Last season, Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke had the Bobcats on the cusp of winning their first Mid-American Conference crown since 1968. Then he tore a knee ligament and Ohio lost its fifth league championship game.
Nine months later, the MAC's reigning offensive player of the year is nearing the end of his rehab schedule and about to start a new quest.
“I’m just looking forward to playing again, to playing the game I love,” Rourke said. “I’ve been working a lot this summer on getting back mentally and also physically. So as soon as I can get going is the best-case scenario.”
It's unclear when exactly that might be. Third-year coach Tim Albin has repeatedly said Rourke's recovery is ahead of schedule. Rourke concurs. Could he play in Saturday's season opener at San Diego State?
“We’re going to have a clearer understanding of where he’s at after practice,” Albin said Monday.
The backup plan is to lean on the same duo that helped Ohio clinch last year's East Division crown — quarterback CJ Harris, and 1,000-yard rusher Sieh Bangura, the 2022 MAC freshman of the year.
If Rourke returns in time for Ohio's conference opener, Sept. 23 at Bowling Green, even MAC coaches know what kind of boost the program would get. It's the reason they made the Bobcats the favorite in the East, picking only Toledo over Ohio's opportunity to end its streak.
The Bobcats believe they can do it, too, after winning 10 games last season — seven more than in Albin's first in 2021.
All they need is Rourke to get healthy, find his form and then dethrone defending champion Toledo — just like they did in 1967.
“I actually walked past Ford Field, so it was a crazy feeling being back in the environment,” linebacker Bryce Houston said during MAC media day in Detroit. “We definitely understand what it takes to get back here and what it takes to be able to win here.”
With nine returning starters on offense, seven on defense and coach Jason Candle back for his seventh season at Toledo, the Rockets were the obvious preseason favorite.
Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn was overshadowed most of last season by Rourke, but Finn will try to improve on last season's second-team all-MAC honors after throwing 23 TD passes and rushing for 631 yards. Toledo also has its top rusher, Jacquez Stuart, and top receiver, Jerjuan Newton, back.
“We have a lot of offense and there are a lot of different schemes and a lot of different things that we do, and we put a lot on their plate,” Candle said. “So communication has got to be at the forefront to get the thing started. I think it's a physical group, I think it's a group that's really well connected."
Unlike the power conferences, balance — and stability — reign supreme in the MAC.
Eastern Michigan is the only team in the current 12-member league that hasn't won a division title since the inaugural game in 1997. Ohio and Kent State are the only other teams that haven't hoisted the trophy. The Eagles were picked second in the West, behind Toledo.
As a result, the last back-to-back champ was Northern Illinois in 2011 and 2012., The only other repeat teams to repeat as league champs were Central Michigan in 2006-07 and Marshall, which won the first four. Toledo hasn't won consecutive titles since taking three straight from 1969-71.
The Rockets received seven of 12 preseason votes with Ohio getting four and Buffalo one.
And as conference realignment continues, the MAC is a throwback. Buffalo is the youngest program in the league, joining in 1998. No school has left the conference since Marshall and Central Florida in 2005. Central Florida joined the league as a football-only member in 2002.
The league schools often fill their athletic department coffers by making early visits to some of the nation's top teams.
This year's Week 1 slate begins with Buffalo at No. 19 Wisconsin, Central Michigan at Michigan State and the FBS' two Miamis — Ohio and Florida — meeting in the Sunshine State. Other games include Bowling Green at No. 2 Michigan and Central Michigan at No. 13 Notre Dame on Sept. 16, Bowling Green at Georgia Tech on Sept. 30 and Western Michigan at Mississippi State on Oct. 7
But Ball State coach Mike Neu faces the most daunting start.
After wrapping up their second straight losing season with three consecutive defeats, the Cardinals first visit Kentucky on Sept. 2. A week later, they play at two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia.
KEY CONFERENCE GAMES
Sept. 23, Ohio at Bowling Green; Sept. 30, Northern Illinois at Toledo; Oct. 14, Bowling Green at Buffalo; Oct. 14, Ohio at Northern Illinois; Oct. 28, Miami at Ohio; Oct. 31, Buffalo at Toledo; Nov. 7 Ohio at Buffalo; Nov. 14, Toledo at Bowling Green; Nov. 21, Eastern Michigan at Buffalo; Dec. 2, MAC championship game.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll