Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.
1. An emphatic end to a slide
Regressing for three consecutive years is never a good thing, but after a couple of disappointing seasons, there was a purpose to 2014's step backwards. If you're going to regress, you want it to happen while young players are getting their feet underneath them.
Frank Solich has options, and while there is still plenty of uncertainty, he has enough playmakers to do some damage. I would be surprised if Ohio took a fourth step backwards.
Ohio has been bowl eligible for six consecutive years and eight of nine, and while the Bobcats will need to perform a bit better on the road, Solich's track record is strong enough for me to take a leap of faith.
Leap of faith: rewarded.
Granted, a midseason funk made sure that they didn't compete for the MAC East title. And granted, eight wins doesn't represent a full bounce back to the nine per year they averaged between 2009-12.
But Solich's Bobcats found themselves again in 2015. After going 15-15 over a 30-game span, going 8-5 was a clear step forward.
That Ohio was going 6-6 at the end of a three-year slide was, in a roundabout way, confirmation of Solich's status as one of Ohio's two best head coaches ever (alongside Bill Hess). This program averaged three wins per season under Brian Knorr (2001-04). Averaging five and a half wins per year in Athens got Jim Grobe promoted to the Wake Forest job. The Bobcats had gone 38 years between bowls before Solich got them to the GMAC Bowl in 2006, and they had never won one before his 2011 Potato Bowl triumph over Utah State. (They won a second in 2012.)
From their 10-4 peak in 2011, the Bobcats fell to 9-4, then 7-6, then 6-6. But reaching bowl eligibility during a youth movement was a sign of things to come, and Ohio began another ascent last season.
Ohio must replace its leading passer, No. 2 rusher, three starting offensive linemen, and (most alarmingly) most of its secondary. But the Bobcats should still have enough to sustain last year's gains, and they might be the only MAC East team outside of Bowling Green capable of making a division title run.
Now 71, Solich has pulled off one of the more remarkable career second acts. He was groomed to become one thing -- Nebraska head coach -- and did so. The former all-conference Husker fullback (and SI cover boy) coached in Nebraska high schools for 13 years, then served as a Tom Osborne assistant for another 19. He took over for Osborne at NU in 1998 and won 58 games in six years. But the school replaced him with Bill Callahan nonetheless.
After a year off, he took the Ohio job at age 60. And in a conference full of young coaches, he has become the dean. There is one box left to check -- win the MAC -- and there's nothing saying he'll pull it off. But he resurrected both a career and a football program, and he's not done yet.
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 69 | Final S&P+ Rk: 66|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|4-Nov||at Bowling Green||25||24-62||L||11%||0%||-23.8||-17.5|
|24-Nov||at Northern Illinois||66||26-21||W||54%||59%||+12.5||+16.0|
|19-Dec||vs. Appalachian State||42||29-31||L||38%||10%||+4.5||+5.5|
|Points Per Game||27.5||74||25.3||46|
2. An ill-timed funk
On paper, the 2015 Bobcats were Solich's best Ohio team yet. They ranked 66th in S&P+, better than the 2006 team that went 9-5 (75th), the 2009 team that went 9-5 (75th), or the 2011 team that went 10-4 (82nd).
For about three-quarters of the season, though, Ohio was even better than that.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 71% (~top 40) | Record: 5-1
- Average Percentile Performance (next 3 games): 11% (~top 115) | Record: 0-3
- Average Percentile Performance (last 4 games): 62% (~top 50) | Record: 3-1
Ohio plowed through four opponents (including Marshall) and split a pair of road tossups during a 5-1 start, finished the regular season with three wins (including one over six-time defending West champion NIU), and, in the Camellia Bowl, nearly took down a solid Appalachian State despite not playing all that well. That's a strong 8-2 right there.
Sandwiched among these results, however, was a three-game funk in which both sides of the ball fell apart. Western Michigan rendered the Bobcats' offense one-dimensional, then turned a tight game into a 49-14 laugher in the third quarter. Buffalo built a three-touchdown lead in the first half thanks to two pick-sixes, then cruised. Then, in a role reversal, the defense got torched by Bowling Green for big play after big play, and the offense couldn't keep up.
