The exit signs, they blend together after a while. Lots of roads named "Eight Mile" and "Nine Mile." There is a different school every 50 miles or so, and I can no longer tell them apart. The creeping insanity sounds like every MC5 song at once. I find myself lost in a land with states named Ball and Kent, where Miami does not have a South Beach, where we are allowed to talk about Chippewas but not Hurons, where there is a North, an East and a West, but no south. The darkness, it can hypnotize.
I have spoken about the MAC as socialist utopia approximately 114 times in the last two weeks. Naaman Roosevelt as the ultimate diamond in the rough. Close-game records as tarot cards. Dan Lefevour and Tim Beckman as the wizards looking to break the spell of parity (one through forward pass and sexy running, the other through the wooing of names with three stars instead of two). Eastern Michigan as the Patton Oswalt character in Young Adult. Life in the MAC as a ride on a backwoods country road, as a kids' table with your 12 cousins, where each kid gets to take turns sitting with the adults for a day. (Except you, Kent State.) And there are approximately 63 teams in this damned conference.
All the prep work in the world cannot stop the miscues and oddities. I am as discombobulated and dizzy as Central Michigan's defense was last fall. A couple of days ago, the cracks finally began to show. I called a Michigan transfer an Ohio State transfer. (He blended in with the UCLA, Illinois, Tennessee and Ohio State transfers hitting the MAC this fall, not to mention the other Michigan transfers.) I broke out into Aaliyah songs. On Twitter, I called the Bowling Green preview an Ohio Bobcats preview. I began today's Central Michigan preview, and I had no idea what to say that I hadn't already said in the last two weeks.
MACdementia has set in. Call for the captain ashore, let me go home.
Four years of winning is damn near impossible in today's MAC, but with [Dan] Lefevour and the [Brian] Kelly/[Butch] Jones combination, Central Michigan pulled it off. But Lefevour was out of eligibility ... and Cincinnati hired Jones away after Kelly moved on to Notre Dame (he was replaced by former Michigan State running backs coach Dan Enos, on whom the jury is clearly still out). Their reward for success was more coaching searches and a new quarterback, and in 2010 CMU swiftly and dramatically fell back to the pack. […]
There is little standard deviation in recruiting rankings among MAC teams -- 11 of 13 teams rank between 86th and 112th in five-year recruiting average (only No. 68 Toledo and No. 120 Buffalo stray from that pack) -- and CMU did not derive much of an advantage in this regard while they were winning. They won because of individual breakthrough players, and they have to hope that guys like [quarterback Ryan] Radcliff and [receiver Cody] Wilson indeed break through in 2011. They'll have solid lines and decent backfields, and the experience level as a whole should be better, but whether they win their fourth MAC title in six years or finish 4-8 again will depend as much on a few key individuals as anything else.
Heading into the 2011 season, my worst-case scenario for Central Michigan was a 4-8 record. They finished 3-9. I did not foresee a 30-point loss to Western Michigan, a home loss to Eastern Michigan, or, perhaps worst of all, a one-point win over lowly Akron. I did not expect a good defense, but I also did not expect the worst one in the MAC. (I obviously did not foresee the incredible number of injuries said defense experienced either.) I did not expect a complete collapse of the CMU running game.
Central Michigan did not reap the benefits of a recruiting bump when they were winning conference titles, and now the chickens have come home to roost. After winning an average of 9.5 games per season from 2006-09, the Chippewas have won a combined six games in Enos' first two seasons. CMU returns all sorts of experience in 2012, and they should absolutely improve to some degree, but the road back to the top half of the MAC West is a long one, at least unless Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo all collapse after losing their own set of stars.
Signs That You Might Be In Trouble, No. 29: Your two most successful receivers in a pass-happy offense are freshmen. And so is your best running back.
First things first: the CMU offense was not the major problem in 2011. The Chippewas ranked a reasonably competent (for a mid-major) 78th in Off. F/+ and, after a brutal first month (21.3 Adj. Points per game), averaged a more than healthy 29.2 Adj. Points per game. They averaged a robust (to say the least) 9.4 yards per play versus Northern Illinois, 7.7 versus Ball State, 7.5 versus N.C. State, 6.1 versus Ohio and 5.8 versus Kent State. They gained over 400 yards six times, over 350 nine times (despite a slow pace). They outgained opponents in losses four times.
Still, there were issues. Only five teams in the country had a worse turnover margin than CMU, for starters, spurred in part by the fact that they threw 18 interceptions. In terms of turnover points, they were minus-19.4 points in a 14-point loss to N.C. State, minus-8.8 in a four-point loss to Ball State, and minus-7.8 in a three-point loss to Kent State. And these issues were not based on bad luck; CMU simply made far more mistakes than they forced.
With a quick-strike passing game that limited sacks, quarterback Ryan Radcliff still made a host of mistakes on his way to 3,286 passing yards and 25 touchdowns. His receiving corps didn't help him out much, either. Cody Wilson, who experienced quite a breakthrough late in the 2010 season, averaged just 5.4 adjusted yards per target, and No. 3 receiver Jerry Harris averaged a paltry 2.2. Freshmen Titus Davis and Courtney Williams looked fantastic at times (combined: 97 targets, 61 catches, 1,136 yards), but Radcliff needed more assistance from this unit than he received. All four receivers return (as does Radcliff), though the Chippewas do lose a rather explosive tight end in David Blackburn.
