Unlikely Pair of Akron and Terry Bowden Making Noise in the MAC

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The Akron football program has appeared in all of two bowl games in its history: 1968 and 2005. The Zips may not need wait another 30 years for their third postseason bid, if head coach Terry Bowden can keep them on the promising path they’ve followed through the first half of 2014.

In the nine years since Akron’s last bowl appearance, the Zips haven’t just been bad; they’ve been abysmal.

From 2006 through 2013, they were 25-71. From 2010 through 2012, Akron was arguably the worst program in the FBS with a 3-33 record over that time.

Akron’s staggering lack of success–particularly in recent years–makes what Bowden is doing this year all the more impressive. Even more remarkable is that Akron’s turnaround is being engineered by someone seemingly out of the game just a half-decade ago.

Before accepting Akron’s head coaching vacancy before the 2012 season, Bowden last coached an FBS/Div. I-A game in 1998. Just three years earlier, he’d gone 11 years between any coaching gig, having spent the decade after his firing from Auburn working in media.

Bowden’s Auburn run is one of the most interesting coaching tenures in recent memory, as it began with such promise and collapsed in such spectacular fashion.

I often cite the 1993 season as the first college football campaign that truly capture my imagination, and that season is noteworthy for Bowden leading Auburn to an 11-0 record. Of course, the Tigers were serving a two-year bowl ban and were barred from television, which meant my exposure to that Auburn team was relegated to newspaper articles and highlights on Sportscenter.

Yes, Sportscenter showed highlights of games in this era. And MTV aired music videos in 1993, as well. Truly a remarkable time to be alive.

Anyway, Auburn’s 11-0 run under Bowden was the college football equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster for me. There was something particularly intriguing about a team banned from TV and the postseason running the table.

The legend grew in his second year, with the Tigers winning another nine to go to 20-0 under Bowden. Terry’s dad and all-time coaching great Bobby ruled the sport at this time, but by 1994, the family didn’t just have an heir: It had the makings of a potential father-son rivalry.

Then, things went south in a hurry.

It’s interesting how much the abortive Lane Kiffin era at USC mirrors the demise of the Terry Bowden era at Auburn: A great season under sanctions, championship expectations, but a quick implosion punctuated by off-field issues culminating in a midseason firing.

Given how quickly and emphatically sentiment turned against Bowden, it’s no wonder he spent so much time away from coaching. And when he did return in 2009, it was more like dipping his toes into the water rather than cannonballing back into the deep end.

Easing his way back in has served Bowden well, as opposed to the grand entrance he made previously. Bowden went from an abbreviated, albeit successful run at Div. II North Alabama to taking over the most downtrodden program in FBS.

No, Akron isn’t Auburn. And that seems to be working out just fine for Bowden.

Whereas the Tigers regressed in Bowden’s tenure, the Zips have steadily climbed. Bowden lost as many games in his first season at Akron as he won in his debut at Auburn, but improved to 5-7 last season.

This season, the Zips are 4-2 with three straight wins and are tied atop the loss column of the Mid-American Conference’s East Division. In the high-scoring land of MACtion, the Zips carving out a niche as a defensively stout team under the guidance of coordinator Chuck Amato–like Bowden, a veteran of the coaching wars with his own interesting road to Akron.

Amato’s defense punched Pitt in the mouth, holding the Panthers to just 10 points in a head-turning Week 5 upset. No trickery, no gimmicks; just a straightforward manhandling.

“They outplayed us,” erstwhile Heisman contending running back James Conner said via PittsburghPanthers.com. “Akron beat us today. They just beat us.”

Ohio head coach Frank Solich recognizes Akron’s defensive chops, as he said in his weekly press conference via OhioBobcats.com:

“They’re a defensive football team that I think plays well together – their schemes, they know what they’re doing. They operate with very good efficiency. I think on their two-deep roster, they have seven junior college players and two transfers on defense, so that has infused some very good athleticism into their program.”

With that signature win and a 2-0 start in MAC play, Akron heads into a crucial three-game stretch that will make or break their championship hopes, starting with a road contest Saturday at MAC East stalwart Ohio.

The Bobcats have been to five straight bowl games since 2009, and have bullied the Zips every year during that stretch. With six straight winners in the series, Ohio has truly had Akron’s number–but then again, who in the MAC hasn’t?

Akron’s recent history nor Bowden’s ancient history matter much as it pertains to this season. Snapping its losing skid to Ohio will have Akron one win away from bowl eligibility.

From there, the Zips travel to Ball State in Week 9 before returning home to face Bowling Green on a Tuesday night MACtion bill, Nov. 4. If Akron can navigate this stretch with three wins, the road to the MAC Championship Game looks clear.