USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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Akron won as many games in November as the program notched in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – combined, that is. A three-game winning streak during the year's final month matched the Zips' best single-season win total since 2009; the five wins altogether were the program's most since 2008.

Terry Bowden's gang should have won at Michigan, led Louisiana-Lafayette in the fourth quarter and gave Northern Illinois all it could handle. UCF, Bowling Green, Ohio and Ball State breezed past the Zips, but look: Akron's still getting there.

SPRING FOOTBALL: The MAC

Everything is relative, and should as such be viewed in a relative vacuum: Bowden and the Zips won five games, missing out on bowl play due to ineffective second-half production, but took a significant and meaningful step forward after three seasons at the very bottom rung of the Football Bowl Subdivision. That first step – going from the bottom to the middle of the Mid-American Conference – is the hardest; the next steps are easier in comparison, though equally vital to the Zips' hopes to reclaiming some postseason relevancy.

It's about finding balance. Instead of accepting morale-building defeats, the Zips must accept nothing less than hard-fought, tightly contested victories – yes, that includes against even the MAC's best, opponents like Bowling Green, Ball State and Northern Illinois.

Rather than being defined by a stout defense and an underachieving offense, Akron must unite the two sides of the ball to form a more cohesive and composed pairing; the defense is already there, but the offense lags. Instead of relying on seniors to lead the day, the coaching staff must develop a younger core to buttress the roster's returning contributors.

This is easy, if only in comparison to the process of turning the MAC's also-ran into a borderline postseason participant. Is Akron ready to take the next steps?

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

In the best case, Akron goes 1-3 in non-conference play and beats three teams in the MAC: Kent State, UMass and Miami (Ohio). In the worst case, Akron can't even handle James Madison early and fails to notch a victory all season. The most likely scenario stands somewhere in the middle, with the Zips having enough talent and coaching to top UMass but failing to mount a serious challenge against the majority of this schedule.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: You could sense the positivity even as the Zips stumbled through six losses in seven tries to open the regular season. For one, consider the competitiveness of these defeats: Akron gave teams like Michigan, Louisiana-Lafayette and Northern Illinois a major scare, even drawing within four yards of an unfathomable upset of the Wolverines before a fourth-down attempt went awry. That the Zips turned the corner during the second half pushed this team into the offseason on a high note. Akron won four of its last five, losing only to Ball State, and capped the year with a 31-29 victory against seven-win Toledo. What went right? The defense might have been the program's best in a decade. What went wrong? The offense remains a work in progress despite Bowden's near-undivided attention. Again, the Zips need to get the entire roster on the same page.

High point: Topping Toledo. This was the Zips' best win since beating Northern Illinois in 2005, in my estimation.

Low point: Those narrow defeats. Eventually, look for Akron to build on these close-but-no-cigar losses.

COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)

Tidbit: Akron's three-game winning streak to end last season was the program's first since taking five in a row in 2004. The Zips have six winning streaks of three or more games during the past two decades: 1996 (three), 1999 (four), 2000 (four), 2003 (three), 2004 (five) and 2013 (three).

Tidbit (finally edition): Akron's 24-17 win against Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 19 snapped two ignominious streaks. One, it marked Akron's first win on the road since Oct. 18, 2008, ending a 30-game slide. Two, it was the Zips' first win against an FBS foe since Nov. 26, 2010, snapping a 28-game streak.

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PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Kyle Pohl (2,438 yards and 14 touchdowns) resumes his run as the Zips' starting quarterback without major controversy, thanks to the junior's solid – if largely unspectacular – set of performances during spring drills. Not that the Zips didn't at least eyeball another option: Akron still has senior Nick Hirschman, a viable backup, and must continue to give youngsters Chandler Kincade and Tommy Woodson occasional opportunities with the first-team offense as a way to bridge toward the future. But it's Pohl's job in 2014, as it was a year ago, and the hope is that another year of experience yields a more consistent, productive and explosive showing from the passing game. That's certainly a possibility. It might also be a stretch: Pohl, like the entire team at large, needs more time to develop his game to match the top slice of the MAC – and with recent history as evidence, the league's frontrunners are very often led by the league's best quarterbacks. Pohl might have that potential; it'll simply take additional time with the first-team offense to reach that next level.

That might be too negative a viewpoint on Akron's backfield. In addition to showcasing increased comfort in the pocket, Pohl has embraced a leadership role within the framework of the Zips' offense – a much-needed development for the entire roster as a whole, in fact. Akron also returns senior running back Jawon Chisholm (869 yards), an all-conference contender, as well as reserve backs Conor Hundley (425 yards) – a nice short-yardage option – and D.J. Jones. What the running game lacks is a burst; blame the line for a large part of this negative, but the Zips' backs must do a better job quickly identifying lanes and turning north-south. Manny Morgan and Hakeem Lawrence could provide some explosiveness, though neither seemed to grab hold of a concrete role during spring drills.

But you're looking at three positives: one, Pohl's projected development; two, the options in the backfield, though the Zips are lacking big-play potential; and three, the returning talent at wide receiver. For one, Akron should feel confident in what proven targets like senior L.T. Smith (24 receptions for 428 yards), sophomore Fransohn Bickley (39 for 407) – an elusive jitterbug in the slot – and juniors Zach D'Orazio (42 for 567) and Tyrell Goodman bring to the table. Each fits the mold: Bickley can make plays in space, D'Orazio is a reliable, move-the-sticks receiver, and Smith brings a dose of downfield potential. But what Akron needs is steadiness from junior Andrew Pratt and sophomore Mykel Traylor-Bennett, two eye-catching young focal points with the size and athleticism to develop into all-conference contenders. Will that happen in 2014? Probably not. But if it does – and is teamed with better play up front – Akron's offense is going to take a step forward; if that happens, the Zips are going to reach bowl eligibility.

Defense: Akron has enough size, length and potential up front to survive the loss of three senior starters. At the same time, the Zips' production will be contingent on how quickly several untested – or brand-new – linemen acclimate themselves to increased roles in the rotation. One name stands out: Se'von Pittman comes over from Ohio State, where he signed as a four-star recruit, and could end up replacing C.J. James at end. Immediate production from Pittman would sew up the top grouping, at least, with the transfer joining senior Nordly Capi (31 tackles) in flanking junior Cody Grice (32 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and senior Keontae Hollis. Pittman also has the frame to move inside, should push come to shove; that has become a more palatable scenario due to senior Nmesoma Okafor's strong spring. The Zips also added a pair of three-star ends in February's class, so the two-deep could undergo some changes on the edges during fall camp. I like the potential, but there's obviously some work to be done before the opener.

That the Zips remain intact on the second level will help coordinator Chuck Amato – who has done good work with this group – retain the defense's aggressive mentality. Don't look for any major changes: Justin March (80 tackles) remains on the strong side; C.J. Mizell (41 tackles, 7.5 for loss), Dylan Evans and Nick Rossi will renew their battle for snaps in the middle, as was the case last fall; and Jatavis Brown (107 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is back on the weak side, and the latter might just be the most disruptive linebacker in the MAC. The only drawback to Brown's all-conference production – and yeah, you've got to look closely – is how it might leave Evans in a secondary role; Amato and the Zips must find a way to get the junior into certain packages.

The biggest concern facing this defense is the loss of its stopper, cornerback Malachi Freeman, and I'm very concerned about the Zips' ability to contain against the schedule's best passing teams – Penn State, Marshall, Ball State, Bowling Green – without a lockdown defender on the outside. In a positive light, perhaps the aggressive nature of the front seven helps Akron survive on clear passing downs; in a negative light, replacing Freeman and his ball-hawking production will be simply impossible. Looking ahead, the only two defensive backs seemingly assured of a starting role are senior free safety Johnny Robinson and senior rover Bre' Ford. At cornerback, for example, Akron could hand the reins to Bryce Cheek and Donte Williams, two off-and-on starters; the staff could also give a long look to sophomore DeAndre Scott and JUCO transfer Kris Givens, who was added to provide an immediate boost. In my mind, and even if the group played well during the spring game, the secondary looks like an Achilles heel.

