Championship Preview: The Return of the MAC
After last season, it appeared Frank Solich could be destined to follow the Fred Akers/Ray Perkins career path after getting canned by Nebraska in 2003. The Ohio Bobcats struggled through yet another losing season in 2005 (their 8th in 9 years) and actually saw their point differential decline from 2004 (-144 versus -50), though their record remained the same (4-7). The Bobcats did eke out a signature win on national television against Pitt, but other than that signs of progress were few and far between. Last season the Bobcats were less offensive than an episode of The Waltons as they averaged a mere 17.5 points per game. Their quarterbacks, led by Austen Everson managed only 6 touchdown passes and completed a scant 45% of their passes. The running game was solid averaging nearly 4.5 yards per rush while being led by Kalvin McRae and his 1100+ yards (5.5 per attempt). The defense did not contribute much towards winning either allowing 30.5 points per game. Opposing quarterbacks completed nearly 63% of their passes and averaged over 8 yards per pass. They held their own against the run allowing only 4.3 yards per rush. Special teams were both good and bad. Ohio returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns on the year, but also allowed two of each. Plus their kicker only converted on 4 of 9 field goals on the year (Matthew Miller was 3of 4 while Brooks Rossman was 1 of 5).
This season has been a different story as the Bobcats have reeled off 7 straight victories en route to a 9-3 regular season. Two of their losses were non-conference tilts on the road against Rutgers and Missouri, and the other was an early season home loss to Bowling Green. The Bobcats also beat another BCS school this season, narrowly edging Illinois in Champaign 20-17. How have the Bobcats done it? For starters the offense has improved, scoring 21.6 points per game. Their quarterbacks, again led by Everson (a senior) are completing over half their passes (55%). The touchdown total is still low (8), but so is the interception count (11). The running game has regressed a bit, averaging only 4.2 yards per rush. McRae again has over 1100 yards, but only averages 5 yards per attempt. The real difference for Ohio is their defense. The defense has allowed only 16.2 points per contest. If we remove the two games against Rutgers and Missouri, that number drops to 13.9. Opposing quarterbacks completed less than half their passes (49.8%) and are averaging only 5.3 yards per pass. Those are dramatic improvements from 2005. The run defense has also improved allowing just under 4 yards per rush. Special teams have also improved. The Bobcats have brought one punt back for 6, and have allowed no special teams touchdowns on the year. Their kicking game has also improved. Kicker Matt Lasher has converted 12 of his 17 field goal attempts.
The team on the other sideline tomorrow night has also improved significantly from last season. Central Michigan is also led by a coach who achieved great success at another school. Brian Kelly spent 13 seasons at Division II Grand Valley State and won 2 national titles. He joined the Chippewas prior to the 2004 season and his teams have shown improvement each year. They were 4-7 in 2004, 6-5 in 2005, and are currently sitting at 8-4. 3 of the Chippewas 4 losses this season have come to BCS schools. They fell at home to Boston College 31-24 at home on the opening Thursday of the season. The following week they lost to Michigan in the Big House, and in late September they lost a shootout at Kentucky by 45-36. Their only conference loss came 2 weeks ago at Northern Illinois.
The Chippewas are a very different team from the Bobcats. Central Michigan depends on its offense, not its defense to win games. The offense scores nearly 30 per game (29.5) and allows exactly 24 per contest. Led by freshman quarterback Dan LeFevour, the Chippewas have a passing attack Ohio can only dream of possessing. Chippewa quarterbacks have completed nearly 62% of their passes and have more than twice as many touchdown passes (24) as interceptions (10). Their running game is much like Ohio’s (though not quite as good), solid if unspectacular, but features more of a committee approach than a featured back. On defense, the Chippewas are good against the run, allowing only 3.8 yards per rush, but are routinely gouged by the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have completed over 61% of their passes and nearly doubled up their interceptions (12) with touchdown passes (24). On special teams, Central Michigan is pretty awful at punt returns (under 6 yards per return compared to over 14 for Ohio), but pretty good at punt coverage (allowing under 5 yards per return). They have run a kickoff back this season and have converted 10 of 16 field goals.
With both teams having accepted bowl bids (Ohio to the GMAC and Central Michigan to the Motor City), this game is solely for the banner, the trophy, and the rings. This game comes down to two matchups, one strength versus strength, and the other weakness versus weakness. Ohio’s strength is its pass defense and Central Michigan’s strength is its passing offense. If Ohio can shut down the Chippewas passing attack, they can pull off the minor upset. If not, the Chippewas could make this ugly. Central Michigan’s weakness is its pass defense. Fortunately for them, passing the football is not something Ohio does well. Consequently, there is very little chance Ohio runs away with this game. To me this game is a toss up, but I understand why Central Michigan is a three point favorite. If Central Michigan’s passing game is on, they could go up early and cruise to an easy victory. Ohio doesn’t have the firepower to cruise to a victory. If Ohio does manage to win this game it will be close, unless Central Michigan simply implodes and turns the ball over a ton.
Prediction: In a close game, I like the Ohio defense to put the clamps (somewhat) on a very good Central Michigan offense. The Bobcats win a defensive struggle.