Over the last nine seasons, nine different teams have played in the MAC title game. Western Michigan is not one of them. The Broncos have been one of the most consistently strong teams in the conference, as evidenced by the fact that they rank second in five-year F/+. In seven years under Bill Cubit, they have finished bowl eligible five times, attended three bowls and never finished worse than 5-7. They have finished .500 or better in conference for each of the last four years and six of the last seven. In a conference with more parity than the NFL, that is quite an accomplishment. But division titles have eluded them. Even last year, when they ranked 51st overall and made their first bowl game in three seasons, they finished two games back of Northern Illinois and Toledo in the MAC West.
Still, while the lack of a 21st-century division title may be frustrating, that is at least somewhat alleviated by the simple fact that Cubit's Broncos have made some tremendous progress over the last two seasons. They may have picked a bad year to go just 2-4 in one-possession games (they lost to Illinois by three, to Eastern Michigan by four, to Toledo by three and to Purdue by five), but they showed some incredible offensive efficiency and put together one of the best special teams units in the country. Even with a hit-or-miss defense, that combination will win you quite a few games, especially in the MAC.
Entering 2012, WMU strangely fulfills two different themes we have uncovered during our long, arduous tour through the MAC: like Toledo, they must replace some brand-name difference-makers (receiver Jordan White and defensive tackle Drew Nowak, to name two), but like so many other conference rivals, they return a vast majority of defenders and offensive linemen, not to mention both an accomplished quarterback and his intriguing backup. With Northern Illinois and Toledo each facing quite a bit of transition this fall, the MAC West race is a bit of a tossup. Is this the year WMU breaks through again in the title race?
WMU's F/+ ratings suggest they were an above-average MAC team, but they were never simply above average. They were either great or terrible. Youth can explain some of this -- the secondary was littered with freshmen, the quarterback was a sophomore, the best running back was a freshman who didn't debut until mid-season -- but ... all of it? We'll see. If youth was a major cause of WMU's downfall, then their ceiling could be awfully high in 2011. […]
As with Toledo, I seem to be talking myself into Western Michigan. This has been a kooky team in recent years, usually good (aside from the end of the Darnell era), but usually not too good. If the secondary is indeed improved, and if Tevin Drake's encore is as good as his debut, then perhaps only Toledo has a higher ceiling than the Broncos. But if the secondary isn't any better, and if the quality on the offensive line plummets, then things look a lot different. […]
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this team, however, has little to do with 2011. If the projected starting lineups hold true as expected, then WMU will return another 14-16 starters next year. Carder is a junior, and the aforementioned load of sophomores will be around a while longer. There will be work to do in the receiving corps, but otherwise the table is set for a nice run for Cubit and company.
Close. WMU returns 13 starters from a team that surged offensively and stagnated defensively. The offensive line played at a similar level as it had in 2010, as did the secondary, and WMU laid fewer eggs overall. And, indeed, aside from a ravaged receiving corps, a large portion of the squad remains intact.
Bill Cubit has been around. When Missouri head coach Larry Smith attempted to stave off vultures following his team's 1999 collapse, he brought Cubit aboard to install this new-fangled "spread" offense he had run to great success as Western Michigan's offensive coordinator; the Broncos had averaged 31 points per game and suffered their first of two straight tight MAC title game losses to Marshall in 1999, and well over a decade later, he is still in Kalamazoo, and his offenses are still both pass-happy and prolific.
WMU is unabashed in its desire to throw the ball, and while that can occasionally have its drawbacks -- lord knows WMU couldn't couldn't come through in short-yardage situations in the bowl loss to Purdue -- it is difficult to argue with results; WMU has won 47 games in seven seasons under Cubit, more than the 45 in Gary Darnell's first seven seasons, and more than the 46 in Al Mode's first seven seasons (1987-93). (Oh by the way, WMU has been strangely consistent through the years.)
That WMU returns seven starters from a strong offense is obviously a positive, but there is quite a large asterisk: the Broncos must replace three receivers who combined for 73.4 percent of all of WMU's targets last year. Jordan White, Robert Arnheim and Chleb Ravenell caught 269 of 388 passes last year for 3,452 yards; all three averaged at least 7.1 adj. yards per target, and both White and Ravenell averaged at least 9.3. Receivers like 6-foot-6 senior Eric Monette and junior Josh Schaffer showed some potential last year (combined: 65 targets, 48 catches, 547 yards in 2011), and the unit is getting a blod transfusion with the addition of junior college transfers Darrin Duncan and Justin Collins and three-star freshmen Jaime Wilson and Daniel Braverman (Wilson was a high three-star signee, one of the most highly touted of Cubit's tenure … and if you are a receiver, why wouldn't you consider WMU?). A Cubit passing offense, led by an experienced quarterback, is going to be competent. But last year's offense was particularly impressive and efficient, ranking 20th in Passing Success Rate+. White was targeted a combined 347 times in 2010-11; his departure creates a void, and there is no way around it.
