I am a Level 10 Overthinker. I will survey the carts of every person in line at the grocery store and inevitably choose the wrong line. I have taken to choosing two entrees at restaurants and eating leftovers for a couple of meals, simply because it's easier than just picking one. Over the course of a 2,000-word preview, I will talk myself into, out of, and into a team all over again.
In football, overthinking is very, very easy to do. The more information you collect, the less you know. Everybody has weaknesses you can talk yourself into overemphasizing. Everybody has good players you can talk yourself into riding to a surprise prediction. (Everybody except Akron in 2011, anyway.) But when it comes to Bowling Green in 2012, however, less thought is perhaps better. Okay, less thought is perhaps always better, but if I admitted that, you would have no reason to read these previews.
So here's what you absolutely need to know about Dave Clawson's Falcons heading into 2012, his fourth season in beautiful northwest Ohio:
- Bowling Green returns 17 starters, most in the conference. Among those returning starters are quarterback Matt Schilz, four starters on the offensive line, and almost the entire defensive two-deep.
- The Falcons host both Miami (Ohio) and Kent State, two of their primary rivals in the MAC East race. In fact, aside from a Nov. 7 trip to Ohio U., they have perhaps the easiest schedule in the MAC. Two of their conference road trips are to No. 116 UMass and No. 123 Akron (and for that matter, they get Rhode Island and No. 118 Idaho in non-conference play).
- They suffered 2.1 points of bad turnovers luck last season, in a season that saw them lose two games by one point. They were terribly, terribly close to a 7-5 record and a finish just one game back of the MAC East title.
- Seriously, almost their entire defense is two-deep. And the defense was, relatively speaking, pretty solid.
That's it. I encourage you to read my dulcet-toned, statistics-heavy paragraphs below regardless -- it's April 18, and it's football talk, after all -- but that is really all you absolutely need to know here. Thanks to experience, a friendly schedule and a possible turnaround in luck, the Falcons will absolutely be a factor in the MAC race in 2012. That's the "what." Now continue on for the "how," "why," and "don't s*** on the grass".
Only seven starters returned for a 2010 season that saw BGSU both start a ton of very, very underclassmen and tumble back to earth. [Clawson's] second season must have felt like the true beginning of his tenure, and in playing so many freshmen and redshirt freshmen last year, the Falcons built experience on which they can cash in down the line. But it's a long way back to even the relative "heights" of 2009 for this squad, and there is improvement to be made in virtually every unit on the field. […]
So Bowling Green went 2-10 while getting a little bit of fumbles luck and experiencing a rather normal YPP margin. In other words, they were just bad. The ray of sunshine is that they were also incredibly young. Since I've already referenced Missouri a couple of times (and since I always reference Missouri a couple of times), I'll mention that at one point in 2009, the Tigers had 36 freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep. When the level of experience grew across the board in 2010, they went 10-3. They didn't really get better in one specific better; they just got better and more experienced in every area. If Clawson's 2011 squad improves, it will be in the same way -- they just get better everywhere. Hell, just look at the example Miami (Ohio) set last year for when youth becomes experience.
In just one season, Bowling Green went from "lucky to be 2-10" to "unlucky to be 5-7." They rose from 110th to 75th in F/+, from 114th to 55th in Off. S&P+, and from 112th to 76th in Def. S&P+. They still stunk up the joint in the trenches, but the pass defense (and passing downs defense) improved enormously, and their quarterback still managed to complete 60 percent of his passes and throw for 28 touchdowns despite oft-iffy protection and a disproportionally high number of passing downs pass attempts. They were, indeed, just better all the way around. They weren't ready to catch Ohio, Northern Illinois, Toledo and the MAC's heavyweights just yet (though they did manage to upset Temple), but they were better. And now most of their difference makers are back in orange and brown for another go-round.
The Bowling Green offense does not do its quarterback any favors. In 2011, they were a balanced offense on standard downs, running the ball 57 percent of the time, very close to the national average of 60 percent. However, on passing downs they simply told quarterback Matt Schilz to go make a play. They ran the ball just 22 percent of the time on passing downs, 11 percent below the national average. Opponents knew what was coming (and they didn't fear the run anyway), but Schilz still managed to post a reasonably decent stat line. BGSU ranked 48th in Passing S&P+, a year after ranking just 114th. Schilz threw for 3,024 yards and 28 touchdowns, although he did throw 13 picks and get sacked 5.1 percent of the time.
Virtually the only area on the entire team that must cope with solid turnover, however, is the receiving corps that helped Schilz out on passing downs. Five of the top six wideouts, including stars Kamar Jorden and Eugene Cooper, are out the door, leaving behind an interesting mix of one veteran receiver, a host of tight ends and backfield options, and some really, really interesting newcomers. Shaun Joplin is the lone returning wideout who was targeted more than four times in 2011; he was very much a hit-or-miss option, with a catch rate of just 55 percent and an adjusted per-target average of just 5.1 yards.
