The Bowling Green Falcons have traveled a long road over the last three seasons. After BGSU rebounding from a 1-4 start to make the Humanitarian Bowl in Dave Clawson's first season, many great players including Tyler Sheehan and Freddie Barnes departed. In 2010, the Falcons used a lineup of mostly first- and second-year players and the bottom fell out, as the team crawled to a 2-10 finish. As those players developed, the team improved. The Falcons won three more games in 2011 to finish 5-7, and three of those losses came by a touchdown or less. Many saw a breakthrough coming in 2012.
A breakthrough is what Bowling Green fans received. Again, the Falcons improved by three wins and appeared in the Military Bowl against San Jose State. Among the team's eight wins was a six-game winning streak in which the Falcons allowed a total of 47 points. Of their five losses, only one was by more than 13 points, and BGSU even played toe-to-toe with eventual 11-2 Florida into the fourth quarter. The 2012 edition of the Falcons led the MAC in every meaningful defensive category and produced a sixth-round NFL draft pick in defensive lineman Chris Jones.
The great news for Bowling Green fans is that the road doesn't end there. Despite the losses of 2012 seniors Chris Jones and Dwayne Woods, as well as the unexpected departures of players such as Fahn Cooper and Anthon Samuel, the Falcons return 17 starters from the 2012 team. With experience and talent all over the field, media and fans alike expect BGSU to take another big step forward. What does that mean? The only things left to do are win the MAC East, win the MAC Championship game, and win a bowl game. Given the make-up of this team, anything short of achieving those goals will be seen as a disappointment.
If history is an indicator, don't bet against Dave Clawson's team making those goals a reality. Clawson has made a habit of four-year projects as a head coach. In his first coaching stop at Fordham, he went 0-11 in 1999. Three seasons later, his best team went 10-3 and played in the Division I-AA (FCS) quarterfinals. At Richmond, his 2004 team went 3-8. Three seasons later, his best team at Richmond went 11-3 and played in the FCS semifinals. This is the third season since Clawson's 2-10 team in 2010, so if the pattern holds, this should be his best season at BGSU.
So, how is Bowling Green going to make their dreams happen? Let's break down the position groups...
Quarterbacks: Matt Schilz beat Matt Johnson in fall camp for the starting job, but the three-year incumbent shouldn't get comfortable. A poor performance or two early in the season could mean a switch to Johnson. Schilz threw for 3,024 yards and 28 touchdowns as a sophomore, but those numbers dropped to 2,585 and 14 as a junior. For the Falcons to prosper, they need the 2011 Schilz to show up. If a switch is made, Johnson appears to have the talent needed, but he has only 28 regular season attempts in his career.
Running Backs: Given the talent and experience of guys like Jordan Hopgood, Andre Givens and Jamel Martin, it says a lot that redshirt sophomore Travis Greene was named BGSU's starting tailback. Greene has all of one carry in his career, but he showed explosive ability in fall camp and could prove to be a game-changer for the Falcon offense. Despite this move, expect Givens, Hopgood and Martin to all get carries. A wildcard here could be true freshman Fred Coppet. In the team's second fall scrimmage, he had an exciting kickoff return for a touchdown (called back by penalty) and could see action in a Dri Archer-type fashion.
Wide Receivers: This is one of the deepest, most talented groups of wideouts the Falcons have ever had. Ryan Burbrink, Shaun Joplin and Chris Gallon are the starters. Joplin and Burbrink combined for 79 catches last year, while the 6-4/223 Gallon is the heir apparent to Freddie Barnes and Kamar Jorden. Gallon had 54 catches, 720 yards and 6 touchdowns as a freshman and could be in line for a huge season if Schilz plays to form. Herve Coby and Heath Jackson are finally healthy and ready to contribute, and Schilz can also count on others such as Jermal Hosley and Ronnie Moore.
Tight Ends: Alex Bayer (6'4"/257) enters his final season with BGSU as a potentially dangerous weapon. His 36 catches, 410 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2012 were all career-bests, and he poses big match-up problems over the middle for almost every team. Redshirt freshman Scott Davis, virtually identical in size to Bayer, will be the backup. Tyler Beck and Chris Pohlman will also play, as they will primarily help out the running game by serving time at fullback.
Offensive Line: This is one area of transition for the Falcons, and that could spell some trouble. The team is secure on the interior. Returning starters Dominic Flewellyn and Alex Huettel will start at guard, while David Kekuewa anchors the line at center. Kekuewa, also known as "Chief", is on the Rimington Award watch list and was named third-team Preseason All-MAC by Phil Steele. However, the tackle positions feature new starters. Gone are Jordan Roussos and Fahn Cooper. In their place are two redshirt freshmen -- Jacob Bennett and Logan Dietz. How well BGSU's offense performs in 2013 will rest in large part with these two, especially Bennett, who will protect Schilz's blind side.
Defensive Line: Despite losing NFL draftee Chris Jones, this is one of the most talented and stable groups on the team. Three of four 2012 starters return, including both defensive ends. Bryan Thomas and Charlie Walker combined for 67 tackles and 6 sacks last season. Also back is defensive tackle Ted Ouellet (who is famous for THIS). Ouellet finished 2012 with 3 sacks and 35 tackles of his own. Stepping into the spot vacated by Chris Jones is senior Jairus Campbell. Campbell played in just 3 games last year but played in 12 during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. If any of the starters get hurt, experienced players such as Kendall Montgomery, Ronnie Goble and Zach Colvin can step in.
Linebackers: This is another group that, despite the loss of a big-time contributor, should not lose a step. Gone is Dwayne Woods, but two other 2012 starters are ready to pick up the slack. Number one on that list is Gabe Martin. Martin posted 70 tackles, 4.5 sacks, an interception and 2 forced fumbles last season, and the junior is poised to do even better as the starting rover. Senior Paul Swan had impressive numbers of his own with 65 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in 2012 and will anchor the middle this season. D.J. Lynch will also start this season. Despite not starting last year, he played in all 13 games with 63 tackles, 2 sacks and 3 passes broken up. After those three, experience comes up a little short. Backups include Paul Senn (a JC transfer), Coy Brown (6 games in 2012) and Justin Ford (7 games in 2012).
Secondary: You know you have a deep, rock-solid group when you lose two experienced players and barely even blink. DeVon McKoy transferred and Darrell Hunter could be lost for the season due to injury, but this group is likely the best the Falcons have to offer. Cameron Truss, Jerry Gates and Ryland Ward are all returning starters (and they've combined for 80 career starts). Those three combined for 167 tackles, 2 interceptions and 12 PBUs in 2012. Gates, with the MAC's best nickname (BooBoo), is also a threat in the kick return game. Jude Adjei-Barimah is a backup safety but led all returners with four interceptions, while fellow backup safety Josh Pettus had 31 tackles and an interception of his own. Backup corners Brian Sutton and Will Watson also bring significant game experience.
Special Teams: This group is perhaps more stable than at any other time in Clawson's tenure at BGSU. Brian Schmiedebusch was a second-team All-MAC performer at punter last year. He posted a 40.8 average and 24 of his 72 punts (33%) were downed inside the opponents' 20 yard line. Of his 72 punts, a total of 18 (25%) were 50 yards or more. Tyler Tate is expected to be the team's starting kicker. Tate made 7-of-10 field goals last year, including both attempts in the Military Bowl. Sophomore Anthony Farinella (58.0 average, 7 touchbacks) is the Falcons' kickoff specialist. Returners will be Gates and Burbrink. Gates averaged 19.4 yards per kickoff return and had an 80 yard punt return for a touchdown in 2012, while Burbrink averaged 8.9 yards per punt return.
Now, how about that schedule:
- August 29th (7:00pm) -- TULSA
- September 7th (12:00pm) -- at Kent State
- September 14th (12:00pm) -- at Indiana
- September 21st (3:30pm) -- MURRAY STATE
- September 28th (TBA) -- AKRON
- October 5th (3:30pm) -- MASSACHUSETTS
- October 12th (TBA) -- at Mississippi State
- October 26th (TBA) -- TOLEDO
- November 5th (8:00pm) -- at Miami
- November 12th (7:30pm) -- OHIO
- November 23rd (1:00pm) -- at Eastern Michigan
- November 29th (1:30pm) -- at Buffalo (Ralph Wilson Stadium)
For the non-conference games, I think Bowling Green would take a 2-2 record and be happy with it. It would be great if the Falcons could beat Tulsa and then pull an upset at either Indiana or Mississippi State -- and that's certainly not out of the question -- but one win out of those three would be just fine.
The MAC slate is very interesting. At home, the Falcons have two games (back-to-back) that they should have no problem winning, versus Akron and UMass. However, they also have two very difficult games against Toledo and Ohio. It could be argued that those could be BGSU's two most difficult MAC games of the season. Fortunately for the Orange and Brown, those two are at home. The Falcons have winnable road games at Miami and Eastern Michigan, but in my opinion, their entire season will probably come down to their road games at Kent State and Buffalo. If they win those two games, the Falcons will almost certainly play for the MAC East title against Ohio. If they lose one (or both), they're probably not going to win the division.
Since 2010, the Bowling Green Falcons have gotten better and better at every step of the journey over the last three seasons. This year is the culmination of that journey, and there is absolutely no indication that this team is not capable of achieving all of their goals. Yes, there are questions about the offensive line, how the younger players will perform when placed in key roles, and whether or not Matt Schilz can return to his 2011 form. However, a lights-out defense should smooth out any bumps the offense might face along the way, and I'm betting that the 2012 Schilz was a mirage, not a trend. This team should win 8-10 games and once again be right there with Ohio at the top of the MAC East.