Russ Heltman --
Preseason Mid-American Conference title expectations.
It’s becoming an annual recognition for the Ohio Bobcats football program, which under the guidance of Frank Solich, has gone from national laughingstock to perennial bowl contender and 2019 is no different. Despite major losses on offense and minor ones on defense, Nathan Rourke and the Bobcats have been picked to play in Detroit for the third straight season. It’s become a black mark of sorts as Ohio has failed to make it to Ford Field since their 2016 showdown against the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos. A classic MAC battle that sent the Bobcats home empty-handed following a narrow 29-23 loss to P.J. Fleck’s squad.
After back-to-back late-season letdowns that left Ohio on the outside looking in, the conference is seemingly theirs for the taking. In the West Division, the reigning champion Northern Illinois Huskies lost MAC Defensive Player of the Year Sutton Smith to the NFL Draft and head coach Rod Carey to Temple. Meanwhile Buffalo, last year’s surprise East Division champion lost the MAC Offensive Player of the Year in QB Tyree Jackson, his favorite target in WR Anthony Johnson, and the Bulls top defender in LB Khalil Hodge.
The last thing Coach Solich has to conquer is that elusive MAC Championship but there are a few roadblocks on the path to a title.
@ Buffalo: Oct. 5th
The first conference game of the season for Ohio is a tone-setter for the 2019 East Division race. These two teams are expected to once again battle it out for a chance at Detroit and if last year’s 52-17 Ohio victory is any indication, the Bobcats will be ready. Jackson had his worst game of the year at Peden Stadium as Ohio played angry and free following a 30-28 setback to Miami that destroyed any hopes of a title run.
This is the farthest road trip of the season for Ohio but also follows a bye week that they’ll use to reset following the non-conference slate of games. Buffalo is using Fall Camp to choose between three different signal callers, QB Kyle Vantrease is the only candidate to see any playing time last year. This should be the ideal time to match up with the Bulls as they come off their MAC opener against Miami. In 2017, the Bobcats fell to Buffalo 31-24 on their last trip up north, but this is a completely different Bulls roster with a lot of aforementioned talent trying to prove themselves in the NFL.
VS. Northern Illinois: Oct. 12th
The menace known as Sutton Smith is now making his mark at the pro level, but the Huskies are still the reigning MAC champions and retain defensive leader Antonio Jones-Davis for new head coach Thomas Hammock to utilize. The man in charge is a former NIU running backs coach but he hasn’t coached at the college level since 2013 as he makes his way over from the Baltimore Ravens coaching staff. It remains to be seen how dominant last year’s top MAC defense (20.1 PPG allowed) can be following the departure of Smith (15 sacks) and OT Max Scharping but this is a program that has played in seven of the past nine MAC Championship games.
That being said, the Huskies didn’t hand the QB reigns over to last year’s starter Marcus Childers in the offseason. Hammock announced an ongoing battle between Childers and Cal graduate transfer Ross Bowers, who is a better pocket passer than Childers but lacks the elusive legs of the Huskies incumbent. Ohio felt the full power of Childers’s wheels in last year’s loss as the Georgia native scampered for 169 yards on 23 carries, including a 10-yard TD run that jumpstarted the Huskies fourth-quarter comeback. Should Childers capture the starting job Ohio must keep his legs in check for a full 60 minutes.
VS. Themselves: November 6th-26th
Seemingly every year the Bobcats have high expectations and then fall flat in the final month of the season. Two years ago, it was a crushing 37-34 road loss to Akron which gave the Zips an inside track on a MAC Title berth. Last year, it was a 28-0 first quarter domination in Oxford that was too much for Rourke and the offense to overcome as they eventually fell to Miami 30-28. The loss was a rare blemish on Solich’s 11-3 record in the Battle of the Bricks and the Bobcats can’t afford a second straight defeat on November 6th.
The RedHawks have almost no experience at quarterback following the departure of Gus Ragland but the Bobcats must be fully focused against their rival to start the final month of the 2019 campaign. Only six days of preparation for a visit from Western Michigan could manifest into a problem as Tim Lester’s squad returns 17 starters (including QB Jon Wassink) and wouldn’t surprise anyone if they punch their ticket to Detroit out west. The final two matchups of the season should be no-brainer victories despite travel for both. Akron and Bowling Green would shock the MAC landscape if they manage to win 6-7 games combined and with Ohio’s talent the Bobcats shouldn’t be one of those notches in the W column.
This conference is the most wide open it’s been since Nathan Rourke took over as Ohio’s signal caller. Can 12 Gauge continue performing at a MAC Player of the Year level and lead this team to its first championship since 1968? We’ll start to find out in Buffalo on October 5th.