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MAC Football Previews: Bowling Green Falcons

Will a potent offense be enough to carry the Falcons to a third straight east division title and another MAC Championship Game?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The last 24-months have been a period of accomplishment for the Bowling Green Falcon football program.  They have won back-to-back Mid-American Conference east division titles, a MAC Championship, and a bowl game.

The media and other prognosticators are predicting that success will continue in 2015, as the Falcons bring back all eleven starters on offense.   All of those players are experienced veterans that have played a big part in the Falcon's accomplishments the past two years.

Now, whether or not the Falcon defense can stop anybody this season is another matter altogether.  In fact, even with all of its expected offensive prowess, it will likely be the defense that determines just how far they can go in 2015.

Last season was a true rollercoaster ride for the Falcons.  It started horribly as they lost the opener to Western Kentucky, 59-31.  Two days later it got even worse when it was announced that starting quarterback Matt Johnson would be lost for the year with a hip injury he suffered late in that opening game.

The highlight of season came two weeks later, as Johnson's replacement, James Knapke led Bowling Green to a thrilling 45-42 come-from-behind home win over the Indiana Hoosiers.  Once in MAC play the Falcons rolled through their east opponents and locked-up the division title with two games left in the regular season.

Suddenly disinterested or having lost their edge, the Falcons ended the regular season with yet another loss to their arch rival Toledo, and then an ugly home loss to a mediocre Ball State team, 41-24.

Bowling Green ended the year with an 0-4 record against teams from the MAC west division.  That record included a lopsided 51-17 loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game.  They did manage to save the end of the season from being a total disaster with a 32-28 come-from-behind win over South Alabama in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.

The Falcons finished the year 8-6 overall and 5-3 in the MAC.  With a brutal non-conference schedule this year and a suspect defense, it will be interesting to see if the Falcons can avoid another thrill-ride season.  Buckle your seat belts Falcon fans!

Schedule:

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 5 vs. Tennessee (Nashville) 4 pm
Sept. 12 @ Maryland 12 pm
Sept. 19 vs. Memphis 3 pm
Sept. 26 @ Purdue TBA
Oct. 3 @ Buffalo 3:30 pm
Oct. 10 vs. UMass TBA
Oct. 17 vs. Akron 3 pm
Oct. 24 @ Kent St. TBA

BYE
Nov. 4 (Wed.) vs. Ohio 8 pm
Nov. 11 (Wed.) @ Western Michigan 8 pm
Nov. 17 (Tue.) vs. Toledo TBA
Nov. 24 (Tue.) @ Ball State 7:30 pm

A scheduling quirk has left Bowling Green with seven road games and only five home games in 2015.  They will open the season against the University of Tennessee at L.P. Field, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.  It took several unusual happenings for this game to materialize.

First, the Falcons were left with a hole in their schedule after South Carolina State backed out of a contract to play a game at Bowling Green.  Then, the Volunteers found themselves in a similar position when the University of Alabama at Birmingham announced they were dropping their football program at the end of last season.  The Falcons and Vols then agreed to the neutral site game, although one can argue that Nashville is hardly a neutral site in this situation.

The non-conference schedule gets no easier for the Falcons after the opener with games against Big Ten Conference opponents Maryland and Purdue, as well as Memphis, who finished 10-3 last year.

The MAC portion of Bowling Green's schedule also has a killer back end.  The Falcons will travel to Western Michigan, come home to play rival Toledo and then end the season on the road at Ball State.

There is a very good chance the Falcons will be a better team this season but will end up with a worse record than last year.

Head Coach: Dino Babers

Dino Babers enters his second season leading the Bowling Green program.  His first year at the helm can best be described as mixed results.  He came in with a lot of fanfare and inherited a loaded team fresh off a championship.  Yet the team underachieved in part as a result of those lopsided early season losses and the end of season nose dive.  But, how do you criticize a coaching job where the team beat a Big Ten opponent, won a division title and a bowl game...all with a quarterback that had previously completed only four passes in his career?

So is the glass half empty or half full with Coach Babers?  We'll all be in a much better position to answer that question after this year.  Babers installed his up-tempo offense last year and went on record as saying he didn't expect the players to fully comprehend it until sometime during year two.

If that is the case, opposing defenses should be afraid.  Babers has playmakers all over the field on offense and they will be downright scary if they do indeed have command of the new offense.

But the real measure of Babers success this season rests with his defense and their ability to at least slow down opponents so the offense can outscore them.

