TGS 2019 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE MAC--PART I
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
We continue our TGS 2019 College FB previews with a look at the Mid-American Conference. with the Eastern half of the loop in this installment. As usual, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2018 straight-up, rspread, and "Over/Under" ((O/U) results included...
Ohio (2018 SUR 9-4, PSR 8-5, O/U 8-5)...Despite losing two of the top three RBs in the league, three of its top five tacklers and a total of 12 starters, Ohio is still the clear favorite in the MAC East this season under veteran HC Frank Solich, who runs probably the steadiest, most consistent program in the MAC.
The Bobcats led the MAC in conference game scoring (42.1 ppg), and ranked 12th in the nation at 40 ppg overall last season with sr. QB Nathan Rourke throwing for 2431 yds. with an impressive 23-8 TD-int. ratio. Rourke, who was named second-team all-MAC in 2017 and 2018, returns, but the attack will be retooling a running game that ranked 9th in the country last season and must replace its top two receivers. Rourke himself is the leading returning rusher, finishing 2018 with 860 rush yards and an eye-popping 15 TDs on the ground. The OL has two starters back, with sr. Austen Pleasants moving from right to left tackle, and jr. Brett Kitrell moving from center to guard to make room for sr. C Steven Hayes and sr, RT Marques Grimes to move in. However, there’s no doubt they’ll miss “the Joes” (G Joe Anderson and Joe Lowery, both named first team all-MAC LY).
Several second-year players will fill in the skill positions. RS frosh O’Shaan Allison was the No. 3-ranked RB in Pennsylvania as a prep, but was passed on by most teams (and the scouting services) because of his size (just 5-9). However, he was elusive enough to run for 3000 yds. and score 35 TDs in high school and was impressive during spring work, enough so that the coaching staff isn’t that worried about the loss of star A.J. Ouellette. The position will be fairly deep, if untested as well, as a handful of sophs looked capable of stepping up in spring. The receiving corps is in a similar situation, trying to replace top wideouts Papi White (1st all-MAC; 63 recs., 9 TD catches) and Andrew Meyer (35 & 5), but holdover jr. starter Cameron Odom caught 30 LY and 20 in 2017, and both 6-1 soph Isiah Cox (11 recs. 2018) and 6-4 RS frosh Shane Hooks are nice targets, while elusive 5-9, 178-lb. RS frosh Tyler Walton adds the speed element.
Solich is a defensive specialist and his teams have been remarkably consistent over the years. The Bobcats have yielded from a low of 22.6 ppg to a high of 25.3 ppg over the past five seasons, holding foes t 360 to 391 total ypg in that run. This unit returns six starters and relished picking off Nathan Rourke twice in the spring game. S Javon Hagan returns for his senior season and has totaled 164 tackles over the past two years, when he was named 2nd and 1st- team all-MAC as a soph and jr. respectively. Hagan is joined by holdover regular jr. CBs Marlin Brooks and Jamal Hudson, forming the best returning 2ndary in the conference. MLB Jared Dorsa is a stud who collected 59 tackles last year and will likely be an all-conference selection for 2019. Vet DEs Will Evans and Amos Ogun-Semore bookend one of the top defensive lines in the MAC, as well, so the defense should remain consistent under new d.c. Ron Collins, who was promoted to the position after Jimmy Burrow’s retirement after 14 years in the position.
Solich won’t find it easy to replace four first-team all-MAC performers on offense, but he’s retooled with a vengeance before, and judging by the amount of redshirt players moving into starting roles, he’s planned well in advance for losing that offensive talent.
Buffalo (2018 SUR 10-4, PSR 9-5, O/U 10-4)...Buffalo HC Lance Leipold was named conference coach of the year in 2018 after the Bulls won 10 games, marking the program’s zenith. Late-season disappointments in 2018, when they blew double digit leads in the 4th Q in both the MAC title game vs. Northern Illinois and in the Dollar General Bowl, still sting. At least some regression appears a bit inevitable after losing the team’s QB, top WR and top defensive player among the 15 graduating starters. Still, we remain optimistic about Buffalo’s chances to return to the bowl scene (if not to the double-digit win total).
