In case you tuned out the Mid-American Conference in August, when the league cancelled the season, be advised #MACtion returns tonight.
Yes, America’s favorite Rust Belt-based, overachieving conference is rolling the dice on a six-game sprint of a season in what has become a college football year marked by near daily COVID-19 infections and a general sense of ‘who knows what’s coming next?’ that has permeated the sport.
But the Bobcats, and the MAC, are committed to trying to pull this off. With that understood, can Ohio win the MAC in 2020?
OU was picked to finish third the MAC East in both the preseason coaches and media polls, with Buffalo and Miami slotted 1-2 in both sets of ballots.
The Bobcat have clearly identified strengths, but the questions come in critical areas — like quarterback, offensive tackle and all three specialist positions.
So with OU set to open at MAC West favorite Central Michigan, here’s a primer on the Bobcats of 2020.
Ohio did have a handful of players opt out of the 2020 season because of concerns surrounding the pandemic.
Here’s a quick rundown: Outside linebacker Dylan Conner, a returning multiple-year starter; cornerback Marlin Brooks, projected to be a returning starter; defensive tackle Marcus Coleman, a rotational player a year ago; wide receiver K.J. Minter, who doubled late in the season as an emergency quarterback; and wide receiver Drew Keszei, a former QB who flipped back to that position for bowl season.
With every player, essentially, getting an NCAA-mandated ‘free’ year of eligibility in 2020, each of the five could potentially return in 2021. However, Solich said that all five are likely to graduate (or in Conner’s case have graduated) and are expected to move on.
“We’re all doing what we think is best right now, and that includes those guys,” Solich said.
Keep an eye on QB/OT
Ohio’s issues offensively will center on two factors: Can the Bobcats get adequate production from the replacement for three-year playmaker Nathan Rourke? And can a reshuffled offensive line develop into the kind of unit seen last year with Allen Rudolph running that group?
At QB, expect both redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke and graduate transfer Armani Rogers (UNLV) to play in the opener and possibly Week 2 as well. Rourke is Nathan’s younger brother, and regarded as a better passer than both Rogers and his older sibling. Rogers is well seasoned, while Rourke has yet to throw a collegiate pass. Rogers is a better runner from the position, and built (6-5, 225) to handle the demands of that spot in Tim Albin’s offense.
“Both of them have really strong plusses on their side,” Solich said.
On the offensive line, fifth-year senior Nick Sink will take over at left tackle and fourth-year junior Samson Jackson is on the right side. Neither played any reps of note at those spots last season. The middle of the line is solid, with four-year contributor Brett Kitrell at center and three-year starter Hagen Meservy at right guard. At left guard, junior Brody Rodgers — and Athens HS grad — is at the top of the depth chart.
If those two areas solidify, then Ohio has the skill position talent to produce a lot of points.
At running back, O’Shaan Allison and De’Montre Tuggle formed a potent 1-2 backfield punch last year. Add in Julian Ross, and that’s nearly 1,800 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns returning.
Fifth-year senior tight ends Ryan and Adam Luehrman, plus a trio of young potential contributors, have that position group in good shape.
And the Bobcats have difference-makers on the outside with steady Cam Odom, leading receiver Isiah Cox, and potential-oozing Shane Hooks. Add in developing slot options in Jerome Buckner and Ty Walton and OU will start the season with a more proven, experienced receiving group than a season ago.
And Ohio may be hunting for more points as there are unknowns everywhere on special teams. There’s a new long-snapper in Justin Holloway, and both the kicker (Tristian Vandenberg) and punter (Jack Wilson) will be getting FBS reps for the first time.
Will the turnovers return?
The anchor for the Bobcats defensively will be fifth-year middle linebacker Jared Dorsa, who is poised to be OU’s best player on that side of the ball.
Ohio will be young at SAM with sophomore Jeremiah Wood and freshman Ben Johnson filling in at the ‘coverage’ LB spot for Conner. Two athletic options, sophomores Keye Thompson and Bryce Houston, will be on the weakside. Thompson added a needed jolt to the defense when inserted into the lineup midway through last season.
Up front, Ohio is hoping a veteran group can deliver more impact than a year ago. The top defensive ends — Will Evans and Austin Conrad — return, and junior Kai Caesar could make an impact inside as a returning starter.
The secondary is in flux with Justin Birchette in line to start after a strong fall camp. However, seniors Ilyaas and Xavior Motley and former starter Jamal Hudson will play big roles as well. Alvin Floyd is set to take over for Javon Hagan at free safety and Jarren Hampton is a returning starter at strong safety. Former corner Tariq Drake and redshirt freshman Jett Elad should also be in the mix.
Lastly, Ron Collins enters his second season as the defensive coordinator. The Bobcats were surprisingly ineffective at creating turnovers a year ago, and those numbers need to rebound in 2020 if the unit wants to show better than last season.
So, Ohio is like a lot of MAC teams as the season begins. If several things break in their favor, the Bobcats could be among the conference’s best. If development is slow in some spots, or positive tests wreck the depth chart, there will be no time to correct later on.
The Bobcat can contend in 2020, but they’ll need to be sharp from the start to make it happen.