Tim Lester has had a solid start in Kalamazoo, going 13-12 in his first two years, but at one of the most inconsistent programs in the country we should soon find out if he’ll sink or swim, and 2019 is his first big test year.
Last season was an up and down one for the Broncos, starting the year 6-0 against non-P5 opponents, Western Michigan came into a big October Thursday 4-0 in the conference and hosting Toledo with MAC title aspirations. QB Jon Wassink (16 touchdowns, six interceptions) went down with an injury early, ultimately being declared out for the year, and the Broncos faltered in the second half, losing 51-24, and then to Ohio the next week 59-14. The Broncos eventually finished the season losers of four of their final five, including an embarrassing performance against BYU in the bowl game where they lost 49-18.
The good news though, almost everybody is back.
The offense was really good last year prior to Wassink’s injury, 6-2 with the only losses against Syracuse and Michigan in the non-conference play, we were trending toward a really great offensive year by G5 standards, but Wassink’s injury threw all that out of whack.
The good news is that Wassink returns, along with top back LeVante Bellamy (1,228 yards, six touchdowns, 6.0 YPA(!)), two of the top three pass catchers and four starters on the line.
The one guy they will lose really will hurt, and if you wonder why I wait so long to start writing these previews this is why, as in late May stud WR Jayden Reed (797 yards, 14.2 YPC, eight touchdowns, WMU’s leading receiver as a freshman) announced his decision to transfer to Michigan State. YAC artist D’Wayne Eskridge (776 yards, 20.4 YPC four touchdowns) will be the new top guy, and TE Giovanni Ricci (392 yards, three touchdowns) should see his targets increase. Young Jaylen Hall (170, 15.5, one) will have to step into a bigger role or perhaps highly touted true freshman Cameron Coleman.
Reed’s loss hurts or this could’ve been a top offense in the G5, but even without him they return almost everyone from a unit that was great up until the injury to Wassink and still should be one of the best in the conference.
Western Michigan took a huge step back last year. They shifted to an all or nothing approach and sent a lot of guys almost every down, leading to plenty of TFL and sacks, but also a ton of deep shots uncovered as there was little to speak of in terms of talent in the secondary, and the only bright spot, Juwan Dowels, is graduating there.
On the bright side, Dowels is the only starter leaving on the whole defense, and the added experience should do wonders for a group made up of a lot of guys that were probably playing a year too early in 2018.
The corner spot is a huge question mark. The position is so spotty that speedy WR D’Wayne Eskridge is likely to play both sides of the ball at times. Lester also brought in some solid recruits in three-star Keni-H Lovely and JUCO transfer Ozziah Williams, who could look to ease the burden there.
The top four are back on the defensive line as is the entirety of the two-deep at the second level. Ends Ali Fayad and Antonio Balabani combined for nine TFL and nine sacks, and the trio of senior linebackers headlined by SLB Alex Grace combined for 203 tackles, seven sacks, and 20.5 TFL.
The eight top tacklers are back and 13 of the top 14. Even though this defense wasn’t great last year the amount of experience back means they should take a massive step forward, given they find some serviceable corners.
There really is a lot to like about this team, as they get back 17 starters from a team that had a winning record. One of the things that is tough, however, is the schedule. The five toughest teams they face will all be on the road, and they draw Ohio and Miami (OH) from the East, not to mention games @ Syracuse and Michigan State in the non-conference.
There is so much experience that a bowl still feels likely. They’ve got five top-85 teams on the road and five sub-110 teams at home, meaning games @ Eastern Michigan and vs Miami (OH) could determine their bowl eligibility.
The fact that they face all of their three big challengers in the division on the road makes me think a conference title is unlikely, but they have the experience to do it at least, and with over half the projected starters being seniors, this is the time to do it.
|at Michigan State
|AT EASTERN MICHIGAN
|at NORTHERN ILLINOIS
Average Projected Record: 6.9 wins, 5.1 losses (4.7 wins, 3.3 losses)