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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. 92: Western Michigan

Wish you were here! After struggling in 2009, Western Michigan needs some company.

Somewhere between Central Michigan — recent conference power — and Eastern Michigan — perennial conference also-ran — lies Western Michigan, a solid, historically competitive program that has yet to break through in the 13-team MAC. Not to say that the Broncos have not staked their claim for conference championships: only the Chippewas prevented Western Michigan from West division titles in 2006 and 2008, when the program landed its last two bowl trips. Last season was a disappointment, however. From 9-4 — a program record for wins in a season — to 5-7, despite returning the heart of the finest offense in school history. Those pieces are largely gone in 2010, unfortunately.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Nickname
Broncos

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 56

2009 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 78

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Michigan St.
  • Sept. 11
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 18
    Toledo
  • Oct. 2
    Idaho
  • Oct. 9
    at Ball St.
  • Oct. 16
    at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 23
    at Akron
  • Oct. 30
    Northern Illinois
  • Nov. 5
    at Central Michigan
  • Nov. 13
    Eastern Michigan
  • Nov. 20
    Kent State
  • Nov. 26
    at Bowling Green

Last year’s prediction

The losses on both sides of the ball are a reason for concern. This is particularly true on defense, where a tremendous secondary lost all four starters, three of whom were 2008 all-MAC performers. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that this team will challenge Central Michigan for the West division crown. But can the Broncos upend Central Michigan and take the West? Getting the Chippewas at home helps, but I’m giving the edge over all to C.M.U., which I believe to be the class of the MAC. I predict an 8-4 regular season finish, 6-2 in the MAC.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A disappointing season for Western Michigan, a team I felt capable of challenging in-state rival Central Michigan for the MAC West division championship. The pieces were in place: a veteran quarterback, line and receiver corps on offense; and an experienced front seven on defense. It wasn’t meant to be. The Broncos scuffled away from Kalamazoo, going 2-5 on the road — with one of those road wins coming against woeful Eastern Michigan. The offense was average, somewhat less proficient than I expected; the running game, which went all of one player deep, was rarely granted the opportunity to make a profound impact. Place significantly more blame on the defense, which finished 101st nationally in total defense, 97th against the run, 100th in sacks — so much for that front seven — and 97th in first downs allowed. With all that, all it took for Western Michigan to reach bowl eligibility was a win against mighty Ball State, at home no less. Yet many have tried to upend a Stan Parrish-led team and failed, as the Broncos did to finish 5-7. Scratch that; most have succeeded. Just not Western Michigan.

High point All seemed to be on the right track in October, as the Broncos followed up an 0-2 start against Big Ten competition with four wins in their next six games. Not that there wasn’t evidence of larger issues; even in victory, Western Michigan was outgained by Miami (Ohio) and Buffalo.

Low point Another loss to Central Michigan – that’s four straight – ended Western’s slim chance at a MAC division crown. Still, the Broncos entered the final weekend needing to beat only lowly Ball State to finish 6-6, 5-3 in conference play. You know where this is going: the Cardinals upset favored W.M.U., in Kalamazoo, by 22-17.

Tidbit No, Western Michigan has yet to post a double-digit win season in its history. Yet the Broncos have posted 25 winning seasons over the last 40 years, with the program’s best period of play likely coming from 1990-2000. That 11-year span saw W.M.U. mark 10 winning campaigns; at least seven wins nine times; and a program-best .750 winning percentage during a 9-3 2000 season. In comparison, lowly Eastern Michigan has posted 24 winning seasons in total since the birth of the modern era of college football (1936).

Tidbit (Michigan edition) In 2009, Western Michigan became the first F.B.S. program to play the Great Lake State’s remaining four F.B.S. programs in the same season: Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. The Broncos went 1-3, beating only the Eagles.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 DE Jason Babin (Tennessee), CB E.J. Biggers (Tampa Bay), S Louis Delmas (Detroit), CB Londen Fryar (New York Giants), QB Tim Hiller (Indianapolis), WR Greg Jennings (Green Bay), OT Joe Reitz (Baltimore), TE Tony Scheffler (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Best bull riders in history
1. Jim Shoulders.
2. Jim Sharp.
3. Freckles Brown.
4. Lane Frost.
5. Cody Snyder.

Coaching

Bill Cubit (Delaware ’75) 34-27 after five years with the Broncos. Cubit is also an impressive 24-15 in MAC play. Though last season was disappointing, the 5-7 finish marked only Cubit’s second losing season in five tries; it also tied for his worst record over that span, meaning Western Michigan has never been more than a single win away from bowl eligibility over Cubit’s five years with the program. Still, last year 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 that first 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 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.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Cubit said so long to defensive coordinator Steve Morrison, and told Morrison to take all his friends with him. The entire defensive staff was replaced — except defensive graduate assistant Brent Bassham — after the Broncos slipped to 101st nationally in total defense; an ice-cold move by Cubit, who knew it was Morrison’s defense that cost his team a bowl berth in 2009. In comes Dave Cohen, who became available after Hofstra, where he was the head coach, abruptly canceled its football program in December. Cohen must have made an impression on Cubit: his Pride hung tough with the Broncos in a 24-10 September loss. Cohen will add linebacker duties to his coordinator position; Amp Campbell will coach the cornerbacks; Lou Esposito the defensive line; and Rich Nagy the safeties. If the action during the spring was any indication, this new staff will be a good fit.

Players to watch

Phillip Swanson: starting W.M.U. offensive lineman, part-time contributor to a New York Times blog.

The offensive line ranks among the most experienced in the country, returning four of last season’s starters and 108 career starts. Leading the way is senior Phillip Swanson, who brings 37 career starts into his final season. Swanson has spent the majority of that time at right tackle, starting 10 games there a year ago, but will move to left guard in 2010; he started the final game of last season in that spot. To accommodate that move, senior Nick Clemens will move from left to right guard; like Swanson, he started much of last season on the left side before moving to right guard for the season finale. With senior Nick Mitchell returning at center, the interior of the Western Michigan offensive line is in great hands. Junior Anthony Parker and sophomore Dann O’Neil will bookend the line, with O’Neil, a former transfer from Michigan, eligible for on-field action after sitting out last season. This is a very good group, and the strength of the team.

If when watching Western Michigan in 2010 you become confused, do not adjust your television set: no, that’s not Tim Hiller under center; after a spectacular career, the multiple-year starter has taken his wares to the next level. The transition from supremely experienced to shockingly inexperienced is always a troubling one, but Cubit — Cubits, actually, as Bill doubles as offensive coordinator while his son, Ryan, coaches the quarterbacks — hopes that sophomore Alex Carder will continue Hiller’s success as the starter under center. Carder is the popular choice to succeed Hiller, though senior Drew Burdi remains in the mix. The sophomore distanced himself from the competition with a very strong spring, punctuated by a terrific performance in the spring game.

The pieces are in place in the passing game for Carder to succeed. Junior Robert Arnheim earned all-conference accolades for his 59-catch, 701-yards 2009 season. Senior Jordan White also made his mark, finishing second to Arnheim in receptions (53) and yards (681). If there’s one player poised to have a breakout 2010, it’s senior Juan Nunez. While Nunez played in only six games last fall due to injury, his time on the field saw him stand as one of the MAC’s best: 32 receptions for 435 yards and a team-best 6 scores. A very good trio upon which to build a passing game.

The defense replaced four starters in the secondary, and the results, as expected, were mixed. The Broncos allowed 240.5 yards passing per game, 92nd in the country. There were a few bright spots, however, such as the play of strong safety Jamail Berry. The senior made a team-best five interceptions last fall, the most by a Bronco since 2006, and finished fourth on the team in tackles. Junior Doug Wiggins had a stiffer task: replacing multiple-time all-MAC pick Louis Delmas. It was no surprise that Wiggins was unable to match his predecessor’s level of play. Wiggins will never be Delmas, of course, though one could hope that the junior begin to force some turnovers, as Delmas did with regularity. Western Michigan must also get improved play from cornerbacks Desmond Smith and Deshon Lawrence; Smith, a sophomore, is a future all-MAC performer.

This year’s biggest loss is linebacker Austin Pritchard, a two-time all-conference selection. He earned first-team honors as a junior despite making only nine starts. That fall, Pritchard made 86 tackles and a team-best 12.5 tackles for loss. He improved upon those totals last fall: 102 tackles — first on the team — and and a sack and a half, the latter giving him nine for his career. Mitch Zajac, a junior, will replace Pritchard on the weak side after making two starts in his stead a year ago. Sophomore Deauntay Legrier returns in the middle, while fellow sophomore Chris Prom will man the strong side, though Western Michigan often started a game with five cornerbacks a year ago; we’ll see what Cohen’s base set will be in 2010.

End Justin Braska (63 stops, 13 for loss) was another in a long line of productive Western Michigan defensive linemen. Though the Broncos return experienced contributors in Western Peiffer and Freddie Bishop, the defensive line is not in good shape. After starting a handful of games at end last fall, Peiffer will move inside to tackle in 2010. Bishop, who supplanted Peiffer in the starting lineup at end, will start at end once he returns to full health; he missed much of the spring. In good news, projected starter John Rice, a junior, fared well at tackle in the spring. He likely cemented his place in the starting lineup. The new defensive coaching staff also had good things to say about sophomore end Paul Hazel. He looks too small (6’5, 204 pounds — maybe) to stand up to the down-to-down grind on the ground, but Hazel could have an impact as a part-time pass rusher.

Position battles to watch

Running back Gone is Brandon West, perhaps the finest running back and undoubtedly the most prolific all-purpose back in the history of college football. Hyperbole? Not quite: West departed as the all-time F.B.S. record holder for career kick return yards (3,118) and all-purpose yards (7,764). Surprised? I suppose I wouldn’t blame you, though West quietly became one of the nation’s top double-duty players over his final two seasons, cracking 1,000 yards in each campaign while contributing 110 receptions from 2007-9. His spot, perhaps even more so than Hiller’s, will be tough to replace. The Broncos plan to do so with junior Aaron Winchester, the lone returning back to tally even 100 yards a year ago. He’ll be pushed, however, and don’t be surprised if Cubit opts to go with a by-committee approach; how else could he replace West’s production? Redshirt freshmen Brian Fields and Antoin Scriven performed well enough in the spring to earn some snaps come September, while junior Jason Deshazor split time running with the first-team offense with Winchester.

Game(s) to watch

The month of November. The Broncos close with Central Michigan and Bowling Green — both due to take a step back in 2010 — on the road and Eastern Michigan and Kent State at home. If Western Michigan can avoid falling flat over the season’s first two months, there is the potential for a late-season bowl run.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell To say this is a rebuilding year for Western Michigan is a bit strong. The Broncos do return 14 starters, after all, and will feature an intriguing mix of senior experience and young talent on both sides of the ball. Instead, let me say this: I doubt Western Michigan’s ability to improve upon last season’s finish. Let’s get my issues out of the way. 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. I simply believe the Broncos to be the fourth-best team in the West division — very, very close to Central Michigan.

Dream season The Broncos revert back to 2008 form, finishing 9-3, 6-2 in the MAC, and winning a West division title.

Nightmare season Another slide: 3-9, 1-7 in conference action. That would mark the first time Cubit has suffered successive losing seasons since taking over in 2005.

In case you were wondering

Where do Western Michigan fans congregate? Not happy with Western Michigan fans for the dearth of coverage. If you’re willing to bear the silence of these quiet message boards, you can find coverage of Western Michigan recruiting at BroncoBlitz.com and Broncos Illustrated. Additional information can be found at the Web site of The Kalamazoo Gazette, which is probably your best option.

Up Next

Who is No. 91? While our next program has bumped its win total in four of the last five season, the university’s enrollment has been the fastest-growing in its home state for the last six years.

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Comments

  1. Randy says:

    For Bronco following try this forum, moste migrated there from Broncos Illustrated several years ago.

    http://ncaabbs.com/forumdisplay.php?fid=469

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