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Western Michigan's season in review: A huge step towards legitimacy

After a huge jump last year for the Broncos, P.J. Fleck's team took an even bigger one this past year, though you probably didn't notice as much.

Andrew Weber/Getty Images

When PJ Fleck took over a WMU program that had consistently been middle-of-the-pack under Bill Cubit, there were questions about what exactly he could do.  After his first year ended 1-11 with a loss to lowly Nichols State, the questions became, "how far will the program sink".  Now, after back-to-back 8-5 seasons, the questions have turned to "how high can they go?"

Sure, 8-5 isn't great.  However, when you compare last year's team to this year's, there is no comparison.  The 2014 Broncos were young and unprepared, but faced a slew a weak opponents, with varying results.  This year's team finished with the same record despite a grueling slate of games.  Let's take a look back.

Overall Schedule Performance

Again, 8-5 isn't great.  But when you look at the losses, it's hard to be that upset.  Two home losses to a playoff team and the conference champion are respectable.  Three road losses to the defending National Champion, defending MAC Champion (and eventual MAC West winner), and a solid Sun Belt team that waxed the MAC champs in their bowl game are somewhat understandable.  Overall, here's how it broke down.

Sept. 4 vs #5 Michigan State L, 24-37
Sept. 12 @ Georgia Southern L, 17-43
Sept. 19 vs Murray State W, 52-20
Sept. 26 @ #1 Ohio State L, 12-38
Oct. 10 vs Central Michigan W, 41-39
Oct. 17 @ Ohio W, 49-14
Oct. 24 vs Miami W, 35-13
Oct. 29 @ Eastern Michigan W, 58-28
Nov. 5 vs Ball State W, 54-7
Nov. 11 vs Bowling Green L, 27-41
Nov. 18 @ Northern Illinois L, 19-27
Nov. 27 @ #24 Toledo W, 35-30
Dec. 24 vs Middle Tennessee State W, 45-31

First bowl win?  Check.  First win over a Top 25 opponent?  Check.  First divisional crown* in 15 years?  Check.  The Broncos had another impressive win streak in MAC play, following up their 6-winner last year with a 5-win streak this year.  Now, for some awards:

Best Win of the Year: Toledo
There's some solid runners-up, but whenever you can break a 17 game streak (that's how many games Toledo had won over the Michigan MAC schools), it's impressive.  Even more, the Broncos did this on the road against a Top 25 team that was gunning for both a MAC Championship game appearance and a long-shot chance at the G5 Champion spot that eventually was awarded to Houston.  Honorable Mention:  Middle Tennessee State, Central Michigan, Ohio

Worst Loss of the Year: NIU
This was a close one, but the NIU game hurts a lot more than the shelling handed out by Georgia Southern back in September.  For starters, this was a conference game.  Add in the fact that the Huskies were severely wounded coming into this game (QB Drew Hare and WR Tommylee Lewis were both injured two weeks prior in a game against Toledo), and you have a tough loss.  Now, compound that with the fact that NIU ended up winning the West thanks to this game, even after they got blasted by an Ohio team that the Broncos destroyed in October, and it's the one game that got away.  Honorable Mention:  Georgia Southern

"Bring Dat Azz Here Boyyyy" game of the Year: Ball State
Usually, this should be reserved for the FCS opponent or EMU.  Hell, even CMU could get this award, but they put up a helluva fight when they were expected to be bad (they actually turned out to be a pretty solid team).  However, Ball State came to Kalamazoo and got pantsed.  Ab-sol-ute-ly pantsed.  On national TV.  How bad was it?  WMU had a 40-0 lead before the Cardinals put together their lone scoring drive, and the total yards are laughable:  711-152.  Both those numbers are records for the WMU program.  Honorable Mention:  The 2nd half of the Ohio game, 2nd half of EMU game

The "Shawn Michaels" Award (Most Entertaining Game): Central Michigan
Shut up.  I could've picked a couple other games, but this game had everything.  CMU was coming off a huge win over NIU and the Broncos were coming off a bye week.  WMU jumped out to an early lead, but the Chippewas came back and made it very close.  However, as the Chippewas scored with 8 minutes to go to make it the highest scoring game in the rivalry's history, the Broncos put on an absolutely ball control show by not giving the ball back.  The game was over when Zach Terrell hit Corey Davis on a "go get it" ball on 4th down.  That's how you win a rivalry game.  Honorable Mention:  Bahamas Bowl, Michigan State, Toledo

Offensive Breakdown

Hmm, where do we start?  Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman had huge seasons, combining for over 2,700 yards with neither having that much of an upper hand on the other.  That is in part to Zach Terrell's continued numbers from the QB position.  Terrell now owns the top two seasons in terms of passing percentage in WMU history.  He's on track to finish with the best career average should he not fall off next year, and is closing in on the WMU career yardage record as well.

Meanwhile, Davis will return as the FBS leader in career receiving yards and receiving TDs.  He'll have a very decent shot to knock off Greg Jennings and Jordan White for a plethora of WMU and MAC records, with Braverman declaring for the NFL Draft back in December.  Michael Henry will be an early candidate to compliment the senior, as he had a solid year in relief action, averaging 13.7 yards/catch while not being a featured wide-out.

However, the true genius of the offense is the emergence of a three-headed monster at running-back.  Reigning MAC Player of the Year (and Freshman of the Year) Jarvion Franklin was held primarily in check.  He may have been in the doghouse a bit due to his fumbles, but that opened the door for Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy to emerge as the "wind" and "fire" to his "earth".

