC, and earns a share of the East title.

Nightmare season Same verse as in 2011. Akron wins one game against an F.C.S. foe and goes 0-11 against the F.B.S.

In case you were wondering

Where do Akron fans congregate? As has been the case for years, your best option is ZipsNation.org, the leading non-profit Web site covering Akron athletics. It’s likely the best site covering Akron athletics regardless of the financial bottom line. You can also check out the Akron Beacon Journal, but the paper does devote much of its coverage to Akron’s terrific men’s soccer team.

Akron’s all-name nominee DT Dajour Morris.

Word Count

Through seven teams 22,630.

Up Next

Who is No. 117? The first president at tomorrow’s university, who was a dentist by trade, was known for his series of key studies that proved how fluorides can play a key role in cavity prevention.

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Comments

  1. philip says:

    only my first read of the countdown for the season. (adding a second child to the family will do that.) glad to see you again. and thanks for explaining bowden’s exit from auburn.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Joseph F Volker was the first president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He was a pioneer in dentistry. The UAB Blazers are up next.

  3. jjncaa says:

    It’s interesting to see that after the new wave of “recruiting” head coaches (what was a failure nearly everywhere), the AD’s became conservative

  4. M Meyer says:

    It looks like UAB is next.

  5. Gotham Gator says:

    So, the man responsible for befouling our precious bodily fluids and destroying our purity of essence was the President of UAB???

  6. Matt R says:

    @Gotham Gator: thats why I only drink rain water and pure grain alcohol.

  7. Hokieshibe says:

    hahaha

  8. DMK says:

    Relax: Sure-vye-val kee-its contee-ent check: een thee-em you wee-uhl fye-und: one forty-fye-uvh cailiburh autuhmatic, two boxes uh ammuhnitshun …

  9. Burnt Orange says:

    Akron goes 6-6.

  10. Dave says:

    Shoot, a fellah could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!

  11. Zach says:

    Bowden probably wants to recruit the state of Florida hard. That makes those first two games against UCF and FIU hugely important. Beat them, and you’re suddenly looked at as being in a higher tier than the middle-of-the-pack Florida universities (UF, FSU, Miami being the top tier).

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