I was right. Technically.
During last year’s preview series, I talked myself into 2018 being when the Bobcats became not only the best team in the MAC East — they’ve won four division titles under Frank Solich and were almost unquestionably the best in the division in 2017 despite losing the title to Akron — but also the best team in the conference.
The Bobcats returned a thrilling quarterback in Nathan Rourke, most of their skill corps, and most of their secondary. The only question was how well they could replenish depth in their defensive front seven. If a couple of stars emerged, then Solich’s team would soar.
Sure enough, play-makers emerged. Linebacker Evan Croutch finished with 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and eight passes defensed, and in the absence of a single breakout star, the line got production from everyone — eight Bobcat linemen finished with between 2.5 and 6.5 TFLs.
The defense slid a bit overall, but the offense more than made up for it. After improving from 112th to 44th in Off. S&P+ in 2017, the Bobcats soared further, all the way to 16th. Rourke threw for 2,434 yards and, not including sacks, rushed for 1,006. Backs A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Irons combined for 2,137 rushing yards, and receivers Papi White, Andrew Meyer, and Cameron Odom combined for 128 catches and 1,910 yards. This team had depth, creativity, and upside. It was as good as expected.
I mean, look at the 2018 portion of this chart. Looks like soaring to me.
The one problem: it took until mid-October for things to get rolling. And by that point, Ohio had already all but ceded the MAC East to Buffalo. They had begun by merely eking past Howard and Kent State, had dropped non-conference upset opportunities against Virginia and Cincinnati, and had slipped up in a tossup at NIU.
They were just 3-3 when Bowling Green came to town on October 20. They finished 9-4. They obliterated BGSU and Ball State by a combined 101-28, crushed WMU by 45 points in Kalamazoo, destroyed an awesome Buffalo by 35, and helped to send Terry Bowden into retirement with a 21-point win over Akron. Perhaps most impressively, in the Frisco Bowl, they wiped the floor with San Diego State, 27-0.
Oh yeah, and in between all this domination, they managed to fall behind Miami (Ohio) 28-7 at half in an eventual 30-28 loss. The loss gave Buffalo the East title.
This is Ohio. There’s always a what-if. Ohio used to win the East and then rue missed chances in the conference title games. Now the Bobcats play at the highest level in the division but lose the one game they can’t afford to drop.
This is all still preferable to what came before, though. Solich took over a desolate program in 2005, slowly improved the Bobcats’ depth, made a few bowls, and peaked with a 10-win, 60th-in-S&P+ performance in 2011.
After the disappointing way his tenure at Nebraska ended — long regarded as Tom Osborne’s heir at his alma mater, Solich engineered three AP top-10 finishes in six seasons, and had them back to 19th in 2003 before he was fired (the Huskers have topped 19th only once since) — 2011 seemed like a nice coda. He was 67 years old.
Now, with Solich getting ready to turn 75, Ohio is in even better shape. In 2017 and 2018 he fielded the best squads the Bobcats have had since the mid-1970s.
And guess what: in Rourke, he has maybe the best player in the conference.
Rourke is a mobile quarterback’s mobile quarterback. He’s elusive, tough, throws a lot of play-action bombs, seems to throw better under pressure than in a clean pocket, and, well, probably takes too many sacks.
Solich and longtime coordinator Tim Albin have crafted an exciting evolution of the old I-formation triple option, spreading things out and changing the “options” in the option. And the 6’2, 208-pound Rourke is the perfect quarterback to run it.
As he heads into his senior season, the names around him have changed dramatically. Ouellette and Irons are gone, as are White and Meyer. The Bobcats’ two-deep will boast zero backs who rushed at least 20 times last year and only two wideouts who caught more than three passes. Oh yeah, and the Bobcats have to replace three all-conference linemen, too. Yikes.
This is why, despite Rourke’s return, S&P+ projects Ohio as only the MAC’s fourth-best team. (Well, that, and the iffy defense.) But his supporting cast still appears to have upside. He’s still got Odom and Isiah Cox, for starters.
Odom was a little more all-or-nothing than White or Meyer, but he averaged a decent 7.3 yards per target, and Cox made the most of his opportunities as a freshman, catching 11 of 16 balls for 309 yards (28.1 per catch!) and three scores. He caught three balls for 147 yards and a score against NIU, almost allowing the Bobcats to overcome both a poor rushing day and horrible turnovers luck.
Another freshman, tiny Jerome Buckner (5’7, 164), caught just three balls all season while redshirting, but they went for 28 and 16 yards against Virginia and 60 yards against Buffalo. He could make some noise in White’s abandoned slot position. Plus, Solich has been stocking up on three-star tight ends — he’s got three of them in the freshman class, including 6’6 Tyler Foster, one of his most regarded signees. TEs haven’t been used all that much in Athens; that might change.
