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. 18 Ohio.
To describe one of Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats squads is to describe all of them. The term “model of consistency” has been used to describe them so many times over the past nine years that at this point, to identify them as a “model of consistency” would be more repetitive than apt. But it’s stuck for a reason—Ohio will continue to be good, probably forever, but unless Solich has been playing the (very, very) long game, the Bobcats don’t seem to have greatness in their future.
Since he took over in 2005, Ohio’s averaged 7.3 wins per season, dipped below .500 just once, attended eight bowl games, and claimed at least a share of its division crown four times. When you consider this program’s history—the Bobcats posted a combined total of 19 wins between 1985 to 1995 and their last bowl game pre-Solich came in 1968—it’s hard not to consider Solich’s project one of the most impressive in modern football. Rivaled only by what David Cutcliffe’s accomplished at Duke, there hasn’t been a more effective rebranding effort since the turn of the century than what Solich has pulled off in Athens.
There is, of course, a downside to being a perennial seven-win program, and that is the fact that seven wins, year-in and year-out, is not exciting. It’s doing exactly what you’re supposed to do and not an inch more. For as good as the Bobcats have played, even notching 10 wins for the first time since Bill Hess’s 1968 squad did it, they haven’t been able to stand atop their conference and declare themselves King of the MAC. Four times they’ve knocked on the door, claiming a slice of divisional ownership, but never have they won the conference. In non-conference play, save a 2012 shocker against Penn State, Ohio hasn’t logged an impressive non-MAC win since damn well ever. They’ve played Tennessee tight twice now, but that really doesn’t mean anything when you’ve already proven you’re not a shit program, other than proving an incapability to take the next step.
Another unavoidable fact is that while Ohio typically plays well in its division, once bowl season comes, it’s as though the Bobcats that regularly churn through the MAC East are nowhere to be found. The Bobcats are 2-6 in bowl games under Solich. As it has yet to claim a conference title, Ohio has been limited to postseason contests against Group of Five opponents, all of which Solich’s squad has been capable of at least challenging; instead, the Bobcats own the record for fewest points scored in two separate bowl series, as well as the New Orleans Bowl’s record for largest margin of defeat following their 27-point loss to Troy in 2010. Similar to Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils, the Bobcats have thrived in the regular season, typically beating their conference’s bottom-feeders, occasionally challenging the top-tier and non-conference opponents, and, as of late, always earning a spot in college football’s seemingly all-encompassing postseason. Last season, the Bobcats pushed Western Michigan, 12-0 at the time of the MAC title game, within five points of claiming the championship; instead, the Broncos denied Solich and the Bobcats that elusive conference championship and went on to play in the Cotton Bowl.
I could tell you this season will be the one where they push over the top and claim a spot in the national scene like so many great MAC teams have over the years, with last year’s Western Michigan squad being the latest example. But that would be a lie. Solich’s teams are what they are, for better or worse; seven or eight wins against opponents only equally talented or worse is what’s expected, and that’s what you’ll get.
Solich has his flaws, but one thing the man can do is coach and manage a stable football program. For postseason regulars, Ohio doesn’t recruit particularly well—this year’s incoming class ranked 103rd in the nation, per 24/7—and yet for nine years, Solich has molded similar recruiting classes into teams that don’t out-run or over-power opponents, but rather play incredibly sound defense and hope their offense has enough in the tank to edge them out. You will be shocked to find out that this year’s team is... exactly the same!
Heading into the 2016 summer, Ohio expected JD Sprague and Greg Windham, Jr. to compete for the starting quarterback slot, with Conner Krizancic owning the third slot and Quinton Maxwell, then a redshirt freshman, bringing up the rear. By the season opener, Sprague and Krizancic had both retired from the game (for Krizancic, it was too many concussions; for Sprague, it was a bum shoulder), thrusting Maxwell up the depth chart to official backup. By Week 3, Maxwell was splitting time with Windham. By Week 6, he was Ohio’s starting quarterback—he led the Bobcats to an ugly 14-10 win against Kent State, completing 11-of-19 passes for 127 yards and one interception and rushing for 25 yards. It wasn’t permanent—he was pulled the following week against Toledo, was granted one pass attempt in the MAC title game, and didn’t throw a single pass in the postseason.
With one uneven season under his belt, Maxwell is undoubtedly Ohio’s guy heading into the 2017 season, with neither of the backups, Joey Duckworth and transfer Nathan Rourke, being offered much of an opportunity to usurp him. Now a redshirt sophomore, Maxwell will be looking to build on his up-and-down 2016 campaign and institute a sense of consistency, both in play and game-to-game confidence, after completing 55.3 percent of his passes and tossing four picks to eight scores last year. He’s an effective scrambler, unafraid to use his legs to buy him time and a few positive rushing yards, when needed. His short and mid-level throws are actually fairly developed at this point; it’s his long game that the Bobcats spent the offseason tinkering with, hoping to use his strong but often times wild arm to stretch the field this season. Luckily, he’s got a guy that’s fast enough to chase down even the longest of overthrows.
The receiving corps will welcome a fresh stock of wideouts, as the top three pass-catchers from a season ago have all bid Athens adieu. Stepping up out wide will be converted running back Papi White, a compact speedster the Bobcats like to use as both a deep threat and a rushing threat—he was good for six touchdown receptions, 16.4 yards per catch, and three rushing scores in 2016. With three more reliable receivers ahead of him last season, White’s role in the slot was never the focal point of the offense but rather a handy weapon to deploy when they caught defenses sleeping; he’s clearly got the speed and athleticism to either run past or jump over opposing secondary defenders. It’ll just be on offensive coordinator Tim Albin to get the big-play threat the touches he deserves. White will be joined by sophomore Elijah Bell, tight end Troy Mangen, and a slew of unexperienced rookies, so expect him to get a shade more than 41 receptions this year.
Lining up in the backfield, A.J. Ouellette is back after missing extensive time last year—he missed the season after registering just three carries—and will pair with the explosive duo of Dorian Brown and Maleek Irons in the backfield. Ouellette seemed to be a potential stud-in-the-making after going for 785 yards and seven scores as a freshman in 2014; now, he’ll just be looking to return to those levels after an less productive sophomore season and a junior season wasted on injury.
The chances of winning the MAC for the Bobcats will be most affected by the their offense’s ability to transition its week-to-week performances closer to stability than last year’s generally volatile group; the chances of Ohio maintaining its hard-won spot among the top East division teams, however, will yet again rest in the very capable hands of its defense.
If there’s one thing you can count on Ohio to give you, it’s damn good defense. Last season’s group allowed just 22.6 points per game, ranking 26th in the nation—pretty impressive for a squad that was supposed to be easily gashed through the air given how many underclassmen it was forced to play in its secondary. The defensive backfield held its own for the most part, and with damn near everyone back, you can expect that opponents won’t be completing 63.3 percent of their passes this season. Redshirt sophomore safety Javon Hagan will return after a monster first season of play; he’ll be joined by corner Bradd Ellis and Kylan Nelson, though Ellis, along with his backup, Mayne Williams are currently battling injuries. Ellis has since returned after tweaking his hamstring, but Williams is reportedly thought to be done for good due to a neck injury
The defensive front, like the receiving corps, will also have some new faces adjusting to weekly MACtion, as four of the front seven from last year’s legitimately outstanding group have moved on. At both levels, the Bobcats lost players now suiting up in the NFL—reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year and current Indianapolis Colt Tarell Basham and his 9.0 sacks won’t be easily replaced, nor will Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Blair Brown and his 128 tackles.
Last year’s output of 44 total team sacks was a program record, one that will likely go unchallenged this season while the new front settles in. The Bobcats are lucky in that they return linebackers Quentin Poling and Chad Moore; on the line, Cleon Aloese will be back at the nose while end Kevin Robbins will now be looked upon to take over as sack leader. Still, Robbins produced just 3.5 sacks last season, and his fellow end, redshirt senior Trent Smart, played in just eight games last season, though he did start in one of those.
The best case you can make for the next great Ohio star comes in the form of a hard-hitting, no-bullshit safety by the name of Javon Hagan. The redshirt sophomore logged 51 tackles, three picks—with 120 total return yards—and 10 passes defended in his first year of college action, earning him both first-team All-MAC and MAC Freshman of the year honors. At 6-foot, 207 pounds, Hagan loves to lay out any poor soul that dares dash across his field of vision, and for those too burly to be shouldered into the Earth’s core, Hagan has proven deft at getting his hands on the ball. Last year, he forced five forced fumbles; the next closest Ohio player managed two. This year, Hagan will lead a more experienced secondary as he builds his NFL profile—give this guy another healthy year or two of terrorizing MAC receivers and I wouldn’t be shocked to see his name creep up draft boards.
“No, Ohio can’t make the playoff, but maybe it can win the MAC?” is a sentence I could have confidentially typed at any time since 2009. It’s true now as it was then; also as true now is the fact that while Ohio’s leveled out, other MACtors, be it Northern Illinois or Western Michigan, have actually cashed in when they had a loaded hand. Like I said, the Bobcats haven’t really had that thanks to generally standard/substandard recruiting, but they’ve lost their last three MAC title games by an average 6.3 points. They have the talent, but for whatever reason, they can’t get over the hump. That being said, I do favor Ohio to take the East (again); the real mystery is who from the West (a man hears good things about Toledo) will inevitably edge them out at Ford Field.
Outside of Frank Solich’s ballsy attempt to swerve from DUI charges by claiming he was slipped the date-rape drug at a bar, the guy seems to be your typical, psycho midwestern football fanatic. At 72, I’m guessing his heavy drinking days as well as his portion of the Ohio rebuilding project is probably coming to a close soon; here’s to hoping he doesn’t go and do anything else dickish before then.
Sept. 2: Hampton
Sept. 8: @ Purdue
Sept. 16: Kansas
Sept. 23: @ Eastern Michigan
Sept. 30: @ UMass
Oct. 7: Central Michigan
Oct. 14: @ Bowling Green
Oct. 21: Kent State
Oct. 31: Miami (OH)
Nov. 8: Toldeo
Nov. 14: @ Akron
Nov. 24: @ Buffalo