Today at No. 106: Western Michigan
Coach: P.J. Fleck (0-0, first season; 0-0 overall)
2012 record: 4-8 (2-6 in Mid-American Conference, fifth in MAC Western Division)
Look back: Western Michigan seemed to be among the Mid-American Conference schools poised for a promising season, but Broncos struggled to recover when starting quarterback Alex Carder injured his right hand during a win over Connecticut and missed six conference games. The team, which lacked depth, stumbled to a 4-8 record.
University leaders startled some at the end of the season when they opted to fire coach Bill Cubit, who had the second-best four-year stretch in school history with his 29 wins from 2005 through 2008. Cubit posted a 51-47 overall and a 36-27 mark in MAC games. He led the program to three bowl appearances, all losses. Before his tenure, Western Michigan had made just two bowl appearances.
However, Western Michigan clearly was chasing far greater success. It is eager to follow in the footsteps of fellow MAC school Northern Illinois, which earned the first BCS bid in league history and faced FSU in the Orange Bowl.
''Our vision and mission is winning division and conference titles and growing our number of postseason bowls,'' Western Michigan athletics director Kathy Beauregard said in a statement released by the school shortly after Cubit was fired. ''We continue to value student-athlete success academically and expect them to be great citizens in this community.''
Offensive starters returning: 2
Offensive starters lost: 9
Defensive starters returning: 8
Defensive starters lost: 3
Key losses: QB Alex Carder, DL Paul Hazel, OL Dann O’Neill, DL Freddie Bishop, C Kevin Galeher
Top returnees: PR/WR Jaime Wilson, DB Justin Currie, LB Desmond Bozeman, DB Johnnie Simon, QB Tyler VanTubbergen.
Strengths: New coach P.J. Fleck, who was the Tampa Bay Bucs receivers coach before accepting the Western Michigan job, is a dynamic leader who has already made a bit of splash with his motivational tactics. He dubbed the Broncos’ spring game “The Wood Oar War.” It was an extension of his “row the boat” mantra, urging his team to find ways to work in unison and improve each day.
“The oar is the symbol behind our program,” Fleck said during a MAC spring teleconference. “It's the energy behind the driving force of that boat.”
Fleck and his wife, Tracie, took the 2013 Kalamazoo Winter Plunge during the offseason, dunking in freezing waters to raise money for Special Olympics. Never missing a chance to promote the program, Fleck painted the phrase “row the boat” on his chest before taking the plunge.
On the field, Fleck will likely be relying on his defense to help set the tone for the program. The Broncos return eight starters on defense, compared to just two for the offense. The secondary, anchored by DB Justin Currie and DB Johnnie Simon, is an especially strong group. The team also returns a strong playmaker in WR/PR Jaime Wilson, who led the MAC and ranked No. 11 nationally last season with 13.6 yards per punt return.
Weaknesses: The offense (29.3 points per game) wasn’t terrible in 2012, it just lacked the firepower to keep up with notoriously high-scoring MAC foes. Unfortunately for Western Michigan, the team lost nine offensive starters from last year’s squad, including some key anchors on the offensive line. While QB Tyler Van Tubbergen got valuable experience filling in for injured Carder, he passed for 1,825 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While Fleck praised Van Tubbergen throughout spring workouts, he stopped short of naming a starting quarterback.
Outlook: It typically takes to time for players to learn a new system and for a young coach to recruit the type of athletes who can best execute his schemes. It doesn’t help Western Michigan plays a tough schedule that includes contests at Michigan State and at Northwestern.
Aug. 30 at Michigan State
Sept. 7 Nicholls
Sept. 14 at Northwestern
Sept. 21 at Iowa
Sept. 28 Kent State
Oct. 5 at Toledo
Oct. 12 Buffalo
Oct. 19 Ball State
Oct. 26 at UMass
Nov. 9 at Eastern Michigan
Nov. 16 Central Michigan
Nov. 26 at Northern Illinois