Two yards. Six feet. Seventy-two inches.
That's the distance the Akron Zips were away from getting to bowl eligibility last season. In the cruel world of college football, short distances separate postseason teams from those that sit at home over the holiday season.
Of course, that game was the Michigan game last year, where the Zips captured the heart of the nation for a half as most of the country was rooting for them to topple the mighty Wolverines. It didn't happen, but it proved that these Zips weren't the same team that went 1-11 the previous few seasons.
Akron finished the year at 5-7 (4-4 in the MAC), with wins over bottom feeders Miami, Kent State and Massachusetts along with a surprising win to end the season over Toledo. The losses weren't bad losses really; all of the teams Akron lost to appeared in bowl games. On top of that, only three of the losses can be categorized as blowouts and they were all at the hands of guys playing in the NFL right now: Blake Bortles, Jordan Lynch and Keith Wenning.
Three straight wins to end the season last year propel the Zips into 2014 with an aura of confidence and belief in the system. Terry Bowden has brought stability to an Akron program that has been at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of continuity the past few years. Multiple players return and an influx of talented transfers are becoming focal points along the offensive and defensive lines. This season could be the one that breaks Akron's eight year bowl drought, the fourth longest in the nation.
In the Rob Ianello years, Akron's offense was one of the most painful things to watch on Earth. When Bowden came in that side of the ball made a complete 180, turning from a ground and pound run game to an air-it-out attacking pass game. The Zips went from 14.2 points per game in Ianello's final year to 26.2 points per game in Bowden's first year. That's almost a 100% improvement, which is almost unfathomable. Last year the offense took a bit of a step back to twenty points per game, but improved by four wins.
Starting Quarterback Kyle Pohl's season wasn't great, but wasn't terrible either. Fourteen touchdowns and ten interceptions aren't bad, but when the offense is more focused on throwing the touchdown numbers seem a little low. Another number that is low is completion percentage. Pohl completed just 56% of his passes last year and needs to be more consistent this year. With most of his passes being of the short and quick variety, the completion percentage needs to be between 65-70% for Pohl to have a nice year.
Jawon Chisholm is the team's most explosive offensive threat. His stats were pretty good last year - 900 yards and eight touchdowns - but it felt like it should have been more. Part of it may have been due to the struggles of the offensive line; Chisholm ran for 5 yards or more only 32% of the time last year (a stat borrowed from our colleague Bill Connelly's in-depth preview). This year he should be better with more experience and another year in the system. Backup Conor Hundley has also proven to be a reliable replacement when Chisholm needs a break.
The receivers are the deepest position group on the team. They only lose Jarrod Dillard and Dee Frieson to graduation and return a wealth of experience. Zach D'Orazio is a former QB and was the best receiver last year, catching 42 balls for 567 yards and four touchdowns. L.T. Smith and Tyrell Goodman are both solid and both had three touchdowns last season. Andrew Pratt is 6'5 and he should have had more than one touchdown last year. He could turn into a de-facto tight end and should be getting a number of red zone targets.
Franshon Bickley could be the most important player on the offense. He's only 5-foot-6 and 138 pounds, which is small for a tenth grader. But Bickley just seems to have that "it" that makes up a good football player. He's super quick and doesn't really have a position. He excelled at receiver last year, catching 39 passes for 407 yards and two touchdowns. If Pohl can find him more on short passes, he can take off and will be hard to chase down.
The offensive line loses three starters from a group that wasn't exactly the greatest last year. Pohl was sacked 21 times and it seemed the Chisholm never got the holes he needed to explode down the field. It isn't all bad, as last week Akron picked up Ohio State transfer Tommy Brown. There is some experience along the line; collectively the line has 50 career starts. This is the part of the team that could make or break the season, so they need to be solid.
Year three of the Bowden era also brings in year three for defensive coordinator Chuck Amato. It isn't too often a MAC school has a coordinator with the experience Amato brings. He spent countless years in a variety of defensive coaching roles at NC State, Florida State, and Arizona but is most remembered for his seven year stretch as head coach at NC State. Amato's first year at the helm was a struggle to say the least. Akron finished 113th in scoring defense and couldn't seem to stop either the running game or the passing game. The Zips improved across the board in 2014, but the biggest jump was on the defensive end where they improved to 68th in scoring defense. Key players stepped up and had breakout seasons from the defensive line to the linebackers to the defensive backs.
