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2016 Week 1 Preview: Western Michigan Broncos vs Northwestern Wildcats

The hype train makes its first stop in Evanston, Illinois

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Toledo Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Even Bronco fans are probably a little sick of the preseason hype surrounding their favorite team, and are just ready to get on with the football thing already. Well, they finally get their wish on Saturday. It’s September, and Western Michigan football is back.

The Broncos travel to Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois to take on Northwestern. WMU was last there in 2013, and it didn’t go so well as the Wildcats dispatched first year coach P.J. Fleck and company 38-17. That game, of course, was a week following the Broncos embarrassing loss at home to FCS Nicholls State, and in a year where the brown and gold would muster just a single win, over UMass.

Three years later, Fleck has what is believed to be his best squad since taking over in Kalamazoo, and it’s difficult to argue with that. Daniel Braverman and Willie Beavers are now in the NFL, but the offense is still in good hands with seniors Corey Davis and Zach Terrell, both on pace to become the most productive at their positions in school history.

Davis is a potential All American, and Terrell is an All-MAC quarterback entering his third full season under center for the Broncos. Add in reigning MAC Freshman of the Year Jamauri Bogan and 2014’s Player of the Year Jarvion Franklin in the running game, and you have a WMU offense that is difficult for any defense to handle.

The Wildcats counter with a defense that, while not as good as the 2015 version, is still very impressive. Pat Fitzgerald’s team should have some success forcing the Broncos out of their balanced attack and into one that requires more attacking through the air. Of course, forcing a team to throw the ball when one of the targets is Davis is a classic pick your poison situation. Awaiting Davis will be senior corner Matthew Harris, who makes up for lack of height with outstanding athleticism.

The Wildcats should feel confident in their ability to stop the run, regardless of who the Broncos throw at them in the backfield. Last year the defense allowed 126 yards rushing per game, and held teams under 100 yards eight times. It’s not the same defense this year, but even a mild regression would still make a unit that allowed just 19 points per game last season one of the best in the country.

The key to the game is how the Wildcats attack the Broncos on offense. WMU gave up 181 yards per game on the ground last season, and come up against a rushing attack that is one of the best in the Big Ten, and averaged 189 yards per game against all competition last year. The Broncos should be improved at the linebacker position, with All-MAC safety Asantay Brown joining the group and Robert Spillane returning from a season ending injury, but Saturday’s game is a good look at whether or not a defense known for giving up a ton of yards has finally turned the corner.

Bottom line: Pat Fitzgerald is 9-1 in career season openers, and the Wildcats even defeated Stanford last season in week one. The Broncos might be feeling pretty good about the season ahead of them, but it will take their best effort to come out on top in Evanston.

Kickoff is on Saturday, September 3rd at 12:00 p.m. ET on ESPNU