No. 55 Western Michigan
Four years ago Western Michigan was one of the worst teams in college football. First-year — and first-time — head coach P.J. Fleck led the Broncos to just one win. Fleck is now gone but he rebuilt the program into a well-oiled winning and recruiting machine.
2016 Record: 13-1 (8-0, MAC)
Last year's team obliterated the program record of nine wins with a 13-win season that included the first undefeated regular season in program history and just their fourth-ever conference championship.
Head Coach: Tim Lester (1st year)
Tim Lester was a finalist for the job four years ago when the Broncos ultimately hired Fleck. He got the job this time around.
Lester, also a former WMU assistant (2005-06), came from his quarterbacks coaching post at Purdue. He was previously offensive coordinator at Syracuse and head coach at Elmhurst College, a D3 program in his home state of Illinois.
"They said the same thing when they hired P.J. Fleck, that it wasn’t a big name," Lester said of fans who don't think he's a splash hire. "He handled himself pretty well. I don’t worry about that. I’m worried about the team, getting them to buy in to what we’re about and what we’re doing."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Tom Flacco, QB Jon Wassink, RB LeVante Bellamy, RB Jarvion Franklin, RB Jamauri Bogan, TE Donnie Ernsberger, OT Chukwuma Okorafor, G Luke Juriga, C John Keenoy
Western Michigan's ninth-ranked scoring offense (41.6 points per game) loses a four-year starter at quarterback, All-American receiver and NFL-bound offensive tackle. But 2017 is where you'll really see the fruits of the Broncos' recruiting labor.
Sophomore Jon Wassink and junior Tom Flacco — the younger brother of Joe Flacco — are competing to replace Zach Terrell. Both capable runners, the pair battled this spring and Lester said it was too close to call.
"I've been around a lot of quarterback battles, and one thing I did learn is you never make the decision who is going to win the Indy 500 after three laps," Lester said in April. "You just don't know. They both showed good things, they both at times struggled. The worst thing I could do is pull the trigger early because right now they are both making each other better."
All three of their top receivers from 2016 are gone, leaving a half-dozen freshmen and sophomores competing for snaps. The most seasoned of the bunch is sophomore D'Wayne Eskridge (below), who scored his first collegiate game and finished the season with 17 catches for 121 yards.
Flacco or Wassink will have the luxury of the best running back trio in the MAC — and frankly, one of the best in the country — in Jarvion Franklin, LeVante Belllamy and Jamauri Bogan. After Bellamy went down with a season-ending injury in Week 2, the other two dominated, racking up 2,500 total yards and 22 touchdowns.
"You've got to make sure to get your best players on the field but you can't put so much stuff in where with one or two injuries you can't use most of your offense," Lester said of their depth at running back. "It's a fine line of figuring out how much you can use them. It's a challenge, I think, every coach in America would really enjoy being in, so I'm enjoying that part of it."
All-MAC selections John Keenoy and Donnie Ernsberger are back at center and tight end, respectively.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Andre Turner, DE Nick Matich, DE Eric Assoua, LB Asantay Brown, LB Robert Spillane, LB Caleb Bailey, CB Darius Phillips, CB Sam Beal, S Justin Tranquill
Western Michigan went from the 106th-ranked scoring defense in the FBS in 2013 — Fleck's first year — to 16th in 2014, an improvement of more than 15 points. And that should continue thanks to first-rate player development and the best recruiting in the MAC.
Senior linebackers Asantay Brown and Robert Spillane lead a unit that forced 26 turnovers and allowed 24 points or fewer in 10 of 14 games. Spillane, who led the team with 111 tackles, was granted his release in February but opted to return in April.
"I realized that WMU has been my home for 3 years and is the place I want to call home in 20 years," he tweeted. "Thank you to Bronco nation for having my back, and thank you to my family for everything."
A terrific secondary gave the new offense fits in the spring, repeatedly pushing around the young receivers and jumping on mistakes from Flacco and Wassink. All-MAC senior corner Darius Phillips (below) is back after leading the team with four interceptions and nine passes defended. And key an eye on sophomore safety Justin Tranquill, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder who flashed NFL potential as a redshirt freshman.
Defensive tackle Andre Turner is back, as is Nick Matich, who has missed all but one game the last two seasons with injuries. Turner, while undersized at 6-foot-4, 266 pounds, is a meaty force inside. He had a career-high four tackles and two sacks in 2016.
Notable Player Losses
QB Zach Terrell, WR Corey Davis, OT Taylor Moton, DE Keion Adams, S Justin Ferguson
Western Michigan had three players selected in April's draft — their most since four in 1972. All-time leading passer Zach Terrell (who signed with the Ravens immediately after the draft) and first-round Corey Davis dominated for most of the last four years — with the help of versatile lineman Taylor Moton, a sixth-round selection.
Seventh-round pick Keion Adams — the Broncos' first pass-rusher selected since Jason Babin in 2004 — had 28 tackles for loss and 13 sacks the last two years. And safety Justin Ferguson had 49 tackles and three interceptions.
Notable Player Additions
RB Matt Falcon, WR Rodney Graves, WR Hunter Broersman, DT Kailien Guillory
Rodney Graves and Hunter Broersman are two of a billion freshmen trying to replace Corey Davis and Co. We'll have to wait until fall camp to get clarity on which youngsters will break the rotation. Matt Falcon, a one-time Michigan commit, is buried on the depth chart but he has a chance to make an impact on special teams and receive a couple carries per game.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kailien Guillory, a three-star recruit in their loaded 2016 class, will provide relief for Turner and Matich.
While they do play six of their next eight games at home, that brutal start and visits to Eastern Michigan and Toledo will make it very difficult to win double-digit games again. But don't let their win-loss total fool you; the Broncos are still an elite Group of Five team.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||at USC|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Michigan State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Idaho|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Wagner|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Ball State|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Buffalo|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Akron|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Eastern Michigan|
|Wednesday, Nov. 1||vs. Central Michigan|
|Wednesday, Nov. 8||vs. Kent State|
|Wednesday, Nov. 15||at Northern Illinois|
|Friday, Nov. 24||at Toledo|