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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. 62: Western Michigan

The magic number is 33. Since replacing Gary Darnell in 2005, Bill Cubit has lost only three games — a 60-57 loss to Ball State in 2005; a 39-38 loss to Akron in 2007, thanks to an epic special teams meltdown; and last year’s loss to Toledo — when scoring 33 or more points; overall, Western Michigan has gone 28-3 in such games. In all other games, in contrast, the Cubit-led Broncos are 19-36. Hence Cubit’s game of musical chairs at defensive coordinator: Western Michigan has been through five coordinators over the last seven years. Of the five, only Scott Shafer carried his weight — even if Bill Miller turned one season under Cubit into the coordinator job at Louisville. Steve Morrison lasted two years before ceding way to former Hofstra head coach Dave Cohen, who likewise lasted two years, through last season, before being replaced by former safeties coach Rich Nagy. For Cubit’s sake, W.M.U. hopes that the fifth time is the charm.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Nickname
Broncos

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 71

2011 record
(7-6, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 64

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Illinois
  • Sept. 8
    Eastern Illinois
  • Sept. 15
    at Minnesota
  • Sept. 22
    Connecticut
  • Sept. 29
    Toledo
  • Oct. 6
    UMass
  • Oct. 13
    at Ball St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Kent St.
  • Oct. 27
    Northern Illinois
  • Nov. 3
    at Central Mich.
  • Nov. 10
    at Buffalo
  • Nov. 17
    Eastern Mich.

Last year’s prediction

This is Western Michigan’s best team since 2008. That’s mainly thanks to an offense that seems poised for a huge year, with a line that remains in flux the lone question mark as we enter the summer. The big concern is the defense, though that group should be better in its second season under Cohen – but how much better? A step forward will push the Broncos back to seven wins, but the offense is good enough to take home the West division. Can the Broncos go that far? I don’t think so, but that’s entirely thanks to a schedule that sends them to Toledo and Northern Illinois, W.M.U.’s two prime contenders for the division crown. I can spot six wins from the group of Nicholls State, Central Michigan – Cubit needs that one – Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Miami (Ohio) and Akron. If the Broncos were hosting the Rockets and Huskies I’d have a very good case to put them at the top of the division.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The on-again, off-again defense was a sour point all season, offsetting the efforts of the best offense in school history. That’s not hyperbole: the Broncos scored 459 points in 13 games, an average of 35.3 points per game, shattering the program’s previous high set a year ago, when the Broncos averaged 32.3 points per game. But the defense took a step back from 2010, its first season under Cohen, thanks to an inability to stop the run. Combine this year’s offense with last year’s defense and you get the best team in the MAC; as is, the Broncos returned to bowl play but finished two games behind Toledo and Northern Illinois in the MAC West.

High point A 38-31 win over Connecticut on Oct. 1 was the program’s first victory against a B.C.S. conference foe since defeating Illinois in 2008. But the high point was a 44-14 humbling of Central Michigan, the Broncos’ first win against their bitter in-state rival since 2005. How the Dan Enos-led Chippewas beat W.M.U. in 2010 remains a mystery.

Low point The Broncos should have beat Purdue — not specifically in that game, but just in general — so that bowl loss will hang around the football offices until August. Western Michigan also hung tight with Illinois, losing by a field goal, and had no business losing to Eastern Michigan, 14-10, in mid-October. The worst loss, however, was the one that got out of hand: Northern Illinois 55, W.M.U. 21.

Tidbit Western Michigan has played two or more B.C.S. conference opponents in six of Cubit’s seven seasons with the program. The Broncos played only one such opponent, Virginia, during non-conference play in 2005. Overall, W.M.U. is 4-16 against B.C.S. conference opponents since 2005, with two of those losses — to Cincinnati following the 2006 season and Purdue last winter — coming during bowl play. The four wins: at Virginia in 2006 (17-10), at Iowa in 2007 (28-19), against Illinois in Detroit in 2008 (23-17) and at Connecticut last October (38-31).

Tidbit (bowl losses edition) Seven F.B.S. programs have reached at least one bowl game without experiencing the glorious taste of a bowl win. Five of the seven play in the MAC: Akron, Buffalo, Kent State, Ball State and Western Michigan. The latter two are both 0-5 in postseason play; the Cardinals and Broncos are the only two F.B.S. programs to have played in more than two bowl games without a single bowl win.

