The Western Michigan Broncos head to their 7th bowl game in program history when they take on the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders in the Bahamas on Christmas Eve. This is the first time in school history the Broncos are participating in consecutive bowl games and are hoping to gain the program's bowl win.
WMU comes into the game with a 7-5 record, going 6-2 in MAC play (good enough for a share of the West Division title), while Middle Tennessee has the exact same overall and conference record coming out of the Conference USA East Division.
Who'd these two play this year?
MTSU played a few power-5 conference teams this year, dropping games to Alabama, Illinois, and Vanderbilt. The best win for the Blue Raiders came against the Marshall Thundering Herd, a 27-24, triple overtime contest. That game would be Middle Tennessee's only win over a team that ended up with a record over .500.
Western also played some power teams in the non-conference slate, losing to Michigan State and Ohio State. The Broncos knocked off both Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan to take the Michigan-MAC trophy as well. The most impressive win of the year was in the season finale against Toledo, in which Western won on the road 35-30, securing the team's first ever win against a top-25 opponent. With a win over Ohio in October to boot, the Broncos ended up with three wins against teams over .500 on the year.
Let's get some stats.
Offensively, the Broncos have produced more yards per game (481) than Middle Tennessee (459) but the teams average almost the same scoring output. Western is tallying 35.3 points per game, while the Blue Raiders average 34.3 points.
Of note in this game is third down efficiency. The Broncos are converting 47.5 percent of third downs (12th best in the nation), while the Blue Raiders are getting the first only 42.6 percent of the time on third down.
Middle Tennessee has allowed fewer yards to opposing teams on the year, however. MTSU gives up 388 yards per game, to the Broncos 411. Neither of these teams has had amazing defensive success, so this game might be a track meet.
Passing yards all over the place.
Middle Tennessee has been hashtag-blessed with an incredible freshman talent in WR Richie James. James has 100 receptions on the year for 1,220 yards, along with 6 touchdowns. Those 1,220 yards are 11th best in the nation.
But guess who are 9th and 10th in receiving yards? That would be WMU's Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis, respectively. Braverman has 1,266 yards on 103 receptions while Davis has 1,253 yards on 82 receptions. As we've come to know this year, Braverman is the Broncos' quick-strike threat while Davis is dangerous receiving the deep-ball.
Give me a reason Western will lose.
Normally this year we might worry about the Broncos' rush defense, but against Middle Tennessee that's not as much of an issue. The Blue Raiders are 96th in the nation in rushing, so Western should be able to handle that. The Bronco secondary will be tested however, with the aforementioned Richie James and Middle Tennessee's 18th best passing attack, nationally.
If Zach Terrell and the Bronco offense make a few missteps for some reason and the Blue Raiders have continued successes through the air, the Broncos won't be able to keep up.
Give me a reason Western will win.
In general, I think the Broncos have been more successful over the course of the season. WMU has had more quality wins this year, especially the Toledo win in November. That was an incredibly influential win for the program, and not just because the Rockets were ranked at the time.
The Broncos had to stick tough in a game against a MAC West power, on the road, when Toledo had a trip to the championship to play for. In recent history, that's a game that Western usually loses. That game was the signature win in the P.J. Fleck regime and I think it shows that the program is progressing upward. The next step in this progression is a bowl win, which I think the Broncos get at the Bahamas Bowl.
And from a strategic standpoint, Western seems to be a more complete team. The Broncos have strong passing and rushing offenses (with Bogan-Franklin-Bellamy trio) while MTSU relies heavily on passing. Since stumbling against Bowling Green, the Western defense has performed quite well. I think the Western defense will give Terrell and company plenty of opportunities to get on the field and win this for Western.
Bonus trivia time!
With this game, the Broncos will be the most well-traveled MAC school by becoming the first team in the conference to play a game in two countries outside the United States. You'll remember that back in 2007, the Broncos played Cincinnati in Toronto. The Broncos also join just Notre Dame and Navy as the only schools to play twice overseas in the past 20 years. Passport U, y'all. Also, if you're looking for a reason to hate MTSU, remember they're basically just the Central of a different state.