BOWLING GREEN — It’s hard to remember a time when the Bowling Green State University football team entered a season with greater expectations.
Last year’s team won the program’s first Mid-American Conference championship since 1992, finished with 10 victories, and claimed a berth in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. That performance, coupled with the return of a galaxy of stars on both sides of the ball, have combined to make the Falcons a consensus favorite to repeat as MAC champs and earn another East Division title.
And there are voices saying BG can potentially compete for national rankings and a major bowl bid this season.
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To this point, though, it doesn’t seem as if the Falcons are letting the hype interfere with their preparation for 2014.
“We don’t pay too much attention to the expectations,” senior safety Ryland Ward said. “At the end of the day, you have to just play.
“Best offense? Best defense? That doesn’t mean anything if you go out there and lay an egg. We appreciate it, but that’s not helping us win.”
There is a foundation for the hype. The return of quarterback Matt Johnson, who threw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, coupled with running back Travis Greene, who set a school record with 1,594 rushing yards and 11 scores, certainly helps.
And the installation of new coach Dino Babers’ high-powered offense, while not complete, leads to the promise of even more scoring.
But there also are concerns entering the Falcons opener at Western Kentucky on Friday. One is an offensive line that, while returning All-MAC guard Alex Huettel, also must replace two graduated all-league performers.
“I think the offensive line is getting better,” Babers said. “I think there are some techniques and fundamentals that are different, and they are working hard at them every day.
“I think the place where this offensive line is right now is not where it will be when we start the MAC title race.”
Another question concerns the receivers, a key unit in Babers’ four-receiver sets. The Falcons’ two top pass-catchers are gone, and a third (Chris Gallon) was lost to injury. Senior Heath Jackson (32 catches, 364 yards, three TDs), junior Ryan Burbrink (30-477-2), and sophomores Ronnie Moore (28-547-7) and SMU transfer Gehrig Dieter will be asked to shoulder the load while continuing to learn a new system.
“They’re infants — they are still in their diapers,” Babers said of his receiving corps. “But I really believe they have the ability to be really good.”
On defense, the Falcons hope to continue the success of last year’s unit, which led the MAC in rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense.
“This is the best defense I’ve worked with,” Babers said. “They have an opportunity to be special.”
Key returnees on the defensive line include senior ends Bryan Thomas, who had seven tackles for loss among his 37 tackles, and Charlie Walker.
Two senior All-MAC performers anchor the linebacking corps in D.J. Lynch, who led last year’s team with 85 tackles, and Gabe Martin, who received all-league accolades despite missing half of the season because of injury.
In the secondary, it’s misleading to say there are three new starters because cornerbacks Jude Adjei-Barimah and Darrell Hunter both have extensive experience while safety Brian Sutton has played as a rover.
Babers said the goal for his secondary is to not try to do too much.
“We need them to keep the ball in front of them,” he said. “We need them to be aggressive, and to tackle in space.”
Tyler Tate returns as the placekicker after setting a school record for points a year ago, while Findlay native Joe Davidson will be asked to handle the punting as a freshman.
3 games to watch
■ Friday at Western Kentucky: The Falcons enter the season with high expectations, but their season opener is no cupcake. The Hilltoppers also enter this season with big dreams after posting winning records in each of the past three seasons. Getting off to a good start on the road against a quality nonconference opponent is a must.
■ Sept. 13 vs. Indiana: The Falcons play two Big Ten opponents this season, but beating Wisconsin on the road will be a tall task. In this contest, though, BG plays the Hoosiers at the Doyt, and a 5-7 Indiana squad is a very different opponent from a 9-4 Wisconsin team. For added motivation, BG looks to avenge a lopsided loss to the Hoosiers last season.
■ Nov. 19 at Toledo: There may be bigger Mid-American Conference games on the Falcons schedule, especially when it comes to repeating as East Division champions. But who’s kidding who? There’s no bigger regular-season game on BG’s schedule, and having lost four straight to “that school up north” is one of the few blots on the Falcons’ resume in recent years.
3 causes for concern
■ THE OFFENSIVE LINE: The Falcons graduated two All-MAC linemen in center David “Chief” Kekuewa and guard Dominic Flewellyn, so there are questions in the middle of the line. The return of guard Alex Huettel, also an All-MAC choice, and sophomore tackles Jacob Bennett and Logan Dietz provide a foundation.
■ INTERCEPTIONS: While they did a number of things well defensively in 2013, one area where the Falcons struggled was in creating turnovers with interceptions. BG had just eight interceptions, the lowest total in the MAC, last season.
One sure way for this team to reach its goal of creating more turnovers would be to pick off more passes.
■ PUNTING: While placekicker Tyler Tate and punt returner Ryan Burbrink should give the Falcons a strong special teams base, there is a question with the punting game. The Falcons will rely on a freshman, Findlay native Joe Davidson, to replace Brian Schmiedebusch, who was a weapon with his ability to punt long as well as pinning opponents inside the 20.
The offense learns and utilizes the new concepts to blast opponents, including an upset win at Wisconsin and finishes the regular season undefeated. A win in the MAC championship game earns the Falcons a berth in one of the “major” bowls, and the team shines in the national spotlight.
The offense struggles to adapt early, and that puts pressure on the defense, which is on the field extensively. Games against Big Ten opponents Indiana and Wisconsin both turn into losses, and tough MAC opponents such as Toledo, Ball State, and East Division rivals Akron and Ohio knock off the Falcons. Having said that, if the Falcons don’t at least finish the season bowl-eligible, the season is a disaster.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
- “All nine sets of my ‘power rankings’ call BG the most talented team in the East and I’ll call for them to get back to the MAC title game.” - Phil Steele, College Football Preview.
- “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.” -Paul Myerberg, USA Today.
- “The offense is loaded with talented players, and a favorable early-season schedule, followed by four home games in a five-game stretch, bodes well to build momentum.” -Lindy’s Sports Annual