The 2022 MAC Championship Game kicks off in Detroit this Saturday, and for the first time since 2016, the Ohio Bobcats are apart of it.
It’s been a quick turnaround for Ohio under second-year head coach Tim Albin, who already reversed his 3-9 record in 2021 to a 9-3 finish to the 2022 regular season. Riding a seven-game win streak, Ohio will test its mettle against Toledo at Ford Field in hopes of winning its first MAC title in 54 years. Including the potential to shatter this stunning conference championship drought, here are several storylines to watch for the Bobcats headed into Saturday’s contest:
Feels like ‘68
The MAC Championship Game was born in 1997. Since the inception of the annual event, 11 of 12 current MAC members have participated. Only Eastern Michigan is still waiting to punch its first ticket. Of the other 11, nine programs claim a MAC title game win. This time, the two odd ones out are Kent State, which is 0-2 in MAC Championship Games, and Ohio, which is 0-4.
Ohio is no stranger to success, as evidenced by the Bobcats’ 12 consecutive seasons of bowl eligibility from 2009 to 2020. But the Bobcats never earned conference bragging rights by winning the title game, and their last appearance was in 2016, which ended in a game-ending interception on the final drive to an undefeated Western Michigan squad.
But Ohio’s misfortune in winning the MAC extends long before the MAC Championship Game even existed. Ohio has not won the conference since 1968 — the longest drought of all 12 member institutions. Exactly 54 years later, the Bobcats look to end one of college football’s more mystifying droughts. They travel to Detroit as the winners of 7-straight, but received slight underdog status according to oddsmakers. In five MAC title game appearances, Ohio has never been favored. But the Bobcats are back in the game, pitted against a Toledo team which rides a 2-game losing streak as favorite. Thus, there has never been a better time for the Bobcats to snap a drought which has persisted longer than the majority of FBS head coaches have been alive.
Holding on with Harris
Ohio’s sudden emergence in the 2022 season can be largely tied to the development of junior quarterback Kurtis Rourke. Rourke, whose older brother Nathan became an Ohio legend after winning three consecutive bowl games from 2017-19, created his own spotlight and rose to stardom this fall.
Rourke is 16th in the FBS in passing yards, sixth in average yards per attempt, and he wields an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25-to-4 — throwing the third fewest picks among the 24 quarterbacks with at least 25 touchdown strikes. However, Rourke cannot improve on these 2022 numbers as his season drew to an unfortunate close when suffering a torn ACL in Ohio’s penultimate regular season game against Ball State.
Backup quarterback CJ Harris took over that game and completed 5-of-8 passes for 34 yards, finishing the job in Muncie en route to a 32-18 win. He then started the de facto MAC East title game the following week against Bowling Green, where he fared 10-of-21 for 196 yards and a touchdown. But where Harris is most dangerous is outside of the pocket. In those two contests, he collected 103 rushing yards on 20 attempts and scampered for three touchdowns in the regular season finale versus Bowling Green.
Harris will be thrust into the starting role once again due to Rourke’s unavailability, and he’ll need to carry the load for the nation’s 30th ranked scoring offense which posts 34 points per game. The 6’3”, 215 pound sophomore will face his greatest challenge yet in a Toledo defense which exhibits talented pass rushers like Jamal Hines and Desjuan Johnson on the defensive line. Harris’ college résumé is limited to one start, and based on the sample size observed thus far, Ohio would like to see improved accuracy and similar rushing production from its quarterback in order to bear the conference crown Saturday afternoon at Ford Field.
Winningest season ever
The 2009 through 2020 seasons under Frank Solich can be described as the glory years of Ohio football. Despite running through that 12-year stretch without a losing record, the Bobcats only flirted with double-digit wins on one occasion. When Ohio captured its first bowl victory ever in the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, it moved the Bobcats to 10-4 on the season, tying their 1968 MAC title run for winningest campaign in program history.
A victory in Detroit would catapult Ohio to win No. 10 for the third time as a program. Also, a MAC championship provides the Bobcats a new feat to accomplish in bowl season — win 11 games for the first time ever. Coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2021, Ohio could do the unthinkable and set a new school record for wins should it defeat Toledo in Detroit this Saturday. Additionally, Ohio could become the first MAC champion with double-digit victories since 2017 Toledo, snapping a four-year streak without one.
The 2022 MAC Championship Game between the Toledo Rockets and Ohio Bobcats kicks off at Ford Field in Detroit at 12 p.m. ET. The game is viewable on ESPN.