Only five short years ago, the Central Michigan Chippewas were at the pinnacle of Mid-American Conference football. Their starting quarterback owned many a NCAA record, their team featured several future professional players, and the they finished the season in the Top 25 for the first time ever. The future was bright in Mount Pleasant.
Enter Dan Enos.
In the past four seasons, the Chippewas have progressed from horrible to still horrible and then to mediocre for the past two seasons. CMU has been the quintessential middle of the MAC team; beating up on the bottom feeders while getting blown out by those teams competing for the MAC Championship. Every season brought a new excuse: the team was not built for the system they were running, injuries were piling up, the non-conference schedule was too grueling to build momentum, the team was too young, too small.
All excuses are out of the window for 2014. This CMU squad returns more starters than any team in college football. The schedule ranks as one of the easiest of any team hoping to earn a bowl bid. Every player on this roster has been recruited by this coaching staff to build the best team they can possibly field.
The expectations for this season are clear: Contend for a MAC title and play meaningful football in December orJanuary. Anything less means we could be looking at a regime change in Mount Pleasant.
Enos' first major staff change comes with the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Cummings, who left to take the same position under Bob Diaco at UConn. His replacement is Morris Watts, who boasts one of the lengthiest coaching resumes in all of college football, including coaching Enos himself at Michigan State. Watts' promotion should not affect play calling, and the Chippewas will attack with a balanced, pro-style offense once again this season.
Cooper Rush looks to start the season under center for the Chippewas. Rush had many freshman moments after being thrust into the starting role during CMU's second week game against New Hampshire. However, he showed poise and composure in the pocket, and looked impressive later in the season. Rush has been named the starter by Enos going into the season, but look for him to get pushed by senior Cody Kater, who won the starting job out of camp last season.
Even though they will be replacing the departed Zurlon Tipton, the running back corps remains arguably the deepest in the MAC. Saylor Lavallii looked to have earned the starting role after filling in impressively for Tipton last season, but he is being challenged by Michigan transfer Thomas Rawls, who will be eligible to play immediately under the NCAA's graduate transfer rules. Both Rawls and Lavallii will be pushed for playing time by Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore, who flashed potential during his first season of play last year. Beyond those three, expect Martez Walker, Gary Jones, and Anthony Garland to each see the occasional carry.
Titus Davis leads the CMU receiving corps. Davis had a tremendous 2013 season as Cooper Rush's top target, and will look to top that in his final year of college football. However, the picture gets murkier beyond Davis. Andrew Flory looked to start the season as the second option in the passing game, but Flory faces a suspension due to an offseason arrest. With Flory's status in doubt, look for Jesse Kroll, Courtney Williams, and a number of redshirt freshmen to earn significant playing time. At tight end, Deon Butler looks to begin the season as the starter, but he should get pushed for playing time from Ben McCord and Mike Kinville.
The offensive line has been a strength for CMU in recent seasons, and the veteran line of 2014 looks to be no different. According to Dan Enos, the line returns 91 offensive starts. Guard Andy Phillips and Center Nick Beamish enter the year with preseason accolades. The Chips return additional offensive line starters in Kevin Henry and Ramadan Ameti, who saw significant action filling in for the now departed Jake Olson.
After a rocky 2012, CMU defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin made the controversial decision to switch his defensive scheme from the standard 4-3 to a more unconventional 4-2-5, which is also known as a Nickel defense. Results were mixed last year, in large part due to the number of injuries that impacted the unit. The benefit of these injuries was that many young players earned significant playing time, giving the Chips an experienced unit for 2014.
The defensive line is led by senior Leterrius Walton. Walton brings a monster frame to the line, and will look to make big contributions in the pass rush and on run defense. Jabari Dean returns from injury to fill the other defensive tackle spot, with Louis Palmer and Blake Serpa likely to start at defensive end.
Chippewa captain Justin Cherocci looks to lead the defensive unit as one of the two starting linebackers. Cherocci has shown up big time in major games and in the state column, but he will need to find a new partner to replace the graduated Shamari Benton. The two contenders who are most likely to replace Benton are senior Cody Lopez and junior Tim Hamilton, both of whom have seen significant playing time over the past few seasons.
Central Michigan's secondary features a lot of depth and the leadership of cornerback Jason Wilson. Wilson, once a wide receiver who switched sides in 2012, has found success as a defensive back, and was listed by Phil Steele as a preseason All-MAC corner. Joining Wilson as standouts in the unit are Kavon Frazier, Brandon Greer, and Jason Chapman, each of whom were defensive starters for most of last season. Another player to be on the lookout for is sophomore Tony Annese, whose pick six against Western Michigan sealed a victory for CMU.
|at Northern Illinois
|vs. Ball State
|at Eastern Michigan
|vs. Western Michigan
Central Michigan enters the season as a clear pick to finish in the middle of the MAC. This may seem odd for a team that returns so many starters and quite a lot of experience, yet Enos' track record burns strong in the minds of sportswriters the hearts of Chippewa fans. However, there are numerous reasons for hope going into this upcoming year.
The non-conference schedule is about as easy as possible for a non-P5 team. After a game against FCS contender Chattanooga, the Chips play games against Big 10 bottom feeder Purdue and Charlie Weis' struggling Kansas squad. Sandwiched between these two games is a home matchup against Syracuse, another P5 school without a recent track record of success. It is reasonably possible to imagine the Chippewas as either 0-4 or 4-0 going into conference play, but a 2-2 start would be the ideal minimum to show that the team has turned the corner.
The conference schedule represents another chance for CMU to do some damage. Their cross division games are more difficult than last year, with Buffalo replacing UMass on the schedule. On the other hand, the MAC West should not be as good as it was last year, and the Chips could easily take a game against Toledo, NIU, or Ball State, all teams who they have struggled mightily against under Enos.
While the hope on campus is to compete for a MAC title, the likely golden number for CMU this season is seven wins. A 7-5 record would be the first winning regular season since 2009, and would likely buy Dan Enos more time to build his program. Anything less, and the pressure will be on Athletic Director Dave Heeke to make a change.