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Western Michigan Broncos Football: 2014 Season Preview

After a rough maiden voyage last season, PJ Fleck looks to right the ship in his sophomore season at the helm of the Western Michigan Broncos.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  This was typed before the news of Jay Harris leaving the program to pursue a rap career and Lonnie Johnson's academic ineligibility.

When PJ Fleck was hired as the head ball coach at Western Michigan last offseason, he brought a lot of energy and. . .interesting. . ."traditions" and mottos.  The hype was high, especially after Bill Cubit had rebuilt the program into a consistently decent team before getting the boot after an injury riddled 4-8 season.  What unfolded wasn't what most fans had imagined, but still was the setting of a foundation for what could be a really good squad in future years.

Last Season - 1-11 (1-7) record

Heading into the season, Fleck got decimated with injuries.  Star wide-out Jaime Wilson was lost for the season before solid contributors went shortly after.  WR Daniel Braverman, LB Devon Brant, and OL Terry Davisson all went down as well leaving Fleck with a very young and inexperienced group, mostly on offense.

Things started out rather positively actually for the Broncos, though.  In a very wet trip to East Lansing to open the season, the Bronco offense looked bad, but still managed to put up more points than the Spartan offense they faced.  Unfortunately, Tyler Van Tubbergen had a rough outing and the 26-13 final score was promising of a possibly good season, especially since Michigan State had one of the top defenses in the nation (and then won the Rose Bowl and finished with a 13-1 record).

What unfolded next is probably the worst stretch of eight games one could ask for out of a team.

With a home game against FCS cellar dweller Nichols State up next, PJ's first career win as a head coach anywhere appeared to be in sight.  The Colonels were starting their 3rd string QB due to injuries and the Broncos had shelled FCS powerhouse Eastern Illinois just a season prior.  The 27-23 final score, a loss, was the first of numerous gut punches to the team, the university, and Bronco fans everywhere.

Two more trips to Big 10 schools, Iowa (whom NIU had beaten to start their season) and Northwestern (before they blew up themselves) resulted in blowout losses.  Kent State would get Dri Archer back and down the Broncos as well before the trio of Toledo, Buffalo, and Ball State all added W's themselves against Fleck and company.

The eighth game was less a gut punch as much as a stop to the bleeding, with the Broncos barely sneaking past UMass for their lone win.  The win would not be as celebrated as one could hope though.  Just a year prior, TVT had shelled the Minutemen, but the trip to Foxboro would be decided by Charlie Molnar's infamous decision to go for two, and the win, after a UMass touchdown with just 22 seconds left.

After back-to-back close losses to rivals EMU and CMU, both given away late, the season ended with a Tuesday night game at NIU, who sent Jordan Lynch out in style, with another monster game on the ground.

1-11, and it could've been worse, but Fleck managed to not set the record for worst season in WMU history.

The Roller Coaster Off-Season

While Fleck couldn't manage results on the field, he was building an arsenal of recruits off it, the likes the conference had never seen.  With top recruits like Chance Stewart and Jay Harris de-committing from Big Ten schools to come to Kalamazoo, Fleck built the best recruiting class in MAC history when all of his verbals signed with no questions asked.

The news would get even better when former 4-star recruit and Top 100 player Justin Ferguson transferred from Notre Dame to join the Broncos.  The wide-receiver was highly touted, and the trio of Wilson (2012 MAC Freshman of the Year), Corey Davis (2013 MAC Freshman of the Year), and Ferguson was expected to give Zach Terrell (or whoever else will be under center) a plethora of targets for the upcoming season.  WMU was going to have one of the most explosive passing attacks in the MAC, maybe the country.

However, it would all be for nothing.  Wilson shortly announced he'd be leaving the program to move closer to home to see his daughter more and Ferguson was moved to safety to help with depth once the current core graduates after the season.  Nevertheless, this Bronco team is stacked with young talent that Fleck must now mold into a power team.

Meet The Offense

As stated above, the offense is quite young.  Getting running back Dareyon Chance to return for a 6th season was big, as his experience and explosiveness will be key in helping develop the offense as a whole.  He'll have an offensive line that will have spent an entire year playing together in front of him and a stud wide-out in Davis to help take the pressure off him.

