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After 4 straight bowls, CMU is due a setback. But it’ll be brief.

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John Bonamego’s Chippewas were a little bit lucky to finish with eight wins in 2017, but they have enough athletic potential for intrigue.

Miami Beach Bowl - Tulsa v Central Michigan Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

As soon as I pointed out the script in last year’s preview, Central Michigan changed the script.

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.

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.

I noted last year that CMU had won either six or seven games for each of the last five years, so CMU won eight. Jerks.

Granted, the Chippewas probably should have won about six or seven. To get to 8-5, they rode a couple points per game of good turnovers luck and went 4-0 in one-possession finishes. They won only three games by more than 12 points while losing five by 17 or more. That’s usually the sign of a team that isn’t as good as its record suggests.

If you’re looking for reason for optimism heading into John Bonamego’s fourth season, though, the last month or so of the regular season provides some. The Chips were lucky to be 3-4 after seven games, needing tossup wins over Rhode Island and Ohio to get there. But they took a definitive step forward in a late five-game win streak.

  • First 7 games (3-4): Avg. score: Opp 30, CMU 21 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.5, CMU 5.0 | Avg. percentile performance: 34% (36% offense, 44% defense)
  • Last 5 games (5-0): Avg. score: CMU 41, Opp 23 | Avg. yards per play: CMU 6.4, Opp 4.4 | Avg. percentile performance: 71% (71% offense, 61% defense)

The defense took one step forward, and the offense took two. CMU whomped Ball State (though in fairness, who didn’t?) and outlasted WMU and NIU, among others, to finish just a game away from the MAC West title. It was an impressive run that a dud of a Potato Bowl loss to Wyoming couldn’t completely undo.

Late-season surges can be predictive and sustainable as long as the primary pieces from that rise return. Whether that applies to CMU depends on which came first: run success or pass success.

In the last half of quarterback Shane Morris’ final collegiate season, the Michigan transfer found his rhythm. After producing just a 114.7 passer rating in the first seven games of the year, he rose to 164.1 in the next five. His completion rate remained iffy, but he started connecting on big plays and avoiding interceptions. He was also asked to do less, going from 39.8 passes per game to 25.6.

Part of the reason for his lighter load: running back Jonathan Ward. The junior-to-be had 83 carries for 363 yards (4.4 per carry) seven games into the season, then had 84 for 625 (7.1) in the next five. Leaning on the run game, and getting more out of it, benefitted the Chips.

Ward and his two primary backups return, as do those responsible for about half of CMU’s line starts. There’s reason to think that the late-season rushing gains might be sustainable. The passing gains? Less so. Morris is gone, as are four of his top five targets; the only returnee: Ward, who had 48 catches for 470 yards. The leading returning wideout had six catches.

Because of how they correlate to year-to-year ups and downs, my returning production figures lean extra heavily on three position units: quarterback, receiving corps, and secondary. CMU loses a lot from all three while returning almost everybody from the other units. S&P+, then, isn’t much of a fan. Bonamego’s got a bit of a track record at this point, thriving when underestimated, but matching last year’s success might be a tall ask.

Offense

2017 CMU offensive radar

Former Northern Michigan head coach Chris Ostrowsky took over CMU’s offense last March and produced something a lot like the 2016 CMU offense. The Chippewas’ primary strength was their explosiveness, and they were decent at avoiding negative plays. But the personality of the offense really did take a turn toward the ground game over the second half of the year, and the explosiveness kicked in around the same time. Probably not a coincidence.

Ward could be pretty special. At 6’0, he’s a hair taller than most MAC backs, and despite running behind the same line, he drastically outproduced the other CMU backs in the stable.

  • Jonathan Ward: 179 carries, 1,017 yards (5.7 per carry), 10 TD, 7.4 highlight yards per opportunity, 40 percent success rate
  • Romello Ross, Kumehnnu Gwilly, and Devon Spalding: 142 carries, 508 yards (3.6), 5 TD, 4.7 highlight yards per opportunity, 34 percent success rate

Ross and Gwilly return, but keeping Ward healthy will be key, especially considering how much of a safety valve he was in the passing game. The new QB will need as many security blankets as possible.

Presbyterian v Central Michigan
Jonathan Ward
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Said new QB is probably sophomore Tony Poljan. The 6’7 sophomore completed 13 of 21 passes and rushed 27 times in spot duty behind center, and to take advantage of his athleticism, Ostrowsky lined him up at receiver and tight end a few times. He finished his redshirt freshman campaign with a unique stat line: 125 rushing yards, 97 receiving yards, and 78 passing yards.

The prototypical three-sport athlete in high school, Poljan is an exciting prospect. But he’ll need receivers. It’s hard to know for sure that he has any. The top three wideouts and tight end Tyler Conklin are all gone, leaving a set of unproven weapons behind.

  • Brandon Childress caught 23 passes as a freshman in 2016 and had five catches in the first two games of 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury. If healthy, he’s by default the most proven option.
  • Senior tight end Logan Hessbrook caught 10 of 20 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.
  • Junior wideout Cameron Cole caught six of eight for 104 and a touchdown.
  • Juniors Damon Terry and Jamil Sabbagh caught four of six for 42.
  • Redshirt freshman tight end Keegan Cossou was a mid-three-star recruit one of the jewels of the 2017 recruiting class.
  • Junior Jamil Sabbagh, sophomore Bailey Edwards, redshirt freshman Drayton Law, and freshman Keonta Nixon are all wideouts with former three-star ratings.

There’s athleticism here, but that’s all we know.

Central Michigan v Boston College
Tony Poljan
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Defense

2017 CMU defensive radar

The offense made huge strides late in 2017, but the defense didn’t have to. For the second time in three years, coordinator Greg Colby fielded a top-60 unit per Def. S&P+, and unlike Ostrowsky, he doesn’t have massive inexperience.

He does have to replace safeties Josh Cox and Darwyn Kelly, though. And as you can see in the radar chart above, some of CMU’s biggest 2017 strengths — minimal big plays, success on passing downs — seem to apply directly to the position. Losing them could be big.

Losing defensive end Joe Ostman could be bigger. Ostman produced 17 percent of CMU’s havoc plays by himself, logging 20.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, and four forced fumbles. Opposing quarterbacks were often harried and forced to throw more quickly than they preferred, and Cox and Kelly were adept at pouncing on their opportunities. They combined for 4.5 TFLs, seven interceptions, seven pass breakups, and three forced fumbles, and departing corner Amari Coleman added four, three, and eight, respectively. Losing this foursome means losing the heart of your strong pass defense.

Just about everybody else in the front seven is back, at least. Ends Mike Danna and Mitch Stanitzek combined for 14.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, while tackles Nathan Brisson-Fast and D’Andre Dill added 13.5 and 7.5. This was a diverse pass rush, maximizing advantages from opponents having to mind Ostman. They should be capable of generating decent pressure in Ostman’s absence, too.

At linebacker, Alex Briones is a stud. The senior from Ishpeming, Mich., was third on the team in havoc plays, making stops in the backfield (he was first on the team in run stuffs) and clogging passing lanes, too.

Central Michigan v Boston College
Alex Briones
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Losses in the secondary are obviously problematic, but there are at least a few proven pieces returning. Safety Otis Kearney was a major contributor in 2016 (43.5 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, two breakups) before missing 2017, and junior corners Sean Bunting and Da’Quan Jamison saw plenty of action and made a few plays themselves. And CMU has five former three-star recruits among their freshman, redshirt freshman, and sophomore classes.

Once again, it appears the athleticism and potential are solid. But that’s a lot to lose from your pass defense. CMU ranked 58th in Passing S&P+ and 114th in Rushing S&P+; the latter should improve a bit, but it’ll have to improve a lot to offset regression through the air.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse
Sean Bunting
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

That CMU went 4-0 in one-possession games was even more impressive considering how much special teams dragged the Chips down. The return game was solid, and kick returner Jerod Davis (26.6 average, one touchdown) returns, so that’s something. But kicks were a nightmare.

Jack Sheldon averaged 43.4 yards per punt, but CMU allowed nearly 10 yards per return and ranked just 76th in punt efficiency because of it. Meanwhile, kickoffs were a disaster (127th in kickoff efficiency), and Michael Armstrong, now gone, was unreliable in the place-kicking department. Sheldon and kickoffs guy Kaden Keon are back. We’ll see if coverage improves, and we’ll see if kicks go through the uprights a bit more frequently.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Kentucky 64 -16.1 18%
8-Sep Kansas 103 -1.2 47%
15-Sep at Northern Illinois 69 -14.3 20%
22-Sep Maine NR 12.3 76%
29-Sep at Michigan State 11 -32.3 3%
6-Oct Buffalo 93 -3.9 41%
13-Oct Ball State 117 2.6 56%
20-Oct Western Michigan 87 -5.6 37%
27-Oct at Akron 119 -1.8 46%
3-Nov at Eastern Michigan 96 -8.2 32%
10-Nov Bowling Green 97 -3.0 43%
23-Nov at Toledo 49 -18.3 15%
Projected S&P+ Rk 116
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 124 / 81
Projected wins 4.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -6.4 (97)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 107 / 113
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / -5.3
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 40% (27%, 53%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.6 (1.4)

Because of where CMU loses a lot of production, S&P+ is projecting the Chippewas to drop off dramatically this fall — from 79th to 116th, one of the biggest drops in the country. The athletic potential of the offense is obvious, but the Chips have been inefficient for a couple of years now and are now on their third QB in three seasons. Potential or no potential, it’s hard to generate consistency that way.

Still, the athletic potential is indeed obvious and makes overachievement possible. And with the number of relative tossups on the schedule, the range of outcomes is pretty wide. S&P+ gives CMU a better than 56 percent chance of winning in just one game (Maine), but six games are within a range of 37 percent and 56 percent. A hair better than expected, and the Chips are a six-win bowl team again. A hair worse than expected, and they could be 2-10 or 3-9.

I’m going to give Bonamego the benefit of the doubt here. He’s generated pleasant surprises in two of three seasons since taking over, despite immediately dealing with a cancer scare. Even if the Chips are too inconsistent to reach their fifth straight bowl game, they should be exciting enough to move forward in 2019.

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