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2017 Way Too Early Predictions: Western Michigan Broncos

With the 2017 MAC schedule announced, we can now go through the defending MAC Champions’ slate to see if they have the chance to repeat

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Western Michigan at Ohio Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After an insanely historic 2016 for Western Michigan, 2017 has been incredibly tumultuous for the Broncos.

They suffered a heart-breaking loss in the Cotton Bowl, saw energetic head coach P.J. Fleck leave for Minnesota, and saw solid contributors like Butch Hampton and Robert Spillane leave the program (along with 9 recruits that followed Fleck to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”).

That said, this is still a very formidable team.

The run game retains its prolific one-two punch of Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan, the defense remains mostly intact outside of Spillane and Keion Adams, and Fleck’s recruiting prowess should still provide solid depth at all skill positions, even with first-year coach Tim Lester at the helm. So while the Broncos have to replace their entire passing offense - including the loss of All-American Corey Davis and four-year QB Zach Terrell - the odds for a solid season are high.

Soon, we’ll look at how the schedule might break out. Two years ago, I said 8-4 (6-2), and was pretty damn close (thanks, Georgia Southern). Last year, I said 10-1 with CMU being a toss-up, which is... funny in retrospect .

The lone loss? To Northwestern, “by a field goal.” Thanks to Spillane, I was wrong, but could’ve nearly hit the spread on the nail. It was a close game. Either way, I was pretty damn good other than overestimating the Chippewas.

This year? The outlook won’t be that bright. Everything that changed between seasons adds uncertainty to a more difficult schedule. Can Tim Lester keep the momentum up? Or do the Broncos start to fade back to obscurity? Let’s prognosticate:

Week 1 - Saturday, September 2nd - @ Southern Cal

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oy vey. This is a NY6 match-up, but only one of these teams will resemble the power they had on January 2nd. USC has a Heisman-esque QB in Sam Darnold, and a butt load of talent everywhere else. While Franklin and Bogan might be able to keep the possession numbers in WMU’s favor, I don’t see them upsetting the defending Rose Bowl Champs.

Prediction: Broncos lose.

Week 2 - Saturday, September 9th - @ Michigan State

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

How do you follow-up your coaching debut on the West Coast? With a trip to neighboring Sparty, of course!

This game is more tough to gauge. Mark Dantonio’s squad had a horrific season last year and looked like poo after beating an equally bad Notre Dame team in September. In fact, they would only win one game after that: against a horrible Rutgers team.

Now, can the Broncos win? Sure. But the Spartans will have something to prove, and LJ Scott will be back with a vengeance. This is the game that the Broncos will miss Spillane the most, as his box leadership would’ve been key in stopping this man.

Prediction: Broncos lose.

Week 3 - Saturday, September 16th - vs Idaho

NCAA Football: Idaho Potato Bowl-Idaho vs Colorado State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

No, U-dah-ho. (sorry, I had to)

So, uhhh, the Vandals are finishing off a home-and-home that started in Fleck’s 2nd season when he got his 2nd ever coaching victory in the Kibbie Dome. It’ll certainly be a game with some somber undertones; Fleck is gone, and Idaho is dropping to the FCS starting in 2018. That said, Idaho did go to a bowl game, so they aren’t a bad team. It’ll be interesting to se how Lester reacts to being at home as a head coach at his alma mater for the first time.

However, WMU should just simply be better. They have the talent, and the home-field advantage. Jarvion opens up his final season at Waldo with 100+ and a pair of scores.

Prediction: WMU wins.

Week 4 - Saturday, September 23rd - vs Wagner (FCS)

NCAA Football: Wagner at Brigham Young Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s not waste too much time here. The Seahawks were 6-5 last year, and upset FCS Playoff participant St. Francis to end the season, but they went 0-2 against some ugly FBS teams. As long as Lester doesn’t pull a Year One Fleck and lose, he’s fine by me.

Prediction: WMU wins handily.

Week 5 - Saturday, September 30th - vs Ball State

Western Michigan v Ball State Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The last two seasons, Western has absolutely destroyed Ball State. The main factor? Corey Davis.

The wide-out put up monster numbers on the Cardinals both years, while the Broncos put up 50 each game. Now, not only is Davis gone, but the guy who had to scheme against him will be on the other sideline as the Broncos hired Tim Daoust to be their defensive coordinator. Why? I have no idea.