There’s no doubt losing QB Tyree Jackson and most of his top receivers, along with LB Kahlil Hodge (144 tackles) will be a difficult task, but the Patterson twins will go a long way to helping on both sides of the ball. Soph RB Jaret Patterson was 2nd-team all-MAC after rushing for 1013 yds. with 14 TDs as a frosh, and his sidekick soph Kevin Marks had 845 YR and 13 scores. Those two powered the team to a school-record for rushing TDs. Four of the offensive linemen who led the way for that productive running game return, so the offensive cupboard is far from bare. Jackson was a physical specimen, but having a potent running game helped keep the rush off the big (but not really elusive) MAC offensive MVP in 2018. The OL features 2nd-team all-MAC LT Evin Ksiezarczyk, and this unit should rank as the top offensive line in the conference this season. The first order of business is for Leipold is to choose a QB. RS soph Kyle Vantrease has a modicum of experience (57 passes in mop-up duty LY), 6-4 RS frosh Matt Myers (one of only three QBs to run for 2000+ yards and rush for 1000+ yards as a prep in Western New York history, where he won the state championship) might have the most talent, and 6-5 Dominic Johnson (a forward on the school’s hoop team) provide some positive potential choices. Leipold’s strength is coaching up QBs, and our money is on Myers to develop into the first choice for the job.
Defensively, Soph MLB James Patterson is the next big thing from a program that produced LBs Khalil Mack (5th pick in the 2014 draft) and Khalil Hodge (more tackles in the last three seasons than any other college player). Patterson had 77 tackles and started all 14 games, and he should put up much bigger numbers now that he’s shifted to the middle. The defense was tough up front against the run last season, allowing 4.1 ypc, its lowest figure since 2012. Safeties Tyrone Hill and Joey Banks combined for 87 stops, and Buffalo ranked a very respectable 31st in pass defense, holding foes to 53% completions. CBs Aapri Washington and sr. Devon Russell have combined for 11 starts the last two seasons, and both rover Kadofi Wright and LB Tim Terry played in every game last season.
Under Leipold, the Bulls have been supplemented by numerous transfers and jucos, as his likeable style has attracted contributing players from other teams as well as from the junior college circuit. Buffalo has 7-8 very winnable games this season, so another bowl season is likely, especially if the QB situation clears up as a positive.
Miami-Ohio (2018 SUR 6-6, PSR 8-4, O/U 7-5)...An injury-riddled Miami side limped through 2018 plagued by injuries and still managed to win half their games, only to be passed over for a bowl bid. This season the RedHawks return just 10 total starters and have to replace 2nd-team all-MAC QB Gus Ragland (2547 YP, 17-5 ratio), who was 16-11 SU in games he started and finished in the last three seasons. Not an overwhelming record unless you consider Miami was 1-9 SU when he was injured. Neither soph Jackson Williamson nor RS frosh AJ Mayer did enough to clearly win the QB job, so replacing the dynamic Ragland is going to be a problem. Both have decent credentials, but it would’ve been nice to have one of them distinguish himself. HC Chuck Martin also has to replace RBs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young, who combined for 1113 YR and 13 rush TDs (Young also caught 42 passes and tied for the team lead with four TD receptions). The attack also loses a pair of good offensive linemen and, of course, star WR James Gardner, who was out for the season after Game 3 at Minnesota, but was 1st-team all-conference and the team’s top pass-catcher in 2016 and 2017. This season’s group of receivers returns 3 of the top 4 pass-catchers, including 6-5 sr. Luke Mayock and 6-6 TE Andrew Homer, as well as 3rd-team all-MAC Jack Sorenson (53 catches).
The defense lost by far its best performer in 1st-team all conference LB Brad Koenig, whose 99 tackles was 41 more than the team’s 2nd leading stopper, returning jr. rover Mike Brown. Returning DT Doug Costin was a second-team all-MAC performer who had 52 stops and 6 sacks, and the team has 10 of its top 15 tacklers returning overall. Brown will gain support in the 2ndary in the person of jr. CB Manny Rugamba, who transferred from Iowa last season and comes online this fall. With a nucleus returning, expect Miami’s defense to avoid any huge dropoff from the team’s 27th- ranked scoring allowance (25.5 ppg).
Miami has been terrible in close games under Chuck Martin, going 7-20 SU in one-possession contests in his five seasons in charge. That might possibly points to his inability to make the right moves. Certainly Martin has rubbed some players the wrong way, as the steady outflow of transfers (usually complaining about the staff) is a problem. Martin also lost his special teams coordinator to Western Michigan, and the RedHawk STs were a strength of the team last season. Miami was +6 in turnovers last year, thanks in large part to Ragland’s avoiding mistakes, and still managed just six victories. It will be difficult for the RedHawks, sporting an inexperienced QB, to achieve the same win total this year. Sure, home games against Tennessee Tech, Bowling Green and Akron should net wins, and they might win a road game at Kent (but they are 9-21 SU on the road under Martin). And Lance Leipold’s Buffalo team isn’t going to roll over and play dead, even without QB Tyree Jackson.
