In last week's Akron preview, I said that "when you are hiring a head coach at the mid-major level, you are looking for guys on the way up or on the way down." The up- and downsides to each approach are crystal clear: a coach on the way up might succeed and leave, while a coach on the way down might not have enough juice left to win at a high level.
Ohio lucked into a nearly perfect situation when it hired Frank Solich before the 2005 season. It found a coach "on the way down" who had enough juice left to compete and was perfectly suited for competing in the MAC. Solich was not much of a big-time recruiter at Nebraska, but he is one hell of a program builder. And not only has he begun to build one hell of a program in Athens, but at 67 years old, he is not going to be leaving for a bigger job. Ohio has to figure they have him until he retires.
From 2001-04, the Bobcats won 11 games under Solich's predecessor, Brian Knorr. In 2011 alone, they won 10. Solich has built the Ohio program the way he learned to at Nebraska: stock up on locals, redshirt like crazy, and bring in just enough outsiders to make things interesting. A vast majority of Ohio's roster is from in-state, but it will potentially start three Oklahomans at the skill positions, it has a pair of interesting defensive backs from Alabama, and it will be relying on a huge batch of redshirt freshmen to fill gaps as needed.
Ohio has won at least eight games in four of its last six seasons, and not only did it bring home its first ever bowl win last December (in dramatic fashion, no less), but it did so with a ridiculously young squad. I have spent part of the last week talking up division hopefuls like Kent State, Miami and Bowling Green, but make no mistake: Ohio is the favorite to win its third MAC East title in four seasons.
As he was at Nebraska, Solich has been something of a disappointingly good coach. His teams win at a solid level -- and at Ohio, nobody in the last 35 years has won at a higher rate -- but they never make it quite as far as it seems they could, and when they lose, they often lose big. Of Solich's 36 losses in The Other Other Athens, 15 have been by 17 points or more. (Granted, six came in Solich's 4-7 debut season, but three more came this past season.) When it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and on the biggest stages Ohio has experienced in recent years, it hasn't worked.
But is that really a problem? Ohio is actually playing in some pretty big (for the MAC) games. And if you keep playing in them, you eventually win them, right? Maybe? […]
Whether Ohio wins the East or not could simply come down to how the defense rebounds from a year of serious regression and injury. For what it's worth, the schedule sets up nicely -- Temple, Miami and Kent State all, amazingly, come to Athens this fall, and aside from maybe the trip to Rutgers, there isn't a single unwinnable game on the slate.
Even with a team that ranked just 91st, Ohio managed eight wins last year. With a friendly schedule and a better defense, they should be able to match that. And if they can sneak into the 70s range, then double-digit wins are certainly possible. Ohio could be playing some more high-visibility games in November and December this year -- is this the year the Bobcats break through and win them?
The answers: no, then yes. Ohio won the MAC East and raced to a 20-0 halftime lead in the MAC title game. But after confounding Northern Illinois and star quarterback Chandler Harnish for most of the first three quarters, they allowed two touchdowns and a field goal over the final three drives of the game and lost, 23-20. But they alleviated any frustration with a similar comeback effort in their bowl game. They trailed 23-10 in the third quarter of the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl but came back to win, 24-23.
Close games were de rigueur for Solich and Ohio in 2011; eight of their final 10 games were decided by one possession. After two surprising, tight losses to Buffalo and Ball State and tight wins over Kent State, Temple, Bowling Green and Miami gave them a division crown, a tight loss denied them of a conference title, and a tight win gave them their first ever bowl trophy. They knew drama. But with a large number of returnees, they may be capable of putting a few games away a little earlier this fall.
He may have learned the Nebraska Way™ for program building, but he pretty quickly ditched the patented Nebraska I-formation offense for more of a spread look soon after he came to Athens. The Bobcats still play hard-nosed ball and run more than the national average, however; quarterback Tyler Tettleton can do a pretty mean Scott Frost impersonation at times, and big boys like 218-pound running back Ryan Boykin, 250-pound tight end Jordan Thompson and 340-pound guard Jon Lechner will still play a key role. The size makes Ohio a bit unique in the MAC, and it worked for them in 2011. The Bobcats were lacking in the big-play department, at least on the ground, but they were just efficient enough to open up a relatively aggressive passing game. Leading receivers LaVon Brazill and Riley Dunlop combined to average 15.3 yards per catch and over 10.0 adjusted yards per target.
Brazill, in particular, was incredibly explosive; he caught eight of 11 passes for 157 yards against Ball State, three of four for 102 against Akron, seven of eight for 165 versus Temple, eight of 11 for 124 in the MAC title game, and, despite injury, eight of 10 for 108 in the bowl win. He and Dunlop lent a nice jolt to an otherwise efficiency-based Ohio offense, but both are gone. They provide the only serious void on the 2012 squad, but it is indeed rather serious. The receiving corps returns interesting pieces like junior Donte Foster and tight end Thompson, but of the returnees, only junior Mario Dovell averaged better than 11.0 yards per catch, and Dovell caught just eight passes.