Despite its issues, CMU's offense was reasonably efficient -- the Chippewas ranked 68th in Passing Success Rate+ -- but even in a pass-first offense, you still need something from the run game. For much of the year, CMU did not. The wonderfully named Zurlon Tipton and Tim Phillips left something to be desired through most of September, combining to gain just 273 yards in 78 September carries (3.5 per carry). Freshman Anthony Garland, however, broke into the rotation over the final couple of months and showed signs of a high ceiling; he carried 29 times for 209 yards (7.2 per carry) in wins over Northern Illinois and Akron; he and then-senior Paris Cotton made CMU a better offense over the final two months of the season, but the Chippewas still ranked just 106th in Rushing S&P+. This unit got no help whatsoever from a line that ranked 110th in Adj. Line Yards.
Signs That You Might Be Trouble, No. 17: By the end of the season, your starting left guard is also your backup left tackle, and your backup left guard is also your backup right guard.
After trotting out the same starting line for the first two months of the season, CMU had four different combinations of starters in its last five games. A combination of two parts injury, one part ineffectiveness forced some shuffling, which is typically not a good thing. Six linemen with starting experience (94 career starts) return in 2012, however, so improvement should be expected. How much may be hard to say, but if they can just improve into the 80s in the Adj. Line Yards category, an offense that was pretty good over the final two months could benefit considerably, especially in the red zone. CMU ranked just 101st in Red Zone S&P+, settling for 14 field goal attempts from under 40 yards. Field goals don't typically win games in the land of MACtion.
CMU did itself no favors by committing quite a few turnovers over the course of 2011. However, the defense was the culprit for most of the Chippewas' struggles. They ranked just 115th in Def. F/+ -- 110th against the run, 110th against the pass, 114th on standard downs, 103rd on passing downs -- and gave away most of the gains the offense made over the final two months of the season. And for good measure, they were incapable of helping themselves out; they forced just three fumbles (easily worst in the country), defended just 38 passes (104th) and made just 11 takeaways all season (118th). Combined with a total lack of a pass rush, CMU was just not able to end drives. Third-year defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin has yet to figure out the answers for this unit, but in 2011, that wasn't necessarily his fault; CMU was just obliterated by injuries.
Just take a look at CMU's statistical profile and scroll on down to the defense. Of the 11 linemen listed, only four played in all 12 games. None of the top five linebackers played more than 10. Perhaps their best defensive tackle, John Williams played four games and was lost to a knee injury. Senior defensive back Taylor Bradley played a great game against Western Michigan, then tore his Achilles. Et cetera. Perfect health wouldn't have made Central Michigan's defense incredibly formidable, but the Chippewas were never given a chance to demonstrate much upside as a unit.
In theory, things could change in 2012. As I like to say, injuries hurt in the present tense and help in the future tense. Thanks to both the shuffled lineups and general youth of the squad, CMU will return its top four defensive ends, top three tackles and six of the top eight defensive backs. The departures of Armond Staten and Mike Petrucci (combined: 99.5 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up in a combined 18 games) might hurt the linebacking corps, but there is experience everywhere … more experience, in fact, than would have been intended about 12 months ago.
Signs That You Might Be In Trouble, No. 44: Your starting strong safety makes 11 percent of your tackles. And a cornerback is your No. 3 tackler.
Through the combination of injuries and ineffectiveness, CMU pulled off something quite rare in 2011, and not in a good way: Its three leading tacklers were all defensive backs. Strong safety Jahleel Addae, a former star recruit, led the way with 79.0 tackles, four tackles for loss, four picks and four passes broken up. Free safety Avery Cunningham and, yes, cornerback John Carr logged 62.5 and 55.0 tackles, respectively. In a 4-2-5 alignment, one expects safeties to make a lot of tackles. But a) not that many, and b) CMU does not run a 4-2-5.
With good health, however, we should get glimpses of a unit with decent upside. Seniors litter the line, from ends Joe Kinville and Darryll Stinson (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss) to tackles Steve Winston and Chris Reeves. Meanwhile, a combination of junior Shamari Benton and four sophomores will team up to match the lost production of Staten and Petrucci. And in the secondary, Addae and Cunningham return, along with corners Lorenzo White, Jr., and Dennis Nalor. Three-star freshmen Nathan Ricketts (a linebacker), Jordan Fields (defensive back) and Brandon Greer (defensive back) might have something to say about the rotation as well. There is quite a bit to like about the CMU defense, considering just how awful it was last year. But it is impossible to tell just how much the unit can improve in one year; chances are, the defense will still hold the Chippewas back in the MAC West race.
With a schedule that features home games versus SE Missouri State, Ball State and Akron, and visits to beatable teams like Eastern Michigan and UMass, CMU should expect to win more games than they did last fall. Set the bar at around four or five wins, and you probably won't be disappointed.
The more I look at Central Michigan, the more I see a pretty damn stout team. In 2013. With sophomores like receivers Titus Davis and Courtney Williams, running back Anthony Garland, tackle Kevin Henry, linebackers Cody Lopez et al, and cornerback Dennis Nalor, this team is building with an eye on the future. Enos must feel reasonably comfortable in his job security -- despite gaping holes, he signed just one junior college transfer in his 2012 recruiting class, preferring instead to build with long-term fixes; whether that comfort is realistic or misguided, we don't know, but it isn't hard to see what he sees in this team's youngsters.
Expecting much of a surge in 2012, however, might be misguided, at least until we find out exactly what kind of upside this team has when healthy. Stability could do wonders for this defense, but they were just SO BAD in 2011 that it is difficult to see too much improvement, even with good health. And the offense just made so many devastating mistakes last year that is difficult to assume a 180-degree turnaround in that regard. CMU should see another down year in 2012, but the it appears the future is rather bright. This is, after all, the MAC. Everybody gets their turn.
Except you, Kent State.