Bowling Green found themselves on the losing side of two of the most lopsided college football games of the entire 2016 season. The defense looked historically bad, one year removed from the program's second conference title in two years. Recovering from the losses of head coach Dino Babers, quarterback Matt Johnson, and wide receiver Roger Lewis, the Falcons more than slipped from their summit; they nosedived below sea level.
After a 1-8 start, Mike Jinks and the Falcons finally figured things out. Bowling Green strung three convincing victories together over Akron, Kent State, and Buffalo to finish the season 4-8. Jinks starts 2017 on his first win streak as a head coach, hoping to build on it to compete in this year's open MAC East race.
The Falcons found a promising young talent in quarterback James Morgan around midseason last year. The redshirt sophomore flourished through the air on several occasions, including a 335-yard, five-touchdown performance against a strong Toledo Rockets team. The pocket passer enters his first season as the leader of the offense, but he must limit his interception numbers to make it through 12 games. After the benching of former Camellia Bowl MVP James Knapke last season, Bowling Green quarterbacks must learn that no spot on the depth chart is permanent.
The running game will suffer a minor setback with the graduation of Fred Coppet, who gained plenty of mileage on the ground in his four years as a Falcon. Coppet's replacements will be the senior tandem of Josh Cleveland and Donovan Wilson — two backs that showed capabilities of tearing up opposing run defenses at the closure of 2016. Wilson brings the power and Cleveland attacks with speed, creating the classic versatile backfield that often keeps front sevens on their toes.
In the receiving department, the team's leading pass catcher, Scott Miller is ready to return to the gridiron. The junior finished 2016 with four games over the 140-yard mark, catching over half of the team's touchdown passes on the season. He is teamed up with Teo Redding, a receiver that should see decent development after the departure of former wideout Ronnie Moore.
The offensive line returns Third Team All-MAC honoree Tim McAuliffe, who leads the battle in the trenches from the center position. Three starters, including Third Team All-MAC tackle Logan Dietz, must be replaced, so there may be several growing pains early in the season for an inexperienced offensive line.
For the majority of 2016, Bowling Green held the undesirable title of the nation's worst defense. Ohio State and Memphis both hung 77 on the unit, but the Falcons continued to improve on the defensive side of the ball late in the season. Bowling Green survived the last two games by only yielding 26 points, showing drastic signs of improvement. Granted, the Akron, Kent State, and Buffalo offenses aren't the cream of the crop, but there was still a noticeable development within the passing defense late in the season.
Jamari Bozeman is the star of the secondary from the free safety position, a key player that must limit quarterbacks from posting career numbers when the Falcons come to town. Bozeman landed a spot on the All-MAC team after 71 tackles and three interceptions in his 2016 campaign. The cornerbacks must step up as well in order to reverse this trend.
The linebacker corps took a hard hit last spring when veteran inside linebacker Austin Valdez transferred out of the program to reunite with former head coach Dino Babers at Syracuse. The star defender enjoyed a monster 2015 with 144 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. Returning experienced linebackers Nate Locke and Brandon Harris will step up in his place, hoping to make Bowling Green efficient at tackling and halting the run game.
In the sack department, Bowling Green was slightly below average with 24 sacks in 2016.
After discussing offense and defense, it's time to mention the team's star player. Punter Joe Davidson finished 2016 as a First Team All-MAC selection, but he also was honored as a First Team Academic All-American by earning a 3.94 GPA as a math and finance double major.
Davidson finished sixth in the FBS in total punting yards, earning a spot as a Ray Guy Award semifinalist. With a stellar 2016 behind him and more national exposure, Davidson should make the leap to a finalist for the award this season. One problem for Bowling Green: Davidson was forced to punt at least seven times on four occasions last season. But when the Falcons are giving up possession, they have a reliable punter pinning opponents in favorable field position for the Bowling Green defense.
Kicker Jake Suder did not see the field much last year, converting on nine of just 12 field goal attempts. He successfully converted on only 35 of 38 extra points, a percentage that should increase now that his first year of a starter is over.
Sept. 2: Michigan State
The Falcons open the season traveling to East Lansing for a matchup with the Michigan State Spartans. The timing of this game is impeccable for Bowling Green as the Spartans are fresh off a 3-9 season after years of double-digit wins and New Year's Six Bowls. Given the Spartans' poor performance despite high expectations a year ago, the Falcons could potentially compete in this game. If Bowling Green stays competitive rather than ending up on the wrong side of another blowout, it could be a sign of good things to come when MAC play begins in late September.
Oct. 14: Ohio
If the Falcons survive their date with the Miami RedHawks the previous week, this game could loom large for the MAC East title. Bowling Green is gifted with a home game against Frank Solich's tough Bobcat program. The Falcons will likely have the upper hand offensively in this matchup but they must overcome a sturdy Ohio defense. With a win, Bowling Green could start a rally toward bowl season because its schedule plays out favorably once Halloween transpires.
Nov. 15: Toledo
No Bowling Green schedule is complete without the giant circle around the rivalry game against Toledo. This year's edition of the Battle of I-75 is particularly important for a multitude of reasons. First, Toledo is the overwhelming MAC favorite. With quarterback Logan Woodside leading the offense, the Rockets are expected to finally earn their sought-after MAC title they have not earned the opportunity to fight for despite a recent run of success. Also, Bowling Green has lost this rivalry every year since 2009, despite winning two MAC titles in 2013 and 2015. If the Falcons chalk up yet another loss, the all-time series would be tied at 39-39-4. But Bowling Green earns an opportunity to end its seven-game losing streak to its neighbors from 25 miles away and make a statement as a threat in the conference toward the close of the 2017 season.
Did I mention that this is Wednesday night #MACtion — a likely spot on an ESPN network?
Bowling Green will put a better product on the field in 2017 than it did a year ago. But the record will be only one or two wins better. Expect the Falcons to embroil themselves in several high-scoring shootouts throughout the season, remaining competitive in losses this season. Several games, including Bowling Green's matchups against Miami OH and Northern Illinois appear to be tossups at the moment, but the Falcons have the potential on offense to win at most eight games under the Jinks regime. But the defense must show competence as well.
Prediction: 5-7. The Falcons narrowly miss out on a bowl due to a tough non-conference schedule (@ Michigan State, @ Northwestern, @ Middle Tennessee) and a difficult MAC West slate that includes facing Toledo and NIU. The team has the talent for bowl season but faces an unfavorable schedule for instant success.