Over the past decade, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of MAConsistency than the Ohio Bobcats. Frank Solich is the longest tenured coach in the Mid-American Conference (by seven years). Ohio has been bowl eligible in each of the last seven seasons. Year in and year out, there’s a comfort in knowing exactly what to expect from the Bobcats.
Which is why last Wednesday’s news of redshirt senior J.D. Sprague’s departure from the Bobcats– a breach in that crucial MAConsistency- is all the more unsettling for conference title contenders.
Sprague had spent fall camp battling with teammates Greg Windham and Quentin Maxwell in a three-way quarterback competition and with the side-effects of his offseason surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Citing issues with the condition of his collarbone, the former walk-on hung up his cleats for good on Wednesday after determining he couldn’t “perform at the level needed to lead [the Bobcats] to another successful season.”
At the conclusion of fall camp last Friday, Solich declared Windham the team’s starter. While the Bobcats’ run-first attack certainly doesn’t hinge upon having an elite passer at the helm (not that Sprague would be one anyway), Windham’s 53 career attempts pale in comparison to Sprague’s 323.
In Bowling Green, Ohio this offseason, there existed no such quarterback controversy. James Knapke will be under center for the MAC East-favorite Falcons. He has attempted 513 passes.
While stepping into Matt Johnson’s shoes stands no easy task, but it’s nothing Knapke hasn’t handled before. When Johnson missed the near entirety of the 2014 campaign with an early hip injury, Knapke threw for 3,173 yards in his place and managed to achieve something Matt Johnson never could: winning a bowl game.
If Sprague could suit up for the green and white, things might be different. Maybe with Darrius Vick finally finished siphoning his snaps, Sprague could put his accuracy woes to bed with Sebastian Smith Sr. leading one of the MAC’s deeper receiving corps. Maybe Sprague’s experience could streamline their 109th ranked red zone offense enough to keep pace with MAC heavyweights like Western Michigan and, yes, Bowling Green- both of whom shellacked the Bobcats last season in humiliating fashion. Maybe if the Bobcats could maintain consistency at the most critical of positions, they could earn recognition as a formidable MAC East contender. Instead, they’ll be handing the baton to a quarterback with 53 career attempts. Advantage: Falcons.
Sure, there’s twenty-two players on a football field, but just how critical is that quarterback position though? For reference, let’s take a look at how the MAC East shook out last season:
- Bowling Green
- Kent State
Here’s how the MAC East quarterbacks ranked in QBR last season:
- Matt Johnson (Bowling Green)
- Darrius Vick (Ohio)
- Thomas Woodson (Akron)
- Joe Licata (Buffalo)
- Blake Frohnapfel (Massachusetts)
- Billy Bahl (Miami)
- Colin Reardon (Kent State)
Notice the two lists are virtually identical (with Bowling Green claiming first in both, Ohio claiming second in both, etc.). Let’s examine the MAC West as well. Yet again, they’re virtually identical.
- Northern Illinois
- Western Michigan
- Central Michigan
- Ball State
- Eastern Michigan
- Zach Terrell (Western Michigan)
- Cooper Rush (Central Michigan)
- Drew Hare (Northern Illinois)
- Phillip Ely (Toledo)
- Brogan Roback (Eastern Michigan)
- Riley Neal (Ball State)
Folks, breaking news: quarterbacks are important when playing the game of football. (Somebody ought to let Florida know). Clearly the strength of your MAC quarterback directly correlates to the strength of your MAC football team, and as far as these two MAC contenders are concerned, that binary quarterback battle is one Bowling Green wins every week from now until November.
But, in a reversal from previous seasons, Ohio wields the advantage in skill positions. The Bobcats return their leading rusher in A.J. Ouellette and all three of their leading receivers in Jordan Reid, Brandon Cope, and, most notably, Sebastian Smith Sr. On the contrary, Bowling Green loses a 1,300-yard rusher in Travis Greene and two 1,000-yard wide receivers in Gehrig Dieter and Roger Lewis. That leaves an experienced Knapke with younger, less experienced options and an inexperienced Windham with proven, more experienced options. I don’t know about you, but my money will always be on an experienced quarterback.
Bowling Green also benefits tremendously from four returning starters on the MAC’s sturdiest offensive line, acting as a one-two punch with Mike Jinks’ high-octane attack to exhaust opposing defenses. They also retain a healthy majority of their secondary to match pace with equally high-octane attacks. Ohio then boasts the MAC’s sturdiest front sevens in response, making their October 8 showdown with the Falcons even more intriguing.
Then again, Bowling Green dominated the Bobcats to the tune of 62-24 last season. Perhaps it won’t be so intriguing after all. Maybe the MAC East won’t be either. Ohio’s grit simply cannot outshine Bowling Green’s glamour. In the past four seasons, it hasn’t.
Intrigue aside, it’s hard to ignore the irony of the season that lies ahead. On one hand is Mike Jinks, a brand new coach positioned for easy success in college football’s weakest division. On the other hand is Frank Solich, who is being perennially punished by the MAC Gods for reasons unbeknownst to me. With the loss of J.D. Sprague, Solich is staring down the barrel of another close-but-not-quite season. Meanwhile, consistency be damned. Jinks’ Falcons are spreading their wings and soaring sky-high straight toward Ford Field come November.