Following is the conclusion of our 2013 MAC football preview, focusing upon the Eastern half of the loop. Teams are listed in order of predicted finish...


by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

1. OHIO...Frank Solich enters his ninth season as head coach at Athens, and he’s definitely found his niche in turning around the Ohio program. The Bobcats are 36-18 straight-up the last four seasons, and there’s reason to believe that winning touch will continue in 2013.

Ohio returns a monster senior offensive trio that should position the Bobcats to return to the MAC title game for the third time in the past five seasons. QB Tyler Tettleton was named second-team all-MAC last year and has thrown for 6,150 yards while tossing 46 TDs with just 14 ints. while running for a total of 910 yards over the past two seasons. RB Beau Blankenship joined Tettleton on the all-conference second team after running for 1,604 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns. WR Donte Foster caught 59 passes last year and scored eight TDs. Jr. WR Chase Cochran (17.1 ypc) and Landon Smith (24.8 ypc) could develop and seriously stretch defenses this season.

The offense has eight senior starters, a reliable, experienced crew that might exceed last season’s 31.7 ppg output, the best offensive production in Solich’s tenure. Workhorse Blankenship is backed up by soph Daz’mond Patterson (5.7 ypc as a true frosh LY) and sr. Ryan Boykin (5.7 ypc). The Bobcats led the MAC in passing efficiency last season.

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Tettleton will operate behind an offensive line boasting three seniors with heavy starting experience in right tackle Ryan McGrath, left tackle John Prior (ex-Florida State; started every game LY) and left guard Jon Lechner (27 career starts). The only question about the offense is the health of the offensive line. Several players on that unit missed spring recovering from injuries.

The defense isn’t in quite as good shape, returning five starters, but Solich has 10 of his top 16 tacklers of ‘12 on hand, including sr. LB Keith Moore, who led the team with 98 stops. The defensive line is a bit inexperienced on paper, as jr. DT Antwan Crutcher is the only returnee listed as a starter, but sr. DE Nic Barber has eight starts under his belt, and sr. ex-juco DE Ty Branz has played a lot on various levels and tied for the Bobcat lead in sacks in 2012.

Moore is joined by RS soph Ben Russell (21 stops LY) in the middle and jr. Nathan Carpenter (11 starts & 106 tackles the last two seasons) on the other side. The secondary welcomes back sixth-year senior CB Travis Carrie, who has all-conference talent but missed last season with injury. FS Josh Kristoff (3rd LY with 60 stops), CB Larenzo Fisher (50 tackles) and sr. SS Xavier Hughes (six career starts; limited to 4 games in ‘12 due to injury) should give Ohio one of the tougher secondaries in the MAC. Bobcat d.c. Jimmy Burrow’s defense should improve on last season’s 24.8 ppg allowance given the material he has to work with.

Regression to the mean factors would point to the Bobcats falling a rung or two down the ladder in the MAC, as Ohio was 7th in the country in turnover margin thanks to losing just five fumbles and throwing five interceptions in 2012. However, the players who handled the ball most and took care of the ball last year return. Blankenship handled the ball 333 times and Tettleton threw 367 times and rushed another 120. The ball isn’t often out of their hands, and neither has exhibited a tendency to turn it over. If that continues, it will be a 10 or 11-win season for Solich and the Bobcats.

2. BOWLING GREEN...With nineteen returning starters from an eight-win bowl team, head coach Dave Clawson should be smiling. We’d temper the enthusiasm over the Falcons’ heavy complement of returning starters just a bit.

The Bowling Green defense made an astonishing statistical leap last season. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s BG teams had yielded 30 ppg until 2013's remarkable turnaround saw the Falcons allow just 17 ppg and rank sixth in the nation in total defense. On the surface, returning nine members of that side would indicate another top ten defense. However, one of the two players who left were MAC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Jones, who was almost unblockable and ranked ninth in the nation with 12½ sacks. The other was the team’s second-leading tackler, LB Dwayne Woods (337 career tackles). Granted the returning lineup is dotted with all-conference performers, most notably sr. S “BooBoo” Gates, jr. LB Gabe Martin, both first-team choices. It’s hard to put many knocks on this unit, but it’s also hard to see them duplicating last season’s numbers without Jones and Woods.

