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A MAC team survived a coaching change without collapsing! Now what for WMU?

Tim Lester’s Broncos finished .500 regardless. Can they move back up the standings with experience and good health?

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Northwestern
D’Wayne Eskridge
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It could have been worse in Kalamazoo. Much worse.

  • After Ball State went 12-2 in 2008, the Cardinals replaced Brady Hoke with Stan Parrish and went 6-18 over the next two seasons.
  • After Buffalo went 8-6 and upset Ball State in the MAC title game in 2008, the Bulls replaced Turner Gill with Jeff Quinn and went 9-27 over the next three seasons.
  • After CMU went 12-2 and won the MAC in 2009, the Chippewas replaced Butch Jones with Dan Enos, who went 6-18 in his first two years.
  • After Miami (Ohio) went 10-4 and won the MAC in 2010, the RedHawks replaced Mike Haywood with Don Treadwell. They haven’t finished with a winning record since.
  • After Kent State went 11-3 and barely missed an Orange Bowl bid in 2012, the Golden Flashes replaced Darrell Hazell with Paul Haynes and haven’t gone better than 4-8 since.
  • After BGSU went 10-4 and won the MAC in 2015, the Falcons replaced Dino Babers with Mike Jinks and have gone 6-18 since.

The collapse is as reliable a part of the MAC life cycle as the surge. You make a good hire, you float to the top of this parity haven, and you lose your head coach and regress harshly.

There are exceptions. Ohio bucked the trend by hiring an aging Frank Solich, who is entering his 14th year without threat of moving to a different job. Toledo and NIU bucked the trend by simply being better and more well-organized — and therefore replacing a good coach with another good coach — than most of the conference.

And as it turns out, WMU might be in the immunity group with its top two division rivals.

There was no way that WMU was going to avoid a significant drop-off in 2017. The Broncos lost P.J. Fleck to Minnesota after the charismatic boat-rower led them to a 13-1 record, MAC title, and Cotton Bowl bid in 2016. Former WMU quarterback Tim Lester took over at his alma mater at the most thankless time imaginable.

Lester was tasked with keeping the boat afloat despite losing quarterback Zach Terrell, his top three receivers (including all-world Corey Davis), and the team’s best offensive tackle (Taylor Moton), pass rusher (Keion Adams), and safety (Justin Tranquill, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game), and even a solid place-kicker (Butch Hampton). There were still plenty of strong pieces leftover from Fleck’s better-than-a-MAC-team-should-expect recruiting, but regression was on its way.

The Broncos began the year with semi-competitive losses to USC (49-31) and Michigan State (28-14), won five of the next six (including a legendary seven-OT game at Buffalo), then lost three of four without injured quarterback Jon Wassink, dropping games to each primary MAC West rival — CMU (35-28), NIU (35-31), and Toledo (37-10).

WMU both averaged and allowed 27.3 points per game and finished 6-6, reaching bowl eligibility for the fourth straight year but scoring no bowl bid.

The finish was disappointing, but Lester got a passing grade. Then he signed what was, per the 247Sports Composite, the second-best recruiting class in the MAC. He’ll bring in 19 more three-star recruits, and he’ll bring back most of the pieces of that rebuilt passing game, plus veteran running back Jamauri Bogan, 74 career offensive line starts, a now-healthy Tranquill, and quite a few other athletic defenders.

The worst might be over, and comparatively speaking, it really wasn’t all that bad.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Southern California
Tim Lester
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 WMU offensive radar

When Texas Tech hired WMU offensive coordinator Kevin Johns away from WMU in late-January, Lester promoted line coach and co-coordinator Jake Moreland. A former WMU tight end, Moreland has coached at nearly every level, from Elmhurst and Saint Joseph’s (Indiana) to WMU, Air Force, Syracuse, Air Force again, and WMU again.

Among Moreland’s first tasks: finding the Broncos’ big-play ability after it left Kalamazoo with Corey Davis and Carrington Thompson, who combined to catch 139 passes at 15.4 yards per catch in 2016.

D’Wayne Eskridge took over as the No. 1 receiver and averaged nearly 17 yards per catch, but he was extremely inefficient, and the next three receivers on the list (slot Keishawn Watson, tight end Donnie Ernsberger, and X-receiver Anton Curtis) were semi-efficient but averaged a paltry 10.5 per catch.

Combined with a run game that was good at not moving backwards but also didn’t pop, WMU had one of the most efficient offenses in the MAC, but one that was not generating easy points.

2017 WMU offensive efficiency & explosiveness

WMU was quite a bit higher in success rate before Wassink went down. True freshman Reece Goddard took over and struggled, completing just 45 percent of his passes with a 97.3 passer rating in his four games in charge. WMU was still competitive thanks to the run game and some rare big plays against NIU, but the 1-3 finish spoke for itself.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State
Jon Wassink
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Wassink was growing into himself. After struggling against USC and Michigan State, he completed 70 percent of his passes with 14 TDs to two INTs over his final six games. Everything dried up in a frustrating 14-13 loss to Akron, but WMU’s passing game was otherwise reaching cruising altitude, with Eskridge catching 16 of 27 passes for 339 yards in the five wins in that span.

With Wassink back, WMU could pick up where it left off in late-October. Quite a few then-sophomores were thrown into the fire — Wassink, Eskridge, Watson, Curtis, all-MAC guard Luke Juriga — and improved as the year progressed.

While the Broncos must replace big Jarvion Franklin and his 4,867 career rushing yards, Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy were both more efficient despite smaller stature, and Bellamy (8.0 yards per carry before missing the final five games with injury) might have some much-needed explosiveness, too. And at 235 pounds, former star recruit Matt Falcon could bring some heft if he can stay healthy.