Pointspread note: Martin’s teams are 14-6 as a road dog vs. MAC teams in his tenure in Oxford.
Kent State (2018 SUR 2-10, PSR 7-5, O/U 5-7)...Sean Lewis, a Dino Babers protégé, has made an impact on he Kent State program. Sure, the Golden Flashes appeared to have another disappointing season on the surface, winning two games in a program that’s averaged 2.7 wins for the last six years. However, the more important figure for our purposes is the fact that Kent covered seven games in 2018. In the past 15 seasons, the Flash football team has only covered more than six games twice, last year and in the “miracle” 11-3 SU and spread spike in 2012 under Darrell Hazell. The installation of the “FlashFAST” offense and improved recruiting played a part in that spread improvement, as the addition of ex-Auburn QB recruit Woody Barrett made a difference. Barrett returns after throwing for 2339 yds. & 11 TDs, completing 59% of his throws, while also rushing for 503 yds. and another seven scores. Lewis also coaxed RB Jo-El Shaw out of the juco ranks, and he led the team in rushing with 657 YR and 7 TDs. Lewis also imported some big frosh WRs, including 6-3 soph Isaiah McKoy (42 recs.) and 6-4 RS frosh Lon’Kevious McFadden, who saw limited game action and still maintained his RS status a year ago (3 gms., 6 catches, 15.7 ypc). Among other “hits” on recruiting was soph G Julian Sams (12 starts LY), and this year’s additions could provide some jucos and transfers that help shore up both trenches.
With nine starters returning including Barrett, Shaw and the top three pass catchers (totaled 139 recs.), as well as four on the OL, the offense will be improved. Now that’s a safe thing to say because the attack ranked 103rd in scoring last year. Kent’s attack should’ve converted more, as the team ranked 61st in rushing yards and threw for 212 ypg, so it should be no trick to get into the endzone more often. The attack went from scoring a next-to-last 12.8 ppg (really?) in 2017 to 23.9 LY. Must also note Lewis has soph PK Matthew Trickett, who was first-team all MAC LY (75 pts. on 14 of 17 FGs).
The defense definitely took a turn to the dark side last year, yielding more points and yards that it had since 1998. Defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman has his work cut out for him, but four of his top five tacklers return, including capable jr. S K.J. Sherald and sr. LB Matt Bahr who each had 91 tackles in 2018. He also recruited a couple of juco defensive linemen who should help shore up a front that lost all three starters (good riddance?). Kaufman didn’t have a lot to work with, as just six starters returned from a 2017 side that was nearly as bad as 2018 turned out to be defensively, and those that came back weren’t the best guys. This season the team will be much more familiar with the scheme, and Kaufman will be sprinkling in his own recruits (soph DE Zayin West and S Jeremiah Salaam in particular). And the return to full health of P Derek Adams (all-MAC 2nd team in 2017, 41.7 career avg.) is one of the best in the league when he’s healthy (and he is) and can give the defense a bit more breathing room.
The schedule is better spaced this season, with tough non-conference road trips to Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin sprinkled with a “scrimmage” against Kennesaw St., a home game against Bowling Green and a bye. Last year was a bit brutal, as the Golden Flash squad took the field for eight straight weeks with only one “cupcake” on the schedule through the third week in October.
Interestingly, we’re looking forward to the Sept. 14 visit to Auburn, as Barrett gets a shot at Gus Malzahn, the coach who recruited him out of high school and then buried him on the depth chart while giving Jarrett Stidham the job.
Bowling Green (2018 SUR 3-9, PSR 4-7-1, O/U 6-6)...Brand new HC Scot Loeffler took over command Nov. 28 after serving as offensive coordinator and QB coach at Temple, Auburn, Virginia Tech and, most recently, Boston College. He brought a couple of players with him from BC, as soph QB Matt McDonald and grad transfer bowling ball (5-10, 235) RB Davon Jones joined him. Loeffler might be counting on McDonald, who joined the team but evidently hasn’t yet had his waiver request confirmed by the NCAA. With starter Jarret Doege making a surprise transfer move to West Virginia after the conclusion of spring workouts, the Falcs need McDonald. Doege threw for 2660 yds. & 27 TDs LY and completed 63% of his passes with a 39-15 TD-int. ratio over the last two seasons as a starter. If McDonald doesn’t pass the NCAA’s new and more stringent set of rules for immediate eligibility, the job will fall to jr. Grant Loy, who was used as more of an option QB to try and put the paddles on the flatlined Falcon running game (ranked 117th at 117 ypg). Loy had 29 rushes for 5.5 ypc and completed 7 of his 12 passes (187 yds., 2 TDs., 1 int.).