There was no single cause, no single injury that triggered it (though the defense was getting thinned out in a hurry).
Similarly, there was no specific reason for the turnaround. Ohio just played better on both sides of the ball.
Losing to Bowling Green ended any hopes for a division title, but the turnaround was encouraging. At 5-4, losers of three straight, the Bobcats could have crumbled. Instead, they rallied to 8-4.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.1%||86||Succ. Rt. +||94.9||92|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||26.9||11||Def. FP+||27.9||32|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.2||92||Redzone S&P+||97.3||87|
|Q1 Rk||82||1st Down Rk||68|
|Q2 Rk||66||2nd Down Rk||62|
|Q3 Rk||108||3rd Down Rk||85|
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|JD Sprague||6'1, 196||Sr.||NR||NR||63||114||912||7||3||55.3%||6||5.0%||7.3|
|Greg Windham||6'1, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8069||19||40||298||1||4||47.5%||1||2.4%||7.2|
|Joey Duckworth||6'3, 209||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8432|
|Conner Krizancic||6'2, 195||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8029|
|Quinton Maxwell||6'3, 223||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533|
3. Finally, it's JD's job (probably)
Ohio quarterbacks get hit a lot. Solich likes the added threat and upside a mobile QB can deliver, and the downside is that mobile QBs get hit and are more likely to take sacks in the pocket (or while escaping the pocket). The result: injuries.
Both Derrius Vick and JD Sprague got hurt and missed time in 2015, which resulted in a decent amount of instability. With Vick gone, the job likely falls to Sprague, who is both an efficient runner and dangerous downfield passer. But it's almost an assumption that Sprague will get hurt at some point, and what happens if/when he does will be interesting.
The race for the backup QB job already began this spring. With Sprague out due to offseason surgery, Greg Windham took the snaps with the first team. Windham was particularly extreme last year, rushing for at least five yards on 54 percent of his carries (like Sprague) and averaging nearly 16 yards per completion, but completing just 48 percent of his passes and managing four picks in just 40 throws. The No. 2 job is Windham's to lose, but he will have to continue fending off two three-star sophomores Joey Duckworth and Minnesota transfer Conner Krizancic and redshirt freshman Quinton Maxwell.
With Sprague in charge, Ohio's offense is a little inefficient but explosive. But how frequently he's in charge, and how well Windham and/or others play, will determine the Bobcats' upside.
|A.J. Ouellette||RB||5'10, 202||Jr.||NR||NR||151||687||6||4.5||2.7||39.1%||0||0|
|JD Sprague||QB||6'1, 196||Sr.||NR||NR||46||261||0||5.7||3.2||54.3%||2||0|
|Dorian Brown||RB||5'11, 207||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||40||204||0||5.1||5.9||35.0%||0||0|
|Maleek Irons||RB||6'0, 224||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||32||194||4||6.1||5.9||40.6%||0||0|
|Papi White||RB||5'9, 171||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7333||31||171||2||5.5||6.6||45.2%||1||1|
|Greg Windham||QB||6'1, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8069||26||118||0||4.5||2.1||53.8%||0||0|
|RB||5'10, 202||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8488|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Sebastian Smith||WR-X||6'3, 206||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8512||100||64||770||64.0%||26.1%||7.7||49.0%||50.0%||1.40|
|Jordan Reid||WR-F||6'3, 209||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7100||67||45||625||67.2%||17.5%||9.3||62.7%||52.2%||1.69|
|Brendan Cope||WR-Z||6'2, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||55||30||510||54.5%||14.4%||9.3||65.5%||41.8%||2.05|
|TE||6'5, 258||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7300||32||19||147||57.1%||11.7%||7.8||45.2%||N/A||N/A|
|Papi White||RB||5'9, 171||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7333||27||21||323||77.8%||7.0%||12.0||70.4%||51.9%||2.00|
|A.J. Ouellette||RB||5'10, 202||Jr.||NR||NR||16||12||74||75.0%||4.2%||4.6||43.8%||25.0%||1.77|
|Jerrid Marhefka||WR-F||5'11, 191||Jr.||NR||NR||5||2||78||40.0%||1.3%||15.6||60.0%||40.0%||3.70|
|Mason Morgan||TE||6'6, 252||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7926||2||0||0||0.0%||0.5%||0.0||100.0%||0.0%||0.00|
|Connor Brown||TE||6'6, 256||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7983|
|Elijah Ball||WR||6'1, 197||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8330|
|Keevon Harris||WR||6'3, 200||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8395|
|Cameron Odom||WR||6'1, 171||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8180|
|Austin Conrad||TE||6'2, 228||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7824|
4. Finally, some big plays
Explosiveness was a major issue for Ohio in 2014; the Bobcats managed just 50 gains of 20-plus yards, 93rd in the country, and it meant they had to go eight to 10 error-free plays at a time to score points. They couldn't do that and ranked just 106th in Off. S&P+ because of it.
