USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The closest thing to Art Briles this side of Waco won his introductory press conference, at least – though he's not the first to win over the masses in December, and wouldn't be the last to win more events in the offseason than in the fall.
"Don't settle," Dino Babers said on Dec. 13. "Why would you want to be average? We're not here long enough to be average. Be special. Be different. Be Bowling Green."
A timely and apropos question: Just what is Bowling Green, anyway?
What Bowling Green was is different than what Bowling Green will be, it's safe to say, thanks to the aggressive, energetic, Baylor-like approach preached by Babers and the Falcons' first-year staff. Think Briles, think Baylor; think Babers, think Briles, and think Bowling Green.
From miles and miles away, Briles' fingerprints are all over the Babers' blueprint. This is seen on offense, of course: BGSU will run the Baylor system, much as Babers and company did during two years at Eastern Illinois, combining some of the Mid-American Conference's best skill talent with one of the most productive, never-miss offensive styles in recent college football history.
But Briles lingers outside his impact on the Falcons' newfound offensive tenacity.
"I've never met anybody like (Briles), his style, his positive reinforcement style," Babers said. "He never sees a negative, he only sees a positive. He never sees a road block, he just sees something he has to go around, and nothing's more important than the players."
At its most basic foundation, consider Bowling Green as Baylor North, where Babers will take less-talented personnel – and play against less-talented opposition – and utilize the Bears' program-building, title-winning mindset.
On a wider scale, consider Bowling Green as the incubator: Briles is a wizard, pure and simple, but Babers stands as the first real test of his coaching tree since Baylor's rise into the national picture. If Babers works – and here's betting he does – he'll merely be viewed as Briles' first successful lieutenant; he won't be the last.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
But this is an eight-win team. The Falcons could even squeeze out nine wins with a 2-2 split during non-conference play – with one win from Tulsa, Indiana and Mississippi State – or a win against Toledo, even if the Rockets' seemingly have Bowling Green's number. Nine wins? How about 10 wins? Yes, 10 victories is a slight possibility should the offense rebound.
In a nutshell: There came a turning point against Indiana, clearly: Bowling Green lost by 32 points, painfully, but would lose just three times the rest of the way – by a single point to Mississippi State, by a field goal to Toledo, by a field goal to Pittsburgh. In between those losses came one of the most effective runs in the program's recent era, an utter destruction of opponents weak – Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan – and strong – Northern Illinois, a victory that gave BGSU the MAC title while sending the Huskies tumbling out of the Bowl Championship Series conversation. The success came at a cost: Dave Clawson parlayed the Falcons' breakthrough into a promotion at Wake Forest, though the pieces left in place paint Babers and BGSU as again the league's favorite to take home the conference championship.
High point: Beating Northern Illinois in December.
Low point: Losing to Toledo, perhaps, or the bowl loss to Pittsburgh. Indiana wasn't the low point – it was the turning point, as mentioned.
Tidbit: BGSU is the only program in the Football Bowl Subdivision to increase its win total by at least two games in each of the past three years. The Falcons went 2-10 in 2010, Clawson's second season; went 5-7 in 2011; went 8-5 in 2012, bouncing back into bowl play; and finished 10-4 last fall.
Tidbit (defense edition): Perhaps no team in college football so dominated the conference rankings on defense. Consider: BGSU led the MAC in total defense, pass defense, rush defense and scoring defense – in each case by a substantial margin. In scoring, for example, BGSU allowed 12.78 points per game, roughly 17% better than second-place Buffalo.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
4. Romaine lettuce
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Bowling Green has an offense; in turn, Babers has a quarterback. Amazingly, Matt Johnson exited one season – an altogether startlingly successful season – and entered another in an even friendlier system, a fact that paints the senior not just as the MAC's best quarterbacks – this with an absolute bullet – but one of the potential breakout players in all of college football. Not that he's starting from scratch: Johnson threw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns, averaging a whopping 9.39 yards per attempt, good for seventh in the FBS, so he's already the league's most proven passing commodity. But this'll be different, this system will be different, this scheme will be different, so it's well within the realm of possibility that Johnson takes his already impressive production to the next level. Think of Bryce Petty, step back one hair and find Johnson, the closest thing to a Baylor quarterback outside of Waco. He's going to be fabulous.