If Ohio can still manage a reasonably vertical passing game, all of the other pieces needed for success are in place. Ohio returns six offensive linemen with starting experience (98 career starts, most on the interior of the line), including second-team all-conference guard Eric Herman. The line ranked in the Top 70 of both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate, and it will attempt to open holes for two returning backs: big Ryan Boykin and shifty Beau Blankenship. On a per-carry basis, Blankenship was the more impressive of the two, but they seem to complement each other well, and the two should be capable of replacing the production of Donte Harden, whose stats were impressive (996 yards, 5.3 per carry) but were padded by strong performances versus Gardner Webb, Buffalo and Akron (6.2 per carry in those three games).
And of course, Tyler Tettleton returns as well. The 5-foot-11 junior plays the quarterback position like a baseball catcher -- with both brains and a need for extra padding. (This makes sense, considering his father.) He carried the ball over 10 times per game, at better than five and a half yards per carry last fall; he was also sacked 24 times. That's a lot of hits. Still, he completed 64 percent of his passes at better than seven yards per pass attempt and led Ohio to a top 40 Passing S&P+ ranking and a top 50 Passing Downs S&P+ ranking. He will miss Brazill and Dunlop, but he showed some strong leadership ability, both because of and despite some gunslinger tendencies.
Five Fun Facts About Mickey Tettleton
- His nickname was Fruit Loops.
- He had a WAR of better than 5.0 in back to back seasons (1991-92).
- He was drafted in the same round (fifth) as Bip Roberts, Bill Wegman and John Franco in the 1981 draft.
- He is only two years and two months older than Jamie Moyer, who won a Major League Baseball game Tuesday night.
- He went to the same high school as fellow former major league catcher Darrell Porter, who went to junior high with my mother.
The more you know...
In the MAC, you gain notoriety for your offense. And to be sure, Ohio was able to move the ball. But what set them apart from much of the conference, was their general ability to make stops. They were not fantastic in the defense department, but they were good enough, ranking 71st in Def. F/+, 72nd against the run and 79th against the pass. They weren't Kent State, but they also weren't Central Michigan. And by all means, they should improve by quite a bit in 2012. If I talked up Bowling Green's experience yesterday -- they return almost their entire two-deep -- I must do the same for a Bobcats defense that returns eight to nine starters and loses only a couple of backups.
Ohio must replace one true difference-maker; everybody else can be replaced. Middle linebacker Noah Keller, who made nearly 11 percent of Ohio's tackles, registered eight tackles for loss, broke up four passes and forced three fumbles. It appears that either Keith Moore (a backup weaksider last year) or incoming junior Tim Edmond will get the first cracks at replacing him. If they are able to steer the ship capably, this defense should be able to sneak up into the Def. F/+ 40s or 50s.
Ohio was burly up front, standing up well to run blocking with tackles Corey Hasting, Neal Huynh and Carl Jones; that should remain the case. The 307-pound Huynh was fantastic when healthy in 2011, and 320-pound, three-star freshman Trae Clark could give this unit even more beef this fall. Ohio also got solid run support from end Tremayne Scott, but they need a pass rush. The Bobcats were unable to generate any sort of pressure on either standard or passing downs. Linebackers only recorded five sacks all season (Keller had one), and the top four ends (Scott, Nic Barber and the since-departed Curtis Meyers and Brian Albrecht) combined for just 8.5. Junior college transfers Wade Wells and Ty Branz will attempt to get something going here.
Considering the lack of pass rush, a secondary which returns almost literally everybody played at a pretty reasonable level. Corners Travis Carrie, Omar Leftwich and Xavier Hughes combined for eight picks, 21 break-ups and six tackles for loss; Leftwich was held out of spring practice for academic reasons, and his status is at least somewhat uncertain for the fall. Meanwhile, safeties Gerald Moore, Josh Kristoff and Nate Carpenter were playmakers as well: 11 tackles for loss, five interceptions and 17 passes broken up. This was a relatively aggressive unit last fall, and while that didn't always pay off, they have droves of experience, upside and depth here.
Division title or bust, right? Ohio hosts Bowling Green, and while they must travel to both Ball State and Kent State late in the season (after an odd "three games in 12 days" stretch, no less -- hazards of mid-week MACtion), they would still have to consider anything less than a return trip to the MAC title game a disappointment. And while we're at it, it would probably be a bit frustrating not to WIN the title game this time around.
Brick by brick, Solich has built the Ohio football program nearly from scratch over the last eight seasons. He has done an incredible job, and he heads into 2012 with what is possibly his best, most talented, most well-seasoned squad. Despite Temple's departure, the East is a bit deeper and more interesting than in recent seasons, but Ohio still heads into the fall as the top dog. If they cannot find a new big-play guy in the receiving corps, and if they cannot find a suitable replacement for Noah Keller, then they could be in an outright dogfight for the division title, but they are easily the most proven overall team in their division.
Nine years ago, Ohio finished 2-10. Now, they are perhaps the most well-stocked, proven team in a conference known for parity. They have consistently won in a conference known for ridiculous ups and downs. And they have been able to retain the coach that built them into a winner. This is a feel-good story, but there are quite a few of those in the MAC East this year.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: