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‘Cats need to deliver for Solich this year

Five years ago, Ohio surprised the college football world when it brought prestige — a coach named Frank Solich — to the mid-major program toiling in the cellar of the Mid-American Conference.

The highly touted former Nebraska coach came to Athens with expectations greater than any of his predecessors, and Solich was supposed to be the man who finally changed the losing culture of Ohio football.

He had an impressive resume, which included taking the Cornhuskers to the national championship game, and his arrival certainly hinted at a promising future of MAC championships, bowl game appearances, victories over powerhouse programs, and the kind of football people here wanted to see.

Well, that’s what we thought.

Now, four seasons later, the Bobcats have shown only flashes of what Solich was expected to bring, and the improvement has been far from consistent.

The “Got Frank?” shirts that were previously commonplace at Peden Stadium have been stuffed away in closets, and his honeymoon at Ohio has passed. People want the results they expected when Solich first arrived in Athens, making this season his most important with the Bobcats.

To his credit, Solich walked into a mess of a program, and the Bobcats have improved during his tenure. Ohio has a 23-24 record under Solich, compared to an 11-35 record in the four years before he arrived.

In 2005, his Bobcats upset Pittsburgh on national TV, and in Solich’s second year, they won the MAC East championship and advanced to their first bowl game since 1968.

It looked like all was going according to plan.

His early success led fans to believe Solich was building a winning football program that Ohio has not enjoyed for decades.

But his Bobcats failed to sustain that success.

Ohio has not had a winning season since capturing the MAC-East title in 2006, and last year’s injury-riddled campaign was the worst (4-8) of Solich’s entire coaching career. The early success now seems like a distant memory, and the complacency with mediocre football has started to return.

Maybe Solich was a victim of his teams’ early success, which raised expectations too quickly. Or maybe the 2006 season was more of an aberration, and instead of collecting MAC titles, the Bobcats will simply continue to hover around .500.

The lack of consistency the past four years makes the coming season a giant question mark. Figuring out how Ohio will perform from week to week is hard enough, and gauging the team from one year to the next is nearly impossible.

Yes, last year’s team showed promise. The Bobcats almost beat Ohio State. Quarterback Boo Jackson threw a school record 19 touchdown passes. Safety Michael Mitchell was taken by the Oakland Raiders in the second round of the NFL Draft.

Yet, just like the theme of Solich’s career in Athens, the seeds of success failed to mature into anything of substance. Last season the Bobcats wilted under late-game pressure against Ohio State, Northwestern, Central Michigan, Temple and Buffalo, and looked like a team unsure of how to win.

We will find out this year if Ohio learned from those games.

The Bobcats’ performance during Solich’s fifth season will help decipher if he is really the coach people expected him to be.

He has all of his recruits in the system, and has gone through four years of implementing his schemes. The Bobcats are far beyond transition, and need to start progressing.

Solich also has the luxury of calling plays for one of the most potent offenses he has ever had with Ohio. The offense has no excuse not to score points — lots of them.

Ohio returns all of its receivers, running backs and two capable quarterbacks competing for snaps.

Jackson demonstrated big play potential under center last year, and he started the year on the bench before an injury ended Theo Scott’s season. With both players back and hungry to prove themselves, the quarterback play should be stellar.

The defense has unanswered questions, especially the secondary. But if the offense puts up points like it should, then the defense just needs to be adequate.

With the team Solich has, Ohio should undoubtedly be in the hunt for a MAC title and a bowl bid. Another losing record would be a grave disappointment for Solich and the Bobcats.

Despite last year’s letdown, Solich’s job is not in jeopardy. His contract extends through 2013, and given the situation before he arrived, Ohio has seen much worse. And, besides, Solich’s contract is just too expensive for Ohio to buy him out.

Solich has improved the program, but just not as much as expected. In some years before he took over, winning six games a season would classify as a strong year, but with a coach of Solich’s reputation now calling the shots, a .500 record should not be the definition of success.

His teams have provided glimpses of brilliance, and now the Bobcats need to turn those bright spots into an entire season of quality.

This year will tell how far the Bobcats have come since Solich took the reigns, and it will show if Solich is truly the answer everyone expected.

Category: Athens News, Commentary, Football

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