After an already shortened 2020 season in which Ohio only played three of its six scheduled games, the Bobcats are preparing to return to a more standard schedule in 2021 as coach Frank Solich prepares for his 17th season in Athens.
Ohio’s schedule was limited to only Mid-American Conference games last year. That won’t be the case this season, as the Bobcats have four nonconference teams lined up for the year. The mix includes two Power Five teams, an FCS school and a familiar Group of Five foe.
Here’s an early look at Ohio’s four nonconference opponents:
September 4: Syracuse
The Bobcats open their season by hosting Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Syracuse. While the Orange are a Power Five team, they’ve hit a rough patch after their 10-3 2018 campaign.
After a 5-7 2019 season, the Orange followed that up with a dismal 1-10 record in 2020, their worst record since 2005. Head coach Dino Babers — a former MAC Championship winning coach with Bowling Green in 2015 – has a 24-36 record with the Orange entering his sixth season at the helm. Despite these troubling numbers, don’t expect Syracuse to just be a soft week one opponent.
Syracuse’s offense is expected to improve in 2021, partially thanks to addition of Mississippi State transfer quarterback Garrett Shrader, who will give the Orange a dual-threat option on offense. Shrader will make work easier on the offensive line, which allowed the third-most sacks in the country with 38 last season. The offensive line was also plagued with inexperience and health concerns all season.
Now, Syracuse should have capable and experienced starters at all five offensive line positions. One such starter is Florida transfer Chris Bleich, who brings much needed experience at guard.
The Orange return 10 starters on defense. Despite losing talented defensive backs Ifeatu Melifonwu and Andre Cisco to the NFL, Syracuse’s defense is another half of the team that will benefit from more experience to improve in 2021. Mikel Jones, McKinley Williams and Josh Black could put up bigger numbers in the front seven this season. Meanwhile, Garrett Williams and Ja’Had Carter may also be able to use their experience to follow up what Melifonwu and Cisco brought to the Orange.
Despite being a Power Five team, the game against Syracuse is winnable for Ohio, and such a win would be an excellent start to Ohio’s return to a nonconference schedule. The Orange will be just as hungry for victory, however. They will be eager to prove they are not the same team as they were in 2020.
September 11: Duquesne
The Dukes are the lone FCS school on Ohio’s schedule, and they will be the Bobcats’ first since the 41-20 win over Rhode Island in week one of the 2019 season.
Duquesne went 4-1 in 2020, with its only loss coming in the Northeast Conference championship game to Sacred Heart in overtime. The Dukes are led by Jerry Schmitt, an experienced head coach going into his 17th year at the helm. Duquesne hasn’t played an FBS school since a 42-21 loss to Hawaii in 2018. Despite that, Duquesne shouldn’t be seen as just a pushover, especially with some of its offensive weapons returning this season.
One name on offense the Bobcats will recognize is the Dukes’ starting quarterback, Joe Mischler. Mischler was a backup quarterback for Ohio in 2019, although he didn’t see much playing time behind starter Nathan Rourke. After transferring and ending up at Duquesne, however, he has made himself at home in Pittsburgh. In 2020, Mischler completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,195 yards, nine touchdowns and only four interceptions.
One of Mischler’s assists to his passing game is wide receiver Cyrus Holder, who led the Dukes in receiving last season with 491 yards. His 98.2 yards per game led the NEC in 2020. Billy Lucas and Garrett Owens are expected to lead the run game as they did last year as well. Both Lucas and Owens averaged over four yards per carry in 2020, and Lucas earned the 2020-21 NEC Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
September 16: @ Louisiana-Lafayette (Thursday Night)
Even with a Power Five opponent a week later, the Ragin’ Cajuns might be Ohio’s toughest matchup all season.
Billy Napier returns to Lafayette as coach for the fourth straight year. The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off a 10-1 campaign in 2020 and their third consecutive Sun Belt West division title, a final ranking of No. 19 in the country and a 31-24 win over UTSA in the First Responder Bowl. Many would argue that Napier should be a Power Five coach by now. Since Napier is back and the Cajuns are returning 20 starters from last year, there’s not much reason to expect a drop-off.
The upside for the Bobcats? They’ve played against the Cajuns recently in a 45-25 loss in Athens in 2019. 2021’s game will be played in Lafayette, but Ohio won’t be taken by surprise by Louisiana’s prowess. Solich has seen in-person dual threat quarterback Levi Lewis’s capabilities, the brick wall of a defensive line led by talents such as Zi’Yon Hill and Andre Jones and of course, Napier’s coaching abilities. Even if the current Cajuns roster looks even stronger than it did two years ago, Ohio can still learn from its previous matchup to help itself in this Thursday night prime time showdown.
Still, Louisiana’s complete roster will be a problem. When he isn’t doing the running himself, Lewis can spread the ball to his experienced wide receiver and tight end pool. They include Kyren Lacy and Jalen Williams, both of whom put up at least 360 yards and caught four touchdowns in 2020. The rock-solid offensive is matched up by an equally threatening defense. Both the front seven and defensive backs are expected to be some of the best in the Sun Belt Conference once again. The Cajuns will also have returning starters from last season’s sixth-ranked national pass defense at every position. That’s a problem even for a quarterback with as strong of an arm as Kurtis Rourke.
September 25: @ Northwestern
The Wildcats redeemed themselves in 2020 after a lackluster 3-9 season in 2019. Last year, Pat Fitzgerald used a loaded roster on both sides of the ball to finish 7-2 and win the Big 10 West division before falling to Ohio State 22-10 in the conference championship. Northwestern finished the season ranked No. 10 overall in the country and later beat Auburn 35-19 in the Citrus Bowl.
Heading into his 16th season as Northwestern’s head coach, Fitzgerald returns only eight starters from last year, with many areas being relatively inexperienced. The Wildcats lost their starting quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who threw for 1,733 yards and ran for 247 yards in 2020, and he is expected to be replaced by South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski. The sophomore transfer threw for 2,357 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions with the Gamecocks in 2019, and he was named the backup quarterback in 2020.
The Wildcats’ linebackers and defensive backs may be somewhat inexperienced after losing the likes of Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, Greg Newsome II and Cameron Ruiz, however, the defensive line is expected to be the base of Northwestern’s defense in 2021. With Adetomiwa Adebawore and Samdup Miller leading the charge and the addition of Old Dominion transfer Jeremy Meiser, Ohio’s front five will have their work cut out for them in week four.
There are some other developing defensive talents too, including safety Brandon Joseph, who finished tied in first for the most interceptions in the country, racking up six overall in eight appearances.