ATHENS, Ohio - It's been quite sometime since the expectations were this high surrounding the Ohio University football team.
Rightfully so, however.
The Bobcats are coming off one of their most memorable seasons, which resulted in a 10-4 record and a thrilling, 24-23 victory in the Idaho Famous Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho, last December. The bowl victory was the first in the history of the Ohio program and the 10 victories were the most in program history since 1968.
Building on the bowl game, the Bobcats were picked during the MAC's Media Day last month to eventually win the MAC's East Division. Toledo was picked to win the west despite undergoing a coaching change in the offseason after Tim Beckman left for Illinois.
"I really believe any team could win it," Ohio coach Frank Solich said during MAC media day. "When I first started, there were levels. Some teams were up top, some on the bottom. But no more."
Solich, who is set to begin his eighth season at the helm of the Bobcats, has been stressing to his team that championships aren't guaranteed or won in July when the media and coaches cast their votes.
Sept. 1: at Penn Statenoon
Sept. 8: New Mexico State7 p.m.
Sept. 15: at Marshall6:30 p.m.
Sept. 22: Norfolk State2 p.m.
Sept. 29: at UMass3:30 p.m.
Oct. 6: Buffalonoon
Oct. 13: Akron2 p.m.
Oct. 27: at Miami, Ohio3:30 p.m.
Nov. 1: Eastern Michigan6 p.m.
Nov. 7: Bowling Green8 p.m.
Nov. 14: at Ball State8 p.m.
Nov. 23: at Kent StateTBA
Win 10, Lose 2
That unfinished business is trying to win the school's first overall conference title since 1968.
As is the case each year - no matter the level of football - Ohio will have holes to fill, but not too many.
Gone from the 2011 team are five offensive starters, including LaVon Brazill, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Indianapolis Colts in April. Also gone are Donte Harden, Joe Flading, A.J. Strum and Riley Dunlop on the offensive side of the ball.
The biggest absence on the defensive side is linebacker Noah Keller, who was a two-time captain for Ohio. He recorded 116 tackles and signed as an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Rams.
The only other two defensive starters lost were Curtis Myers and defensive back Omar Leftwich.
Leading the list of returnees is junior quarterback Tyler Tettleton. The son of former Baltimore Orioles catcher Mickey Tettleton passed for 3,302 yards and accounted for 38 touchdowns.
Tettleton has been named to the Davey O'Brien and Manning Award watch list for the award given to the nation's top quarterback.
Junior Beau Blankenship, who like Tettleton is native to Norman, Okla., will serve as the Bobcats' feature tailback. He saw action a season ago and accumulated 462 yards and four touchdowns. He'll be backed up by Ryan Boykin, a redshirt junior from Georgia. Boykin ran for 435 yards in 2011.
"Beau had a really good second half of the season and a really good spring," OU offensive coordinator Tim Albin said. "He's done everything we've asked of him and we really like what he brings to the offense as a runner."
On the perimeter, Tettleton will see some new faces with Brazil and Dunlop gone. However, redshirt junior Donte Foster, of Guthrie, Okla., returns after being the team's third-leading receiver with 352 yards and five touchdowns.
Tight end Jordan Thompson will be a steady target. The Rockford, Ohio, native caught 24 passes and scored twice last season.
Fifth-year senior Tyler Futrell and redshirt junior Mario Dovell will step into much bigger roles offensively at the F and Z receiver spots, respectively. Combined, the two caught only 14 passes last season.
Along the offensive line, right guard Eric Herman of Oregon, Ohio, leads the list of returnees. He was a second team All-MAC selection and didn't allow a sack all season and is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, which goes to the top interior lineman.
Left guard Jon Lechner is also back. He started 12 games and had 59 pancake blocks. Center Skyler Allen is also a returning starter. He started 12 games and had 53 pancakes.
Both tackles are new this season. Ryan McGrath is tops on the depth chart for the job on the right side, while Portsmouth's John Prior is set to assume the role on the right side.
Defensively, the Bobcats return a solid nucleus from a unit that yielded just 22 points a game and 361 yards per outing.
The defensive line will be a strength with the return of nose guard Neal Hunynh and defensive tackle Carl Jones. The two combined for 54 tackles last season.
Defensive end Tremayne Scott is also back in the lineup after earning second-team All-MAC honors last season with 62 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The other defensive job appears to have been won by Corey Hastings, a 6-foot-1, 261 pounder from Miamiville, Ohio.
Replacing Keller in the middle of the Bobcats defense will be a challenge. Joe Stepanski is set to do his best to fill the shoes.
The Bobcats' other two linebackers - Jelani Woseley and Alphonso Lewis - are returning starters who combined for 108 tackles. Lewis was the team's third-leading tackler. He's been pushed in camp by A.J. Grady.
The secondary is spearheaded by fifth-year senior free safety Gerald Moore, who ranked second on the squad in tackles last season with 84.
Josh Kristoff is a returning starter at strong safety, but he's been pushed in camp by Xavier Hughes. Travis Carrie, who is on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list, is locked into a cornerback job after earning second-team all-MAC honors last season. Carrie had 49 tackles and four interceptions. The other corner spot has been a battle between Jamil Shaw and Larenzo Fisher.
Ohio special teams should also be in good hands thanks to the return of Matt Weller, who was the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year. Weller has been named to the Lou Groza Award watch list. The award is presented to the top kicker in all of college football.
He was true on 25 of 36 field goals and 48 of 49 PATs. Belpre product Grant Venham is slated to handle the OU punting.
Ohio begins the season on Sept. 1 with a trip to State College. The Bobcats will take on Penn State in the Nittany Lions' first game since Joe Paterno's death, the NCAA handing the program its hefty sanctions and the head coaching debut for Bill O'Brien.
The Bobcats make their home debut on Sept. 8 against New Mexico State in a 7 p.m. kickoff.