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Ohio is the rare MAC team with a unique identity: disturbingly steady

Frank Solich has been at the wheel since 2005, while the rest of the conference changes hands constantly.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio
Frank Solich
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Around the 44-minute mark of this week’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, Steven Godfrey and talked about how hard it can be for a casual fan to differentiate between programs in the MAC.

Bill: You’ve got the teams that habitually struggle: so Akron, Kent State, Eastern Michigan on average, before last year. You have the teams that have clearly shown a lot of upside, but in the MAC, if you show a lot of upside, it means you lose your coach a lot, and then you start over, and then you show upside again. So, Bowling Green...

Godfrey: Northern Illinois.

Bill: Central Michigan probably falls into there. Miami (Ohio) has hit a little bit of a downturn, or did and might be on their way out of it. For a long time, of course — you know, Cradle of Coaches — they prided themselves on hiring a great coach, losing him to a big school, and then hiring another great coach.

You’ve got your volatile teams. Western Michigan for a long time was either good or terrible but never the best. Toledo has been, on average, by far the best team in the conference over the last five, 10 years ... hasn’t won a MAC title in that time because somebody’s always been better, or they’ve lost the one game they can’t lose.

Ohio is an interesting one because they were one of those destitute programs before Frank Solich showed up.

Godfrey: So Ohio does defy the stereotype, but that doesn’t necessarily make them watchable. It’s just that they have a coach who you can say will be there.

Bill: Yeah, they are sound, and they are going to give hell to better teams ... that will probably beat them. Basically, that’s Ohio’s rep at this point.

There’s such a thing as podcast shorthand, where you end up sharing a lot of thoughts that are not quite fully formed or researched. It is the biggest plus and minus for the format. But I think most of what I said holds up.

From an S&P+ perspective, WMU ranked either 10th in the MAC or among the top three nine times in an 11-year span (2005-15) without making a MAC Championship appearance.

Toledo has ranked either first or second in the MAC in S&P+ for all but one season since 2010. And the Rockets’ last MAC title game appearance was 2004.

And then there’s Ohio. Reliable Ohio. In 2005, Solich inherited a destitute program, with no bowls since 1968 and two winning records since 1983. In six seasons in Athens, Jim Grobe twice finished above .500, and that was enough of an accomplishment to score him the Wake Forest job.

Solich took this bottom-of-the-barrel program and turned it into something. Per S&P+, they ranked second in the MAC in his second season and 10th in 2008. Since then: third, fifth, eighth, sixth, seventh, ninth, fourth, and sixth.

When no one is capable of controlling the MAC East, Ohio swoops in and takes the crown. The Bobcats did so in 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2016. Their four title appearances in that span are second to only NIU.

Of course, they’ve lost in all four. Akron and Buffalo have combined for two appearances and two titles. WMU broke through last year. Miami, Bowling Green, and Toledo have each won a pair, and NIU and CMU have three each.

Ohio’s job in the MAC has been to play the role of “gritty big-game opponent that Team A finally overcomes in the fourth quarter.” The Bobcats do it in MAC title games, and they do it in bowls — they gave 10-win Troy fits before falling by five in 2016, did the same to 11-win Appalachian State in 2015, and led a 10-win ECU in the fourth quarter in 2013 before losing by 17.

This is a fine life. Compared to Ohio’s pre-Solich existence, it’s a great life. Ohio is the steady Good Guy, the Bill Pullman-in-Sleepless in Seattle who loses to the leap of faith.

At 72, Solich has shown no signs of either speeding up or slowing down. Ohio dealt with injuries in the offensive backfield in 2016 but rode defense to another division title. And in 2017, the offense looks like it could rebound, and the defense has to rebuild up front.

If Bowling Green doesn’t bounce back, or Miami (Ohio) isn’t quite ready to build off of last year’s late surge, or Akron can’t overcome a brutal schedule, the Bobcats could win another division title all the same.


2016 in review

2016 Ohio statistical profile.

Last year’s Ohio preview talked about a team that was supposed to have an interesting backfield of quarterback JD Sprague and running back A.J. Ouellette. But Sprague left the team in August due to thoracic outlet syndrome, and Ouellette injured his foot three carries into the season and was lost for the year.

