Coming off of their best four-year stretch in school history, Ohio State looks to continue their success under Urban Meyer when they kick off the 2016 season on Saturday at Ohio Stadium against Bowling Green. Expectations for the Buckeyes in 2015 were sky-high after Ohio State was named the first unanimous number one ranked team in the history of the Preseason AP Top 25 poll. Had it not been for a 17-14 loss to Michigan State in November, the Buckeyes might have been able to live up to the hype last season. Ohio State quickly rebounded from the loss by beating Michigan 42-13 in Ann Arbor and Notre Dame 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl to close out the season.
While not quite as much is expected from Ohio State this year, expectations around the Buckeye State are still high. Ohio State comes into this season as the sixth ranked team in the country, and are still a pretty popular pick to end up making the College Football Playoff. The youth of the Buckeyes will be tested early in the year when they travel to Oklahoma in a couple weeks, but before that they’ll get home games against Bowling Green and Tulsa to get their feet under them.
In his first four years at Ohio State, Urban Meyer has amassed a ridiculous 50-4 record as head coach. Currently Meyer has the highest win percentage among active FBS coaches, registering a 154-27 win percentage, which translates to a 85% win percentage. Meyer started his head coaching career in northwest Ohio, heading up the Bowling Green program for two years before heading off to Utah. Prior to Meyer’s arrival at Bowling Green, the Falcons hadn’t had a winning season in six years. Meyer kicked started the program, putting together a 17-6 record over the two seasons he was with the school. Including the two years Meyer was at the helm, Bowling Green has registered at least eight wins in nine of the last 15 seasons.
As he squares off against the team he dipped his toe in the head coaching waters with, Meyer will be up against Bowling Green’s new head coach. After two seasons at Bowling Green in which he put together a 18-9 record, Dino Babers took over as the head coach at Syracuse. Babers’ replacement is Mike Jinks, who was a high school football coach in Texas just a few years ago. Jinks was the running backs coach for Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury the past three years, and last year had assistant head coach added to his job title.
Not only will Jinks have the task of trying to follow up the best season in school history, but for he also has to try to find a way to stop Ohio State on Saturday. In 2015 Bowling Green scored 82 touchdowns and was third amongst FBS teams with 591 points. Last season Matt Johnson threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 46 touchdowns in his senior season, as Bowling Green won their second MAC Championship Game in the last three years. Not only do the Falcons have to replace Johnson, but they also lose four of their top five receivers from last year.
Luckily for Jinks he does a “new” quarterback with some experience. After Johnson was lost for the year due to injury in the 2014 season opener, James Knapke started the final 13 games of the year and led Bowling Green to their first bowl victory since 2004. Knapke didn’t put up number as crazy as some of Johnson’s, but still finished the year with 3,173 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. Knapke’s highlight game came in a win against Indiana, where his 73 passing attempts and 46 completions were both single-game school records.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
A culture of winning. It’s easy to think that Ohio State is going to fall off this season, especially when they have to replace the talent they lost from the 2015 season. Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, and Michael Thomas are just a few of the names that won’t be on the field this year for the Buckeyes. Ohio State returns just six starters from last years team, which is the lowest number amongst the 128 FBS teams. This marks the first time in which Urban Meyer during his head coaching career that Urban Meyer has entered a season with less than eight starters returning.
What Ohio State has going for them is that even though they have an unprecedented number of starters to replace, most of the players stepping into those starter roles have been a part of the recent run of success by the Buckeyes. Most of the Buckeyes on Ohio State’s two-deep depth chart have been with the program for at least a year, so they know exactly what Urban Meyer and the coaching staff expect from them, and how they need to perform on the field.
It also helps that those players that are expected to step up this season have been able to learn over the past few years from the likes of Elliott, Bosa, and the other Buckeyes who are now honing their craft in the NFL. While there is expected to be a learning curve with new starters like Mike Weber, Dante Booker, and others, it might not take quite as long for them to become comfortable on the field since they have had great teaching and are so talented.
King Barrett. Ohio State might be very green on offense, but what will likely make up for that is they have J.T. Barrett back behind center. It has been quite the whirlwind for Barrett the last couple years, but now he is the undisputed starting quarterback for the Buckeyes. In 2014 Barrett was thrust into the starting quarterback role for Ohio State when Braxton Miller reinjured his shoulder prior to the season. All Barrett did was lead Ohio State to a 10-1 record before he was injured in the regular season finale against Michigan.
Miller switch to wide receiver prior to the 2015 season, but Barrett wasn’t able to beat out Cardale Jones for the starting quarterback job. Barrett ended up starting five of the last six games of the year for the Buckeyes, accounting for 13 touchdowns over that span. Ohio State’s offense responded to the change in quarterback, putting up at least 40 points in three of those five starts.