The defensive line was a major strength last year largely thanks to the play of Nico Caponi and Albert Presley who each had 5.5 sacks in 2013. Both of those players are gone, but there is more to like on the defensive line. Junior Cody Grice returns as the nose guard and will be the leader in stopping the run up the middle. Nordly Capi returns for his senior year coming off a season that included 24 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Caponi and Presley will be tough to replace, but the Zips are off to a good start with Grice and Capi.
The linebackers are the one position where the Zips return their best players for 2014. Jatavis Brown was first team All-MAC in 2013 and led the team with 82 tackles. Justin March was another standout for the Zips who tied for the team lead with three interceptions and was second on the team with 60 tackles. Both players are a part of our MAC Top 50 countdown and quite likely the two best players on the Zips.
There are some holes in the defensive backfield and uncertainty due to some off-field issues. The player who will be sorely missed is Malachi Freeman. He was a stud for the Zips in 2013 with 56 tackles, three interceptions, and 12 passes broken up. Expected starters Johnny Robinson and Donte Willams were recently arrested for rioting at McDonalds. I speak from experience when I say the campus McDonald's is the place to be at 3 AM and the poor service makes you want to riot. Jokes aside, their playing status is unknown for the time being and the Zips could be severely lacking in depth. With the status of Robinson and Williams in question, the defensive backfield will be led by safety Bre Ford and cornerbacks Jon Senter and Bryce Cheek.
The special teams have always been a bit of a question mark. Finding a reliable kicker was always a problem for whoever the head coach was and now it seems that Bowden has found the right guy in Robert Stein. Stein's statistics aren't great (6-9 from 30 yards and in, 3-7 40+). But he's much better than the guys Akron has trotted out there before.
Zach Paul returns as the starting punter. He was pretty good last year averaging 43 yards a punt and knocking seventeen punts inside the twenty. Paul was rewarded for his efforts by being named to the Ray Guy Award Watch List, which is fantastic for a punter from Akron.
Speedy Bickley and Smith return as the kick returners and are always threats to break one.
Akron benefited last year from teams missing field goals. Opponents' field goal efficiency was 21st in the nation, and that's a stat that doesn't seem like it would continue from year to year. Five games were decided by less than five points last year and if the Zips' opponents' make a few more field goals bowl eligibility will be that much harder to get to.
|at Penn State
|at Ball State
|at Kent State
The non-conference schedule is daunting, as we examined earlier. Three of the four teams made bowls last year and are talented enough to go bowling again. Realistically, the Zips go 1-3 and need five wins in the conference to make bowl eligibility. However, if they're able to knock off one of the three best teams on their schedule, it'll make things a lot easier.
The schedule actually sets up nice for Akron for once, as it always seemed the Zips played good teams early on and deflated the team for the rest of the season. Akron gets two winnable games to start off MAC play in Eastern Michigan and Miami, and they're both at home. Two tough trips to Ohio and Ball State are tough but not impossible especially with both teams trying to replace their "face of the franchise" quarterback.
The next two games against Bowling Green and at Buffalo will likely go a long way to determining if Akron can get to that magical six wins. If the Zips can go 1-1 against these two it's a great sign. The next two are very winnable games against Massachusetts and at Kent State. If they should win those two bowl eligibility is on the doorstep.
The Zips proved last year that they were no longer the league's doormat. Opponents now come into InfoCision Stadium expecting a fight and not a thirty-point blowout victory. There are a lot of things that need to go right for Akron to get to that magical six win number. If Pohl can be more consistent and the line can block effectively for Chisholm, this could be a seven-to-eight win team. However, if Pohl continues to struggle with his accuracy and the line regresses, Akron could be right back to 4-8.
The MAC media pegged the Zips to finish second in the East and also gave them three first place votes. We here at the Belt also picked Akron second, with two first place votes. Athlon Sports has the Zips third in the East and 97th overall in their countdown. Paul Myerberg of the USA Today places Akron 94th overall and fourth in the East behind Bowling Green, Buffalo and Ohio. When combining everything, it seems that a third place finish in the East is about what to expect out of the Zips in 2014.
It's pretty easy to give the starting quarterback the tag "most important player on the team," but in Akron's case it's true. Pohl completed 61% of his passes for six touchdowns and one interception in wins. Meanwhile, his completion percentage dropped to 55% in losses and he threw nine interceptions in those losses. Minimizing those mistakes will be huge for Pohl this year and will go a long way in determining how Akron's season goes.
The schedule is tough, but it's manageable. It has been eight years since Akron went to a bowl game, and this could be the year that streak is broken. Terry Bowden knows how to build winners, and in year three it's certainly looking like Akron can become a perennial contender in the MAC.