Behind one of the best coaches in college football (P.J. Fleck), Western Michigan enters the 2016 campaign as the team to beat in the Mid-American Conference. At just 35 years old, Fleck has landed the MAC’s top recruiting class in each of the last three years and continues to develop NFL talent within a program that is coming off consecutive bowl appearances (defeated Middle Tennessee State in 2015).
With fourteen returning starters, including eight on one of the most potent offensive units in the country, optimism abounds in Kalamazoo. Starting quarterback Zach Terrell returns after throwing for 3,510 yards (67.0%) and 29 touchdowns last season, while wide receiver Corey Davis is college football’s active receiving leader with 3,785 yards.
Davis, the MAC’s top NFL prospect, has surpassed 100 receiving yards in a game 22 times, including nine last season. Western Michigan also boasts the conference’s best group of running backs, who are the beneficiaries of a veteran offensive line that returns 76 career starts. Stability within the coaching ranks has also been a key to the Broncos’ success.
Both offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham have been with the program since Fleck’s arrival in 2013. Western Michigan’s defense should also improve this season under the guidance of new defensive line coach Jimmy Williams. The Broncos are loaded at linebacker (arguably the best unit in the MAC) and return 8 of their top 11 players in the secondary (together with Iowa and Notre Dame transfers).
Adversity hit the Broncos entering its season-opener against Northwestern when two Western Michigan players – linebacker Ron George and wide receiver Bryson White – were kicked off the team after being charged with armed robbery, first-degree home invasion and larceny. Both players were freshmen with little to no connection with the team.
However, those arrests have only brought the team closer as Fleck has instilled a winning culture in Kalamazoo that promotes failing as a way of growth. “Failing brings us closer together; we grow as a football team,” Fleck said. “Failure equals quit, and there’s not one guy in that locker room that’s a failure.”
Not surprisingly, Western Michigan had one of its best practices of the offseason immediately after Fleck addressed the team regarding the two arrests. “I believe in this football team,” Fleck said. “It’s a very special group of young men that will not be defined by two people’s actions.”
Technically speaking, coach Fleck is 8-2 ATS as a road underdog, while the Broncos are also 18-7 ATS in their last 25 games overall, including 6-1 ATS in their last seven September contests and 4-1 ATS in their last five road games.
The Broncos are legitimate contenders for a New Year’s Six bowl bid if they can upset Northwestern on Saturday.