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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 115: Central Michigan

Twenty teams won at least 10 games in 2009; four of the 20 didn’t return to bowl play in 2010. One was Texas, with the Longhorns’ fall garnering attention for the speed with which the team went from conference leader to afterthought. No one team in the F.B.S., however, fall as far and as fast as Central Michigan, which went from MAC powerhouse to MAC whipping-boy in a span of 12 months. MAC opponents came out of the woodwork to take the Chippewas down a peg, making up for time lost during the program’s four-year run as conference bully. Similar glee was found in the Big 12, which largely views U.T. as over-spoiled by a league tilted in its favor, but there’s one difference: Texas will bounce back. Few can say the same with confidence about Central Michigan.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Mount Pleasant, Mich.

Nickname
Chippewas

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 82

2010 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 106

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    South Carolina St.
  • Sept. 10
    at Kentucky
  • Sept. 17
    at Western Michigan
  • Sept. 24
    at Michigan St.
  • Oct. 1
    Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 8
    at N.C. St.
  • Oct. 15
    Eastern Michigan
  • Oct. 22
    at Ball St.
  • Oct. 29
    at Akron
  • Nov. 4
    at Kent St.
  • Nov. 10
    Ohio
  • Nov. 18
    Toledo

Last year’s prediction

There is simply too much to be worried about. Most distressing is the loss of significant pieces on offense — and that might be putting it lightly. Even if Butch Jones had remained, giving the program a sense of continuity, the Chippewas would struggle mightily replacing LeFevour, Anderson and Brown. Schroeder’s unexpected departure also stings, though C.M.U. will have a far easier replacing him than the previous trio. The defense is terrific at linebacker, but there exist question marks on the defensive line and, to a lesser degree, in the secondary. Those hoping for the Chippewas to drop off the map — the rest of the MAC, for instance — will be disappointed: this team remains a threat in the West division. Yet I don’t think we’ll see this team repeat as division champs, let alone return to bowl play: I’d be happy with five wins, four of which come in conference play.

2010 recap

In a nutshell What happened to Central Michigan? Here’s one thought: the magic couldn’t last, and two coaching changes was enough to bring the finest stretch in program history to an end. That absolves Dan Enos of any blame, however, while giving little credit to his predecessor, Butch Jones, who in some ways not only maintained what Brian Kelly built in Mount Pleasant but took it to another level. Yes, the Chippewas lost a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, most notably at quarterback, but there was no way to think this team would play so poorly. Three wins, one against F.C.S. competition, with those two F.B.S. victories standing as the fewest in a single season since 2003 – the last time, prior to 2010, that the Chippewas were led by a coach hired away from the Big Ten.

High point A 26-22 win against Western Michigan on Nov. 5 was nice, seeing that it came over a rival and snapped a six-game losing streak. For a complete performance, take a look at a 52-14 victory over Eastern Michigan: 269 yards rushing, 254 yards passing, 7.6 yards per play and only a single turnover. Commonplace from 2006-9, you wouldn’t see that type of offensive production often in 2010.

Low point Two hideous home losses. The first, a 31-17 decision to Ball State on the first Saturday of October, dropped the Chippewas to 2-3 overall. The second, a 17-14 loss to Bowling Green, gave the Falcons their only MAC win of the year while dropping C.M.U. to 2-7.

Tidbit In 2005, Brian Kelly’s second team scored 260 points while allowing 260 points, for a plus-minus scoring differential of yes, you guessed it, zero. Central Michigan was just the second MAC team of the modern era – since 1936 – to do so, joining Western Michigan, which scored and allowed 210 points in 1989. A few others have come close, including those same Broncos, who scored 128 points and gave up 127 in 1965. Also close: Temple scored 240 and allowed 241 in 1968, Northern Illinois scored 60 and allowed 59 in 1936 and Kent State scored 114 and gave up 113 in 1942.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Central Michigan is one of four teams in the F.B.S. currently slated to play 12 games over a 12-week span in 2011. Can you name the other three? Hint: only one of the remaining threesome plays in a B.C.S. conference.

Teams already spoken for: none.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), CB Josh Gordy (Green Bay), TE Tory Humphrey (New Orleans), DE Cullen Jenkins (Green Bay), QB Dan LeFevour (Cincinnati), OT Joe Staley (San Francisco), LB Frank Zombo (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

College Football Hall of Fame class of 2007
1. Coach Joe Paterno, Penn State.
2. QB Doug Flutie, Boston College.
3. RB Anthony Thompson, Indiana.
4. QB Rex Kern, Ohio State.
5. LB Richard Wood, U.S.C.

Coaching

Dan Enos (Michigan State ’91), 3-9 after one season. Does blame for the slide all fall on Enos’s plate? Much of it has to be due to his coaching decisions, one of which — scrapping the spread — seems ridiculous in hindsight. What about his background, which remains largely unknown even after his year in charge? Enos is a former Michigan State quarterback and assistant with deep ties to the state of Michigan. As the Michigan State quarterback from 1989-90, Enos led the Spartans to 16 wins and a share of the Big Ten championship as a senior. His coaching career, not surprisingly, began at Michigan State, where Enos served as a graduate assistant under George Perles, his college coach, from 1991-93 before taking a position at tiny Lakeland College in 1994. After two seasons at Lakeland – holding a number of positions – Enos moved to the F.C.S. level,where he coached from 1996-99. Enos landed his first taste of major college football during three seasons at Western Michigan (2000-2), again as quarterbacks coach. His big break came following the 2003 season – which Enos spent as the offensive coordinator at North Dakota State – when he was tabbed by then-new hire Mark Dantonio as the quarterbacks coach at Cincinnati. After two years with the Bearcats, Enos moved to his his alma mater; he beat Dantonio there by a year, as his former boss at Cincinnati became his boss at Michigan State prior to the 2007 season. Though he had been the quarterbacks coach in 2006, Enos coached the running backs from 2007-9. Now he’s at C.M.U., and under the microscope as never before. Can Enos deliver?

Tidbit (coaching edition) Central Michigan made two coaching changes of consequence on the offensive side of the ball. The first was naming former Miami (Ohio) assistant Morris Watts as the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. In that latter title, Watts will work closely with offensive coordinator Mike Cummings in formulating a game plan well suited to C.M.U.’s offensive talent. The second addition was former Purdue great Taylor Stubblefield, who will coach the wide receivers – that’s not surprising, considering Stubblefield ended his career with the Boilermakers as the N.C.A.A.’s all-time leader in receptions with 325. He carries plenty of name value, which could help the Chippewas in recruiting.

Players to watch

The offense goes through junior quarterback Ryan Radcliffe. He’s poised for a big year, and not only because he’ll be throwing in the second half of games throughout the season. Radcliffe’s sophomore campaign, his first in the starting lineup, saw him fare very well with one exception: turnovers. Seventeen interceptions, to be exact, largely nullifying his 17 touchdowns, but the hope – as always – is that he’ll begin to clean up his penchant for turnovers with increased experience. He’s very much ready to take the next step; turnovers are one thing and consistency another, as Radcliffe needs to avoid the type of midseason lull that plagued his 2010 totals. Even without great help, Radcliffe’s an all-MAC performer.

The receiver corps brings back Cody Wilson (83 receptions for 1,137 yards and 5 scores), who was a very nice surprise in 2010, but must replace Kito Poblah, one of the program’s most productive receivers. There are options, such as junior Jerry Harris, who along with Wilson can help C.M.U. stretch the field. Senior Cedric Fraser made two starts last fall and should again factor into the mix. It’s all about Wilson here, however, with the junior both Radcliffe’s favorite target and a potential game-changer in the return game.

Running back Parris Cotton is also a prominent figure in the passing game, as illustrated by his 25-catch junior season. He’s Central Michigan’s lead back: after splitting time in 2008 and 2009, Cotton led the Chippewas in rushing (651 yards) and rushing scores (six) in his first chance at extended playing time. If Cotton’s the team’s big-play back, the role of bruiser will fall to Zurlon Tipton, who rushed 203 yards and 5 scores last fall. Central Michigan’s best back, sadly, might be a player not yet eligible for game action. Former Michigan transfer Austin White showed terrific burst during the spring game but has to sit out this season due to N.C.A.A. transfer rules.

