Legendary coach (and Nebraska Hall of Fame) Frank Solich has been at Ohio University for 13 years and is the fifth-longest tenured head football coach in the FBS. In that time, he’s piled up 96 wins and eight bowl appearances. That’s not bad considering the Bobcats had only been to two bowl games before in the program’s long existence.
Yet, despite those grand accomplishments, there is one thing that he has wanted and failed to get: the MAC championship.
This is the year that will change. Savvy sees these Bobcats as a distinct favorite because Ohio’s metrics on Savvy last season were very high in the fundamental elements common to most champions. Most of the offense is back and while the defense needs replacements, there is plenty of returning experience and some juco infusion to complete a strong unit.
Ohio’s offense is old school. Seldom will you see something fancy or “newish”, but you’ll love lolling in the success that accompanies gritty, trench-driven, offenses.
As expected of most trench-drivers, this offense produced one of FBS’ top running attacks. It will be even better this season since most of the offensive line is back and it is very strong.
Also returning is top running back, A.J. Ouelette after grinding for 1006 yards. And, he’ll be supported by sophomore tailback Julian Ross who has the agility and speed to give Ohio a strong and versatile one-two punch.
Quarterback Nathan Rourke has been around some. The Canadian has played football in three different states and finally found the right fit when he reached Athens, Ohio. Last season, he registered over 900 yards on the ground, second-best on the team. He also passed for 2200 and hopes to improve on a 55% completion rate, although as late as spring scrimmages, he was still struggling with “wobbling balls” as one commentator noted.
Nevertheless, Coach Solich will tell you that Rourke is exactly the right quarterback for this program because his leadership and toughness represent what Bobcats football is intended to be.
There will be plenty of quality receivers since three of the top four return from last year. Papi White, Andrew Meyer, and Cameron Odom, combined for 91 receptions and more than 1400 yards.
Offense will not be an issue.
Defense might be.
Six of the front seven defensive starters must be replaced from a defense that was one of Amcerica’s ten best run-stop teams. Coach Solich has six front end players with extensive experience plus two who missed all of last season with injuries and another two from jucos.
The back end should be strong with just one defensive back graduated.
Despite new faces on defense, expect the Bobcats to finally get the MAC championship for their coach. The schedule is wonderfully nicey-nice which makes it easy for Savvy to see this as a 10-win team.
2. Northern Illinois
Once redshirt-sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers was given an opportunity, he proved he should not sit third string on the bench. Childers got his chance when the Huskies’ record was 2-2, starting qb Ryan Graham was out for the season with injury, and Rod Carey decided his team needed something a spark. He called on Childers and the Georgia freshman promptly led the Huskies on an 80-yard touchdown drive. Childers finished the season with 57% completions, just 1.8% interceptions, and is the leading returning rusher.
NIU won six of the seven games that Childers started.
He’ll be looking for new receivers since three of NIU’s top five are gone. However, Spencer Tears was the top receiver with 43 catches and he is back now for his junior season as is senior D.J. Brown who had 42. Neither is a long-ball threat (combined ave. 10 ypc) but that may be solved by the late emergence of Iowa State transfer Jauan Wesley who came on strong and averaged 20 ypc late in the year.
Although running back Jordan Huff graduated, two quality running backs return in Marcus Jones and Tre Harbison so the ground game should once again be strong. However, it is essential that this group holds onto the ball better than last season.
The offensive line is big (average over 305 pounds) and it is all back. The left side is led by two all-MAC candidates in LT Max Sharping and LG Jordan Steckler. Expect this group to be the fundamental reason NIU rises from 93rd in total offense.
The Huskies use a high-risk, high-pressure defense that forces lots of turnovers and finished second in the nation for getting sacks. There is a new coordinator but the roster is built for speed and aggression so there is not likely to be much change in scheme.
The defensive front lost only one starter and is led by the return of a defensive ends Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran who are among the best DE tandem in FBS. Jawuan Johnson keeps the linebacking corps strong despite some meaningful losses. This defense will probably once again finish in the top-20 for stopping the rush. The secondary has some holes to fill but also has a group of backups who played significant minutes in 2017.
NIU has registered sluggish metrics on Savvy in the early parts of the past several seasons. Coach Carey has no time to waste since three of his first four opponents are Power Five. Savvy projects that NIU will get one of those P5’s and finish 8-4.
Head coach Jason Candle was MAC Coach of the Year last year. You see, he is somewhat of a miracle worker after bringing success everywhere he’s been. In this his second year at Toledo, Candle will have his hands full because the Rockets lose almost all starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
Also graduated is quarterback Logan Woodside who was a two-time all-MAC talent. Mitch Guadagni is Woodside’s expected replacement but despite being considered a “big talent”, Guadagni only threw six passes last season. Only two were caught and one of those catches was by an opponent. At the same time, it should be noted that Guadagni ran more than he passed and he did so with nearly 10 ypc.
There are some experienced and talented receivers with Diontae Johnson leading the way (74 catches, 1278 yards). Some observers have stated concerns that this receiving group lacks depth. However, a half-dozen returning receivers caught at least 20 passes last season.
Shakif Seymore is primed to take over as the top running back and he will have Art Thompkins to help as well. With both of them getting more carries, each has a realistic opportunity to get over 1000 rushing yards.
Toledo was top-25 in pass defense despite being 106th in getting sacks. In other words: the defensive secondary was strong while the front…not so much. Now that defensive end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi has declared for the NFL draft, the front is likely to show some erosion.
However, the secondary still continues to shine as two top corners, Justin Clark and Ka’Dar Hollman are back and safety Kahlil Robinson led the team in interceptions and was third in tackles with 67. DeDarallo Blue, Jordan Williams, and Ronnie Jones round out an experienced back-end group that will be one of the nation’s best once again.
Despite the number of key positions being replaced, coach Candle says he is happy with his team and believes it is gaining cohesion and will be ready. He’s also happy with his incoming freshmen after he pulled in the MAC’s third-best recruiting class.
Savvy has always valued teams coached by Candle. It’s as if—as long as he is coach, there is reason to believe the team will win. The Index stops at nine wins but only because so much depends on Guadagni and so little is known about his ability to pass.
4. Western Michigan
This is a pretty solid team that should thrive after a year under new coach Tim Lester and his system.
He’ll have starting quarterback Jon Wassink back after a somewhat successful 2017 season that ended with a collarbone injury in game eight. The 6’2” junior completed 64% of his passes for 1391 yards while rushing for 126 more.
Coach Lester stated that his focus is on getting more from his passing attack. Hopefully, his plan is to place emphasis on the development of pure freshman qb Kaleb Eleby who has looked especially good since enrolling early. Eleby’s potential role cannot be understated. When Wassink was injured, his replacement last season was Reece Goddard. Coach Lester admits that Goddard was thrown into action before the freshman was ready and after losing 75% of his games and being bounced hard by opponents and his own fans, Goddard lost confidence and quit just as spring ball was starting.
(A note about Goddard: Even after quitting, he is a favorite among coaches and teammates who regret his absence. He is also a bit of an anomaly because, in addition to being an FBS quarterback, Goddard is also a 60-foot shotputter despite being a bit undersized at 210 pounds.)
It is essential for WMU success for coaches do a better job of preparing Eleby to carry this team than they did Goddard.
Most of the offensive line starters are back and that includes all-MAC candidate, center John Kennoy. This group will bulldoze the way for another spectacular year on the ground. However, it has some problems in pass protection blocking and this is an area that coach Lester needs to solve because the Broncos gave up 22 sacks in 2017.
Running back Jamauri Bogan is back and will become a 1000 yard rusher. He has four other talented rbs to help.
There are plenty of returning receivers. The problem is that none of them were very impressive last year. It is hoped that two tall newcomers, Michigan transfer Drake Harris and redshirt freshman Jaylen Hall, both 6’4″, will bring some long-ball potential.
The defense loses some standout defensive backs and must rebuild its linebackers. Coach Lester is looking at two incoming freshmen to help on the back end but depth will be an issue. The Bronco defense ranked average last year and will probably be a little less than that now.
Since coach Lester took over, there has been a noticeable erosion in the passing attack as well as over all defense. If those trends continue, then Kalamazoo might become Kalamnoose for Lester.
After reaching the top-25 two years ago, Western Michigan finished last season 91st ranked on Savvy. Many previewers say this season will finish with the Broncos ranked below 100th. While they might be right, foundational metrics on the Savvy Index were strong last season and it’s important to keep in mind that WMU lost three games by one possession and led two of those in the fourth quarter. Savvy is measuring this as an eight win team against a rather polite schedule.
5. Miami (Ohio)
Don’t say you didn’t see this one coming because Miami-Ohio is ready to make some noise.
Head Coach Chuck Martin begins his fifth year with everything in place that he needs to finally get a winning season.
On the defensive side, nearly everyone is back from one of the MAC’s best. If there is a shortcoming it is the inability of this defensive front to bring enough pressure. That should be better with the return of senior defensive end Doug Boslin who led the team in sacks (5). He was also second in tackles for a loss. Both outside linebackers return as do two outstanding defensive backs.
Senior quarterback Gus Ragland returns after he passed for over 2000 yards. His 56% completion rate was too low and his 2.6% interception rate too high, however after in-depth examination, it seems apparent that Raglund’s problems were the products of injuries. If he stays healthy, he will surpass 60% accuracy and should run about 1.7% interceptions. If he can’t go, the Red Hawks might have found lightning in a bottle in freshman Jarren Williams who was one of the most exciting dual-threat qbs coming out of high school.
The offensive line is doing its part as it ranks in the top-third for protecting the qb. Most of that line is back, especially all-MAC candidate Jordan Rigg who protects from left tackle.
Running backs are plentiful and experienced. Seniors Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith return after combining for 289 carries and 1441 yards. With a better offensive line and these two running backs, the rushing attack better surpass the paltry 146 ypg of 2017.
Three senior receivers are gone but James Gardner returns with a team-leading 927 yards and a lofty long-ball average of 20ypc.
Coach Martin has the pieces. Now it is time for him to make it work. To do that, he will help himself greatly by calling his players to greater game disciplines.
Mi-O won five games last year. Savvy has settled on eight but acknowledges the distance between this team and the top MAC four is still considerable.
Enjoy it while you can Buffalo because coach Lance Leopold is a hot commodity across the nation. The heat will be even greater after this season because your Bulls will be even better. I mean think about it. If you could get to 6-6 using three different quarterbacks, imagine what it will be like when you don’t face so many injuries.
After winning your final three games, you have a nice bit of momentum going, don’t you? That’s why I reckon you will get your season off to a faster start than in 2017. Please tell me that you are already aware that your first seven are winnable.
You have Tyree Jackson returning and he checks all of the boxes that it takes to be considered an outstanding quarterback. Besides rushing for nearly 200 yards (4.2 ave), Jackson completed 60% of his passes and in just nine games, amassed over 2000 yards. What is even better—in fact among the top three in the nation—is his 1.3% interception ratio.
You don’t get those kinds of numbers without protection up front and UB’s trenchers finished a lofty 21st in the nation for fewest sacks allowed. And now, with most of that line returning, it should be even better.
Four running backs return to cleat up some mud rockets after combining for 378 carries, 1600 yards, 17 touchdowns, and a spike in aspirin purchases across the MAC.
Only one of the Bulls’ top five receivers graduated and Biletnikoff candidate Anthony Johnson is back to improve on his 76 receptions and 1356 yards.
This was one of America’s top-25 passing attacks and it will be even better now.
The defense was almost good enough but lacked ability to bring enough pressure against the pass or stuff the middle against the run. Unless those issues are solved, Buffalo might not win any more games now than it did a year ago.
But think about it Buffaloers. I mean, maybe that would be a good thing—not winning more games and all. Maybe that would improve your chances of keeping Leopold around. All he needs is another step up in wins and one of the big boys will be come a-callin’.
Savvy says it will happen this year. You will win more and lose Lance. Savvy sees this as a seven win team now and perhaps eight by opening day.
7. Central Michigan
The Chippewas won eight games last season and they did it primarily with a pass-efficiency defense that was almost America’s best (6th ranked).
Although three starting defensive stars have graduated, this unit is strong and deep and there are many who think the front end will be even better.
Oustanding quarterback Shane Morris is gone but coach John Bonamego played freshman Tony Poljan in all 13 games last year and has now declared former Minnesota commit the likely starter. In limited duty last season, Poljan ran the ball 28% more than he passed, an oddity for a pro-style quarterback who stands 6’7″.
And in case you haven’t had your fill of oddities… Poljan was also used at receiver so much so that now only one wide receiver returns with more catches. It almost seems that CMU’s best passing duo is Tony Poljan to himself.
Running the ball won’t be hard because Jonathan Ward (1000 yards) is back and there is a lot of youthful talent behind him.
Three top receivers have graduated but the Chippewas are still reaping the benefits of a deep receiver recruiting class in 2016. Four tight ends graduated leaving only one returning. Expect this group to become solid even if it doesn’t start out that way. And keep in mind that RB Ward caught 48 passes out of the backfield.
CMU’s defense is going to be national-caliber once again and, while Savvy sees seven wins, that number would be higher if Poljan had more experience … at quarterback, not ball-carrier or receiver.
8. Eastern Michigan
EMU was competitive last year and was in every game until the last three minutes despite a rushing attack that ranked 106th in the land.
It’s excusable to think the offensive line was the reason running backs couldn’t get yardage, but the Eagles’ OL finished in the top-25 for protecting its quarterback who was anything but fleet-of-foot. In 40 rushes, Brogan Roback amassed minus 47 yards. Even so, Roback graduated as EMU’s all time td pass and total offense record holder.
Although Roback is gone, there is still a great deal of excitement about the qb position here. The Eagles have landed and gained the immediate eligibility of Iowa transfer Tyler Wiegers.
Yes, Wiegers only completed only 35 total passing yards at Iowa, but he got to that Big-10 program after earning a big-time reputation as a high school recruit. Wiegers is seen as an agile leader with the potential to be the best in the MAC.
Running backs abound led by native son Ian Eriksen who should be given the ball more than 20 times per game and, if so, will notch over 1000 yards. Shaq Vann is also back and if he stays healthy, he will add another 700.
All three of EMU’s top receivers are gone after catching 127 balls for nearly 1800 yards. That leaves junior Mathew Sexton as the leading returner. EMU has two California juco’s who combined for over 3000 reception yards and are probably going to win starting spots at some point. And, there is Isaac Holder who not only was an able receiver, but was the second-leading passer with a 507% rating.
The Eagles’ defense is solid at all levels and finished in the top-40 among all FBS teams for total yardage allowed per game as well as fewest points.
Defensive coordinator Neal Neathery will have to do without linebacker Jason Beck who started 47 games and make 353 tackles. In his 4-2-5 scheme, linebackers are critical so Beck’s loss is concerning. Although no replacements will do as well as Beck, Kyle Rachwal had 67 tackles and Ikie Calderon 63 tackles and two fumbles-forced in 2016 before an injury sidelined him. EMU may have a star flying under the radar in LB Tyron Neal who, as a juco last year, rang up an amazing 119 tackles with 12 for losses.
