Ohio can lock up the East division's berth into the 2016 Mid-American Conference Championship Game with a win Tuesday night over Akron, but the Zips have plenty riding on their visit to Athens, as well.
Akron needs a win to keep its bowl aspirations alive. After starting the season 4-2, the Zips have stumbled to a 1-4 record in the season's second half, including a tough home loss last week against Bowling Green.
Tuesday's matchup pits two of college football's most well-tenured head coaches against one another. Akron's Terry Bowden had an 11-year layoff between stints at Auburn and Div. II North Alabama, but held his first head coaching position 33 years ago at Salem.
Frank Solich is in his 12th season at the helm at Ohio, and at 72, ranks behind only Kansas State's Bill Snyder among college football's elder statesmen. The vast experience between these two head coaches suggests both can and will go deep into their playbooks in what amounts to a must-win for their respective teams.
Akron at Ohio
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Three Things to Watch
1. Running 'Cats
Ohio's offense operates largely on the ground, this season running 103 times more (458) than passing (355). Expect a heavier-than-usual dose of the rushing attack this week, with the Bobcats opposite a porous Akron run defense.
The Zips come in ranked No. 113 nationally against the run at 233.3 rushing yards allowed per game. Perhaps most alarming for Akron is that it's surrendered multiple rushing touchdowns in each of its last five games, and four rushing scores three times. The most recent came last week against a Bowling Green offense not known for its running proficiency.
With five Ohio ball carriers boasting between 199 and 747 rushing yards as well as averaging at least 4.5 yards per carry, expect the Bobcats to inundate the Zips on the ground.
2. Zipping Out Passes
Flip the script for the Akron offense against Ohio's defense, and you have the key to victory for the Zips.
Terry Bowden brought a pass-heavy offensive philosophy to Akron in 2012, and its paid dividends in recent years. This season, the Zips rank No. 35 nationally through the air and on Tuesday against college football's No. 108-ranked passing defense, they'll have opportunity to operate.
The big question is how Akron fares against a vulnerable Ohio passing defense without primary quarterback Thomas Woodson, who departed early due to injury in the loss to Bowling Green last week. That leaves things in the hands of Tra'Von Chapman, who has thrown as many interceptions (5) as touchdowns. He's also completing fewer than 47 percent of his attempts and he too suffered an injury last week. By the end of that game, wide receiver Tyrell Goodman was under center. It's not an ideal situation for there to be so much uncertainty regarding the quarterback situation, but especially considering the importance of this game.
3. Capitalizing on Opportunities
Including last week's single-possession loss to Central Michigan, Ohio has four defeats by fewer than 10 points. That's the entirety of the blemishes on the Bobcats' ledger.
Such heartbreak can leave a team wondering what if. Flip a few possessions this season -- literally a few possessions -- and Ohio's undefeated and perhaps talking Cotton Bowl, as is the case for MAC West counterpart Western Michigan.
By the same token, Ohio's won four games by 10 points or less. The line between an historic season and an ugly one is very thin.
With eight wildly competitive games on the season, the trend for Ohio coming in suggests Akron will have an opportunity. The key for the Zips: capitalize on any opportunities the Bobcats might present. By the same token, Ohio needs to exert its advantage early, and eliminate any hope for upset early.
Ohio has not exactly been the kind of team that blows out opponents or rolls up tons of points this season. The Bobcats' owe their front-running status in the MAC East to a workmanlike approach on both offense and defense, a clear reflection of head coach Frank Solich's style. That style's worked well for this program, which is well-positioned for a MAC Championship Game return.
While Ohio's deficiencies against the pass would open a prime upset opportunity for Akron with a healthy Thomas Woodson at quarterback, his injury casts serious doubt on the Zips' best chance for a win. Look for Ohio to go on long drives, employing a multifaceted rushing attack to take the air out of the ball, and win in perfectly methodical fashion.
Prediction: Ohio 31, Akron 20
(Top photo by Sarah Stier/Ohio Athletics, courtesy of www.ohiobobcats.com)