What of the offensive line? It’s a work in progress – like most teams at or near the bottom of the country. The Chippewas will get a huge boost from the return of left tackle Jake Olson, who missed all but the first three games of 2010 with a leg injury. He’s the key to the whole deal up front, as the line was forced to reshuffle itself once he was lost for the season. There are still a pair of senior starters to replace, sadly, so it’s vital that C.M.U. find concrete roles for linemen like Eric Fisher, Darren Keyton and Mike Repovz, which will give this group – and the offense as a whole – some much-needed consistency. For now, the offensive line is a question mark.

Keshawn Fraser’s return to the team is in doubt, thanks to some off-field trouble, which further damages the depth and talent level of the defensive line. Here’s guessing Fraser does return, though one hopes that Enos will make him earn his starting spot at end, not have it handed to him. In the meantime, the starting ends will be junior Joe Kinville and sophomore Darryll Stinson, with Cesar Rodriguez one end who could fill a pass-rushing role.

The interior of the line is anchored by nose guard John Williams, though he’s undersized for the position. The Chippewas need to replace his running mate on the interior of the line, Sean Murnane, who led all C.M.U. linemen with nine tackles for loss. Steve Winston ran alongside Williams during the spring game, but that makes me nervous: Winston, like Williams, does not provide the Chippewas with adequate size with which to stand up against the run. Central Michigan ranked 81st nationally in rush defense last fall but ranked 43rd in carries against; in other words, it could have been far worse. Without Fraser and Murnane, the defensive front might be even weaker than it was in 2010.

Central Michigan’s leading returning tackler, strong safety Jahleel Addae (80 tackles, 1 sack), missed much of the spring with a broken hand. That wasn’t such a bad thing, seeing that Addae has a stranglehold on the starting role while C.M.U. needs to locate a starting free safety and some depth. Will the Chippewas go with sophomore Avery Cunningham at safety or keep him at cornerback, where he started five of the last six games of 2010? He’s the most intriguing prospect on the defense, so I imagine C.M.U. will think long and hard about his future position in the secondary.

My guess is that Cunningham remains at safety while John Carr, a four-game starter last fall, takes over full-time at free safety. Doing so might not address the depth issue, but it will allow Cunningham to team with a Lorenzo White at cornerback, giving the Chippewas some speed and athleticism at that spot. Derek Carter provides depth.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker It’s not just the lost production, as daunting as that seems. Nick Bellore and Matt Berning were the stalwarts of this defense over the last three seasons, but it’s more than just finding a way to recoup all those tackles: it’s the leadership void that troubles me most. So it won’t just be up to senior Armond Staten to step up his game on the field but also to provide an experienced hand to two new starters at linebacker. Staten, a senior, did not get off to a great start: he was arrested on a minor charge and fined late last month, which sets a poor tone for the rest of the defense. Who’s joining him in the starting lineup? Mike Petrucci (48 tackles, 1.5 for loss) is one probable starter after showing a knack for the big play as a reserve last fall. As for the third linebacker, take your pick from a number of unproven would-be starters: Alex Smith, Shamari Benton, Mike Kinville and Kyle Zelinsky, to name a few. Of those four, it seems Smith would be the likeliest option: he started the first three games of 2010 before relinquishing his starting role. It’s not so much about what’s next as what’s lost, however, and it will be strange to see Central Michigan line up on defense without those two departed standouts at linebacker.

Game(s) to watch

A four-game stretch from Oct. 15 through Nov. 4. These are the four most winnable F.B.S. games on the schedule, and any hopes of returning to bowl play hinges on Central Michigan likely getting a sweep, and no worse than 3-1. The stretch begins with a home game against Eastern Michigan before sending the Chippewas on the road for Ball State, Akron and Kent State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m scared for Central Michigan’s future. Its immediate future, at least, which doesn’t look bright: 2011 looks like another rebuilding year, if we believe that Enos is rebuilding, not tearing the MAC’s best down into an also-ran. Before being that pessimistic, let’s remember that not every first-year coach in the MAC can be Butch Jones – a success from day one. Most struggle, as did Enos and Buffalo’s Jeff Quinn, and the hope is that first-year losses lead to increased competitiveness in year two and beyond. Will C.M.U. be more competitive in 2011? Maybe, though I doubt we’ll see an improvement in the win column. The schedule is a concern: South Carolina State is a win, but the Chippewas might be 1-5 in mid-October when they host Eastern Michigan. What really hurts, however, is getting three of the more winnable MAC games on the road. It’s not all bad, I swear: Ryan Radcliffe is one of the MAC’s best, the offensive line is deeper, Armond Staten has all-conference potential and the secondary, while young, has some talent to work with. The negatives still far outweigh the positives. What’s noteworthy, most of all, is how far C.M.U. has fallen in such a short amount of time.