The offense never settled. New quarterback Greg Windham dealt with ups, downs, and injuries, as did new No. 2 running back Maleek Irons. Only one of the top four receiving targets played in all 14 games. And for good measure, the two-deep in the secondary got reset quite a few times as one DB after another suffered knocks.

The result: an offense that started slowly, a defense that produced a wide array of outcomes, and a team that was neither good enough to win easily or bad enough to get blown out. Nine of Ohio’s 14 games were decided by one possession, and only one was decided by more than two.

Ohio fought well against good teams but mostly lost. It let bad teams stick around but mostly won. The caliber of opponent almost didn’t matter.

  • Ohio vs. S&P+ top 75 (1-3) — Avg. percentile performance: 35% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, Ohio 5.3 | Avg. score: Opp 28, Ohio 24
  • Ohio vs. No. 76-plus (7-3) — Avg. percentile performance: 35% | Avg. yards per play: Ohio 5.5, Opp 4.8 | Avg. score: Ohio 27, Opp 21

Ohio’s offense was basically the same against everybody, and the defense found slightly more success about bad teams than good. But the range was as small as you’ll see.


Offense

Ohio offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Since Sprague was going to be a senior anyway, Ohio headed into 2016 knowing it would be replacing its starting QB in 2017. It just turned out that it would be replacing Windham instead.

Quinton Maxwell got a bit of a head start. He took over the starting role midseason, and after some ups and downs against EMU and Kent State, he looked great, if inefficient, in wins over Toledo and Buffalo. He completed only 19 of 38, but with 375 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and a passer rating of 167.6. He looked downfield for big plays and scrambled efficiently at times.

He was also a redshirt freshman, and freshmen who look for big plays tend to make a lot of mistakes. Maxwell fumbled eight times, and after his two-game flash, his passer rating plummeted to 103.2 in a loss to CMU and a low-scoring win over Akron. Despite Ohio clinching the MAC East under Maxwell’s watch, Solich elected to go back to a healthy Windham for the MAC title game and bowl.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio
Quinton Maxwell
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime Ohio coordinator Tim Albin employed the Protecting Your Limited Quarterback approach, passing frequently on standard downs and rushing frequently on passing downs to keep opponents off-balance. (Granted, some of those passing downs rushes were scrambles.) It was basically a more extreme version of the Bobcats’ 2015 attack, which featured mobile quarterbacks Sprague and Derrius Vick.

Maxwell is mobile enough, but at 6’3, 223 pounds, he’s the most quarterback-sized quarterback Ohio has had in a while. He’s got a big arm that he doesn’t mind using, and it will be interesting to see if Albin employs him in more of a standard way, giving him more downfield looks on passing downs.

A lot of that will depend on Maxwell’s developing maturity and the line’s ability to protect him. The Bobcats return three starters up front and five linemen with starting experience, but all-conference right tackle Troy Watson is gone.

A lot more will depend on what exactly Ohio’s rebuilt receiving corps has to offer. The top three wideouts (Sebastian Smith, Jordan Reid, Kyle Belack) are all gone, and the only returnees targeted more than 20 times last year are utility man Papi White (47 carries, 78 targets), tight end Troy Mangen, and sophomore Elijah Ball.

Now, you could do worse than those three. White was a big-play machine out of the slot in the second half of the season (last six games: 23 catches, 438 yards, five touchdowns), Mangen has been a three-year contributor, and Ball is a former star recruit. If a new, exciting target emerges from a pool of well-regarded freshmen (redshirts Keevon Harris and Cameron Odom, February signees Brevin Harris, K.J. Minter, and Willie Cherry), that might be enough.

It should help that there are some exciting options in the backfield. Ouellette, a nice efficiency guy, returns, as do last year’s explosive (but not particularly efficient) rushers, Dorian Brown and Irons. If Maxwell isn’t ready to carry the offense, these three could handle a decent load.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Ohio vs Troy
Papi White
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Ohio defensive radar

Both Albin and defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow have been with Solich’s Ohio since the beginning. This almost unheard-of continuity has contributed to Ohio’s steadiness, but while the offense has had quite a few ups and downs, the defense has improved of late. After ranking between 79th and 93rd in Def. S&P+ each year from 2011-14, the Bobcats ranked 57th and 61st, respectively, the last two years.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio
Javon Hagan
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Pulling off nearly the same defensive rating last year was a feat, considering how much ridiculous turnover Ohio had to deal with in the secondary. The Bobcats came in having to replace eight of its top nine tacklers in the backfield, which almost guarantees regression in your pass defense. Then, they had to deal with an exploding two-deep — of the 10 players who made at least one tackle per game (a sign of being a regular contributor), only four played in all 14 games. The other six missed a combined 34 games.

Five of those 10 regular DBs were either freshmen or sophomores, including safety Javon Hagan and corners Kylan Nelson, Jalen Fox, and Mayne Williams. Hagan and Nelson each picked off three passes.

Ohio’s pass defense regressed only from an excellent 34th in Passing S&P+ to a solid 68th. The secondary played conservatively, and an excellent pass rush picked up some slack. Six players made at least three sacks, and Ohio ranked 19th in Adj. Sack Rate.

In 2017, it will be the secondary’s turn to pick up slack: eight of those 10 regular DBs return, while four of those six pass rushers do not.

For that matter, five of the top seven linemen are gone. Nose tackle Cleon Aloese and end Kevin Robbins are decent anchors, and Burrow employed a deep bench up front last year, meaning players like tackles Tony Porter and Kent Berger and end Trent Smart saw action. But Ohio is only an injury or two away from deploying freshmen or redshirt freshmen up front.

The return of middle linebacker Quentin Poling (for what seems like his 16th year in Athens) will help. Poling has been an exciting contributor since his freshman year, when he combined 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks with three interceptions. If the tackles can stand up blockers, Poling and fellow senior Chad Moore will make plays.

Still, depth is a concern. If the starting lineup remains mostly intact, Ohio should have another strong defense.

NCAA Football: Ohio at Kansas
Quentin Poling
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Ohio made up for its mediocre offense with mostly strong defense and excellent special teams. Kickoffs were an issue, and Papi White wasn’t amazingly productive in punt returns, but Michael Farkas’ punts were unreturnable (he combined a 40.9-yard average over 69 kicks with 28 fair catches and 26 punts inside the 20), kick returns were steady, and place-kicker Louie Zervos was a major weapon. He was asked to attempt 35 field goals — three more than anybody else in the country, and, frankly, far too many — but made 22 of 25 under 40 yards and a solid seven of 10 over 40.

To put that another way, a sophomore (Zervos) and freshman (Farkas) powered a unit that ranked 16th in Special Teams S&P+. Special teams could be a strength for a while in Athens.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Hampton NR 31.5 97%
8-Sep at Purdue 87 -6.3 36%
16-Sep Kansas 107 3.3 57%
23-Sep at Eastern Michigan 96 -4.2 40%
30-Sep at Massachusetts 111 -1.1 48%
7-Oct Central Michigan 97 0.9 52%
14-Oct at Bowling Green 95 -4.5 40%
21-Oct Kent State 123 7.7 67%
31-Oct Miami (Ohio) 88 -1.2 47%
8-Nov Toledo 59 -11.2 26%
14-Nov at Akron 122 2.7 56%
24-Nov at Buffalo 128 7.2 66%
Projected S&P+ Rk 103
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 122 / 61
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.9 (92)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 121 / 114
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 2.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (41%, 67%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.3 (-0.3)

S&P+ sees a bit of a backtrack. The offense, already shaky, must replace a good chunk of its receiving corps and a part-time starting QB, and a strong defense is rebuilding up front. And with a No. 103 projection and a schedule that features six games with win probability between 40 and 60 percent, the Bobcats are projected to go only 6-6 overall.

It’s not hard to assume a bit more, though. Maxwell seems to have upside, and the run game should get a steadying hand with the return of Ouellette. If youngsters like Maxwell, Papi White, Elijah Ball, and half the secondary all progress, this team could have one of Solich’s higher ceilings.

Still, as we saw in 2016 and most of the decade previous, Solich’s teams are as much about high floors as ceilings. A bunch of closely projected games? Sounds great! They make every game close anyway, and they know how to maneuver when they get there!

Ohio is the MAC East baseline. If someone else wants to surge forward, the title is there for the taking. But the Bobcats can step in and represent the division pretty well. And just as I hope Bill Pullman’s Walter ended up happy in Sleepless, I do hope Solich nabs a conference title before he retires. If he ever retires.


Team preview stats

All preview data to date.