1. Akron Zips
Akron earned a rather dubious distinction at the end of the 2004 regular season. The Zips finished 6-5, a record that gained them bowl eligibility.
There were 28 bowl games in the 2004 postseason. That means 56 slots available for potential bowl teams. It was a strange year in Division I-A, so strange that only 57 teams earned the right to call themselves “bowl-eligible” (one of the winning teams, Clemson, pulled out of bowl contention as punishment for a fight in a game against rival South Carolina). So one team in all of college football was going to end the season with a winning record, be eligible to go to a bowl game, and not get invited to a bowl game.
That team? Akron.
The Zips did, however, make up for that snub in 2005, when they rallied to beat Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. The win earned Akron their first bowl trip, and they showed themselves to be a worthy foe for Memphis in the Motor City Bowl, losing 38-31.
With the return of senior QB Luke Getsy, the Zips have a huge piece in place for another division title run.
In good shape: Quarterback. Getsy showed his guts late in the season. After a miserable 47-yard performance against Kent State in the regular season finale (he was helped by the fact that KSU was held to seven yards passing in the game), Getsy turned it on when the Zips got to Detroit. First, against NIU, Getsy threw for 413 yards and a late bomb to Domenik Hixon to clinch the MAC title. Then, with DeAngelo Williams single-handedly destroying Akron’s run defense, Getsy kept his team in the game until the end with a masterful 455-yard, four-touchdown, no turnover performance. Getsy ended the season with over 3,450 yards, 23 scores, and four 300-yard games (three of those were 400-yard games). The Pittsburgh transfer is going to benefit this year from a strong offensive line, and that will help offset the losses at running back and receiver.
Needs work: Running back. Losing Brett Biggs, who totaled over 2,400 yards in two years, is a tough blow to Akron’s offense. tOSU transfer Dennis Kennedy will get the first shot at starting. As a redshirt freshman, he gained 131 yards in mop-up duty last year. Kennedy is backed up by sophomore Alex Allen and junior Frank Berchie, neither of whom have any significant ball-carrying experience in college.
Overview: Akron is in a good position for further growth. Getsy is a great leader, and Kennedy should be an adequate backfield presence. Jabari Arthur had a huge bowl game and is the top returning receiver. As I mentioned, the offensive line (five returning starters) is intact. The defense returns nine starters (Akron has 17 back overall). Leading the charge this year will be end Jermaine Reid, who was second on the team with 7.5 sacks. Linebacker Brion Stokes led the team with 8.5, and he was second-team All-MAC a year ago. Also returning are junior safeties Chris Brown and Chevin Pace. Pace missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, but it sounds like he will be ready for the season. The schedule includes opening road trips to Penn State and North Carolina State, and five of the first six are on the road. If Akron can survive this stretch, they could win as many as eight games, and their experience makes them a favorite to win the relatively weak East.
2. Ohio Bobcats
One of the challenges facing second-year coach Frank Solich is building Ohio’s depth to a more acceptable level. Solich cited that lack of depth as a big reason why the Bobcats lost three straight games to close out the season. In those three losses, they gave up a staggering 645 yards rushing and 803 yards passing. For the season, Ohio yielded 452 total yards per game, so Solich also knows he has to get the defense to play at a higher level.
To do that, Ohio has nine defensive starters returning (18 total), including the top five tacklers from last year’s team. The expected improvement on defense has optimism high in Athens, and Solich knows that this team has a chance to turn the corner.
In good shape: Defensive front seven. The Bobcats return almost everyone who played a key role last year. The line got a boost when it was learned that tackle Shane Yates would receive a sixth year of eligibility. He’ll be joined up front by juniors Brett Sykes and Landon Cohen and sophomore end Jameson Hartke, who had an impressive 34 tackles and four sacks as a freshman despite starting just one game. All three starting linebackers are back for their senior seasons. Middle linebacker Matt Muncy led the team with over 100 stops last year, while outside starters Michael Graham and Tyler Russ combined for over 140 stops.
Needs work: Quarterback. The Bobcats were wretched in the passing game last year. Austin Everson got the majority of the work, but hit less than 48 percent of his passes and threw 11 picks to four touchdowns. Solich opened up the job in the spring, and it appears that junior Brad Bower, an Illinois transfer, has the best chance of unseating Everson. Redshirt freshman Josh Febus may also fit into the mix. With eight other offensive starters returning on offense, the Bobcats expect vast improvement on the 45.5 percent completion rate and 118 pass yards per game from a year ago. The lack of a consistent passing threat was a huge reason why Ohio scored just 17.5 points per game.