This game should be really quick to watch. Between Franklin, Bogan, and James Gilbert, the MAC’s running-back showcase will be on display as we open conference play. But in the end, one of the QBs will have to make a play. Riley Neal was shaky at times last year in a sophomore slump, and I can’t trust him to do it over either Jon Wassink or a Flacco.

Prediction: Broncos win.

Week 6 - Saturday, October 7th - @ Buffalo

Buffalo v Western Michigan Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Buffalo is weird. They went 2-10 last year. They lost to Albany, but beat a decent Army team (then got pounded by Boston College a week later). They got shelled in the MAC East, but pounded preseason favorite Akron by three scores. Either way, Lance Leipold has to show he belongs with the big boys after jumping from D-III Wisconsin-Whitewater before the 2015 season.

As for who the Bulls have? I love Tyree Jackson. He has the build of Cam Newton, but is way more raw. If he can develop his decision making, and get some playmakers around him, he’s easily my pick for 2018 MAC Player of the Year.

But that’s next year. This year, he’s still got work to do, and the Broncos are still just too good. Weird things happen in Buffalo, but Western should come away with the win.

Prediction: Broncos win.

Week 7 - Saturday, October 14th - vs Akron (Homecoming)

Akron Scott Warren/BaldMonkeyPhoto

The Zips have dual-threat QB’s that can scare you. The way they were able to break down the Bronco defense last year made it seem like it should’ve been a game. But instead of putting together consistent drives, the Zips collapsed to the tune of their first-ever shutout in InfoCision Stadium.

What really killed Akron was the pounding they took on the ground. Jarvion Franklin went for 281 yards against the Zips. Not even two weeks later, Jordan Johnson put up 282 for Buffalo in a surprise win. Both are horrifying to happen that close together.

Prediction: Broncos win.

Week 8 - Saturday, October 21st - @ Eastern Michigan

Northern Illinois at Eastern Michigan Football - In Pictures Kenneth Bailey

Rivalry game. Probably the trophy game for the Michigan MAC, unless CMU can muster up anything against the other two directionals this year. And it’s in Ypsilanti. Oof.

Here’s the thing: Shaq Vann should be back and rearing to go this season. He was outstanding his freshman season as a compliment to Darius Jackson, and we all expected him to be top dog for the Eagles last year. Instead, he got hurt early in the season and didn’t play the entire MAC schedule.

Now, take a running-back like Vann, add the compliments in Ian Eriksen and Breck Turner, and put them behind a (what feels like) six year senior in Brogan Roback. What do you have? A pretty damn good offense.

Sure, the starting offensive line made up of literally all seniors graduates a bit of experience, but with the skill players the Eagles have, they are a solid bet to be scary good.

The key to this game is can Chris Creighton replace leaders like Daquan Pace and Pat O’Connor on defense? That’s tough to say, especially with how studly O’Connor was last year. By now, the new Bronco signal-caller should be set in the system, but if he’s not fully along, that screams bad news for WMU.

Prediction: Broncos lose on that weird Rynearson Stadium— err, Factory— magic late.

Week 9 - Break Time! (Bye)

Ok, so right now I have Western at 5-3 and 3-1 in the MAC. That’s pretty solid for a first year coach with the schedule he’s been given. But now he has to deal with something he really hasn’t seen all that much: #MACtion.

Call it what you want, say what you want about it, but the weeknight games are becoming more and more regular, as shown by the previous game being the last Saturday game on the schedule. In fact, while the Broncos prepare for their next opponent, the last Saturday game in the MAC will be played on October 28th. It is what it is, and it’s a different monster.

Week 10 - Wednesday, November 1st - vs Central Michigan

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Miami (Ohio) Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

You. Don’t. Lose. To. Central. At. Home.

PJ Fleck nearly beat the Chippewas in that 1-11 season with a horrible team (and he made up for it by never losing another Michigan MAC game the rest of his tenure). Bill Cubit won his first Central-Western game at home.

Gary Darnell won his first Central-Western game at home as well. So did Al Molde. You have to go back to Jack Harbaugh in 1983 to find the last WMU coach to lose to Central at home while having a winning record in his first CMU-WMU game at Waldo.

