Astute observers of the AP Top 25 noted a new name in at No. 24 this week, as the Western Michigan Broncos earned their first ranking in program history after starting the season 6-0. Western Michigan pulled off two early road wins against Big Ten opponents (the Big Ten West might as well just add WMU for this season) and has also won its first two MAC games so far.
Given its relatively weak strength of schedule — the Broncos face only one team ranked higher than 85th, according to S&P+ rankings — an undefeated season is possible for the kids in Kalamazoo. ESPN’s FPI metric indicates Western Michigan has a 43 percent chance at an undefeated season, the best among any FBS team.
A big part of Western Michigan’s rebuild can be credited to their coach, the easily excitable P.J. Fleck.
WMU had only attended (and lost) four bowl games in its pre-Fleck history. The Broncos have now gone to two in a row and won last year’s Bahamas Bowl.
“Row the Boat” is the mantra Fleck uses to describe “how [the] whole program will fit together.” Having a creative slogan seems to fit some of his more bizarre moments, including taking the Polar Plunge, employing his best Horse Whisperer tactics, and running along the sidelines as one of his players took a kickoff return back for a touchdown.
He once even announced that a walk-on would be receiving a scholarship with the help of Sylvester Stallone.
To Fleck, the philosophy keeps players heading in the right direction. He suggests that people who do otherwise are “headed toward Turdville.”
His personality is a big part of the reason WMU’s recruiting has dominated its conference and much of mid-majordom. Over the last two years, WMU has averaged a 247Sports Composite finish of 75th out of 128 FBS teams, just shy of several Power 5 teams. The Broncos’ 2017 class currently ranks No. 48.
Whatever it is Fleck has been using to motivate his players has definitely been working.
The Broncos have averaged 44.8 points per game, tied for sixth-best in the country. Their average margin of victory is 19.4 points per game, No. 10 among all FBS teams.
According to their advanced statistical profile, the Broncos’ strengths are offensive efficiency, a great passing game, and a disruptive defensive line.
Their 478.5 yards per game ranks 29th, and their advanced metrics profile isn’t quite so compelling, as their S&P+ metric, which gauges how a team should be expected to perform, ranks just 61st.
Nevertheless, given the low quality of their MAC (and Big Ten) opponents, Western Michigan might just have a sufficiently high-powered offense to run the table and finish the regular season undefeated. The running back combo of junior Jarvion Franklin and sophomore Jamauri Bogan have both topped 500 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns on the ground this season. Senior quarterback Zach Terrell has nearly 1,400 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, and no interceptions this season.
And star WR Corey Davis can do stuff like this:
.@WMU_Football's Corey Davis with one of the best catches you will see all night. https://t.co/a24iJeJ8Ba— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 9, 2016
Now, could we see Western Michigan earn the guaranteed slot for one of the Group of Five teams in the New Year’s Six bowl games?
There are a couple of obstacles the Broncos will have to row their boat around first. Assuming they beat their next five opponents, all of whom have S&P+ rankings of 85th or worse, the Broncos would have to beat arguably the only other good team in the MAC, Toledo, in the regular-season finale. If they win, they would have to also win the MAC Championship vs. a likely weaker opponent.
Not even a 13-0 record, however, would guarantee a New Year’s Six berth. An undefeated Boise State, a one-loss Houston, which would have wins over Louisville and Oklahoma, or even another American Athletic Conference champion could earn the nod over Western Michigan.
The Broncos’ postseason fate may remain uncertain, but the program’s first-ever top-25 ranking is as strong a case as ever that they are rowing their boat in the right direction.