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Terry Bowden’s done a great job at Akron, but 2018’s probably a reset year

The Zips are probably due for a decline season after a lucky 2017, though.

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Iowa went unbeaten in the regular season despite advanced stats suggesting they were lucky as hell to do so. In the Hawkeyes’ 2016 preview, I wrote this:

Iowa’s 2015 is why most of us follow college football. From a pure numbers standpoint, most of us aren’t Alabama fans or Ohio State fans or Florida State fans. In our lifetimes, we won’t get many chances to partake in a national title race, but we like to believe that if we stick it out, if we just keep showing up, we might be blessed by a run like what Ferentz’s Hawkeyes had last fall.

Now comes the awkward part. A magical run is, by definition, almost impossible to replicate. It uses up most of your dark arts quota. It also sets a bar that you probably can’t clear.

Last year was last year. Buy the DVD, keep those feelings under lock and key and never lose them. Just don’t expect a repeat.

With a team that finished just 42nd in S&P+, Iowa went 5-0 in one-possession finishes in the regular season and reached 12-0 before falling just short in the Big Ten title game, then falling apart against Stanford. In the two years since, the Hawkeyes have averaged a ranking of 40th but have gone just 16-10 overall.

Granted, I didn’t get yelled at nearly as much by Akron fans last year as I did by Hawkeye fans in 2015, but consider Akron the Iowa of the MAC East. The Zips ranked 112th in S&P+ last season, three spots worse than in 2016, when they went just 5-7. The defense improved just in time for the offense to regress by an equal amount. As is seemingly the case every year, Bowden struggled to keep the same QB on the field — three threw at least 26 passes, and none played more than 10 games — and a couple of key absences on defense made things more volatile than planned.

Oh, and Akron went 6-2 in the MAC and won its first division title in 12 years. The Zips beat WMU, Buffalo, Ohio, and Kent by a combined 15 points while losing to Toledo and Miami (Ohio) by a combined 37. They saved their best performance for their biggest game, a 37-34 upset of Ohio in mid-November.

They got obliterated by Toledo (in the MAC title game) and FAU (in the Boca Raton Bowl) to finish the season, yes. The Rockets and Owls pasted them by a combined 95-31. Because of this and blowout losses to Penn State and Iowa State in non-conference play (plus a tight loss at Troy), Akron finished with a rare 7-7 record.

Akron had an efficiency deficiency, posting just a 35 percent success rate on offense (124th in FBS) and allowing a 47 percent success rate on defense (119th). But the Zips prevented big plays and flashed just enough explosiveness to pull off some peaks with the valleys.

Seven wins at Akron is remarkable, regardless of context. In likely the final act of his coaching career, Bowden has brought a new level of expectations to Akron. In the seven seasons from 2006 (the year after the Zips’ surprising MAC title run) and 2012 (Bowden’s first), Akron averaged fewer than three wins per season. They have averaged six per year over the last five. Even if they were a bit on the lucky side in 2017, Bowden has them positioned to at least take advantage of the luck that presents itself.

It could be more of the same in 2018. A frequently poor offense must replace most of its skill position players and half of its offensive line, but an occasionally interesting defense brings back most of its two-deep. Luck probably won’t remain the same, and that jerk S&P+ is skeptical, but Akron will have an opportunity to win another six or seven games this year if things break right.

Offense

2017 Akron offensive radar

A.J. Milwee was so young when Bowden first promoted him to offensive coordinator that he is still young five years later. The former North Alabama quarterback (who played under Bowden in Florence) just turned 32, and he enters his sixth year in charge.

His next good offense will be his first, though. Hamstrung by a lack of depth and constantly injured quarterbacks, he’s struggled to find any consistent pieces.

In 2017, Akron packed brought decent big-play potential but was far too inefficient.

2017 Akron offensive efficiency & explosiveness

When you’re inefficient, you’re entirely reliant on big plays. That makes you extremely unpredictable. The Zips averaged 6.2 yards per play against Ball State, then 3.9 against Western Michigan. They hit 6.7 against Buffalo, then 4.0 against Miami (Ohio), then 6.3 against Ohio, then 3.2 against Kent State.

It’s a good news, bad news situation heading into 2018.

  • Good news: Milwee may have found his QB of the future in Kato Nelson, who took over late in the season. Nelson played brilliantly in the upset of Ohio (22-for-38 for 322 yards and four touchdowns, plus 45 non-sack rushing yards) before careening off a cliff in the next three games (combined: 23-for-53 for 326 yards). But unlike Thomas Woodson, the oft-injured incumbent, Nelson threw few interceptions and showed a bit of a big-play spark (14.1 yards per completion). He was inconsistent as hell, but of course he was. He was a freshman.
  • Bad news: Nelson needs a supporting cast, and it’s unclear what he’s got. Two members of a three-headed running back corps are gone, as are seven of last year’s top eight targets and linemen who accounted for 33 of last year’s 70 starts up front. That includes all-conference tackle Jovann Letuli.

No member of the three-headed running back corps was really any better than the others, so senior Van Edwards Jr. might be able to carry a heavier load with no appreciable drop-off. Plus, two wonderfully named mid-three-star freshmen — Keyondre White and Abraham Alce — are coming aboard, and it’s not too late for Milwee to figure out what to do with Deltron Sands. The junior didn’t earn many opportunities in 2017 but was starting to figure some things out (six carries for 52 yards vs. Ball State, seven for 70 vs. Buffalo) before suffering a season-ending injury.

