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MAC Football Previews: Western Michigan Broncos

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There's no shortage of hype for Western Michigan football. Are the Broncos the real deal?

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Michigan football team carries with them into 2015 with something they haven't in years: Expectations. Picked to finish between Toledo and Northern Illinois in the MAC West lends credence to the idea of WMU bringing home a MAC championship this year - something it hasn't done in nearly three decades.

There's a great deal of buzz about this football program, part of which is the fan base warming up to the, "Row The Boat," idea. A much larger part of the buzz is winning - something that makes warming up to "Row The Boat" much easier. Even still, the expectations are approached with a great deal of caution. After all, we are talking about a football program that has never won a bowl game.

Schedule

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 4 (Fri.) vs. Michigan State 7 pm
Sept. 12 @ Georgia Southern 6 pm
Sept. 19 vs. Murray State 7 pm
Sept. 26 @ Ohio State TBA

BYE
Oct. 10 vs. Central Michigan TBA
Oct. 17 @ Ohio TBA
Oct. 24 vs. Miami 2 pm
Oct. 29 (Thur.) @ Eastern Michigan 7:30 pm
Nov. 5 (Thur.) vs. Ball State 7:30 pm
Nov. 11 (Wed.) vs. Bowling Green 8 pm
Nov. 18 (Wed.) @ Northern Illinois 8 pm
Nov. 27 (Fri.) @ Toledo TBA

Western Michigan's schedule is loaded with challenges, beginning with the out of conference schedule. Before WMU plays a single game against the MAC this season, it goes head to head with two top ten opponents, Michigan State and Ohio State, and then travels to meet fellow Group of Five program-on-the-rise Georgia Southern. Bronco fans won't wait long for excitement in Kalamazoo as the lone home game of those three contests, against Michigan State, is the season opener on September 4th.

Bronco fans won't be kept waiting for a chance at their rivals from Mount Pleasant, either. The Chippewas travel to Waldo Stadium on October 10th, the earliest "Battle for the Cannon" match-up since 2011 when the game was played in mid September - a 44-14 victory for Western Michigan. The early rivalry game is not the only thing unusual about the Broncos' conference schedule, WMU plays five consecutive non-Saturday conference games this season beginning on October 29th at Eastern Michigan. Including the home opener, the Broncos play in six such contests this season, which is as many they have played in all of the previous three seasons combined.

Head Coach

P.J. Fleck took over at Western Michigan just three years ago, and more than just the leadership has changed in Kalamazoo. A program that just three years ago found itself a perennial underachiever is now one of the favorites in the MAC West. The Broncos may be hitting their stride in the Fleck era, going 8-5 last season and now carrying with them realistic expectations to compete for the first time in years.

Fleck left for Western Michigan after a stint in Tampa Bay, coaching wide receivers for the Buccaneers. Tampa was not Fleck's first time coaching under then head coach Greg Schiano. Fleck followed Schiano to Tampa from Rutgers where he held the same position. Before the time spent in Tampa and New Jersey, Fleck belonged to an interesting coaching tree. Fleck coached as a graduate assistant at Ohio State for Jim Tressel in 2006, moving to Northern Illinois for a tour with his alma mater under Joe Novak and Jerry Kill, the current head coach for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

One thing has been constant with Fleck at the helm, and that's the strong efforts in both branding and recruiting. Despite going 1-11 in his first year, the "Row the Boat" slogan became the centerpiece of a WMU football language, dubbed, "Bronconese"  and all the new head coach did was haul in the highest rated recruiting class in the MAC, something Fleck and his staff have done in each of his three years at the helm.

Five Key Players

QB- Zach Terrell- In a season full of surprises, Terrell was perhaps the biggest in 2014, throwing for 3,443 yards and 26 touchdowns to go along with a MAC leading 164.4 QBR. All of this to follow up a dismal 2013 season that left Terrell's job security far from certain. Completing 67.9 percent of his passes to lead one of the MAC's best offenses erased the doubt surrounding the quarterback position and solidified Terrell as the undisputed leader of the Broncos headed into 2015.