Overview: Improvement. That’s the buzzword entering fall camp for Ohio. Improvement in the passing game. Improvement on defense. Improvement on the scoreboard (Ohio was outscored by an average of 13 points per game). Ohio has the tools to be significantly improved this year. The lines should both be better, and the passing game has to improve because it can’t get much worse. The running game should be strong again, led by 1,000-yard rusher Kalvin McRae. The secondary loses top corner Dion Byrum, but returns junior safeties Todd Koenig and Tony Ward, and they add junior safety Michael Hinton, a Virginia Tech transfer. Trips to Missouri and Rutgers will be tough on Ohio, but their conference road games are against Kent State, Eastern Michigan, Miami, and Northern Illinois. Except for the trip to NIU, that’s a manageable schedule. Ohio’s improved depth and experience should carry them to a top spot in the division and potentially to their first bowl game since 1968.
3. Bowling Green Falcons
Bowling Green had won 20 games over two years entering 2005. With junior star quarterback Omar Jacobs and nearly the entire offense returning, the Falcons were considered a darkhorse candidate for BCS bowl consideration. But when Jacobs got hurt, the Falcons fell flat. Bowling Green’s defense never really caught up, and that led to 135 points allowed in the first three games.
Despite that, the Falcons were 4-2 before Jacobs went down early in the game against Western Michigan. By the time Jacobs returned after missing three games, the Falcons’ bowl hopes were almost completely gone, along with any chance they had of winning the MAC East.
Jacobs is gone now, having left early for the NFL Draft. In his wake? A lot of uncertainty on both sides of the ball. It could be a long year for Bowling Green.
In good shape: Defensive line. The Falcons boast a legitimate NFL prospect in senior end Devon Parks. Parks had four sacks a year ago, and he also posted 8.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles. He’s a good playmaker who is good at rushing up the field and is also strong against the run. The Falcons are a tad undersized at tackle, but they really like sophomore Nick Davis, who should start at nose. Senior Brad Williams and redshirt freshmen Brady Minturn and Michael Ream should make a solid rotation at tackle. When sophomore end Diyral Briggs returns this fall, the line will have a good mix of pass rushers and run-stopping ability.
Needs work: Running back. Lost in the ability of Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs at quarterback was what the talent of P.J. Pope did for this spread offense. Pope was bothered by ankle injuries all last year, and he was missed, as the running game went from a 4.7 yards per carry average to just 3.8. Pope, when healthy, was a great player in this scheme, topping 1,000 yards rushing and catching 50 passes in 2004 after topping 1,000 yards rushing with 48 catches in 2003. Both Pope and B.J. Lane are gone this year, leaving the starting job to junior Dan Macon, who redshirted last year. Macon has only played in 13 games and has not seen many touches, but the coaches like his size and athleticism.
Overview: New starting quarterback Anthony Turner loses his top two running backs, five of his top seven receivers, and two starters from the offensive line. Luckily for Turner, the most important linemen, center Kory Lichtensteiger and left tackle Drew Nystrom, are back, so the blocking should be at least decent. How Gregg Brandon fills the other holes will be interesting to see, though. I expect that seniors Kenneth Brantley and Ruben Ruiz and sophomores Corey Partridge and Marques Park will see the bulk of the work at receiver. The secondary will rely on some younger guys for success, especially sophomore corners Antonio Smith and Kenny Lewis. As Brandon reloads the talent pool at Bowling Green, he does have the schedule working in his favor this year. There are only four true home games, but two of the eight road games are against Florida International and Temple (the Falcons’ last game at Temple was a 70-16 win), and all four true home games should be wins (Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, and Miami (Ohio)). The Falcons should be able to hang around the upper half of the MAC East, and if they can catch a break or two on the road, they may contend for the division title.
4. Kent State Golden Flashes
Kent State was cursed last year. The Flashes lost by three at Ohio, by a touchdown at Eastern Michigan, three at Navy, and four against Buffalo. In total, they had five losses by ten points or less, which is a very high number. In those close losses, KSU was a total of -10 in turnover ratio.
What am I getting at? Kent State was cruelly unlucky last year, and it’s not mathematically likely to happen again. The Flashes have 18 starters back, and if they can do better in the running game on both sides of the ball, they’ll have a chance to quickly climb back up the MAC East standings.
In good shape: Secondary. The Kent State pass defense did some good things last year, including holding Akron star Luke Getsy to just 47 passing yards on 5-16 passing. In fact, Kent State held six of their last eight opponents under 200 yards passing, and four of those six had less than 150 yards. Among the nine returning starters on defense are all four from the secondary. Corners Usama Young and Jack Williams will start, and senior Barry Drakeford, who started 12 games in 2003, serves as the primary nickel guy. At safety, the Flashes have junior Fritz Jacques and senior Andre Kirkland. Sophomore Rico Murray started seven games as a freshman and should also get plenty of reps at safety. Kent State should have one of the league’s better secondaries, though they do have to get better at making plays. The Flashes had only 12 interceptions last year, and that’s a big part of why they finished -11 in turnovers.
Needs work: Running game. 46 yards per game. That was Kent State’s average ground production last year. No wonder they went 1-10. I don’t care what offense you’re running. Even the spread offenser requires that a team be able to run the ball once in a while. The season high for ground production was just 109, and the Flashes had six games where they ran for less than 50 yards. Speed demons Tony Howard (sophomore) and Eugene Jarvis (freshman) are expected to see much of the backfield duty this season, and coach Doug Martin hopes he can find a legitimate running game with one or both of them. He has a mature, heady quarterback in Michael Machen, who enters his senior season at age 25 after playing minor-league baseball for three years before returning to football. But even Machen is going to be prone to picks when the running game is absent.
Overview: This is a tough team to make a call on. The run defense should get better, but it’s not a certainty, because this group definitely underachieved after a strong effort in 2004. With end Danny Muir and tackle Colin Ferrell anchoring the line, and sophomores Stevon Moss and Cedrick Maxwell leading the way at linebacker, a healthy Kent State defense could be a pretty good one. With Machen at the controls, and superb athletes like seniors Marcus Hill and Najah Pruden available to catch the ball, the spread offense should start to round into form. Kent State opens with Minnesota at home, and while they probably won’t win, the Gophers’ offense will be a good early test for this experienced Kent State defense. The Flashes have a reasonable schedule, and they could sneak into the top three of the division. Six wins is certainly within reach.
5. Miami (Ohio) RedHawks
Miami and Bowling Green have both benefited from the presence of some very good quarterbacks over the last couple years. Bowling Green has had Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs, while Miami was blessed with Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who blew away MAC records for yards, completions, and total offense in 2003. His replacement, Josh Betts, did very well in his two years as a starter, throwing for over 6,500 yards and 50 touchdowns and leading Miami to 15 wins in those two years.
Last year may have been considered a bit of a downer in Oxford, though, as Miami, who had been untouchable at home since 2003, lost two games at Yager Stadium, including a 42-14 debacle to Bowling Green on national television. Those two losses probably cost Miami a bowl bid, along with a shot at the division title.
Betts is gone now, and the RedHawks only have seven returning starters on the team. For second-year coach Shane Montgomery, the challenge will be finding ways to plug the many holes that popped open on his roster when 19 seniors departed.
In good shape: Running back. Miami has a pretty good stable of runners returning, though they might suffer statistically because of some losses on the line. Junior Brandon Murphy is a bit of a waterbug at 5-8, 188, but he can move. Murphy topped 1,000 yards and scored nine times last year, and his primary backup, senior Jimmy Murray, also returns. Murray is bigger, but he has some explosiveness, as evidenced by his 5.3 yards per carry in limited duty a year ago. With a new quarterback stepping in, Miami figures to have the ability to run the ball a little bit more, which should help take pressure off the new signal-caller.
Needs work: Defensive front seven. There is hope among Miami’s coaches that the youth along the front seven is going to step up and provide some depth, but it’s hard to tell right now who the front line players will be, outside of junior end Craig Mester, who is the only returning starter in the front seven. Mester posted 5.5 sacks in 2005. 300-pound junior Otto Linwood should start at one tackle spot, while senior Seth Painter, the most experienced of Miami’s linemen, should hold down the other position on the interior. Sophomore Joe Coniglio is making the move from linebacker to end, and could start opposite Mester. At linebacker, things are more dire, because the top five players are gone. Sophomore Joe Hudson has tons of promise at middle linebacker, but he only has 12 tackles in his college career so far. Senior outside ‘backer Dontae Wright is the most experienced of this group entering 2006. Wright has 61 tackles in his three years.
