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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Akron Zips

Akron has been on the rise since 2013, and this could be the year it ends in a trip to Detroit.

NCAA Football: Famous Idaho Potato Bowl-Akron vs Utah State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015 the Akron Zips rode a favorable schedule to an 8-5 record and the program’s first ever bowl win in just its second appearance. The 2015 Zips featured a ferocious, run-stopping defense that kept mostly every team they faced at bay. The only thing missing was an offense with some real firepower.

This year, the Zips appear to have exactly the offense they’ve been waiting for under Terry Bowden, and while they sacrifice some experience on the defensive side of the ball, they certainly aren’t sacrificing talent. The schedule in 2016 is tough, but a perfect opportunity to prove that last year was no fluke.

Five Players to Watch

Thomas Woodson, QB, #4

Akron had one of the MAC’s worst passing attacks in 2015. Avoiding that same fate comes down to the play of Woodson. Last season he amassed over two thousand yards and threw 16 touchdown passes despite attempting just a single pass in each of the team’s first two contests. With the starting job firmly in hand, look for Woodson to find more consistency in 2016.

Warren Ball, RB

After finishing his degree at Ohio State, Ball decided to use his last year of eligibility at Akron, and it could turn out pretty well for him. Ball is the anticipated starter for week one against VMI, and he brings plenty of explosiveness to the backfield. Ball was a highly sought after recruit coming out of high school in 2012, turning down offers from Notre Dame, Iowa and Wisconsin to join the Buckeyes. Though he only carried the ball 41 times in his stay in Columbus, the former four star recruit is a welcome addition to the Zips backfield.

Jerome Lane, WR, #7

Western Michigan’s Corey Davis steals a lot of the spotlight when it comes to MAC wide receivers, but keep your eyes on Lane. Lane averaged over 20 yards per reception last season, cementing himself as easily the top deep-ball threat in the league. With a more experienced Woodson targeting him this year, Lane should be able to improve on an already impressive career.

Jamal Marcus, DE, #34

Marcus is a key member of a defense that looks much different than a year ago. Just four starters remain on a unit that was the best in the MAC at stopping the run in 2015, but the talent has shifted from the middle to the edges for 2016. It may not look the same, but the defense led by Marcus should be just as effective overall, especially in conference play.

JoJo Natson, WR, #9

At just 5’8”, Natson won’t be commanding much attention over the top - that’s Jerome Lane’s job - but he will be causing all sorts of trouble over the middle. The Utah State transfer joins the Zips at exactly the right time, as the increased effectiveness through the passing game should spell great improvement for one of the MAC’s worst passing offenses.

Can’t Miss Games

September 17th @ Marshall

Marshall is in search of its fourth straight double-digit win season, and will definitely not be taking Akron lightly. Nor should they. The Zips are expected to have one of their better teams in recent memory, and a win over the Thundering Herd would set the tone for what could be a historic season.

September 24th vs. Appalachian State

The Mountaineers are among the favorites in the Sun Belt, and even bested fellow MAC East member Ohio in the Camelia Bowl a season ago. This game will be a strength vs. strength match up, with App State’s rushing attack that averaged 271 yards per game in 2015 against the MAC’s premier rushing defense.

October 15th vs. Western Michigan

The Zips’ first test against the MAC West comes against WMU, and just stopping the run won’t be nearly enough. The Broncos will be the stress test for an Akron defense that will need to do it all to win the MAC East crown, and its performance in this game will be telling for the remainder of the season.

November 22nd @ Ohio

Every team wants the final game of the season to mean something, and for both Akron and Ohio it could mean everything. If the Zips mean to win the MAC East, they’ll have to do so on November 22nd in Athens, Ohio, where the Bobcats are expected to be atop the division standings. I see no scenario where Akron wins the East without winning this game.

Three signs of a successful season

Two non-MAC wins

Two wins out of conference means the Zips beat one out of Wisconsin, Appalachian State or Marshall. Obviously a win in Madison would be the ultimate prize, but weeks two through four are as tough as any, so coming out with any win would be a huge accomplishment.

Zippy goes bowling

2015’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win was the first in school history, besting Utah State 23-21. To prove this newfound success is sustainable in Akron, the Zips need to go bowling once more. Stringing together consecutive post-season appearances would be huge for the program’s reputation under Terry Bowden, and would do wonders for the Zips’ national exposure, which can come in handy for CROOTIN’.

December in Detroit

Akron has been improving each year since 2013 under Terry Bowden, and now is as good a chance as any for the Zips to have a banner year. With quarterback battles set to brew in Bowling Green and Athens, it’s Akron that actually enters the year with some stability, and will be battle tested enough out of conference to be prepared for the rest of the division.

Two things to watch

Flex some muscle in the out of conference

The Zips’ out of conference schedule is tough, but not impossible. Marshall and App State are excellent programs in the Group of Five and are wonderful measuring sticks for an Akron program that now has an opportunity to compete for a MAC title. Of course, winning out of conference has no bearings on how a team will perform in the MAC East, but these are huge games for bowl positioning if nothing else, and are a gigantic opportunity to set the bar higher for the program.

New look defense

Akron’s calling card is its rush defense, and last year they had a good one. Led by Jatavis Brown, Rodney Coe and Cody Grice, the Zips held conference opposition to just 83 yards per game on the ground at 2.8 yards per play. They held all teams under 50 yards rushing three times and surrendered 100 yards or more on the ground in only six games including just three in MAC play. The three names above were all seniors a year ago, and the Zips will now turn to transfer Jelani Hamilton as well as Jamal Marcus to fill the holes on defense. The Zips don’t have to be as good against the rush as they were a season ago, so long as they don’t regress too far they should be just fine. With an improved offensive unit in 2016, maintaining a strong front seven could pay even more dividends once off the field.

Bold Prediction

The Zips go bowling, finish second in the MAC East

Ohio still has a slightly easier road to the MAC East crown, and for that reason I don’t believe the Zips will finish on the top spot. However, the Zips have an incredible opportunity to prove what their capable of with games at home against Toledo and Western Michigan, and the race for the East title will definitely come down to the final two weeks of the season. Regardless of the outcome, I’m confident the final game of the season will determine who wins the MAC East between Ohio and Akron.