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CMU football goes 6-6 or so every year, but does it dramatically!

When will that change?

Central Michigan v Virginia Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images

If you are a casual college football fan, you know Central Michigan for one of two plays: the Hail Mary-Lateral play ...

... or the other Hail Mary-Lateral play.

At worst, they are two of the five best plays of the last three seasons. (Granted, the second one shouldn’t have happened, but so what? It did.) And the same quarterback and lateraling receiver were behind both.

There are worse things than being known as the Hail Mary-Lateral team. You could be the team that allowed them. You could be the team that almost pulled off something incredible.

And if you’re Central Michigan, without them, you’d be known for being the most perfectly average team in the MAC.

CMU’s record over the last five years: 7-6, 6-6, 7-6, 7-6, and 6-7. The coach changes (John Bonamego replaced Dan Enos after 2014), and the quality changes — in this five-year span, the Chippewas have ranked everywhere from 78th to 115th in S&P+ — but the record does not.

That can be a good thing. After all, you could be in a 3-9 rut. Going to a bowl game every year is not the worst fate.

Still, this is Central Michigan, the MAC’s team of the 2000s. From 2006-09, under Brian Kelly and then Butch Jones, the Chippewas won three MAC titles. They finished with 12 wins and an AP top 25 ranking in 2009. CMU fans probably aren’t in this simply for bowl trips. (That said, they’ve gotten to go to the Bahamas and Miami Beach within the last three years.)

Because 2015 was surprisingly impressive, 2016 was surprisingly disappointing. I set the bar low for the Chippewas after their sudden coaching change; Enos left late in the 2014-15 coaching carousel, and the Chippewas didn’t actually have a head coach on National Signing Day. But despite the strange turnover, and despite Bonamego fighting a cancer battle, CMU was legitimately solid.

In terms of S&P+, this was CMU's best team since 2009. After a pair of rebuilding years (6-18 in 2010-11), Enos' Chippewas rebounded to reach bowl eligibility three times. They won the Little Caesars Bowl against Western Kentucky in 2012, then nearly pulled off the greatest comeback in bowl history, falling to WKU in an epic Bahamas Bowl in 2014.

They also never topped 89th in S&P+ during Enos' time. In Bonamego's first year, with countless reasons for tamped-down expectations, they ranked 78th.

In a mulligan year, CMU made a statement. And now the tables have turned: The Chippewas return a 3,800-yard passer and his top five wideouts, plus most of the defensive two-deep. A year after Bonamego was challenged to not only manage a football team but also manage cancer, now we find out if he can manage expectations.

Indeed, CMU seemed to have a lot going for it in 2016 and began 3-0 with not only the crazy win over Oklahoma State, but also easy wins over Presbyterian and UNLV. And they were tied with Virginia early in the fourth quarter in Charlottesville.

From there, things went awry. UVA scored three touchdowns in five minutes to surge to a 49-35 win, and CMU won only three of its last 10 games. Losses to WMU and Toledo ended any hopes of a MAC West title run, and losses to Kent State, Miami (Ohio), and EMU brought into serious question CMU’s standing in the conference. The season finished up with a dreadful 55-10 loss to Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl.

CMU fell from 78th to 99th despite an experienced two-deep and avoiding an inordinate number of injuries. And now the Chippewas have to replace Rush, who threw for nearly 13,000 yards in a Chippewa uniform.

Granted, the turnover has been kept to a minimum. The top five receiving targets are all back, as are five offensive linemen who started at least eight games last year, three of five primary defensive linemen, two starting linebackers, and three-fourths of the starting secondary. There is enough continuity here to expect decent things if a quarterback emerges, and the QB candidates are intriguing.

Still, the expectations game is different now. Was 2015 a happy outlier? Was 2016 an unhappy exception? Where should we be setting the bar for CMU moving forward? The easy answer is, “Duh, six losses or so.” But it’s probably more complicated.


2016 in review

2016 CMU statistical profile.

When you start 3-0 and end 3-7, it’s easy to come up with a sort of “They started strong and collapsed” narrative. But while it’s true that the Chippewas failed to meet the bar they set over the first three games (average percentile performance: 73 percent over the first three games and 30 percent thereafter), there were plenty of ups and downs during the “collapse.”

The defense was mostly awful against Virginia and WMU, then played well for three weeks, then gave up 27 points to Kent State (bad) and 37 to Miami (Ohio) (awful). The Chips defended well against Ohio, then packed it in from there.

On offense, things were more stable, without quite the same upside or downside as the defense, but there were still strange ups (6.1 yards per play vs. Toledo) and downs (4.8 vs. Kent State).

There were some injuries. Sixth-year senior, 2015 leading receiver, and lateral expert Jesse Kroll only made it four games, there was in-season turnover at safety, etc. Still, compared to others, it wasn’t unmanageable. And yet, CMU was a team that struggled to establish consistency.


Offense

CMU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Just as CMU had to undergo an awkward, late coaching change two years ago, it underwent two offensive coordinator changes in recent months. Longtime play-caller Morris Watts retired and was replaced by running backs coach Gino Guidugli ... who left to become Cincinnati’s running backs coach weeks later. In his second go-round, Bonamego brought in former Northern Michigan head coach Chris Ostrowsky.

Ostrowsky was let go by NMU last fall; he couldn’t find traction as head coach at NMU, averaging 3.6 wins over five seasons, but offense was rarely the problem for the Wildcats. Even during 2016’s 3-8 campaign, they averaged 30.9 points per game.

Some quick basics from NMU’s 2016 offense:

  • Counting sacks as rush attempts, NMU threw 37 times per game and rushed 30 times per game — slightly pass-first and decidedly not up-tempo.
  • NMU quarterbacks completed 57 percent of their passes at 11.1 yards per completion. Accuracy was an issue, but considering the Wildcats took just 11 sacks and threw just six interceptions all year, it’s clear the intent was quick, safe passing and using the pass as an extension of the run game in a lot of ways. With a couple of game-breaking receivers in 2015, the averages were much better: 13.5 yards per completion with a 66 percent completion rate and still only 13 sacks and six picks.
  • NMU induced solo tackles on 72.6 percent of plays; at the FBS level, that would have ranked 82nd in 2016.

So basically: below-average tempo, slight pass-first tendencies, no extreme lean between spread and power, shifts in aggressiveness based on talent of personnel.

What about the personnel? There’s plenty to like. Receiver Corey Willis did a hell of a Titus Davis impression in 2016, combining an explosive receiver’s averages (15.2 yards per catch) with a possession receiver’s catch rate (67 percent). Senior Mark Chapman (13.5 per catch, 65 percent) nearly matched Willis’ averages, as did sophomore and former star recruit Brandon Childress (14.2, 64 percent). That’s a hell of a trio, and tight end Tyler Conklin is a decent weapon as well.

Then you’ve got perhaps the most intriguing weapon outside of Willis: Devon Spalding has yet to find consistency, but his averages are exciting. He rushed six fewer times than Jahray Hayes last year but gained 272 more yards on the ground; he also caught 31 passes. When he was rolling, CMU was hard to stop.

Of course, he needs to roll more. In CMU wins, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry; in losses, 5.0. He rushed 45 times for 281 yards against Ball State and NIU, then just 38 times for 211 yards the rest of the way.

NCAA Football: Miami Beach Bowl-Central Michigan vs Tulsa
Devon Spalding
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A line that did a great job of not moving backwards in 2016 — 13th in power success rate, 59th in stuff rate — more or less returns five starters. Six guys ended up starting between eight and 12 games, and while guard Kenny Rogers is gone, there’s lots of experience.

So that leaves the quarterback position. A minor one, that. Longtime incumbent Cooper Rush has finally graduated, and last year’s backup, Tommy Lazzaro, threw ... zero passes last year, one fewer than the punter.

This QB battle is one of nearly complete unknowns, but there’s reason for optimism. Lazzaro (who did throw for 2,200 yards at Dodge City CC in 2015), sophomores Tony Poljan and Jake Johnson, and redshirt freshman Austin Hergott are all former three-star recruits, per the 247Sports Composite. Poljan was a mid-three at that.

Then there’s also the ringer. Former blue-chipper Shane Morris got tossed around like a rag doll at the end of the Brady Hoke era at Michigan. But in January, he announced he would be coming to CMU as a graduate transfer. His career stats are dreadful — 47-for-92, 434 yards, no touchdowns, five interceptions, a 79.8 career passer rating — but most of that came in a no-win situation. At worst, he’ll set a baseline for Poljan or Lazzaro to try to exceed.

NCAA Football: Michigan-Spring Game
Shane Morris
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

CMU defensive radar

CMU’s offense was about the same in 2016 as it was in 2015; that was a little bit disappointing considering what the Chips returned, but there wasn’t regression.

There was regression on defense. After pressing the right buttons in 2015, coordinator Greg Colby saw his unit fall back to 2014 levels: CMU ranked 84th in Def. S&P+ in 2014, rose to 58th in 2015, then dropped to 88th.

There was no single area where CMU’s regression was particularly stark — it was steady across the board.

  • IsoPPP rank: 49th in 2015, 81st in 2016
  • Success Rate rank: 58th in 2015, 73rd in 2016
  • Field position created by defense: 54th in 2015, 108th in 2016
  • Points per scoring opportunity rank: 54th in 2015, 96th in 2016

At first glance, depth appeared to be an issue for CMU. The Chippewas didn’t regress on a per-quarter basis, but this was a tight rotation — only five linemen, four linebackers, and six defensive backs made more than 10 tackles. Part of that is because of a lack of injury (those 15 players missed a combined 10 games, which is about as good as you could hope for), but either because of philosophy or a lack of trust in the backups, Colby kept the rotation small.

Quite a bit of that rotation returns. Ends Joe Ostman and Mike Danna combined for 18 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last year, and Malik Fountain was a wrecking ball against the run, recording 10 tackles for loss (only one of which was a sack).

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Northern Illinois
Malik Fountain
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The top three cornerbacks also return: Josh Cox, Amari Coleman, and Sean Bunting combined for nine picks and 25 breakups.

There are question marks at tackle and safety, though. Kelby Latta and Jabari Dean are gone from the middle of the line, and the next leading tackler at the position was Nate Brisson-Fast, with just 7.5 tackles. 310-pound sophomore D’Andre Dill is a potentially dynamic play-maker — he made just four solo tackles last year, but three of them were behind the line — but he still barely played. A small rotation means you just don’t know that much about the successors.

Meanwhile, safeties Tony Annese and Winslow Chapman depart as well. Junior Otis Kearney played a big role, and Gary Jones and Zach Oakley got a little bit of action.

Bonamego signed some interesting prospects at both of these question-mark positions in February; three-star tackle Johnathan Berghorst could be asked to play a role pretty early on, as could three-star safeties Devonni Reed and Troy Brown.

Regardless, there are just enough known quantities to assume there won’t be any further regression. It’s just a question of whether this unit meets its potential better than 2015’s defense did.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Central Michigan
Joe Ostman
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Field position was a constant drag. The Chips ranked just 102nd, with a field position margin of minus-2.8 yards per drive. Ranking 83rd in punt success rate, 92nd in kick return success rate, and 105th in kickoff success rate created constant field-flipping issues. Meanwhile, kicker Brian Eavey made only five of nine field goals inside of 40 yards and three of eight longer than 40.

Translation: CMU was really, really bad at special teams last year — 124th overall in Special Teams S&P+. Eavey’s gone, which might not be the worst thing, but there are lots of questions. CMU gave away a couple of points per game in special teams, and there’s no reason to assume that changes.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Rhode Island NR 33.1 97%
9-Sep at Kansas 107 -0.1 50%
16-Sep at Syracuse 60 -14.3 20%
23-Sep Miami (Ohio) 88 0.4 51%
30-Sep at Boston College 76 -8.8 30%
7-Oct at Ohio 103 -0.9 48%
14-Oct Toledo 59 -9.6 29%
21-Oct at Ball State 90 -4.2 40%
1-Nov at Western Michigan 74 -9.2 30%
8-Nov Eastern Michigan 96 2.4 55%
14-Nov at Kent State 123 4.3 60%
24-Nov Northern Illinois 86 0.1 50%
Projected S&P+ Rk 97
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 100 / 92
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.3 (99)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 106 / 109
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / -7.9
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (60%, 74%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (0.8)

CMU ranked 99th in S&P+ last year and won six games. S&P+ projects the Chippewas to rank 97th in 2017 and ... win six games. That makes it feel like the same-old, same-old, and maybe that’s what we get from Bonamego’s third squad.

The schedule is fascinating, though. There is an almost sure win against Rhode Island (projected win probability: 97 percent), and there are likely losses to Syracuse (20 percent), BC (30 percent), Toledo (29 percent), and WMU (30 percent).

The other seven games are all between 40 and 60 percent. With a decent quarterback and some breaks, this goes from a six-win team to, in theory, an eight- or nine-win team. But if the new coordinator-QB combo doesn’t stick and a thin defense suffers injuries, well, there’s only one sure win on the slate.

In terms of a range of outcomes, the combination of schedule and question marks makes CMU a fascinating team. Even if the most likely result (six wins) is familiar.


Team preview stats

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