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Bowling Green Q&A With Hustle Belt

A look at Tennessee's opening opponent from SB Nation's MAC blog.

Quarterback Matt Johnson returns from an injury which cost him the 2014 season
Quarterback Matt Johnson returns from an injury which cost him the 2014 season
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Among the best named blogs on this fine network is Hustle Belt, covering all things MACtion.  You can find all of their Bowling Green coverage here.  I traded questions and answers with Randy Carpenter on the Vols and the Falcons.

1. The first thing Tennessee fans think of when they hear Bowling Green is Dave Clawson, and then four-letter words.  Clawson still gets some of the blame for tanking Tennessee's offense in his lone season as coordinator in 2008, which contributed significantly to Phillip Fulmer's forced resignation.  He was clearly successful enough at Bowling Green to earn the head job at Wake Forest...where the Demon Deacons last year had the worst offense of the decade in all of college football.  What are your thoughts on Clawson's time at Bowling Green, and how has the program changed under Dino Babers?

You would be hard pressed to find a lot of Falcon fans that would have something bad to say about Dave Clawson.  He came in on a five-year contract and he said he had a five-year plan to turn the program around.  In his fifth year here, he led the Falcons to a Mid-American Conference Championship.  That is hard to argue against.

It is interesting that he came in with a reputation as an offensive-minded coach, because his biggest impact was on the defensive side of the ball here.  Make no mistake, the conference championship Bowling Green won in 2013 was the direct result of a dominating defense.  Our offense that year came around at the end, but the defense really was the catalyst.

Clawson isn't a guy who comes in an immediately takes a team from 2-11 and gets them to 7-5.  Urban Meyer did that here at Bowling Green 15 years ago, but it isn't really fair to compare any coach to Urban right now.  Clawson is more methodical in his approach and has to recruit kids to fit his system.

Make no mistake, this year's BG team is still Clawson's team on offense.  He recruited almost all of the 11 starters that return on that side of the ball.  Dino Babers has come in and installed his version of the spread offense, which is a very up-tempo variety.  The real difference between the two head coaches has been that Clawson emphasized defense, while Babers defensive philosophy seems to be having his offense outscore people.

2. How much of Bowling Green's identity is wrapped up in playing fast?  Last year the Falcons were a top five team in pace but a middle of the pack offense in yards per play.  With so many starters back on offense, do you expect significant improvement this season?

Last year Babers said that the players wouldn't totally grasp his offense until sometime into the second year.  So based on that, I would think they'll have a much better understanding of the offense this year.  The problem is that starting quarterback Matt Johnson was lost for the season in the opener last year with a Bo Jackson-type hip injury.   He had to watch from the sidelines and who knows if he was able to pick-up the nuances of the offense from that vantage point.

Yes, Babers loves to play fast.  They even gave the offense a name last year, calling it #FalconFast on Twitter.  It worked to perfection in their win against Indiana.  They ran something crazy like 120 offensive plays in that game.  Your players, lineman included, have to be in great shape to pull this offense off.  BG has all five starting offensive lineman back this year and they all made an effort over the summer to lose weight so they could better handle the fast pace of this offense.  You don't hear lineman talking about intentionally losing weight very often.

The big risk at playing at this tempo is that it kills your defense.  If your offense goes down and scores quickly, or goes three-and-out, it puts your defense right back on the field.  That happened a lot last year and was a big factor in why the defense struggled at times.

3. Last year starting quarterback Matt Johnson went down in week one.  Will we see him, last year's fill-in James Knapke, or both?

Yes, Johnson will be the starter under center in Nashville.  He's been full go in camp and hasn't been held back much.  But there will still be questions until he takes that first big hit at full game speed.  I would expect him to have some rust on him since he hasn't played in a game since January of 2013.

If this quickly turns into a blowout, I would expect them to get Johnson out of there and bring Knapke in.  Knapke had his ups-and-downs last year, but overall he played well and helped the Falcons salvage their season.  He did all that after coming in with only 20 career passes to his credit.

When healthy, Johnson is obviously the better quarterback at this point in their careers.  Johnson has the ability to make some plays and can be dangerous directing this offense.  It will be curious to see how he handles all the obstacles that come with returning from an injury.

4. For Tennessee fans who may not have seen the Falcons play, who are some other names to remember on both sides of the ball?

Bowling Green has playmakers all over the offensive side of the ball.  Their receiving core is the deepest and most talented group in the MAC.  Roger Lewis had a breakout year as a true freshman last season.  He caught 73 passes for 1,093 yards and seven touchdowns.  He was a guy that was originally signed by Ohio State but ran into some personal issues and ended up at a prep school before enrolling at BG.

Other Falcon receivers include speedster Ronnie Moore, possession receiver Ryan Burbrink, and 6'4" target Gehrig Dieter.  Also added to the fold this year is former All-MAC performer Chris Gallon (6'4"), who is returning after missing last season with a knee injury, and Robbie Rhodes, who transfers in from Baylor.  Rhodes was listed as the No. 1 overall recruit in state of Texas by coming out of high school in 2013.

The Falcons can also run the ball if they have to.  Travis Greene is a former wide receiver who was converted to running back two years ago.  All he has done since is run for more than 2,500 yards and score 25 touchdowns.  That's an experiment by Dave Clawson that has worked big time.

I wish I could name some players to watch on the defensive side of the ball but I am not sure who to mention.  Freshman defensive back Clint Stephens had a great year individually as a true freshman last year, with five interceptions and a 98-yard kickoff return for a score.

Another true freshman defender that showed promised last year was lineman Gus Schwieterman.  He fished the year with 7.5 sacks among his 55 tackles.

A name Vol fans should be familiar with is Malik Brown, who transferred in last year from Tennessee.  He played sparingly last season and his name hasn't appeared yet on this year's two-deep roster.  He came in with some hype so his absence from the field has been a mystery.  Maybe this year he breaks out?

5. Last year Bowling Green was 118th in total defense and 98th in yards per play allowed.  What makes this year's unit different than the one that gave up 68 to Wisconsin?

The Falcon defense struggled early and late in the season last year.  However, they did pull it together during the middle portion of the conference schedule to allow the Falcons to win another MAC east division title.

A pessimist will tell you that replacing nine starters on offense is a recipe for disaster.  The optimist will tell you that last year didn't work anyway so can these new guys be any worse?  That's yet to be seen.

Bowling Green will be very young and inexperienced on defense this year.  However, they did get some veteran leadership when safety Eilar Hardy decided to use the last year of his eligibility at BG after graduating from Notre Dame.  He should bring some much-needed leadership to this unit.

The biggest change on defense this year has been the addition of new defensive coordinator, Mike Ward.  He comes to BG from Western Illinois and maybe he can put some better schemes together to help cover-up the lack of experience?

Like most programs of Bowling Green's size, they aren't able to recruit difference-making athletes on the defensive side of the ball.  They often have to settle for guys that are a tad smaller and a step slower and hope they make-up for it with desire, technique and coaching.  Offense is different.  You recruit some guys that can run the spread and it can neutralize the size and talent levels.  But not on defense.

After Tennessee, the Falcons play Maryland, Purdue and Memphis.  So it won't get any easier for this young defense.