GAME NOTES: The top team from the Mid-American Conference and the best of the Sun Belt Conference will collide this Wednesday night when the 25th-ranked Central Michigan Chippewas take on the Troy Trojans for the first-time ever in the GMAC Bowl.
The Chippewas claimed their third MAC title in the last four seasons thanks to an 11-2 mark this season. The Chippewas opened the year with a 19-6 loss to Arizona on the road, but followed that setback with seven consecutive wins, including a 29-27 victory over Michigan State on the road. The team's seven- game winning streak came to an end on Halloween as the team was defeated by Boston College (31-10), but the Chippewas bounced back to win their final four games, including a 20-10 decision over Ohio University in the MAC Championship Game. The price of success has come at a cost however, as head coach Butch Jones has moved from the MAC to the Big East, taking the Cincinnati job vacated by Brian Kelly's move to Notre Dame. The school has named associate head coach Steve Stripling as the interim head coach through this bowl game.
CMU Director of Athletics Dave Heeke is confident in Stripling's ability to get the job done.
"I have great confidence in Steve's ability to lead our football program through the GMAC Bowl. He has served us well as associate head coach and his many years of experience have earned him the respect of our players and coaches."
This will be the fourth straight bowl appearance for CMU and the sixth overall in school history. The team is just 1-4 in the postseason and has lost its last two bowl games, including a 24-21 setback to Florida Atlantic in last year's Motor City Bowl.
The Trojans grabbed their fourth straight Sun Belt title this season after going 9-3 on the year. It was the first nine-win season for Troy in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and the Trojans also became the first team to go 8-0 in league action. However, the season began with two losses for Troy, as the team was defeated by Bowling Green (31-14) and Florida (56-6). The Trojans regained their swagger however, winning seven straight matchups before falling to Arkansas, 56-20. After the loss to the Razorbacks, the Trojans closed out their regular season with two victories over Florida Atlantic (47-21) and UL- Lafayette (48-31). This is the fourth bowl for Troy, which is just 1-2 in its previous three postseason appearances. Last year the Trojans gave up a 10- point fourth quarter lead against Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl and eventually fell to the Golden Eagles, 30-27, in overtime.
Through the past four seasons the Chippewas have leaned heavily on the play of Dan LeFevour, who is coming off another outstanding regular season. LeFevour paced the team on the ground with 701 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Bryan Schroeder rumbled for 486 yards and five touchdowns. While the Chippewas do not possess a main option in the backfield, the team still churned out an impressive 172.2 ypg on the ground. On top of LeFevour's play with his legs, the quarterback was even better with his arm, completing 71.1 percent of his throws. The senior signal caller finished the year with 3,043 passing yards and 27 touchdowns against only six interceptions. LeFevour was named the MAC's Offensive Player of the Year, as well as picking up the Vern Smith Leadership Award, presented annually to the conference's top football player overall.
LeFevour flourished with a slew of options at his disposal this year, but none more important than Antonio Brown, who grabbed 97 passes for 1,020 and nine touchdowns on the season. Bryan Anderson recorded 700 yards and six scores on 57 receptions, while Kito Poblah hauled in 50 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
The play of the offense usually gets most of the attention for Central Michigan, but the defensive play for the Chippewas was sensational throughout the season. CMU held the opposition to just 17.2 ppg and did a tremendous job against the run, limiting opponents to just 119.3 ypg on a weak 3.6 yards per tote. Equally up to the task has been the secondary, which shut down opposing passing attack, surrendering just 207.4 ypg through the air. Central Michigan's success was also due to the team's ability to step up its performance when it mattered most, as the Chippewas limited teams to just 36 percent on third down, while surrendering just 18 touchdowns on 43 red zone chances. Nick Bellore was one of the top players in the MAC this season, as the linebacker paced the Chippewas with 118 tackles and 11.0 TFLs. Bellore also collected three sacks and two interceptions. Matt Berning was also solid, posting 100 stops and 8.5 TFLs.
The Trojans were not only the best offensive team in the Sun Belt, but they put up numbers that rivaled some of the top schools in the nation. Troy finished the regular season averaging 33.1 ppg, on an impressive 478.5 total ypg. The Trojans were not overwhelming on the ground this season, but the team was still potent, rumbling for 147.5 ypg. There was not a main option in the backfield, but Shawn Southward and DuJuan Harris formed a dangerous tandem. Southward rumbled for 574 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season, while Harris rushed for 471 yards and eight scores. What really propelled this offense into elite status however, was the passing attack, which is led by Levi Brown. Brown completed 64.7 percent of his passes during the regular season, finishing the year with 3,868 yards and 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions, and was named Sun Belt Player of the Year for his efforts.
Head coach Larry Blakeney has nothing but high praise for his veteran signal caller.
"Levi is certainly deserving of all the recognition he has received. This honor is a testament not only to the kind of player Levi has become, but also to the perseverance he displayed to put himself in position to succeed."
Brown ranks second nationally in passing yards per game (322.3) and comes into this bowl game with two reliable outlets. Jerrel Jernigan led the team with 62 receptions and 947 yards. The other option for Brown is Tebiarus Gill, who grabbed a team-high six touchdowns and finished the regular season with 44 catches and 553 yards.
Defensively has been a different story for Troy, which has struggled to stop opposing teams, especially against the pass. Troy was torched for 277.8 ypg through the air, and out of the 45 touchdowns allowed by this unit, 28 came via the pass. Overall the Trojans surrendered 417.9 total yards per matchup, and that led to 28.6 ppg. What has helped this defense has been its ability to force big plays, as the team forced 20 turnovers, while recording 31 sacks. Troy also struggled inside the red zone, as opponents scored 29 touchdowns in 41 chances. There are plenty of outstanding players on this defense however, beginning with Bear Woods, who led the team with 138 tackles and 18.0 TFLs. Boris Lee also had a sensational campaign, racking up 122 stops and 13.0 TFLs. Brandon Lang and Cameron Sheffield also did well, recording 7.5 and 7.0 sacks, respectively.
Both teams have outstanding offensive units, but the one difference between Central Michigan and Troy has come on the defensive side of the football. While the Chippewas have been solid throughout the season, the Trojans have plenty of holes that will likely be exploited by LeFevour and company.
Sorts Network Predicted Outcome: Central Michigan 34, Troy 24