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MAC Football Previews: Ohio Bobcats

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While there are still questions about how good the Ohio offense can be, expectations of a respectable defense surround this Ohio team.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Limited expectations were the norm for Ohio Bobcat fans a year ago after losing some of the bigger name players in the program's history. But that narrative has worn out, and a newer crew of skilled position players and linemen alike have taken their places in a program that is achieving notable success compared to where they have been historically.

A 6-6 record in a season where average play actually represented a semblance of success has laid a foundation for better things to come. Maybe as soon as this fall.

That isn't to say that there aren't areas where Ohio can improve by leaps and bounds.

At Ohio Media Day, offensive coordinator Tim Albin was adamant about the need for offensive improvement above all. "The bottom line is, we didn't score enough points last year. That's all we've talked about. That's how I challenged 'em when we started spring ball and we finished it, going into summer...The point production has got to go up" said Albin.

With an offense that ranked 10th in the MAC in pass defense and passing on offense, Ohio will look to reverse both of those trends to spring itself into bowl game contention.

Schedule

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 3 (Thur.) @ Idaho 9 pm
Sept. 12 vs. Marshall 7 pm
Sept. 19 vs. SE Louisianna 2 pm
Sept. 26 @ Minnesota 3:30 pm
Oct. 3 @ Akron 2 pm
Oct. 10 vs. Miami 2 pm
Oct. 17 vs. Western Michigan TBA
Oct. 24 @ Buffalo TBA

BYE
Nov. 4 (Wed.) @ Bowling Green 8 pm
Nov. 10 (Tue.) vs. Kent State 8 pm
Nov. 17 (Tue.) vs. Ball State TBA
Nov. 24 (Tue.) @ Northern Illinois 7:30 pm

Very early on, Ohio goes all the way to MOSCOW...Idaho in what shouldn't be too eventful evening if Paul Petrino calms down. Ohio follows that up with games against solid opponents at home, as the 'Cats will look to get revenge from the Herd who mashed them a year ago. All this before heading to Minnesota to take on what should be an improved Gophers team. All that before Ohio jumps into the good stuff. That's right, MAC play. Going to Akron on the road could prove to be a tough test as these two aren't particularly fond of one another. Back-to-back games against rival Miami (in Athens) and Western Michigan could set the tone for the rest of the season. Consecutive would really send a message that Ohio means business this season. After a road contest in what could then be frigid Buffalo. Ohio gets a buy before finishing off with a tough rough game against BG (that Falcon Fast offense put up a lot of yards last year against Ohio, but not many points). Two straight home games against KSU and BSU could mean the difference between going to Detroit or not, and that's all before the 'Cats close out the regular season in DeKalb in what should be a good re-match considering the blows that these two traded last season.

Head Coach

In Frank Solich's tenure as the head football coach in Athens, his teams have exhibited remarkable consistency while reaching new levels of success hardly characteristic of the program in the past. His reign as coach has created expectations that would never have been there before, but now might be a bit of a nuisance to some as folks expect great things from the Ohio football team year-in and year out.

In his time at Ohio, Solich has kept an incredibly static staff. Back are coordinators and skill position coaches who have been here over half a decade. But with the team seeming to have leveled off in terms of upside, maybe some new wrinkles are needed to propel Ohio forward and into MAC East title contention.

Five Key Players

RB- A.J. Ouellette

After surprising nearly everyone, the short but brick-wall-like Ouellette came onto the scene in impressive fashion in 2014 and never looked back. He earned a spot at No. 29 on our countdown of the top players in the MAC a year removed from rumbling for 804 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground for an offense that only posted 20.5 points per game.

QBs- Derrius Vick, JD Sprague, Jr.

Like last season, these two are battling it out for the starting job in fall camp, with neither listed as the week one starter against Idaho. Though both have impressive scrambling ability and natural talent, neither has proven themselves to be the far and away number one QB and leader that this team needs to pull itself from the doldrums of last year. With both having rushed for nearly 400 yards each, it's possible we might see a conservative approach from the coaching staff that just asks these two to not turn the ball over, make plays with their legs, and hit some long ones over the top when needed. With not much depth at receiver last year, whoever plays the majority of the snaps will be happy to have a more-experienced WR corps than a year ago.If Ohio is to jump to the level of the bowl-eligible, they'll need a number of things. Consistent, turnover-free play from whoever plays QB is a necessity.

LB- Quentin Poling

In returning multiple starters among its backers, this group will be of massive importance to the success of the Ohio defense, especially considering the lack of experience returning at defensive tackle. The fact that this team doesn't have much experience on the line outside of one returning DE, but is still expected to be solid, speaks wonders to guys like Poling, Jovon Johnson, Chad Moore and Blair Brown. Poling will be expected to make big stops, and be just as much a leader as the older LB's.

K- Josiah Yazdani

While putting a kicker on this list might seem odd, let us reminisce of the times that Yazdani won the Bobcats' first and last games of the year on a last-second kick (against Kent State and Miami respectively). With this team having a strong defensive-minded identity, Yazdani will be thrust into multiple critical junctures in low-scoring games.

DL- Tarell Basham

As mentioned above, the unit alongside Basham is barren. Guys like Brandon Purdum, Casey Sayles, Kurt Laseak and Watson Tautuiaki will be thrown into the fire on the line. After failing to live up to expectations in 2014 (in-part due to the attention he received from opposing linemen) Basham will be asked to make big-time plays, and no excuses can be made for a lack of production this time around.

The Bobcats' Strong Suit

With a defense that plays fast, physical, and returns five of its top six tacklers all the while allowing just 24.8 points per game, Ohio will once again rely on an experienced group of backers and secondary to lead it into the fall non-conference schedule. Returners like Poling, Basham, Johnson, Brown, Devin Bass, Nathan Carpenter and Ian Wells will lead the way while less experienced others have an opportunity to make an impact on the d-line. After giving simple looks defensively last season for the most part, defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow noted that his staff was ready to implement some new looks to the mix that they put in front of opposing offenses.

Unknowns

Despite important returns, there are things that are still unknown about this squad. Apart from the QB situation for starters, the wide receiver depth is still a bit questionable.  Someone other than Sebastian SmithJordan Reid or Brendan Cope has to become a big-time guy (maybe incoming frosh Elijah Ball?) and must become a reliable target. Elsewhere, the defensive tackles could very well have issues occupying space to create opportunities for the backers to make triple-digit tackles. Other than a bit more experienced, there's not much reason to have better expectations for the offense, right?

TL;DR: Season Overview

Though struggling to make the types of explosive plays that change games in 2014, Ohio takes a step towards doing so just by returning skill position players across positions, while having the offensive line starters return to offer needed protection. Meanwhile, some folks in the MACosphere are picking Ohio as a sleeper to quickly jump atop the MAC East and surprise some folks. This team, which has regressed to an extent (though not to a large degree) over the last few years, will determine its own destiny moving forward.

For a more extensive overview of the upcoming season for Ohio, might I recommend Bill Connelly?