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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas

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This season will be tough sledding for the Chippewas, but it's feasible they could win the MAC West for the first time since 2009.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

No one expected the 2015 season to happen the way that it did for the Central Michigan Chippewas.

The Chips had a first-year (and first-time) head coach in John Bonamego, they lost 51% of their total offense in Thomas Rawls and Titus Davis and on top of that, there was the simultaneous blows of a cancer diagnosis for Coach Bono that forced him to travel back and froth to Ann Arbor's University of Michigan Hospital every day and the death of beloved teammate Derrick Nash from Hodgkin's lymphoma.

In short, no one knew what was going to happen when they took the field.

The Chippewas would finish 7-6, losing in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, their second-straight bowl game appearance to Minnesota, but not before a season that would see them hold their own with multiple Top 25-ranked opponents in Oklahoma State and Michigan State and competing for the MAC West crown up until the final week.

So what does next season look like? Let's find out together.

Five Players To Watch

Cooper Rush, #10, quarterback, RS SR

Cooper Rush has made quite an impression as the point man on the Chippewas offense since taking over as the starter in 2013 as a third-stringer in relief. Rush has found himself on five preseason award watch lists and is widely considered one of the top five senior quarterbacks in the nation.

Rush passed for 3,848 yards and 25 touchdowns on a 66 percent completion rating in 2015, and aims to go above both those numbers in his fourth season. Rush has been proficent at spreading the ball around, with seven receivers collecting over 500 yards. Rush also holds many career CMU records, including second in touchdown passes (67,) and third in passing yards (9,354,) passes completed (734) and passing attempts (1,183.) This team will go where Rush takes it; if Rush suffers, so do the rest of the skill position players.

Devon Spalding, #25, running back, RS JR

Spalding went down to a season-ending injury at a pivotal point in the season for Central Michigan after a few great performances in the non-conference season. The game against Syracuse was his coming-out party, as he grabbed 205 all-purpose yards on 21 rushes and 10 catches. Spalding finished 182 rushing yards and 125 receiving yards. He looks to become the focal point of a Chippewa offense that struggled deeply in the running game; CMU finished as one of the bottom teams in the FBS in rushing offense, partially due to the depth issues caused by Spalding's injuries.

Spalding will lead a bevy of running backs in trying to boost CMU's numbers in the rushing category to compliment Rush's arm.

Jesse Kroll, #88, wide receiver, RS SR

Jesse Kroll had been in the shadow of Titus Davis and others for some time as a receiver on the CMU offense, but last year was his first chance to shine as a number-one receiver. Kroll delivered a balanced effort, snagging 61 receptions for 866 yards and four touchdowns in 2015.

Kroll is a steady target standing at 6'3", 214 lbs. and should once again lead the Chippewa attack on the sideline. Four touchdowns could look to be a bad sign at first, but remember that the Chips often rotate receivers and the number doesn't look nearly as bad. Kroll will have to lead by example this season, though, as the rest of the corps is relatively young or inexperienced.

Joe Ostman, #45, defensive end, JR

Make sure to remember the name Joe Ostman this season. Ostman made a name for himself as a true freshman after getting into a confrontation with Terrell Hunt during the Syracuse game in 2014, but has developed into quite the intriguing prospect at the defensive end.

Ostman has had to share playing time with Blake Serpa and others, but has also dealt with injuries, limiting his playing time. Ostman's 2015 was cut short by a nagging ankle injury. Ostman's career best year was in 2014, recording 60 tackles, three sacks, ten tackles-for-loss, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a pass defended. If Ostman can stay healthy, he has the potential to be a dominant force on the defensive line.

Tony Annese, #18, defensive back, SR

Annese is the most experienced defensive back in a young corps and has a reputation for being a ballhawk in the Chippewas' pass defense. Annese led the team with two interceptions and was third in pass breakups (5) last season, and had a season-high 11 solo stops in the Quick Lane Bowl against Minnesota.

Although his numbers were slightly down in 2015 from the previous year, Annese is still one of the better defensive backs in the MAC, especially at the safety spot. Annese's development as a leader in the defensive backfield will be pivotal in helping get younger players on the field to keep back the stout passing offenses in the MAC.

Can't Miss Games

Sept. 10 at Oklahoma State

The season-opener in Mt. Pleasant caught the surprise of many people familiar with both OK State and CMU and served as a barometer for the potential of the Chippewa program. The Cowboys seemed to be caught off guard in the first three quarters before putting the game away due to a CMU turnover.

The Chippewas will be making a return trip to Stillwater for the upset bid on OK State's opening weekend. The Chips do not necessarily have to win the game, but a good showing in enemy territory could

Sept. 24 at Virginia

I'll cut straight to the chase: Virginia is a marginal Power Five team with a penchant to play a little too close for comfort at home. Most all of their home ventures last season were one-touchdown affairs, with the exception of a 56-14 trouncing at the hands of Boise State.

If there is a very winnable Power Five game for the Chips in their non-conference schedule, it's this one. CMU has played Power Five programs close the last two or three seasons and they're due for a win at some point.

