Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 11 Ohio.
The main problem I had with last year’s Deadspin 25: not enough MACtion. Well, thanks to you glorious voters, that has changed this year. Without further ado, I give you the Ohio Bobcats.
Last season, Ohio finished 8-4 and lost its bowl game against Appalachian State on a last-second field goal. (If the Mountaineers would’ve composed anything close to reasonable clock management last night, they could have opened their season the way they closed the last one. Alas.) The Bobcats finished second in the MAC East to Bowling Green, who is once again expected to claim the division title. Ohio’s chances of showing up in the MAC title game are still fairly high; if they can secure some stability under center and in the secondary, the team has the pieces to challenge for the program’s first conference title in 48 years.
Due to Derrius Vick’s health issues, Ohio had two quarterbacks run the show last year, with J.D. Sprague stepping up when Vick couldn’t go. While this isn’t an ideal situation, it seemed like it would work out for the 2016 campaign, with Sprague getting game experience and easing his way into the starting role. That was before Aug. 15, when the Bobcats lost Sprague, the presumed starting quarterback, after he determined his recovery from offseason surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome did not clear up nagging shoulder issues. This, along with a stellar preseason outing, thrusted Greg Windham Jr., into the spotlight.
Windham, a redshirt senior, will take over the offense despite having attempted just 53 throws in his collegiate career, one of those going for a score, four others being intercepted. The game-time inexperience stems from the fact he’s been relegated to the role of backup ever since his 2013 arrest for drug trafficking (according to the student paper, The Post Athens, he was selling molly with a teammate). Following the arrest, he eventually rejoined the team, spending the past three years as the third-string reserve. But with Sprague’s shoulder ailments keeping him out of spring practice, Windham took the reins of the first-team offense.
Windham’s job will be made easier by the fact the Bobcats return all of their major contributors at the skill positions. A.J. Ouellette is back the team’s starting running back after running for 687 yards and six scores during the 2015 season. Daz’mond Patterson, who’s since graduated, led the team in rushing touchdowns with nine, so expect Ouellette’s scoring numbers to receive a bump in 2016. He won’t be alone, as the Bobcats take a running-back-by-committee approach, with Papi White and Dorian Brown poised to receive a few handoffs each game.
Troy Mangen missed 2015 with a knee injury but returns along with Mason Morgan to hold down the open tight end position. In addition to Mangen and Morgan, Ohio brings back a deep and talented receiving corps that will make life easy on Windham. Senior Sebastian Smith is poised to be Ohio’s No. 1 wideout after leading the team in receiving yards, receptions, and receiving scores; he’ll be joined by fellow returning starters Jordan Reid and Brendan Cope. The trio combined to catch 14 of the team’s 18 passing touchdowns and racked up 1,905 yards in 2015.
Up front, three offensive line starters have departed, though Ohio has the advantage of replacing the center slot with Jake Pruehs, who started at the position as a rookie before being supplanted last season. This unit doesn’t maintain the depth of its defensive counterpart, so staying healthy and finding the right five-man unit early on will be crucial.
The defensive line seems to be the team’s strongest asset, returning three senior starters from last year’s squad. Senior defensive end Tarell Basham led the team with 5.5 sacks last season and added weight in the offseason; he should be one of the conference’s top defensive linemen in 2016. He’ll be joined by tackle Casey Sayles, nose tackle and Michigan transfer Tom Strobel, and fellow defensive end Kurt Laseak. While the second team doesn’t have the experience the starting squad does, the Bobcats still have four guys they can comfortably swap in and out of the game to keep their linemen fresh, which is a big plus.
The defense’s unquestioned leader is middle linebacker Quentin Poling, who led the team in tackles and tackles for loss in 2015 despite missing three games due to injury. Blair Brown will line up next to him as a returning starter at the weak-side linebacker position, while junior Chad Moore takes over strong-side duties. With the 2015 front seven largely intact, the Bobcats rush defense should (and needs to) improve if they want to swipe the MAC crown—last year, Ohio closed at 64th in rushing yards allowed and 65th in rushing touchdowns allowed.
The secondary put up a stronger effort against the pass, with its 202.9 yards allowed per game earning it the 44th-lowest mark in the nation. The group also had success holding every team’s aerial assault in check, save for Bowling Green—the Bobcats’s main competition for the MAC East—who hung 399 passing yards and five scores on the unit in an ugly October loss.
Ohio’s 2016 defensive backs will be the group that offers the most cause for concern. The Bobcats have to start with clean slate after losing all four cornerback options this offseason. Corners Mayne Williams, Jalen Fox, and London Miller will all challenge for spots in the starting rotation; they will join safeties Toran Davis and Kylan Nelson in the new-look secondary. The unit will need to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone at a rate at least in the neighborhood of last year’s squad—17 passing touchdowns allowed—and manage to form a cohesive, dependable unit by the time the Bowling Green game comes around. Do those two things, and the road to the top of the MAC, college football’s most-desired title, will be a much smoother ride.
Sebastian Smith is the team’s top returning wide receiver and should once again be the offense’s top talent and best scoring threat. He hauled in 65 receptions for 777 yards and seven scores in 2015; with Reid and Cope back, MAC defense won’t be able to hone all their defensive resources on Smith, meaning he should be able to at least post numbers at a similar clip in 2016. The potential impediment will be the timing between him and Windham. Smith isn’t likely to play in the season-opener against Texas State due to a groin injury, so the pair will have to make up for lost time in Week 2. Still, considering both players have been around for at least four years now, I’m optimistic they should be able to find a groove within the first couple games together.
Not a single MAC team possesses the necessary talent or strength of schedule to challenge for the playoff this season, so no, Ohio cannot make the playoff. But there are other goals for the 2016 team. Head coach Frank Solich has crafted a respectable program in Athens in his 11 years at the helm. The Bobcats haven’t finished under .500 in seven years; they also haven’t won a MAC title since 1968. Ohio was picked to finish second in the MAC East behind Bowling Green, but with one of the top front sevens in the conference and all skill positions (minus quarterback) featuring returning starters, the Bobcats may have the talent to claw their way to a title game appearance.
When it comes to football coaches making poor alcohol decisions, we’ve been graced with a fairly long list, so much so that a coach getting a DUI, while newsworthy, likely isn’t going to be the most shocking item on any given day’s docket. However, Solich’s 2006 case may be second only to Bobby Petrino’s when it comes to twists. After getting popped with a DUI, Solich claimed he was drugged with GHB—a date rape drug—before a group of toxicology experts got together and determined the tests Solich had completed were faulty both in method and result. The DUI remained on Solich’s record and the judge hit him with a nice football burn.
While (Solich) now regrets that decision, such regret, by itself, does not entitle him to a replay. Fourth-and-goal decisions are difficult and sometimes regretted but usually final nonetheless.’
Frank Solich isn’t a dick, I think, but next time—he’s 71 now, so honestly, I hope there isn’t a next time at this point—maybe just take the L.
Sept. 3: Texas State
Sept. 10: @ Kansas
Sept. 17: @ Tennessee
Sept. 24: Gardner-Webb
Oct. 1: @ Miami (OH)
Oct. 8: Bowling Green
Oct. 15: Eastern Michigan
Oct. 22: @ Kent State
Oct. 27: @ Toldeo
Nov. 4: Buffalo
Nov. 15: @ Central Michigan
Nov. 22: Akron