The Kansas Jayhawks are (gasp!) 3 point favorites to beat the Ohio Bobcats and start the 2016 season with a 2-0 record Saturday. Ohio has had a good run of success under head coach Frank Solich, but the program has had mixed results in recent years, and finds themselves off to an 0-1 start after losing at home in triple overtime to Texas State, 56-54. For reference, Texas State is ranked 123rd in FBS by F/+, 118th by S&P+, and Jeff Sagarin ranks them 138th in Division 1. So, no matter how you look at it, that’s a really ugly loss for Ohio. With that said, Ohio went a respectable 8-5 last year, so it’s possible that last week’s result was a bit of a fluke. Then again, they won the turnover battle +2, so the struggle with a bad team could be a really bad sign for the Bobcats.
Ohio has never had an explosive offense under Solich, but they’ve consistently gained about 5.5 yards/play in recent years, which isn’t bad. Last week, Ohio used a fairly balanced attack, running the ball 51 times compared to 46 pass attempts. Most years they tend to favor a more run-heavy attack out of the pistol formation, running it 58% of the time last year and 56% the season before.
Given Kansas’ difficulties at times against the run against Rhode Island last week, even with the Rams’ all-conference running back sidelined with an injury, the run game, which went for 4.7 yards per attempt last week, could be cause for concern. The Ohio passing game was effective last week as well, with senior QB Greg Windham completing 28 of 46 passes for 393 yards, with 4 TDs and no picks. Windham isn’t quite a dual-threat quarterback, but he did run for 37 yards against Texas State, and netted over 100 yards on the ground last year. Despite the results in the win column last year, S&P+ ranked Ohio just 74th offensively in 2015.
Ohio’s defense was the slightly stronger side of the ball last year, ranked 56th by S&P+. Six of their top seven tacklers return from last year, but the experience didn’t show last week as a bad Texas State offense carved them up for 550 yards (5.6 yards per play). Ohio’s pass defense was particularly concerning, allowing Texas State to complete 41 of 56 passes for 440 yards. Last year, the run defense was their primary concern, allowing their opponents 5 yards per carry.
Linebacker Quentin Poling will be a player to keep an eye on. After leading Ohio in tackles for loss last year, he racked up 2.5 more in week one. He was also Ohio’s leading tackler overall in 2015, and got to the quarterback for 4 sacks. The Kansas offense will want to keep an eye on him. Tarell Basham is a junior defensive end and a solid player as well, leading Ohio in sacks last season and picking one up against Texas State last weekend.
It’s hard to say what Kansas’ strengths and weaknesses are, given the poor quality of opponent last week. This makes it tough to pinpoint how they can best exploit Ohio. Their run defense should have some holes, but we saw last week that Kansas’ offensive line is shaky in the run game, so they’ll have to rely on Taylor Martin and Ke’Aun Kinner’s speed to try and make something happen on the ground. Ohio’s poor performance against the pass last week is encouraging, given that Kansas did a lot of damage through the air against Rhode Island, and LaQuivionte Gonzalez seems to have given the receiving corps a big play threat this year.
When Ohio has the ball, the concern will probably be stopping the running game. Kansas gets senior LB Marcquis Roberts and DT DJ Williams back for this game after they missed the season opener for unspecified reasons. Both are starters, so that should help improve the run defense somewhat. Still, Kansas’ defensive line is very young, and while there is talent there, I wouldn’t be surprised if stops in the run game are hard to come by this year.
Ultimately, this should be a fairly close game. F/+ ranks Kansas 117th compared to Ohio at 99th, while Sagarin likes Kansas more, ranking them 93rd compared to Ohio at 107th. It’s pretty clear that these are teams that will struggle this year, and who comes out on top may come down to turnovers or little mistakes. That’s why I give Ohio a slight edge. Beaty is still learning on the job, and as we saw last week, the wrinkles are not yet ironed out. While Ohio may have some talent issues, Frank Solich is an experienced coach with a lot of success, and the Bobcats are probably less likely to make these costly errors.