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Way-Too-Early 2018 Season Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas

A young Chippewa team with a lot to prove will have a tough road ahead of them in the fourth year under coach Jon Bonamego.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Sept. 1 at Kentucky Wildcats

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

CMU will start its season on the road, facing the Kentucky Wildcats on the bluegrass in Lexington.

With CMU being fairly young, it’ll be hard to tell if they’ve got a real clear chance or not, but last season, Eastern Michigan managed to take Kentucky to the wire on the road, so there’s certainly good potential for CMU to sneak away with a win.

The Wildcats finished 7-6 (4-4 SEC) last season, finishing 7-5 in the regular season before a narrow loss to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl, staying pace with the previous year record-wise.

If this were last year’s roster, CMU could make a decent chance for an upset, but with a lot of new parts, CMU will likely lose their first game of the season. CMU 0-1

Sept. 8 vs. Kansas Jayhawks

NCAA Football: Kansas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Central has shown in recent years it isn’t afraid of scheduling Power Five schools, and it’s netted them a home-and-home with Kansas for the opening game of the home slate.

The Jayhawks were notoriously bad in 2017, winning just one of their 12 games. Kansas averaged 43.4 average opponent points per game, while scoring 18.67 for themselves. They managed to pick up a win against their FCS cupcake in Southeast Missouri State before getting smashed by CMU 45-27 at home to start an 11-game losing streak.

Kansas, who has been in a constant rebuilding spiral since its unforgettable 2007 season, probably won’t be able to hang on the road, if last year’s numbers are any indication. CMU 1-1

Sept. 15 at Northern Illinois Huskies

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play comes early for both CMU and NIU, as both teams have to put aside tough out-of-conference schedules to try and establish dominance in the MAC West title race early.

For a team like CMU who is seen as a rebuilding squad, it would mean an awful lot to be able to sneak a road win early in the season and show the rest of the division they’re not an after-thought. NIU will return many of the players which made them dangerous in 2017, inclduing Sutton Smith and Marcus Childers, and will seek revenge on CMU after losing to the Chippewas three of the last four years.

History will have to catch up and correct itself eventually, so I see NIU taking a badly-needed win they can carry with them into the rest of their non-con schedule. CMU 1-2 (0-1 MAC)

Sept. 22 vs. Maine Black Bears

NCAA Football: Maine at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

CMU continues its non-con schedule with its yearly FCS opponent. This time, it’ll be the Maine Black Bears who roll into Mt. Pleasant to try and steal away a crucial FBS-level win. It isn’t necessarily impossible.

CMU has struggled historically to put away FCS foes in tune-up games. Near-misses aginst New Hampshire in 2012 and Chattanooga in 2013 immediately come to mind, as does last year’s epic 3OT game against Rhode Island.

Maine was an average squad last season, finishing 4-6 (3-5 Colonial Athletic Association) and will likely be in a retooling phase under a second-year head coach, as they’ve brought in a lot of help in the offseason in many problem areas. I’d say CMU will likely win. CMU 2-2 (0-1 MAC)

Sept. 29 at Michigan State Spartans

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State came roaring back in a big way in 2017 after a disappointing 3-9 campaign in the year prior, finishing 10-3 and winning the Holiday Bowl against Washington State, completing the season ranked #16 in the country.

They’ll once again prove to be a player in the Big Ten race and will look forward to playing the Chippewas for the first time since 2012, when CMU hosted LeVeon Bell and the Spartans in a game the Chippewas lost 42-7.

MSU had a heck of a time trying to shed off Bowling Green and Western Michigan until late in their tune-up games last season, but Sparty ultimately proved to be a second half squad, doubling up their opponents each time. It’ll probably be the same here. CMU 2-3 (0-1 MAC)

Oct. 6 vs. Buffalo Bulls

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

CMU finally settles into the bulk of its conference schedule, and they get a fine “howdy do?” in emergent Buffalo, who finally seems to be heading the right direction under Lance Leipold.

The Bulls surprised late in the season, finishing 6-6, but ultimately getting left out of the bowl picture after a furious three-game winning streak in the final fixtures of the season. Their offensive firepower was made evident in a clash of will against Western Michigan which lasted 7OT’s, and once revealed, it never looked back.

The dynamic tandem of QB Tyree Jackson (2,096 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions) and WR Anthony Johnson (76 receptions for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns) shored the Bulls’ offensive attack, while Khalil Hodge (153 total tackles, three sacks, two interceptions) held down the fort on defense to help Buffalo finish at .500 in a season which looked doomed at various points.

Buffalo might just be a bit too much for CMU to handle this time around. CMU 2-4 (0-2 MAC)

Oct. 13 vs. Ball State Cardinals

NCAA Football: Ball State at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

2017 was not Ball State’s year.

