The butt of the joke in MAC football over the last 20 years has been Eastern Michigan. The crux of their agony has been centered around the two undeniable numbers: win-loss record and attendance. Who's going to drop money on a perpetually bad football team? That's not faith; that's foolhardiness. You might as well throw your money away on a loincloth for the Ypsilanti Water Tower. A day after it's draped over it, it'll be stolen.
AnnArbor.com declared that EMU is "for real." The joke may not be over — you can't wipe away decades of futility with one decent season — but the success can begin now.
It begins with playing in front of a small crowd, getting a goal line stand, and winning against a big rival. The announced attendance was 6,772. This is a typical "announced" attendance for EMU: they'll count all the tickets bought by companies that were perhaps distributed but not used. In this case, from the reports I've seen this was probably very close to the amount of souls in Rynearson. It's still a pitiful crowd by college football standards and by MAC standards. It's a start. They went home happy. And when they do that, they're liable to return for another game.
A 5-3 record is a godsend for this struggling program. Five wins is more than their last three seasons combined. It's their highest win total since 1995, when they went 6-5. They're even getting projected to go to a bowl. Their last bowl was 1987, which was also their last (and only) MAC Championship.
So they're not "there" yet. They were lambasted by Toledo a week ago, need to play at NIU and must hope for a couple of Rockets losses so EMU can slide by that tiebreaker. I don't see that happening. But I do see them winning as many as seven or possibly eight games this year. They host Ball State; that won't be an easy one. Next after that is Buffalo, who they should handle. Then comes Kent State, the worst offense in FBS.
This is ridiculous. Seven wins for Eastern Michigan. Ron English wins coach of the freaking universe if that happens. EMU winning seasons only occur in video game dynasties. But with this bizarre easy schedule, it's also very possible.
They scheduled two FCS opponents, and beatable ones: Alabama State and Howard. Their MAC schedule lacked some tough games: no Temple and no Ohio, and they got the MAC West cellar carnival of Akron, Buffalo and Kent State.
The WMU game remains their biggest win since that 56-52 shootout against Central Michigan in 2008. Granted, since then there haven't been many to pick. Any win has been huge for them.
What's been more impressive is who has done it for them. We expect some type of breakout offensive player, and we looked to Alex Gillett a couple years ago, thinking he'd be the guy. And he's been okay. But he's not much of a passer and even as a rushing threat he's third, maybe fourth, behind Dominique Sherrer, Javonti Greene and Dominique White. Garrett Hoskins is the team's leading receiver with 223 yards and 15 catches. That's ... not much.
I think the real story here is the defense. Last year they gave up 43.9 points per game ... just in the MAC alone. This year they're down to a lean 24.5 in the conference. Comeback senior Latarrius Thomas, surprising linebacker Justin Cudworth and leading tackler Willie Williams have been just a few of the names who've come up big time. Throw in defensive tackles Andy Mulumba and Brad Ohrman and English has turned around this defense ridiculously quickly. It's almost as if he used to be a defensive coordinator.
Good on the Eagles. I think anyone who isn't playing them on a given week would love nothing more than to see them succeed. It's been a purely nihilistic football experience during the Internet age, both in their record and in their bleachers. We've kept saying that it can only get better, but here's our first sign in some time.