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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. 71: Western Michigan

Western Michigan may be 0-4 all-time in bowl play, but the Broncos aren’t alone: MAC cohorts Ohio and Ball State are both 0-5, so it could be worse. For now, Bill Cubit and W.M.U. would be tickled to have the opportunity to match Ohio and Ball State for the most bowl appearances without a win on the F.B.S. level, as strange as that may sound. It’s been three years since the Broncos last posted a winning record; three of the last four years have ended with a non-winning mark, with last fall’s 6-6 finish representing a small step forward but still standing as a disappointment, what with the fine statistical improvement Western Michigan made on both sides of the ball. In one way, Cubit is a victim of his immediate success: he led W.M.U. to at least seven wins in three of his first four years but has been unable to maintain this streak over the two years since. His seat is getting a little toasty: a win over Central Michigan would go a long way towards alleviating some of that job-related pressure, by the way.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Nickname
Broncos

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 92

2010 record
(6-6, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 76

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Michigan
  • Sept. 10
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 17
    Central Mich.
  • Sept. 24
    at Illinois
  • Oct. 1
    at Connecticut
  • Oct. 8
    Bowling Green
  • Oct. 15
    at N.I.U.
  • Oct. 22
    at E.M.U.
  • Oct. 29
    Ball St.
  • Nov. 6
    at Toledo
  • Nov. 16
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 25
    Akron

Last year’s prediction

Premier programs would struggle replacing players like Hiller and West — the heart and soul of last year’s offense — especially when the options are either unproven, inexperienced, or both. Sometimes a fresh voice is all a defense needs to turn things around; sometimes, wholesale coaching changes do not immediately impact a team’s performance, instead taking months — perhaps even a year — before reaching its audience. The schedule, while far from deadly, does send Western Michigan to a handful of unfriendly environments, and gives the Broncos three imposing teams in non-conference play. Now, the good news: the offensive line. This tough, tested group will be the lifeline of the offense, and could set an example for the entire team. I don’t think Western Michigan will be bad: far from it.

2010 recap

In a nutshell It was a return to form for the Broncos, who suffered a precipitous slide both offensively and defensively during a five-win 2009 campaign. The offense scored a school-record 388 points – about eight more points per game than in 2009 – thanks to a prolific passing attack that led the MAC in yards per game and touchdowns, the latter by a fairly significant margin. The defense responded well to first-year coordinator Dave Cohen, making slight gains across the board, most notably in creating turnovers and getting to the quarterback. So the team was better yet managed only one additional victory. How? By not taking care of business: Idaho came into Kalamazoo and topped the Broncos by 20 points, which is inexcusable; so is yet another loss to Central Michigan, which might have been excusable when the Chippewas were running roughshod over the MAC but is absolutely unpardonable when C.M.U. is scuffling through a 3-9 finish. This team should not have been stuck at 6-6, which is partly why Bill Cubit needs a bowl trip in 2011 to beef up his job security.

High point A three-game winning streak to end the year. The run kept alive Western Michigan’s slim bowl hopes – very slim bowl hopes – while giving this team some momentum heading into 2011. But the wins weren’t great: Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Bowling Green.

Low point Those losses to Idaho and Central Michigan. Especially the Chippewas: that’s now five straight losses in the rivalry, each of the last four by 11 points or less. Last year’s affair saw the Broncos cough up a 22-13 fourth quarter lead, giving up the last 13 points to lose by four.

Tidbit Western Michigan has gone an impressive 29-18 in MAC action under Cubit, only once, in 2007, finishing below .500 in conference play. That year saw the Broncos go 3-4 in the MAC. But it’s been pretty good otherwise: 5-3 in 2005, 6-2 in 2006, 6-2 in 2008, 4-4 in 2009 and 5-3 last fall. Which teams have done the most damage over this span? We know Central Michigan’s five wins constitutes a healthy portion of those 18 losses. Ball State has topped W.M.U. four times and Northern Illinois three, meaning that trio has made up 12 of the 18 conference setbacks. Toledo chips in with another pair, making 14, while Ohio, Akron, Eastern Michigan and Kent State have each defeated Western Michigan once. And that’s how you get to 18.

Tidbit (where are they now edition) On Dec. 2, 2009, Dave Cohen was the head coach at Hofstra. He was unemployed a day later, as were his 10 assistants, when the university opted to terminate its football program. So where are they now? Let’s take a look:

Head coach Dave Cohen
Defensive coordinator, Western Michigan
Tight ends coach Phil Armatas
Quality control assistant, Denver Broncos
Offensive line coach Bill Durkin
Offensive line coach, Bowling Green
Assistant defensive line coach Douglas Goodwin
Defensive line coach, Georgetown
Special teams and cornerbacks coach Lyle Hemphill
Cornerbacks coach, Delaware
Assistant defensive backs coach Jack Mrozinski
Special teams coordinator and safeties coach, Widener
Defensive line coach Kevin Mapp
Defensive line coach, Coastal Carolina
Defensive coordinator Rich Nagy
Safeties coach, Western Michigan
Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude
Offensive coordinator, Georgetown
Wide receivers coach Kahmal Roy
Currently out of coaching
Running backs coach Antonio Smikle
Unknown

Any information on the coaching whereabouts of Smikle would be appreciated. At least most ended up on their feet in the coaching business, though that doesn’t diminish the negative impact Hosftra’s decision has had on countless coaches, players and fans. I do believe that Hofstra will one day bring back its football program, but it will be under a different university president and a new board of trustees.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 DE Jason Babin (Tennessee), CB E.J. Biggers (Tampa Bay), S Louis Delmas (Detroit), WR Greg Jennings (Green Bay), OT Joe Reitz (Indianapolis), TE Tony Scheffler (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Presidential campaign slogans
1. “Cox and Cocktails,” Warren H. Harding (1920).
2. “54-40 or Fight,” James K. Polk (1844).
3. “It’s Morning Again in America,” Ronald Reagan (1984).
4. “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right,” Barry Goldwater (1964).
5. ”Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” William H. Harrison (1840).

Coaching

Bill Cubit (Delaware ’75) 40-33 after six years with the Broncos. Though Western Michigan has gone a combined 11-13 over the last two years, Western Michigan has never been more than a single win away from bowl eligibility over Cubit’s five years 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 another5-7 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 constituted 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 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

Alex Carder’s debut season in the starting lineup could not have gone much better. He stepped into some large shoes, replacing one of the program’s all-time greats in Tim Hiller, but Carder exceeded all expectations in leading the W.M.U. offense back at or near the top of the MAC. For the year, Carder hit on 63.1 percent of his attempts for 3,334 yards and 30 scores, leading the conference in both categories, while tossing only 12 interceptions – not bad when making 458 attempts. And Carder’s only a junior, so Western Michigan must feel wonderful about its situation under center through the 2012 season. Here’s a frightening thought for the rest of the MAC: Carder’s just going to get better and better with each snap he takes. I’ll be watching his development throughout the season.

It’s a by-committee approach at running back, and the whole committee returns in 2011. No one back rushed for more than 410 yards but four rushed for at least 180, paced by sophomore Tevin Drake’s team-leading 405-yard showing – on a whopping 10.1 yards per carry. Not a misprint. Such a total wouldn’t last if Drake was getting 200 carries a season, but you saw a year ago just how dangerous he can be in limited doses. The veteran of this group is senior Aaron Winchester, though he’s really been lapped by Drake and fellow sophomore Brian Fields (56 carries for 362 yards). But Winchester will have a role – his experience can’t be duplicated – as will another sophomore, Dareyon Chance (188 yards). Remember when this position was a question mark heading into last season?

The receiver corps would have been devastated if W.M.U. had lost Jordan White, but the N.C.A.A. gave the sixth-year senior an extra year of eligibility. The Broncos sighed with relief. White and Carder hit it off, to put it lightly: he paced the MAC in receiving yards (1,378), tied for the conference lead in touchdowns (10) and tied for third in receptions (94). White’s the leading target, but he’s just one piece – a big piece, mind you – at a position that could go eight or nine deep. Robert Arnheim was an all-MAC pick in 2009 but saw his playing time diminish a year ago. With W.M.U. losing Juan Nunez, Arnheim will see his touches increase greatly in his final season. As will Chleb Ravenell, who made 47 grabs in 2009 but missed last season due to injury.  Junior Ansel Ponder (28 receptions for 205 yards) rounds out the top group. There’s young depth coming up the pipeline, giving the Broncos talent, experience, depth and athleticism for Carder to work with in the passing game.

The offense won’t struggle to score points. Will the defense improve in its second season under Cohen? One thing we saw last year was a far more aggressive mentality, one that pushed Western Michigan back into the top third of the MAC in sacks and interceptions. Credit goes to Cohen. And there’s reason to believe the Broncos will continue to improve defensively, thanks both to eight returning starters and an added year of experience in Cohen’s system.

Not to say there’s not still work to be done. It starts up front, a group that returns each piece from a season ago. This front did an admirable job getting to the quarterback but remained weak against the run, so more will be needed from starting tackles Drew Nowak (42 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Travonte Boles (31 tackles, 4 for loss). They can get more, especially from Boles, a sophomore who looks to be just scratching the surface of his potential.

Things are far rosier at end, largely due to the big-play ability of junior Paul Hazel. Perhaps the thinnest starting end in the country, Hazel’s first step is what makes him so dangerous – is what allowed him to lead the way with 12 tackles for loss and 8 sacks a year ago, numbers that would have accounted for nearly half of Western Michigan’s total as a team in 2009. Juniors Woody Legrier and Freddie Bishop shared time in the starting lineup opposite Hazel, combining for 60 tackles (11.5 for loss) and 7 sacks. Both will continue to feature prominently in the rotation, but it’s Bishop that staked a claim to a starting role thanks his strong play down the stretch in 2010. The Broncos also bring back former JUCO transfer T.J. Lynch – he missed last season due to injury – who has the talent to excel but has yet to make an impact.

The secondary will feel the loss of Jamial Berry and Mario Armstrong, two multiple-year contributors whose production and leadership qualities will be hard to duplicate. Locating Berry’s replacement should be the first order of business: the answer seems to be senior Doug Wiggins, though he needs to play his way out of Cohen’s doghouse. If it’s not Wiggins it could be sophomore Johnnie Simon, who impressed in a reserve role in 2010. The pair could actually swap roles, with Wiggins going to strong safety and Simon to rover; it’s hard to tell now how things will shake out. Another sophomore, Demetrius Pettway, will step in at free safety.

There’s enough depth at safety – including reserves like Scott Hinds and Keith Dixson – that one or more at the position could move over to cornerback, where W.M.U. is feeling a bit of a crunch following Tronic Williams’ season-ending ankle injury. The Broncos can feel extremely secure in the bright future of sophomore Lewis Toler (59 tackles, 5 interceptions), who was one of the biggest surprises in the MAC a year ago: Toler was expected to play, but few expected him to end the year as one of the best cornerbacks in the MAC. The coaching staff singled out redshirt freshman Garrett Smith for his stellar play during the spring, so he might start on the opposite side. The Broncos also bring back part-time starter Raheam Buxton, who could be a security blanket should Smith not prove ready for the task.

W.M.U. typically fields only two linebackers, with that rover spot filling a hybrid linebacker-safety role. Senior Mitch Zajac (97 tackles, 2 sacks), who is entering his third year in the starting lineup, gives this back seven even more speed on the second level. Sophomore Desmond Bozeman should reclaim the starting role he lost midway through last season due to injury, but another sophomore, Chris Prom, is waiting in the wings if Bozeman can’t regain his prior form.

The offense leads the defense, but W.M.U. might close the gap a bit in 2011. Much depends on three factors: one, the continued ability of the defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback; two, whether the interior of the line can do a better job on running downs; and three, how well the Broncos replace the two key starters in the secondary. There are some question marks.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line All three starters along the interior of the line must be replaced, which may cause Western Michigan to retool this front from left to right, the two returning starters included. I think the goal will be to have the five best linemen on the field at the same time, an idea that sounds nice on paper but will involve some movement by first-year line coach A.J. Ricker. The first move finds senior Anthony Parker, a 35-game starter, pushed inside from left tackle to left guard. That would put either Greg Peterson or Terry Davisson, both sophomores, at left tackle – for now, at least. W.M.U. has high hopes for JUCO transfer Tim Maka, who might come in and start immediately on the blind side. If that does occur, look for Peterson and Davisson to continue to battle it out for the starting nod at right guard. The final two positions are set in stone: former Michigan transfer Dann O’Neill, an all-MAC candidate, will lock things down at right tackle, with Kevin Galeher at center, replacing Nick Mitchell. There are issues, however, and not just with the potential for several position moves. Parker is nursing a shoulder injury, which W.M.U. hopes clears itself up by September. Depth is also a concern, which is why Ricker and Cubit were looking to increase their flexibility by having multiple linemen grow accustomed to multiple positions.

Game(s) to watch

Central Michigan. If nothing else, Central Michigan. As with Kentucky and Tennessee – not quite the same, but close – if the Broncos can’t beat the Chippewas now, as down as they are, it may not happen again for a long time. That’s a wild card game in a season full of a few clear wins and a few clear losses. The run for a MAC West crown goes through Toledo and Northern Illinois; W.M.U. gets both on the road. That’s really unfortunate.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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 line does have the pieces to be successful: it’s merely a matter of getting healthy, cementing a starting five and locating some depth, a search that may continue well into fall camp. Everything else is ready to go: Carder is the MAC’s best passing quarterback, the backfield is stocked with young talent and the receiver corps, led by Jordan White, is more than capable of continuing Western Michigan’s fine play in the passing game. The big concern is the defense, though that group should be better in its second season under Cohen – but how much better? Merely duplicating last year’s numbers should find W.M.U. right along the six-win track, which isn’t good enough. 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. Winning both will land the Broncos the West, but that’s a very tall order. Toledo just seems better, and while N.I.U. is undergoing a coaching change the Huskies do return a good portion of last year’s team. I do think the Broncos will add a win to their 2010 total, however, thanks to a schedule that may be intimidating at times – Michigan, Illinois and Connecticut in non-conference play – but is simple at others. 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.

Dream season The Broncos knock off one B.C.S. conference opponent and both Toledo and Northern Illinois on the road, ending the year at 10-2, 8-0 in the MAC. That would mark the first 10-win season in program history.

Nightmare season The Broncos go 5-7 for the second time in two years and the third time since 2007. That might mean the end of the road for Cubit in Kalamazoo.

In case you were wondering

Where do Western Michigan fans congregate? Bronco Stampede leads the way in terms of football chatter. If you’re willing to bear the silence of quiet message boards, you can find coverage of Western Michigan recruiting at BroncoBlitz.comand Broncos Illustrated. Additional information can be found at the Web site of The Kalamazoo Gazette, which is probably your best media option.

Word Count

Through 50 (50!) teams 143,463.

Up Next

Who is No. 70? If it maintains its current rate of growth, tomorrow’s university will have a student body totaling more than 100,000 in the year 2032.

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

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Comments

  1. Monty says:

    I *think* UCF is next.

  2. schedule nit says:

    I believe the Troy Trojans are up next. Why that august university is sprouting like a patch of weeds in the rainy season, its thirst saked only by larger enrollment or the finest of bourbons. In this interminable heat, some in the athletic department have even been known to express themselves desirous of playing a team within Alabama. South Alabama, that is.

  3. Newt says:

    Believe it will be UCF tomorrow.

  4. Bird says:

    I’ll b honest, I thought both Troy and UCF would at least be above the 60 mark, now I’m curious.

    Troy would make more sense though. UCF may be bigger, but Troy is growing at a prodigious rate

  5. Isaac Jaffe says:

    Uh, why is there a picture of 5/3 Ballpark for this post?

  6. UCF alum says:

    My first thought was UCF for tomorrow, but 70 seems low for UCF. I don’t think that is my natural bias talking. My second thought is another Florida school… FIU.

  7. schedule nit says:

    Wow, it’s not every day you see someone misspell “slaked”

    Paul: Spell check didn’t come through when you needed it. We’ve all been there.

  8. Chadnudj says:

    @schedule nit: Or maybe they meant “sated”….

  9. Bill says:

    I hope this is B Cubits last season. He has done a horrible job at WMU

  10. Redwolf4life says:

    My money is on FIU.

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