After falling to as low as 87th in the CSD Prime computer rankings last year after a poor 3-3 start, Ohio fired off down the stretch, winning six of their final seven en route to a top 50 finish. The Bobcats have won four MAC East titles since Frank Solich took over in 2005, but the former Nebraska HC has never been able to lead the Bobcats to the overall conference championship.
The poor start in 2018 put Ohio behind the eight ball in their hunt to dethrone Buffalo in the MAC East, and despite clobbering the Bulls 52-17 in their head-to-head matchup in November, Ohio fell one game short of a trip to the conference title game after blowing a 28-7 halftime lead against Miami (OH) to fall to the Redhawks 30-28. Ohio did end the year on a high note with a 27-0 Frisco Bowl victory over a very good San Diego State team, one of six 21+ point victories from the high powered offense.
Nathan Rourke, potentially the best player in the MAC, returns for the Bobcats after an All-MAC year in 2018. Over the course of his 26 game career, the dual-threat QB has accounted for over 6,000 yards and 77 touchdowns. However, there won’t be too many familiar faces around him, as the Bobcats will have to replace their top two backs, top two receivers, and three starting linemen from last year’s team. T Austin Pleasants and C/G Brett Kitrell are good hands returning on the line, and they also bring back senior T Marques Grimes who should take on a bigger role and add three-star JUCO G Gary Hoover, but the holes in the trenches and among the skill positions are hard to overlook.
It would be hard to imagine this offense not taking a step back without the likes of WR Papi White and RBs AJ Ouellette and Maleek Irons. Sophomore Adam Luehrman is a name to watch as a solid tight end in run protection, and two young but small speedsters in Isiah Cox and Jerome Buckner are deep threats who both averaged over 25 yards per reception last season (although Buckner redshirted early on).
There isn’t a ton to speak of in the backfield in terms of returning production. Sophomore Jake Neatherton is the top returner at 81 yards, but two guys who redshirted last year: Julian Ross and O’Shaan Allison should compete for carries along with highly-touted three-star freshman Walter Wilbon III.
Rourke will need to carry the offense to some extent, but there is certainly still talent around him, and while I would expect a step back, it shouldn’t be a disaster thanks to their star QB.
Ohio’s defense had to deal with a lot of turnover last year including six of their starting front seven and struggled, especially early on, but by the end of the year they turned things around, letting up over 17 points just twice in their final seven games after letting up an average of 33.8 PPG in their first six. DC Jimmy Burrow retired over the offseason and the Bobcats promoted his #2 Ron Collins to the job.
Collins has previously been the head man on defense at Boise State and Colorado and returns six starters from the team, although he loses big names like LB Evan Croutch (14 TFL, 5.5 sacks).
The edge group is stacked as it returns everyone from the wide rotation that the Bobcats played with last year, most notably junior Will Evans and sophomore Amos Ogun-Semore. The D-Tackle spot is a little bit more desperate as they lose two big producers in Kent Berger and Andrew Payne, meaning seniors Cole Baker and Brian Arp will need to step up. Both got playing time in all 13 games last season and seem to be ready to step into the shoes that Berger and Payne left. The other hole is at will linebacker spot where senior Eric Popp is the expected starter to fill in after Croutch’s departure.
The secondary is deep with names as it only loses one guy from last year’s squad, and most will be back for 2020 with the exception of stud S Javon Hagan who should compete for all-conference honors as a senior.
This group is nothing special but should be able to be a small step above last year’s unit with the potential for a big step forward if they can figure out how to plug up the middle, and with all the big names outside of Hagan returning next year this has the potential to be an elite G5 defense in 2020.
Ohio is my computer’s top team in the MAC coming into this year, not really because of anything they did, more just because the conference as a whole is really crowded and… why not them? With no real favorite, they happen to be the one team with an awesome quarterback to steady the ship and that is really important to look at when you can’t get a read on a conference.
It’s hard to be confident in Solich’s Bobcats after all of the missed opportunities in years past and all of the turnover on both sides of the line, but the schedules shapes out very favorably. Ohio’s only three conference games against top-99 teams all come at home (Miami-OH, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan). Non-conference games @ Pittsburgh and @ Marshall are the only two match-ups this season where Ohio will come in as underdogs, meaning they’ll be favored in all eight conference games, albeit by single digits in six of those due to the crowded nature of the conference.
A combination of Rourke and the speed on both sides of the ball lead me to somewhat overlook the talent lost on the interior and in the other skill positions, and I’ll call for the Bobcats to finally take home the MAC crown in their 15th year with Solich at the helm, a fitting sendoff to a great career for Nathan Rourke.
|26-OCT||AT BALL STATE||113||7.5|
|19-NOV||at Bowling Green||118||9.2|
Average projected record: 8.3 wins, 3.7 losses (5.9 wins, 2.1 losses)