Welcome back to our second installament of our opponent preview, question and answer style.
Today, we bring you a special treat as we are interviewing someone who covers one of the home state teams. Follow along as Spencer Roberts of HustleBelt.com gives us some insight on the Western Michigan Broncos’ upcoming season, and even a few bold predictions across the college landscape.
Josh LaFond: Let’s start this one off with a bang, shall we?
Is their resentment among the fan base for the way — now Minnesota Golden Gopher Head Coach — PJ Fleck handled his decision to leave Kalamazoo?
Spencer Roberts: I can say with certainty that Fleck’s premature departure left a sour taste in all of our mouths. We understand that, as a mid-major conference, we are a breeding ground for new coaches, not a destination. Fleck leaving for somewhere else was inevitable, but the timing was not well received.
Much of the Bronco fan base sees this all as part of our past and has moved on. We now have an alumnus for a head coach in Tim Lester. Lester has proven that he can recruit on par with Fleck, but doesn’t have the over-the-top energy level. The transition was fairly smooth. We’ve kept aspects of the Fleck culture and adopted some new ones. Attendance and passion for the Broncos is high, and we like it that way. As for PJ, we wish him the best in his journey, but we actively root for every MAC team to upset Minnesota.
Josh: No hard feelings then? Yikes. Let me follow up with a question related to what I just asked: How has Western Michigan transitioned from the PJ Fleck “Row the Boat” era to now being under the guidance of 2nd year head coach, Tim Lester?
Spencer: Western Michigan quickly realized the “Row the Boat” mantra didnt really work for Kalamazoo unless we had Fleck. Between that and the legal battle over possession of the mantra, we went with a more relevant mantra: “Let’s Ride”. It’s simple, makes sense, and works as a great hashtag on Twitter.
The Bronco fan base adopted to the change quickly. Going back to having Tim Lester at the reigns, having an alumnus in charge of a successful program helped us buy into the changes much better. We had catharsis from selling off our old jerseys during the Spring Game, but we kept some of the base design elements indicative of the Fleck era. For example, Western Michigan is likely to sport the ghost bronco on their helmets again. The transition was primarily successful due to Lester listening to fans’ and players’ inputs.
Josh: Michigan and Western Michigan do both have in common the fact they’re led by alumni, and in a lot of ways, it really has seemed to ease the transition from previous regimes has it not?
Spencer, if you can, help us understand the status of the program in Kalamazoo. Is it rebuilding time under a Tim Lester and company, or are the pieces their to make some serious noise in the MAC and in the Group of 5 conferences as a whole?
Spencer: I would be hesitant to say that Western Michigan is in any state of rebuilding. Going 6-6 was not an ideal end result, especially after a ranked 13-1 season. The real challenges of last season lied in the lack of game experience in certain positions. Jon Wassink and Reece Goddard replaced quarterback Zach Terrell, wide receivers Corey Davis and Michael Henry graduated, forcing a scramble to find who would be WR1. Sure, the Broncos are going through rapid changes and strengthening, but they are not starting from scratch.
The 2017 season was a great opportunity for Tim Lester to see who his big playmakers are. With most of last season’s starters returning, Western Michigan will probably be back up to par this season. The pieces are all there for another successful year. The only question is whether or not everybody learned how to settle down and finish the game.
As an avid fan of the Broncos myself, I’m very biased, but I’d be surprised if the Broncos weren’t a contender for the MAC title this year. Each year, MAC West is a shockingly great battle, but the Broncos have the talent and coaching ability to get there. As for the greater scheme of things, I don’t see Western Michigan making a serious dent in the group of five conferences, nor the national championship scene.
Josh: Yeah, you don’t really expect a MAC or even a Group of 5 school for that matter to really make a lasting impression on the national scene, but consistently winning — and competing for those conference titles would definitely make fans in Kalamazoo happy from what it sounds like.
