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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Bowling Green Falcons

Will the Falcons make it four in a row MAC Championship berths?

James Knapke

In some respects, it’s a shame that their neighbors to the west in Dekalb get the conference lauding as the “premier program” in the Mid-American Conference, because quite frankly, a case (and a good one at that) could be made that the Bowling Green Falcons are just as consistent, just as impressive, and just as elite as their West counterparts. They have won two out of the last three MAC titles, you know, and gone to four straight bowl games. I don’t care what conference you’re in, that’s impressive.

New head coach Mike Jenks joins the ranks, the third head coach in four years, after Dino Babers heads to Syracuse after just two seasons in Bowling Green. Jenks’ background is offensive, from Texas Tech specifically, so fans should expect a similar, albeit different, offensive approach. Last season saw the Falcons average just north of 42 points a game, so consistency isn’t a bad thing in that regard.

There are key pieces missing and new pieces in critical roles, but BGSU has established itself as capable of weathering a transitionary storm, and there’s nothing in the make up of the 2016 edition of the Bowling Green Falcons that would lead anyone to think that’s going to be different this season.

Five Players to Know:

WR Deric Phouthavong: He's the heir apparent to Gehrig Dieter. Good size (6'4, 207) and excellent ball skills. He's made a good impression in camp but is going to have to step up in the regular season as BGSU returns only one of their top six pass catchers from last year.

RB Josh Cleveland: They say great moments are born from great opportunities. With Matt Domer out for the season (ACL), Cleveland (a JC transfer) is going to get some playing time this year and the opportunities are there to make noise on the conference level. He's only 5’8” and 176 pounds, but he is fast and it wouldn’t be completely out of left field to draw comparison’s to Dri Archer. Fred Coppet is the primary back and Donovan Wilson the short yardage guy, but Cleveland will get carries and moments.

QB James Knapke: Started final 13 games of 2014 season and went 8-5 after Matt Johnson was lost for the year due to a hip injury. Threw for over 3000 yards but some thought his production dropped late in the year due to a possible injury of his own. Despite those whispers, Knapke did something that Johnson never did: won a bowl game (Camellia Bowl over South Alabama). He has BGSU records for completions and attempts in one game (in win vs Indiana).

OL De'Angelo Ware: At 6'5/330, Ware is a big fella and will be counted on to provide depth on the OL. He's made waves in camp, in part because starter Jacob Bennett has been out with an injury. BGSU's offensive line is, by far, the team's deepest and most experienced unit, but you can never really have enough there. As offensive lines go, so goes MAC teams.

LB Austin Valdez: Valdez came out of nowhere last year to start every game and lead the MAC in tackles, and was tied for the team lead in tackles for loss. He's got good size for a MAC LB (6’0” and 225 pounts) and has a nose for finding the ball. BGSU has developed NFL-caliber defenders (Gabe Martin, Jude Adjei-Barimah) in the last few years, and Valdez could be next.

Four Games Not to Miss:

9/3 at Ohio State: This is a no brainer. Could this be the year?

9/24 at Memphis: Last year's version of this game was one of the best of the entire college football season. Both teams are missing most of what made that game special, but both teams have championship-level aspirations, so expect this to be a postseason-caliber game.

10/15 at Toledo: BGSU hasn't won this in several years, and it's about time that changes, even if it hasn't hurt BGSU's quest for MAC titles. The problem in recent years has been Toledo jumping out to big leads. The first quarter of this game will be very important. Keep it close early and then pull away late.

11/25 vs Buffalo: The last four times these teams have met in Bowling Green, the games have been crazy. 2006? BGSU won 48-40 in a game with multiple lightning delays. 2008? UB won 40-34 in double OT after a huge comeback in the 4th quarter, with a division title on the line. 2010? Buffalo won 28-26, despite BGSU recovering a fumble at the UB 24 with 1:16 left. The Falcons missed a would-be game winning FG on the last play. 2014? BGSU won 36-35. Expect craziness in this season finale.

Three Ways the Season is a Success:

BGSU goes 6-0 at home. This is 50th anniversary of Doyt Perry Stadium, and the schedule is set up for this (North Dakota, MTSU, EMU, Miami, Kent, Buffalo). Good teams for sure, but not a murderer’s row of strength.

BGSU wins the East. They've done it three years in a row, and fans expect a fourth. If the Falcons make their way to Detroit, then the season is a definite success and what happens from there is icing on a nice little cake. Mmmmm... cake.

BGSU beats Toledo. The Falcons haven't beaten the Rockets since 2009 despite some close calls. Fans are desperate for it, and if something weird happens and BGSU doesn't win the East, they'll need something to show for the season. Rivalry wins and ruining someone else’s season sometimes eases the pain a little, or in this case, a lot.

Two Things to Watch Out For:

Will James Morgan push James Knapke for playing time? Morgan is developing prototypical NFL size and is likely the future for BGSU QBs. If the team starts slowly, the coaching staff likely won't hesitate to make a change.

Can the offense adjust to a new system? Mike Jinks, like Dino Babers, employs an up-tempo offense, but the Texas Tech-bred version is different than the one bred at Baylor. It won't be as much of an adjustment as it was when Babers took over from Dave Clawson, but there will likely be a learning curve this season.

One Bold Prediction:

BGSU is the first in-state team to beat Ohio State in decades. Is that bold enough for you?