What a year it was overall for football in the state of Michigan a year ago. All three ‘Directional' schools — Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan — earned bowl bids. It marked the first time ever that the trio were all participating in the same postseason.
It's a new year and new expectations for the Chippewas, Eagles, and Broncos. What will each program do for an encore in 2017? Here's a snapshot season preview for all three.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN CHIPPEWAS
LAST SEASON: 6-7 (3-5 MAC)
KEY RETURNERS: Corey Willis (WR), Ty Conklin (TE), Malik Fountain (LB)
Without question, Central Michigan has been the steadiest of the three Michigan-based MAC programs in recent years, with four bowl bids in the last five seasons. Granted, they are just two games over .500 during that time.
It will be interesting to see if Central can get over that hump and make things interesting in the MAC this season. The results would indicate otherwise, but they were in the majority of their games a year ago. A couple bounces here or there and they are winning seven, eight, maybe even nine games.
The Cooper Rush era in Mount Pleasant is over and in comes (presumably) former Michigan transfer Shane Morris, who will finally get a chance to be the everyday guy under center. The veteran will have some senior weapons on the outside, namely receiver Corey Willis and tight end Ty Conklin. He'll also have a pair of backs in Devon Spalding and Jonathan Ward to carry the additional workload, literally.
CMU appears to be bunched up with a host of other schools as potential “dark horses” in the MAC this season. They get a lot of their key conference games at home (MIA, TOL, EMU, and NIU) and a largely favorable non-conference slate. I don't think the Chips will be in it for a league crown but will see a slight improvement over recent years.
PREDICTION: 7-5 (4-4 MAC)
EASTERN MICHIGAN EAGLES
LAST SEASON: 7-6 (4-4 MAC)
KEY RETURNERS: Brogan Roback (QB), Sergio Bailey II (WR), Kyle Rachwal (LB)
Eastern Michigan racked up seven wins in 2016, their highest win total since 1989. It was also their first time playing in a bowl game since 1987. Both of the aforementioned years are times in their program history when they were still referred to as the Hurons, later adopting Eagles in 1991.
Obviously, the big question surrounding EMU is, “can they continue their winning ways and keep the program relevant?” My gut says that they do have what it takes to contend again in 2017.
It'll be largely due to the return in talent and production from a season ago. Quarterback Brogan Roback is back (tongue twister, much?) for his senior year, after totaling just under 2,700 yards in 10 games. He's got his favorite targets on the outside, Sergio Bailey II and Antoine Porter, both also entering their senior years.
Defensively, Eastern brings back a lot of starters and almost all of their top tacklers from 2016, led by Kyle Rachwal and Jason Beck, who each racked up 100+ tackles a year ago. In fact, Eastern Michigan ranks among the top 5 schools with the highest percentage of tacklers returning in 2017.
EMU will be an intriguing team to watch for sure. They have a couple win-able non-conference games early on, but a tough league slate, with a lot of games against the perceived contenders on the road. But an experience factor could prove to be beneficial in those games.
PREDICTION: 7-5 (4-4 MAC)
WESTERN MICHIGAN BRONCOS
LAST SEASON: 13-1 (8-0 MAC)
KEY RETURNERS: Jarvion Franklin (RB), Darius Phillips (CB), Robert Spillane (LB)
What a year it was for the folks on Kalamazoo. What was without question their best year in program history, Western Michigan now looks to keep that line moving and defend their MAC title from a year ago.
They'll be doing do with a new sheriff in town. P.J. Fleck and his fleet of rowboats have migrated to Minnesota, in comes former WMU quarterback Tim Lester, who is inheriting a still fairly solid crop of talent, most of it on defense.
Remember that stat about the high rate of tackle output returning for Eastern Michigan in 2017? That can be applied to Western as well, they rank in the top 20 among highest percentages in that department. Highlighting that is a duo of senior linebackers in Robert Spillane and Asantay Brown. Also coming back is corner and pick machine Darius Phillips.
On offense, no more Zach Terrell or Corey Davis. And the latest speculation appears to be that redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink is the guy moving forward for the Broncos. Wassink headlined the quarterback competition during the spring for WMU, along with junior Tom Flacco. But the latter has since then been granted his scholarship release and will be transferring out, opening the door for Wassink.
Right now, Western is expected to contend for the MAC title once again, perhaps be a slight step or two below Toledo. I think this is the Rockets' year in the MAC, and the season finale between WMU and Toledo should be a doozy. The Broncos have some very tough non-conference games to open the year — at USC and at Michigan State — but they should have little troubles going through league play leading up to the final two weeks.
PREDICTION: 9-3 (7-1 MAC)