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The wild, wild OAC: 2017 football preview

John Carroll beat Mount Union last year on a touchdown with 39 seconds left. JCU won their first OAC title since 1989 that day. (photo/ JCU Sports Information)

Last year was a historic one for the OAC.

Mount Union, the winner of 24 straight OAC titles, was dethroned by their rivals from University Heights.

John Carroll quarterback Anthony Moeglin threw a 24-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining to stun the Purple Raiders on their home turf. The Blue Streaks beat Mount Union by three and were OAC champions for the first time since 1989.

Mount lost their first OAC game in 11 years, snapping an 112-game regular season winning streak that dated back to 2005.

The majority of the 2016 season was a buildup for that grand finale, the week 10 showdown between Mount and JCU. Both teams came into the game undefeated in the conference, although John Carroll had survived two close games (single-digit affairs with Baldwin Wallace and Ohio Northern) en route to what would serve as the OAC title game.

Both John Carroll and Mount Union would advance to the national playoffs, each losing in the semifinals. Mount did not qualify for the national championship game for the first time in 12 years.

While Mount Union and John Carroll separated themselves early on in 2016, the rest of the OAC spent the majority of the year fighting for third place.

Heidelberg finished third at 6-3 in the OAC, although the Student Princes gave little resistance to the Blue Streaks or Purple Raiders, losing to them by 28 and 36, respectively. Ohio Northern placed fourth at 5-4, losing to Mount by 17 and JCU by just four. The Polar Bears proved to be the toughest opponent for the top two schools, although they also played both teams in Ada.

The two Columbus schools, Otterbein (5-4) and Capital (4-5), went fifth and sixth in the OAC, respectively. The two southeastern schools, Muskingum (3-6) and Marietta (3-6) finished seventh and eighth, while Baldwin Wallace finished ninth (2-7) and winless Wilmington placed tenth.

The 2017 season will likely bring more confusion to the conference’s historic hierarchy, as Mount has lost their all-region running back, Bradley Mitchell, and their top receiver, Tim Kennedy, to graduation.

John Carroll has filled the shoes of former head coach Tom Arth, who left for Div. I UT-Chattanooga, with Michigan defensive assistant Rick Finotti. The hire doesn’t seem like much of a step down for the Blue Streaks, who will also be returning the vast majority of their roster on both sides of the ball.

Heidelberg and Ohio Northern will be contenders again this season as well, in what should be one of the most wide-open (if that term could be used to describe OAC football) conference races since the 1980s.

Here is a brief team-by-team preview of the OAC this season, before the conference preseason poll is announced at OAC Media Day on Thursday.

 

--- Pepper’s picks ---

 

1. John Carroll

8th in nation in d3football.com preseason poll, released earlier this month.

Last season: 1st in OAC (12-2 overall, 9-0 in OAC). Lost in national semifinals to Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

 

By adding Finotti as head coach, John Carroll will be sharpening what was already one of the nation’s sharpest defenses.

Last year, JCU gave up just 218 yards per game (3rd in the nation) and 12.6 points per game (4th in nation). They will be returning senior linebacker Mason McKendrick, who led the team in tackles last season, as well as senior defensive lineman Ray Brown, who led the conference in sacks.

On offense, the team will return sophomore starting quarterback Anthony Moeglin, who led the conference in passing yards and touchdowns last year. The Blue Streaks will be without their main receiving target from last season, however, in Marshall Howell. They will turn to junior Eddie Williamson and others to pick up the slack in the passing game, although JCU has traditionally been a more run-oriented team. In the backfield, the Blue Streaks return their top two rushers, senior Ro Golphin and junior Sam Kukura, from 2016.

The biggest difference between this season and last season for JCU, besides the coaching change? This year, they will be everyone’s biggest game.

Games to circle:

Sept. 2 vs. #4 Wisconsin-Oshkosh (rematch from last year’s national semifinal)

Oct. 14 vs. Ohio Northern

Nov. 11 vs. #2 Mount Union (Senior Day)

 

2. Ohio Northern

Received votes to be in d3football.com preseason Top 25 poll.

Last season: 4th in OAC (5-5 overall, 5-4 in OAC)

 

The Polar Bears proved to be the toughest conference opponent for both John Carroll and Mount Union last year, losing to the Blue Streaks by just four and to the Purple Raiders by 17.

While both of those games were in Ada, Northern appears primed to pull off a road upset and beat one of those schools this season, placing them second in the conference.

ONU returns almost their entire offense from last season, including sophomore running back Christiaan Williams, who led the conference in rushing yards per game as a freshman. Junior QB Will Freed, who was second in the OAC in passing yards per game, will return as well.

The Polar Bears will need to find a replacement for Reed Allen, however, who was the team’s leading receiver and deep-ball threat as a senior last year. Tight end Logan Ray, who was second on the team in receptions, has also graduated. Wideouts such as Malachi Nolletti, Chad Rex and Brenden Hadley will have to step up their production this season as Freed’s main targets.