Offensively, Bowling Green loses just one starter from last year’s team, but the Falcons ranked just 91st in total offense and 92nd in scoring. Sr. QB Matt Schilz has thrown 39 interceptions in the last three years and was ranked 11th in the MAC in passing efficiency last season. One of the anticipated returning starters is RB Anthon Samuel, the team’s leading rusher a year ago with 998 yards (5.3 ypc in his career) and in scoring with 12 TDs. Samuel took the spring semester off to tend to personal family issues and his return is very questionable. If Samuel isn’t back, the rushing burden will fall on soph Andre Givens and jr. Jamel Martin, who combined for 339 YR & 1 TD a year ago. The Falcon attack also lost all-MAC three-year starting tackle Jordon Roussos and a couple of key backups. If Samuel doesn’t return and the running game bogs down at all, it will put extra pressure on the turnover-prone Schilz to carry the offense.

3. KENT STATE...Kent’s fairy tale season of 2012 was just that. Don’t look for new HC Paul Haynes to duplicate the Golden Flashes’ 11 wins, and, after going 40 years between the 1972 Tangerine Bowl and last season’s appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, it’s likely going to be a while before Kent State returns to a postseason game.

Certainly there are some positives for Kent. The Golden Flashes return the most productive pair of RBs in the nation. Sr. Dri Archer (“Mr. Outside”; 1,429 YR, 23 touchdowns, led the team with 39 catches) and jr. Trayion Durham (“Mr. Inside”; 1,316 YR, 14 scores) ran roughshod over the MAC last season. Sr. WR Tyshon Goode returns after taking a medical redshirt last season. Goode had 137 receptions in the three previous seasons and was named to all-MAC and frosh AA teams in two of those years. Sr. DT Roosevelt Nix has been named first-team all-MAC three times in his first three seasons. Sr. S Luke Wollet recorded a whopping 119 tackles en route to a spot on the all-conference team.

However, there are indicators that Kent will regress. First, new QB David Fisher is a journeyman who was a good juco player that couldn’t make a go of it at Nevada. Fisher played a little bit for Kent last year (23 passes, 18 rushes), but he won’t be able to duplicate the experience of graduated four-year starter Spencer Keith. Fisher is still in a battle for the starting job with redshirt frosh Colin Reardon and possibly true frosh Nathan Strock. Although the coaching staff isn’t worried about the QB situation, it’s not a given the Golden Flash offense will get the same production it got from the experience Keith, and Keith’s decisions at the line were a factor in Archer& Durham’s tremendous production. The Kent State offensive line has holes to fill after that unit lost its best two starters, both all-conference selections, one a third-round NFL draftee.

Further, let’s be frank, Kent State was very lucky last season. The Golden Flashes finished 4th in the nation in turnover margin at +20. Thus they went from averaging about 4½ wins per season from 2007 to 2011 (never more than five), to 11 wins despite giving up 410 total yards per game, the most yardage a Kent team has yielded since 2003. Also, the defense, which returns just five starters, has given up more points in each of the last three seasons. It will be up to first-year d.c. Brian George to arrest these trends.

4. BUFFALO...After a very brief visit to the ball under Turner Gill, the clock struck midnight and Buffalo turned back into a pumpkin when Jeff Quinn was put in charge. However, Quinn’s Bulls won four games last year (up from 2 and 3 in his first two seasons), and with nine offensive starters returning, Buffalo might take another step in the right direction.

The Bulls have a pair of legitimate MAC stars on offense in seniors RB Branden Oliver and Alex Neutz. Oliver gained 1,395 yards two seasons ago and was named to the all-conference first team and had 349 YR and 3 TDs in the first two games last year before injuries derailed his season and he finished with 821 yards. Oliver is healthy again and is a good bet to regain top form. Neutz had a monster season last year, catching 65 passes for 1015 yards and 11 TDs. The Bulls return their top four rushers (three went over 500 YR) and top nine pass-catchers from last year.

