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1. The Falcons were ready
I don't want to claim that this is the year BGSU's title streak comes to an end. There are plenty of MAC teams with a strong shot at the top spot -- the usual suspects (Northern Illinois, Toledo, Ohio), the upstarts (Central Michigan, Buffalo), the encores (Kent State, Ball State), and the bouncebacks (Western Michigan) might all have roles to play in what should be a really fun race. All I can say for sure, though, is that Bowling Green had one of the best mid-major defenses in the country last season and will bring one of the most experienced FBS two-deeps to the table in 2013.
The offense can expect to improve, and there is a good chance that the defense might retain the form it maintained over the final two-thirds of 2012. And if that happens, Bowling Green might have its best shot at a MAC title since Urban Meyer left. Dave Clawson has overseen the rebuilding of a program that is now quite deep and interesting. And now we get to see just how high his team's ceiling is (or, technically, isn't).
A bold, delcarative statement preceded by hedging. It's one of my specialties. Regardless, I was very high on Bowling Green in last year's SB Nation preview, and with good reason: the Falcons returned a ton of experience, the BGSU defense was incredible in the latter half of 2012, etc.
It wasn't that bold to think they had a chance to end a two-decade conference title drought -- common perceptions seemed to have the Falcons fourth or fifth in line behind NIU, Toledo, Ohio, and maybe Ball State -- but whether you saw it coming or not, it happened. BGSU won 10 games for the first time since 2003, took home the conference title, and ranked in the F/+ top 50 for the first time.
2. This could be a nice fit
After a second-year collapse, Dave Clawson built a strong foundation at Bowling Green and watched his program grow significantly for each of three straight years. And then Wake Forest hired him away. Dino Babers takes over a deep, exciting roster that seems catered for what he wants to do.
So what does Babers want to do? Move, first of all. Babers has made stops at seemingly every school in the country during his coaching career, but his last stop before taking his first head coaching job at Eastern Illinois was in Waco, where he helped to master Baylor's mach-speed attack. He brought it to Charleston, Ill., and immediately turned around a flagging program. His 2012 EIU squad improved from 2-9 to 7-5 and reached the first round of the FCS playoffs; in 2013, the Panthers erupted for 11 wins and a quarterfinal appearance.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo passed for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns and somehow threw only nine interceptions with just 20 sacks in almost 600 pass attempts. EIU attempted nearly 45 passes and 42 rushes per game; on September 21, the Panthers gained 577 yards and scored 39 points on Northern Illinois. The only team that did more damage than that to NIU's defense? Bowling Green in the MAC title game.
Babers brought his EIU defensive coordinator, Kim McCloud, with him to Bowling Green as well. McCloud is also a former Briles assistant and attempted to implement a version of Baylor's attacking, big-plays-or-bust defense at EIU as well. EIU had 99 tackles for loss in 2013 and defensed 83 passes.
The name of the game for Babers' style of play is speed, and he should find a decent amount of that on both sides of the ball. But he also inherits a team with size and experience, one that should once again be considered a MAC favorite.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 9-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 47|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||Tulsa||94||34-7||W||28.1 - 19.8||W|
|7-Sep||at Kent State||106||41-22||W||42.2 - 29.8||W|
|14-Sep||at Indiana||56||10-42||L||14.9 - 37.8||L|
|21-Sep||Murray State||N/A||48-7||W||46.5 - 30.3||W|
|28-Sep||Akron||108||31-14||W||32.7 - 30.8||W||3.2|
|5-Oct||Massachusetts||118||28-7||W||30.4 - 34.5||L||0.7|
|12-Oct||at Mississippi State||33||20-21||L||33.8 - 30.9||W||-1.2|
|26-Oct||Toledo||62||25-28||L||26.3 - 28.0||L||3.1|
|5-Nov||at Miami (Ohio)||123||45-3||W||30.8 - 33.3||L||-0.7|
|12-Nov||Ohio||104||49-0||W||46.7 - 9.1||W||6.4|
|23-Nov||at Eastern Michigan||124||58-7||W||31.3 - (-3.7)||W||14.3|
|29-Nov||at Buffalo||80||24-7||W||31.9 - 15.9||W||16.9|
|6-Dec||vs. Northern Illinois||60||47-27||W||51.1 - 22.9||W||22.9|
|26-Dec||vs. Pittsburgh||54||27-30||L||20.2 - 38.9||L||19.6|
|Points Per Game||34.8||28||15.9||5|
|Adj. Points Per Game||33.3||29||25.6||44|
3. Catching fire
Despite starting the season 5-1, BGSU was at least a little bit disappointing (to me) early in the year. The Falcons laid an egg in Bloomington, getting ripped apart by Indiana, 42-10. They beat a series of bad teams (and we came to discover as the season wore on that their 34-7 win over Tulsa wasn't as impressive as it seemed at the time), but the defense wasn't nearly as sharp as I anticipated, and it was putting pressure on the offense.