Despite turnover at the QB position, however, the big plays streamed in pretty well last fall. Though their 20-yarders improved to just 58 in total, a) 58 > 50, and b) the pass became a much more dangerous weapon. Ohio completed eight more passes of 30-plus yards, mostly because of Sprague and Windham. Think about what that can do for an offense -- a 30-yard pass either creates a score or a scoring opportunity, and Ohio's passing game created eight more of those in 2015 than 2014 (granted, with one extra game).
The reasons for most of last year's big plays are back. Go-to running back A.J. Ouellette is the opposite of explosive, but junior Dorian Brown and sophomores Maleek Irons and Papi White all flashed some potential in the open field, and at least one of them will end up with more carries. Plus, former Iowa back C.J. Hilliard is eligible. This is a deep, athletic backfield.
Meanwhile, the breakout stars from last year's receiving corps are back. Sebastian Smith, Jordan Reid, and Brendan Cope are all at least 6'2, 195, and they combined to average 13.7 yards per catch last year. The level of experience falls off the table after those three, but the potential is obvious among the starting 11.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Troy Watson||RT||6'6, 293||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7768||13||29|
|Durrell Wood||RG||6'2, 313||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7200||9||12|
|Jake Pruehs||C||6'2, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||0||11|
|Josh Cooper||RG||6'2, 313||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||3||3|
|Nick Gibbons||LG||6'5, 309||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7833||1||3|
|Jared McCray||LG||6'5, 330||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8395||1||2|
|Joe Lowery||RT||6'6, 313||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8217||0||1|
|Austen Pleasants||LT||6'7, 321||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819||0||0|
|Zack Murdock||OL||6'5, 296||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8100||0||0|
|Joe Anderson||OL||6'6, 330||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7200||0||0|
|Marques Grimes||OL||6'5, 325||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7633|
|Taeshon Trotter||OL||6'5, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8039|
|Felipe Fernandez||OL||6'4, 309||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7903|
5. Three starters gone, three starters back
Ohio's offense was excellent both in short-yardage situations and in keeping defenders out of the backfield. Part of that probably had to do with Ouellette's strengths -- he's probably not going to rip off many 60-yarders, but he falls forward nicely -- but combined with solid sack rates on passing downs (despite mobile QBs), it appears the line did its job in the most line-dependent situations.
That's good and bad for 2016. The bad news is that three of last year's starters are gone, taking with them 104 career starts. The good news is that, in a way, three starters are back, too. Two-year starting right tackle Troy Watson returns, as do junior guard Durrell Wood and 2014 starter Jake Pruehs. Combined with four other former spot starters, Ohio returns seven players with starting experience, all of whom are juniors and seniors. Juniors Jared McCray and Joe Lowery are former three-star recruits waiting for a shot; so is redshirt freshman Marques Grimes.