Of course, he was handicapped by the simple fact that most of his targets came on passing downs, which leads to less frequent success. Standard downs passes that went to Jorden and Cooper in 2011 will now come his way, and his stats should improve at least slightly because of it. They could also improve because Michigan transfer Je'Ron Stokes is now around to deflect attention from opposing cornerbacks. Once a high four-star recruit, Stokes was targeted just six times in two seasons in Columbus. He should exceed that in the first game this fall. Junior college transfers Michael Allen and Jared Cohen also round out a unit that should also see plenty of third-down passes to tight end Alex Bayer and fullback Tyler Beck.
Bowling Green was reasonably pass-happy in 2011, not only because of its high frequency of passing downs passes, but also because they weren't amazing when it came to avoiding passing downs. The running game was lacking, but that is to be expected when freshmen are getting most of your carries. Anthon Samuel and Jamel Martin, both freshmen, combined for 222 carries last fall, almost 20 per game. Samuel, the less highly-regarded recruit of the two, acquitted himself nicely, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, but BGSU still struggled to produce the requisite big plays in the run game. Samuel (who broke his wrist this spring), Martin and junior Jordan Hopgood return this fall, and the unit might get a boost from one-time Pittsburgh signee (and high three-star recruit) Andre Givens, who is working his way toward eligibility as we speak. They will be running behind a reasonably experienced line -- five players with starting experience, 76 career starts; but then, BGSU's line has been god-awful for each of the last two seasons (better in 2011, but still bad), so experience alone might not cut it. They may be in need of a blood transfusion.
In all, experience will be a strength of this unit, with as many as nine or 10 junior or senior starters. If Joplin, Stokes and company can do reasonable Jordan-and-Cooper impersonations, this offense should come together nicely.
Question: Who are the only three players departing from Bowling Green's 2011 two-deep?
Star middle linebacker Dwayne Woods, who logged 14.0 tackles for loss among 84.0 tackles last year, returns. Active tackle Chris Jones, who ALSO logged 14.0 tackles for loss (a lovely total for a tackle … or for anybody), sacked the quarterback 8.5 times and forced three fumbles, returns. Safety Boo Boo Gates, who was second on the team with 59.0 tackles, defended five passes (two picks) and recorded 2.0 tackles for loss, returns. Cornerback Cameron Truss, who defended nine passes (one pick), returns.
You get the idea. The Falcons return almost everybody, and with help from some Juco transfer Josh Pettus and some incoming three-star freshmen -- tackle Mike Minns, linebacker Jhalil Croley, defensive backs James Sanford and William Watson -- should field a seasoned, interesting defense. There is one thing, however, that they absolutely need to improve upon if they really are going to make a run at the MAC title game: My goodness, shore up the run defense.
BGSU ranked a respectable 59th in Passing S&P+ last season and shut things down on passing downs; it ranked 37th in Passing Downs S&P+ and was one of the best mid-major defenses in the country in this regard. But it was far too leaky against the run, just like it had been in 2010. Jones is a ferocious pass rusher, but the line, with skinny ends like Charlie Walker (6-foot-2, 228 pounds) and Ronnie Goble (6-foot-2, 240) evidently got pushed around too much for them to capitalize. BGSU ranked 111th in Adj. Line Yards, 99th in Rushing S&P+. Three-star sophomore end Zach Colvin, who weighs in at 271 pounds and logged just 9.0 tackles last year, could help tremendously. It doesn't really matter how good your passing downs defense is if you cannot force passing downs (they ranked 103rd in Standard Downs S&P+).
To date, Clawson has recruited better on defense than on offense; specifically, the front seven is pretty well-stocked with both productive veterans and high-upside youngsters. If Minns can break through, there could be three different three-star freshmen or sophomores (Walker, Clovin, Minns) in the rotation on the line, two more at linebacker (Croley and sophomore D.J. Lynch). For a MAC defense, that is very intriguing. But all the star ratings in the world won't really help you if you cannot stand up to run blocking. Stop the run, force passing downs, tee off, win games.
With this schedule, the bar should be set pretty high. BGSU is far enough along that they should expect wins over Idaho, Rhode Island, Akron, UMass and Buffalo. Take your lumps against Florida and Virginia Tech, split the other five games, and you've got yourself a seven- to eight-win season and a bowl bid. That isn't too much to ask, even if Ohio is still in the driver's seat for the division crown.
In the MAC, everyone's talent is incredibly comparable, and even the outliers (Toledo and Northern Illinois on one end, Ball State and Buffalo on the other) are not that far away from the pack. That makes experience incredibly valuable, and Clawson's fourth iteration of the Bowling Green Falcons has it in droves. Ohio will rather justifiably be the favorite in the East, but the table is set very nicely for BGSU; beat division rivals Miami and Kent State and avoid slip-ups (not too much to ask with this experience, this offense and this pass defense), and as long as Ohio loses to somebody, you've got a really nice chance. No need to overthink it.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: