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State of the Program 2019: Western Michigan Broncos

Western Michigan aims for a sixth-straight season of bowl eligibility.

Illustration: James H. Jimenez | Photo: Joe Robbins (Getty)

When head coach Tim Lester was hired in January 2017, he faced the loftiest expectations in Western Michigan football history.

Just several weeks prior to Lester’s hire, Western Michigan played its most important game in history. A 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl was not the way the Broncos hoped to finish a 13-win storybook season, but still, Western Michigan was the most coveted program among other MAC and Group of Five teams for one year.

The Broncos are still the only team from the MAC, C-USA, or Sun Belt to receive the automatic G5 bid into a New Year’s Six Bowl since the College Football Playoff remodeled the bowl system in 2014. But shortly after that one-possession defeat to Wisconsin, Western Michigan was in for a rebuild. The Broncos lost an array of senior talent including FBS all-time receiving yards leader Corey Davis, quarterback Zach Terrell, and offensive tackle Taylor Moton. Then, P.J. Fleck departed to an unexpected opening in Minnesota, creating a void at the head coach position in Kalamazoo.

Prior to Fleck’s arrival, the Broncos waded in mediocrity for nearly a decade. In the Bill Cubit era from 2005-13, every season for Western Michigan ended with 4-9 wins, qualifying for three bowl games and losing all three. Fleck ushered in the program’s first bowl win in 2015 and brought the program to new heights the next season.

Assessing the Fleck to Lester Transition

When Lester first took over the program, it seemed this trend of success would continue. In his first game — a battle on the road at No. 4 USC — his team was tied with the Trojans after three quarters of action. In the fourth quarter, cornerback Darius Phillips returned a kickoff 100 yards to tie the game at 28 apiece with under eight minutes to go. The Broncos eventually ran out of gas, resulting in a tough-fought USC victory, but the promise and hope still lingered throughout the Broncos’ growing fanbase.

Fast-forward two seasons and Lester is 13-12 as Western Michigan’s head coach. He has qualified for bowl eligibility in consecutive seasons despite not receiving an invite in 2017. Lester’s teams have struggled in non-conference play against Power 5 opponents, falling to USC, Michigan State, Syracuse, and Michigan by an average deficit of 22.75 points. Western Michigan has done an excellent job of beating the teams it should, faring 9-2 against FBS teams with .500 and above records since Lester took over for Fleck. Each Lester season has featured a midseason win streak of four games or greater and these streaks often occur when stretches of manageable competition appear on the Broncos’ schedule.

Finishing seasons has been the major struggle of the Lester era considering the program has finished consecutive seasons 1-3 and 1-4, but this issue coincides with Western Michigan’s unfortunate injury problem. Lester operated without his starting quarterback Jon Wassink for the final third of both the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to collarbone and ankle injuries. Other players that have missed significant time in these seasons include running back LeVante Bellamy and strong safety Justin Tranquill. All three of the aforementioned players will enter their senior season in 2019.

Recruiting and Talent Production

According to 247Sports, Western Michigan has finished with a top-three recruiting class in the MAC every year since 2014. Recruiting success is an aspect of Western Michigan football which transitioned smoothly from the Fleck to the Lester era, and the program’s national visibility in 2016 may serve as a contributing factor.

With 15 3-star commits, Western Michigan’s 2019 recruiting class only ranks below perennial MAC recruiting powerhouse Toledo in the conference. Overall, this year’s class checks in at 90th in the country, above several dominant FBS programs such as Army and Appalachian State.

Two players in the Tim Lester era have leveraged their college football success into an NFL Draft selection — offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and cornerback Darius Phillips in 2018. Okorafor and Phillips were crucial contributors to the 2016 team that helped ease Lester’s transition to the program in 2017. But after three-consecutive years of producing NFL draft picks, Western Michigan broke the streak last April with no Bronco hearing his name called in the seven rounds.

Make-or-Break Season

After two seasons around .500, Western Michigan’s 2019 will be a telling year for the program. If the Broncos remain healthy, it will be interesting to see how many wins this program is capable of rattling off in Lester’s third season. Western Michigan is currently in a state of averageness, similar to Central Michigan in the John Bonamego era before the Chippewas plummeted to 1-11 last season.

Similar to 2016, Western Michigan is equipped with a bevy of senior talent once again. The MAC is as wide open as ever with massive offseason personnel turnover affecting contenders such as Ohio, Buffalo, and Northern Illinois. Western Michigan retains its head coach and impact players, while entering with a new defensive coordinator in Lou Esposito (interim during the tail end of 2019).

Qualifying for a bowl and contending for a MAC championship are attainable goals on Western Michigan’s preseason checklist. After last year’s 31-point loss to BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and struggles in conference play to close the season, the Broncos will run it back with the same squad in hopes that experience and better execution can guide this program back in the right direction.