When strolling around Kalamazoo this weekend, seeing ESPN-branded cameras, tents, trucks, and personalities may be commonplace.
For the first time since 2003, the College GameDay crew is visiting a MAC campus to recognize Western Michigan’s impressive 10-0 start to the season. The beloved pregame show will likely spark attention and viewership in Saturday’s battle between #21 Western Michigan (10-0) and Buffalo (2-8).
Things have been going smoothly in Kalamazoo this season. After a chaotic week 11 that featured three undefeated teams taking a stumble, the Broncos position themselves next to Alabama as one of two programs with a spotless record.
Despite a lower ranking than fellow Bronco-themed team Boise State in the playoff poll, only Western Michigan holds the opportunity to become the first Group of Five team since 2010 TCU to enter bowl season perfect. Buffalo will likely be the final opponent Western Michigan challenges with a losing record in 2016.
The Broncos have built a foundation of winning centered on seniors, who experienced both the nadir of the program — 1-11 in 2013 — and its current run of success. Quarterback Zach Terrell, wide receiver Corey Davis, and offensive tackle Taylor Moton are all among the nation’s elite in their respective positions and playing their closing stretch in Kalamazoo.
Terrell, a four-year starter, has written 23 touchdowns and only one interception in his impressive résumé this season. The Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist has been lauded as a great-decision maker and is equipped with one of college football’s all-time great receivers in Davis.
Davis ranks second in NCAA history in career receiving yards, trailing former Nevada standout Trevor Insley by 198 yards. With four probable games remaining, the record is within attainment. But despite the success of the senior from Wheaton, IL, the Broncos aren’t afraid to switch up the gameplan when necessary.
Davis had one catch for 18 yards last week, but the Broncos ran Kent State into the ground with a strong rushing attack.
Junior running back Jarvion Franklin is 12th in the FBS in rushing yards and seeking a seventh-straight 100-yard performance. Franklin and the Broncos’ deep backfield that features Fabian Johnson and Jamauri Bogan are talented enough to carry the offense. In WMU's last outing, P.J. Fleck’s offense ran on 83 percent of plays in the rainy and muddy conditions against a weary Kent State defense.
The weather in Kalamazoo for the game is predicted to be around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with chances of snow and rain. With unfavorable passing conditions, Western Michigan is likely to revert to conservative, run-first play-calling on Saturday.
And there should be good reason to do so.
Buffalo’s run defense is sixth-worst in the nation. A 4-7 Northern Illinois team was able to register 312 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns on the Bulls back in October.
Western Michigan’s slew of weapons should constantly test Buffalo’s struggling run defense at Waldo Stadium to establish an early lead. However, the most dangerous member on the unit is sophomore inside linebacker Khalil Hodge.
As Buffalo’s next dominant linebacker named Khalil, Hodge ranks seventh in the nation with 103 combined tackles. He has also fought his ways through offensive lines en route to two sacks in 2016.
Buffalo does not sport an offense near Western Michigan’s caliber.
The Bulls saw its lone great offensive performance in a 41-20 win over Akron on October 27. Running back Jordan Johnson rushed for a program-record 282 yards and quarterback Tyree Jackson added 60 in the victory. Although demonstrating its potential, Buffalo’s offense only averages a below-average 164 rushing yards per game.
Points are at a premium for Buffalo as well. The team is 126th nationally averaging 17.9 points per contest. Only in Buffalo’s victory over Akron have the Bulls transcended the three-touchdown mark in a game.
Although Buffalo has claimed the last two in the series, Western Michigan is the clear favorite to defend its undefeated record at home. Much scrutiny is on the Broncos, who were penalized by the playoff committee for overcoming a slow start to beat Kent State by only 16 points on November 8.
Western Michigan has three more statements to make this year before the committee’s ultimatum. Facing a 2-8 Buffalo team, the Broncos cannot afford a performance short of a blowout. They have defeated every opponent by at least 14 points since week two and must not make an exception against the struggling Bulls.
Buffalo is playing for pride. The Bulls must revel in a rare experience to be the focus of a College GameDay matchup and prove to fans and potential recruits that the Bulls will be a force in the MAC for years to come.
Lance Leipold is in his second year coaching the program and looks to keep this game tightly contested. With the trend of undefeated teams collapsing in recent weeks, Buffalo knows that anything can be possible on Saturday in Kalamazoo.
The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. EST at Waldo Stadium and can be viewed on ESPNU. The pregame show will be a three-hour spectacle from 9 a.m. to noon, featuring what P.J. Fleck requests (and expects) to be a record crowd in attendance.