The return of quarterback Alex Carder (3,873 yards, 31 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) is encouraging (backup Tyler Van Tubbergen is solid, too), as is the return of four starting linemen and two others with starting experience (70 career starts). In the WMU pass attack, sacks are typically held at a minimum, and that should be the case again in 2012 (as long as Carder occasionally finds open receivers). And though it is a secondary point, the run game should improve. Tevin Drake averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2011 and features some nice big-play potential, and Dareyon Chance returns from injury, but WMU's top four running backs combined to average just 15 carries per game. That probably won't change. This offense's success will be determined by Carder and his new set of pass catchers. Schaffer looked good this spring, but … 388 targets are so many to replace. The fall probably won't be drastic, but it is impossible to think it won't exist to some degree.
With Carder and a dangerous trio of receivers, WMU's offense improved from 65th to 38th in Off. F/+. The defense, meanwhile, sank from 66th to 85th in Def. F/+. The Broncos had an attacking front, to the point where opponents ran frequently on passing downs to fend off what was a solid pass rush. The problem for WMU was, the running worked. WMU ranked 95th in Adj. Line Yards, 103rd in Rushing S&P+. If players like tackle Drew Nowak (20.5 tackles for loss), end Freddie Bishop (12) and rover Johnnie Simon (10.5) weren't making plays, they were giving them up. The Broncos typically created an interesting gameplan and came out firing -- 45th in First Quarter S&P+ -- but things quickly fell apart (111th in the second quarter, 96th in the third, 92nd in the fourth). For anybody who watched the 2011 Little Caesars Bowl, that was pretty much what you saw; Purdue gained 135 yards on their first 29 plays (4.7 per play), then 153 in their next 22 (7.0) as they turned an early five-point WMU lead into a 12-point deficit.
Defensive coordinator Dave Cohen left to become linebackers coach for his home-state school, Rutgers, but until proven otherwise we should expect a similar style under new coordinator Rich Nagy, who worked under Cohen at both Hofstra and WMU. Nagy expressed the desire to simplify things this spring, but aggression will likely still be the watchword. And Nagy will certainly still have some playmakers at his disposal; Nowak is gone, but Bishop and Simon return, and there are some interesting other candidates for attacking: tackle Travonte Boles (4.5 of his 15.5 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage), end-turned-hybrid-linebacker Paul Hazel (3.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up, three forced fumbles), corners Lewis Toler and Donald Celiscar (combined: 10 passes defended), and possibly newcomers like junior college linebackers Jake Minster and Terry Easmon and three-star freshman end Michael Dubose.
The problem is, there is no evidence that the downside of WMU's aggression (big plays, a line that gets pushed around against the run) will be any less of a liability. It appears Nagy might moving to a more frequent 3-4 alignment (with Hazel as the hybrid OLB/DE), which suits the personnel a little better and, in theory, gets more speed on the field. But we'll see if Nagy can bring any sort of change in this regard.
(One other thing bears mentioning here: WMU ranked fourth and eighth in Special Teams F/+ over the last two seasons, and they must replace punter Ben Armer, place-kicker and kickoffs guy John Potter and every primary return man. Special teams can make a different if you are either really good at it or really bad at it; WMU has been really good, but they could be relinquishing an advantage in this category in the fall.)
Western Michigan gets Toledo and Northern Illinois at home this year. One has to assume Bronco fans are going to be disappointed if they cannot squeeze out a division title, so whether it is fair or not, we will set the bar there.
The Good: WMU is deep and experienced at quarterback, running back and offensive line. And despite flaws, they do have quite a few playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bad: There's always a chance that the new receiving corps takes a while to get things figured out, the special teams unit is starting from scratch, and we don't have any evidence that WMU will be any better at stopping big plays.
The MAC West race could be fascinating this year, but, without a doubt, WMU has a role to play in it. If the passing game clicks, and if the Broncos can actually remember how to win close games (they have now lost seven of their last nine one-possession contests), they could end up running away with the title. But those are two pretty big ifs.