ATHENS, Ohio - Despite all the success Ohio University has had in the Frank Solich era, the coaching staff and players realize their grade still comes in as incomplete.

ATHENS, Ohio - Despite all the success Ohio University has had in the Frank Solich era, the coaching staff and players realize their grade still comes in as incomplete.

The Bobcats have had three winning seasons in the past five years. But losses to Central Michigan in the 2006 Mid-American Conference championship game and in three bowl appearances - vs. Southern Mississippi (GMAC, after the 2006 season), Marshall (Little Caesar's Pizza, 2009) and Troy (New Orleans, last season) - have left them empty-handed.

The 2011 team, which returns 12 starters and has more impact players than on any of the first six teams coached by Solich, could be the one that makes the grade.

"They want to be good," Solich said. "They want to take the next step and that is winning a conference championship and a bowl game. We have some lofty goals. We have more depth in the program than ever before. The guys stepping in are quality football players. But we have to stay healthy."

The nonconference schedule, for once, isn't daunting. The opener is at New Mexico State, followed by Gardner-Webb, Marshall and Rutgers.

Ohio also has two major playmakers returning - linebacker Noah Keller and receiver/kick returner LaVon Brazill - after injuries wiped out their 2010 season. Each was granted a medical redshirt.

The question is whether redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Tettleton can get the ball to Brazill and Riley Dunlop, tight end Jordan Thompson and receiver/wildcat quarterback Phil Bates.

"One position where we aren't experienced is at quarterback, but I'm as confident as I can be of the quality of our quarterback," Solich said.

Although the program's disappointing losses still resonate, the players aren't looking back.

"We're expecting bigger things than just playing in a bowl," offensive tackle Joe Flading said. "We've been to the MAC championship game and lost to Central Michigan. We've been to bowls and lost.

"Now, we want to win those games.''

In 2010, the Bobcats were the hottest team in the MAC with seven straight victories going into the final regular-season game against Kent State. The Flashes, who were playing under lame duck coach Doug Martin, pulled a 28-6 upset and kept Ohio out of the conference championship game.

"Losing that game hit us hard," said linebacker Eric Benjamin of Grove City. "We didn't come out hard that game. We almost expected to win. It wasn't our day. We have to learn from those games. We can't let games like that happen this year."

Keller said the players have grown weary of talking about goals - they want to prove themselves on the field.

"I'm so sick of having to put the MAC championship as a goal every year," he said. "OK, we made it to the championship game. Let's win it so we don't have to talk about it anymore."

mznidar@dispatch.com