The Central Michigan Chippewas are looking to prove a point in 2022, after being one botched field goal snap away from representing the MAC West Division in Detroit in the 2021 campaign.
The Chips overcame a slow start and uncertainty at the quarterback position to finish 9-4 (6-2 MAC) last season, riding the legs of the country’s leading rusher Lew Nichols and an impressively deep defense to eventually take down the Washington State Cougars in the Sun Bowl to end the season on a high note— and warn other teams in the MAC not to underestimate them.
The 2022 non-conference schedule certainly has an opportunity to unfold favorably for the Chippewas, but it’ll still be a formidable ask to get away from this slate with three victories, as both of CMU’s Power Five opponents will be seeking to rebound from various maladies and be motivated to prove they’re on the right track.
What does 2022 have in store for the Chippewas? We take a Way Too Early look at their non-conference slate:
Thursday, Sept. 1: CMU at Oklahoma State Cowboys
It’s a date which has been circled on the calendar of both fanbases since that infamous day in 2016 when Cooper Rush, Jesse Kroll and Corey Willis all combined to produce one of the most unforgettable moments in college football history.
It’s a win so shrouded in mystique that Oklahoma State still refuses to acknowledge the result ever happened, which makes it one of the must-see games on the MAC calendar out of sheer intrigue.
Oklahoma State was a formidable side to face in 2021, finishing the season 12-2, with a conference mark of 8-1 in the Big 12, with their lone loss to Iowa State mid-season. The Cowboys wouldn’t lose again until the Big 12 title game against the Baylor Bears, leaving them out of the College Football Playoff conversation.
They settled for the Fiesta Bowl, sneaking out a win against Notre Dame to finish the year.
It’ll be a bit of a different look in 2022 for Mike Gundy’s crew, with only seven returnees on offense and five on defense, meaning a lot of unproven players will have to step into roles and get out the door running early, with at least three offensive line positions in flux and one returning starter between the seven linebacker and defensive back positions.
Gone are tackling machines Malcolm Rodriguez (selected by Detroit in ‘22 NFL Draft), go-to lead receiver Tay Martin (selected by San Francisco in ‘22 NFL Draft) and the dynamic running back Jaylen Warren, (selected by Pittsburgh in ‘22 NFL Draft.)
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left for Ohio State in the offseason as well, leaving projections there a bit in flux, as former Vanderbilt head coach and Auburn DC Derek Mason is set to take the reins from what was a top-five defense last season.
There will still be some major contributors the Cowboys can count on, with one of those returnees being super senior quarterback Spencer Sanders, who threw for 2,839 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2021. Initially unsteady as a starter, Sanders found his rhythm in the second half of the season, being a major player in OK State’s comeback effort vs. Notre Dame. Three of OK State’s top five receivers, including second-team all-Big 12 returner Brennan Presley, also return to the roster after combining for 92 receptions, 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns.
The defense is less settled, with oft-injured defensive end Trace Ford the returning starter with the most experience, while playmaking safety Jason Taylor II (three career non-offensive touchdowns) anchors the defensive backfield as the only returning starter of note.
OK State won’t be as deep as in previous years, and Week 1 matchups can always prove to be tricky. This meeting will serve as the rubber match for a series of games which started in 2015 in Mt. Pleasant, with both teams winning on the road.
Saturday, Sept. 10: CMU vs. South Alabama Jaguars
South Alabama was once considered an easy win for most teams at the FBS level, but 2021 showed that the Jaguars are no longer an afterthought, as they finished 5-7 under a first-year head coach, including an impressive 3-1 record out of conference, with their sole loss to Tennessee in Week 11.
Under then-new coach Kane Wommack, the Jags were one of the most consistent teams in the conference, finishing in the top five in all defensive “per game” categories, top three in the conference in turnover margin and featuring the conference’s third-best passing unit.
It was an impressive feat for a team who finished 2-6 in a stacked Sun Belt season, with three of those losses by a possession or less, including an overtime loss to the formidable Coastal Carolina at season’s end which would have clinched a potential bowl bid.
The team returns 16 starters, seven on both sides, as well as both specialists, ensuring a deep, talented roster wearing red, white and blue in 2022.
A familiar name could be in the cards at QB for the Jags, as former Toledo QB Carter Bradley (182-of-327 for 2,337 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions in four seasons) arrived in Mobile this offseason after losing the starting job to Dequan Finn in 2021. He’ll battle former 2020 starter Desmond Trotter for the starting role.
Four starters also return on the offensive line, while starting tight end Lincold Sefcik (32 receptions, 218 yards, five touchdowns in 2021) and starting receiver Jalen Wayne (53 receptions for 630 yards, one touchdown) will provide whoever wins the QB job with plenty of options.