At receiver, speedster Kwadarrius Smith (34 catches, 726 yards, seven touchdowns) is back. He was the second-most efficient and by far the most explosive member of the receiving corps. The others were basically replacement-level guys.

NCAA Football: Akron at Penn State
Kwadarrius Smith
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Akron has almost no proven depth. But Smith is the one guy Akron really needed back, three-star sophomore slot Andre Williams (four catches, 70 yards) could be exciting, and the tight end position is well-stocked with sophomore Kobie Booker (eight catches, 126 yards, four scores), senior Mykel Traylor-Bennett (nine catches in 2016), and sophomore and former star recruit Dylan Meeks.

The best thing about sophomores is that they still have time to develop. A core of Nelson, Booker, Williams, Meeks, and company could become something pretty exciting, even if the 2018 offense is every bit as inconsistent.

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron
Kato Nelson
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Akron defensive radar

College football got a little bit less chesty this offseason. In late-February, defensive coordinator Amato retired at age 71. The NC State grad began his college coaching career in 1971 at his alma mater, joined Bobby Bowden’s staff at Florida State in 1982, led NC State as head coach from 2000-06, and spent the last six years crafting often effective defenses for Bowden’s son in Akron.

The Amato era indeed saw moments of brilliance. He inherited a unit that had ranked 112th in Def. S&P+ in 2011 and needed just two years to move it into the top 80. In 2015, the Zips peaked at 37th with a senior-heavy lineup. After a predictable collapse in 2016, they rebounded to 82nd. (They dropped about 10 spots after the rough final two games.)

Amato’s final Akron defense was very much a bend-don’t-break attack, ranking 119th in success rate but 31st in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays). The run defense was mostly problematic, and the pass defense allowed a 62 percent completion rate, but opponents averaged only 11.7 yards per completion and threw 19 picks. As you would expect, those picks were key: Akron’s turnover margin was plus-11 in wins and minus-1 in losses.

Amato’s gone, but the bones remain intact. Last year’s top 11 havoc guys are back, including defensive end Jamal Davis II (15.5 tackles for loss), linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III (9.5 TFLs, five sacks, seven passes defensed), and corner Kyron Brown (two TFLs, 13 passes defensed). This trio accounted for one third of Akron’s 2017 havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles) by themselves.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Akron
Jamal Davis II
David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

The line, already shaky, does get thinned out a bit. Three of last year’s top seven tacklers up front are gone, so while Davis, end Brian Reinke, and tackle Brock Boxen form a pretty good starting point, youngsters like sophomore end Justin Sampson or redshirt freshman tackle DeAndre Brimage might have to contribute sooner than later.

If the line holds up at all, though, the back seven could thrive. Gilbert, John Lako, and Brian Bell form one of the MAC’s more exciting linebacking corps (look out for one-time WVU signee Maverick Wolfley as well), and the secondary could probably fulfill a more active, aggressive role if the new defensive coordinator requests it.

Brown and fellow senior corners Jordan George and Darian Dailey combined for six TFLs, eight picks, and 21 breakups. That INT-to-PBU ratio suggests they were maybe a bit lucky to hold onto as many passes as they did, but this is an excellent group, and any questions I have about Akron’s defense in 2018 have to do with the backbone. There are attacking options on the perimeter.

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron
Kyron Brown (4) and Jordan George (7)
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

That Akron won as many close games as it did was impressive enough before you factor in the fact that the Zips’ special teams unit stunk. Neither Tom O’Leary nor Nick Gasser inspired much confidence in place-kicking duties (combined, they were 4-for-8 on FGs under 40 yards and 2-for-5 over 40), and Gasser’s kickoffs were short and returnable.

Edwards and Sands are solid in the return game, and Gasser’s punts are solid, but there are a couple of huge gaps in this lineup.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Nebraska 60 -17.0 16%
8-Sep Morgan State NR 33.2 97%
15-Sep at Northwestern 38 -21.6 11%
22-Sep at Iowa State 46 -19.7 13%
6-Oct Miami (Ohio) 82 -8.0 32%
13-Oct at Buffalo 93 -9.7 29%
20-Oct at Kent State 127 0.3 51%
27-Oct Central Michigan 116 1.8 54%
1-Nov Northern Illinois 69 -10.1 28%
10-Nov at Eastern Michigan 96 -9.0 30%
17-Nov Bowling Green 97 -3.7 41%
23-Nov at Ohio 68 -15.2 19%
Projected S&P+ Rk 119
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 129 / 62
Projected wins 4.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.9 (105)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 126 / 124
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / 1.0
2017 TO Luck/Game +3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (36%, 87%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (2.2)

It feels like Bowden has been around forever, in part because he got his first head coaching gig at age 31. Still only 62, he could still have a few more years if he keeps this rickety plane in the air. There are just enough exciting underclassmen to think Akron might have another peak or two in it under Bowden, but I can’t imagine that happens in 2018.

The combination of luck’s regression to the mean, a skill corps reset, and Amato’s retirement will probably tamp down Akron’s potential in the short term. S&P+ projects the Zips only 119th and favors them in only three games, two of which are tossups (0.3-point favorite against Kent State, 1.8 against CMU).

Youngsters like Nelson, Booker, and Wolfley have pretty high upside, though. That could mean a sooner-than-expected rise, but more likely, it could mean good things in 2019 and beyond.

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