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2016 was EMU’s best football season since the 1980s, and 2017 could top it

How close are we getting to the Eagles’ ceiling?

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Missouri
Sergio Bailey II
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published March 27 and has since been updated.

Plenty of nerds have gotten into sports analytics with the thought of being able to expose everything that old-school coaches and analysts don't understand. Bill James found material for such a thing in baseball, and we've seen shifts in how basketball is played as the nerds have infiltrated the sport.

Football's trickier. As more granular sets of data — comprehensive charting data, player tracking data, etc. — become available, maybe we'll get closer to changing the game. But for now, especially from a projections standpoint, football still features plenty of mysteries.

Looking at the numbers, there was no reason to think Eastern Michigan had any hope of improving in 2016. The Eagles had been among the surest things in all of football, and for all the wrong reasons.

In a conference that features far more parity than most, EMU had only ranked higher than ninth in the MAC in S&P+ once between 2006 and 2015. In that span, they had finished with either one or two wins six times. Their offense oscillated between below average and awful; the defense was almost always awful.

That Chris Creighton took on the EMU job was admirable, if potentially foolish. The former Ottawa, Wabash, and Drake head coach had three times created something out of very little. He twice brought Ottawa to the NAIA playoffs, and he twice got Wabash to the Division III quarterfinals. He won at least eight games four times at Drake. His ability to craft solid teams in schools that weren’t going to feature standout talent was noteworthy.

Still, he was 3-21 in his first two years at EMU. He had taken over for Ron English, and while he had found a little offensive traction in 2015, his defense was the worst in FBS. EMU returned a decent level of production in 2016, but ... it was production from a bad team.

The only reason for hope in 2016 was the mythical third-year leap.

If something big is going to happen, the odds are good that it will have happened by the end of a head coach's third year on the job.

Since 2006, 46 teams have improved by at least 14 adjusted points per game (per S&P+) from one year to the next. That's about four to five big leaps per season for the entire country. From this group of 46, 36 were led by coaches that were either in their first (10), second (13), or third (13) years.

Quite often, we don't see third-year magic coming.

If experience and depth are keys to the third-year jump, EMU will have a lot. The Eagles return their starting quarterback, an explosive sophomore running back, four of their top six receiving targets, and every offensive lineman, and they are loaded with juniors and seniors at every level of the defense.

You can learn most of what you need about a football team by looking at recent history, returning production, and recruiting. Those are the factors involved in my S&P+ projections, and they can hone in on how a team is going to perform. But those good-old, intangible qualities like “culture” and “chemistry” still matter. And the margins between success and failure — when you’ve got 11 players on the field, and your guys have about the same size and athletic qualities as your opponent’s — are minuscule.

So third-year leaps sometimes happen. And one definitely took place in Ypsilanti. In terms of adjusted points per game, the defense improved by eight points, the offense by 5.5. A team that had managed to play in (and lose) two one-possession games in 2015, played in seven in 2016 and won five.

EMU wasn’t great, but the Eagles looked like a real FBS program. They ranked 82nd in S&P+, ahead of power conference bowl teams like Boston College and Maryland. They beat a Wyoming that nearly won the Mountain West. They beat MAC bowl teams Ohio and Central Michigan. They beat teams, period. After going 7-41 from 2012-15, they went 7-6.

And they did it with a team young enough to return almost everybody. The offensive line has some restructuring to do, but the quarterback and skill guys are back, as are nine defensive starters.

After years of finding out EMU’s floor was lower than any FBS program’s should be, we might now find out something else: the Eagles’ ceiling.


2016 in review

2016 EMU statistical profile.

EMU was one of the least volatile teams in the country. The Eagles did have a peak (Wyoming) and a couple of valleys (Missouri, Miami (Ohio)), but in nine of 13 games, they played between the 34th and 59th percentiles. And their opponent-adjusted averages were about the same against better teams as they were against worse teams.

  • EMU vs. S&P+ top 75 (1-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 39% (~top 80) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, EMU 5.6
  • EMU vs. No. 76-plus (6-2) — Avg. percentile performance: 44% (~top 70) | Avg. yards per play: EMU 6.1, Opp 5.4

Volatility is often a sign of youth, of a team honing in on its upside. Perhaps the fact that EMU established stability with few senior starters is a sign that the Eagles were already close to their upside. Still, this level of maturity, despite a midseason quarterback change and an injury to 2015’s best offensive player, was striking.


Offense

EMU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Plans change quickly. EMU headed into 2016 with an exciting backfield of quarterback Brogan Roback and running back Shaq Vann. Roback, a former star recruit, had thrown for 2,300 yards in 2015 while Vann had a freshman season with 850 combined rushing and receiving yards.

Roback got himself suspended for a violation of team rules in August and missed the first two games. Vann rushed for 156 yards in the season opener against Mississippi Valley State but was lost for the season with injury in Week 2.

In Roback’s absence, junior college transfer Todd Porter thrived, throwing for 458 yards against MVSU and Missouri. He played well against Charlotte, but threw four picks against Wyoming. Roback subbed in and led the Eagles on a game-winning drive. The two split time against BGSU the next week, and Porter didn’t throw a pass the rest of the year.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois
Brogan Roback
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

That EMU was equipped to handle uncertainty at QB and injury at running back was impressive. But Roback’s return — and his ability to avoid picks (seven in 372 passes compared to Porter’s nine in 142) — sparked an efficiency boom. EMU ranked 30th in passing success rate and sixth in Adj. Sack Rate. The Eagles also ranked 35th in stuff rate (runs tops at or behind the line). Maybe their biggest offensive strength was the ability to avoid moving backward.

We’ll learn how much of that strength had to do with the line. All-conference tackles Cole Gardner and Andrew Wylie are gone, as are center Jake Hurcombe and part-time starting guard Darien Terrell. Three players with starting experience return, including junior guard Jimmy leatiota, but if the Eagles suffer more glitches up front, the efficiency could falter.

Luckily, EMU will get its big-play guys back. Vann rushed for 129 yards in the Eagles’ randomly awesome 2015 win at Wyoming, and he was averaging 6.4 yards per play for the season until a couple of late-season duds.

In Vann’s 2016 absence, a couple explosive weapons emerged. Three-star sophomore Breck Turner had moments — three carries for 50 yards against Wyoming, 17 for 107 against BGSU, eight for 48 against Old Dominion — and receiver Dieuly Aristilde came out of nowhere to become a major option. After recording one catch for 20 yards in the first eight games, he caught 24 for 472 over the final five.

Vann’s return could change Ian Eriksen’s role. Eriksen became EMU’s go-to rusher, falling forward for three to five yards at a time. Vann has more upside, but Eriksen offers stability, as do receivers Sergio Bailey II and Antoine Porter, who combined for a 54 percent success rate over 13 targets per game. Big senior Johnnie Niupalau had a 57 percent success rate as well.

With Roback distributing the ball to diverse weapons, EMU could be poised to improve on its No. 58 ranking in Off. S&P+. Hell, if Aristilde’s breakout was a sign of things to come, this could be a top-30 offense. But it all depends on that line.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Missouri
Ian Eriksen
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

EMU defensive radar

It’s all about expectations. When Neal Neathery’s 2015 UTSA defense ranked 104th in Def. S&P+, it was a disappointment. After ranking 61st and 53rd over the previous two years, Neathery couldn’t engineer attacking quality with a new batch of Roadrunner starters.

Neathery’s 2016 EMU defense ranked 102nd. And it was a thrill.

Neathery was Creighton’s coordinator at Drake, and the duo were reunited in Ypsilanti last fall. Neathery probably didn’t get to be as aggressive as he wanted to be, but he crafted a defense that was excellent at big-play prevention. EMU allowed just 49 rushes over 10-plus yards, 12th in FBS, and allowed a decent 12.4 yards per completion.

Granted, efficiency was a problem. The Eagles allowed the worst success rate in the MAC.

EMU defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Still, simply being good at anything was a step forward. EMU’s offense and decent special teams unit helped to create solid field position for the defense. And the defense was mostly able to force opponents to work methodically down the field.

From a havoc standpoint, it’s a good news, bad news situation in 2017. EMU boasted an excellent pass rusher in Pat O’Connor (14.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), which was key to getting off the field on passing downs. He’s gone. So is corner DaQuan Pace, by far last year’s most disruptive corner.

In Anthony Brown, though, Neathery might have the kind of disruptive safety he didn’t last year. Brown combined 7.5 TFLs with five passes defensed in 2015 before missing last season, and he joins what could be a hell of a set of safeties. Seniors Jason Beck and Ikie Calderon and sophomore Vince Calhoun have quite a bit to offer there. And last year’s No. 2 and 3 corners, sophomores Kevin McGill and Jalen Phelps, still have room to grow. Three-star JUCO transfer Shaq Jones might be able to help, too.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Missouri
Ikie Calderon
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, the pass rush could still have some oomph; ends Jeremiah Harris and Maxx Crosby also combined for 14.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, and redshirt freshman Justice Williams was a three-star recruit.

Neathery’s 4-2-5 defense is best when the line can generate disruption without help from the linebackers — whose isn’t? — and EMU linebackers only combined for 8.5 tackles for loss last year. If that number goes up, that might not necessarily be a good thing.


Special Teams

EMU didn’t get much out of its return game but still ranked a decent 65th in Special Teams S&P+ because of two legs: Austin Barnes’ and Paul Fricano’s. Barnes averaged 43.5 yards per punt with 27 of 63 boots landing inside the 20; Fricano was automatic on place-kicks inside of 40 yards and decent outside of 40.

Both return in 2017 [update: actually, Barnes has transferred to ECU]. A little bit more damage in the return game, and EMU will have a downright decent special teams unit.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Charlotte 127 13.8 79%
9-Sep at Rutgers 92 -3.9 41%
23-Sep Ohio 103 4.2 60%
30-Sep at Kentucky 41 -17.1 16%
7-Oct at Toledo 59 -14.5 20%
14-Oct at Army 102 -1.2 47%
21-Oct Western Michigan 74 -4.1 41%
26-Oct at Northern Illinois 86 -4.8 39%
2-Nov Ball State 90 0.9 52%
8-Nov at Central Michigan 97 -2.4 45%
15-Nov at Miami (Ohio) 88 -4.5 40%
21-Nov Bowling Green 95 2.2 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 96
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 64 / 115
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -4.3 (82)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 126 / 124
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 3.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 80% (92%, 69%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.4 (0.6)

The gold standard for EMU at the FBS level is 1987. That year, a bruising run game — Gary Patton, Bob Foster, and quarterback Ron Adams combined for 2,200 yards — and solid defense led to a 9-2 finish and California Bowl bid. Once there, the 17-point underdog Hurons took down San Jose State via a late 32-yard pass from Adams to Craig Ostrander.

It was EMU’s only bowl win and one of only two bowl appearances. Granted, with today’s bowl proliferation, Jim Harkema’s 1980s teams would have reached more than one — they had a winning record every year from 1986-89 — but still, this this program has struggled to generate traction through the years.

If it’s ever going to happen, though, why wouldn’t it happen now?

Yes, EMU has some questions on the lines. Yes, the Eagles were iffy defensively. Yes, they may have already come pretty close to their ceiling. But what about this team suggests it won’t be EMU’s best since the 1980s?

Those anti-social stats have an answer to that question, and it’s basically: “Because they’re EMU.” The Eagles still have little recent success to fall back on, and while Creighton has put exciting players on the field, recruiting rankings aren’t the Eagles’ friend.

Sometimes it takes projections a while to catch up, though. EMU was projected dead last in FBS last year but clicked. I’m not going to go crazy and predict EMU to win the MAC, but the Eagles have an excellent chance of exceeding their No. 96 projection.

Still, the schedule is a bit of a buzzkill. EMU must play at Rutgers, Kentucky, Toledo, Army, NIU, CMU, and Miami (Ohio), i.e. five bowl teams, four potential top-half-of-the-MAC teams, and two power conference squads. Nine of 12 games have a win probability between 39 and 60 percent, and EMU will probably have to win at least five of them to bowl again.

I bet it happens. I find myself semi-confident in an Eastern Michigan team. This is a strange world sometimes.


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