The defense will be the unit of strength for the Jags, with the majority of their leading contributors returning, including tackle leader AJ DeShazor (64 tackles in 2021), and two all-Sun Belt defensive backs in Keith Gallmon and Darrell Luter Jr. There will also be a handful of Power Five transfers seeking to insert themselves in the mix, with defensive back Jamar Richardson (Ole Miss) and linebacker Jamie Miller (Indiana) having joined in the offseason.
South Alabama played their non-con opponents hard in 2021, and considering how much better they’ve gotten over the offseason, the same should be expected of 2022. In order to do that, however, they’ll need to gel on offense. Facing a stout CMU defense will test if they’ve got it right early.
Saturday Sept. 17: CMU vs. Bucknell Bison
To put it delicately, Bucknell was not a very good football team in 2021, posting a 1-10 record, including an 0-6 conference record in the Patroit League.
The Bison were never a serious contender in most of their contests, with only one game seeing Bucknell lose within a single possession (29-21 to Georgetown.) Their 21-10 Homecoming win against Cornell is a salve on what is otherwise a bitterly atrocious performance.
The Bison offense was inefficient, with a 6:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while averaging only 4.25 yards per attempt through the air. The rushing offense was slightly better, but also not worth writing home about, with 779 total yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games.
Defensively, Bucknell was a sieve. They were amongst the FCS’ worst, allowing an average of 37.91 points per game, with four games giving up 45+ points. The Bison defense gave up more rushing first downs as a defense than their offense picked up by pass, rush or penalty collectively, while giving up 450 yards per game on average and 54 total touchdowns. There’s a lot of work to do there, to say the least.
2022 will see similar issues for the Bison, as it could be a make-or-break season for fourth-year head coach Dave Cecchini, who took over the Bison coaching job in 2019. Cecchini had previously turned around programs such as Valparaiso and The Citadel prior to his arrival in Pennsylvania.
CMU will be a stiff test for the Bison, as they will be the toughest team on their calendar and pop up early in the year. The Chips will hope to work out any kinks from their early encouters before wrapping up on the road against a tough Big Ten opponent.
Saturday Sept. 24: CMU at Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State had a down year by their standards in 2021, struggling to maintain momentum en route to a 7-6 season, compiling a 4-5 conference record in the Big Ten.
It was, by all counts, a season to forget in Happy Valley, as the Nittany Lions lost six of their last eight games after starting the 2021 season 5-0. A combination of injuries and inconsistent play, especially on the offensive side, contributed to the downfall, as PSU only scored above 18 points twice after their 24-0 victory over Indiana on Oct. 2.
They lose gamechanging receiver Jahan Dotson, who went 16th overall to Washington in the NFL Draft, as well as depth contributors on defense in safety Jaquan Brisker (selected by Chicago in ‘22 NFL Draft) and edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie (selected by Atlanta in ‘22 NFL Draft.) They will be tough holes to fill for a team in transition.
But Penn State can at least be assured several important returnees, even despite the exodus of talent. Sean Clifford is projeted to take the reins once again as the starter after going 261-of-428 for 3,107 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions through the air in 2021. Clifford’s durability, however, is an issue, which means Christian Veilleux (16-of-26 for 238 yards, three touchdowns) could also see time at QB in key situations.
Whether it’s Clifford or Veilleux under center, they will have four excellent receivers returning to the fold, including Parker Washington, who finished second to Dotson in receptions (64), yards (820) and touchdowns (4) in 2021.
The trenches are fairly firm on both sides, with three starters returning on both the offensive and defensive lines.
Manny Diaz, newly-christened defensive coordinator after several seasons as Miami [FL]’s head coach, will have some intriguing pieces to play with on defense, as they were a top-five defense in the Big Ten in every category, save rushing yards allowed per game (where they finished 10th in-conference.) The defensive backfield is especially dangerous, with playmaking back Ji’ayir Brown and his six interceptions from last season returning to play center field, while Joey Porter Jr. retains his spot as an outside corner.
If there are weak spots to address, it’s the running game on offense, where the Nittany Lions uncharactersitcally had zero running backs with a 100-yard game in 2021. They were 118th in the country in rushing with 107.8 yards per game as a unit last year, and have worked to address the issue in the offseason, with incumbent starter Keyvone Lee expected to be pushed by a platoon of promising freshmen backs, led by true freshman Nick Singleton.
Linebacker will also be an issue, as only one starter returns from last year’s defense, forcing Diaz and head coach James Franklin to convert several of their safeties into outside backers this offseason.
The specialists are also in flux, as all four major positions will be in battles, as former kicker/punter Jordan Stout graduated and former kick/punt returner Dotson left for the NFL. We won’t know what the situation there will look like until the season kicks off.
CMU will have to be perfect to get one over on Penn State on the road, as the Nittany Lions are notoriously hard to beat in Happy Valley. Even so, this could be a winnable game, similar to 2021 Missouri if everything gels for the Chips.