Five Key Players

QB - Matt Johnson - He's proven that when healthy, he can be the best quarterback in the MAC.  His injured hip seems healed but we won't really know until he goes at game speed and takes that first big hit.  He'll also have to shake off the rust that comes with not having played in a year.  Plus, did he adequately pick-up the new offense watching from the sidelines last year?  Despite all those lingering questions, I think Johnson is poised for a terrific senior season this year.

WR - Roger Lewis - He did things as a freshman last year that nobody has ever done before at Bowling Green.  First freshman to have 1,000 yards receiving, set home stadium record with a 16-catch game, first BG freshman in 33 years to be named All-MAC.  What does he have to do for an encore?  Falcons are loaded with receivers so it may be hard for him to duplicate last year's numbers.

K - Tyler Tate - Arguably the best kicker in the MAC coming into this year.  He has been the model of consistency the last three years since stabilizing the position for the Falcons as a redshirt freshman in 2012.   His 23 field goals last season set a BG record.  His 48 career FGs already have him atop the all-time list for Falcon kickers.  He adds another element to a dynamite offense for the Falcons.

LB - Austin Valdez - Was recruited as a quarterback out of high school, but made the transition to defense last year.  Has added about 20 pounds since last season to better handle the demands of his new position.  Played in 13 games last season, mostly as a back-up to All-MAC performers Gabe Martin and D.J. Lynch.  Will need to play well if the Falcons are to have any semblance of a defense this year.

DB - Clint Stephens - After seeing plenty of action as a true freshman last season in a back-up role, Stephens will be in the starting line-up this year.  His four interceptions last year were second on the team.  He'll be asked to lead a mostly inexperienced secondary for the Falcons.  He is also a major contributor on special teams, setting a BG record with a 98-yard touchdown on a kick-off return last season.

Falcons' Strong Suit

As mentioned previously, Bowling Green's strength is their offense.  All five starters along the offensive line return.  Members of this unit actually lost weight over the summer so they could be in better condition to keep pace in the team's #FalconFast offense.  A big part of their job will be keeping Johnson upright and healthy.

Johnson will have plenty of options when throwing the ball.  The Falcons are loaded at wide receiver.  Starters Lewis, Ryan Burbrink, Ronnie Moore, and Gehrig Deiter are all talented veterans.  Plus, you add in transfer Robbie Rhodes (Baylor) and former All-MAC performer Chris Gallon returning from injury and you have the best receiving core in conference by far.

But passing isn't the only thing this offense can do.  They can run the ball as well.  Travis Greene and Fred Coppet form one of the best running back tandems in the MAC.  Green has rushed for more than 2,500 yards and scored 25 touchdowns the last two seasons.  Coppet had nearly 800 yard and six touchdowns last year.  Plus, the Falcons have added this year heralded running backs Matt Domer (Illinois) and Donovan Wilson (Georgia Tech) into the fold from their former teams.

Unknowns

The big questions for this year's Falcons all rest with the defense.  Only a couple of starters return from last year's defense.  A pessimist will say that's a problem as nine new starters will be asked to come in and make an impact immediately despite their inexperience.   An optimist will tell you that the defense was terrible last season anyway and these new guys can't be any worse.  We'll see.

An already thin unit took a massive hit in the offseason when returning starters Nick Johnson (DB) and Bryan Thomas (DE) were dismissed from the team after separate off-the-field incidents.  Johnson led the team with five interceptions last year a true freshman, and Thomas had eight sacks among his 48 tackles.

So who will step up?  That is yet to be seen, but it will most likely have to come from young players.  Safety Eilar Hardy comes over as a graduate student after spending the last four seasons at Notre Dame.  He'll be asked to supply some much needed veteran leadership to this defense.

Defensive lineman Gus Schwieterman will look to follow-up on his successful freshman campaign that saw him record 55 tackles and 7.5 sacks last season.  He will be joined on the line by veteran Zach Colvin, who missed all of last season with an illness.

But the biggest change for the Falcon defense this year will undoubtedly by the addition of new defensive coordinator, Brian Ward.  Ward comes over from Western Illinois, where he turned the Leathernecks into one of the best defenses in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.  It's hoped that Ward can implement his system that will help make-up for the lack of experience on defense.

TL;DR: Season Overview

The Falcons like to play fast and they'll probably have to out of necessity.  The offense will likely be in the position of having to outscore almost all of their opponents.  Bowling Green certainly has the players to do just that, but that is a heavy load for the offense to carry all season.

You also have to consider that the pace that the BG offense plays at doesn't do any favors for its defense.  No matter if the offense goes down and scores in a couple of minutes or has a quick three-and-out series, that puts the defense back out on the field with little rest.  That scenario would spell doom for the Falcons this season.