Coming off a 5-7 season, the University of Akron football team opened last season at highly ranked Oklahoma with an unsure quarterback situation and perhaps as much uncertainty about where it was headed.

Fast-forward a year and coach Terry Bowden said what a difference a winning season, capped by the school’s first bowl victory, can make.

“First of all, there’s a different frame of reference — that of we got to get this thing over the hump,” he said. “We fought hard to have a winning season — to get ourselves to where we feel like our head is above water. We finally got there.”

There was no such feeling in previous seasons.

“There was always anxiety or tension or a little bit of nervousness in trying to build a program that hasn’t [been good] to that point,” Bowden said, “so that always carries with it that nervous angst, that excitement of a new season.”

That was then; this is now. The players are now exhibiting a calmness that’s translating into a positive.

“You feel a positive sense of now we can shoot for bigger goals,” Bowden said. “Now we have higher expectations and we ought to be looser. The closer I get to the game, I’m still anxious. Now, it’s just a different kind of anxious and expectation. Now, can we sustain?”

The proving field begins Saturday with a 6:30 kickoff on ESPN3 against Virginia Military Institute. The Keydets will face a Zips team that’s settled, quietly confident and with a quarterback who’s taken ownership of the job.

Of all differences, junior quarterback Thomas Woodson might be the most significant.

“There’s no comparison [to last year] — night and day at the beginning of the season,” Bowden said. “The beginning of the season, he was fighting for his playing life — his playing time and fighting for his position.”

During last year’s fall camp, Woodson, departed Kyle Pohl and junior Tra’Von Chapman received roughly an equal number of snaps, and in that opener against the Sooners, they all played.

“Going into this season, I think he separated a bit ... with that, he’s trying to be the best player he can be,” Bowden said. “He’s worked hard to improve. I guess I see a guy who’s not just trying to make the squad as a guy who’s trying to be a leading quarterback to a team that can compete for championships.”

The quest begins soon.

Remembering a friend

Bowden sat side-by-side with late ESPN and ABC college football host John Saunders for five years. Bowden credits Saunders, who passed away on Aug. 10, with training him. He also revealed the closeness of their relationship when he told members of the media that the coach’s southern drawl and unusual speech pattern caused Saunders to nickname Bowden “Foghorn Leghorn” after the loquacious rooster who starred in many Looney Tunes cartoons.

“He’s probably one of the best professionals, most respected in the business,” Bowden said. “He always thought it was his job to make his partner look good.”

Marcus stats

Defensive end Jamal Marcus might not start for the Zips on Saturday, Bowden said. Marcus, who’s caught the eyes of scouts, wasn’t on the team’s two-deep depth chart for the week. Kenmore grad Deontae Moore stands to play in the interim. A possibility exists that Marcus could still play.

Local motivation

The Zips’ mantra this season is audacity and they’re using the success of local heroes LeBron James and the Cavaliers to pump themselves up. They’ve posted in various areas posters with “audacity” emblazoned on them and a picture of the Beacon Journal’s front page from the day after the Cavs win over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips.