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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Western Michigan Broncos

Will the Broncos live up to their lofty expectations?

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Toledo Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After back to back 8-5 seasons, Western Michigan enters 2016 the favorites to win the MAC. Being the favorite in a world where NIU’s dominance is well documented is dangerous territory, but the Broncos have plenty of talent to try and make good on this promise of a banner year. Nothing about a MAC West schedule should be perceived as "easy," though the Broncos have been gifted a pretty favorable road all things considered. Both the Huskies and the Toledo Rockets come to Kalamazoo this season, and the friendly confines of Waldo Stadium could prove the difference in ending the MAC football championship drought in Kalamazoo.

The Broncos will be led by a senior quarterback in Zach Terrell, and a potential All American wide receiver Corey Davis. The defensive side of the football appears far healthier than a year before, and should it stay that way could be a pretty dangerous unit. The Bronco program under P.J. Fleck has gone through an extensive and highly publicized culture change. There’s just one thing left to do for the change to come full circle as a winning culture, and that’s fill a very large void in the Broncos’ trophy case.

Five players to watch

Corey Davis, WR, #84

Davis could be the best receiver in the entire country, and at the very least in the top 10. The Journey for the former two star recruit out of Illinois is nearing the end of its WMU phase, and it could be a special year for the NFL-bound star. Davis needs 73 catches, 410 yards and 15 touchdowns to be the all time MAC leader in each of those categories. For perspective, he’s caught 15 touchdowns once before in a season, and has caught a progressively greater number of passes each year - he caught 89 in 2015. Davis’ worst statistical season featured 941 yards receiving.

Jamauri Bogan, RB, #32

The MAC Freshman of the Year award was well earned by Bogan in 2015. The redshirt freshman rushed for over one thousand yards and added 16 touchdowns in his rookie campaign to take home the award - and he did it all on 6.5 yards per carry. Bogan will lead a backfield that includes 2014’s MAC Freshman of the Year recipient, Jarvion Franklin, making it one of the more talented units in the entire MAC.

Robert Spillane, LB, #10

Spillane was an impact freshman in WMU’s breakout 2014 season. He appeared in 11 games and recorded 67 total tackles and four sacks on a defense that recorded just seven sacks the year before. Spillane was due for a big sophomore season, but played in only eight games due to injury. This year, number 10 anchors the middle of a linebacker group that should be much improved despite the loss of Grant DePalma to graduation, and if healthy could be one of the best middle linebackers in the MAC.

Darius Phillips, CB, #4

There may not be a more dynamic player on the WMU roster than Phillips. After being the team’s third leading wide receiver in 2014, Phillips was asked to switch to the other side of the ball. While he was not the most technically sound corner in the league, he certainly had a knack for getting to the football, hauling in five interceptions. His presence is also felt heavily in special teams, where he has the ability to change the game in a matter of seconds with the football in his hands.

Can’t miss games

September 17th @ Illinois

The Broncos haven’t defeated a team from a Power Five conference since beating Illinois at Ford Field in 2008. The Illini have a first year head coach, which still means something even if it is Lovie Smith, and the Broncos have a ton of stability going into P.J. Fleck’s fourth year. This is as good a chance as any to get a win over Big Ten competition.

October 1st @ Central Michigan

If the MAC West is to run through Kalamazoo for the first time since 2000, the Broncos have to take care of business in Mount Pleasant, first. It will be no easy task. John Bonamego had his Chippewa team, led by Cooper Rush, playing far above expectations in 2015, and they are expected to be even better this year. Everyone is gunning for NIU’s spot in the MAC Championship Game, and the loser of this game will almost certainly be watching like the rest of us.

October 8th vs Northern Illinois

WMU probably should have beaten the Huskies the last two years, but NIU didn’t win six straight division titles in a world of should haves. If the Broncos let this game slip away for a third straight year, they are all but eliminated from MAC West contention. It’s probably not the best to declare anything MAC football related "over" in early October, but the game on the 8th could end up deciding who wins the MAC Championship. Although, Toledo may have something to say about that.