Bogan won Freshman of the Year after dominating MAC play.  He finished the year with 1051 yards and 16 touchdowns, and back-to-back 1,000 yard rushers for WMU is something nobody saw coming from the Cubit years.  Franklin finished with just 735 yards and 5 touchdowns, but still was able to run over people like he did last year, with the proof being his complete demolition of a CMU defender.  Bellamy showed his flashes of speed in limited action, but still finished with 493 yards.

Defensive Breakdown

The Bronco defense regressed a bit following a stellar 2014 showing.  However, that could be attributed to a few factors:  youth, injuries, and a tougher schedule.  Using MAC-only rankings, you can see this in full force.

Due to injuries to the linebacking corps, the Broncos' run defense fell to 9th best in the MAC.  However, where there is that downfall, you can also see the emergence of a few new faces.  Caleb Bailey was able to have a solid year, finishing with a team-high 12 tackles for loss.  Additionally, Keion Adams added 10 more and Robert Spillane had 5.5, despite only playing in 8 games.  A core of Bailey, Adams, and Spillane are set to return, with Grant DePalma departing due to graduation.

In the secondary, the story is the emergence of Darius Phillips and Asantay Brown.  Phillips led the team with 21 passes defended, including a team-high 5 interceptions.  With an off-season to work on his coverage skills, he will undoubtedly be CB1 next year.  Brown filled the role of "do-it-all" safety, with a team-high 103 tackles on the year.  He also broke up 7 passes, including two picks.  While Rontavious Atkins and Ronald Zamort will be missed due to their experience and numbers (129 tackles, 29 passes defended combined), they aren't entirely irreplaceable, having helped lead the 4th best passing secondary in the MAC.

Special Teams

Where to start?  Let's go with Andrew Haldeman.  After a poor first five games, the senior came on strong to finish with incredible numbers.  He led the MAC in scoring with 9.5 points/game in MAC play, and hit 77% of his field goals on the year, with just one miss after his first kick against the Chippewas.  He will depart with J Schroeder, who had an average of 41 yards/punt, and was the 3rd best punter in MAC play.

However, the emergence of Darius Phillips in the return game is impressive as well.  His coming out against Michigan State was incredible, returning a kick 100 yards for a touchdown after a 70 yarder the kick before.  His 23.1 yards/return was 4th in the MAC, and if he can work on his decision making (i.e. don't run backwards), he could be the deadliest return man in the conference next year.

Next Year's Prospectus

Well, we know the opponents, so let's break it down:

Home - TBA (presumed FCS opponent), Georgia Southern, EMU, Toledo, NIU, Buffalo
Away - Illinois, Northwestern, CMU, Kent State, Ball State, Akron

Can the Broncos get to 10 wins?  They have to replace James Kristof and Willie Beavers on the offensive line.  While Kristof hurts, his injury early in the year proves the Broncos had enough depth to still compete despite not having him.  Replacing Beavers should be easy enough given the growth of the line under Fleck's tenure thus far.

Losing Braverman also hurts, but could Henry or even Tom Flacco replace him?  What about adding a third option in the passing game to compliment Davis and a speed guy (say, Kadeem Goulbourne)?  However, the main question around the offense will be how the offense performs after losing a stud position coach in Mike Hart, who turned the running back core into a three-headed monster.  Still, the backs should be good enough to continue to open up the passing game for Terrell and Davis, two of the MAC's best at their positions.

On the defensive side, we've seen how injuries have opened the way for more youth.  The "box" players (linebackers and defensive linemen) stepped up and should be even better next year with the added experience.  The key will be how the secondary holds up.  Adams took a big step this year, but Phillips still needs some grooming to be CB1.  Also, can Justin Tranquill stay healthy to be a solid second safety option?  And who will be CB2?

As for special teams, the kicking and punting positions will be wide-open next year.  Who will win them is anyone's guess, but they will likely be freshman who have to prove their worth against a pair of Big Ten opponents early on.

Still, when you break down the schedule, a 2-2 non-conference start isn't out of the question.  The Eagles replace their head coach and the Broncos should look for revenge after what happened in Greensboro this past season.  Speaking of revenge, a meeting with Bill Cubit is going to be straight-up exciting to see if this team can be a G5 Champion contender.  The Northwestern game will be extremely difficult, and a perfect game would need to be played for WMU to come out on top.

Turning to the MAC, they get a inconsistent Buffalo team, a Kent State team that had no evidence of an offense, and a strong Akron team next year in their cross-over games.  3-0 would be ideal, but a 2-1 record wouldn't be entirely surprising given how Terry Bowden has turned Akron around in recent years.  Add in a win over EMU, because LOLZ EMU, and a rebuilding Ball State team, and you have 4-5 wins in the MAC before you breakdown the final three opponents.

Toledo and CMU will be incredibly difficult games.  Even with Matt Campbell gone, the Rockets return a good amount of their team, including Kareem Hunt.  The Chippewas were stout defensively, and Cooper Rush returns for one more chance to knock the Broncos off at home, where CMU hasn't won over WMU since 2010.  NIU limps into the off-season, but the six-time defending MAC West Champs can never be taken lightly.  With the UT and NIU games at home, a 2-1 stretch could be expected.  Additionally, expect these three games to be back-to-back-to-back due to the MAC wanting max exposure from their ESPN time, with the CMU game likely on Black Friday.

So a 10-win season will be tough.  It would surely require a 3-1 non-conference stretch, or another bowl win.  Getting to the MAC Championship will require at least 7 wins, which is within reason given the Broncos' rise in recent years and their stability in the offense and defense, coupled with an easier schedule than years' past.

Next year should be the Broncos' year.  Can they take it?  We'll find out in just over 8 long months.