The injury bug bit virtually everybody in the backfield but Franklin last year, to the point where slot receiver Ra’Sean Davie was taking backup reps. Franklin was able to paper over these issues, but he’s gone, and this smaller group must stay upright. If it does, the talent’s obvious. And while All-American left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor is gone, the rest of the line returns intact, including Juriga and fellow all-conference center John Keenoy. This will still be one of the best lines in the MAC.

Then there’s the new batch of newcomers.

  • Sophomore receivers Tyron Arnett and Luke Sanders, both former three-star recruits, combined to catch 16 passes for 250 yards, mostly late in the season. Another three-star soph, Hunter Broersma, has plenty of time, too.
  • Michigan grad transfer and former blue-chipper Drake Harris joins the mix after bouncing between WR and DB in Ann Arbor. The 6’4 senior has just nine career catches but brings obvious athleticism.
  • Wow, did Lester sign some exciting freshmen on offense. Mid-three-star QBs Kaleb Eleby and Wyatt Rector will have to wait their turn, but there are other mid-threes in running back Chase Brown, receiver DaShon Bussell, tight end Anthony Torres, and tackle A.J. Reed (a nearly-four-star).

WMU’s got more offensive upside than any MAC school this side of Toledo. And it’s still a young enough unit that, whatever the Broncos figure out in 2018, they’ll probably improve upon in 2019.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin
Jamauri Bogan
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Defense

2017 WMU defensive radar

Between injury and turnover, WMU’s offense was guaranteed to regress. The defense, however, improved slightly, from 69th to 62nd in Def. S&P+, in Tim Daoust’s first year.

Daoust was in charge of some of Scott Shafer’s most aggressive fronts at Syracuse early in the decade, and he quickly got his thumbprint on this defense: the Broncos ranked 36th in overall havoc rate (23rd in LB havoc) and 22nd in stuff rate. They didn’t have much of a pass rush, but they still created lots of third-and-longs. And if their secondary hadn’t been a M*A*S*H unit, they might have taken better advantage of those awkward downs and distances. As it stood, they still weren’t too bad at it.

The DBs were as banged up as the RBs in 2017. Tranquill missed most of 11 games, and WMU’s eight other regulars in the back combined to miss 17 games. Only one of the eight (corner Darius Phillips) played in all 12.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan
Justin Tranquill
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With that level of discontinuity, it’s a wonder that WMU’s defense still improved from 74th to 44th in Passing S&P+. And it makes you wonder what the Broncos might be capable of with Tranquill back and, in theory, less week-to-week turnover.

Losing Phillips will hurt, but that’s almost it. Corners Sam Beal and Obbie Jackson are back after combining for three tackles for loss and 17 passes defensed (mostly from Beal), and WMU now has three exciting junior safeties in Tranquill and 2017 starters Davontae Ginwright (who missed four games himself) and Stefan Claiborne.

The secondary will need to stabilize, because the front seven’s been thinned out, losing four of its top seven linemen and each of the top three linebackers.

Fleck and Lester have recruited well here in recent years, but a lot of the more impressive recruits are super young. The return of ends Antonio Balabani, Ali Fayad, and Eric Assoua (combined: 18.5 TFLs, 8.5 sacks) is semi-encouraging, but this pass rush was pretty shaky. And while linebackers Alex Grace, Drake Spears, and Treshaun Hayward made a few plays in backup minutes, they have a lot of production to replace. Departed backers Robert Spillane and Caleb Bailey each took part in at least 13 run stuffs.

Western Michigan v Northwestern
Sam Beal (18)
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Special Teams

That WMU basically stayed the same in special teams — 47th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2016, 53rd in 2017 — was a minor victory. Freshman Josh Grant took over place-kicking duties and had some freshman moments (just 7-for-11 on FGs under 40 yards) but showed upside as well (4-for-7 over 40).

Grant’s return is encouraging, but WMU now has to replace one of its best ever return men in Phillips, who scored six career return touchdowns and helped WMU rank fourth in kick return efficiency last year.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Syracuse 71 -0.7 48%
8-Sep at Michigan 10 -24.6 8%
15-Sep Delaware State NR 42.1 99%
22-Sep at Georgia State 113 4.9 61%
29-Sep at Miami (Ohio) 82 -4.2 40%
6-Oct Eastern Michigan 96 4.9 61%
13-Oct at Bowling Green 97 0.1 50%
20-Oct at Central Michigan 116 5.6 63%
25-Oct Toledo 49 -5.2 38%
1-Nov Ohio 68 -1.4 47%
13-Nov at Ball State 117 5.7 63%
20-Nov Northern Illinois 69 -1.2 47%
Projected S&P+ Rk 87
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 86 / 87
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.6 (72)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 78 / 72
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 7.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (76%, 50%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.9 (0.1)

Thanks to the turnover in the front seven, WMU ranks only 105th in returning production, which drove a conservative S&P+ projection of 87th overall.

The Broncos’ 2018 fate could be decided by how quickly some recent star recruits can develop. If the defense can avoid too much of a drop-off, I’m confident the offense will overachieve its No. 86 projection. That could flip a lot of games.

WMU’s schedule is damn fascinating. There’s one likely loss (at Michigan), one likely win (Delaware State), and 10 games projected between 38 and 63 percent win probability. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that many.

Nearly every game on the schedule is projected within a touchdown, which means that things like injury, place-kicking, and/or a random sophomore developing quickly could make the difference between about 4-8 and 8-4.

My own prediction: this team will continue to thwart the typical MAC life cycle and remain in the top half of the conference. There’s too much raw talent not to. And with almost every potential 2018 difference-maker returning in 2019, the Broncos are still in good shape moving forward.

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