In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
Western Michigan Broncos
2014 Record: 8-5 (6-2 in MAC)
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (.360)
Returning Starters: 18/24 (9 OFF/7 DEF/2 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 85th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 4 v. Michigan State
- Sept. 12 @ Georgia Southern
- Sept. 26 @ Ohio State
- Nov. 18 @ Northern Illinois
- Nov. 27 @ Toledo
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE BRONCOS
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or just started following college football last year, you might not realize what a surprise last season’s success was for Western Michigan. Last year’s 2-3 start is more indicative of the school’s long football history than the six-game winning streak that brought them to bowl eligibility a year after going 1-11:
The Broncos have a rich history dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Between 1909 and the start of World War II, Western Michigan finished undefeated six times under three different coaches. They would win the MAC in 1966 and again in 1988, and returned under Gary Darnell to play in the MAC championship game in both 1999 and 2000. Fifteen years later, the tide has turned once again and Western Michigan could be challenging for its first conference title in over a quarter century.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE BRONCOS IN 2015
So much talent returns from last year’s squad for P.J. Fleck that Western Michigan will have enough depth to push Northern Illinois for the MAC West title. Nine starters return on offense, including Zach Terrell — who ended 2014 as the sixth-most efficient passer in the country. The team returns over 96 percent of the yardage from a team that ranked top 40 in both yards and points scored per game. The only issue will be replacing two starters from last year’s offensive line that gave Terrell plenty of protection to work his magic.
They also have a schedule that allows Western Michigan fans to dream big. Both Michigan State and Ohio State are on this year’s schedule, and even playing close against one of them would open the door to a new avenue of respect nationally. The Broncos also square off on the road against Georgia Southern, last year’s Sun Belt champion, providing an opportunity to set the hierarchy between the two mid-major leagues. It is a schedule laced with plenty of land mines, but perfection will not be required to remain in the discussion.
WHAT COULD COST THE BRONCOS THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
The Broncos have to fight against history — and the reigning champs of the MAC West — to even remain in the discussion. Their two Big Ten contests are against the two toughest teams in that league, and Georgia Southern could put WMU in a three-game hole before the MAC schedule even starts. They also have to end the season with a road swing against Northern Illinois and Toledo that will test the team’s depth to its utmost. Just as Western Michigan showed itself prone to streaks last year as they managed to string together six straight, a handful of early losses could precipitate an even worse dip in confidence that torpedoes the season.
They must also contend with the loss of nearly 40 percent of the tackles its defense recorded last season. That production will be hard to replace, especially early in the season when the Broncos must face their toughest three-game stretch of the season right out of the gate. If coordinator Ed Pinkham and the defensive staff can’t get their new charges up to speed immediately, that hole could be irrevocably deep before the year even really gets started. A couple of losses to major teams won’t be insurmountable, but a loss to Georgia Southern would serve as the head-to-head decider that eliminates the Broncos.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
Let’s just get things out of the way immediately — the Spartans and the Buckeyes are both going to defeat Western Michigan on either end of September. The only real question is whether the Broncos can keep the games competitive. The Michigan State game could allow WMU to catch the Spartans off guard as they look ahead to Oregon’s visit, but that will only allow the Broncos to keep things closer than expected. Georgia Southern will also provide quite the challenge, but Western Michigan should be able to prevail on the road to keep their hopes intact. A second confidence builder against FCS Murray State ahead of the Ohio State game will allow the Broncos to reach 2-2.
A rivalry win over Central Michigan to start the MAC campaign on the second weekend of October will give the Broncos their first taste of a winning record. Ohio, Miami, and Eastern Michigan will all ensure that Western Michigan never drops below .500 for the rest of the season, and at 4-0 in conference play by the end of October the Broncos will have a legitimate shot at closing out the season with a sustained push to the championship game. Home games against Ball State and Bowling Green will secure bowl eligibility, but the final two games will determine how far the dream can go for Western Michigan.
The trip to Northern Illinois will be a challenge, given that the Broncos have lost to the Huskies by an average of 19 points per game in each of the past six seasons since their last win over NIU in 2008. But the trip to DeKalb also offers a chance to exorcise those demons anew, and WMU has the experienced roster to steal away the MAC West from the school that has kept a stranglehold on the division for the past half-decade. They’ll still have to take care of business at the Glass Bowl against Toledo, but a narrow victory on the road will open the door for the Broncos to play in the MAC championship for the first time in the 21st century. A defeat of Bowling Green will put Western Michigan in the discussion for the Access Bowl as MAC champion, but the 11-2 Broncos will have to settle for a consolation prize. Let down by the snub, WMU will nevertheless solidify the best season in school history with a bowl victory to complete a full dozen in the win column.
PREDICTED RECORD: 12-2 (8-0 in MAC)