Neathery has been a magician at EMU. Before he arrived in 2016, the Eagles’ defense ranked dead last in FBS football. In 2016, he brought it to 102nd and in 2017 to the top-40.
The defensive line will once again be strong led by defensive end Maxx Crosby who was one of America’s leaders in sacks with 11.
Nearly all of the secondary is back plus it now has Vince Calhoun after he was injured in the second game of 2017.
Eastern Michigan will have a defense that is competitive against every opponent on its schedule.
After winning five games a year ago, Savvy is at six wins, likely trending to seven by the time the season starts.
The Zips started 1-4, then went 6-2 and won the MAC East as the defense finally began to lock down.
And, that defense should contrinue to develop which will be important since the front end gave up more than five yards per carry (105th ranked).
Most of the starting defenders are back and, in fact, most of the defense returns two-deep. Two outstanding linebackers return as do two all-MAC safeties.
Kato Nelson took over at quarterback last season and will be the starter now that Thomas Woodson has graduated. But Nelson was inconsistent from week-to-week and only completed 50% of his passes. He had one of the best interception ratios (1.4%) in the nation and he also carried the ball 10 times per game.
The offensive line is better than some think. Last year’s change at qbs created some communication issues partially because Nelson likes to extend plays with his superior foot speed. Learning how to block for him was a task. When you learn that the Zip line gave up 38 sacks, you would think there is a talent issue. But, when you learn that 21 of those occurred in only the last five games that Nelson was the starter, it points less to a problem with talent and more to problems with commuications.
Two starters are gone from the OL but line coach Brett Ekkens believes he has his starting center and two decent backups. If he finds a starting tackle, this unit should show better results.
Seven of the top eight receivers are gone and that means 177 receptions must be replaced. Senior Kwadarrius Smith led in receiving yardage and he is back after averaging a mind-blowing 21 ypc.
With its top two running backs graduated, Akron will more than double its use of 5’9″, 210 pound Van Edwards Jr. who is likely to exceed 700 yards.
Also in the mix is off-n-on Deltron Sands who has the athleticism to be great but has yet to prove himself. A severe knee injury last November still has not fully recovered. Sands was once a Maryland commit before switching to Oregon State where he carried the ball just six times in the 2015 season before being diagnosed with a season-ending injury. Not long after, Sands was dismissed from Oregon State for violation of team rules.
Mostly because Akron’s offense is consistently inconsistent and never seems to reach “average”, Savvy is projecting seven wins for coach Terry Bowden’s seventh year. Apart from the Savvy Index and my admiration for Bowden and this program, I personally view this as a six-win team.
10. Ball State
Almost all of the preseason experts seem to view Ball State as a bottom-15 team. However, metrics on Savvy suggest the Cardinals will be better.
To do that, the BSU defense, especially vs the pass, cannot continue to give up 6.6 yards per play. Since the defensive front was mid-FBS in sacking quarterbacks, then improvement in the secondary must be a priority.
A strong recruiting class will fill some of the secondary needs as Tyler Potts and Dantavian Stephens have been impressive and safety Bryce Cosby showed star qualities as a pure freshman.
With four starting senior defensive lineman graduated, and NFL prospect Anthony Winbush among them, the Cardinals will turn to defensive end Christian Albright who was a late-season starter and played in every game. Coach Mike Neu also is high on nose-tackle Chris Crumb who should be a menace. “He’s been disruptive,” Neu said of Crumb after offseason workouts. Along with two others, BSU has defensive front players who have started eight games. And, he has impressive three-star DL Kyron Mims to add depth.
The linebacking group should be stronger with the addition of juco transfer Rayshawn Wilborn. And, this group should be bolstered by the switch of some defensive ends to linebackers as a result of Neu’s new 3-4 defense.
Injuries at quarterback were debilitating last year and it’s hard to imagine that happening two years in a row. Riley Neal appears to be the starter but he was also one of the injured. In his three games, he completed 68% of his passes. Unfortunately, 3% of his completions were to the wrong team. His average yards per attempt measured at just 6.7 yards so he has plenty to work on.