Tidbit (at C.M.U. edition) W.M.U. got past one hurdle last fall, moving back into bowl play after a two-year absence. The Broncos passed another ignominious milestone in snapping a five-game losing streak to rival Central Michigan, the second-longest skein in the rivalry’s history. Up next: beating the Chippewas on the road. The Broncos have topped C.M.U. on the road only once since 1974, back in 2002; since 1974, W.M.U. is 1-17 in Mount Pleasant.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 DE Jason Babin (Philadelphia), CB E.J. Biggers (Tampa Bay), S Louis Delmas (Detroit), WR Greg Jennings (Green Bay), DT Drew Nowak (Jacksonville), K John Potter (Buffalo), OT Joe Reitz (Indianapolis), TE Tony Scheffler (Detroit), WR Jordan White (New York Jets).

Arbitrary top five list

Supplemental picks in 7th round of 2012 draft
1. OT Andrew Datko, Florida State (Green Bay).
2. WR Jordan White, Western Michigan (New York Jets).
3. TE David Paulson, Oregon (Pittsburgh).
4. S Antonio Allen, South Carolina (New York Jets).
5. TE Brad Smelly, Alabama (Cleveland).

Coaching

Bill Cubit (Delaware ’75) 47-39 after seven years with the Broncos. Though Western Michigan went a combined 11-13 from 2009-10, the Broncos have never been more than a single win away from bowl eligibility over Cubit’s seven seasons with the program. A slide back to 5-7 in 2009 did see the Broncos lose four wins off their sterling 2008 record, which also featured six wins in MAC play. The nine wins – which followed another 5-7 season, in 2007 – tied the university’s single-season record for victories. Though that team was unable to vault past Central Michigan and Ball State in the West division, Western Michigan upset a B.C.S.-conference opponent for the third straight season and reached its second bowl game in three years. Cubit began his career at Western Michigan with 15 wins from 2005-6, leading the Broncos to the International Bowl in early 2007, their first bowl bid in 18 years. His 2005 season marked an auspicious debut. A 7-4 finish (5-3 in the MAC), Western Michigan’s first winning season since 2000, gave Cubit a well-deserved MAC Coach of the Year award. The six-game improvement over a 1-10 finish in 2004, the final season of Gary Darnell’s eight-year term as Broncos coach, was the second-largest in the nation and the biggest turnaround in program history. Cubit, the W.M.U. offensive coordinator from 1997-99, returned to Kalamazoo after three stops at B.C.S.-conference schools: Missouri (offensive coordinator in 2000), Rutgers (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2001-2) and Stanford (quarterbacks coach from 2003-4). He has prior head coaching experience at Division III Widener, posting a 34-18-1 mark with two conference championships and a pair of N.C.A.A. tournament appearances.

Players to watch

Since Oct. 23, 2010, Alex Carder has been one of the best quarterbacks in college football. Now a senior, it’s time for Carder to gain the sort of national recognition his play has deserved over his last 19 games at the center of Western Michigan’s offense. Through the first half of the 2010 season, Carder, then a first-year starter — replacing a program great in Tim Hiller — had been troublingly inconsistent, throwing eight interceptions against five touchdowns when facing off against F.B.S. competition; over the last year and change, Carder has thrown for 5,305 yards and 51 touchdowns against 17 picks. These are all-American numbers; Carder just has reached new heights against the backdrop of Chandler Harnish at Northern Illinois, and there isn’t room for two MAC quarterbacks in the national conversation.

His time is coming. Carder is simply too good, too polished, too strong, too consistent, too poised and too athletic — not quick, just prototypically agile — to spend any more time in the shadows. Last fall, he completed 65.7 percent of his attempts for 3,873 yards and 31 touchdowns and 14 picks, throwing for at least 355 yards six times and tossing at least a pair of touchdowns in every game but two — both losses, not coincidentally.

And he’s made significant growth as the Broncos’ starter. The light that so clearly turned on against Akron in 2010 has remained on since, growing in wattage with each game he spends in the starting lineup. And there is room for further improvement. Carder remains slightly prone to excessive turnovers: he threw four picks against Purdue, for example, and those turnovers cost W.M.U. the win. But when he’s on — see Toledo — Carder can single-handedly carry this team to victory. He’s the MAC’s best quarterback in 2012.

The Broncos’ top pair at running back will again be juniors Tevin Drake (586 yards, 5 scores) and Brian Fields (287 yards), who split time in the starting lineup last fall. They compliment each other well: Drake is the bigger back and Fields the quicker option, though ironically, both could do a better job in these roles — Drake could do a stronger job earning yards between the tackles, while Fields has not yet lent the running game a degree of big-play ability. The truth is that W.M.U. could use a little more out of its running game, if only to provide some balance to an offense tilted heavily towards the pass.

The Broncos will continue to utilize junior Antoin Scriven in a short-yardage role, as they did last fall; Scriven scored four touchdowns in 2011. There may also be touches left over for Dareyon Chance, a pint-sized junior who closed strong during spring ball. The key for Scriven and Chance, the two backups, will be impressing the staff when given opportunities — and that includes during practice, as history has shown that Drake and Fields will miss some time.

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line will do a far better job opening up holes in the running game. While the Broncos were strong in pass protection — thanks in large part to a four-year starter at left tackle in Anthony Parker, who must be replaced — the line was fairly mediocre on running downs. This had much to do with a new cast of guards and centers; offensive line coach A.J. Ricker had to make do with several fresh-faced underclassmen in 2011, and you have to think that returning interior linemen like Kasimili Uitalia, Kevin Galeher, Terry Davisson and Deon Commack are ready to take a step forward in 2012.

Davisson, a 16-game starter who saw time at both center and right guard a year ago, will be given the task of replacing Parker on the blind side. I suppose that W.M.U. considered moving senior Dann O’Neill over from right tackle, but those discussions couldn’t have gone far: O’Neill is one of the MAC’s best on the strong side, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea to move him out of his comfort zone. Davisson’s move opens up right guard for Commack, a potential monster at right guard; Uitalia, a former JUCO transfer, will continue serving at left guard. Galeher will step in at center. Even without Parker, this line should be stronger in 2012 — and don’t forget that this is Ricker’s second season as the Broncos’ line coach, which also helps matters.

Rich Nagy, the program’s third coordinator since 2009, takes on a defense with some promise. It’s true: W.M.U. has the ability to do things well, as this defense has shown on occasion, but simply must amend the various things this defense does terribly – stop the run and defend pass-first teams, for example. One thing that the Broncos do worse than anyone, however, is defend spread teams. Hence Nagy’s decision to move more towards an unbalanced alignment – a 3-3-5 or a 3-4 – which his predecessor, Cohen, attempted in certain games over his two seasons in the program.

You can see why Nagy and Cubit would embrace a move away from the 4-3 or 4-2-5 sets. The program needs to look no further than the MAC West standings: Northern Illinois, Toledo, Western Michigan. Any chance that the Broncos have of moving to the top of the West depends on this group’s ability to slow down spread offenses; W.M.U. can try to simply outscore a team like Toledo, but as last season proved, 63 points sometimes isn’t enough.

I have a feeling that Nagy and the Broncos are going to play things somewhat close to the vest defensively, perhaps alternating between several formations in the early going while searching for the right mixture. But when push comes to shove, the Broncos will go with three down linemen. It’s a good time to make the move. While W.M.U. lost all-MAC tackle Drew Nowak, it does bring back a solid fit for nose tackle in junior Travonte Boles (25 tackles, 4.5 for loss), a two-year starter. When the Broncos want to go with four linemen, it could shift Boles aside a gap and bring in sophomore Demetrius Anderson, a one-game starter as a freshman.

It will be interesting to see what Nagy does at end. He has one clear starter in senior Freddie Bishop (51 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks), an all-MAC candidate whose steadily improving production over his first three years bodes well for his final season. But while the Broncos have a second end with starting experience in senior Paul Hazel (26 tackles), he’s likely too small to play end in this system. While Hazel can be used as a rush end on passing downs, W.M.U. needs a bigger, stronger end to anchor the edge in the 3-3-5. That might be senior Deauntay Legrier (24 tackles, 5.0 for loss), a converted linebacker, but there might be also be an opportunity for one of the program’s impressive incoming freshmen ends – Roosevelt Donaldson and Mikhail Dubose.

Because I think he’s a better fit standing up, I’m going to include Hazel among a batch of outside linebackers. If W.M.U. follows through on this idea, it could flank sophomore Devon Brant (43 tackles) with a rangy, athletic linebacker like Hazel – who I think could be more disruptive on the second level – and a stouter option like junior Chris Prom. In all likelihood, with several decisions yet to be made throughout the front seven, that’s your starting trio at linebacker.