After tight losses to Mississippi State and Toledo, however, everything clicked.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 9 games): BGSU 31.7, Opponent 30.2 (plus-1.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): BGSU 40.3, Opponent 11.1 (plus-29.2)
BGSU allowed a combined 237 yards to Ohio and Eastern Michigan and outscored them, 107-7. They went to Buffalo for a winner-takes-the-division battle, outgained the Bulls by a 490-236 margin, and cruised. Then they went to Detroit for the MAC title game and absolutely massacred an NIU team that hadn't lost a conference game in 26 months.
Clawson was hired away by Wake, and the Falcons, led by interim coach Adam Scheier, couldn't figure out how to handle Aaron Donald and the Pittsburgh defensive line in the Pizza Bowl. Still, the November (and early December) hot streak was beyond impressive.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||49.7%||10||Succ. Rt. +||106.8||39|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||26.1||6||Def. FP+||106.4||11|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.7||28||Redzone S&P+||99.3||65|
|Q1 Rk||72||1st Down Rk||67|
|Q2 Rk||38||2nd Down Rk||39|
|Q3 Rk||49||3rd Down Rk||78|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Matt Johnson||6'0, 215||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||237||369||3467||25||7||64.2%||40||9.8%||7.9|
|James Knapke||6'2, 216||So.||2 stars (5.2)||4||10||71||1||0||40.0%||1||9.1%||5.8|
|Austin Valdez||6'0, 214||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Cody Callaway||6'3, 195||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
4. Johnson plays with fire
It's easy to assume this will be a perfect marriage. Matt Johnson, who overtook senior Matt Schilz for the starting role early in the season (as in, Schilz threw four passes in the first game and was pulled), survived early and thrived late. In his last five games of the regular season, Johnson completed 77 of 119 passes (65 percent) for 1,368 yards, 14 touchdowns, and four interceptions. His passer rating was at 187 or higher in four of the five games, and he looked outstanding in a dual-threat role, especially against NIU. Stick him into the Babers offense and watch him thrive.
It does bear mentioning that Johnson still has a little bit of maturing to do. Like a lot of mobile quarterbacks, he trusts his mobility a bit too much and gets sacked 10 percent of the time. Yes, his sack numbers were inflated when he got sacked by Pittsburgh seven times in 40 attempts, but his sack rate was too high (8.9 percent) even before that game.
Meanwhile, Johnson may have been a bit lucky in 2013. On average, a defense will pick off one pass for every four it breaks up; defenses picked off seven BGSU passes last fall while breaking up 52, a 1-to-7.4 ratio. With a normal ratio, BGSU would have thrown about five more picks on the season.
Johnson is confident and exciting, and he was still just a sophomore (and first-time starter) in 2013. But execution and precision are key to the Briles/Babers offense. If you're taking sacks and throwing picks, you can't use tempo in your favor, and you're putting your defense in a bind. Johnson needs to improve on the mistakes in 2014. There's nothing saying he won't.
|Travis Greene||RB||5'10, 181||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||279||1594||11||5.7||5.2||44.8%|
|Matt Johnson||QB||6'0, 215||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||77||456||5||5.9||4.5||48.1%|
|William Houston||RB||6'0, 262||So.||3 stars (5.5)||49||211||11||4.3||7.1||24.5%|
|Fred Coppet||RB||5'10, 175||So.||3 stars (5.7)||46||214||0||4.7||2.6||47.8%|
|Andre Givens||RB||5'9, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||45||255||3||5.7||4.1||53.3%|
|Ronnie Moore||WR||5'9, 164||So.||2 stars (5.3)||14||138||0||9.9||4.7||85.7%|
|Marcus Levy||RB||5'10, 191||So.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Brandon English||RB||5'9, 189||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Eric Harrell||RB||5'9, 189||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Heath Jackson||WR||5'11, 187||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||46||32||360||69.6%||11.9%||50.0%||7.8||-13||8.3||49.9|
|Chris Gallon||WR||6'4, 223||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||43||24||232||55.8%||11.2%||51.4%||5.4||-81||5.7||32.2|
|Ryan Burbrink||SLOT||5'8, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||43||30||477||69.8%||11.2%||48.8%||11.1||128||11.3||66.1|
|Ronnie Moore||SLOT||5'9, 164||So.||2 stars (5.3)||34||28||547||82.4%||8.8%||72.0%||16.1||245||18.2||75.8|
|Travis Greene||RB||5'10, 181||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||23||18||159||78.3%||6.0%||31.8%||6.9||-39||6.8||22.0|
|Jared Cohen||WR||6'1, 189||Sr.||NR||13||10||121||76.9%||3.4%||71.4%||9.3||10||10.6||16.8|
|Herve Coby||WR||5'11, 177||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||7||2||29||28.6%||1.8%||N/A||4.1||-11||0.0||4.0|
|Chris Pohlman||FB||6'1, 257||Sr.||NR||4||4||88||100.0%||1.0%||100.0%||22.0||48||4.7||12.2|
|Fred Coppet||RB||5'10, 175||So.||3 stars (5.7)||3||2||11||66.7%||0.8%||N/A||3.7||-13||0.0||1.5|
|Andre Givens||RB||5'9, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||2||1||3||50.0%||0.5%||N/A||1.5||-11||0.0||0.4|
|Logan Larson||TE||6'3, 250||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Teo Redding||WR||6'1, 159||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Gehrig Dieter (SMU)||WR||6'3, 209||So.||3 stars (5.6)||18||9||153||50.0%||3.7%||66.7%||8.5||N/A||8.7||15.6|
|Roger Lewis||WR||6'3, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Clint Stephens||WR||5'9, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
Shaun Joplin was the unquestioned star of the 2013 BGSU receiving corps; he was targeted almost twice as much as any other Falcon receiver, and with good reason. He averaged a healthy 9.3 yards per target, and he will be missed. The same goes for tight end Alex Bayer, Johnson's No. 2 target. Replacing 152 targets is a pretty tall task.
That said, it's hard not to be excited about the pieces that return. While Joplin was the leader, seven Falcons were targeted at least 23 times in 2013, and five return. Slot receivers Ryan Burbrink and Ronnie Moore combined to average a devastating 13.3 yards per target, and if there's anything we know about the Briles system, it's that vertical threats are a huge piece of the puzzle. Burbrink, Moore, Heath Jackson and Chris Gallon are a pretty strong set of returnees, and they'll be joined by three-star freshman Roger Lewis, SMU transfer Gehrig Dieter, and others.
Johnson will have an assortment of weapons in the passing game, but that's not even the best part. BGSU's top four running backs combined to average 5.4 yards per carry and brought both efficiency (Travis Greene, Fred Coppet, Andre Givens) and explosiveness (Greene, William Houston) to the table. All four are back, as are three of five starters on a line that was excellent at creating opportunities for its backs.
There are still question marks -- it's never a good thing to lose your top two targets (at least, when they're good), and sacks are still an issue until proven otherwise -- but it's easy to get very optimistic about the BGSU offense.
|Dominic Flewellyn||LG||47||1st All-MAC|
|Chief Kekuewa||C||27||1st All-MAC|
|Alex Huettel||RG||6'3, 292||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||27||2nd All-MAC|
|Jacob Bennett||LT||6'4, 316||So.||2 stars (5.4)||14|
|Logan Dietz||RT||6'5, 292||So.||2 stars (5.3)||14|
|Clay Rolf||LT||6'6, 285||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Spencer Cairo||LG||6'2, 302||Jr.||NR||0|
|J.J. Beggan||C||6'2, 285||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Ben Steward||RG||6'5, 289||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Christian Piazza||RT||6'7, 296||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Clark Clancy||OL||6'3, 277||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Tim McAuliffe||OL||6'0, 264||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Isiah Moore||OL||6'3, 280||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.2%||59||Succ. Rt. +||92.5||91|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||31.3||41||Off. FP+||98.5||77|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.3||6||Redzone S&P+||92.6||80|
|Q1 Rk||83||1st Down Rk||95|
|Q2 Rk||71||2nd Down Rk||43|
|Q3 Rk||43||3rd Down Rk||58|
6. An unexpected regression
Despite returning most of the pieces from a defense that ranked 38th in Def. F/+ in 2012, the BGSU defense was indeed a bit disappointing in 2013, at least until the stretch run. The loss of star tackle Chris Jones didn't affect the pass rush much (in both 2012 and 2013, BGSU ranked 18th in Adj. Sack Rate), but it did result in BGSU getting pushed around up front a bit more. The Falcons still made quite a few plays behind the line of scrimmage, but you could run on them, and while big-play prevention was a relative strength, efficiency was not. An experienced secondary didn't make as many plays on the ball, either.
The result: the three major-conference teams on the schedule each averaged at least 6.4 yards per play, and two averaged at least 8.0 (Pitt, Indiana). If BGSU had an overall athletic advantage, the Falcons dominated, especially late in the year. But in all, the unit wasn't as effective as I anticipated.
In 2014, there is still plenty of experience at each level of the defense, but a lot of the more aggressive pieces -- tackle Ted Ouellet, linebacker Paul Swan, corner Aaron Foster, do-everything-guy Booboo Gates -- are gone. We know Kim McCloud wants to attack; we'll see how well BGSU does it in his first year.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Bryan Thomas||DE||6'2, 257||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||14||25.5||3.6%||7.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kendall Montgomery||DE||6'5, 262||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||14||18.0||2.5%||4.0||3.0||0||0||0||0|
|Zach Colvin||DT||6'2, 286||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||17.5||2.4%||5.5||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Charlie Walker||DE||6'2, 245||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||14.0||2.0%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Taylor Royster||DE||5'9, 257||Jr.||NR||14||11.5||1.6%||6.0||3.5||0||1||0||0|
|Terrance Bush||DE||6'2, 229||So.||NR||11||9.5||1.3%||0.5||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|Bryan Baird||DE||6'3, 235||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||9.5||1.3%||4.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Mike Minns||NT||5'10, 293||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||6.5||0.9%||1.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Izaah Lunsford||DL||6'3, 268||So.||2 stars (5.3)||5||5.0||0.7%||3.0||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Jhalil-Nashid Croley||DL||6'2, 253||So.||3 stars (5.5)||8||4.0||0.6%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Johnathan Fry||DL||6'3, 266||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||5||1.5||0.2%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chance Weitz||DT||6'3, 250||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|D.J. Lynch||BUCK||5'11, 244||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||63.5||8.9%||8.0||2.0||0||1||0||1|
|Gabe Martin||ROV||6'1, 229||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||30.5||4.3%||3.5||2.0||0||1||1||0|
|Paul Senn||BUCK||6'1, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||14||28.5||4.0%||5.0||1.5||0||1||1||0|
|Coy Brown III||MLB||5'11, 221||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||8.5||1.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Banks||LB||6'1, 234||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Patric Hannon||LB||5'11, 226||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Nate Locke||LB||6'0, 225||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Jalen Dingle||LB||6'2, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. The intersection of upside and experience
At each level of the defense, you see seniors leading the way; the fop four returning tacklers on the line, the top three at linebacker, and four of the top six at defensive back are all in their final years of eligibility, and this defense as a whole will have more senior influence than the last couple of Falcon defenses did.
That's not necessarily good news for 2015, but even assuming a senior-laden starting lineup, the second string (and some parts of the first string) will aggressive, young options (ends Taylor Royster and Bryan Baird, tackle Izaah Lunsford at tackle) or recent three- or high-two-star recruits (tackle Mike Minns, three redshirt freshmen at linebacker, defensive backs Will Watson, Isaiah Gourdine, James Sanford, and Omar Pierre-Louis). Plus, Babers was able to lock down some exciting February signatures, including that of four-star safety (and one-time Louisville commit) Nilijah Ballewl.
There is experience on the first string and upside on the second. It will be interesting to see how much of each is featured as the year progresses.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ryland Ward||WHIP||5'10, 206||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||67.5||9.4%||1||0||2||5||1||0|
|Brian Sutton||CB||6'0, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||14||30.0||4.2%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Darrell Hunter II
|CB||5'8, 174||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||21.5||3.3%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Jude Adjei-Barimah||WHIP||5'10, 204||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||20.5||2.9%||3||1||0||3||0||0|
|Will Watson||CB||5'11, 175||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||14.5||2.0%||0||0||0||3||0||1|
|Justin Ford||DB||6'1, 204||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||12.5||1.7%||2||0||0||2||1||0|
|Victor Osborne||DB||5'10, 182||Sr.||NR||13||5.5||0.8%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Isaiah Gourdine||DB||6'2, 190||So.||3 stars (5.5)||10||3.5||0.5%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Alphonso Mack||DB||6'0, 170||So.||NR||9||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|James Sanford||DB||6'1, 186||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Omar Pierre-Louis||DB||6'1, 188||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Nilijah Ballew||DB||6'2, 196||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Jack Walz III||DB||6'0, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Nick Johnson||DB||6'2, 183||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Trevahn Beery||DB||6'1, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. Missing Booboo
Jerry Gates was a mid-two-star recruit with offers only from MAC squads. His stature was an unassuming 5'11, 190 pounds coming out of high school, and from a recruiting standpoint there was really no reason to take notice of him.
Gates was also a complete stud of an athlete, perhaps BGSU's best play-maker both near the line of scrimmage and far away from it. And though the Falcons used him judiciously in this role, he was a phenomenal (and at 220 pounds, big) return man, as well. When BGSU needed a boost against Pittsburgh, he was sent back to return a kickoff and took it back for a touchdown. He was versatile and fantasic. He's proof that recruiting is a hilariously inexact science.
The secondary still returns Ryland Ward, Brian Sutton, and another versatile safety in Jude Adjei-Barimah; plus, the Falcons get Darrell Hunter II back from injury. Still, the athleticism of the group will suffer without Booboo.
|Anthony Farinella||6'3, 195||Jr.||93||60.8||29||1||31.2%|
|Tyler Tate||5'11, 173||Jr.||59-61||12-14||85.7%||6-8||75.0%|
|Ronnie Moore||KR||5'9, 164||So.||14||20.6||0|
|Ryan Burbrink||PR||5'8, 188||Jr.||12||8.6||1|
|Special Teams F/+||9|
|Field Goal Efficiency||42|
|Punt Return Efficiency||13|
|Kick Return Efficiency||61|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||11|
9. Missing Schmiedebusch
As good as Gates was, Brian Schmiedebusch may have had an even bigger impact on BGSU's 2013 title run. Bowling Green was devastating from a field position standpoint, and while Schmiedebusch averaged only 41.3 yards per kick (healthy but not amazing), 21 of his 49 punts were stopped inside the 20. He was great with the pitching wedge, and he was a major reason why Bowling Green was so good on special teams. The place-kicking and return games should still be solid, but punting is now a question mark.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|28-Aug||at Western Kentucky||91|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-5.8% (76)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||92|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||10 / 2.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (7, 5)|
10. A perfect mid-major schedule
Home game against a major-conference team? Check. Road opportunity against a power program? Check. A chance to both play some shaky teams and secure an early division lead? Check. This is a great slate for Bowling Green; the one less-than-likeable part is that two of probably the three biggest division threats -- Ohio and Akron -- get to play host to the Falcons in October.
It does appear that Bowling Green has the most pieces in the MAC East. We don't know about the run defense, and we don't know whether Matt Johnson's Hero Ball tendencies will mesh perfectly with such an up-tempo, efficiency-based attack. The Falcons aren't a slam dunk, but they're most likely the best team in the East, and with the West's heavyweights all breaking in new quarterbacks, BGSU might be the MAC favorite once again.