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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. 52: Ohio

You don’t go to Ohio University not to drink on Saturday nights. And Friday, Sunday, Thursday, what have you; Ohio has an upstate New York feel — the cold, the snow, the beer, the cold — despite being about 600 miles southwest from Utica, which is interesting. In short: Ohio is a good place to spend a weekend or two. Is it — or has it been — a good place to watch college football? Well, it depends on the opponent, and it depends on the year. But the party never stopped, believe me. Now? With Frank Solich running the show, with a schedule so easy it should come with a child lock? The Ohio student body never needs a reason to pop a tab now and then, so imagine the scene when the Bobcats enter November with a shot at double-digit wins.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Athens, Oh.

Nickname
Bobcats

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 60

2010 record
(8-5, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 56

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at N.M.S.U.
  • Sept. 10
    Gardner-Webb
  • Sept. 17
    Marshall
  • Sept. 24
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 1
    Kent St.
  • Oct. 8
    at Buffalo
  • Oct. 15
    Ball St.
  • Oct. 22
    at Akron
  • Nov. 2
    Temple
  • Nov. 10
    at C. Michigan
  • Nov. 16
    at Bowling Green
  • Nov. 22
    Miami (Ohio)

Last year’s prediction

There is no question that, yet again, Ohio can exceed my expectations and take the MAC East crown. Of course, while Kent State is improved, the division will come down to the Bobcats and Temple; obviously, I have the Owls ranked ahead of the Bobcats. In fact, I think there’s a little more distance between the two programs in 2010: while I expect little drop-off from the Bobcats, I think Temple has double-digit win potential. In fact, my taking Ohio second in the division has far more to do with my faith in Temple than any belief that the Bobcats are due to take a step back in 2010. Well, I do think the Bobcats will suffer a slight decline in the win column — I think repeating last year’s nine-win mark will be difficult. Yet this is clearly still a bowl team, a very solid bowl team, and right alongside Northern Illinois as the second-best team in the MAC.

2010 recap

In a nutshell A slow start and a disappointing finish; in between, we saw the Ohio team most expected in August. The Bobcats offset a 1-3 start — one that included losses to Toledo and Marshall, the latter by a single point — with seven straight wins, pushing it to 8-3 in advance of the season finale at Kent State. That loss was as bad as any we saw all of last season; it’s also a loss that Ohio won’t soon forget. That’s a good thing, as the Bobcats should never forget how they allowed another MAC East title slip out of their grasp — the score of that game should be stenciled on the wall in the team’s locker room, not to be forgotten until the Bobcats return to the top of the East division. What also shouldn’t be forgotten: how Ohio played from October through most of November. During that seven-game span, the Bobcats were as good as any team in the MAC.

High point Wins over Miami (Ohio) and Temple. In essence, while the RedHawks left as the East winner, Ohio was the best team in the division in 2009. Head-to-head tiebreakers don’t always decide conference standings, though they often do.

Low point The 26-3 loss to Kent State, as already discussed. Thanks to wins over both Temple and Miami (Ohio), the Bobcats needed merely to sneak past the Golden Flashes in order to clinch the East — instead, the Bobcats lost in shocking fashion and Miami upset Temple, sending Ohio from a trip to Detroit for the MAC title game to the New Orleans Bowl.

Tidbit You may have noticed Ohio’s schedule on the top right of this page following the jump, or you may have heard about it elsewhere. If you are not familiar with Ohio’s regular season slate, please familiarize yourself with the 12 games and return to this paragraph. Back? What do you think? I’ll say one thing: I don’t have the time or the energy to go back and look at each team’s schedule over the last few seasons. I can say, however, that this looks — on paper — like the easiest F.B.S. schedule I’ve seen over the last five years. So how easy is it, on paper? The 12 teams combined to go 50-95 overall in 2010, 35-61 in conference play. The six teams Ohio plays on the road went a combined 14-48 in 2010. The overall record of all 12 teams is skewed by Temple and Miami (Ohio), which went a combined 18-8 a year ago; take them out, and the 10 remaining teams went 32-87. It’s a really, really easy schedule.

Tidbit (age edition) You know what Frank Solich likes most about coaching in the MAC? While he gets older, his coaching competition stays the same age, man. Solich graduated from Nebraska in 1966; five of his MAC coaching cohorts — Pete Lembo (born in 1970), Dave Clawson (1967), Dan Enos (1970), Ron English (1968) and Dave Doeren (1971) —  weren’t born when Solich earned his degree. Only one, Bill Cubit (1953), was out of elementary school when Solich flipped his tassel. And that’s life on the MAC coaching ranks, where you either succeed and head up the ladder or fail and move down. The game of musical chairs continues every winter.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 DT Landon Cohen (New England), CB Mike Mitchell (Oakland), CB Mark Parson (New Orleans), WR Taylor Price (New England), S Thad Turner (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Sister cities to Athens, Greece
1. Washington, D.C.
2. Barcelona.
3. Naples, Italy.
4. Los Angeles.
5. Chicago.

