A season of great expectations awaits the Akron Zips this year. The Zips were picked by the media to finish second in the East division and even received some votes for making an appearance in the MAC Championship game. This seems quite lofty, seeing as the history of Zips football has been cluttered with losing seasons and uninspiring performances.
That looks to change this year, as the Zips are primed for a winning season and a possible bowl appearance. It'd be their first time playing in the postseason since 2005, where a Luke Getsy-led Zips team lost to Memphis in the Motor City Bowl after winning the MAC Championship. Eight years without a bowl is a long time, and as a matter of fact it's the fourth-longest bowl drought in college football. Only New Mexico State (53 years!!), Eastern Michigan (26 years), and UAB (nine years) have sustained bowl-less seasons longer than the Zips.
You only need six wins to get in (unless you're Toledo) and Akron should get there. The nonconference schedule is daunting but will help the Zips greatly in preparing for MAC play. Here's how the nonconference schedule shakes out:
Howard Bison - August 28th at InfoCision Stadium (7:00 p.m., ESPN3)
Howard is one of the 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the nation and is located in Washington, D.C. The Bison are a part of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference on the FCS level and went 6-6 last year. One of those losses was a 34-24 defeat by Eastern Michigan, a team that Akron can compare itself against. The MEAC coaches voted Howard to finish fourth in the league this year at media day.
Dual-threat senior quarterback and three-year starter Greg McGhee led the team in both passing and rushing last year, racking up 2,379 yards through the air and another 896 yards on the ground. McGhee was also voted the MEAC preseason Offensive Player of the Year by the coaches. He'll pose a threat to the Akron defense that has struggled against quarterbacks that can both run and pass. Sophomore running back Anthony Philyaw was fantastic as a freshman, getting into the end zone fifteen times while rushing for 721 yards. Philyaw garnered preseason first-team MEAC honors.
The offense is fairly balanced, as both passing and rushing yards were pretty much the same (2,446 passing to 2,401 rushing). They did commit 25 turnovers with 12 coming from interceptions and 13 from lost fumbles. On defense, the Bison only lose one of their top seven tacklers from last year. Cameron Alston is the best on the team, racking up 80.5 tackles, three interceptions and 3.5 tackles for loss. But, the Bison have Godspower Offor, and that's completely awesome.
Akron will probably come out with a few jitters because of the high expectations to start the season, but should settle down and put this one away. A win to start off the season, no matter what team it's against, is a positive and is one step closer to the ultimate dream of making a bowl game.
Penn State Nittany Lions - September 6th at Beaver Stadium (12:00 p.m., ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)
Penn State enters year three of the post-Paterno era already on their second head coach. Bill O'Brien had a relatively successful two years as head coach of the Nittany Lions. Despite the heavy sanctions on the program, O'Brien led the team to a 8-4 record in 2012 and a 7-5 in 2013. O'Brien was highly regarded for keeping Penn State competitive in the Big Ten and parlayed his success into the head coaching position with the NFL's Houston Texans.
Another highly regarded coach in James Franklin stepped right in following O'Brien's departure. Franklin spent three years at Vanderbilt and led them to three straight bowl games. The Commodores had unprecedented success under Franklin finishing the past two seasons at 9-4 in the notoriously difficult SEC.
The Nittany Lions offense is led by sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He started all 12 games as a freshman and was mostly impressive, but expectedly inconsistent. Hackenberg capped off his 2013 campaign throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a win on the road against Wisconsin. With a performance like that and a year under his belt, expectations are high for the sophomore quarterback to lead Penn State to the top of the Big Ten.
The toughest task for the Zips against Penn State will be running the football. The Nittany Lions finished 37th in rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 and that ranking would be much higher if not for the 408 yards allowed to Ohio State. If Jawon Chisholm and the running game struggle early, the Zips will be forced into being one dimensional with Kyle Pohl. There is potential to throw the ball on Penn State as they finished 74th in passing yards allowed per game and there are some weaknesses in the secondary. However, a balanced approach will be needed from the Zips if they're going to stay competitive with the Nittany Lions.
Marshall Thundering Herd - September 20th at InfoCision Stadium (TBD, ESPN3)
We've actually already taken a look at the Herd, as they're playing Ohio a week earlier. The good news is that the Zips have two weeks to prepare for this offense and its star Rakeem Cato. Cato is the real deal and has NFL potential. The three-year starter had nearly 40 touchdowns last year to just nine interceptions, and threw for almost 4,000 yards. He also rushed for 300 yards and six touchdowns. Cato's favorite target returns in 1,000-yard receiver Tommy Shuler who caught 10 touchdowns last season. The Herd averaged over 500 yards a game on offense last year and could put up those video-game numbers yet again this season.
The defense is very underrated. The secondary features NFL talent in A.J. Leggett who is just a sophomore. Like what was mentioned in the other preview, the defense did struggle against the run and have had some graduation losses along the defensive line. That's great news for Akron running back Jawon Chisholm who'll look to take advantage of that weakness.
While this will be a difficult game for Akron to win, at least it is at home. The Zips' defense will have to limit Cato as much as humanly possible and try to push him into making mistakes. It'll be a high-scoring affair no doubt and Akron will have to hope it's able to get a few defensive stops.
Pittsburgh Panthers - September 27th at Heinz Field (Time TBD, TV TBD)
If there is anything that Pitt has been over the last few years, it's consistent. The Panthers' last three seasons have been basically mirror images of each other: 6-7, 6-7 and 7-6 last year with a win in the Little Caesars Bowl over Bowling Green. This season will be Paul Chryst's third at the helm and it seems things are pointing up. Coaching turnover has been a problem at Pitt for a long time and now it seems like Chryst is the one to stick it out.
The Panthers will be breaking in a new quarterback this year in Chad Voytik. Voytik only has eleven career pass attempts to his name, but was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. It'll be tough to replace Tom Savage who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Texans. Luckily, Voytik will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd had a breakout year last year, notching over 1,100 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Running backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner are both solid. Conner ran through and around a strong Bowling Green defense in the Little Caesars Bowl to the tune of 229 yards.
The defense is suspect though. Losing first round draft pick Aaron Donald and his eleven sacks hurts big time. Linebackers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas both return after solid seasons. The safety spots are locked down with proven starters Jason Hendricks and Ray Vinopal. The rest of the defense is highly inexperienced and depth beyond the starters will be a huge issue. If the Pitt defense is made to stay on the field for long amounts of time, it could get ugly.
Akron will keep it close if the offense can keep the time of possession in their favor and put pressure on the new quarterback. Pitt will be coming off a very tough game against Iowa so they may be a little roughed up. The Zips will need to bring their A game if they want to win but the Panthers are a tough out.
Overall, it's a tough schedule. Penn State, Marshall and Pitt will be bowl teams this year. A 1-3 record is probably the most likely and a win over one of those three will put the Zips ahead of schedule. Akron will face some great offenses and it'll hopefully help them out when teams like Bowling Green and Buffalo come rolling around in conference play.