The Cards got hit with the injury bug hard and lacked for options for much of the season, including their top quarterback Riley Neal, top running back in James Gilbert (a 1,300 yard rusher in 2016), and starting receiver Jordan Hogue. And those were just the major injuries. The entire two-deep was slashed to the point where many true freshman saw the field.

This season should at least be more navigatable for coach MIke Neu and his squad, who returns a lot of the players who were gone in the previous season, along with many players who now find themselves with game experience and can make a contribution.

Ball State has given CMU problems at home in recent years and this game will likely be a toss-up by the time it rolls aorund on the calendar. I’m leaning a CMU win, as this is going to be a major trap game heading into Western Weekend (more on that in a minute.) CMU 3-4 (1-2 MAC)

Oct. 20 at Western Michigan Broncos

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

One of the premiere rivalries in the MAC finally is back on the night it belongs: Saturday.

The atmosphere will be electric as these storied rivals cross paths once again. Last season, CMU won in dramatic come-back fashion on the road to take the Victory Cannon to Mt. Pleasant for the first time in four years. Michigan transfer QB Shane Morris helped to engineer a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback, sealing it with a 77-yard touchdown to Corey Willis with just over thre minutes to go in the game.

This year’s reprisal will see a lot of new faces for CMU, while WMU returns a lot of old ones, including Jon Wassink, LaVante Bellamy and Stefan Claiborne. I’d say home field really matters for this game, but recent history has shown that transfer of trophy happens on the road more often than not. CMU 4-4 (2-2 MAC)

Oct. 27 at Akron Zips

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Akron Zips surprised a lot of pundits and fans alike in 2016, putting together a dream run in the MAC East to win the division and face the Toledo Rockets in the MAC Championship Game— while going through a quarterback transition.

Kato Nelson took over from Thomas Woodson after a suspension and never looked back, guiding the Zips to Detroit with what can best be described as electric athleticism. The Zips relied on making games ugly to win and it shows on the box scores, as the Zips won all four of the one-possession games it was involved in. In all other scenarios, the Zips went 3-6.

These teams are about even in terms of talent and youth, so it’ll likely come down to who establishes pace first. History indicates CMU will sail (they’ve won the last seven matchups in a row,) but don’t be surprised if Akron sneaks by. Still a win for CMU though, I think. CMU 5-4 (3-2 MAC)

Nov. 3 at Eastern Michigan Eagles

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Michigan continues its march to competitiveness under Chris Creighton, and he’s made the Eagles quite the interesting bunch, even despite a slight dip in 2017 from a magical 2016 season.

The 2018 version of the Eagles won’t have Brogan Roback or Sergio Bailey II, but they’ll return a staunch defense, featuring edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris, as well as stonewalling linebacker Kyle Rachwal, which should help to carry the day in most games. Shaq Vann should also be fully healthy and ready to assist whoever replaces Roback under center. If he returns to anything closely resembling his 2015 form, the Eagles could be dangerous in the MAC West.

CMU struggled against some of the better defenses they faced, and EMU’s got a pretty great one which should test the limits of CMU’s restructured offensive line. CMU 5-5 (3-3 MAC)

Nov. 10 vs. Bowling Green Falcons

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, MIke Jinks was attempting to figure things out in terms of personnell. After giving Dino Babers holdover recruit James Morgan a chance to clinch the job, Jinks threw in Jarrett Doege and the rest was history.

The Falcons weren’t exactly the most successful college football program, finishing 3-9 in 2017, but much like peer school Ball State, lots of blowouts allowed the Falcons to build up a bit of character and figure out which pieces worked where. Now that the team has a lot more of Jinks’ style of player in mind, BGSU should roll out some surprises in 2018.

Both CMU and BGSU are at similar parts of their rebuilding process and it should be interesting to watch two young and volatile teams with big potential go tat-for-tat against each other. I give a narrow edge to CMU in what will likely be a toss-up game. CMU 6-5 (4-3 MAC)

Nov. 23 at Toledo Rockets

NCAA Football: Toledo at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 version of this game wasn’t very pretty for the Chippewas, and with the unknown variable of talent CMU will be putting on the field in 2018, I’m not very certain if this season’s game will fare any better.

Toledo returns many of their talented players, including the receiving pair of Jon’Vea Johnson and Cody Thompson, and the running back tandem of Art Thompkins and Shakif Seymour to an offense considered one of the best in the nation last season. Toledo will be at home, with a likely berth to Detroit on the line as MAC West favorites once again. I don’t see how CMU can play spoiler here, so far removed from November. CMU 6-6 (4-4 MAC)