You mentioned guys graduating and in some instances moving on to the NFL, such as former star QB Zach Terrell and now NFL WR Corey Davis, who are a couple guys on offense who have the potential to shine this season, and make an impact on this Bronco team?
Spencer: It was a real treat to see Zach Terrell and Corey Davis succeed on a national stage. Western Michigan has a long history of graduating great players in non-glamour positions. Richard Ash, Daniel Braverman, and Taylor Moton have each been contributing to the NFL and none received half the recognition that Corey Davis did.
This year, we have a tremendous offensive line with unbeatable experience. Although it’s hard to pick a single best person on the line, John Keenoy has been put on the Rimington Trophy watch list for the second year in a row. He is joined by Luke Juriga, Mike Caliendo, and Zach Novoselsky as hardened veterans on the offensive line.
What has me the most excited is a host of speedy options at tight end and receiver. The Broncos feature a junior tight end Giovanni Ricci, who transitioned from a blocking tight end to a deceptively dominant receiver. Ricci’s talent lands him a spot on the John Mackey Award watch list, given to the most outstanding tight end. We have a dozen other receivers you’ll see worked into the mix. D’Wayne Eskridge and Keishawn Watson have earned the starting roles for a reason.
Josh: Those are definitely some names to watch, I’ll keep my eye out for them.
As we wrap it up my friend, let’s get to the fun stuff. Give us 3 things you want to see the Broncos do during this upcoming season.
Spencer: Western Michigan has to improve their receiving this year, more than anything. The offense is meant to be balanced, not so reliant on the running game. My goal for them is to go from 165 yards per game to 250 yards per game. There’s just no excuse this year to not reach that goal, assuming Wassink can stay healthy.
The Broncos could start conference play 3-1 just as easily as 1-3. My goal for Western Michigan is to defeat Syracuse to start the season off with a win. They appear big and bad coming from the ACC, but this is a winnable game. Syracuse will be coming to Kalamazoo, so a win would be a huge momentum boost before entering the Big House. Beating Michigan on the road will take ideal conditions and execution but, hey, that’s what college football is all about, right?
Lastly, and most importantly, is to get the Victory Cannon back from Central Michgan. The loss at home last year was tragic and very demotivating. This year we will travel to Mount Pleasant to hopefully beat our rivals while we have this talent.
Josh: Hopefully our many Central Michigan Chippewa grads and students that’re a part of the Maize n’ Brew family don’t have too many hard feelings over that third prediction my friend.
After that sizzler of a question let’s end on a “bold” note. Give us 3 bold predictions this season covering the college football landscape.
Spencer: This year, I’m predicting the Alabama Crimson Tide losing their crown this year in the College Football Playoff. I’d say they’ll lose to the Big Ten Champions Wisconsin Badgers (sorry, guys) in the first round. Wisconsin will fall to the Oklahoma Sooners, who in turn beat the Miami-Florida Hurricanes in blowout fashion.
I hate to say it, but I think the UCF Knights may have fizzled out of their National Championship last year (not sorry). The real Group of 5 team to beat this year will be Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls. They’ll have a solid, near-perfect season, accompanied with great memes.
While I’m making crazy predictions, I would also like to say the Heisman Trophy will go to a senior running back from a Power Five school that was only so-so in rushing yardage. My money is on Bryce Love from Stanford.
Josh: I agree with you on Florida Atlantic and Bryce Love, but I have a feeling the Wolverines might just have something to say as far as that Bama’ prediction goes, but I’ll save that for a later date.
I would like to extend my thanks to Spencer Roberts for taking the time out of his schedule to provide us insight regarding Western Michigan and the upcoming season, and also to Alan Rucker, also of HustleBelt.com. The team over at HustleBelt.com provide some of the very best coverage of the MAC, and hey, who doesn’t love some MACtion?!
Be sure to check out their analysis on not only Western Michigan and Central Michigan, but on the rest of the conference as well.