With Jones now in the NFL, Barrett knows all the pressure lies on his shoulders if the Buckeyes have any designs on making it back to the College Football Playoff. Even though he doesn’t have playmakers like Elliott, Thomas, and Miller at his disposal, Ohio State’s offense should be in good hands with the versatility Barrett brings to the team at quarterback. Barrett’s ability to run the football should be able to take some of the pressure off Mike Weber early on, but also won’t allow teams to stack the box since the redshirt junior quarterback can get things done with his arm as well. Barrett’s poise and leadership in the pocket should help to erase some of the questions about the group of new starters he’ll have at wide receiver.
Pour on the pressure. They lost three starters from last year’s team, but the defensive line just might be the most talented unit Ohio State has this year. It’s impossible to truly replace players like Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, but the Buckeyes do have a number of players who have already seen plenty of time on the field. Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Jayln Holmes will all be called upon to create pressure from their end positions, while Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle will be counted on to clog the middle of the line.
Last year as a redshirt sophomore, Tyquan Lewis led Ohio State with eight sacks, and finished with 14 tackles for loss, just two behind team leader Joey Bosa. Lewis has plenty of experience after starting all 13 games for the Buckeyes last year, and ranking second among Ohio State defensive linemen with 731 snaps. With Bosa now gone, Lewis could see some extra attention from opponents, which could help to free up Sam Hubbard on the other end. While Hubbard didn’t see quite as much time on the field as Lewis, he was still very important to the Ohio State defense, racking up 6.5 sacks during the 2015 season. Hubbard held his own in the season opener against Virginia Tech last year when called upon to replace Bosa, who was suspended for the game.
Bowling Green will have three starters back on the offensive line from their 2015 team, but they suffered a major blow before the season when All-MAC left tackle Jacob Bennett was injured for the season. Look for Ohio State to try to exploit Bennett’s replacement not only with Lewis, Hubbard, and Holmes, but talented true freshmen Nick Bosa and Jonathan Cooper could see time on the field for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Bowling Green’s biggest advantages
Big Ten tested. Sure the competition isn’t quite like what they’ll face on Saturday, but Bowling Green does have a few recent wins against the Big Ten to hang their hat on. The Falcons played four Big Ten teams over the past two seasons, winning three of those four matchups. Bowling Green took down Indiana 45-42 at Doyt Perry Stadium in September 2014, but then fell to Wisconsin 68-17 the next week in Madison. Last year the Falcons demolished Maryland 48-27 in College Park, and followed that up with a 35-28 win against Purdue a couple weeks later. The two Big Ten wins last year were more than Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue were able to earn, and tied the amount Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana put up.
With over 100,000 people packing Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere will certainly be different from what Bowling Green is used to, but the Falcons were strong on the road in 2015. Bowling Green played six true road games in 2015, winning all of them, including wins at Maryland and Purdue. The Falcons know they aren’t going to get any of college football’s national powers to come to Doyt Perry Stadium, so they have to hit the road to try and make a name for themselves, and lately it has been working.
Secondary to none. Bowling Green had their issues on defense last year, allowing over 40 points in all four of their losses, but they did have some bright spots along the way. The Falcons were able to intercept 20 passes last year, which ranked eighth amongst FBS teams. This year will see most of the players accounting for those interceptions returning, most notably cornerback Alfonso Mack, who picked off six passes last year.
The Falcons will have to replace starting safeties Eilar Hardy and Dernard Turner from last year’s squad, but their new defensive coordinator Perry Eliano was the safeties coach for UT-San Antonio the past five years, so the transition for the new safeties Bowling Green will employ could be a little quicker than normal. The secondary could also get some help from the linebackers in pass coverage, as James Sanford broke up eight passes last year and grabbed an interception, while Austin Valdez broke up five passes and had two picks of his own.
Nothing to lose. Despite their success over recent years, there isn’t a whole lot expected from Bowling Green in this contest. It’s hard to blame the prognosticators since Bowling Green had to replace their coaching staff, quarterback, running back, as well as a number of talented wide receivers from last year’s team. The pressure will all be on Ohio State since they’re opening up the season at home and are expected to be a contender for the College Football Playoff this season.
This could allow for the Falcons to open things up a little more and take some added risks during the game. If Bowling Green loses, no big deal. But if they can play loose and keep things close they could find themselves putting a little doubt in the heads of the young Buckeyes. A strong showing at Ohio Stadium could give Bowling Green some added confidence the rest of the season, as they try and win their third MAC title in the last four seasons.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 39, Bowling Green 20
Win Probability: Ohio State 86%
It seems unlikely that Bowling Green will win this contest, but the numbers have them having a good shot to cover the point spread, which has Ohio State as 28-point favorites. Even with their youth, Ohio State is just too talented for Bowling Green to likely keep pace in this one.
J.T. Barrett will be able to provide the steadying hand for the Buckeyes at quarterback, while linebacker Raekwon McMillan will be over the field on defense in this one as they open up their 2016 with a win over their in-state foe. The score won’t be quite as close as the 24-17 game these two teams played in 2003, but Ohio State will improve to 5-0 against the Falcons.