ATHENS, Ohio — The Bobcats are back.
With a big Bahamas Bowl victory to build off of, the Ohio football team is set for a successful 2018 campaign.
The Bobcats are entering year their 14th year with head coach Frank Solich, who is the fourth-longest tenured head coach in all of NCAA football bowl sub-division.
Ohio was 9-4 overall last year, losing its last two regular season games, but ending on a high note with a 41-6 triumph over UAB in the Bahamas Bowl.
Junior quarterback Nathan Rourke — second team All-MAC selection last season — is on the preseason watch lists for the Manning, Maxwell, and Davey O’Brien awards.
Last season, Rourke completed 161-of-292 passes for 2,203 yards, with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. On the ground, Rourke rushed for 912 yards and an Ohio-record 21 touchdowns.
A.J. Ouellette — a second team All-MAC running back — carried the ball 192 times last season, gaining 1,006 yards, while scoring seven touchdowns. Ouellette was the first Bobcat back to surpass the 1,000-yard mark since the 2012 season.
Papi White — second team all-conference wide receiver — led all Bobcats with 36 receptions and 631 receiving yards, despite only playing in nine games due to injury. White hauled in three touchdowns as a junior, tying him with Cameron Odom for the most receiving scores among returnees.
The Bobcat offensive line will be anchored by senior guard Joe Anderson and senior tackle Joe Lowery, both All-MAC second team selections last year. The Bobcat line will have to replace center Jake Pruehs, an all-conference second team selection as a senior.
Rourke, Ouellette and Lowery are team captains on the offensive side of the ball.
The 2017 Ohio offense averaged 39.1 points and 433.1 yards per game. The Bobcats scored 44 touchdowns on the ground and 20 through the air.
The most decorated defender returning for the Bobcats is junior safety Javon Hagan, who was an All-MAC second team selection last year and is on the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list this fall.
Among others to replace from the defensive side of the ball, Ohio will have to fill the shoes of first team All-MAC linebacker and current Miami Dolphin Quentin Poling, second team all-conference linebacker Chad Moore, and third team all-league cornerback Bradd Ellis.
Hagan, Kylan Nelson, Kent Berger and Evan Croutch are the 2018 captains on the Bobcat defense.
The 2017 OU defense came up with 20 takeaways, 28 sacks and a pair of touchdowns.
Redshirt junior place kicker Louie Zervos has made 44-of-53 field goal attempts in his first two seasons, with a career long of 51 yards coming last fall. With 228 points scored in his career, Zervos heads into the season on the Groza Award watch list. Zervos was a third team all-conference selection last year, and first team all-conference selection as a freshman.
Punter Michael Farkas is also returning for his redshirt junior season, after 71 punts for an average of 41 yards a year ago. In two seasons, Farkas has punted the ball away 129 times, landing 51 inside the 20, with just six touchbacks.
Neither Zervos, nor Farkas will have to worry about the ball being where it’s supposed to be on special teams, as senior Jake Hale is entering his fourth year as starting long snapper.
White was an third team All-MAC punt returner last season.
After opening at home against Howard — an NCAA Division I FCS school — on Sept. 1, the Bobcats have a week off before heading into ACC country to take on Virginia on Sept. 15.
OU will be back in its home state for its next three games, visiting Cincinnati on Sept. 22, hosting former MAC foe UMass on Sept. 29, and then traveling to Kent State on Oct. 6 to open conference play.
The Bobcats make their longest trip of the year to visit Northern Illinois on Oct. 13, and then the Green and White will welcome Bowling Green for Homecoming on Oct. 20.
The Bobcats have a quick turnaround, hosting Ball State in Thursday showcase on Oct. 25. Ohio plays for a second straight Thursday, visiting Western Michigan on Nov. 1.
Ohio’s final road trip of the year is on Wednesday, Nov. 7, when the Battle of the Bricks takes place in Oxford.
The Bobcats round out the regular season by hosting Buffalo on Nov. 14, and Akron on Nov. 23.
Last season, the Bobcats treated their home fans to a 5-1 record at Peden Stadium.
The Bobcats were second in the MAC East last year, going 5-3 in conference. Akron won the MAC East with a 6-2 conference record, but fell to MAC West champ Toledo by a 45-28 tally in the MAC championship game at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.
In the MAC East last fall, Buffalo and Miami tied for third with 4-4 records, Bowling Green was next at 2-6, while Kent State finished just 1-7 in conference.
Following the 7-1 Golden Rockets in the 2017 MAC West standings were Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, both at 6-2. Western Michigan was 4-4 and fourth in the MAC West, Eastern Michigan was one game back and finished fifth, while Ball State was the only team without a conference win.
This year’s MAC title game will be in the Motor City on Friday, Nov. 30.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.