Overview: The RedHawks have been paced by their passing game over the last five years or so. But with Betts gone, it probably falls on junior Mike Kokal, who has thrown some passes in his career, but has yet to throw for a touchdown. Kokal will be challenged in the fall by sophomore Jared Elliott. Seniors Josh Williams and Ryne Robinson will provide the primary targets for the new quarterback. Senior free safety Joey Card is likely to emerge as the leader of the secondary. He and Mester are the only returning starters. It will be an emotional night on August 31, as Miami plays host to Northwestern. Both teams were coached by Randy Walker, who died in late June. The schedule also includes visits to Purdue and Syracuse in non-conference play. The lack of experience makes it hard to foresee a winning season for the RedHawks, who will probably struggle to stay close to .500. Montgomery has a lot of talented sophomores and juniors, however, so the fall from the top of the division isn’t expected to last very long.
6. Buffalo Bulls
It’s common for people to refer to a successful program’s “rebuilding effort” as a “reloading”. It’s actually so common that it’s a cliché these days.
Buffalo isn’t reloading. And they’re not rebuilding. To rebuild, there has to have been something there in the first place. The Bulls have been horrid since arriving in Division I-A in 1999 (10-69). The scoring averages of the Bulls’ games in those years? 39-12, 41-16, 26-19, 35-18, 37-15, 32-18, and 30-10. They haven’t won more than three in a season, and even in that season (2001), they lost six of their eight games by at least two touchdowns.
The high-water mark for the offense last season was 21 points. They ran for 198 yards against Bowling Green and lost by 20. They threw for 293 yards against Ohio and lost by 14. In their only win, 10-6 over Kent State, they gained 204 yards of offense and picked up 11 first downs, but benefited from a +4 in turnovers. By the way, they averaged less than 9,000 fans per home game.
So welcome aboard to new coach Turner Gill. Good luck. Here’s hoping your career doesn’t get sucked into the abyss of this awful program.
In good shape: Wide receiver. The Bulls are hardly set at any position, but they do return five receivers who have caught 20 or more passes in a single season. That’s a good thing. Leading receivers Brett Hamlin and Chad Upshaw, the tight end, are both back. They caught 38 and 37 passes, respectively, a year ago (Hamlin was only a freshman). Also back is Terrance Breaux, who caught 23 in 2004 but missed last season with a shoulder injury. Senior Evan Wallace caught 25 last year, and should start along with Hamlin.
Needs work: Lines. The offensive line has struggled horribly over the years, and last year was one of the worst, as they allowed 43 sacks. The running game suffered, too, gaining just 2.9 yards per carry. Gill expects to employ at least three new starters this year, including at both tackle positions. Gill said he wants his teams to be the most physical in the league, and he can start moving things in that direction, especially on the defensive line, where all four starters will be new. There could be some youth here, as redshirt freshman end Dane Robinson and sophomore tackle Ronald Hilaire are expected to compete for jobs. The best of the bunch might be junior end Trevor Scott, who moved from tight end and has good size (6-5, 254).
Overview: Nowhere to go but up here. Gill has his work cut out for him, but he’s made some positive inroads in the community, and the players’ first impression of his staff seems to be positive. Gill’s most important job this year will be to turn around the losing attitude. That 5-41 record over the last four years is pretty ugly to look at, and it’s probably been ugly to live through. Gill also has to find a quarterback that fits his system. Junior Drew Willy has the athletic ability, but he threw 12 picks to just six scores last year, so he has to work on that part of his game. Buffalo’s secondary was hurt by graduation, but leading tackler Kareem Byrom returns for his junior season. The schedule includes the usual paycheck games (Auburn, Boston College, Wisconsin), but it also gives Buffalo a chance to win a couple games. The Bulls host Temple in their opener, and they have conference home games against Ball State, Kent State, and Miami (Ohio). The Bulls should be able, despite their lack of overall depth, to win two or three games and at least start showing some positive strides under Gill’s leadership. But anything more than that should get Gill serious MAC Coach of the Year consideration.