2013 was supposed to be the next big step. In 2012 the Ohio Bobcats took down powerhouse Penn State (albeit a school reeling in the wake of a scandal), roared to their best start (7-0) since 1968 and won their second straight bowl game (and their second bowl game ever). For a few glorious weeks, the Bobcats cracked the Top 25 rankings, and even President Obama remarked that Ohio had "quite an exciting football team and they are fun to watch" when he stopped in Athens on his presidential campaign. 16 starters from the 2012 squad returned in 2013. Many analysts picked the Bobcats to win the MAC East.
Instead, 2013 was a step backward. Like the Germans in warfare, the Bobcats were quick out of the gates but flamed out down the stretch, going 1-4 and getting steamrolled by the likes of Buffalo and Bowling Green. At 7-6, the Bobcats just barely qualified for the Beef O'Brady's Bowl, where they suffered a disappointing, but not unexpected, defeat at the hands of East Carolina University.
Tyler Tettleton, the greatest quarterback in school history, is gone. So is running back Beau Blankenship, another player that was a key in the program's rise over the last few years. On media day, head coach Frank Solich said all the things that any coach, save Jurgen Klinsmann, would say: That he's excited for this season and expects to compete.
There are a few veterans, and there is certainly plenty of talent in the younger players. How successful the Bobcats will be in 2014 will depend on how far their sophomores and juniors can take them.
Last year Solich depended on the offense to keep the team in games when the defense could not get stops (which happened pretty often). This year, only four starters from the 2013 team return: wide receiver Chase Cochran and lineman Mike McQueen, Mike Lucas and Lucas Powell. Cochran is a senior, while McQueen, Lucas and Powell are redshirt juniors.
Lucas and Powell anchor the line, playing left guard and center, respectively. Lucas, who was named to the Phil Steele All-MAC preseason team, is arguably the best lineman on the team and would take over at center should something happen to Powell. Powell had a strong 2013 season, starting 9 of the 11 games he appeared in and finishing second on the team in pancake blocks, despite suffering an injury in the middle of the season. Left tackle McQueen also brings his share of experience, appearing in 22 games over the past two years and starting in eight games this past fall.
The right side of the line is undoubtedly weaker. Right guard Durrell Wood made three starts last year as a true freshman, albeit against weak teams. Right tackle Troy Watson also saw limited time in 2013 as a redshirt freshman.
The receiving corps features two seniors in Cochran and Landon Smith, while sophomore Sebastian Smith saw action in 11 games last year. Offensive coordinator Tim Albin said at Ohio Media Day that the group was "speed wise, without question our fastest group we've had offensively."
Cochran finished 2013 with 689 yards and four touchdowns as Tettleton's second favorite option. This year, he'll need to step up and replace, or at least come closer to replacing, Donte Foster's numbers. Last year, Sebastian and Landon finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in receptions for a combined 194 yards. All three receivers will have the benefit of being targeted more often this season, and they must take advantage of those opportunities to replace the departed. Tight end Troy Mangen, who caught four balls for 12 yards last year as a freshman, must do likewise.
"I will say that the group of backs is - in terms of numbers and quality - as good as it has ever been here under my power," Solich said on media day. Senior and team captain Tim Edmond is one of them, but he won't be the starter. That position belongs to junior Daz'mond Patterson.
Patterson should be one of the most exciting players to watch in 2014, following a season in which he managed 222 yards on just 38 carries for an average of 5.6 yards per carry, the highest average on the team. He also caught 13 passes for 120 yards, better than either of the Smith receivers, including 77 yards in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. Following Beau Blankenship's disappointing 2013, Patterson should be an upgrade, and could give the offense more flexibility when it comes to play calling.
In the end, there never really was much of a battle for the quarterback position going into the start of the season. JD Sprague failed to mount a serious challenge to junior and captain Derrius Vick. Vick put up some decent numbers last season, but those numbers were still far from Tettleton's despite the latter struggling through parts of the season. Vick has the job for now, but that doesn't mean he'll hold onto it the next two seasons. Sprague, for his struggles, is still talented, and freshman Joey Duckworth could present a challenge down the road.