Special teams: Akron's special teams are terrible. Anything else? Well, Bickley should be a weapon in the return game given his elusiveness, though that wasn't the case in 2013. Zach Paul does commendable work at punter, but kicker Robert Stein leaves much to be desired – meaning Bowden really should look into spending a scholarship on a kicker during the next recruiting cycle. The difference between five and six wins lies in the details; in this key area, Akron comes up lacking.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: One would think this offensive front could only improve, such was the gruesome nature of last year's performance, but let's remember: Akron still needs to replace three senior starters, so even if overall depth has been addressed – it has, if not to an optimal degree – it's going to take time for this line to round into form behind a new cast. The Zips and new line coach John Peterson will build around senior center Travis Switzer and junior right guard Dylan Brumbaugh, two returning starters with a combined 43 career starts, but the question marks dotting the edges are cause for concern. What it'll take to rest easy: Akron needs last year's backups to grab hold of starting jobs at left tackle, left guard and right tackle. Why? Because there's a younger core of linemen at Peterson's disposal, but most seem a year away – and there's no line help coming in this year's recruiting class. As such, look for junior Quaison Osborne to get first crack at left tackle, senior Joe McNamara to get a long look at left guard and senior Cedric Brittnum to at least earn a shot at taking over at right tackle. But the line as a whole is a major question mark.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Ohio: The Zips will be 1-3 at the end of September, barring an upset against one of Penn State, Marshall and Pittsburgh, and must start MAC play on the right foot to recapture some postseason momentum. Good news: Akron starts with Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio), so it's easy to see this team get back to .500 in advance of back-to-back road trips to Ohio and Ball State to end October. With Buffalo, UMass and Kent State down the stretch, Akron could put itself in prime bowl position with a win against the Bobcats.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Akron needs another year before leaping into the postseason. For one – and this most of all – the Zips remain mired in a rut at several personnel groupings. Consider the offensive line, terrible a season ago and perhaps worse in 2014, barring some sort of lights-on moment from the majority of the returning two-deep. Take a look at the secondary, which loses a stopper in Freeman and returns no single player capable of replicating his impact in the passing game. Glance at the overall makeup of the two-deep: Akron is young almost across the board, with a few notable exceptions, and as such will need to make the most of every session from here through fall camp to hit the ground running in the opener.

Now, it would be silly to ignore Akron's obvious growth since Bowden's arrival and the potential inherent to the roster's youthful makeup. As for the growth: Bowden has successfully piloted Akron from the bottom of the MAC to the bowl conversation, teaming the inherited personnel – largely unimpressive – with recruits and transfers to rebuild the Zips' talent level. At this rate, it's simply a matter of time before the Zips move back into the postseason. In addition, there's always the chance that the non-seniors play beyond their years and relative inexperience; Pohl, Pratt, Pittman, Grice and Cheek could find a groove ahead of schedule, lifting Akron past the five-win mark. I'd cautiously suggest these projected starters could use more seasoning.

The schedule does help. Akron has no excuse to lose to the following four teams: Howard, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass. I'd pencil the following in the loss column: Penn State, Marshall, Pittsburgh, Bowling Green and Ball State. That leaves a trio of games – Ohio, Buffalo and Kent State – to decide whether Akron falls short of bowl eligibility, treading water at 5-7, or breaks through to a winning season. I wouldn't be surprised if the Zips take anywhere between five and seven games. At this point, however, this team needs to prove it can win games against teams of equal or greater aptitude.

Dream season: Akron goes 8-4, losing only to Penn State, Marshall, Pittsburgh and Bowling Green.

Nightmare season: The Zips slide back to three wins.

UP NEXT:

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