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. 4 Old Dominion.
After a heart-breaking and inexplicable season-closing loss kept Old Dominion out of the postseason in 2015, this year seems destined to be the one Big Blue and the Monarchs finally make it to the promised land—Boca Raton Bowl or bust!
Bobby Wilder has been the head coach for the Monarchs since the program’s revival in 2009. In just three years, Old Dominion managed to establish itself as a capable and popular FCS program; now it is attempting to do the same at the FBS level after joining Conference USA in 2013. The Monarchs should have been on their way to a bowl game in 2014 after finishing 6-6, but an NCAA rule mandating teams jumping from FCS to FBS have to forgo postseason appearances the first two seasons iced their bowl dreams. A 5-7 record and a uncharacteristically close season-ending loss were kept them out of a bowl game last season—the regular season finale 33-31 loss to 2-9 Florida Atlantic tore up the team so badly it programmed the losing score as the passcode to its training facilities, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Now, with a returning starter under center and a conference begging someone to claim the crown, the Monarchs seem poised to at least taste the postseason for the first time in program history.
Quarterbacked by David Washington, the Old Dominion offense is coming off a season in which it struggled to consistently put up points—24.3 points per game—but still managed to muscle its way to a 3-1 record in games decided by six or fewer points. It didn’t help that Washington, a former receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
So far this season, Washington’s efficiency through the air signals a quarterback that is either loose with the ball or isn’t yet fully comfortable being back in the pocket. Through two games—one coming against Hampton—he has yet to push his completion percentage past 56 percent. Against Appalachian State, pride of the Sun Belt, the Monarch signal-caller was just 16-of-34 for 156 yards and a pick. He’s backed up by Shane Bentley, who proved to be a decent reserve option after Washington went down last season.
The Monarch offensive line played musical chairs all of last year, with only one starter remaining in place throughout the full course of the season due to injuries. This year’s group, led by senior right guard Troy Butler and center Nick Clarke, doesn’t run particularly deep, so for the sake of its running game, staying healthy this year is going to be key for an offense that wasn’t all that explosive in 2015.
Old Dominion has the benefit of boasting one of the strongest running back tandems in the conference between home run hitter Ray Lawry and power runner Jeremy Cox. While they aren’t the kind to overcome a jumbled offensive line, they’re also guys who can churn out a combined 1,800-yard season if given the chance. Zach Pascal is the headliner for the receivers; he will be joined by Jonathan Duhart and Marques Little, with Isaiah Harper and Travis Fulgham waiting in the wings.
The defense allowed 38.3 points per game a season ago, ranking 106th in the nation. The Monarchs’ inability to slow down or keep up with capable offenses meant that while they were able to come away with most of the close contests, losses to Southern Mississippi, Florida International, Western Kentucky, App State, and N.C. State were accompanied by an average 30.9-point deficit.
Stopping the pass was a major weakness for Old Dominion in 2015. This was a reflection of a mediocre rush and a porous secondary, which allowed 203.9 yards through the air per game, a mark that ranked 104th in the nation. Their 30 passing touchdowns allowed ranked 112th. While we’re only two games in, things have actually seemed to improve in this area. Mountaineers quarterback Taylor Lamb was held to 181 yards and a pick last week by safety Justice Davila and Co.
Instead, this year, Appalachian State used the rushing game to gash the Monarchs for 230 yards and four scores, necessitating an eyebrow raise at a unit believed to be, well, better than that shit. Up front, Rashaad Coward and Bunmi Rotimi hold down the interior defensive line while Tim Ward and Oshane Ximines shore up the outside at defensive end. Ward was undersized at the position last year, weighing in at 226 pounds; this year, the team now has him listed at 244. He and Ximines, who led the team with 5.0 sacks a year ago, should make for a decent duo on the outside. Both already have one sack apiece this year; a rate of one per game between the two isn’t terrible or great and is likely about the rate we’ll see this season.
The linebacker unit starts in the middle with the conference’s reigning tackle leader T.J. Ricks, who will be flanked by Shadow Williams and Marvin Branch at the outside slots.
Junior Ray Lawry may run for a Group of Five school but rest assured, he’s got Power Five speed and talent. At 5-foot-10, 204 pounds, he’s got decent size, but it’s his burners that will leave you scrolling back through the above video. If Lawry breaks the line, there’s a good chance he’s gone. He’s one of those runners you see defenders constantly graze with their fingertips, arms outstretched; they rarely dive because they’ve correctly realized there’s no hope. While you should take it with a pinch of salt, Hudl has his 40-yard dash time listed at 4.35; after watching some film, I’d buy it.
Last season, he posted six 100-yard games on the way to a season with 1,136 rushing yards and 11 scores. This was a year after he ran for 947 yards and 16 touchdowns as a No. 2 back. The 2014 Conference USA Freshman of the Year, Lawry is expected to once again break the 1,000-yard barrier with the Monarchs and be the focal point of the offense.
Seeing as they already lost to the Mountaineers, Old Dominion definitely can’t make the playoff. They can, however, challenge for the Conference USA crown and a postseason appearance. I don’t think a C-USA title is likely, but this year’s conference race is wide open, so I wouldn’t go as far to call it impossible. If the Monarchs manage to make it through this schedule without picking up at least six wins, I’ll be more impressed than I will be disappointed.
Bobby Wilder has a great name for a football coach and, to my knowledge, is not a dick. Prove me wrong!
Sept. 4: Hampton
Sept. 10: @ Appalachian State
Sept. 17: @ N.C. State
Sept. 24: UTSA
Oct. 1: @ UNC-Charlotte
Oct. 8: UMass
Oct. 22: @ Western Kentucky
Oct. 29: @ UTEP
Nov. 5: Marshall
Nov. 12: Southern Miss
Nov. 19: @ FAU
Nov. 26: Florida International