On defense, OAC tackle leader Zach Schmerge will return for his senior campaign this fall. The majority of the ONU front seven will return this season, although defensive end Scott Rapps, who led the team in sacks last year, has graduated.

Could Ohio Northern make their way back into the NCAA playoffs after a one-year hiatus? Only if they can win big games on the road.

Games to circle:

Sept. 30 at #2 Mount Union

Oct. 14 at #8 John Carroll

 

3. Mount Union

2nd in nation in d3football.com preseason poll, released earlier this month.

Last season: 2nd in OAC (12-2 overall, 8-1 in OAC). Lost in national semifinals to eventual national champion, Mary Hardin-Baylor.

 

The Purple Raiders will be back with a vengeance in 2017, out to prove that last year was a fluke and ready to regain what has been rightfully theirs for the better part of the past three decades: the OAC crown.

Unfortunately for Mount Union, they will have to do so without their star offensive player from last season, Bradley Mitchell.

Mitchell was the OAC’s leading rusher as a senior, leading the conference in total yards and touchdowns. He finished his career third on Mount’s all-time rushing list, and also led the conference last year in carries per game, with over 18, as he was a major factor in the Purple Raider offense.

While Mount’s leading receiver from last season, Tim Kennedy, has graduated as well, the Purple Raiders will bring back sophomore quarterback Dom Davis and two of his three primary receivers from last year, seniors Jared Ruth and Braeden Friss.

The Mount defense will return four of its top five tacklers from last year, and defensive lineman Mike Vidal will be back for his senior campaign. Vidal tallied 12.5 sacks last year, which was second in the conference in that category.

If there’s such a thing as a rebuilding season for Mount Union football, this might be it. But don't hold your breath.

Games to circle:

Sept. 30 vs. Ohio Northern

Nov. 11 at John Carroll

 

4. Heidelberg

Last season: 3rd in OAC (6-4 overall, 6-3 in OAC)

 

Last year, Heidelberg was one of the most exciting teams to watch in the OAC. With many pieces returning in 2017, this season should be no different.

The Student Princes had the conference’s most lethal pass attack last season, using multiple receivers to spread defenses out. Quarterback Tyler Stoyle, who led the OAC with 239 passing yards per game last season, will return for his senior campaign in 2017.

His main target from a year ago, Demetrius Magee, will also be back for his senior year. Magee led the conference in receiving touchdowns and was third in receiving yards per game. While secondary passing target Cameron Vocke has graduated, Heidelberg will bring back tertiary threat Tony Morris for his senior year as well.

Although Heidelberg could score at will last season, they struggled defensively, giving up 50 points to Mount Union and 42 points to JCU.

Fortunately for the Student Princes, only three of the 18 players who played in all 10 games last season on defense graduated, as another year of experience could potentially benefit Heidelberg on that side of the ball.

Heidelberg will have two big home games, versus JCU and Mount, to test that defense this season.

Games to circle:

Sept. 16 at Ohio Northern

Sept. 23 vs. John Carroll

Oct. 7 vs. Mount Union

 

5. Otterbein

Last season: 5th in OAC (5-5 overall, 5-4 in OAC)

 

2016 was a roller-coaster season for the Cardinals. It was defined, however, by their 1-3 record against the conference’s top four teams. While Otterbein took care of business against the bottom of the conference, they struggled to compete with the OAC’s elite.

The good news for Otterbein is that they were one of the league’s youngest teams in 2016, and they have nearly all of their playmakers (on both sides of the ball) back this season. Don’t be surprised if the Cardinals pull off an upset or two this fall.

Senior quarterback Logan Stepp will be back to lead the Cardinals' hybrid offense this season. Stepp was the team’s leading passer and rusher last year, and was fifth in the OAC in passing yards and passing touchdowns.

Stepp’s top three receiving targets -- Hunter Joseph, Julian Lowe and Payton Vanderkooi -- will all be seniors this fall as well.

Three of the team’s top four tacklers will be back this year on defense, alongside senior defensive end Kyle Blust, who was fourth in the conference in sacks last season.

Will this be the year that Otterbein breaks into the OAC’s upper echelon? Well, it is ‘wide open,’ isn’t it?

Games to circle:

Sept. 30 at Capital

Nov. 4 vs. John Carroll

 

6. Baldwin Wallace

Last season: 9th in OAC (3-7 overall, 2-7 in OAC)

 

The Yellow Jackets are going through their first coaching change in 15 years, following their worst season since the formation of the current OAC. That being said, last year wasn’t as bad as their record might have indicated.

Aside from the Mount Union game, which BW lost 49-7, the rest of the Jackets’ six losses came by a combined 28 points, including two one-point losses. The Jackets also put up a good fight against John Carroll, losing by just seven.

Like Otterbein, don’t be surprised if this team upsets one of the conference’s top teams this season.