The running game will be led by top dog jr. Andrew Clair, who has rushed for 1427 yds. over the past two seasons, averaging 5.9 ypc in that span and was named 3rd-team all-MAC both years. Four offensive linemen return headed by the team’s best, C Jack Kramer (also 3rd-team all-conference a year ago). Speed-burning (but pint-sized at 5-8, 160) true frosh Jake Rogers enrolled early and likely displaced part-time starters R.B. Marlow (28 recs. LY) Jordan Wayne-Prather (18) in spring, and last year’s 2nd leading receiver jr. Quintin Morris had 42 catches in 2018. If McDonald comes to the party, Loeffler’s offense will improve quickly.
Defensively, injuries killed the Falcons last year, giving youngsters a shot to get some seasoning, and the return of sr. DE David Konowalski after missing LY with injury will help the horrible (127th-ranked; 5.9 ypc) rush defense and pass rush (only 15 sacks; 118th LY). Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is a big-time coach who has held the d.c. position with the Atlanta Falcons, Auburn, Notre Dame and Louisville, so he should know what he’s doing. Figure his ability is worth a 15-20% improvement, although it would be nice if some of the new juco starters can raise the bar from 38+ ppg yields of the last three seasons.
Loeffler was less than impressed with the Falcons when he arrived. He found them poorly coached, short on technique and just not up to the task at hand. At the conclusion of spring practice, he was extremely optimistic about the prospects for improvement. Rolling the dice that McDonald gets the nod from the NCAA, we’d pick BGSU to edge ahead of Akron at the foot of the MAC East standings.
Akron (2018 SUR 4-8, PSR 5-7, O/U 4-8)...The Akron athletic department finally ran out of patience after seven years of the Terry Bowden era yielded one winning record and two bowl appearances. In comes D-III and FCS vet Tom Arth, who was a QB at D-III John Carroll and then held a clip board for Peyton Manning in the NFL, and played a bit in the CFL and NFL Europe before returning to his alma mater as an assistant and then head coach. Arth had coaching success at John Carroll, but then moved on to FCS UT Chattanooga and had mixed results, going 9-13 in two seasons. Now he takes another step up the coaching ladder to the MAC, inheriting one of the least-experienced teams in the league.
Bowden’s defenses were never great, although the 2015 team that went 8-5 allowed just 21.5 ppg and 332 ypg. That season was the exception for a unit that yielded 28 ppg under the previous regime. Having just three returning starters might tie the hands of d.c. Matt Feeney, who had some success in improving UT Chattanooga’s defense in his one year as coordinator. One of the players returning to the Zip defense is jr. LB John Lako, whose 126 tackles was 41 more than any teammate. Lako, who was named 3rd-team all-MAC, is joined by 5-9 sr. S Alvin Davis (75 stops, 4 ints.), who impressed enough opposing coaches and media to be named first team all-conference. Sr. DE Josh Ward is the other returning starter, but the loss of 9 of the top 12 tacklers is bound to show, and Akron is a bit undersized on defense. Given the personnel losses, matching last year’s rankings of 61st in total defense and 67th in scoring “D” seem ambitious at best. More likely the side will take a few steps backward before Feeney can right the ship.
Offensively, there is no place to go but up for an Akron attack that ranked 126th in total offense and scored only 18.9 ppg (124th). The return of jr. QB Kato Nelson is a plus, as he threw for 2329 yds. and tossed 15 TD passes, while running for 303 yds. despite being sacked 34 times. Speaking of sacks, the offensive line needs a good deal of work. That unit has yielded 72 sacks over the last two seasons, and the Zips have gained just 100 ypg on the ground, gaining barely more than 3.0 ypc in that span. And now they have to learn new nomenclature and schemes. Most of the RB production is gone, although four of the top five receivers are back, including slot Andre Williams, who caught a team-best 46 passes and led the team with 6 TDs.
There are few miracles in the MAC, and the Zip hierarchy might’ve just been making a change for change sake, because Bowden’s last six teams averaged 5.7 wins per year. Prior to that Akron football teams won just six games in the previous four seasons. Arth isn’t Jason Candle, P.J. Fleck, Dino Babers, Urban Meyer or Frank Solich. He might prove us wrong, but we see things getting worse at Kent before they get better.
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