2015 was a great year for Western Michigan football. They hosted a College Football Playoff team to start their year, won a share of the MAC West division after upsetting a ranked team (Toledo) for the first time ever, and won their first bowl game in the Bahamas Bowl. With all that, PJ Fleck and crew now turn their sights on 2016.
After the schedule was released a few weeks ago, we know the Broncos' path to Detroit (and possibly the New Year's Six bowls). With a slightly less grueling slate than last year's behemoth of a schedule, anything is within the realm of possibility. Let's break it down game-by-game.
WEEK 1 - Saturday, September 3rd - @ Northwestern
This might be the Broncos' hardest game of the year. It might not be. It's definitely the marquee game of the non-conference slate with the state of the Illinois program and the turnover on the coaching staff (coupled with the change in venue) for the game against Georgia Southern.
Last year, the Wildcats opened their season by smothering a solid Stanford team. That same Cardinal team ended up winning the PAC-12 and the loss to the Wildcats was largely the reason the team from Palo Alto was not strongly considered for the Playoff.
Overall, Northwestern ended up 10-3 and a Top 25 ranking by year's end. They got pantsed by Michigan, Iowa, and Tennessee, but when they gave up less than 30 points, they were 10-0. Three years ago, the Broncos went into Ryan Field to face an undefeated Wildcat team, went up 10-7 midway through the 2nd quarter, and got pummeled from there. This year's team should put up more of a fight, but it's hard to see the Wildcats losing in September, where they are 17-3 in games in the last 5 years. However, NIU did go in two years ago and upset Northwestern, so anything is possible.
Prediction: Broncos lose by a field goal
WEEK 2 - Saturday, September 10th - vs North Carolina Central (FCS)
After back-to-back years of playing Murray State, PJ Fleck has now changed the annual FCS foe to NC Central. The Eagles finished 8-3 last year, and tied with Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina A&T for the MEAC Championship. NC A&T ended up getting the conference's bid to the Celebration Bowl, where they beat Alcorn State to capture the Black College National Championship. So transitive property here: the Eagles are respectable.
That said, it shouldn't be a fight. The Eagles faced two FBS foes last year: Duke and FIU. Duke ended up 8-5. FIU ended up 5-7. The combined score from the two games the Eagles played against these two? 94-14.
Prediction: Broncos win handily.
WEEK 3 - Saturday, September 17th - @ Illinois
THE CUBIT BOWL!!!!!!!!!!!!! You know the story. Now Illinois head coach was fired from the same position at WMU in 2012 after a disappointing (and injury riddled) 4-8 season that ended with a loss to a Ron English-less EMU team at home. He had a career winning record, but no titles and a lack of big wins. PJ Fleck comes on, does his thing in Kalamazoo, blah blah blah. Cubit goes to Illinois to join fellow former MAC coach Tim Beckman. Beckman is not a good coach (or person), gets canned, Cubit is interim coach, and gets to a bowl game. Three years. It's taken three years to go from the Cubit years to a bowl winning, MAC West sharing team in Kalamazoo. Meanwhile, the former ball coach is getting votes of confidence from his (now former) interim AD in the form of quotes like, "Obviously, it's not ideal but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program." Zach Terrell and Taylor Moton are the only remaining Cubit recruits on the team. I look for the senior QB to torch his former coach using the patented Cubit offense of "chuck it to the best WR and let him play". CUE COREY DAVIS YA'LL.
Stupid Lovie Smith.
Prediction: Broncos win by a score.
WEEK 4 - Saturday, September 24th - vs Georgia Southern
Just to see how awful the Broncos played against the Eagles last year, let's take a look at the final stats again
Yeah, not good. It was arguably Terrell's worst game of the year, throwing a season-high 3 interceptions. Having no ground game doesn't help matters either. However, he recovered to throw just 4 interceptions the rest of the year, versus the five he had after the first two games.
The Eagles replace their coaching staff having lost Willie Fritz to Tulane. They still return a lot of talent, but the question will be how the players can gel with the new staff.
I look for the Broncos to get some vengeance for what happened in Greensboro last year. Jamauri Bogan has emerged, and a home crowd should pump the team up to play their way to a solid victory over a solid Sun Belt team.
Prediction: Broncos win by a touchdown
WEEK 5 - Saturday, October 1st - @ Central Michigan
The Western-Central game once again is the opener for the Broncos, having survived a strong surge from the Chippewas last year in a home game that clinched the 4th win in 5 years in the rivalry. Surprisingly enough, between the last win by Bill Cubit and the first Central-Western win for Fleck, the Broncos have won two straight at Kelly-Shorts Stadium. So the Broncos have to be rolling, right?
Well, Coach Bono had his CMU team performing last year, en route to a share of the MAC West Title in a year they largely were expected to get bowled over after how Dan Enos left. Cooper Rush managed a solid offense with shaky weapons, and will be a senior as he heads into his final CMU-WMU game - at home no less.
By now, the Broncos will know their offense. With a balanced run game and Corey Davis, the new slot man should be well prepared for his role and Terrell should have a great shot to win three CMU-WMU games, something that appears to have last happened in the early 50's(!) (it took a lot of digging, and we really don't have solid records past 1956, and no Bronco QB had done it since then).
WMU is the better team, and even though Central is home, the Broncos have proven to win there recently with great games. Still, this is a rivalry game, and nothing is ever given.
WEEK 6 - Saturday, October 8th - vs Northern Illinois
And how will WMU follow-up a physical rivalry game? With NIU of course!