November 25th vs Toledo

If things go as planned for the Broncos, they should be cruising into the final week of the season with an opportunity at a double digit win total and a berth in championship game at Ford Field. All that should stand in their way is a talented team looking to improve their bowl position following a disappointing finish in the MAC West standings. Now where have we heard that before? This was the scenario for the Rockets just a season ago when the Broncos played spoiler and handed NIU another division title. No doubt Toledo will have some revenge on its mind.

Three ways the season is a success

The Michigan MAC trophy renews its lease in Kalamazoo

WMU hasn’t lost to either of their directional Michigan counterparts since the dismal 2013 season, and has beaten Central Michigan specifically four of the last five seasons. It goes without saying that a loss to either of these two schools pretty much ends all hope for a championship banner, and weakens WMU’s grip on the Mitten State.

Finally beat Northern Illinois

The Huskies are usually good for a weird loss early in conference play, so the Broncos don’t necessarily have to win on October 8th provided they can get some help from elsewhere in the division. But this sort of hope is neither a winning strategy, or the right way for the dethroning of a champion to occur, historically. If there’s a torch to be passed, and rest assured NIU fans believe there isn’t, it’s only fair that WMU earns it by beating the Huskies.

Win the MAC Championship

It’s banners or bust time in Kalamazoo. The expectations surrounding the 2016 team have been building for awhile ever since the first of the Fleck era recruits started showing up to camp. This is a different program now than it was under Bill Cubit, and it has a different identity altogether. However, if this new culture doesn’t become a winning one, namely, a championship winning one, the whole process will quickly be deemed a failure.

Two things to watch

Replacing Daniel Braverman

Braverman is a newly minted Chicago Bear now, which means he and his 100 plus catches reside in Chicago and not Kalamazoo. A story to watch all season long is how or with whom the coaching staff plans to fill this Braverman vacuum, an impossible task considering the unique style of play number eight brought to the table. Could Michael Henry, the senior from Flint, MI, finally take a leap into the number two spot? Could Carrington Thompson or LeVante Bellamy be the answer? There’s no shortage of good athletes on this WMU roster, but a surplus of players like Daniel Braverman simply does not exist.

Can Zach Terrell elevate his game?

No preview is complete without first talking about the young man at the center of all the Broncos’ offensive success, Zach Terrell. The senior from Fort Wayne has improved every year since taking over under center for WMU, but the questions surrounding his play will all focus on just how much better he can really get? He was outstanding in 2014 and 2015, posting nearly identical seasons as one of the MAC’s best passers, but his performance in big games will go a long way towards WMU’s pursuit of a championship.

Terrell’s game often slips into a Jekyll and Hyde feel in certain, bigger games, and his poor performances have had the misfortune of being exceptionally poor. Against Bowling Green a year ago, going up against the dynamic Matt Johnson, Terrell had one of his worst performances of the year, throwing zero touchdowns to one interception. If the best of Terrell shows up week to week against the league’s best defenses, a MAC West crown should go along with it.

Bold prediction

WMU, MAC Champions

Recruiting matters. The Broncos’ top recruits haven’t all ended up on the field, and many are currently no longer with the program, but the talent pool is still strong enough that 2016 should be the banner year fans were promised when P.J. Fleck took over. It takes time for success on the recruiting trail to become championship success on the field, and this is the year it comes full circle. If the Broncos fail to win a MAC title, it certainly won’t be for a lack of overall talent, as it hasn’t been for the previous two seasons. The schedule is favorable, the team appears to be healthy, and the core of the coaching staff is still in place after four years. The Fleck era at WMU has been a slow build to this season, and I think a ten game win streak sandwiched between losses to Northwestern and Toledo should do nicely for the Broncos, who have been kept waiting far too long for a MAC title.