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MAC Football Previews: Central Michigan Chippewas

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In John Bonamego's first year as the head coach, Central Michigan is looking to stay bowl-eligible.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Central Michigan has experienced a roller coaster of an off-season thus far, and new head coach John Bonamego is looking to turn his new team into a force in the MAC West. After back-to-back seasons with 6-6 and 7-6 records, respectively, behind Dan Enos, the Chippewas are hoping to build off of recent success, even without experience they've had in the past.

After a rough 1-4 start in 2013, Central Michigan was able to turn their season around and win five of their last seven games to finish the season 6-6 (5-3). In 2014, the Chippewas started off slow, again, with a 2-5 record mid-way through the season. However, Enos was able to rally his players to finish the season 7-6, losing in the Bahamas Bowl against Western Kentucky, in thrilling fashion.

This season, a lot of talent has been lost, along with invaluable experience. Returning only ten total starters, the Chippewas will have their work cut out for them as they hope to reach their second consecutive bowl game.

Schedule:

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 3 (Thur.) vs. Oklahoma St. 7 pm
Sept. 12 vs. Monmouth 3 pm
Sept. 19 @ Syracuse 12:30 pm
Sept. 26 @ Michigan State TBA
Oct. 3 vs. Northern Illinois 3 pm
Oct. 10 @ Western Michigan TBA
Oct. 17 vs. Buffalo TBA
Oct. 24 @ Ball St. TBA
Oct. 31 @ Akron TBA

BYE
Nov. 10 (Tue.) vs. Toledo 8 pm
Nov. 18 (Wed.) @ Kent St. 8 pm
Nov. 27 (Fri.) vs. Eastern Michigan TBA

CMU will host its first meeting with two teams in the first two weeks of the season. Oklahoma State will visit Mt. Pleasant during the first week of the season, followed by the Monmouth Hawks of the Big South Conference the following week.

After an embarrassing defeat against the Syracuse Orange at home last season, the Chips will try their luck on the road against the Orange at the Carrier Dome on September 19. Following that week, they'll hit the road again to face Michigan State for the first time since 2012, when they lost 41-7 at home.

After the first four weeks, MAC play will begin with Northern Illinois coming to town for homecoming. That contest will be followed by a trip to rival Western Michigan, and then the Chippewas will come back home to host the Buffalo Bulls, after beating them last season.

Central Michigan will hit the road again to face Ball State and Akron, before they head into their bye week.

After the bye, MAC West favorite Toledo is visiting Mt. Pleasant, who the Chips haven't beat in over five years. The last two games of the season are against Kent State (road) and Eastern Michigan (home).

Head Coach

John Bonamego is a former Chippewa football player himself, and now he has been hired to lead his alma mater. After the sudden departure of Dan Enos days before National Signing Day, Bonamego has had it rough since his first day on the job. Having to convince recruits to stay is a tricky business, and, somehow, he was able to keep all of his commits/signees throughout the whole situation. Bonamego deserves a large amount of credit for the work he has done before the first kickoff has even started.

He isn't new to the coaching world, however. John Bonamego was a special teams coordinator since 1999, most recently for the Detroit Lions, until he was called upon to take over the empty head coaching position in Mt. Pleasant.

On the field, he has a different mentality than Coach Enos did. Bonamego is looking to bring back the up-tempo offensive style of play that Chippewa fans came to love during the Butch Jones era. Losing a couple of the team's best players, Coach Bonamego still has work to do with his team, such as finding the right personnel for the style of play he wishes to instill.

Five Key Players

QB- Cooper Rush- The quarterback is returning as the team's starter, and is looking for even more production, even after a solid showing last season. With an unproven receiving core and running game, Rush will be sought for as a steady player that can be relied on when other facets of the offense are not working. He has the opportunity to compete with some of the great quarterbacks in the MAC today.

DEs- Blake SerpaJoe Ostman- This tandem can provide the necessary spark that allows the defense to fully perform. Combining for seven sacks last season, the duo can rush the passer effectively, as well as plug up holes in the running game. With inexperience of the rest of the defensive side of the ball, these two returning starters will be counted on for consistency and energy throughout each contest.

C- Nick Beamish- This center will be a pivotal piece to the offense, as the most experienced returning player on the offensive line. With a new feature back this season, the Chippewas are in dire need of the offensive line to produce consistently and clear the paths for the new running backs. He was a first team All-MAC selected last season, and his work ethic is second to none. As an under-recruited player in a small town, Beamish has a chip on his shoulder and it will be interesting to see how he handles the leadership role.

WR- Jesse Kroll- Kroll is the only returning starter as a receiver, and his presence will greatly attribute to Rush's and the passing game's success. He needs to be vocal with the younger players, and teach them the tools of the trade.

RB- Devon Spalding- Following a productive freshman season, Spalding looks to take over for the majority of the carries. His youth is promising, as it means he has plenty of talent, but potential, as well. His offensive line will need to give him help, and Spalding seems to be more than ready for the spot.

Chips' Strong Suit

The key to any coach's heart is the gift of a talented pass rush. Central Michigan may just benefit immensely because of the return of three out of four starters on the defensive line. Junior Joe Ostman, senior Blake Serpa, and junior Jabari Dean are all returning, giving the Chips a strong defensive front to rely on. With this experience, the entire defense will learn a good amount of football knowledge.

The defensive backfield is a mess, and the strength of this season's defensive line grandly affects the outcomes of these 1-on-1's.

Unknowns

Without a confirmed stable of running backs, the team is really hurting itself by not knowing which newbie will carry the football on a reliable basis. With the injury to Saylor Lavalli, the rushing job is going between Spalding and Martez Walker.

Also, the receiving core is a major question mark. The only player with real experience returning is Jesse Kroll, who caught four touchdowns last season. Young guys in Anthony Rice and Corey Willis will be slotted in their positions, and it's imperative that they focus during games and practices leading up to games, in order to reach the same page as the quarterback.

These two positions are major concerns heading into the season, and the off-season preparation by these two groups will be a major tell about what Coach Bonamego has in plan for this offense.

Lastly, the defensive backfield is in for a rough beginning. The only returning starter is safety Tony Annese, excluding cornerback Brandon Greer, who was dismissed from the football program for a non-football mistake. Josh Cox and Kavon Frazier will be asked to step up and make the most of their opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how these specific positions develop over the course of Coach Bonamego's first year at the helm of the Central Michigan Chippewas football program.

TL;DR: Season Overview

Following an off-season of relative turmoil and change, John Bonamego comes into Mt. Pleasant on a mission to take this program to the next level. The team will be lead by its defense, and consistent play out of Cooper Rush can and will result in overall team success. Although preseason rankings do not have them coming in the top 3 in the MAC West, Central Michigan is a dark horse, and many of the new players have opportunities to prove themselves in this situation.