Your lot can change quickly in the Mid-American Conference. Western Michigan knows that as well as anyone. In the last 20 years, the Broncos have seen as many up and downs as anyone in this up-and-down league.
- Up: go 9-3 in 2000 and fend off suitors to retain head coach Gary Darnell.
- Down: after three extremely mediocre seasons under Darnell, go 1-10 and fire him.
- Up: win at least eight games twice in Bill Cubit’s first four years, peaking at 9-4 in 2008.
- Down: after three mediocre seasons under Cubit, go 4-8 and fire him.
- Way, way down: first-year head coach P.J. Fleck burns the depth chart to the ground and goes 1-11.
- Way, way up: in Fleck’s fourth season, after a sustained run of tremendous recruiting, begin 13-0, win your first MAC title in 28 years, and earn a Cotton Bowl bid.
WMU outdid itself, however, in 2018, Tim Lester’s second in charge: its fortunes changed every few weeks.
- Act I: Finding Your Weight Class. After a competitive loss to an eventual 10-win Syracuse, the Broncos got mauled by Michigan, then mauled FCS’ Delaware State and won at Georgia State by 19. GSU turned out to be one of FBS’ worst teams. Nothing to see here.
- Act II: The Winning Streak. Powered by a high-flying offense, WMU began MAC play 4-0, with three road wins and a tight home victory over a solid EMU. Average score during this span: WMU 36, Opponent 27.
- Act III: The Injury. WMU hosted Toledo with major MAC West title aspirations. Then quarterback Jon Wassink injured his ankle in the first drive. He was lost for the season, and while freshman Kaleb Eleby was solid (23-for-28), third-quarter lapses led to a 51-24 loss.
- Act IV: The Slump. Eleby was predictably inconsistent, and WMU averaged a decent but insufficient 25 points over its last four contests. The primary issue: the defense, put under a bit more pressure, fell apart. After losses of 59-14 to Ohio and 42-41 to Ball State, Lester fired coordinator Tim Daoust. Under interim Lou Esposito, the defense played well in a 28-21 upset of NIU … then gave up 49 points, 9.4 yards per play, and 19-for-19 passing in a 49-18 loss to BYU in the Idaho Potato Bowl.
By the end of a 7-6 season, WMU had sunk to 104th in S&P+. That’s the bad news.
The good news: barring a wave of offseason transfers, the Broncos are scheduled to return more of the previous season’s production than any other team in FBS.
Wassink and Eleby … 1,200-yard rusher LeVante Bellamy … the top three receivers … five offensive linemen with starting experience … the top four defensive linemen … nearly every linebacker and defensive back … they’re all expected to be back in Kalamazoo this fall.
WMU’s fortunes could swing pretty quickly once more, in other words. The Broncos may have lost four of their last five games, but S&P+ now projects them as the best team in the conference, if by a tiny margin.
2019 S&P+ projections, MAC top-100 teams
75. WMU (minus-0.5 adjusted PPG)
76. NIU (minus-0.6)
78. Toledo (minus-1.3)
82. Ohio (minus-1.9)
93. Miami (Ohio) (minus-4.9)
96. EMU (minus-6.4)
97. Buffalo (minus-7.0)
Whereas only two teams are within 7.1 points of projected MWC favorite Boise State, none are within nine points of Appalachian State in the Sun Belt, and two are within 10 points of Memphis in the AAC, the MAC is taking shape as the biggest battle royal in all of FBS. It would be a shocker if WMU wasn’t a major part of the race.
And when your last season ended with a freshman QB and a defense taking part in the wrong kind of achievements, that’s something to look forward to.
Following Fleck’s departure to Minnesota, WMU saw a round of what you might call sentimental hires. Lester, who threw for more than 11,000 yards as Darnell’s quarterback at WMU in the 1990s, took over, and he hired Jake Moreland, his former tight end, as offensive co-coordinator. In 2018, Moreland dropped the “co” part of the title.
Things were looking awfully good before Wassink’s injury. The Broncos were in the Off. S&P+ top 50. Bellamy was occasionally dominant, and he appeared to be peaking — 43 combined carries for 290 yards against BGSU and CMU. It was hit-and-miss for him from there: 35 carries for 213 yards (6.1 per carry) against Ball State, 48 for 194 (4.0) against everyone else.
At its best, WMU was a run-first offense that knew what to do when you became preoccupied with the run. Wassink is a go routes master (on the shorter, more timing-based stuff, he still has some improvement to do), and in Jayden Reed, he’s got quite the cohort. A freshman at the time, Reed combined a 67 percent catch rate with a healthy 14.2 yards per catch, while D’Wayne Eskridge ran shorter routes with more all-or-nothing effect (54 percent catch rate, 20.2 yards per catch).