However, it's the QB battle that is most intriguing.

Zach Terrell slowly began to develop as a leader last season, earning the starting job by the middle of the season.  However, with Cam Thomas, a redshirt freshman, and Stewart both applying pressure as solid QBs with much better arm strength than Terrell, it's anyone's job.  Smart money has Terrell starting the season opener against Purdue, but he'll have to show more zip on his throws and more diversity of targets or else Stewart, who Fleck has been high on since Day 1, could take over.

Jay Harris and Davis will be the leaders of the WR corps, with Braverman and Kendrick Roberts also looking to get some targets.  It'll all start with who's under center, and that's the question of the season with expectations starting to grow.

The "No-Fly Zone"

On defense, the first thing that pops out at you is the stacked secondary corps.  Donald Celiscar and Justin Currie lead a mostly senior defensive back corps that mostly held teams in check last year.  Currie led the team in tackles and both him and Celiscar led the team with three INTs apiece.  That number is low mostly because teams didn't have to pass on the Broncos, and had a lot of success with the run anyways.

Speaking of run defense, the Bronco line-backing and defensive line groups both took hard hits with a multitude of players graduating.  They do get Devon Brant back, but he'll be the leader of an otherwise inexperience group.  The defensive line won't any better, with only Cleveland Smith having been on the team for more than two seasons.  They do get Richard Ash, a transfer from Michigan, to help with size and experience, but the run defense could suffer yet again under the youth of Fleck's recruits.

Look At Those Legs!

The Broncos have a trio of solid legs on their team, with Andrew Haldeman, Brett Scanlon, and J Schroeder all leading the way.  Scanlon is the kick-off specialist, but was known to boot 60 yard field goals in high school.  However, the place kick job is not his with Haldeman growing last year to the tune of 80% makes including a much better 3-for-4 mark from 40+ out.

Schroeder has a leg himself, if not the consistency at punter.  Two years ago, he booted an 82 yard punt, but has just a 40 yard/punt average in his two years at WMU.  His 17 punts inside the 20 last year was an improvement with his coffin corners, but he'll need to get more consistent boots if the Bronco defense is to keep teams off the board more consistently.

The Schedule

After getting to face three good Big Ten teams last season on the road, then getting to face Toledo, NIU, Ball State, and Buffalo in MAC play, this year's schedule appears to be rather friendly.

8/30 @ Purdue L
9/13 @ Idaho W
9/20 vs Murray State W
9/27 @ Virginia Tech L
10/4 vs Toledo L
10/11 @ Ball State L
10/18 @ BGSU L
10/25 vs Ohio W
11/1 @ Miami W
11/15 vs EMU W
11/22 @ CMU W
11/28 vs NIU L

Is this overly optimistic? Maybe.   But hear me out.

6-6 isn't unreasonable.  Of their first three games, WMU can do anything from 0-3 to 3-0 in an honest perspective.  Tell me Purdue is really THAT much better than the Broncos.  I dare you.  Then I'll show you what NIU did to them and remind you to shut up until the game is played.  Idaho and Murray State are both winnable games as well for obvious reasons.

After that, it gets rocky.  VaTech then probably the 3 favorites outside of Akron to win the MAC.  Three of those games are on the road as well.  That is extremely rough.  However, if they can survive that stretch with morale still intact, Ohio comes to town, without Blankenship and Tettleton to carry the team like they had been.  If I have to go with a true stolen game, it's this one rather than Purdue.  But you can flip between those two.  It really doesn't matter.  I think WMU goes 1-1 between Ohio and Purdue.

After that, Miami and EMU are "should wins", and if the Broncos don't shoot themselves in the foot like last year, they can beat rival CMU in Mt. Pleasant without Zurlon Tipton running rampant on the defense.  6-5 heading into a game against NIU and they lose that.  6-6 record?  4-4 in the MAC?  Call me crazy, but it's not terribly unreasonable.  I'd even take a 4-8 season if some of the losses were close and there weren't any blowouts (outside of the trip to Blacksburg).

So where do you think the Broncos will finish?  Can they use their stacked recruiting class to get back to .500?  Or does Fleck's ship sink and WMU sees the first 0-fer season in program history?