There are fewer knowns in the backfield. Ouellette and Irons were long-term contributors, and the leading returning rushers are now sophomore Jake Neatherton (19 carries, 81 yards), redshirt freshman O’Shaan Allison (seven for 24), and junior Julian Ross (seven for 14). If they’re ready, a couple of 2019 signees could find rotation time: JUCO transfer De’Montre Tuggle and wonderfully named three-star freshman Walter Wilbon III.
Despite the loss of three all-MAC linemen — tackle Joe Lowery and guards Joe Anderson and Durrell Wood — Ohio is not without experience up front. Four returning upperclassmen have combined for 45 starts, and three other juniors and seniors filled spots on the two-deep in 2018. They’re big, too, averaging 6’6, 307 among these seven players. That’s a decent base, and it doesn’t count three-star JUCO Gary Hoover, listed at 6’4, 325.
Rourke will run his way into and out of trouble, but he’ll probably get a competent performance from his line.
Considering turnover, it was easy to worry that the Ohio defense would hold the offense back in 2018. And sure enough, Jimmy Burrow’s final Bobcats defense was even worse than imaginable for half the season. Seven weeks in, Ohio was 125th in Def. S&P+; they had never finished worse than 106th in Solich’s tenure.
Burrow, father of Joe, retired in February, but not before some last-minute improvement.
- Ohio defense, first 7 games: 6.7 yards per play, 31 points per game, 156.2 passer rating allowed, 28% average percentile performance
- Ohio defense, last 6 games: 5.2 yards per play, 17.2 points per game, 110.7 passer rating allowed, 61% average percentile performance
Croutch recorded 7.5 of his 14 TFLs in the last four games, and the secondary thrived when it started getting extra pass rush support.
Considering the secondary was loaded with sophomores, and considering the by-committee approach on the line included players like freshman Amos Ogun-Semore and sophomores Will Evans and Austin Conrad, it’s easy to find yourself optimistic about, say, the 2020 Ohio defense.
In longtime LBs coach Ron Collins’ first season as coordinator, however, he’ll have a new batch of turnover: Croutch and tackles Kent Berger and Andrew Payne were among the reasons for Ohio’s late-year improvement, and they’re gone. While the Bobcats will almost certainly improve on last year’s year-end No. 107 ranking, they might have to settle for something in the 80s or 90s.
Of course, Pro Football Focus really liked Evans and safety Javon Hagan, Ohio has as much depth at end as any team in the MAC, and with juniors Marlin Brooks, Ilyaas Motley, and Jamal Hudson, they might have better depth at cornerback, too. In junior safety Jarren Hampton the Bobcats have a player with more disruptive potential than the one guy they lost in the secondary (Kylan Nelson).
There’s potential for a sustained bounce-back, in other words. But it will likely depend on competence from the tackle and WLB positions. Croutch was far more disruptive than any other linebacker, and tackles Cole Baker, Brian Arp, and Kaieem Caesar will need to raise their respective games. Ohio could be awesome on the edges, but that won’t matter if they’re too soft on the interior.
Long a strength for Solich and coordinator Brian Haines. Ohio has ranked in the Special Teams S&P+ top 20 five times this decade and in the top 50 on two other occasions.
After three straight top-20 finishes, the Bobcats slipped to 40th last year, thanks primarily to some glitches from place-kicker Louie Zervos, but Ohio was still well-rounded. Zervos is still solid, Michael Farkas is a booming punter (43.4 average last year, 14th in punt efficiency), and in Bryan Long Jr. and Julian Ross, Ohio still presents danger in the return game despite the losses of Papi White and Kylan Nelson.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|TBD||at Ball State||110||8.5||69%|
|TBD||at Bowling Green||123||15.0||81%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||82|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||34 / 109|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-1.4 (81)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||99|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||13 / 7.6|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+2.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||52% (41%, 63%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||8.9 (0.1)|
Over half the teams in the MAC enter 2019 thinking they have a shot at a conference title run. The field is more crowded than last year, when, for the second straight season, Ohio managed to both play like the best team in the East and and lose the one game it couldn’t.
For that reason, it’s hard to be as confident in the Bobcats’ title chances this time, and that’s before you get to the turnover in the skill corps and trenches. Still, they’re very much in the race, still at least a narrow East favorite.
Solich is coaching better in his 70s than he did in his 60s, and it would be pretty incredible if he could finally reel in the elusive conference title before he retires. That might be easier with Rourke than without.
Tossup games will tell the story. S&P+ projects Ohio as a multi-score favorite in five games (including four conference games) and a multi-score underdog in only one; that leaves six games projected within one touchdown. The Bobcats are at least slightly favored in all eight MAC games, and they can probably afford to drop a tossup, maybe two, along the way. But they’ll need to get rolling a little earlier in the year this time around.