Dream season Up, down and then up again for Enos and Central Michigan: not quite back to 12-2, but the Chippewas are very happy with a 7-5 regular season.

Nightmare season The slide continues, with C.M.U. dropping another win from last season’s total.

In case you were wondering

Where do Central Michigan fans congregate? Not many options. The first choice is Chippewas Insider, which gives the best C.M.U. recruiting coverage with a healthy dose of chatter. Another option is Fire Up Chips, a blog that covers all Central Michigan sports. As always, send me — or list below — your favorite blogs, message boards and local beat reporters yearning to be included in this section.

Word Count

Through six teams 15,063.

Up Next

Who is No. 114? The radio station at tomorrow’s university shares its call signal with the acronym for a political and labor organization that pushed for woman’s suffrage in the early 20th century.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Burnt Orange says:

    Colorado, Tulane and UAB play 12 games in 12 weeks. If correct, I’ll take Texas.

    Paul: Got it. As of today, though there’s a chance some things move around prior to the summer. Congratulations, and Texas it is.

  2. tulaneoutlaw says:

    Tomorrow is Tulane. WTUL – our radio station and also the Women’s Trade Union League.

  3. Rock says:

    When I do the ranking of all 120 trivia questions, I’m pretty sure I’ll put this one in the top 5.

  4. jjtiller says:

    So Eastern Michigan could be better than Central Michigan? I doubt it very much…

  5. Clayton says:

    Yeah it might be a stretch to say EMU is going to be better than CMU, but hey maybe third times the charm for English.

    On a side note, WTUL is a great radio station. Been to Tulane a few times when visiting New Orleans. Love that city.

  6. tulaneoutlaw says:

    @Clayton

    Not a huge fan of the station, but I agree with you on loving New Orleans. Easily the most unique city in the country.

  7. Chippewayne says:

    I really wanted to read the Buffalo preview before the Chippewas’. At least, there’s Akron.

  8. Florence Schneider says:

    You hit the nail on the head regarding Enos’ irresponsible decision to abandon the spread-option attack.

    Enos has demonstrated disdain and disrespect for the culture and traditions he inherited at CMU. He seems more interested in blowing-up the program and reshaping it into an MSU JV program, than building on the championship culture he inherited.

    Expect the CMU student section to be leading cheers of “TAKE ENOS BACK!” when CMU visits East Lansing next fall. His heart is already there, anyway.

  9. Patrick says:

    While few CMU faithful are expecting 10 wins in 2011, I’m very surprised to see this year’s team ranked so low.

    In your review of 2010, I see no mention of the kicking game, which was largely to blame for losses to Temple and Northwestern. Add to that the fact that CMU absolutely gifted the Miami and BG games to their opponents, and that they were a 2-point conversion away from winning at Navy, and I don’t see how this team is the train wreck they’re made out to be. Only the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois games were blowouts.

    If the kicking game is fixed (by many accounts, it is) and Radcliffe can cut down on his interceptions (we’ll see), I think 6-7 wins is a very realistic goal.

    But as another poster stated, there is NO CHANCE – none – that CMU is worse than EMU. I mean, come on.

  10. Kyle says:

    Patrick makes all great points. CMU will be a year older and better with the costly mistakes (i.e. kicking, fumbles, time management, etc.).

    To reiterate, below EMU? CMU slaughtered them last year and had a better record…..get real.

  11. The D Zone says:

    Oh well CMU may not bounce back but when Niznak is RS and ready for four years things will be nuts, plus the recruiting has been off the hoook, especially in state.

  12. Kevin says:

    Not quite sure what you see in Radcliffe. He threw for a decent amount of yards and TD’s last season, but his knack for a killer turnover is what makes me think he isn’t starter quality, let alone one of the MAC’s finest.

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