Buffalo’s QB situation should be up to the task, as soph Joe Licata inherited the starting job from injury-prone sr. Alex Zordich. Licata completed 56% while throwing five TD passes and just 2 interceptions in taking over for Zordich in the Bulls’ last four games of last season. Buffalo was 3-1 SU in those games. Offensive coordinator Alex Wood appears very comfortable with Licata, who was a highly-regarded recruit by Buffalo standards. The offensive line should be good this season, but even better next year, as four of the five will return for 2014.

An important part of the story for Buffalo is on defense, where new defensive coordinator Lou Tepper had an immediate effect last season. Tepper’s stop unit improved from 63rd in ‘11 to 37th last season in total defense and yielded just 3.7 ypc. The “D” is led by two-time all-MAC first team LB Khalil Mack, who has caught the eyes of NFL scouts. Mack combined with fellow LB Lee Skinner to make 183 tackles and 13 sacks. Sr. DE Colby Way (58 stops, 7 sacks) leads the defensive line, and he, Mack and Skinner put lots of pressure on opposing QBs, coming from all directions in Tepper’s scheme. Sr. CB Jajja Johnson (5 ints.; 2nd-team all-conference) leads a secondary that returns intact and ranked second in the league in pass defense in 2012.

Quinn should be able to continue incremental improvement in Buffalo and could prove valuable as a road dog early in the season at Ohio State and Baylor. The Bulls went 3-0 as a non-conference road dog last season, but stay away from them as a home favorite (9-20-1 the last five years in that role).

5. MIAMI-OHIO...Where have you gone Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Betts? Miami-Ohio has fallen on hard times the last seven years, going 29-58 straight-up with one winning season since 2005. Last year the RedHawks were 4-8 SU and against the points despite the now-graduated QB Zac Dysert throwing for almost 3,500 yards with 25 TD passes.

The offense will hinge on the performance of Dysert’s replacement, fifth-year sr. Austin Boucher. Boucher has had limited experience, appearing in 17 games the last four seasons, completing 112 of 178 passes for 1278 yards (7 TD-3 ints.). Boucher lost a valuable weapon when sr. WR Nick Harwell decided to transfer to Kansas, but he still has dangerous jr. Dawan Scott on hand. Scott had 57 catches last season and ranked just behind Harwell with 851 receiving yards. Boucher is not a runner (47 attempts for 16 yards in his career), and although the RedHawks offensive line returns four starters with tons of starting experience, that unit ranked 112th in sacks allowed, as Dysert and Boucher were dumped a total of 40 times. Unfortunately, there’s little on the shelf in terms of running back talent that would allow offensive coordinator John Klacik to alter an offense that saw Miami throw 495 passes while ranking 118th in rushing yards. That imbalance is a problem.

Defensive coordinator Jay Peterson has his work cut out for him, as six starters return from a unit that allowed 35 ppg (ranking 100th), 468 total yards (104th), and 241 rushing ypg (119th). Sr. CB Dayonne Nunley is a talented player (twice all-MAC), and the team’s top three tacklers return including sr. LB Chris Wade, who ranked second in the conference in tackles with 128. This unit will get quite a bit younger, as four of the anticipated replacements are in the sophomore class with limited experience. Hard to anticipate even a modest improvement for a very bad defense.

Don Treadwell went 4-8 in each of his first two seasons, needs to show some progress if he wants to coach beyond his initial five-year deal in Oxford. The RedHawks were hammered on the non-conference road last season, dropping pointspread decisions at Ohio State, Boise and Cincy by margins.

6. AKRON... Zip head coach Terry Bowden might be re-thinking coming back to coaching after last season’s results. Bowden (and Akron fans) shouldn’t be surprised that the team went 1-11 SU for a third straight season. The Zips haven’t beaten an FBS team since November 26, 2010 and lost straight-up at home to FBS neophyte Massachusetts in 2012. As Terry’s daddy Bobby might’ve said, “Don’t ask a sick cat to get well.” Beyond going 3-33 in the last three seasons, the Zips have yielded more than 36 ppg and 435 ypg in that run. That’s seriously bad defense. Akron ranked 113th in net punting and 120th in kickoff returns. That’s seriously bad special teams.