Johnson is joined by the league's most productive back. Junior Travis Greene (1,594 yards) burst onto the scene last fall after barely seeing the field as a freshman, leading MAC running backs in rushing and finished third in touchdowns. His production is intriguing: Johnson should see his numbers uptick, but Greene might be more productive on a per-carry basis but slightly less impressive overall – if that makes sense. Basically, Greene may get slightly fewer touches but make each one count at an even higher clip; think Baylor, once again, and imagine the combination of Greene, junior Andre Givens (255 yards) and sophomores Fred Coppet (214 yards) and William Houston (211 yards and 11 scores) matching the Bears' by-committee approach. The backfield – including Johnson with this group – is the best in the MAC.
It's difficult to call the offensive line a strength. At the same time, think of one positive: BGSU is unsure along the interior, yes, but it's easy to see sophomore tackles Jacob Bennett and Logan Dietz – Bennett on the blind side – take a nice step forward as second-year starters. Having said that, it's extremely clear that improvement is needed; Bennett and Dietz have some promise, but both must ratchet up their consistency to match Babers' expectations for this front. Again, the interior is questionable: Alex Huettetl will shift inside to center, replacing David Kekuewa, while sophomore Ben Steward takes over at left guard and redshirt freshman Ryan Hunter at right. I wouldn't be surprised if the line struggles at times in September and October before finding a groove in this system by the final month-plus of the regular season.
Defense: The issues with the offensive line are matched on the opposite side: BGSU brings back starters on the edges but is rebuilding at tackle, having lost a pair of potentially irreplaceable contributors in Ted Ouellet and Jarius Campbell. It'll be all hands on deck, in my opinion. The Falcons may end up starting senior Zach Colvin and junior Taylor Roster – with Colvin locked into a starting role and Royster seemingly too undersized for the nose – but will need help from sophomores Izaah Lunsford and Jhalil Croley, the top projected reserves heading into fall camp. To be blunt: None of this inspires confidence. It is far better at end, however, where senior Bryan Thomas (37 tackles, 7.0 for loss) should earn all-conference honors. It's just a lack of punch: Thomas is good, yeah, but Charlie Walker is far from disruptive and reserves Kendall Montgomery (21 tackles) and Bryan Baird are unproven outside of a smaller sample size.
Coordinator Kim McCloud's defense is a bit more traditional on the second level: BGSU goes weak side, middle, strong side, while last year's attack did flex toward a hybrid look at both outside spots. Semantics, perhaps, and the Falcons will retain the same sort of aggressive and attacking feel despite the changing cast along the sideline. The big story at linebacker is the return of senior Gabe Martin, one of the MAC's top defenders, who missed the final seven games of last fall due to injury – yet still earned second-team all-conference honors, which speaks to his production. Between Martin on the strong side and senior D.J. Lynch (85 tackles, 8.0 for loss) on the weak side, there's little doubt BGSU has the top edge duo in the conference. The current situation in the middle is a little surprising, in my mind: I thought senior Paul Senn would serve as Paul Swan's replacement at inside linebacker, but Senn enters fall camp trailing impressive redshirt freshman Nate Locke.
BGSU's secondary loses three starters but returns a pair of starters – and let me explain the math. First: Aaron Foster, Booboo Gates and Cameron Truss are gone, with Gates an all-conference safety and Truss the team's stopper on the outside. At the same time, the Falcons bring back free safety Ryland Ward (81 tackles, 2 interceptions) and will have a healthy Darrell Hunter, with Hunter set to spend last season in the starting lineup before being the lost for the year in the preseason. Hunter's return to full strength does give BGSU the possibility of solid play on one half of the field, though he'll need to rediscover a part of his prior form. Converted cornerback Brian Sutton will shift to strong safety, replacing Gates, while senior Jude Adjei-Barimah should get first crack as Hunter's partner on the outside – though true freshman Nick Johnson has already made a strong impression. A second incoming freshman, Nilijah Ballew, arrives with some immense expectations.