WR- Corey Davis- Davis is a key member of an offense that averaged 33.8 points per game in 2014 and could score as much if not more in 2015. Davis' rise seems to be exponential from one season to the next. The Junior followed up his MAC Freshman of the Year season two years ago with an even better campaign in 2014, posting a MAC leading 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns - besting even his older brother, Titus Davis. Another career year from the younger Davis could spell the end of his run in a Bronco uniform with a jump to the NFL.

LB- Grant DePalma- Depalma has taken an interesting route to becoming leader of the Bronco defense. A former walk on, DePalma finished second on the team in tackles and is tasked with leading a talented group of linebackers versus big time opponents early and often in 2015. His performance landed him on our top 70 MAC football players of 2015 countdown, coming in at number 36.

CB- Ronald Zamort- Zamort is the primary corner for the Broncos with the departure of Donald Celiscar to the NFL. The secondary as a whole must replace two starters, Celiscar and Justin Currie. Zamort's 17 passes defended in 2014 tied for the national lead with Celiscar, and the senior corner will be given the task of covering some of the best receivers in the MAC, as well as the country, this season. The success of the secondary as a whole could depend largely on whether or not Zamort, number 43 on our countdown, is up to the challenge.

RB- Jarvion Franklin- Franklin didn't take his time making himself known in 2014. The true freshman had a breakout performance against the Purdue Boilermakers on route to becoming the first ever recipient of  MAC Freshman of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. Franklin's carries should trend downward slightly this season given durability concerns as the season goes on, but is the unmistakable first option in the backfield for the Broncos this season.

Broncos' Strong Suit

Western Michigan's strength resides with its offense and its ability to be both balanced and explosive. In victories, the Broncos averaged 259.9 yards per game through the air to go along with 219.6 yards on the ground. Much of that balance was due to the emergence of Franklin, a true freshman, who immediately ran into the spotlight and straight for the record books, becoming the first true freshman in MAC history to win both Freshman of the Year and MAC Offensive Player of the Year awards in the same season.

The offense is anchored by a veteran offensive line that returns all but John Hoffing from the 2014 squad. Hoffing's replacement is true freshman John Keenoy from East Kentwood High School. Keenoy is a three star recruit - part of another one of WMU's top rated recruiting classes - and appears ready to step into the role of starting center on what is already one of the MAC's top offensive lines.

The passing attack returns the usual suspects as well. 65.6 percent of Zach Terrell's completions in 2014 went through either Corey Davis or Daniel Braverman, both of whom are back for 2015. This could very well be Davis' final season as a Bronco should he replicate or exceed production from the year before. Braverman adds a unique dynamic to the WMU offense, with the abilityto catch a large volume of passes out of the slot while also grabbing large chunks of yardage out of the backfield on jet sweep action.

Unknowns

WMU's secondary in 2015 is deep and talented, but contains the greatest number of question marks on a team that doesn't come with many. The unit is dealing with the departure of two key players to the NFL, Donald Celiscar and Justin Currie - to the Colts and Giants respectively - and will look to replace them with in a number of ways. Asantay Brown, a sophomore from Muskegon, MI, appears to be the front runner to replace Currie in the secondary. The former two star recruit was a standout wide receiver in high school who's primary duties quickly shifted to the safety position upon joining the WMU program. The offense to defense switch is a familiar theme in the WMU secondary this season, with The Broncos' third leading receiver from last season, Darius Phillips, making the switch to corner, filling the void left by Celiscar.

Phillips is the biggest unknown in the secondary. He is an exceptional athlete and will be able to run with some of the fastest players in the MAC, but time will tell if his technique can fill the shoes of a player that tied for the nation's lead in passes defended. Zamort will step into the primary corner role for WMU this season, where he will see the best receivers on each team week in and week out. He excelled in the role now filled by Phillips, and the big question is whether or not he is ready to shut down each opponent's primary receiving option.

TL;DR: Season Overview

The Broncos return a wealth of experience from a successful 2014. The faces are familiar on offense with Terrell, Davis, Braverman and Franklin leading the charge, and many expect the results to be familiar in the win column as well. The entire program is deep with talent, thanks to some stellar recruiting by the coaching staff, and that talent will have the opportunity to make a difference in what is a statement year for the program under head coach P.J. Fleck.