Last year, the Broncos had a shot to win the MAC West by closing with road trips to the Huskies and Toledo. Win both, win the West. However, an NIU team with Ryan Graham at QB took advantage of missed chances by WMU to put themselves in the driver's seat. We know the rest of the story.
However, with the way the Huskies closed the season, with or without Drew Hare, this is a very curious NIU team. The Dekalb Empire that has ruled the MAC West the past six seasons is showing chinks in its armor. They didn't run through the division last year, losing to both Ohio and Central Michigan, and got pasted in both the MAC Championship and their bowl game. Could this be the inevitable downswing?
NIU hasn't lost to WMU since 2008. It's been seven up, seven down and 12 of the last 15. This will be the Broncos' biggest hurdle this year mentally, as shown by last year's fumbling away of a beautiful shot at the West. To take the crown, you have to beat the king.
Prediction: Broncos by 10, with a pick-six to seal it
WEEK 7 - Saturday, October 15th - @ Akron
I gotta give Terry Bowden credit. He's turned Akron into a respectable program after Rob Ianello pretty much drilled the Zips into the ground and left them for dead. Now? Akron has a bowl win and is 18-19 over the last three years, including a .500 record in conference play. Not bad for a team that had become a "gimme" win for most of the other schools in the MAC.
Last year's rise to a bowl game was led by a QB change. Kyle Pohl was replaced by Tommy Woodson, and it worked beautifully. Add in the incredible defense led by Jatavis Brown and a favorable schedule by being in the MAC East, and you have the makings for a bowl bid.
This will be the biggest trap game of the year for the Broncos. Akron is a solid team, even if they lose a bit of talent from last year's team (see, Brown). It comes off back-to-back crucial weeks in the MAC West, and is followed up by the Eastern game. That said, this is a Western Michigan team that is led by seniors who want that elusive MAC Championship. To do that, you don't let these games fall through the cracks.
Prediction: Broncos by a touchdown
WEEK 8 - Saturday, October 22nd - vs Eastern Michigan
Fun fact: No school has ever won three straight Michigan MAC Trophies in football. In the past three attempts by a school going for a third straight title, their respective records in the rivalry were 0-2, 0-2, and 1-1. Not great by any means.
However, none of those teams were Western Michigan, and twice it was an Eastern Michigan team coming off a retention year that garnered that poor record (they actually had the lone win). The Broncos look to tie up the overall trophy standings in football at four apiece, and the question will really be more of "Can WMU beat CMU?" than "Can the Broncos beat the Eagles?".
Prediction: Broncos by 17.
WEEK 9 - BYE WEEK
Well, this isn't really a bye week, as much as it is an extended rest because........
WEEK 10 - Tuesday, November 1st - @ Ball State
Yep, just a Tuesday night game to follow up the bye week.
The 10 days off isn't even the longest break for the Broncos in the schedule, but it's enough to regroup and see what the Neu Regime is going to throw at WMU. Last year, Pete Lembo's squad couldn't muster up anything, and the final box score was an eyesore for Cardinal fans.
Riley Neal may be the real deal, but the Cardinals just aren't built to handle this WMU team.
Prediction: Broncos by two touchdowns.
WEEK 11 - Tuesday, November 8th - @ Kent State
Another game the Broncos should win handily. The Golden Flashes have a solid defense, but the offense is just horrendous. Even if WMU can't get rolling fully on offense in this one, they won't face much in a Kent State offense.
Prediction: Broncos in a blow-out
WEEK 12 - Saturday, November 19th - vs Buffalo
So remember that whole "bye week" stuff? Well the difference between the Kent State and Buffalo games is bigger than what WMU earns through that bye.
Coach Leipold had an up-and-down year in his first season at Buffalo. He nearly made a bowl game, but inconsistent performances culminated in a season-ending loss to UMass when a bowl berth was within grasp. Now, he loses his starting quarterback Joe Licata to graduation, two electric runningbacks (Devin Campbell and Anthone Taylor), and a solid wide-out in Ron Willoughby.
Still, Leipold won a slew of national titles at Wisconsin-White Water, so you have to expect this year's team to be better overall despite those losses. However, with this familiarity with the Bronco system, the WMU players should be more well equipped to handle anything the Bulls throw together.
Prediction: Broncos win by two touchdowns
WEEK 13 - Friday, November 25th - vs Toledo
Man, the MAC really loves this match-up to end the year, don't they? Personally, I'd love a rivalry Black Friday slate (BG-Toledo, WMU-CMU, Miami-Ohio, Kent-Akron, NIU-BSU, Buffalo-EMU [Ontario Sandwich, FTW!]), but whatever.
The MAC West could again come down to this game, with the shot for both teams to come in unscathed in the MAC a possibility. Should that happen, or either school have just one loss, then it's still a winner-take-all game. Fun stuff, really.
The Broncos shut down Kareem Hunt and Company for the most part last year. They forced critical stops, got some key scores, and held on against a ranked Toledo team that had a chance to win the MAC West outright on their home turf. Now, the Rockets eye revenge.
The last senior day that WMU won was in 2011, a blow-out against Akron. The last time the Broncos beat Toledo at home, it was 2008 (that missed PAT in 2014 still looms large). Nevers aren't forever, right?
Prediction: Broncos win by 2 holding the ball at the end of the game
So what do we have? Let's see
A 10-1 season with a toss-up against CMU so double-digit wins for the first time. Hmmm........I guess history is meant to be written, right?