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2017 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Akron Zips

Will Akron play in a bowl game this season? The short answer is: it depends.

NCAA Football: Akron at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Last season left a nasty taste in the mouth of Akron Zips fans.

The 2016 season ended at 5-7, one win short of being bowl eligible. But there’s reason to hope for the Zips coming into 2017. Akron returns 15 of last year’s starters, including former Ohio State transfer Warren Ball and dynamic QB Thomas Woodson.

The Zips also play in a wide-open MAC East division. A few games here and there go a certain way, and the Zips could be going to Detroit. For now, though, the goal is a bowl game, which is something Akron hasn't accomplished often. They’ll go back to work against Penn State on Sept. 2.

Five Players to Watch

Warren Ball, #34 RB (R-Sr)

Warren Ball has the vision and elusiveness you want in a ball carrier. At 225 pounds, he is practically a freight train running into defenses. Ball was injured much of the 2016, but has since been granted a sixth year of eligibility. His injury proved costly to the Zips, where they switched to a pass-first offense that was less successful. This year, Ball hopes to remain healthy and start getting rushing yards again.

Thomas Woodson, #4 QB (Sr.)

In 2016, Thomas Woodson passed with an impressive 152.1 efficiency rating. He had and accurate short pass system that moved the ball down the field. Woodson managed 18 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. As a senior quarterback, Woodson is known for being a cerebral, calm presence on the field, making smart and efficient decisions throughout the game. This year will test if he can connect with his receivers, especially with JoJo Natson Jr. and Jerome Lane gone early to the professional levels of football.

Ulysees Gilbert III, #5 LB (Jr.)

Ulysees Gilbert III is excellent at reading the offense and making plays. Last season, Gilbert recorded 122 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, and 4 sacks. It was good enough for ninth in the nation and a First-Team All-MAC selection. He seems to shake off blockers at will. This year, Gilbert will be going back to work with most of the same teammates, seeking even more tackles.

Alvin Davis, #1 CB (So.)

Alvin Davis is one of the most exciting up-and-coming defensive backs in the MAC. He managed 87 tackles last season as a freshman. Every week, Davis looks progressively better, whether it’s improving hand fighting or tightening his footwork. I expect that Davis will continue to develop through the next three years, making him a valuable asset to Akron. Now that he has more experience, expect to see him make more of a difference in these games.

Austin Wolf, #82 WR (Sr.)

With the departure of JoJo Natson and Jerome Lane, Austin Wolf has to step up as the primary receiver. It shouldn’t be a hard task for Wolf, who is used to making big-time catches when it counts. He isn’t afraid to dive out or put himself in harm’s way for a catch. (It’s worth mentioning that every game that Austin Wolf gets a touchdown catch, Akron goes on to win the game.) Wolf could use some work on his route running, which was a recurring issue last season that came to be a disadvantage against more athletic defensive backs. That being said, expect to see Wolf improve and get open more frequently this season with Ball as a primary offensive option.

Can’t Miss Games

Sept. 16 vs Iowa State: This game is going to be a fun one to watch. Akron will be taking on the Iowa St. Cyclones, a member of the Big 12 Conference, at home. That’s a rare get for Mid-American Conference squads. The Cyclones finished just 3-9 last year with only one significant win. On the other hand, the Zips will be ready for the challenge after facing Penn State in Week 1. This game has the makings of a P5 “upset: victory, provided everything goes smoothly for the Zips. I would expect Iowa State to somehow overlook the Zips and Akron walking away with a tight victory.

Oct. 7 vs Ball State: Akron will be taking on the Ball State Cardinals as the first MAC game at InfoCision Stadium. Ball State and Akron each finished last year with similar records and play each game like it’s their last. When these two met in 2016, the Cardinals took the win 35-25. You can expect another close game between the two this year as well. This game against Ball State will tell Head Coach Terry Bowden where his Zips stand against MAC West teams.

Nov. 7 at Miami: This game could go either way, and could also very well hgave ahand in deciding the division. First you take the Miami-Ohio Redhawks, who famously went had six-loss and six-win streaks last year. Then add a little bit of Terry Bowden magic in the Zips. Mix it together during Mid-Week MACtion and this game is looking quite entertaining. Last year saw Akron giving Miami their last loss until bowl week. However this game plays out, expect to see highlights from this game.

Nov. 21 vs Kent State: Who doesnt love a good ol’ fashioned rivalry game? Unfortunately for MAC fans, the Battle for the Wagon Wheel will have to wait until the final week of scheduled football. The Kent State Golden Flashes had a rough year last year, only earning three wins. Each team will want that last win like nothing else. What could be better than watching a good old-fashioned bitter rivalry on a Tuesday night? Expect this game to be close, hard fought, and full of hits that border on being a fight.

Three Markers of Success

Learn from Penn State: Akron needs to start from week one and take each game one at a time. Focus on learning from what the Penn State Nittany Lions do to be successful. Their matchup should focus on staying healthy over having some moral victory. Akron will need to rebound quickly from their game against Penn State because the Zips have a difficult MAC schedule ahead of them.

Finish the Season: The toughest part about Akron’s 5-7 season last year was the fact that it ended on a four-game losing streak. The Zips started the season with a winning attitude, but lost momentum along the way. If Akron wants to go to a bowl game this year and compete for the MAC East title, they have to be able to close the season out with wins. Terry Bowden is the best man for the tough task, but he cannot do it alone.

Pack InfoCision Stadium: Akron has been blessed with one of the most beautiful stadium in the country. There’s even a little grassy hill in an end zone for the spectators to relax and watch the game. The only problem is that attendance is low and spotty. In 2016, Akron averaged about 10,300 fans in the 30,000-seat stadium. Something has to be done to fix that. The team has to do better to bring in more fans to cheer them on to do better. It all starts with having a louder stadium.

Two Things to Watch For

Shaky Running Game

Akron will be trying to put Warren Ball in the game as soon as he is healthy. The Zips’ running game fell off significantly after Ball’s injury last season due to a lack of ready depth. The remaining running backs will have to take a lesson from the bruies of last season and become dependable platoon options for Ball so he doesn’t get himself hurt again. If Ball can stay healthy, you will see eye-popping rushing yardage. If he cannot stay healthy, expect Akron to shy away from running.

Fine Tune the Defense

While last year saw the Zips trying to improve their defense, but coming up short. The passing defense has gotten much better over the past season, finishing 78th in passing yards given up. Their rushing defense is not the same story, where they give up about 225 yards per game. Look to Ulysees Gilbert and Alvin Davis to step up and lead the defense to a better performance. Despite their great tackling, Akron is giving up 33.6 points per game. For Akron to be successful, they need that student leadership to step up and they need to prevent the big plays.

Bold Prediction

Bowl Eligible and More

I am actually quite excited to see Akron back at it playing again. This year could see Akron get that elusive sixth win and qualify for a bowl game, while contending for the MAC East title. If all goes well, the Zips could finish at 7-5 (5-3 MAC) in the regular season, earn a bowl bid, and will take second place in the MAC East behind a rejuvenated Miami team.