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If Terry Bowden finishes 2017 in Akron, it will be his longest-running gig ever

The coach who once went 11-0 at Auburn has a weirdly sustainable wild-card thing going at Akron.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Akron Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

Terry Bowden is now responsible for 50 percent of Akron's bowl appearances and 100 percent of its bowl wins. The Zips had fallen into a deep pit when he arrived; after winning 20 games from 2003-05, they won 12 from 2007-09 and three from 2010-12. Getting to eight wins and a top-80 spot in S&P+ is a magnificent accomplishment. The only thing harder than creating success is maintaining it.

The 2016 Akron preview

In the 30 years since Akron moved back up to FBS, the Zips have only won more than five games in a season on eight occasions.

Through that prism, Akron's five-win 2016, a campaign defined by a sturdy start and an injury-plagued collapse, wasn't that bad. The Zips showed upside as high as what they had boasted in going 8-5 in 2015 — higher, even. They exploded past Marshall in Huntington early, beat eventual bowl team Miami (Ohio) by 22, and narrowly fell to a rock-solid Appalachian State.

That Akron collapsed under the weight of injuries is understandable; it happens to programs of this caliber. You don’t have the depth of playmakers to withstand a barrage.

The Zips finished with a wide receiver at quarterback, and just two defensive linemen managed to play in all 12 games. The defense cratered then began to rebound just as the offense fell apart.

The downside was still a little jarring. The same team that nearly beat Appalachian State lost to an awful Buffalo by 21. The team that won at Marshall by 27 (and before Marshall suffered its own collapse, no less) lost by 10 at home to Bowling Green.

It felt like Bowden was being forced to start all over again...again.

In a way, though, Bowden starts over every year. He coaches like a man who’s been fired before, bringing in transfers and doing whatever he can to replenish Akron’s roster on a year-to-year basis. And strangely enough, this has resulted in a rather stable gig: He will begin his sixth year this fall.

Make it to 2018, and this will be the longest tenure of Bowden’s career — longer than the Samford gig that finished strong (21-5 in 1991-92) and earned him the Auburn job, and longer than the Auburn gig, which began 22-1-1 and ended with both turmoil and a 1-5 start to 1998.

Bowden went to a broadcaster’s chair for about a decade and then to North Alabama for three years, where he parlayed a mix of transfers and local talent to a 29-9 record and three Division II playoff appearances. And then he made the 650-mile trek northeast to Akron.

Considering his career’s ups and downs, Bowden’s Akron tenure had been strangely linear: a 1-11 start followed by two 5-7 near-misses and the eight-win breakthrough. With a healthy two-deep and a collapsing Bowling Green, it seemed 2016 might be the year for the Zips to challenge for the division title.

In theory, it could still happen. Akron has some rebuilding to do at wide receiver, but for the most part, injuries created depth of experience throughout the roster, and combined with the latest batch of transfers — a running back from Oregon State, linebackers from Pitt and Miami, defensive backs from Rutgers and West Virginia, and a JUCO quarterback for insurance — this lineup doesn’t need too many breaks to turn into something interesting. If it can stay on the field, anyway.


2016 in review

2016 Akron statistical profile.

The difference between Semi-Healthy Akron and Banged-Up Akron was stark.

  • First six games (4-2) — Avg. percentile performance: 41% (~top 75) | Avg. yards per play: Zips 6.8, Opp 5.8
  • Last six games (1-5) — Avg. percentile performance: 21% (~top 100) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, Zips 5.3

The defense’s cracks began to show a little earlier, allowing 7.3 yards per play to Appalachian State and 27 points to a mostly awful Kent State offense.

Still, it continued to struggle until the last two games, when it allowed just 4.8 combined yards per play to BGSU and Ohio. Unfortunately at that point, Akron’s offense was without a quarterback. The sixth win, which seemed all but certain midseason, never came. Akron lost its last four, both to good teams (48-17 to Toledo, 9-3 to Ohio) and bad (41-20 to Buffalo, 38-28 to BGSU).


Offense

Akron offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of Akron’s offensive collapse is that the Zips had survived one quarterback injury.

Woodson was playing the best football of his career. Against Marshall and Appalachian State, he completed a combined 52 of 75 passes (69 percent) for 732 yards, and while he took six sacks in those games, seven touchdowns can overcome that.

Woodson missed the next two games with a shoulder injury, but Pitt transfer Tre’Von Chapman stepped in pretty well. He was far less efficient with his arm, completing just 26 of 57 passes against Kent State and Miami. But he averaged nearly 16 yards per completion and offset that inefficiency by rushing 17 times for 125 yards.

Akron v Wisconsin
Thomas Woodson
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

At this point, Akron had won a school record six consecutive MAC games. After a dreadful Chapman performance against WMU in a blowout loss, Woodson returned to lead the Zips to a win over Ball State. And then the bottom fell out.

Woodson was awful against Buffalo, and Akron couldn’t keep up with Toledo’s firepower. And against Bowling Green, both Woodson and Chapman were lost for the season. Senior receiver Tyrell Goodman took over, and Akron managed only three points in the season-ending loss to Ohio.

With some recovery time, here’s what we know about Akron’s offense:

  • Bowden moved Chapman to receiver and signed JUCO transfer (and former Virginia QB) Nick Johns to compete with Woodson. One assumes three-star redshirt freshman Kato Nelson might be ready to play a role, too. If Woodson is healthy, he can be tremendous.
  • Chapman could become one of Akron’s go-to receivers because the top two guys — JoJo Natson, Jr. and Jerome Lane, who combined for 54 percent of last year’s targets — are gone. The top three returning receivers (Austin Wolf, A.J. Coney, Kwadarrius Smith) combined for just a 47 percent catch rate.
  • Efficiency will be a desperate need in the receiving corps. Can tight ends play a larger role? Mykel Traylor-Bennett and Newman Williams had a 69 percent catch rate in 2016 ...but saw only 1.3 targets per game. Tight end and slot receiver are frequently the possession positions, but Akron boasts no proven entities.
  • Akron’s ground game was at its most efficient when Chapman was at quarterback (which rendered the passing game inefficient). Senior Manny Morgan is a steady back, and junior Van Edwards Jr. is more all-or-nothing, but more might be needed out of the run game if the receiving corps is struggling. Oregon State transfer Deltron Sands could play a role.
  • The line is the least of Akron’s worries. It was a bit leaky but strong in short yardage, and it returns four of last year’s five starters (plus two guys with spot-starting experience).

Coordinator A.J. Milwee has free rein to employ his version of a MAC spread offense, and it showed massive potential. There are big-play threats in guys like Edwards, Wolf, and Smith, and when Woodson is in rhythm, the ceiling is high.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Akron
Austin Wolf
Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Akron defensive radar

Chuck Amato is still chugging along. The 70-year-old former Bobby Bowden assistant and NC State head coach showed up in Akron the same time that Terry Bowden did, and his defense has done heavy lifting.

The Zips improved to 74th in Def. S&P+ in 2013 and 73rd in 2014 before surging to 37th during Akron’s 2015 bowl season. But his 2016 unit never really had a chance. The Zips had to replace their top three linebackers and about half of their two-deep on the line and in the secondary, and then injuries obliterated any hopes from there.

  • End Jamal Marcus had 12.5 tackles for loss in 2015 but missed five games.
  • Tackle Brock Boxen hinted at a breakthrough with 4.5 tackles for loss in six games but missed most of the second half of the season.
  • Tackles Davon’te Jest and Jelani Hamilton missed three games each, and Ibrahima Camara missed two. Akron had no stability at tackle and predictably fell from 21st to 107th in Rushing S&P+.
  • The secondary missed rover Jordan George for most of the first half of the season and lost starter Zach Guiser when George returned. Nine DBs recorded at least 17.5 tackles, but only four played in all 12 games. And guess what: The Zips fell from 40th to 102nd in Passing S&P+. Shocking, right?
Akron v Wisconsin
Ulysees Gilbert III
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

From a list-the-assets perspective, Akron might have enough to rebound nicely. Guiser and George are both back as is sophomore Alvin Davis, who led the secondary in tackles from the rover position. Junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III had a breakthrough season (11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three breakups), and if Camara, Boxen, and Jest are all healthy at the same time, they could join Darius Copeland to form one of the MAC’s better tackle units.

Unfortunately, Akron is destitute when it comes to talent on the edges. The top three ends are gone, leaving only senior Deon’Tae Moore (three TFLs) behind. The top three corners are also gone; sophomore Kyron Brown (three INTs, one breakup) is now the de facto leader.

Enter the transfers. Corners Darian Dailey (Rutgers) and Mark Ellis (WVU) could become early key contributors if they’re ready to, and linebackers Jamal Davis II (Pitt) and James King (Miami) could plump up an interesting but otherwise thin linebacking corps.

You hate to have to rely on transfers the moment they become eligible, but if Dailey and Ellis aren’t ready to play at a high level at cornerback, I don’t know who will be. Davis, maybe?

There are no transfer answers at end, at least not yet. Unless freshmen get involved or a lighter tackle like Copeland or Boxen moves outside, I’m not sure how the Zips fill a two-deep.

Amato loves to attack. Akron’s 2015 havoc rate of 18.7 percent ranked 23rd in the country, and the Zips went after both ball and ball carrier at every level of the defense. In 2016, they fell to 105th in havoc (13.2 percent), and the effects were clear.

In theory, you can structure a good starting lineup here: Moore, Boxen, Camara, and Copeland on the line, Gilbert, senior Andrew Hauser and J. Davis/King at linebacker, and A. Davis, Guiser, George, and Brown/Dailey/Ellis in the secondary. Unfortunately, that encompasses basically all of Akron’s known entities (and a few unknowns). Depth is a little bit scary.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Akron
Kyron Brown (20) and Jordan George (24)
Nick Cammett-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Good: Akron seems to have a steady place-kicker in Tom O’Leary, who made all eight of his sub-40 field goals and two of his three longer ones. He missed three PATs, which is a bit strange. We’ll say the jury’s out on the junior, but he has promise.

Good: Van Edwards Jr. was one of the nation’s steadier kick returners, averaging 23.8 yards per return as Akron ranked 27th in kick return success rate.

Bad: Nick Gasser’s punts weren’t particularly returnable, but they were short, and Akron ranked just 116th in punt success rate.

Really, really bad: Akron ranked dead last in FBS in kickoff success rate. O’Leary and two others almost never found the end zone, and Akron ranked 77th in kick return average allowed. That’s a rough combination.

Quite the mixed bag. And everybody listed above is back, for better and worse.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Penn State 8 -39.5 1%
9-Sep Ark.-Pine Bluff NR 30.2 96%
16-Sep Iowa State 57 -16.5 17%
23-Sep at Troy 79 -14.8 20%
30-Sep at Bowling Green 95 -9.7 29%
7-Oct Ball State 90 -6.0 36%
14-Oct at Western Michigan 74 -16.0 18%
21-Oct at Toledo 59 -21.4 11%
28-Oct Buffalo 128 7.1 66%
7-Nov at Miami (Ohio) 88 -11.4 26%
14-Nov Ohio 103 -2.7 44%
21-Nov Kent State 123 2.6 56%
Projected S&P+ Rk 122
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 103 / 122
Projected wins 4.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -11.3 (109)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 129 / 123
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -9.0
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (63%, 51%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (0.2)

I’ve talked myself into and out of Akron three or four times over the course of writing this preview. The Zips have mountainous upside on offense and are only a year removed from fielding one of the best mid-major defenses in the country.

However, both units collapsed at different rates last year. This offense has yet to produce consistently for weeks at a time, and it seems like Amato’s defense will be even thinner.

But injuries aren’t guaranteed. And QB Woodson looked awesome at times last year. And ...round and round we go.

What does S&P+ say? Not good things. It isn’t built to adequately project a team that utilizes quite this many transfers, and Akron’s recruiting rankings have been pretty poor.

S&P+ sees a squad that collapsed in 2016, doesn’t return a ton of production, and doesn’t have sturdy five-year recruits, or a sustained run of success, to fall back on. The result: an awful No. 122 projection and four projected wins.

I see something better than that — quite a bit better, perhaps — but...depth, depth, depth.

It’s probably another high-upside, low-downside year at UA, then, huh? Akron is a wild card in the MAC, but I guess that makes sense considering the high-upside, low-downside head coach.


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