Coaching

Frank Solich (Nebraska ’66), 40-36 over six seasons at Ohio. After going 4-8 in 2008, the second time the Bobcats had won four games in a season under Solich, Ohio has won a combined 17 games over the last two seasons. The initial four-win season came in 2005, Solich’s first year in Athens. He quickly turned things around, however, bringing the Bobcats to nine wins in 2006 and a 6-6 mark in 2007; the 15 victories over a two-year span was the program’s most since 1968-69. In fact, the 9-5 mark in 2006 featured a MAC East championship, the program’s first conference title of any kind since 1968. Of course, it’s hard to discuss Frank Solich without touching on his long, meaningful association with the University of Nebraska, where he started as the freshman team coach in 1979, began coaching the running backs in 1983 and was promoted to be Tom Osborne’s replacement as head coach in 1998. Over his time as an assistant, Solich coached — either as a position coach or as offensive coordinator — two Heisman Trophy winners (Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch), countless all-conference and all-American performers and served under Osborne for three national championships (1994-5, 1997). As head coach, Solich compiled a 58-19 record from 1998-2003, which included three double-digit win seasons, a Big XII championship and an appearance in the 2001 national championship game, where the Huskers lost to Miami (Fla.) by a fairly significant margin. Solich won more games in his first six seasons in Lincoln than did his predecessors, Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, each of whom are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Fired unceremoniously with one game remaining in the 2003 season, Solich was out of coaching entirely in 2004 before being hired at Ohio in 2005. None of his MAC coaching brethren can match his experience or his success. Though Solich has been unable to duplicate his success at Nebraska with the Bobcats — no one thought he would — he has made Ohio into a far more competitive program, as well as a threat to win the conference championship in every season. When he does decide to leave, the program will be in a far better place.

Players to watch

The offensive line is fantastic. Check these off your list of must-haves up front: experience, talent, depth — everything you’d want, everything you’d need from your starting five. Each of last year’s starters are back in the fold, a group paced by the outstanding tackle combination of A.J. Strum and Joe Flading. Each earned all-MAC honors a year ago, Flading first-team accolades, so there’s not a better tackle pair in the MAC. Add former Florida State transfer Jon Prior into the rotation and you have a set of tackles to make even a B.C.S. conference team envious.

Junior Skyler Allen is back at center, with Eric Herman and Jon Lechner at right and left guard, respectively. Herman, a junior, is a mauler on the strong side of the line. Lechner took over on the left side midway through last season, replacing Vince Carlotta, who is also back, and never looked back. Carlotta won’t start, but he’s an important reserve. From left to right, this line is terrific.

The new starting quarterback will love these big boys. Who is that new starter, you might ask? I can give you two options: one is sophomore Tyler Tettleton, who played a tad in 2009 but took a redshirt last fall; the second is redshirt freshman Kyle Snyder, a mid-tier recruit in Ohio’s 2010 class. No, I don’t think senior Phil Bates is going to play quarterback: he may in certain packages, but Bates would be better fit at receiver or running back. Don’t be surprised if Solich plays all three, though Tettleton and Snyder will be the primary pair. They might compliment each other well, as Snyder is purported to be the finer passer and Tettleton the better runner. Ohio has not been afraid to go with two quarterbacks in the past.

If Snyder ends up being Ohio’s requisite passing quarterback, he’d be wise to develop a healthy relationship with senior LaVon Brazill, who was headed for a big 2010 campaign prior to having his year cut short after three games due to injury. Even having played in only three games, Brazill’s 12 receptions was good for fifth on the team; with a full season, Brazill should rank among the MAC’s most productive pass-catchers. Senior Riley Dunlop (27 catches for 387 yards) did a nice job stepping into the void last fall, and will really benefit from the attention Brazill will receive from opposing defensive backs. There are several younger targets dotting the depth chart, like sophomores Donte Foster and Mario Dovell. Don’t sleep on junior tight end Jordan Thompson (21 for 204 and 3 scores), a clear all-conference candidate. Solich loves to get the ball to his tight ends, especially in the red zone.

Bates (519 yards, 3 scores) will be a big presence in the running game, whether in shotgun as a quarterback or as a more traditional back. I don’t know whether Bates can be an every-down, wear-down-defenses kind of back, however. Even more so than at quarterback, look for the Bobcats to use a by-committee approach, of which Bates will be a key piece. If there’s going to be a lead back, it’ll be sophomore Ryan Boykin (213 yards, 3 scores). Boykin impressed in limited duty last fall, and he could be the bigger option to senior Donte Harden’s more shifty running style. Former Iowa State transfer Beau Blankenship, like Harden, brings the sort of speed needed to crack a long one. There won’t be a 1,000-yard back here, but Ohio will continue to do fairly well on the ground. This offensive line will help.

Ohio’s defense continued to force turnovers in 2010, albeit at a slightly lower rate than in the year before, when it led the country with 37 takeaways. The ability to take the ball away is more than just a two-year trend, in my mind: it’s a result of a defensive mentality, meaning the Bobcats have instilled a turnover-first mindset along each level of the defense. And that’s why Ohio, more often than not, bends but doesn’t break. And that’s why, for all intents and purposes, Ohio continues to win games despite starring a pedestrian offense, to put it bluntly.

The front four is a big-league worry; see below for details. The linebacker corps, on the other hand, is a definite strength. This is primarily thanks to Noah Keller’s return from injury: the all-MAC linebacker missed all but the first three games of 2010 with a foot injury. Will he be ready to go in the fall? All signs say yes, which is big news for this defense. When Keller is healthy, he’s a tackling, big-play-making machine, and a vital piece on this defense. When on his game, Keller is one of the best defensive players in the MAC, and an underrated linebacker on a national level.

He’ll be in the middle, flanked by Eric Benjamin (56 tackles, 3 sacks) on the weak side and Alphonso Lewis (38 tackles) on the strong side. This is a pretty good group, one that will be stronger than it was a year ago because of Keller’s return and an added year of experience for Benjamin and Lewis, a pair of first-year starters last fall. There’s some depth, not a lot, but the starting threesome is good enough to make this unit one of the stronger on the team. That’s mainly to do with Keller.

Only one full-time starter returns in the secondary: junior Travis Carrie (39 tackles, 2 sacks) brings size and physicality to the cornerback position. But he’s not the only defensive back with starting experience; not even the only cornerback with starting experience, in fact. Fellow junior Omar Leftwich was in the mix for a starting spot heading into last season but ending playing a key reserve role, starting once while making 31 stops and a pair of interceptions. His brother, Octavius, will also factor heavily into the mix.

Ohio can also feel good about the situation at free safety, where junior Gerald Moore returns after missing all but two games last fall due to injury. Moore, a former all-MAC pick, is actually the most accomplished defensive back on the roster. Ohio will start a new face at strong safety, whether Xavier Hughes or otherwise, so that’s really the lone question mark in the secondary heading into the fall. Overall, and as at linebacker, the secondary is a strength. While there are issues up front, Ohio’s back seven is as good a group as you’ll see in the MAC.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Last year’s defense took its cue from a stout, senior-laden front four, one that made the Bobcats one of the nation’s best against the run. The defensive line as a whole was the only position group on the team that started the same players for all 13 games, which should tell you all you need to know about the dichotomy between last year’s group and the line heading into 2011. You know, the problem with having four senior starters is that a year later the whole group must be replaced. One linemen who will absolutely hold a major role is senior end Curtis Meyers, who started eight games as a sophomore but has been slowed in each of the last years by a knee injury. He’s a clear starter, and an important leader for a group lacking in proven commodities. But the line isn’t entirely bare, even if a lack of depth is a concern. Meyers is joined at end by junior Tremayne Scott, sophomore Nic Barber and senior Jeff King. It was thought that King was going to be the starter coming out of the spring, but I’m of the mind to think that Scott or Barber might be a better fit: that pair seems to be better at getting to the quarterback, an asset in tall demand on this defense. Ohio took a big hit at end when former Indiana transfer Kyle Kozak was dismissed from the team last week; he was very impressive during the spring. The interior of the line will feature Neal Huynh (17 tackles) on the nose and junior Carl Jones (40 tackles, 3.5 sacks) as a disruptor, a role he played well in a reserve role in 2010. The two main concerns, in order of, well, concern: one, the lack of proven depth; and two, the lack of size. Ohio can develop the first over the span of a season. The latter is worrisome, as this year’s projected starting four — Meyers, Huynh, Jones and whichever second end — is about 100 pounds lighter than last year’s group. That’s a bit of a worry.

Game(s) to watch

Gardner-Webb. New Mexico State. Buffalo? No, the games to watch are Rutgers and Temple. The first because it could pave the way for a ridiculously good start; the second because the Owls, in my mind, are Ohio’s strongest competition for the MAC East.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Listen: you can’t ignore the schedule. It’s a slate conducive to a 10-win season, one that holds little challenges beyond the typical B.C.S. conference team in September and the Temple, Miami (Ohio) game in MAC play. Quite simply, it’s the easiest schedule in the country, and Ohio shouldn’t even break a sweat in the run to eight wins. Anything less than eight wins would be awfully embarrassing, to be honest. But can Ohio get to double digits? If Solich and the Bobcats do get to 10-2 in the regular season, it will be thanks to an offense that could wear down opposition with the MAC’s best line and a defense with a very solid back seven. If Ohio doesn’t get to at least 8-4, it will be due to an unknown quarterback situation, what seems like a lack of play makers in general offensively and, most of all, a defensive line still looking for answers. So let’s split the difference, as Ohio is good in spots and questionable in others, and predict the Bobcats to win at least eight games during the regular season, more likely nine — which is in itself amazing, considering where the program stood prior to Solich’s arrival, if not over the decades prior to his arrival, Jim Grobe’s tenure excluded. Unfortunately, Ohio’s projected win total will be slammed because of the schedule, and rightfully so. But don’t sleep on the Bobcats, who are good regardless of who they play, and don’t overlook the fact that Solich has done an outstanding job with the program. The Bobcats will take home the MAC East, with a conference title game date with Toledo waiting in the wings.

Dream season Are you sitting down? Ohio beats Marshall and Rutgers, entering MAC play at 4-0, and runs the table in conference play to finish the regular season 12-0. With all due respect, this would be the weakest 12-0 team that most of us have ever seen.

Nightmare season With this schedule, a 6-6 finish would be absolutely horrible.

In case you were wondering

Where do Ohio fans congregate? Bobcat Attack is, and has been for a few years now, the best place to talk Ohio sports. Unfortunately, that’s all I have for the Bobcats. As always — especially in this case — list below your favorite blogs, message boards and local beat reporters yearning to be included in this section.

Word Count

Through 69 teams 203,070.

Up Next

Who is No. 51? According to the recruiting database at Rivals.com, tomorrow’s program has signed one five-star and one four-star prospect since 2002; since that same year, the program has won at least 10 games four times.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. BobJ says:

    Let’s say Hawaii is next.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Yup, Hawai’i looks to be next…I can’t believe Washington is going to be this high.

  3. Jim Dotter says:

    Unless I’m reading it all wrong, isn’t Athens SOUTHWEST of Utica, vice southeast?,

    Paul: Consulting map and compass… yes, you’re right. Fixed it above, thanks.

  4. GTWrek says:

    I think it’s refreshing to see a mid-major schedule OOC games like they were in a BCS conference. If Florida can do it, why shouldn’t Ohio?

    Futheremore, if every mid-major scheduled this way, and filled their schedules up with each other, that would force all the BCS schools to play each other from week 1 and college football would be flat out amazing in September.

    One thing I’ll give Pete Carroll, that guy very rarely scheduled mid-majors. He had years where he played 12 BCS conference teams for his regular season.

  5. Charlie says:

    12-0 Ohio would be weaker than 12-0 Ball St.?

  6. taybax says:

    @GTWrek

    Yeah, while UF hasn’t played a non-conference game outside the state of Florida in about two decades, they still have FSU every year and the occasional Miami series. And an SEC schedule that this year includes a one-month stretch of LSU, Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia. Even with their games vs. UAB and Furman, they’re probably not the right poster child for lackluster scheduling.

  7. Paul Graham says:

    This was the best preview I’ve read on my precious Bobcats yet. Thanks for this!

    A couple notes on running back position…I just can’t see Phil Bates lining up as a tailback for the first time in his last season. Perhaps a wildcat is the best option. Not to mention that the team is moving to a hurry up, fast paced offense so having this added dimension could keep opponents on their heels. I also expect to see Dallas Brown compete for carries this season. He’s quicker and shiftier than Harden and looked good in limited action in 2010.

  8. michael says:

    Washington? I can’t believe UCB is going to be this high! Honestly, Hawai’i is going to be good, might even be lowish for them

  9. Scudderfan says:

    Paul –

    I’m curious (since you’ve done your word count) how many times you’ve used the JUCO acronym – and which teams are in the lead in their use (and presumably their reliance on these transfers).

    Can you satiate my curiosity?

  10. dublinbobcat says:

    Excellent and thorough preview. In many regards I agree that the schedule is weak, but I don’t think you can proactively say OHIO would be the worst 12-0 team. It may well turn out they had the weakest schedule but things change. Rutgers was headed for a solid season until they suffered some key injuries last season. They could bounce back, and Marshall is in the 2nd year of regime change, so expect improvement there. NMSU has to get better eventually, right? Anything can happen. And goodness, for as much as everyone slobbers all over Temple… well OHIO will have to just keep beating their arses and still get no credit. Ohio’s only problem is themselves… they need to avoid having those absolutely inexplicable brain-fart games (see: Kent 2009 and 2010). If this team shows up for 12 weeks, they win all 12.

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