And it’s not a bad group, just one that needs to see improvement at each position. Hazel would need to quickly adapt to a new role. Brant has great potential, as well as some nice experience, but he is only a sophomore; the Broncos are putting a lot on his plate. Likewise with Prom, who has the size to start on the strong side but has yet to produce at a high level.

The secondary will be the strength of the defense. This is the case for two reasons: one, the Broncos ran a five-defensive back set last season, so the changes aren’t dramatic along the back end; and two, despite losing two starters, the Broncos return five defensive backs with starting experience. The key will be finding answers at cornerback. You know that junior Lewis Toler (59 tackles) will hold down one side, and there’s every reason to think that he’s ready to play at a borderline all-MAC level in his third season in the starting lineup. But questions exist on the other side, especially with W.M.U. considering moving sophomore Donald Celiscar (45 tackles) out to safety.

I don’t know if the Broncos can afford to make that change. If not Celiscar, Nagy would turn either towards a returning option with little experience – like Garrett Smith, Jon Henry and Ronald Zamort – or to one of three incoming freshmen. The Broncos can survive at safety without Celiscar; you can’t say the same at cornerback if he swaps positions.

Nagy, who coached the secondary last fall, knows that junior rover Johnnie Simon (114 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 2 interceptions) is ready to make some major noise in the MAC. The Broncos also moved former linebacker Trevor Ishmael (26 tackles) out to safety, which gives this defense three past starters for two safety spots – another reason for Celiscar to remain at cornerback. Ishmael, junior Demetrius Pettway (57 tackles, 2 interceptions) and sophomore Rontavious Atkins (40 tackles, 2 interceptions) will battle for the starting jobs at free and strong safety, with Ishmael the likely odd man out – Pettway at strong, like last fall, and Atkins at free.

There is the potential for a disastrous season on special teams. W.M.U. loses its kicker, punter and two leading return men, so consult your programs: there will be changes. The new kicker will be one of two redshirt freshmen, Andrew Haldeman and Chris Colombe, with Haldeman the likely pick. Punting duties will go to true freshman J Schroeder – and yes, there’s no initial, nothing. The Broncos also need to find an answer in the return game, with that decision coming down to who steps up during fall camp.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver Two of Western Michigan’s top three receivers last fall were fifth-year seniors. The third, record-setting trailblazer Jordan White, was a sixth-year senior — just so you don’t think that W.M.U. is bringing back any one of its three top targets on passing downs. White, as you know, was the most prolific receiver in the F.B.S. last fall: 140 receptions for 1,911 yards and 17 touchdowns. But his running mates in the top group, Robert Arnheim and Chleb Ravenell, were nearly as valuable to this offense; each had a wonderful rapport with Carder, particularly Arnheim. As W.M.U. worked through the spring, it was clear that no one returning receiver had this same rapport.

With this rest of the offense in place, the Broncos can’t afford to rebuild — they must reload at receiver. And with so much lost production at the position, it’s natural to expect W.M.U. to rely heavily on the two returning receivers with solid playing time under their belts: senior Eric Monette (29 receptions for 306 yards) and junior Josh Schaffer (19 for 241). You can pencil in that pair for a starting role, as well as redshirt freshman Kendrick Roberts, if he can remain healthy. Roberts was hampered by a groin injury during the spring, perhaps opening the door for fellow redshirt freshman Timmy Keith and JUCO transfers Darrin Duncan and Justin Collins to squeeze into a starting role.

Keep one idea in mind: W.M.U.’s returning receivers must not only take on increased playing time, but players like Schaffer and Monette must also take on different roles – instead of being the fourth receiver, for example, Monette must be the Broncos’ top target. That’s a physical change – different alignment, different routes, different role – as well as a mental change. I’m sure that at least two receivers are going to step up, but the Broncos need to go at least four deep at the position.

Game(s) to watch

Looking at this schedule, you can see why Western Michigan is considered by some to be a potential breakout team coming out of the MAC. For starters, while the Broncos do take on three B.C.S. conference teams during non-conference play, it’s not a daunting trio: Illinois will be in its first game under Tim Beckman, Minnesota is clearly rebuilding and W.M.U. did beat Connecticut on the road a year ago. In addition, the Broncos get both Toledo and Northern Illinois in Kalamazoo. Better yet, it’s difficult to see W.M.U. losing to any of the seven remaining teams on its schedule — not to say that you can put those seven games in the win column, but merely that the Broncos should be favored to win each game. The swing games include road games against Ball State and Kent State and the home game against Eastern Michigan to close the regular season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Based on the question marks littering this defense – personnel, scheme and coaching issues – I don’t feel comfortable projecting Western Michigan to move ahead of Northern Illinois and Toledo in the MAC West division. With last season as our evidence, W.M.U. simply can’t try to outscore its divisional rivals; the end result, as we saw, is a narrow loss, but a loss nonetheless. However, relying solely on this offense will be enough for the Broncos to win another seven games during the regular season – the offense will be that good. I know that the receiver corps lacks proven options, but the system itself is so well-tuned, and has such a superb signal-caller under center, to partially alleviate these concerns. With Carder running the show, one of the program’s best lines in years and a nice one-two pairing in the backfield, W.M.U. has enough on offense to run past most of the MAC. But until the defense proves itself, W.M.U. cannot be considered a viable challenger to the Huskies and Rockets – not to mention the fact that this defense will need to slow down three B.C.S. conference teams in September.

So you see a team in flux. The Broncos are caught somewhere in the middle: more than potent enough offensively to steamroll their way to six or seven wins, but not complete enough defensively to win the majority of those five games that will define the this team’s season. What’s the bottom line? At some point, Cubit – who has done very well, particularly during MAC play – needs to find an answer on defense or cede way to a head coach with a better blueprint for getting W.M.U. over the hump. Until the two sides of the ball can play in concert, W.M.U. is a seven-win bowl team but not much more. Unfortunately, the Broncos are a stout, year-long defensive effort away from winning the MAC and making a run towards double-digit wins.

Dream season Western Michigan takes two of three against B.C.S. conference opponents in September, losing only to UConn, and loses only one game during MAC play. But it’s not one of the two important games; the Broncos lose a strange game to Buffalo — stay with me — but beat both Toledo and N.I.U. to take home the MAC West. The win over C.M.U. comes by, say, 45 points.

Nightmare season The Broncos go 1-3 during non-conference play before turning to the MAC. It doesn’t get much better: W.M.U. beats the bad teams but loses to each of the five contenders on its schedule — Toledo, N.I.U., Ball State, Kent State and Eastern Michigan. A sixth MAC loss comes at Central Michigan… again.

In case you were wondering

Where do Western Michigan fans congregate? Bronco Stampede leads the way in terms of football chatter. You can find coverage of Western Michigan recruiting at BroncoBlitz.com and Broncos Illustrated. For a blog’s take, visit Saddle Up, Fight On. Additional information can be found at the Web site of The Kalamazoo Gazette, which is probably your best media option.

Western Michigan’s all-name nominee P J Schroeder.

Word Count

Through 63 teams 242,350.

Up Next

Who is No. 61? Tomorrow’s program is on its fourth defensive coordinator in as many years; the last two have served one-year stints.

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Comments

  1. DMK says:

    Texas Tech.

  2. Dybek says:

    Paul: You don’t feel comfortable putting WMU over NIU and Toledo in the MAC West. Really? Toledo?

    I’ll give you NIU, I think the MAC West (and the MAC) will come down to the Huskies and the Broncos. And I lean towards NIU, mostly because I agree with your thinking that WMU can potentially lose a conference game that it shouldn’t.

    But Toledo lost some star talent, has a porous defense, has two starting QBs (if you have 2, you really don’t have 1…right?), plus they have a new very young coach.

    I would have put the Broncos ahead of the Rockettes.

  3. Josh H. says:

    It’s nice to see you list Ball State as a contender in the MAC west even if you listed them as 104 right now lol. WMU is one of those teams though that always seem to be one of the most consistent overall. No outrageous climbs or falls in one season which always makes them a dangerous opponent. I definitely respect this team and a good rep of the MAC.

  4. Scott says:

    Great writeup. Only thing I did not see mentioned in this article was the need for the Broncos to once again find a reliable target at the tight end position. Over the past 10-15 years when the offense was clicking they always had a go-to TE that they could rely on catching balls over the middle.

    The last couple years they have gotten away from that with Carder being able to hit Jordan White over the middle on the 15-20 yard dig routes. With this years wide receiver corp it’s looking like they won’t have that luxury. Will be interesting to see how it all plays out in fall camp, but I’m convinced we’ll need someone who can stretch the field and occupy safeties out of that tight end position if were going to be as successful offensively as we all expect.

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