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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. 99: Central Michigan

Roy Kramer’s impact on college football reaches beyond the borders of Mount Pleasant, Mich., where he spent 11 years as the most successful head coach in Central Michigan’s history — with all due respect to Herb Deromedi. After concluding his coaching career in 1977, Kramer was hired as the athletic director at Vanderbilt, serving in that position through 1990 before being named commissioner of the SEC. It’s in this capacity that Kramer changed the game. First, in 1991, he added Arkansas and South Carolina. A year later, the SEC became the first league in the F.B.S. to play a conference title game. Over the next decade, a period that saw the SEC develop into the most dominant league in N.C.A.A. history, Kramer brokered record-breaking television deals with contracts stretching long past the end of his tenure in 2002. Oh, and before we forget: the B.C.S. was Kramer’s brainchild. You like college football as it currently stands? You can thank Kramer. Then again, if you hate the way the landscape has changed, feel free to blame Kramer.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Mount Pleasant, Mich.

Nickname
Chippewas

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 115

2011 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 111

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    SE Missouri St.
  • Sept. 8
    Michigan St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Iowa
  • Sept. 29
    at Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 6
    at Toledo
  • Oct. 12
    Navy
  • Oct. 20
    Ball St.
  • Oct. 27
    Akron
  • Nov. 3
    W. Michigan
  • Nov. 10
    at E. Michigan.
  • Nov. 17
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 23
    at UMass

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Another three wins, giving Dan Enos six over two years, or half of what Butch Jones won in his final season at Central Michigan. Think back, if you can, and recall those days when C.M.U. had the best offense in the MAC. Those days are gone. Toledo scored nearly twice as many points during the regular season as C.M.U., which has scored 30 or more points only four times under Enos after averaging 32.1 points per game from 2006-9. Excluding a 48-point showing against Northern Illinois — an aberration — the Chippewas averaged 22.6 points per game during conference play, scoring 17 points or less three times. C.M.U. was an equal-opportunity offender, however: the defense was just as bad, giving up 400 points for the first time since 2007 and only the fourth time in program history. Last year’s team was worse than Enos’ first team, which was equal parts surprising — seeing that you wouldn’t think C.M.U. could get worse — and disappointing.

High point Northern Illinois. And not necessarily because the Chippewas’ remaining two wins came over South Carolina State and Akron, though that doesn’t hurt, of course. For one Saturday, this offense looked like its old self. C.M.U. scored 48 points, a high under Enos, and gained a season-high 563 yards of total offense. The Chippewas beat Akron by one point, fighting off a late surge from the Zips, and South Carolina State by 15 points.

Low point A four-week span from Oct. 15 to Nov. 4. While this period included that win over Akron, it also featured three close, painful conference losses: by 35-28 to Eastern Michigan, 31-27 at Ball State and 24-21 at Kent State.

Tidbit C.M.U. won 18 straight MAC games against opponents located in the state of Ohio from Sept. 10, 2005, through Oct. 16, 2010. The streak began with a 38-30 win over Miami (Ohio) and ended, fittingly enough, with a 27-20 loss to Miami (Ohio). Including that defeat to the RedHawks, the Chippewas have lost five of six against teams from Ohio; the lone win came last October against Akron, with losses to the RedHawks, Bowling Green, Ohio and Toledo, the latter twice.

Tidbit (new-look MAC edition) Enos is one of nine MAC head coaches in either his first, second or third season at his current stop. He’s one of two MAC coaches to debut in 2010, joining Buffalo’s Jeff Quinn; the pair has combined to win 11 games over two years. Another four MAC coaches arrived in 2011: Ball State’s Pete Lembo, Kent State’s Darrell Hazell, Don Treadwell at Miami (Ohio) and Dave Doeren at Northern Illinois. Another three are set to take the field in the fall: Akron’s Terry Bowden, Massachusetts’ Charley Molnar and Toledo’s Matt Campbell – though Campbell did lead the Rockets through bowl play last winter as the interim coach.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 CB Vince Agnew (Miami), LB Nick Bellore (New York Jets), LB Matt Berning (New York Jets), WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), CB Josh Gordy (St. Louis), P Brett Hartmann (Houston), DT Cullen Jenkins (Philadelphia), QB Dan LeFevour (Jacksonville), C Colin Miller (Oakland), OT Joe Staley (San Francisco), LB Frank Zombo (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Ex-MAC head coaches now on B.C.S. conference level
1. Nick Saban, Alabama (Toledo).
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State (Bowling Green).
3. Gary Pinkel, Missouri (Toledo).
4. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame (Central Michigan).
5. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest (Ohio).