The team will have their starting quarterback, junior Jake Hudson, and running back, senior Austin Smith, back to work their hybrid offense. Their leading tackler from last season, senior Sam Groff, will be back to anchor the Yellow Jacket defense as well.

2017 marks the beginning of the Jim Hilvert era at BW. The new coach comes from LaSalle High School in Cincinnati, where he won the last two OHSAA Div. II state championships. Before LaSalle, he was the head coach at Div. III Thomas More College, where he won nearly 78 percent of his games.

But bottom line, the story is this: if BW can win the close ones this year, they might just find themselves in the upper half of the OAC.

Games to circle:

Sept. 16 vs. John Carroll

Sept. 23 at Mount Union

 

7. Marietta

Last season: 8th in OAC (3-7 overall, 3-6 in OAC)

 

One of the bright spots last fall for the Pioneers was Roger Walker, who rushed for over 1,300 yards, making him the second-most productive tailback in the OAC. The good news: Walker is back this season for his senior campaign, as he will likely need to carry the Marietta offense once again this year.

The key offensively for Marietta this season will be converting on scoring opportunities. The Pioneers tallied the 4th-most rushing yards and the 5th-most passing yards in the conference last season, but were just 7th in points per game. Fortunately for Marietta, quarterback Darrien Fields will be back for his junior season alongside Walker. Three of Fields’ top four receiving targets will also return this year.

More than anything, however, Marietta struggled on the defensive side of the ball last season. The Pioneers could not hold an opponent under 20 points all season, and gave up 40 points or more in five of their seven losses. Four of the team’s top five tacklers from last season will return this year, however, including junior linebacker Garrett Davis, who was tied for second in the conference with nine tackles per game.

The Pioneers will need to focus on defense if they want to have a more productive season in 2017.

Games to circle:

Sept. 23 vs. Muskingum

Oct. 7 vs. John Carroll

 

8. Capital

Last season: 6th in OAC (4-6 overall, 4-5 in OAC)

 

If you watched Capital play last season, there were probably two things that stood out: 1) They had the smoothest triple-option offense in the OAC, and 2) They got scored on… a lot.

The Crusaders gave up 40 points per game last fall, which is second-to-last in the OAC.

With all the offensive firepower that is returning to the conference this year, it seems that teams who lack defensive fortitude will struggle mightily.

Four of the team’s five leading tacklers will return this season, however, including senior linebacker Derek Eibon, who tied for second in the conference last year with nine tackles per game.

Wideout David Barnett, the OAC’s leading receiver in his freshman season, will be back next year as well. The rookie averaged 88 receiving yards per game and was second in the OAC in receiving touchdowns, with 10. The team’s starting quarterback, Thomas Wibbeler, and primary running back, Cory Heeter, will also both be back for their senior seasons.

Once again, the Crusaders should be fine on the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s all about stops in Bexley.

Games to circle:

Sept. 30 vs. Otterbein

Oct. 21 vs. John Carroll

 

9. Muskingum

Last season: 7th in OAC (4-6 overall, 3-6 in OAC)

The Muskies are coming off of their winningest season since 2011, while also recording their first win over Baldwin Wallace since 2005. While the team was fourth in the OAC in scoring defense, giving up just 25 points per game, however, their offense lagged behind.

Muskingum was second-to-last in scoring offense last season, scoring 15 points per contest.

And unfortunately for the Muskies, they will lose several key offensive playmakers from last year’s roster.

Starting quarterback Griffin Degener has graduated, as well as starting tailback Jordan Scanlon. While Muskingum will return three of their top four receivers, the Muskies did not throw the ball much last season -- only 26 times per game.

Defensively, Muskingum will lose two of their top three tacklers from last year, although both starting linebackers (Mick Fishel and Tim Ousley) will be back.

Simply put, this could be another rebuilding year for the Muskies.

Games to circle:

Sept. 23 at Marietta

Oct. 28 at John Carroll

 

10. Wilmington

Last season: Last in OAC (0-10 overall, 0-9 in OAC)

 

In 2016, the Quakers gave up an average of 54 points per game, while scoring just 11. Their closest game was an 11-point loss to Baldwin Wallace, and their worst loss was by a score of 80-3 to Ohio Northern.

Wilmington finished last in the conference in nearly every team statistical category, and unfortunately for the Quakers, this season might not be much different.

Starting QB Luke Creditt will be back for his senior year, as will the team’s leading rusher, Eric Flynn Jr. Two of Creditt’s main receiving targets from last year will be seniors as well -- PJ Meyer and Tim Murphy.

Defensively, the Quakers will lose their leading tackler from last season, C.J. Thompson. Many defensive starters will return, however, including promising sophomore linebacker Bryan Gonzalez.

Last season, the separation between Wilmington and the rest of the conference was remarkable. Sadly for Quaker faithful, that might not change much this fall.

Games to circle:

Sept. 30 at John Carroll

Nov. 11 at Muskingum

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