Finally, after an offseason full of conference realignment and heartburn, the 2023 college football season kicks off week one on Thursday.
Western Michigan hosts the Saint Francis Red Flash and starts the Lance Taylor Era in Kalamazoo. The Broncos open the season with what is supposed to be a win against an FCS opponent, but the Broncos have major question marks surrounding their program and roster.
The offensive line brings important consistency to the offense during a scheme change. The Broncos are transitioning from a deliberately paced run-first offense to an up-tempo passing attack. Hayden Wolff transferred to Western after throwing for more than 3,000 yards the previous season and figures to play a role in the offense. Coach Taylor has kept the starting quarterback for the opening night close to the vest.
The unit must improve from last season to have any chance at a successful season.
The defense has the opposite problem. It needs to maintain its high level of production despite significant turnover. Significant might be an understatement. Marshawn Kneeland is the only starter in the front seven who returns and Keni-H Lovely is the only returner in the backend.
Their silver lining is the coaching staff stays mainly the same and the development of the non-starters stays right on track. It’s still a lot to ask, but Saint Francis is in a similar spot. The Red Flashes lost their top rusher, three of their top four receivers, their leading tackler, tackle-for-loss leader, sack leader and interception leader from a year ago.
So what does the game look like when each team has the ball? Let's get into it:
- Date and time: Thursday, August 31 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan
- Spread and over/under: N/A
- All-time series: This is the first meeting between Saint Francis and Western Michigan.
When St. Francis has the ball:
SFU won the Northeast Conference in 2022 and earned a spot in the FCS playoffs. According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ for the FCS teams, the Red Flashes were 48th. That’s a good team, but not a spectacular team.
You may remember that this team took Akron to the wire in overtime in Week 1 last season before ultimately losing. They lost their next game to the Richmond Spiders and then ripped off nine in a row to finish 9-2 in the regular season. Only one game in that streak was a one-possession win, an indication they dominated in conference play. Their season ended with a blowout loss to the Delaware Blue Hens in the FCS playoffs.
They were led by their offense last season and redshirt junior quarterback Cole Doyle, who took extreme care of the ball. Doyle threw three interceptions in 216 passes while throwing for 1,931 yards and 21 touchdowns. Justin Sliwoski saw significant time but Doyle was clearly the better choice as the season went on.
The Red Flashes run the ball by committee, but not very effectively. Their top two running backs by carries averaged fewer than five yards per rush, but QuaSean Holmes was better than seven yards per carry on his 60 rushes. He returns and will get his touches on Thursday night.
SFU will be breaking in new receivers. They return only one of the top four receivers, Dawson Snyder, but he averaged more than 20 yards per catch. He is clearly a deep threat in the Red Flashes offense.
I can tell you what the Broncos are going to try to do them on defense, it doesn’t change much. The front seven will pressure the quarterback and hunt for tackles for loss in the running game and the backfield will be left to defend the receivers if the ball gets in the air.
The questions that I can’t answer are:
- Who is going to be on the field?
- Is the game plan going to be a little conservative with safety being a very thin position and a good deep threat on the other sideline?
- Can the brand-new linebacker group be as aggressive as they were last season?
There are good guesses for the starters and the two deep but no one outside the facility knows for sure who is starting for the Broncos on Thursday. Given that it’s Week 1 and the coaching staff will want to see what they have during game action, players will rotate in and out all night.
Dawson Snyder averaged 30.7 yards per catch against Akron a year ago. At this point, he’s the only receiver to worry about for the Red Flashes and the Broncos don’t have anyone on the roster listed as a safety who has played significant time there. It might be effective to be cautious and leave the pass rush to the linemen and reduce the stress on the safeties. It’s not the Esposito defense, but letting SFU hit some big plays early can lead to problems for the whole night.
Three transfer linebackers step in to rotate with some players who have been in the program for a couple of years. Three of them will establish themselves as the best options, but how quickly can the coaching staff get it right? The faster the better. Doyle is a speedy, experienced quarterback who can move the ball multiple ways. The linebackers need to keep him contained and show off their own athleticism.
When Western Michigan has the ball:
It’s air raid time in Kalamazoo and it’s anyone’s guess who is distributing the ball. Jack Salopek, Treyson Bourguet and Hayden Wolff are all in the mix for Coach Taylor to make a game-time decision. The competition for the starting job has been going on all fall camp and no one has separated yet.
Outside of the quarterback, the offensive line is established, but the rest of the skill positions need to show they are ready to compete in the MAC. The offensive line returns five players that started at least six games from 2022. Behind that continuity the offense should have the time and space to operate how it should.
The passing attack has capable targets that didn’t get to show what they could do last season in Jehlani Galloway, Anthony Sambucci and Nate Anderson. Plus two productive FCS transfers, Kenneth Womack and Leroy Thomas, means the receivers have the ability to gain the most in the new scheme.
Keshawn King from Virginia Tech is a big addition that will get touches despite the offensive shift to an air raid. Offensive coordinator Billy Cosh ran the ball more than what is usual of a true Mike Leach style air raid, which means we get to see King, Zahir Abdus-Salaam and Jalen Buckley get the ball in space.
In the limited game film I was able to find, the Red Flashes run an interesting defensive front with three down linemen, a standing end and some floating linebackers and safeties. There is always one linebacker in the box but two players that look like safeties are just at the edge to confuse offensive blocking schemes.
SFU turns over their most important players on defense this year. The only statistical leader returning is a cornerback that led in passes defended. The leading tacklers are all gone from a year ago. That kind of turnover usually spells doom for an FCS squad playing and FBS squad. We see it when our beloved MAC schools play the Power Five. The difference in depth stands out eventually, but the Broncos need to make their new offense work. The defense doesn’t need to be great if the Broncos make unforced errors.
With a good offensive line, Western Michigan should be able to choose how they attack the Red Flash without being limited.
Two teams come into Kalamazoo with fresh faces on defense. Whose offense is more ready to take advantage? SFU has a long-time coach and a team coming off a conference championship. Western Michigan has a new head coach and offensive scheme, but continuity on defensive ideology.
Ultimately the Broncos are still an FBS roster, even if it’s not the best. They take care of the Red Flashes even if they take a bit to get settled on defense. Make it:
Saint Francis 21
Western Michigan 34