It appears coaching and pure talent are as important as experience when it comes to the offensive line, but no matter what's most important, Ohio seems to have all three.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.1%||23||Succ. Rt. +||109.4||37|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.6||49||Off. FP+||29.3||83|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.7||89||Redzone S&P+||95.0||85|
|Q1 Rk||23||1st Down Rk||64|
|Q2 Rk||56||2nd Down Rk||86|
|Q3 Rk||80||3rd Down Rk||88|
6. A little bit more aggression
Jimmy Burrow came to Athens with Solich in 2005 and never left. And in his 11th season as defensive coordinator, Burrow put together some of his best results. Ohio rebounded from 88th to 59th in Def. S&P+, its third-highest defensive ranking of the Solich era.
Recent Burrow defenses seemed predicated on the acknowledgement that Ohio only had so much talent. The Bobcats played a rather heavy bend-don't-break style, aiming to pounce on mistakes instead of forcing tons of three-and-outs. But in 2015, they got more aggressive. Either Burrow felt the need to switch things up, or he felt more confident in his personnel. Regardless, Ohio was both more efficient and more vulnerable to big plays, especially on the ground.
The Bobcats also faded -- they ranked 23rd in Q1 S&P+, 56th in Q2, 80th in Q3, and 123rd in Q4. That suggests depth issues, and this is backed up below. Eight linemen recorded at least five tackles last year, but only two played in all 13 games. Seven linebackers made at least 8.5 tackles, and two played in 13 games. Eleven defensive backs made at least five tackles, and three played in 13 games.
That's a lot of shuffling, and one can see how, even with solid gameplans, there might not have been enough chemistry (or simply healthy bodies) to sustain quality play for 60 minutes.
The front seven returns a lot of key players and adds Michigan transfer (and former four-star recruit) Tom Strobel to the mix. But the secondary has to replace seven of its top nine tacklers. Depth in the back might be even worse this year.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kurt Laseak||DE||6'4, 244||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7896||11||44.0||6.3%||7.0||3.5||0||0||1||0|
|Tarell Basham||DE||6'4, 262||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||31.5||4.5%||10.0||5.5||0||1||2||0|
|Casey Sayles||DT||6'3, 288||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793||13||17.5||2.5%||6.0||2.5||0||3||0||0|
|Trent Smart||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7400||8||12.0||1.7%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tony Porter||DT||6'1, 293||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7800||11||10.0||1.4%||0.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Cleon Aloese||NT||6'0, 301||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7433||13||8.5||1.2%||0.5||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Kevin Robbins||DE||6'4, 246||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR||7||6.0||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kent Berger||DE||6'4, 269||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7633||7||3.5||0.5%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tom Strobel (Michigan)||DE||6'6, 268||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9249||2||3.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kyle Kuhar||DT||6'5, 292||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7726|
|Keith Key||DE||6'3, 227||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7400|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Quentin Poling||MLB||6'0, 239||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600||11||58.0||8.3%||10.5||4.0||4||2||2||0|
|Blair Brown||WLB||6'0, 240||Sr.||NR||NR||11||51.0||7.3%||4.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chad Moore||WLB||6'0, 209||Jr.||NR||NR||11||43.5||6.3%||4.0||1.5||0||3||1||0|
|Cody Grilliot||LB||6'0, 234||Jr.||NR||NR||13||8.0||1.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Evan Croutch||WLB||6'0, 222||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600||13||6.0||0.9%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jared Dorsa||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7891|
|Eric Popp||LB||6'0, 206||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7790|
7. LB depth an issue, too
The top three linebackers are back, including junior Quentin Poling, who had one hell of a 2015. Despite missing two games, he finished as the team leader in both tackles and tackles for loss -- a rare combination -- and defensed six passes to boot. Poling, Blair Brown, and Chad Moore assure quality experience atop the LB depth chart.
The next four names on the list are gone, however. That leaves junior Cody Grilliot, sophomore Evan Crouch, and ... others. Not sure who. Maybe freshmen.