Coaching

Dan Enos (Michigan State ’91), 6-18 after two season. Central Michigan has fallen fast and hard over the last two years. Does blame for the slide all fall on Enos’s plate? Much of it has to be due to his coaching decisions, more than one of which seems ridiculous in hindsight. Enos is a former Michigan State quarterback and assistant with deep ties to the state of Michigan. As Michigan State’s quarterback from 1989-90, Enos led the Spartans to 16 combined 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? This will be his best team yet, both in terms of depth and experience, so it might be now or never.

Players to watch

Ryan Radcliffe is the best passing quarterback in the MAC during conference games. When Radcliffe and the Chippewas leave MAC play, however, the senior turns into a train wreck. Consider last fall, when Radcliffe threw for 19 touchdowns against 6 picks during conference action but threw six touchdowns against nine interceptions during non-conference play. Surprised? Don’t be: Central Michigan’s non-conference schedule consisted of Kentucky, Michigan State and N.C. State, along with South Carolina State, so Radcliffe’s split should be expected. One thing his poor non-conference performance has done, however, is cause those who look only at end-of-year statistics to doubt Radcliffe’s ability to lead this offense at an all-MAC level. I don’t buy that for a moment.

With Iowa and Michigan State on the schedule in September, Radcliffe is again going to stumble out of the gate. But he’ll hit his stride late in the season’s first month and stay there, if last fall’s results are any indication. Now entering his third season in the starting lineup, Radcliffe has reached the point in his career where things have slowed down significantly: opposing defenses are less likely to throw him for a loop, especially during league play, and he’s developed a rapport with a strong returning crop of receivers. With one season left in his career, Radcliffe ranks second in C.M.U. history in nearly every meaningful passing category.

He’s not perfect. He’s not the best quarterback in the MAC. But he’s clearly the Chippewas’ best option — no question there — and more than talented enough to be the driving force behind any projected step C.M.U. takes forward in 2012. You just need to accept Radcliffe for what he is: he’s going to throw a few picks, he’s going to have foul games during non-conference play, he’s not going to hit on 65 percent of his attempts, he’s going to have the odd head-scratching moment and he’s not as good as Alex Carder. Radcliffe is also not what’s wrong with C.M.U.; he strikes me as a quarterback who will be missed when he’s gone.

Radcliffe relied heavily on tight end David Blackburn a year ago, especially in the intermediate game, so C.M.U. does need to replace Blackburn’s receiving skills heading into September. Sophomore Caleb Southworth (10 receptions for 109 yards) made some plays as a rookie, coming on strong down the stretch, so I imagine that he’ll get first crack at stepping into Blackburn’s shoes — though Enos does have several young options at the position. There’s significant potential at receiver, especially in the sophomore pairing of Titus Davis (team-best 40 catches for 751 yards and 8 scores) and Courtney Williams (21 receptions for 385 yards and 5 scores); this duo was the lone true freshman pairing in the F.B.S. to make at least five touchdown grabs apiece in 2011.

Williams’ totals came in just six games, so you have to be intrigued by what sort of production he can bring to the table over the span of a full season. While it’s easy to focus solely on this young pair, C.M.U. also has a steady veteran in senior Cody Wilson (48 catches for 526 yards), an all-MAC pick a season ago. Wilson’s numbers took a slide late — he made only one catch over his last three games — due to injuries, but when healthy, he teams with Williams and Davis to form one of the MAC’s best receiving corps. Add in the consistency of senior Jerry Harris, who has 52 receptions over the last two years, and C.M.U. has enough weapons to keep Radcliffe happy. The only question mark in the passing game is at tight end; for now, it’s hard to predict if the Chippewas can replicate the all-conference play Blackburn brought to the table.

The offensive line will be Central Michigan’s best under Enos. This group was great in pass protection last fall despite a rash of injuries: C.M.U. used four different starting lineups yet still managed to rank second in the MAC in sacks allowed per pass attempt. The running game is another issue, one I’ll touch on below, but if Enos does opt to rely more heavily on the ground game, this line has the size, strength and experience to open up holes on first and second down. The Chippewas will start four seniors, each of whom carries at least 17 career starts into the fall. The group’s best is left tackle Eric Fisher, which makes sense, seeing how C.M.U. protected the quarterback in 2011. Fisher teams with Jake Olson, whose 25 career starts leads all lineman, to bookend the offensive line. Inside, C.M.U. will go with Mike Repovz at left guard and Darren Keyton at either center or right guard.

There are your four seniors, and it’s a strong foundation. Keyton’s final position remains in flux: C.M.U. could move him to guard and play sophomore Andy Phillips at center, for example, or go with fellow sophomore Kevin Henry at guard and play Keyton at center. It’s a strong starting group, but the Chippewas still have two lingering concerns. One is overall depth, though C.M.U. will be aided greatly by four linemen coming off redshirt seasons — that group must be ready to go. Another is injuries, which crippled C.M.U. over the final month of last season. It’s safe to be excited about this line’s potential, but the offensive front could fall apart if one or two or the seniors miss an extended period of time.

The strength of Central Michigan’s defense is its secondary, where the Chippewas return both starting safeties, one starting cornerbacks and a pair of young, talented sophomore cornerbacks poised to move into the starting lineup. One of this group, senior strong safety Jahleel Addae (107 tackles, 4 interceptions), was Central Michigan’s first first-team all-MAC pick in a decade, believe it or not. It was wholly deserved, though as elsewhere — at Troy, for example — it would be better for C.M.U. to not have its top tackler be its strong safety. But unlike at Troy, with all due respect to Brynden Trawick, Addae has shown an ability to play the ball in pass coverage. This makes him invaluable.

Addae is joined by senior free safety Avery Cunningham (79 tackles) in solidifying the back end of the Chippewas’ defense. Yet even with this solid pair in place, C.M.U. allowed eight of its last nine opponents to throw for at least 230 yards and picked off only eight passes all season — half by Addae. A healthy portion of the blame for such ineptitude falls heavily on Central Michigan’s cornerbacks, which underscores one factor of crucial importance: sophomores Dennis Nalor and Jarret Chapman must be ready to go from the start. This pair will battle for the right to replace John Carr and join senior Lorenzo White (41 tackles), an 11-game starter last fall, in the starting lineup. Not that C.M.U. doesn’t have other options, including a huge batch of true and redshirt freshmen, but after serving in reserve roles a year ago, Nalor and Chapman are the closest to game-ready.

C.M.U. lost a pair of starters at linebacker. Never fear: there’s a succession plan in place. The plan has been in place since early last season, when then-true freshmen Ryan Petro (14 tackles) and Cody Lopez (58 tackles) earned starting nods on the strong side and weak side, respectively. They’ll move permanently into the starting lineup in 2012, replacing Armond Staten and Mike Petrucci. There will be some drop off at each position this fall, as you’d expect — going from seniors to sophomores — but each has the potential to turn into multiple-year starters.

Petro and Lopez will flank middle linebacker Shamari Benton (58 tackles, 3.5 for loss), a junior. Benton started four of Central Michigan’s last five games a year ago. The Chippewas have another option in the middle with sophomore Justin Cherocci, though Cherocci could also play on the strong side, as he did for parts of last season.

The back seven isn’t good, though it could turn into a solid group if the sophomore cornerbacks and linebackers play beyond their years. The real issue, however, lies up front: Central Michigan’s defensive line might carry some experience into 2012, but this group is completely lacking in proven production. No one C.M.U. defender has shown an ability to get consistent pressure in the backfield; no one down lineman has shown an ability to get to the quarterback; and the line as a whole lacks explosiveness, especially at end. All that was missing a year ago was a red flag and a matador’s outfit — the line sidestepped away as MAC opponents ran at will. You saw a white flag more than once: C.M.U. simply surrendered against Ohio and Toledo.

You can lean towards optimism in the secondary, thanks in part to the senior safeties, and you can be positive about the two sophomore starters at linebacker, but don’t hold out hope that this defensive line is going to turn stout overnight. Instead, just hold out hope that the bleeding doesn’t get out of control; instead of rolling over during MAC play, hope that C.M.U. plays with a bit more fire and determination up front. But if you are going to carry a degree of optimism into September, it’s likely because of the large presence — emphasis on large — of three underclassmen tackles: Letterius Walton, Jabari Dean and Shafer Johnson. On a line largely devoid of size, this 300-pound trio can lend some help against the run.

Each needs to play, because going ahead with just senior Steve Winston (37 tackles) and sophomore Matt Losiniecki (22 tackles) in the middle of the line simply isn’t tenable. Both can play, both have played, and both will continue to play in 2012. However, neither is particularly big — 260 and 265 pounds, respectively — which might explain why Central Michigan’s run defense was so putrid. Adding Dean, Walton and Johnson into the mix will give the Chippewas three linemen capable of standing tall along the interior of the line.

Another issue is the pass rush. With Darryll Stinson out for this coming season, C.M.U. will rely on senior Caesar Rodriguez to join another senior, Joe Kinville (50 tackles, 5.5 for loss), in the starting lineup at end. Kinville is Central Michigan’s best lineman — or the team’s most proven lineman, at least. While Enos has done a nice job on the recruiting trail, the Chippewas are short on available ends. That’s one reason why playing Winston or Losiniecki outside in certain situations seems like a viable option, especially if the three beefier tackles show themselves capable of handling the load along the interior.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Clearly, Central Michigan can throw the football. One thing the Chippewas have not done under Enos, however, is the run the ball with any consistency. Last fall, C.M.U. finished 7th in the MAC and 98th nationally in averaging 115.8 yards per game, and tied Akron with the fewest touchdowns in the F.B.S. with seven. You don’t want to be tied with the Zips in anything — except in men’s soccer, perhaps. The numbers are poor, but so is Enos’ commitment to the running game, to be fair. The Chippewas’ ranked 117th in the country with 333 carries as a team, cracking the 30-carry mark only five times. But each of C.M.U.’s three wins came when the team had at least 30 carries. Ergo, C.M.U. and Enos should set a goal of running the ball 30 times per game.

Depth at running back took a slight hit after former Michigan transfer Austin White was dismissed from the program earlier in the spring, though it’s hard to project just how large a role White would have held in the offense. But with White out and Paris Cotton exhausting his eligibility, C.M.U. is going to need a full season from junior Zurlon Tipton (310 yards), who was limited to seven games last fall due to injury. When healthy, Tipton could give the Chippewas 15 touches per game; he’s also been a factor in the passing game, making 17 receptions for 124 yards a year ago. Tipton’s injury issues allowed sophomore Anthony Garland (378 yards) to move into the rotation; the team’s leading returning rusher, Garland was one of three C.M.U. backs to post a 100-yard game last fall, joining Tipton and Cotton. Junior Tim Phillips was one contributor who might have seen his carries drop with White in the mix, but with the latter gone from the program, Phillips will reclaim his role as the Chippewas’ third back.

This trio — Tipton, Garland and Phillips — combined for 962 yards in 2011, which would have ranked seventh among individual MAC rushers. I know that the production as a whole is sorely lacking. But with some veteran linemen back in the fold and a gifted quarterback under center, there’s really no excuse for C.M.U. not to experience a degree of success in the running game. Is Tipton a premier back? Not by any means. Nevertheless, Enos should feed his backs to the tune of 35 carries per game in order to provide some balance to this offense.

Game(s) to watch

The Chippewas get Southeast Missouri State, Ball State, Akron and Massachusetts at home. Winning less than three of four is not an option – if C.M.U. plans on making a move in the West, that is. After an easy start to the season, the Chippewas embark on a daunting five-game stretch: Michigan State, at Iowa, at Northern Illinois, at Toledo and Navy. The season could spiral out of control early, it’s safe to say. But C.M.U. does close with four homes games over the second half of the year. Ball State, Akron, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio) come to Mount Pleasant.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I can think of several reasons why Central Michigan will be a better football team in 2012. Here are six: one, Radcliffe is entering his third season as the starting quarterback; two, the offensive line is the team’s best under Enos; three, the receiver corps has talent, especially in the two sophomores; four, the secondary has two very good safeties; five, there’s potential at outside linebacker; and six, help is on the way along the interior of the line. Based on what C.M.U. brings to the table, it’s safe to label the Chippewas as a MAC West contender — a contender of a sort, as the Chippewas will be better, but not nearly good enough to hang with Toledo, Western Michigan or Northern Illinois. So how can a team improve nearly across the board and still seem more than one step removed from conference title contention? Just remember where C.M.U. has been since the start of the 2010 season: this program needs to take two enormous leaps forward, not just one, before factoring into the MAC conversation. Not to say that I didn’t waffle on C.M.U., because I think this is a moderately strong team that could, perhaps, squeeze five wins out of this schedule. What’s keeping me from jumping on board is my relative lack of faith in Enos; he has not done a good job thus far, though he has helped replenish the overall talent level on the roster. There’s talent here, but in many key spots — cornerback, defensive line, linebacker and the second offensive line group — the talent seems a year away. C.M.U. is getting there, but isn’t yet a MAC contender. The big question is this: If the Chippewas suffer another three-win season, which is a possibility, will Enos be around to see this young roster round into form?

Dream season From offense to defense, the story for Central Michigan is youth playing beyond its years. The Chippewas move from 3-9 to 9-3 behind a vintage offense, led by strong quarterback play, and a defense that forces enough turnovers to keep teams like Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and others from lighting up the scoreboard.

Nightmare season C.M.U. drops six straight before moving back into the win column against Akron, but a losing streak starts anew with Western Michigan. The Chippewas beat only two teams all season: Southeast Missouri State and the Zips.

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 deserving of inclusion in this section. And a new option, thanks to a reader below: take a trip to Chippewa Country.

Central Michigan’s all-name nominee RB Zurlon Tipton.

Word Count

Through 26 teams 88,057.

Up Next

Who is No. 98? You could add up the two highest-scoring seasons in the history of tomorrow’s program and still fall shy of Houston’s F.B.S.-best scoring total of a year ago.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Kent State, 672 < 690.

  2. Tom says:

    Nice, in depth article. Without a doubt, the two lines are the basis of the CMU season. The OL must stay healthy. The DL must surprise and improve.

    You left out one of the best fan sites: Chippewas Country.com…. aka http://centralmichigan.rivals.com/default.asp?SID=1203&ReturnTo=centralmichigan%2Erivals%2Ecom&LIN=1

    And the Fire Up Chips site, while a recent addition to the fans congregation list, is barely breathing.

    Paul: Adding the Rivals.com site, thanks. I saw that Fire Up Chips hasn’t updated in a while, but I wasn’t sure if the blog just goes silent outside of football season.

  3. Patrick says:

    Very nicely done! By the way, CMU plays at UMass to end the regular season. You have it listed as a home game.

  4. Drew says:

    I think they lost to Miami, ohio 27-20 and not 27-70…but thats just me

  5. Mike says:

    I realize your arbitrary top-five lists are just that – arbitrary. However, I would think Urban Meyer might rate among the top-five former MAC coaches on the B.C.S. conference level.

    These previews are great, by the way. There’s no way anyone, anywhere, has better coverage of every team in the country. Thanks for all of your hard work!

    Paul: That was an egregious oversight. Just slipped my mind. Reworking the list now, thanks.

  6. Glenn says:

    Very good in depth article.

    As a CMU Chippewa fan, its refreshing to see a well researched and thought out article as the Chips don’t get a lot of press coverage in the Michigan papers, being over shadowed by the UofM and MSU and BCS bias.

    Thanks again for a nice article on the Chips.

  7. Wayne Fonts says:

    I’m glad you have the Chippewas cracking into your Top 99. It would be a dream season if the Chips can beat the Spartans in Mt. Pleasant on Sept. 8. Fast fact: Enos was on the MSU sideline as a graduate assistant coach in back-to-back losses to CMU in ’91 and ’92.

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