I am not elite, I settle for things every once in a while. Right before I figured out what I was going to write, I had a box of mac & cheese where the noodles were in shapes of Spongebob Squarepants characters. It takes seven minutes to make and seven seconds to devour. All a quick process to get to a moderately-satisfying end goal. If I were elite, I wouldn’t have purchased Kraft in the first place. It’s low-risk, low-reward, and I know I could’ve had a better meal had I made the process even more worth my while. My body is making a weird noise and I can’t stop thinking that I could’ve treated myself with more care for preparation and execution. If I even wanted to reach my goal of losing a few pounds around the waist (and other parts of my body), I would take every meal more seriously than this one and make each one matter.
Imagine this: a school from the Group of 5 being recognized as one of the top four teams in the country at the end of the season. Western Michigan’s head coach P.J. Fleck wants to live in that world, as he should. Moreover, he doesn’t want to just be one of the four, he wants to have the best damn team of them all. College players have a very short self life as, well, college kids, and they may as well spend those years with a man whose commitment go farther than winning home games, a conference title, and a bowl game. Western fans want 2016 to be a dominant season and this week when the media polls are released, we should expect this team to be favorites to stop Northern Illinois’s 6-year streak of winning the division, and we can also assume that WMU will be favorites to win the MAC title. But for Fleck, it’s not about winning it in 2016 and instantly start smelling the roses, because he needs a dominant 2016 to be elite in following seasons.
The Broncos are coming off of another 8-win season, monumental for the program. WMU has had their fair share of winning seasons, but they’ve never reached eight wins in back-to-back seasons until last year. And that happened with the exclamation point that they’ve failed to stamp in their six previous chances: winning a bowl game. Christmas Eve 2015, the Broncos fought on, beating Middle Tennessee 45-31.
When Fleck took over as the youngest head coach at the FBS level in December 2012, Western Michigan was in a tough spot. The Broncos had just fired Bill Cubit after a home loss to Eastern Michigan and Kalamazoo needed a team to be proud of again, having won the division since 2000. It would be a process, but with the new head coach and athletic department working together. Row The Boat is a thing, F.A.M.I.L.Y. is synonymous for teamwork, and whether the backers or antagonists appreciate these or not, prospects inherited the sui generis philosophies and fill up a roster that’ll be expected to go to Ford Field for the MAC Championship game for the first time in school history.
And win it.
All of this is no accident. The fact that Fleck is an extroverted 35-year old with the refusal to live in the reality that we’ve repeatedly painted for him to stay grounded and live in stands on its own. Every team searches high and low for great high school boys to develop into excellent football players over the course of 4-5 years, while being upstanding citizens, being progressively selfless through community service, and not lose sight about the importance of a college degree. He’s found talent time and time again, and the players he’s gotten to proudly don the Brown and Gold aren’t preaching the gospel of Row The Boat with a fake smile.
"The Broncos program is a brotherhood program, it’s bigger than football, teaching you life lessons and is big on setting your future up in the long run besides football. Coach Fleck is an energizer bunny somewhat like me, he's a people person and is concerned about bettering and preparing you for life. I have a season ahead, but I’m looking forward to beating USC at USC my freshman year." -Reyondous Estes, 2017 QB (WMU commit); via 247Sports.com
247Sports currently has WMU as the no. 35 recruiting class in the nation for 2017. That’s a big step up from 2013 when he only had a couple of months to work with where the Broncos were ranked 112 in the nation including 2-star prospect Corey Davis. Three recruiting cycles later, Fleck and his staff has owned the Mid-American Conference in bringing the best collection of athletes to his program, and now it’s time to put it all on the field.
After a close game at Michigan State, WMU couldn’t even get a win at home against Murray State, finishing Fleck’s first season with only one win to show for; cue the antagonists. That didn’t stop WMU from continuing to build a better schedule in non-conference action. They’ve hosted Michigan State last year, then went on the road to face then-defending national champions Ohio State, and prominent G5 squad Georgia Southern. This year, they’re at Northwestern and host Georgia Southern, and will have to go on the road in 2017 to face USC and MSU.
Last year they played well, but didn’t beat those tough teams outside of the MAC. And while they’re working to make weekends in September more exciting in the future, making strides into being elite can’t be made if these games aren’t won. Moral victories shouldn’t be enough.
Then of course, we have the conference slate. Last year, they lost to Northern Illinois late in the game, which ended any chance that they had in reaching the MAC Championship. In the following week, they closed out the regular season with a 35-30 win at Toledo, spoiling the Rockets' chances at going to the big game and potentially a New Year's Day bowl game. Those two teams will be at Waldo Stadium this year. They also host Eastern Michigan and Buffalo, while they have road games at Central Michigan (whose odds of winning the West should not be taken lightly), Akron, Ball State and Kent State.
Bronco fans and college football fans that like to peek into the conference will be rocking in their seats, hand under thighs, to see if the most hyped up team in the MAC can do what the crystal ball has foretold. They have a superstar receiver in Corey Davis that could be a first round pick in the next NFL Draft. Zach Terrell has been one of the MAC's best quarterbacks and could receive more praise from scouts than we remember. There's a defense that has young, excellent talent. Even their special teams can be exciting to witness with speedy Darius Phillips receiving the kicks.
This is the fun G5 team to watch in 2016, because of how much they haven't done in recent memory, how talented and deep of a roster that they have, how absolutely nail-biting the MAC West race has been year after year, Corey Davis is a Rushmore athlete for the program and you might as well watch him in college while you still have the chance, and, well, P.J. Fleck.