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Bowling Green football tears down and rebuilds as well as anybody

But was 2016 more the former or the latter?

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

As far as I can tell — and I have spent literally minutes searching on the school website — Bowling Green State University does not offer much in the way of urban planning or renewal.

The school's Architecture & Environmental Design major involves interesting courses, but there isn't a ton on policy, planning, urban history, etc.

That's okay, though. Whatever you need to know about renewal and renovation, you can learn from the Bowling Green football program.

Succeed, rebuild. Succeed, rebuild. No other MAC team has more thoroughly adopted the ethos of what it means to be a MAC team. You win, you lose your head coach to a bigger job, you burn everything down, and you win again.

  • Don Nehlen went 2-6-1 in 1970, ripped off six consecutive winning records, appeared in the 1973 polls, and left for West Virginia.
  • Dennis Stolz began with a series of losing records, then left for San Diego State after an 11-1 1985.
  • After a rare timing misfire — Gary Blackney began in 1991 by going 36-8-2 in four years but didn’t leave and ended up getting canned after a 2-9 season — BGSU hired a Notre Dame receivers coach named Urban Meyer. He went 17-6, beat Missouri (twice), Northwestern, and Kansas, and left for Utah.
  • After Gregg Brandon stayed a little too long, Dave Clawson took over, went 2-10 in his second year, then went 18-9 in 2012-13, won the MAC, and left for Wake Forest.
  • Dino Babers went a rather lucky 8-6 in 2014 (BGSU fell to 97th in S&P+ and needed four one-possession wins to hit eight overall), then went a dominant 10-4, again winning the MAC. He’s now at Syracuse.

Miami (Ohio) calls itself the Cradle of Coaches, but Miami didn’t hire three power conference coaches (including one of the two best current coaches in college football) in this century; Bowling Green did.

When you have a track record like that, you get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to replacement hires. Still, BGSU’s choice to replace Babers felt a little bit strange.

Before his BGSU hire, Jinks’ entire résumé had formed inside the state of Texas. A longtime Texas high school offensive coordinator and head coach, Jinks landed on Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech staff in 2013 and spent three years as the Red Raiders’ running backs coach.

The Angelo State grad performed well in his roles — 2010 5A II state champion at Steele High School, 2011 state runner up, mentor for Tech RB DeAndre Washington as he rushed for 2,500 yards in 2014-15 — but if nothing else, the geography was confusing.

When I’m confused by a hire, I’m more quick to judge it. And when BGSU began 2016 1-8 with losses by 74 (Memphis), 67 (Ohio State), 25 (NIU), 20 (MTSU), and 14 (Miami (Ohio)), well, it was easy to start judging.

The Ohio State, MTSU, and Memphis losses, however, came in the first month. In October, humiliating defeats became reasonably competitive losses. And in November, losses became wins.

After tight losses to three MAC bowl teams (EMU, Ohio, Toledo) and brief steps backwards against Miami and NIU, Bowling Green finished the year beating Akron by 10, Kent State by 35, and Buffalo by eight. Now, these three were awful, but so were the Falcons for much of the season.

Bowling Green suddenly looked like a team that could once again rise. And in 2017, the Falcons return a sophomore passer with 2,000 yards to his name, a prolific No. 1 receiver, an all-conference center, and one of the most experienced secondaries in the country. They welcome the spoils of what was, per the 247Sports Composite, the second-best recruiting class in the MAC.

Bowling Green’s win total fell by six in 2016, and the jury is still out on Jinks. But ... well, the jury is out. For a while last year, it looked like a decision was being reached.


2016 in review

2016 Bowling Green statistical profile.

You almost literally cannot have a worse month. It wasn’t that the Falcons got thumped by Ohio State, MTSU, and Memphis and barely beat FCS North Dakota. It was that, against those FBS opponents, they didn’t belong on the same field.

An offense that averaged 6.7 yards per play in 2015 averaged 4 against those three FBS opponents, and that was with nearly half of each game coming against backups. The defense, meanwhile, was a total abomination, giving up 7.8 yards per play. What happens when your opponent is nearly doubling your yardage? You lose by a combined 195-34.

Hell, with the way the Falcons played in September, beating North Dakota was a significant upset.