Running backs are plentiful and productive. Caleb Huntley rushed for over 1000 yards as a freshman and Malik Dunner averaged nearly six yards per carry as a sophomore.
Two freshmen led BSU receivers as Justin Hall had 78 receptions and Khalil Newton averaged over 15 yards per catch.
USA Today said this is one of ten teams in the country that will take noticeable strides forward and, if it stays healthy, I personally agree. Savvy is assessing five wins after this program won two a year ago.
11. Bowling Green
For coach Mike Jinks, things seem to be getting worse.
After his first year saw BGSU drop from a bowl team to a 4-8 record, he finished just 2-10 last year. Then, there was that awful brawl (brawful?) during spring break that involved his players and brought a black eye to the Falcon program.
It would be nice to say there is hope that things will turn around, but that won’t be soon in coming since the Falcons open on the road at Oregon.
BGSU’s defense gave up 38ppg so Jinks replaced his defensive coordinator.
He might have done better to replace his defensive front because in 12 games, it only came up with 15 sacks and it ranked 126th for stopping the run. Over all, the defense ranked 126th for points allowed while yielding over 500 yards per game.
Two effective defensive linemen and two starters at linebacker return to help bolster the front end while cornerback Cameron Jefferies proved his value with seven pass breakups. He also added 32 tackles
Bowling Green had the MAC’s third-best recruiting class with an abundance of three-stars who will play important roles.
Quaterberback Jarret Doege was eventually given the reins to the offense as a freshman and in seven games with a weak offensive line, he completed 64% of his passes and posted a stellar interception ratio of just 1.6% and the Falcons went from 21 ppg to 35.
Doege will have some nice targets with the return of leading receiver Scott Miller (63, 722 yards) and former Oregon State star Datrin Guyton (31, 585 yards).
The offensive line returns three starters from a unit that was underwhelming in 2017.
Savvy would project more than three wins for this team except that there is too much improvement needed in the Conference’s only defense to rank in the bottom quadrant for both rush defense and pass-efficiency defense.
12. Kent State
The Flashes were 2-10 last year but there are some reasons for optimism in 2018.
Former Auburn quarterback Woody Barrett III has transfered to Kent State and is eligible to play this season. Barrett was the sixth-best dual threat qb coming out of high school in 2016. The 6’2″, 225 pound former four-star was also a prime recruit by Alabama.
Barrett will be welcomed relief for for a unit that was so sacked by ineffectiveness and injuries that it produced nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. In an attempt to stop the hemorrhaging, KSU switched a wide receiver to qb.
KSU will also have two underclassmen to help as three-star, dual threat Marquez Glover comes in as a pure freshman and Dustin Crum returns after finishing second in rushing despite missing two games and not being starter in several others.
New coach Sean Lewis is the youngest head coach (31) in college football and he has already won over Flash fans with his energy, enthusiasm, and by bringing in the MAC’s fifth-best recruiting class in only a few weeks on the job.
While Lewis will have 13 of his starters back this season, he won’t have offensive linemen Stefano Millin or Nathan Puhoff from unit that was already so weak that it gave up 46 sacks. However, the offensive line began to stabilize late in the year and it is now hoped that with a new offensive scheme, greater tempo, and better conditioning results will begin to show.
Running backs abound and will be led by junior Justin Rankin who was able to get nearly four yards per carry even without a lot of blocking. He may not come close to 1000 yards but he’s a sure bet to get more than the 490 of last year.
The strength of this offense is with the return of three junior receivers led by Trey Harrell and Mike Carrigan who each averaged more than 19 ypc.
There is a key loss at each level of the defense but there are enough talented new starters to think KSU’s defense, especially its secondary, will fare well against most MAC offenses.
The Flashes look to be 3-9 against the schedule. That’s not a lot of progress, but it’s a move in the right direction.