Bellamy, Reed, and Eskridge are scheduled to return. So are 35-catch tight end Giovanni Ricci and another exciting sophomore, Jaylen Hall (11 catches, 170 yards). Short-yardage back Jamauri Bogan departs after a lovely career (3,300 career yards, 43 touchdowns), but, well, WMU wasn’t very good in short yardage. A loss like that can be overcome.
Fleck recruited well up front, and that has continued under Lester. The line not only boasts three of last year’s starters (all-conference right guard Luke Juriga, left guard Mike Caliendo, and left tackle Jaylon Moore) and two key backups, but there are also four three-star freshmen and sophomores attempting to enter the rotation, including 6’8 freshman Joacheim Price, one of the jewels of the 2019 class.
Offensive recruiting has not been a problem. Lester also has eight three-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen in the WR/TE corps, including a damn-near four-star freshman in St. Louis native Cameron Coleman. He also signed a pair of three-star running backs this year, and while Eleby was thrust into action sooner than expected, he was a pretty high-three-star out of St. Louis as well in 2018.
This combination of offensive experience and upside might be unmatched in the MAC. The Broncos have potential all-conference guys within each unit, and they might even be more prepared to keep things rolling if Wassink goes down again.
Unfortunately, you do have to play defense, too.
WMU’s 2018 defense forced the issue. You have to give the Broncos that. They were 16th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 16th in sack rate. The Broncos’ front seven featured eight guys with at least 5.5 tackles for loss (seven of them return) and five with at least three sacks, and when they forced a third down, it was a third-and-long.
When they didn’t get you, however, you got them. And as the season progressed, you were getting them a lot more than they were getting you.
The Broncos’ biggest problem: they really only had one cornerback they trusted. Juwan Dowels led the team with 11 passes defensed and played solid run support, but opponents didn’t have to throw at him much.
Despite Dowels, opponents completed 63 percent of their passes, 79 percent over the final four games. Converted safety Stefan Claiborne didn’t look nearly as comfortable at his new position, nor did part-time corner A.J. Thomas. Anton Curtis was decent downfield but only appeared trustworthy in softer coverage.
Daoust seemed to understand that his only chance was to attack and hope for the best. WMU blitzed more than almost anybody in the country, and it did pay off at times. But it often didn’t. Esposito was given the full-time coordinator gig in January, and his job will be finding balance between aggression and over-aggression. If some new cornerbacks emerge — JUCO transfer Ozziah Williams? Mid-three-star redshirt freshman Keni-H Lovely? — that would very much help. Claiborne and/or Thomas could join senior Justin Tranquill at their more natural safety positions.
(That Lester also brought in a new cornerbacks coach probably shouldn’t be a surprise.)
Balance or no, the combination of experience and production up front is exciting. Ends Ali Fayad and Antonio Balabani combined for 18 tackles for loss and eight sacks, tackle Ralph Holley chipped in with 9.5 and six, respectively, and in limited action, redshirt freshmen Andre Carter and Will McCabe combined for four TFLs among their nine tackles.
At linebacker, WMU has a trio of explosive seniors in Alex Grace, Drake Spears, and Najee Clayton (combined: 27.5 TFLs, seven sacks, 39.5 run stuffs). There is talent here. WMU just needs a little bit more of it at the back.
It is impressive, in a way, that WMU managed to reach a bowl despite a bottom-20 defense and maybe the worst special teams in FBS. Jayden Reed is a potentially dynamite punt returner, but punt return efficiency was the only area where the Broncos didn’t rank in the triple digits — they were 109th in place-kicking and kickoffs, 128th in kick returns, and 129th in punting.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that just about everybody was a freshman: Reed, punter Nick Mihalic, place-kicker Gavin Peddle, kickoffs guy Cameron Braaten. I’m not sure how much development is possible when your production is that poor, but there should be improvement to some degree.
Everywhere you look on this roster, you find experience and play-making ability. There’s so much experience that you have to figure Lester’s feeling a little bit of pressure.
He’s held the fort, producing bowl-eligible results in each of his first two seasons. The fruits of Fleck’s recruiting are cycling out, though — WMU could be starting as many as 13 or 14 seniors this year — and while Lester has recruited pretty well (especially on offense), there could be a drop-off in depth after 2019.
From an S&P+ perspective, the Broncos will begin the season atop the MAC pile, but it’s crowded, and division mates NIU and Toledo aren’t far behind. They also both host WMU.
Still, this should be a pretty entertaining season. The Broncos have six extremely winnable home games (at least 66 percent win probability for each) and a bunch of road tossups in conference play. S&P+ projects an 8-4 campaign, and if a couple of cornerbacks emerge, nine or 10 wins could be distinct possibilities.
Lester took over an impossible situation, moving back to Kalamazoo on the heels of WMU’s best season ever. There was almost nowhere to go but down. But in 2019, we’ll get a feel for just how high he can take the program.