BGSU vs. Vegas
  • First 4 games (1-3) — Avg. score: Opp 55, BGSU 15 | Avg. percentile performance: 14% (~top 110) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.1, BGSU 4.4
  • Next 5 games (0-5) — Avg. score: Opp 35, BGSU 26 | Avg. percentile performance: 28% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, BGSU 5.4
  • Last 3 games (3-0) — Avg. score: BGSU 36, Opp 18 | Avg. percentile performance: 51% (~top 65) | Avg. yards per play: BGSU 5.7, Opp 5.4

This still wasn’t a great team, as evidenced by a narrow home win over a mostly awful Buffalo. But improvement is improvement, and BGSU had a freshman quarterback and reasonably young defense.


Offense

BGSU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The intention was not to start a freshman QB in 2016. Senior James Knapke, BGSU’s 2014 starter after incumbent Matt Johnson got hut, started atop the depth chart; he did alright against North Dakota but bombed in the three blowout losses. He was unable to connect downfield, averaging just 8.9 yards per completion in those losses, so Jinks decided there was no harm in giving Morgan a run.

Morgan didn’t start out a whole lot better, completing 54 percent of his passes with four picks to three touchdowns against EMU and Ohio. But Bowling Green still scored some points. And in a 42-35 shootout loss to Toledo, he went 25-for-38 for 335 yards, five touchdowns, and one pick.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northern Illinois
James Morgan
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

That was the high point. Even in the late wins, he was back to completing about half of his passes. But he got his feet wet, and he was still an upgrade over a senior. That’s encouraging.

BGSU’s late-season rise was prompted by a surging run game. That’s either encouraging or discouraging, depending on whether you’re looking at assets gone or assets returning.

Gone:

  • Running back Fred Coppet, who erupted for 381 yards (6.9 per carry) and five touchdowns in those three late wins.
  • All-conference tackle Logan Dietz
  • Both starting guards (Ben Steward, J.J. Beggan)

Returning:

  • Running back Josh Cleveland, who rushed for 242 (9.3 per carry) and a touchdown in those three late wins and had easily the best efficiency (44 percent of his carries gained at least five yards) and explosiveness (6.5 highlight yards per opportunity) among BGSU backs.
  • Bruising back Donovan Wilson, the potential 220-pound thunder to Cleveland’s 176-pound lightning. He rushed 76 times for 372 (4.9) and three touchdowns in those wins. Seriously, BGSU went all in on the run late.
  • All-conference center Tim McAuliffe
  • Starting right tackle (turned left tackle this spring) Ryan Hunter
NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northern Illinois
Josh Cleveland
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

With Morgan laboring late in the year, BGSU leaned on the run, and it worked. And the return of Cleveland and Wilson suggests they could do the same this fall.

You do still have to pass, of course, and the continuity appears strong. BGSU returns five of last year’s top six targets, including junior go-to Scott Miller. The Miller-to-Morgan connection worked well early in Morgan’s tenure — in Morgan’s first four starts, Miller caught 36 balls for 531 yards and six touchdowns.

As intriguing: Jinks just signed six three-star receivers, including 6’5 JUCO transfer Datrin Guyton and mid-three-star freshmen Cedric Mitchell (6’2, 180) and Travis Koontz (6’5, 235). There will be increased competition for reps at receiver this year. That’s pretty exciting, especially when you have a run game to lean on.


Defense

BGSU defensive radar

In theory, it’s a good combination to have a not-awful run defense and a pass rush that gets after the quarterback. BGSU ranked 82nd in Rushing S&P+ and 48th in Adj. Sack Rate. That is supposed to mean that you’re decent at forcing passing downs and good at forcing mistakes once the QB is in those passing downs.

In reality, Bowling Green’s pass coverage was too poor for this. (And 82nd, though not awful, is also not a strength.) Only one team in FBS (Rice) allowed a passer rating higher than the 159.5 that BGSU allowed. That’s like turning every opposing quarterback into Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes. Ohio State, Memphis, and Toledo posted ratings over 200. Yuck.

The secondary did improve, for what it’s worth. BGSU’s final four opponents managed only a 129.1 rating. Those weren’t great offenses, but you’ll take it where you can get it.

There was also a reason for this struggle: The secondary was young as hell. Two 2015 contributors and potential 2016 starters (corner Clint Stephens, safety Ben Hale) missed all or most of the season with injury, leaving three sophomores and two freshmen among BGSU’s top six DBs. And with senior corner Will Watson missing the first half of the season as well, that inserted another freshman into the mix early on.

Those freshmen and sophomores are now sophomores and juniors. Safeties Jamari Bozeman, Tavaraus Wade, Antonyo Sotolongo, and Jerry McBride III all made at last 19 tackles last year and combined for three tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed. There might be some potential there.

Plus, Stephens (a junior) and Hale (senior) are back. And of the five players who recorded at least 2.5 sacks last year, three return: ends David Konowalski and Tyrik Jones and tackle Gus Schwieterman.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northern Illinois
Gus Schwieterman
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Just as experience doesn’t automatically equal quality, size doesn’t equal decent run defense. At least, that’s what BGSU hopes. Konowalski and Jones are listed at 235 pounds or fewer, while Schwieterman is listed at 265. BGSU’s biggest tackle (Izaah Lunsford) and biggest end (Terrance Bush) are both gone.

The Falcons need some new meat, in other words. Senior Shannon Smith (6’0, 294) will be given the chance to step in, but if coordinator Perry Eliano finds he needs more heft, he might have to turn to someone like three-star freshman Caylon May (6’2, 290).

The linebacking corps is a mixed bag. Trenton Greene was easily the Falcons’ most disruptive LB, and he’s gone, but among juniors Brandon Harris and Dorian Hendrix and seniors Nate Locke and Nilijah Ballew, it seems a couple havoc guys could emerge. Depth is a total question mark, though.

It’s never easy to figure out what it means for a defense when it appears the weakness (in this case, pass coverage) could get a lot stronger while the relative strength (run defense) gets worse. But considering how poor this unit was for much of the year, we’ll assume improvement, from a progression-to-the-mean standpoint, is more likely than regression.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Ohio State
Jamari Bozeman
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

BGSU did have one weapon early on: 6’7 punter Joseph Davidson. He averaged nearly 46 yards per kick for the season and offered few return opportunities. The result: a No. 8 ranking in punt efficiency.

The rest of the special teams unit was forgettable — decent returns, below average place-kicking and kickoffs — but in Davidson, the Falcons boast one of the best field position weapons in the conference. Well, as long as the offense is struggling. If BGSU starts scoring more, Davidson becomes less of an asset. But I think everyone would probably be okay with that.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Michigan State 44 -16.0 18%
9-Sep South Dakota NR 13.7 79%
16-Sep at Northwestern 37 -17.5 16%
23-Sep at Middle Tennessee 89 -4.1 41%
30-Sep Akron 122 9.7 71%
7-Oct at Miami (Ohio) 88 -4.2 40%
14-Oct Ohio 103 4.5 60%
21-Oct Northern Illinois 86 0.5 51%
31-Oct at Kent State 123 4.7 61%
7-Nov at Buffalo 128 9.2 70%
15-Nov Toledo 59 -9.2 30%
21-Nov at Eastern Michigan 96 -2.2 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 95
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 75 / 106
Projected wins 5.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -11.5 (111)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 98 / 96
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -16 / -6.8
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (74%, 69%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.7 (0.3)

It’s hard to understate how awful Bowling Green was last September. But the rebound was definitive, and with a little positive turnovers luck (BGSU was minus-3.8 points per game for the season), the Falcons might have been able to flip a couple of games and eke out an unlikely bowl bid.

BGSU is projected 95th per S&P+ this year, and while there are likely more early losses on the way with trips to Michigan State and Northwestern, there should be opportunities for six wins. BGSU has six games with win probability between 40 and 61 percent. Split those and take your three higher-probability games (South Dakota, Akron, at Buffalo), and you’re bowling. Win most of the tossups, and you might be in contention for the MAC East.

It felt like a bit of a reach to bring in a guy with no college coordinator or head coaching experience or clear Ohio connections. But Bowling Green showed just enough progress last year to hint at yet another surge, and Jinks’ recruiting efforts furthered that impression.

Bowling Green proved itself resilient in 2016, but considering history, that shouldn’t be surprising.


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