There is nothing to suggest this Bronco team can’t have a winning record. That’s why we’re here. The Chippewas lose Cooper Rush, and the Broncos lose Terrell and Friends. The Victory Cannon will likely stay in Kalamazoo for a 4th straight year, and for the 6th time in the last 7 years.

Prediction: Broncos win.

Week 11 - Wednesday, November 8th - vs Kent State (Senior Night)

NCAA Football: Kent State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Wait, what!?!?!?! Senior Night already? NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

You can harp on the MAC all you want for the weeknight games, but that’s exactly what the conference signed up for when they made their deal with the Devil (ESPN). However, putting senior night on the 8th day of November? Get the **** out.

I believe this senior group should’ve been awarded a chance sometime in the middle of the month to be recognized for all they’ve done. The 2016 seniors didn’t get to be recognized for their Cotton Bowl berth because it hadn’t happened yet. Same with the MAC Championship. These seniors experienced 3 straight bowl games, the program’s first bowl win, and the first ever (and thus best) ranking in WMU football history. All should be celebrated with great pomp and circumstance, even if on a Wednesday night?

But on the 8th? No. Just no.

As for the game? Nick Holley causes problems (see Akron and dual-threat QBs, but actually executed well). Mylik Mitchell, who showed flashes of prmise before injuring his hand against Alabama, and Antwan Dixon, who fought a blood disorder last season, should be fully healthy next season as well.

The defense is stellar, and I think Demetrius Monday will be in the NFL prospect talk by the time this game rolls around. But I think Jarvion Franklin and Darius Phillips put on a show in their last dance in Waldo. It won’t be the prettiest game, but it should be a win.

Prediction: Broncos win on a late score.

Week 12 - Wednesday, November 15th - @ Northern Illinois

NCAA Football: Toledo at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Who will be QB for the Huskies next year? Do they continue to trend downward in Rod Carey’s tenure, or do they fix the issues that prevented them from a 7th straight MAC West Championship? Big, big questions.

Gone are Anthony Maddie, Kenny Golladay, and Joel Bouagnon. As are key players in a defense that was once feared. But there is something about Dekalb that makes me think the Huskies take this game. It’ll have been 10 years since the Broncos beat NIU at Huskie Stadium, and I think they’ll have to wait at least 2 more. I just can’t see Carey being that bad of a coach.

Yes, I can hear you from DeKalb, Huskie fans.

Prediction: Broncos lose.

Week 13 - Friday, November 24th - @ Toledo

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Appalachian State vs Toledo Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

So not only does WMU have to have Senior Night on the 8th, but they have to finish their season with trips to DeKalb and Toledo? Seems legit.

Really, I like the Toledo/WMU game on Black Friday. The past two seasons have seen Top 25 teams host solid their MAC West brethren. Both times, WMU prevailed. But this Bronco team doesn’t have the firepower to purely out-gun the Rockets. If Toledo has a healthy Logan Woodside, it’s hard to think he doesn’t exorcise the demons from the past two disappointments in a game that might decide whether Toledo finally gets to Detroit.

Candle finally gets the Rockets over the hump, and Cody Thompson has a solid game as he gets the insurance touchdown late.

Prediction: Broncos lose.

So let’s review. 7-5, with a 5-3 mark in the MAC. No repeat, but with all the turnover between the coaching staff (which was completely redone), the players (you don’t replace a Corey Davis), and the recruits, I’ll take it.

A 7-5 record still earns a bowl bid, and I think WMU can win it with some extra time to prepare an offensive gameplan.

Maybe this is a conservative approach. Do the Eagles really have enough to get past WMU? Can NIU and MSU rebound that much against a still highly skilled and deep WMU team? Do the Rockets get over their MAC West curse?

On the flipside, how much does losing Spillane hurt in games like Akron or Kent State, where you have QBs who can break down the play and hurt you with their legs? It’s just very hard to judge with the turnover.

It’s not unreasonable to think the Broncos can repeat. It’s not unreasonable to think they can’t win 10+ games again next year. If Lester can get his system and QB in place, the talent Fleck recruited over the past 3+ years can be enough to keep Western Michigan on the throne. But for me, 7-5 is where I think a guy like Lester finishes in his first year.

Curb your expectations for now, but expect to be back in contention next season.