Oct. 1 vs. Western Michigan

You'll want to definitely mark this game on your calendar. This game against WMU falls on the first week of the conference schedule and with the gauntlet that is the MAC West, it is extremely important to get on the right foot for CMU to have any chance of going to Detroit, especially with a game against NIU two weeks later.

The key matchup will be the Broncos offense vs. the Chippewas defense. CMU's defense will have a lot to do to stop the wide variety of weapons that PJ Fleck has at his disposal. In last year's matchup, that proved to be the case early as WMU went up 34-19 in the third quarter before CMU's furious comeback.

Oct. 8 vs. Ball State (Homecoming)

I know you're reading this and saying "James, really? Ball State?" Yes, really, Ball State. Hear me out.

Ball State has been a thorn on the side of the Chippewas since I can recall over the past five years. Last season, the Cards and Chips slugged it out in Muncie, with CMU grabbing a narrow win despite Ball State's struggles. Two years ago, the Chippewas' homecoming was ruined by the upstart Cards thanks to a game-winning 50-yard Scott Secor field goal. This has all the makings of a trap game, especially with WMU being the previous week and NIU the next.

Central will probably look to exorcise these demons from two years ago.

Nov. 15 vs. Ohio

The second half of the schedule for CMU isn't nearly as arduous as the first half, but they cannot underestimate Ohio, who has a tendency to burn the midnight oil. Ohio is considered a favorite to win an unpredictable MAC East, which makes a win against the Bobcats on national TV important. If CMU can finish the MAC schedule in good fashion, they just might have a chance at taking the West crown, especially if say, WMU or Toledo takes a fall.

Three Ways The Season Is A Success

Win at least one non-FCS out-of-conference game

CMU has two options here to make this happen: Oklahoma State and Virginia. Presbyterian isn't quite a world-beater in FCS and should be easily won, while UNLV was 3-9 last season and will be playing in Mt. Pleasant. If all goes well in those two games, CMU should be at least 2-2 coming into the MAC season.

That being said, if CMU can finish the job they almost accomplished last season in Mt. Pleasant vs. the Cowboys or be on the winning side of a close game in Charlottesville, a 3-1 start could look even better going into the conference season, especially in regards to bowl game selections. CMU has been so close to winning Power Five matchups in the past, against Kansas, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Syracuse. Going .500 against Power Five teams this season would be a big bonus.

Claim two of the first four MAC games

CMU has an absolutely brutal start to the MAC season, playing Western to start the calendar, followed by Ball State at home and NIU and Toledo away. CMU has had NIU's number of late, but you can't underestimate the Huskies once the MAC calendar starts. WMU and Toledo both have been dominant over Central in the past four years.

Central absolutely must win two of the first four games to have any chance of contention for the MAC title. If they can get two of these four games, especially over WMU, NIU or Toledo, I would call that a success.

Win the MAC West

The ultimate prize in this whole season is the division crown. NIU has found a way to win the West the last eight seasons and every team has made a run at least once, but just quite couldn't get there. The East is rather dilapidated outside of one or two rotating teams, so win the West Division and you've got a favorable road in the MAC Championship game. 

CMU has had a very favorable record against the East the last two years, so it could very well play into their favor, should they end up in Detroit.

Two Storylines to Watch For

Which wide receiver emerges as an option opposite Kroll?

One of the ever-present storylines with the Chips are the starting receivers. CMU has been lucky to have depth at the position, but this time around, there's a lot of unfamiliar faces. Mark Chapman, Eric Cooper, Corey Willis, Brandon Childress and Anthony Rice look to be potential contributors this time around, though it isn't necessarily clear who exactly will line up alongside Kroll. (Austin Stewart, a former CMU basketballer is also listed on the roster as a receiver, but it's yet to be seen how he will contribute.)

A second option to take heat off of Kroll could certainly help the Chippewas offense to maintain unpredictability, especially if they have a penchant for the deep ball.

Will the running back by committee plan work?

CMU went by this strategy last season and the stats show it wasn't exactly that great. However, there wasn't very much the Chippewas could do, as they didn't have a dominant back such as Thomas Rawls or Zurlon Tipton toting the ball. Spalding's return should help bolster the run game with his dual-threat ability, while Jahray Hayes' power-run and the emergence of Jerrod Davis provides good depth. The losses of Romello Ross (ACL tear) and Martez Walker (transfer) could be felt, however, if something goes wrong.

Bold Prediction

Central finishes above NIU and WMU

If CMU can win some combination of NIU, WMU, or Toledo, they've got a fair shot of winning the MAC West crown. Last season, they had to depend upon a couple of tiebreakers to fall their way in order to have a shot. They did their part, but the other three teams were too strong and ultimately won more timely games at the end.

This season, I believe that CMU can get the best of NIU and WMU, as WMU will be a home game and CMU has shown a tendency to be a thorn in NIU's side., if they can place themselves at 3-1 or 4-0 prior to the Toledo game, the Chippewas could find themselves playing for a title.

They certainly have enough skill players to do it, but health could most definitely become an issue if someone such as Rush or Spalding goes down.