Injuries could quickly wreck the linebacking corps, but at least the linebackers will have a deep front four working for them. Five of last year's top six ends and three of the top four tackles are back. Senior ends Kurt Laseak and Tarell Basham combined for 17 TFLs and nine sacks, and Casey Sayles proved both big enough to stand up to blocking and active enough to record six TFLs and break up three passes. The addition of Strobel is more bonus than necessity. This should be one of the MAC's better defensive lines, and the entire front seven could be awesome if the linebackers stay in one piece.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Toran Davis||FS||6'0, 212||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13||45.5||6.5%||0||0||0||2||1||0|
|Langston Provitt||CB||5'11, 181||So.||NR||NR||12||10.0||1.4%||0||0||1||1||1||0|
|Bradd Ellis||CB||5'10, 175||Jr.||NR||NR||8||5.5||0.8%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Grant Cunningham||S||6'0, 201||Jr.||NR||NR||5||5.5||0.8%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kylan Nelson||S||5'10, 202||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||4||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|S||5'11, 201||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8417|
|Jeff Mundy||CB||5'10, 196||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Bo Hardy||DB||5'10, 195||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Jalen Fox||CB||5'11, 176||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533|
|Maxwell Howell||CB||6'1, 187||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8020|
|Javon Hagan||S||6'0, 211||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8004|
|Mayne Williams||S||5'11, 188||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8028|
|London Miller||CB||5'11, 174||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7700|
|Tyler Tupa||S||6'0, 194||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8080|
8. A facelift in the back
It appears that experience at quarterback, receiver, and defensive back mean the most to a team's year-to-year fortunes, and while Ohio has plenty of it in the former categories, the latter is an issue. Last year's secondary was pretty exciting, with three players getting hands on at least nine passes and five taking part in at least one tackle for loss. But the only returnees from this bunch are senior safety Toran Davis and sophomore corner Langston Provitt.
Louisville transfer Kevin Houchins could make an immediate impact at either corner or safety, and it appears that both Jalen Fox and JUCO transfer London Miller were instrumental in spring ball. But this is a brand new unit.
|Papi White||PR||5'9, 171||So.||13||7.5||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||68|
|Field Goal Efficiency||54|
|Punt Return Success Rate||58|
|Kick Return Success Rate||72|
|Punt Success Rate||66|
|Kickoff Success Rate||87|
9. Starting over in special teams
Special teams will also be a new unit in 2015. The Bobcats were basically decent in every special teams category last year, but only punt returner Papi White returns. Special teams is such a random, small-sample thing, and for all we know Ohio's new legs will be better than last year's. But going from known to unknown is always rather disquieting.
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|1-Oct||at Miami (Ohio)||107||2.1||55%|
|22-Oct||at Kent State||104||-0.1||50%|
|15-Nov||at Central Michigan||85||-6.0||37%|
|Projected wins: 6.5|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-13.8% (89)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||119 / 111|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||5 / 4.3|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+0.3|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||52% (64%, 40%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||7.6 (0.4)|
10. Road warriors
Ohio is projected a conservative 95th in S&P+ this year. The reasons: The ratings don't tend to believe in one-year surges, Ohio's recruiting hasn't exactly been lights-out, and experience in the secondary is very important.
Projected even this low, the Bobcats are still given a solid chance of reaching a bowl. They can increase their odds even further if they can play well at home. They get Gardner-Webb (win probability: 99 percent), EMU (77), Texas State (76), and Buffalo (71) at home; Akron (61) and BGSU (39) also visit in relative tossups. Win out, and you're bowling no matter what.
But if this team is as good on the road as it was at times last fall, that's where the big wins could add up. Ohio is given between a 37 and 61 percent chance in six contests, and four are on the road.
I like this team, but the projections are a reminder that a second straight season of eight-plus wins is far from a given. Ohio played like a top-50 team for much of the season, but the Bobcats have work to do to prove that 2015 was the start of another Solich run and not a one-off. Solich has already proven so much in building and stabilizing this program, but 2016 will tell us about how much he's got left.