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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. 60: Ohio

In its native habitat, the Bobcat is known for its scratchy, squeaky, high-pitched voice.

It’s very hard to get fired after winning 58 games in six years. Frank Solich was let go with such a record at Nebraska, his alma mater, because the then-athletic director, Steve Pederson, was petrified of falling behind Texas, Oklahoma et al. Where’s Steve Pederson now, you might ask? I’ll tell you where he’s not: Nebraska. His blunder has been Ohio’s gain, as Solich has led the Bobcats to three non-losing seasons and a pair of nine-win campaigns in his six seasons in Athens. In case people had forgotten, the man can coach.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Athens, Oh.

Nickname
Bobcats

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 82

2009 record
(9-5, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 55

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Wofford
  • Sept. 11
    Toledo
  • Sept. 18
    at Ohio St.
  • Sept. 25
    at Marshall
  • Oct. 2
    at Eastern Mich.
  • Oct. 9
    Bowling Green
  • Oct. 16
    Akron
  • Oct. 23
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 30
    La.-Lafayette
  • Nov. 4
    Buffalo
  • Nov. 16
    at Temple
  • Nov. 26
    at Kent St.

Last year’s prediction

I believe Ohio is as talented as any team in the East (yes, the weaker MAC division), and should be considered a favorite, along with Temple and Buffalo, for the division crown. Where do the Bobcats excel? I think the team will get strong quarterback play, no matter who earns the starting role. The Bobcats are dynamic on special teams, giving them a big edge over the opposition. What am I worried about? Only the defense. All told, I think this a good team, and I believe Ohio is one of three teams with a better-than-average shot at taking the East. I’m placing them in a virtual tie with Buffalo for the second spot, and if the MAC again sends five or six teams to bowl play, I expect the Bobcats to be one of them. Same as last year: I predict a 7-5 finish, 5-3 in MAC play.

2009 recap

In a nutshell In a slight surprise — I had Ohio reaching bowl play, but ranking below the top teams in the MAC — the Bobcats won seven games in conference action, running past Temple in the season finale to win the East division title. While the Bobcats could not take the MAC Championship Game, falling to Central Michigan, Ohio has now won the East twice since 2006; prior to that year, the program had not won a conference title of any kind since 1968. The team made a terrific improvement on defense in 2009, allowing roughly six less points per game than in a disappointing 2008 campaign, and got enough offense — particularly in MAC play — to hang with every team on its schedule. Looking back, perhaps everyone over looked Ohio: this was a senior-laden team run with a steady hand by an experienced coaching staff.

High point Thanks to the nature of the head-to-head tiebreaker, Ohio — 6-1 at the time in MAC play — could clinch the MAC East with a win over Temple — a perfect 7-0 entering the game — in the regular season finale. Without detracting from the wonderful season Temple put together, the Owls never stood a chance. Thanks to nearly perfect quarterback play and a hungry secondary, Ohio tore past Temple in a 35-17 win.

Low point A 20-10 loss to Central Michigan in the conference championship game. While Ohio has won a pair of division titles under Solich, the Bobcats have yet to win an overall conference championship since joining the F.B.S. on a permanent basis in 1983. All told, the program’s conference title drought stands at 41 years.

Tidbit Solich is the only Ohio coach since the Bobcats moved to the F.B.S. in 1983 to post a winning career record. Thanks to last year’s nine-win finish, Solich now holds a 32-31 mark over five seasons. Jim Grobe, currently at Wake Forest, came close: he went 33-33-1 from 1995-2000. His successor, and Solich’s predecessor, Brian Knorr, went 11-35 from 2001-4.

Tidbit (100-w0rd preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

During the 2009-10 academic year, Ohio was one of just 13 schools nationally to participate in a bowl game and win at least one game in the men’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament. Can you name the other 12 schools? Small hint: only one of the remaining 12 schools came from a non-B.C.S. conference.

Teams already spoken for: Arizona (Zaboo), California (katster), Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 DT Landon Cohen (Detroit), S Mike Mitchell (Oakland), CB Mark Parson (Houston), WR Taylor Price (New England), CB Thad Turner (Indianapolis), P Dave Zastudil (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

U.S. Presidents from Ohio
1. Ulysses S. Grant.
2. William Howard Taft.
3. Rutherford B. Hayes.
4. James A. Garfield.
5. William McKinley.

Coaching

Frank Solich (Nebraska ’66), 32-31 over five seasons at Ohio. After going 4-8 in 2008, the second time the Bobcats had won four games in a season under Solich, last season saw Ohio win nine games for the second time since 2006. 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 the University of Miami. 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

While Ohio will miss Taylor Price’s consistency, the Bobcats are in terrific shape at wide receiver. The new starter at quarterback, as I’ll touch on below, will have a number of weapons to work with. Begin with senior LaVon Brazill, Price’s cohort over the last two years; he’s ready to serve as Ohio’s top receiving target. He nearly paced the Bobcats in receptions a year ago, coming in second to Price in both catches (53) and receiving yards (703). Brazill is also one of the nation’s top punt returners: 13.5 yards per his 26 returns last fall, three of which he returned for touchdowns. Brazill’s one of the top receivers in the MAC, obviously. I’m intrigued by another senior, Terrence McRae, who was very productive as the team’s third option a season ago: 35 grabs for 545 yards and 9 scores, the latter total leading the team; so did his 15.5 yards per catch average. Stephen Goulet, a former transfer from Vanderbilt, rounds out the starting lineup. Three receivers, all experienced, all seniors — and there’s depth. Quite a solid group, even with Price’s departure.

The offensive line must replace two starters: left tackle Chris Rodgers was an all-MAC pick as a senior, and center David White was a three-year starter. Regardless, and as at wide receiver, this group will be better in 2010. That’s due to the development of players like A.J. Strum and Joe Flading, juniors who will bookend the line in 2010. Flading will remain on the strong side, where he made 10 starts en route to earning third-team all-MAC accolades a year ago, while Strum will move from left guard to tackle, replacing Rodgers. Ohio will fill Strum’s vacated left guard spot with sophomore Eric Herman, last year’s starter at right guard, while junior Kadre Pinder is the logical choice to step into the starting lineup on the right side. This offensive line, even with its losses, will be improved in 2010.

Look for Ohio to maintain its by-committee approach in the running game, even with a different cast of characters. Depth at the position did take a hit, however, following Donte Harden’s six-game suspension for a violation of team rules. His departure will spell additional carries for senior Vince Davidson, whose 260 yards a season ago leads all returning backs. Kenny Ashley, a JUCO transfer, will have every opportunity to break into the mix, as will a handful of unproven backs. Perhaps redshirt freshman Ryan Boykin, who has great size, will be the third back in the rotation while Ohio awaits Harden’s return to action.

The job description for Ohio’s two starting outside linebackers is simple: know your role, stay within yourself, make the few plays Noah Keller doesn’t. To be sure, Keller, now a senior, is the type of player you can build a defense around. He’s the best defensive player in the MAC, in my mind, an agile, aggressive, sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker who sets the tone for Ohio’s terrific front seven. All Keller did a year ago was make 155 tackles — yes, 155 — with a pair of sacks and an interception; obviously, a first-team all-conference pick. While Ohio will miss Lee Renfro, who was a solid performer on the weak side, Keller will keep this group afloat while Eric Benjamin and Shannon Ballard, this year’s projected starters on the outside, get their feet wet.

The defensive front remains largely intact, though a few reserves at end must be replaced. This year’s group is very experienced: all four starters are seniors. Stafford Gatling and Dak Notestine, the starting ends, combined to make 17.5 tackles for loss last fall; Notestine also paced the Bobcats with six and a half sacks. Marcellis Williamson and Ernie Hodge — the latter an all-MAC pick in 2009 — return on the interior, though Ohio will be without senior A.J. Oxley, recently dismissed from the team. What about those departed contributors at end? Look for a pair of sophomores, Tremayne Scott and Melvin Payne, see their roles increase before they move into the starting lineup in 2011.

I can’t help but be at least somewhat concerned about the secondary, which must replace three starters. So opportunistic a year ago — as a team, Ohio tied for best in the nation with 37 takeaways — I wonder how well the Bobcats will fare on defense without forcing nearly three turnovers per game. Asking for such production may be too much to ask; however, I doubt we’ll see this Ohio secondary take a significant dive in 2010. This is partly due to the safety tandem of Gerald Moore and Steven Jackson. Moore, now a sophomore, was a revelation at strong safety in 2009: 68 tackles (fourth on the team) and a team-best six interceptions. Jackson, who earned all-conference honors in 2008, returns to full health after missing all but the first four games of last season.

Ohio doesn’t look bad at cornerback, for that matter. While Ohio will have two new full-time starters, there is experience at the position. Senior Julian Posey has made nine starts over the last two years; junior Kenny Alexander, currently behind Posey on the depth chart, has also started in the past. Sophomore Travis Carrie was an important member of the cornerback rotation last fall, and will have every opportunity to grab a starting role. However, keep an eye on incoming JUCO transfers Omar and Octavius Leftwich: both will battle for meaningful action, though Omar seems destined for cornerback, Octavius to safety.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback While the Bobcats will certainly miss Theo Scott, who stepped into a starting role early into last season and piloted Ohio to its sterling nine-win finish, I like the options Ohio has at the quarterback position heading in September. One name is familiar: Boo Jackson started 10 games in 2008 and the first game of 2009 before suffering a season-ending injury, eventually taking a redshirt season. While it has no bearing on this year, it’s worth noting that last fall marked a reversal of sorts: Scott stepped in for Jackson, injured early in the year, while it was Jackson stepping in for an injured Scott early in 2008. There’s no question that Jackson has the experience needed to lead this offense: he threw for 2,355 yards and a then-school record 19 touchdowns in 2008, the latter mark broken by Scott a year ago. While he’s a solid passer and a capable option on the ground, Jackson’s running ability does not match that of his primary competitor for the starting role, junior Phil Bates. The former Iowa State transfer, now eligible for action, earned valuable experience during the spring while Jackson recovered from his shoulder injury. You’d have to think that Solich will go with experience — Jackson — over the junior, though Bates did see some action at quarterback for the Cyclones before transferring.

Game(s) to watch

At Temple on Nov. 16. In Ohio’s favor: after beating Temple last fall, Ohio gets nearly two weeks to prepare for the rematch. In Temple’s favor: home-field advantage. As of now, it’s the game of the year in the MAC.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. Of course, this can’t be construed as a slight against Ohio. These Bobcats, if they can address issues in the secondary and resolve its quarterback competition, is very capable of repeating as the East champs. 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. There’s simply a lot to like about Ohio, beginning with a terrific coach and continuing with an experienced, talented roster.

Dream season The Bobcats repeat as East champs, again squeezing past the favored Owls to pull off a 9-3 regular season, with seven wins coming in MAC play.

Nightmare season Barring injuries, there’s little chance Ohio slides back to the four-win mark of 2008. If the team remains healthy, anything less than 6-6 should be a disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do Ohio fans congregate? While the site is currently experiencing some “server hardware issues,” 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.

Up Next

Who is No. 59? When I say the coach of our next program is the only guy capable of winning at this school, I mean it: no other coach in the program’s modern era has won more than 46 percent of his games.

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Comments

  1. Steve says:

    Hmm, could you define “modern era” for me? Because if “modern era” means since about 1970, you must be talking about Northwestern University.

    Paul: Yes, “modern era” for me always means 1936, with the advent of the first A.P. poll. So no coach at this university whose career began after 1936, except for its current coach, has won more than 46 percent of his games.

  2. DivePlay says:

    The other 12 schools with at least 1 NCAA basketball win as well as a bowl appearance:

    BYU
    California
    Georgia Tech
    Kentucky
    Michigan State
    Missouri
    Ohio State
    Pittsburgh
    Tennessee
    Texas A&M
    West Virginia
    Wisconsin

    Paul: Boom. Nailed it. List your team below, if you would.

  3. Rookierookie says:

    Next team is Kansas State.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    Kansas State is next.

  5. Andy G says:

    I’d say the head-scratching loss at home to Kent State was more of a low point for Ohio than the loss to CMU. I think most expected the Chips to be champs.

  6. DivePlay says:

    I’ll take Georgia Tech. Thanks Paul!

  7. philip says:

    and we’re at the halfway point. substantial reads like this just keep me going. thanks again.

  8. Jeff says:

    “Kenny Ashley, a JUCO transfer, will have every opportunity to break into the mix, as will a handful of unproven backs.”

    I believe he’s still having academic issues, and won’t be playing this season.

  9. ohiobobcat says:

    Bobcatattack.com is now back up and running, thanks to our tech folks. We lost our archives of past posts and articles, but it’s still the best place for fans of the Ohio Bobcats.

    I think the Bobcats are actually in better shape at QB going into this season than we were last season.

    Most glaring weakness right now is lack of depth of RB. Due to attrition/academic issues, we don’t have much at that position. Last year, we were forced to throw often on third and short situations. Was hoping it would be better this season.

    You make a good point about the defense…it’s hard to imagine that the D will be able to force as many turnovers as last year. Will the D be able to be as effective if they cause fewer turnovers?

    Thanks for your coverage of the Bobcats.

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