College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.
The West division watched the dominance that was the PJ Fleck “Row The Boat” driven Western Michigan team that rolled through the season undefeated last season. Now, Fleck has moved on, but WMU is still well-stocked for another run. However, Jason Candle has a bunch of defensive talent returning for Year 2 in Toledo. Can the Rockets knock the Broncos off their perch atop the division?
Western Michigan Broncos
The Broncos had their best season in program history in 2016 catapulting into the national conversation thanks to an undefeated run through the regular season before falling in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin 24-16. This year, they’ll have to adjust to life with a new coach (Fleck left for Minnesota), a new QB, and a young WR corps. They have the same number of returnees as Toledo and they turn over the coaching reigns to a program veteran in former QB Tim Lester.
Four year starting QB Zach Terrell departs, leaving a battle for the top spot between sophomore Jon Wassink, junior Tom Flacco, and Illinois transfer Alex Mussat. Whoever among that group wins the job will be without the top three receivers from last year as Corey Davis, Michael Henry, and Carrington Thompson are gone. The good news? The top two running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan (427 carries 2,276 yards 20 TDs combined) are back as are three returning offensive line starters. The running game should take some pressure off the QB and WRs, but 41.6 PPG like last year, is tough to see from this group.
The biggest asset on the defensive side of the ball is the return of all three senior linebackers in Robert Spillane, Caleb Bailey and Asantay Brown. The trio combined for 277 tackles 19.5 TFL and 8.5 sacks last year. The return of two starters along the defensive line and three in the secondary points toward another lockdown group capable of coming close to that 19.8 PPG number they allowed last season. My biggest concern in their win total is the out of conference slate and conference road games. They face both USC and Michigan State out of conference and then have to hit the road for Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and Toledo. The out of of conference leaves little room for that 8.5 win number, so I’m going under. Under 8.5 wins
The Rockets continued their run of success with their third straight nine-win season despite a change in coaches. Jason Candle’s offense was prolific (38 PPG, 517.8 YPG) and the defense was solid (25.7 PPG, 397.1 YPG). They came up just short against a very good App State team in the Camellia Bowl (31-28) and heading into this season, they’ve got 12 returning starters back. Expect them to be in contention for the division again.
The Rockets have one thing the Broncos do not: a veteran QB returning. Senior Logan Woodside blew away all expectations last season completing 69 percent of his passes for 4,129 yards and a 45-to-9 (yes you read that correctly) TD-to-INT ratio. Woodside’s got his number one (Cody Thompson) and three (Jon’Vea Johnson) receivers back which could mean big numbers again. The questions come along the offensive line, where three starters depart and, top running back Kareem Hunt (262 carries 1,475 yards 10 TDs) does as well. That said, the return of Woodside and his top targets should ease the pressure on Terry Swanson, who steps into Hunt’s shoes.
On defense, there are three significant losses. 1st team MAC DE John Stepec, 2nd team MAC DT Treyvon Hester, and 2nd team MAC safety DeJuan Rogers. But, the rest of the unit is back intact, which means they’ve got seven starters returning including linebackers Ja’Wuan Woodley (79 tackles 9.5 TFL 3.5 sacks) and Tyler Taafe (70 tackles 5.5 TFL). The experience returning should keep them right in line with that 25 PPG they allowed last season. The biggest boost for the Rockets comes from the scheduling with their three biggest West foes all having to make the trip to Toledo. Over 8.5 wins
Northern Illinois Huskies
The Huskies were besieged by injuries last season, having to start four different QBs in getting off to a 1-6 start before finishing strong down the stretch and barely missing out on a bowl at 5-7. This season, Rod Carey’s group will hope to have better luck at the QB spot and have plenty of talent returning on the defensive side of the ball. They could leap into contention in this difficult West division.
QBs Anthony Maddie and Drew Hare depart but, both Ryan Graham (55.9% 680 yards 8 TD 6 INT) and Daniel Santacaterina (47.4% 361 yards 1 TD 2 INT) return after seeing game action last year. The biggest losses are top running back Joel Bouagnon and wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who will both be tough to replace. That said, RB Jordan Huff (111 carries 703 yards 5 TD) should alleviate the Bouagnon loss and three starters returning on the offensive line should help both the running game and the new QB.
Last year’s Huskies defense was also hit hard by injuries and it reflected in the stats allowing 30.5 PPG and 451.5 YPG. This season’s unit will hope for better health as the entire secondary returns along with two starters on the defensive line and OLB Bobby Jones (59 tackles 3.5 TFL). Over 6 wins
Central Michigan Chippewas
The Chips had one of the more memorable moments of last year’s college football season when they upset Oklahoma State on the road with a last second hail mary, lateral-filled play that shouldn’t have actually happened. That was the high-water mark of the season however as after a 3-0 start they went 3-6 down the stretch before being blasted in the Miami Beach Bowl by Tulsa. This season, John Bonamego brings back 15 starters (9 offense 6 defense) and looks ready for another bowl berth even in this difficult West division.
The offense is under new direction as Chris Ostrowsky takes over the play calling duties following five seasons as head coach at Northern Michigan. Ostrowsky’s offenses at NMU featured plenty of spread/up-tempo elements and this Chips team is perfectly capable of running that style of play. They will be breaking in a new QB as eleventh year senior Cooper Rush finally graduated (I’m exaggerating slightly), but they added Michigan transfer Shane Morris to battle redshirt freshman Tony Poljan. Whoever wins the battle will play behind a veteran line (everyone returns), with last year’s top back, Devon Spalding (138 carries 758 yards 6 TD) and the top four pass-catchers from last season. Overall, this group should put up more points even with a new starter.
The defense is slightly less experienced than the offense this season, but still, some big names return. 1st team All MAC LB Malik Fountain (92 tackles 9TFL) returns along with corners Amari Coleman (1st team MAC) and Josh Cox (20 PBU 7 INT combined). Combine that with DE Joe Ostman (69 tackles 9 sacks 4.5 TFL) and LB Alex Briones (48 tackles 1 TFL) and you’ve got a group with solid veteran experience that should offset the losses and improve on the 30.3 PPG given up last season. Plus, they get three of their four MAC West foes at home (Toledo, EMU, NIU) and they could upset the likes of Kansas and Boston College. A couple conference upsets and they’re right in the thick of the division crown race. Over 6.5 wins
Eastern Michigan Eagles
The Eagles were one of the nice surprises of last year’s college football season, making their first bowl game since the 1987 season. Chris Creighton has built this program well and they could certainly threaten in the West. The problem is, the schedule. If this experienced group can navigate a difficult conference slate, they could very well make the first back-to-back bowl appearances in program history.
The Eagles return senior QB Brogan Roback (58.9% 2,694 yards 18 TD 7 INT), along with their top three running backs and six of their top seven receivers from last year’s unit that posted 29.6 PPG last season. The line is the biggest question mark here as they lose three starters including to All-MAC selections. The addition of Michigan transfer Dan Samuelson should help, but still, it’s a big question that needs to be answered for the Eagles this season.
On defense the heaviest losses are on the defensive line where career sack leader Pat O’Connor and DT Mike Brown both depart. The good news is 3rd team MAC selection DE Jeremiah Harris (69 tackles 5 TFL 4 sacks) returns along with their top two tackling linebackers (Kyle Rachwal and Jason Beck), and three of the four starters in the secondary. This unit made a big jump to allowing 29.8 PPG and 433 YPG after allowing 42.1 PPG and 519 YPG in 2015, and with a bunch of key returning players, I’d expect them to be right around those 2016 numbers again. The schedule isn’t kind however with trips to Toledo, NIU, Central Michigan and Miami, Ohio in conference and Rutgers, Kentucky and Army out of conference. I think they’ll beat that 4.5 win total, but may need to pull an upset or two for another bowl game. Over 4.5 wins
Ball State Cardinals- O/U 5.5 wins
The Cardinals started 4-3 last season before dropping their final five games. This season, the second under head coach Mike Neu, the Cardinals have plenty of talent returning on offense, but a lot of questions on defense.
In terms of departures, the top two receivers and two offensive linemen are gone from last year’s unit that averaged 27 PPG last season. QB Riley Neal now has two years of starting experience under his belt and could be primed for a breakout year in his junior season. He’ll be joined in the backfield by the combo of 1st team MAC RB James Gilbert (251 carries 1,332 yards 12 TD) and Darian Green (57 carries 311 yards 1 TD). Add an offensive line that returns three starters and another guy who started six games last year and you’ve got a unit that despite losing some receiving weapons, should push that same PPG number this year.
The defense was hit hard in the front seven by departures as three defensive linemen and all three linebackers moved on following last season. That’s the major question mark for this team, especially considering the fact that they gave up 30 PPG and 470 YPG last season with those veterans. Now, a younger group outside of a secondary with three starters and 3rd team MAC DE Anthony Winbush, the Cardinals could have some trouble shutting down their explosive MAC opponents. The line is too high for me to take the over here as I can’t see them winning more than five games. Under 5.5 games.