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November Nightmares: Ohio’s late-season collapses continue to extend MAC title drought

For the third-straight season, a brutal November loss threatens Ohio’s MAC Championship chances.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Ohio at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Take a moment, and think back to where you were on November 23, 1968. If you’re reading this, you probably were not born yet or have no recollection of the late 60s, so here’s what happened.

Just 235 days prior to Apollo 11’s moon landing, the Ohio Bobcats skated past Northern Illinois, 28-12, capping a perfect 10-0 record heading into bowl season. In the 7-team Mid-American Conference, the Bobcats posted a perfect 6-0 record against MAC opponents in effort to claim the coveted conference title. But in the following 50 years — all as a member of the MAC — Ohio has yet to reign supreme in the conference.

Considering Ohio’s recent track record, the inability of the Bobcats to capture a MAC title and shatter the streak is one of the more bizarre trends in college football.

The 2010s can accurately be described as the glory years of Ohio football. With head coach Frank Solich at the helm, the Bobcats initiated a streak of qualifying for bowl eligibility in 2009, and the program hasn’t looked back since. Solich, one win short of becoming the winningest coach in MAC history, has been a longtime staple in a conference where coaches are either poached by other programs for having too much success or fired for failing to live up to standards.

Solich has not only lived up to Ohio football standards — he set the modern expectations for the program and continues to raise them. The 75-year old head coach ushered in the program’s first bowl win in 2011, and the Bobcats triumphed in three more bowl games in the following seven seasons.

Solich also coached Ohio to its first 10-win season since 1968 and has strung together four 8+ win seasons in a row (2015-18) for the first time in school history. Ohio is the model of consistency in the MAC and the only program in the conference to win a bowl game since 2016 — and it has won two (2017 Bahamas Bowl vs. UAB, 2018 Frisco Bowl vs. San Diego State), by a combined score of 68-6, without allowing a single touchdown in the victories.

You can make a strong argument the Bobcats were the best team in the MAC, two years running. In 2017, they annihilated the eventual MAC champion Toledo Rockets, 38-10, in a midweek November game. In 2018, they walloped the 10-win Buffalo Bulls, 52-17, also on a Wednesday night in November. But in the past two seasons, Ohio failed to qualify for the MAC Championship because of different November games, ones it entered as a considerable favorite.

November 14, 2017. The 8-2 Bobcats found themselves in a shootout with a 5-5 Akron squad at InfoCision Stadium. In his second career start, freshman quarterback Kato Nelson threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns on the Ohio defense, guiding Akron to a stunning 37-34 shootout win. Because the Zips possessed the critical tiebreaker win, they earned a trip to Detroit to represent the MAC East in the conference title game, but fell to Toledo and ultimately finished 7-7.

November 7, 2018. After a sluggish 3-3 start to the season, the preseason MAC favorite Bobcats clinched bowl eligibility by firing off three consecutive wins. With a trip to Oxford on the horizon, Ohio had its sights set on clinching a fourth-straight victory in the season and a sixth-straight in the “Battle of the Bricks” series against in-state rival Miami (OH). But the RedHawks’ offense clicked into high gear and jumped to a 28-7 lead at halftime. The Nathan Rourke-led Bobcats finally established their offense in the second half, but a fourth quarter safety provided Miami a narrow 30-28 upset victory. Ohio’s second MAC loss of the season allowed Buffalo to punch a ticket to Detroit as the East representative, despite the Bobcats’ successful 6-1 finish to the 2018 season.

November 6, 2019. Fast forward 364 days, and Ohio is aiming for vengeance in the “Battle of the Bricks” rivalry. This time, the preseason MAC favorite Bobcats reversed a disappointing 2-4 start by rattling off consecutive wins to get to .500. With home-field advantage in front of the largest midweek crowd in MAC history, Ohio lost the turnover battle 0-2 in a defensive stand and the RedHawks snatched the 24-21 upset on a 52-yard game-winning field goal. Now, Ohio is 4-5, a game behind Miami in the MAC standings, and it must rely on the RedHawks to lose two games (with a remaining schedule of Bowling Green, Akron, and Ball State) in order to break the 51-year MAC title drought.

Ohio is so close. The Bobcats are a surefire bet for bowl eligibility every year. They are well-coached and have the benefit of operating with a long-tenured staff. But every year, it’s the dreaded November trap game — one where Ohio is expected to win — that thwarts all MAC title hopes. Football is cruel sometimes, and the fact that the conference’s most consistently successful program is on the verge of a 51st-straight year without a single MAC championship is one of college football’s most baffling mysteries.

But before the day when the drought finally concludes, Ohio will have to learn to hurdle the midweek November trap game against a seemingly outmatched opponent. Then, the Bobcats can party like it’s 1968.