Bowden must be given credit for raising the Akron offense a notch or two, as transfer QB Dalton Williams threw for 3,387 yards and 25 TDs while RB Jawon Chisholm rushed for 5.3 ypc, just missing a 1,000-yard season. The offense improved from 4.2 yds. per play in 2011 to 5.4 last season, a significant jump. The attack will be different this season, as 26-year-old A.J. Millwee takes over as the offensive coordinator. Williams has moved on, so it will be up to soph Kyle Pohl, who didn’t look bad in relief last season, completing 66% of his 58 passes for 366 yards with five scores and just two interceptions. Bowden is definitely high on Pohl’s potential. Pohl will be handing off to Chisholm and soph Conor Hundley (279 YR subbing when Chisholm was injured) while trying to pick out jr. L.T. Smith and sr. Keith Sconiers (vet WRs who combined for 89 receptions).

With seven starters returning on defense, there might be a window for d.c. Chuck Amato to show some improvement on that side of the ball. Although the team’s top two tacklers graduate, 13 of the next 15 return. Some of Amato’s recruits are beginning to filter into the defensive two-deep, so help might be on the way. Can they win more than one game this season? Probably. After all, James Madison and Massachusetts are on the schedule, but the Zips have gotten progressively sloppier the last few years, progressively sinking each season from -5 in turnovers in 2009 to -14 last year. Unless Bowden can reverse that trend, he might start thinking about returning to the broadcast booth.

7. MASSACHUSETTS...Head coach Charley Molnar’s maiden voyage with Umass in the FBS was just slightly more successful than that of the Titanic. The Minutemen were the least productive offense in the nation, scoring just 12.7 ppg. UMass yielded 40 ppg, ranking 121 out of 124 teams last season. Tough to tell if the move from the FCS to the FBS is going quite the way athletic director John McCutcheon planned. Perhaps he anticipated more carnage.

With just four returning offensive starters, a rebuilding offensive line and wide-receiving corps, and the expectation that the best running back on the team will be true frosh Lorenzo Woodley, the outlook for offensive improvement is grim. Soph QB Mike Wegzyn (great name if you could use proper nouns in Scrabble) is the right size (6-5, 215), but his 53% completions and 6 TD-10 int. ratio have to get better or nothing will change. The main pass weapon returning is TE Rob Blanchflower, a senior tight end who caught 43 passes and a pair of TDs. However, Soph Tajae Sharpe is the only experienced wideout returning, and he caught just 20 balls last season.

Woodley might be good, but it’s a big jump from high school to college, even if it is just the MAC. Especially when your new offensive line will have four new starters, including a redshirt frosh, a sophomore and possibly a fellow true fresham (G Sam Jeff, who entered shool early and participated in spring ball). Good luck with that.

The jump from the FCS to FBS level is somewhat akin to that move from high school to college. The players are bigger, faster, harder and give you a lot less time alone in space. It also takes time to attract the type of players who can help a program win at the next level. Charley Molnar has a pedigree, as he’s helped develop attacks at Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Central Michigan as offensive coordinator and/or QB coach. Defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian has definitely been around the block, with 10 seasons in the d.c. role at big time programs such as LSU, Virginia Tech, Purdue and West Virginia. He can cook, but does he have the right ingredients to make beef Wellington or will it be burgers for dinner again in Amherst?

Things won’t get easier for UMass this season, as the schedule is tougher than it was a year ago. Visits to Wisconsin and Kansas State were scheduled for the paydays. The Maine Black Bears (an ex-CAA adversary) won’t go gently. Vandy beat the Minutemen 49-7 last season in the team’s fifth straight pointspread loss to non-conference teams. But Akron, UMass’ lone victim a year ago, has to visit cavernous Gillette Stadium, so there is always hope.


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