In a direct contrast with the offense, the Bobcats have retained eight starters on defense. The squad struggled through most of last year, allowing opposing offenses to score over 20 points in all but three games (those three games were against powerhouses Akron, Miami, and Austin Peay).
On media day defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow said, "We just thought we needed to be a better tackling team, a better technique team, more fundamentally sound." Of course, the defense will need to do more than just make tackles, but this is a group that will be better than last year's.
A big part of that is due to the defensive line, a group that has the talent and the experience to anchor the defense. On one end is Tarell Basham, the team's greatest defensive asset, who recorded 7.5 sacks last year and should pick up even more with the increase in playing time. Senior Antwan Crutcher will be a full-time starter at nose guard for a second consecutive year. Both senior Cameron McLeod and fourth-year junior Brandon Purdum are solid options at defensive tackle, while Kurt Laseak recorded 43 tackles last season as a redshirt freshman, and Casey Sayles was productive off the bench as a freshman as well. This group should be able wear down even the best offensive lines in the MAC and put pressure on the backs.
Beyond the line, the rest of the defense is not as sharp. Fourth year junior Ben Russell is undoubtedly the strongest of the linebackers, leading the team with 88 tackles in 2013. Jovon Johnson, also a fourth year junior, finished fourth with 61 tackles, despite limited playing time. Beyond that, the linebacker options suffer from a lack of experience: redshirt sophomore Blair Brown will start on the outside despite only appearing in a handful of games, while all the backups are redshirt freshman who have yet to play a snap of real college football.
The secondary was a weakness at times last season in which they spent a lot of time chasing after the opponents' receivers. The level of experience in 2014 should change that. Cornerback Devin Bass was an honoree of the All-MAC second team as a redshirt sophomore last season, and uses his speed to keep with even the most explosive of wide outs. Captain and safety Nathan Carpenter will also bring a couple years of experience to the secondary where he will share time with fifth-year seniors Josh Kristoff and Thad Ingol. A strong defensive line should put more pressure on the quarterbacks, taking some of the strain off the secondary.
The speedy Devin Bass will be returning kickoffs and punts in addition to his duties at cornerback. Bass was named to the First Team All-MAC as a kick returner, averaging 22.1 yards per return. Second Team All-MAC kicker Josiah Yazdani returns as a fourth year junior who converted 14 of 15 field goals in 2013. Junior Mitch Bonnstetter transferred to Ohio from Iowa Central Community College, where he earned All-American honors. He should help stabilize a punt unit that averaged just 37.8 yards per punt last season.
|at Kent State
|vs. Eastern Illinois
|at Central Michigan
|vs. Bowling Green
|at Western Michigan
|vs. Northern Illinois
The Bobcats start with three games on the road against three talented teams. Kentucky, like Ohio, is young and sports a roster of players with limited experience. My prediction is that the Bobcats will take this one, while dropping the opener to Kent State and losing to an explosive Marshall team in the Battle for the Bell.
Upon their return to Athens, the team should be able to pick up two quick wins against Idaho and Eastern Illinois before dropping a game at Central Michigan. Ohio University unfortunately has Bowling Green lined up for homecoming weekend. The Falcons throttled Ohio last year, and it shouldn't be a much prettier picture this year.
The Bobcats finish with Akron, Western Michigan, Buffalo, Northern Illinois and Miami. The Bobcats should win at least three of those games, which would leave them at 6-6. I don't think the Bobcats are really bowl material in 2014 (although they did make it last year at 7-5), but they could surprise us all and finish 9-3. They could also disappoint and finish 3-9. As I said earlier, it depends on how far the young guys can take this team, which is tough to predict how that will translate into wins and losses. It's a chaotic and unpredictable game- and that's why we love it.