Special teams: Tyler Tate will battle for all-conference honors at kicker, which is huge, but the Falcons' punting game will take a step back with the move from a tested senior – Brian Schmiedebusch – to redshirt freshman Joe Davidson. Gates' departure also stings BGSU's return game, though there's enough talent at the skill positions for last year's results to take only a slight slide.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Depth at the position took a meaningful hit with Chris Gallon's knee injury, one that will sideline the promising junior for the entire season and stretch the limits of the Falcon's personnel. It's not that bad, perhaps: Gallon could be a difference-making talent, true, but BGSU does bring back enough returning production – even if last year's top two pass-catchers are likewise gone – to embrace the wide-open feel of Babers' offensive system. What Gallon's injury does not do, however, is impact the Falcons' top grouping: BGSU should feel very comfortable in the lead quartet of sophomore Ronnie Moore (28 receptions for 547 yards), senior Heath Jackson (32 for 364), junior Ryan Burbrink (30 for 477) and sophomore Gehrig Dieter, the latter a former SMU transfer. Better yet, and while Gallon's loss does sting, BGSU is high on a few projected reserves, led by sophomore Herve Coby and freshmen Teo Redding and Roger Lewis. Unfortunately, these same intriguing reserves lack game-day experience; if nothing else, it's of vital importance that Johnson and this passing game have six or seven trustworthy targets.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Ohio: It's the MAC title game or bust, I'd say, and despite the chance for more – say, 10-plus wins and a shot at a national ranking – the Falcons must make defending the crown the team's top priority. BGSU can't defend its title without reaching Detroit, obviously, with Ohio the Falcons' top threat in an otherwise pedestrian East Division. Three other scheduling notes: one, BGSU gets a chance at avenging last year's lopsided loss to Indiana; two, will likely be unable to handle Wisconsin and the Badgers' power running game; and three, while avoiding Northern Illinois, does draw Toledo and Ball State from the West Division.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This isn't a perfect team, no. The Falcons have flaws: BGSU can't feel great about its offensive line, interior of its defensive line or part of its secondary, to be honest, and must also deal with the difficulties inherent to a coaching change. Scratch the latter: Babers is no ordinary change, in my mind, due to his ability to immediately and positively impact the Falcons' already impressive offensive attack. Will everything click from the start? No, there might be a slight learning curve in September, most resulting from the shift in speed, tempo and terminology – not because of the personnel. By the time the calendar turns to October and MAC play begins, I think BGSU will be ready to storm past every team on this schedule and defend its conference crown in early December.
Despite the issues up front, this offense is going to be the best in the conference. Johnson's the best quarterback in the conference. Greene is either tied with or ahead of Ball State's Jahwan Edwards for the title of the MAC's best back. The receiver corps took a slight hit in terms of depth with Gallon's injury, but the talent and weapons are there for this passing game to click at an obscene rate. Defensively, the Falcons do need to create more pressure from the front four to help a reworked secondary – but in total, the defense again stands among the two or three best in the league. In total, there doesn't seem to be a more balanced team in the MAC.
Hence my faith in the Falcons' ability to repeat as conference champions. I do see a few losses, however: BGSU may lose both Big Ten games – at least one, to Wisconsin – and shouldn't go unscathed in league play, perhaps dropping one of two against Toledo and Ball State to end the season. But this is very clearly a nine-win team with the potential to hit the double-digit mark during the regular season – and anything less than 10 wins altogether, counting the league title game and the postseason, might be viewed as a letdown.
Dream season: Bowling Green goes 12-1, losing to Wisconsin early but dismantling the entire MAC to head into the postseason ranked among the top 20 nationally.
Nightmare season: The Falcons finish 7-5 and behind Ohio in the East Division.
Who's No. 35? This university's president was born in Brooklyn.
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