USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Things have changed in the Mid-American Conference's West Division. Where there was once room for only one contender there is now room for two; if there was once room for two leaders, there's now room for three. But that's where it ends: three.
It's a division run by Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ball State, in one order or another, and the rest of the league – those remaining three teams out in the cold – is either treading water, like Central Michigan, or somehow getting worse, in the case of Eastern and Western Michigan. The latter is lower than ever before, as we saw a season ago, while EMU found the bottom nearly two decades and has remained pat, mired in an inescapable rut.
But CMU is different. This is still the program of Roy Kramer and Herb Deromedi, as dominant a one-two punch as any in the MAC's history. The Chippewas won MAC titles in 2006, 2007 and 2009, effectively transitioning from Brian Kelly and Butch Jones – two coaching alums now at Notre Dame and Tennessee, respectively – and stating a case as the conference's most dominant program of the decade.
It didn't take long for that to change. The Chippewas are 19-30 since Jones' departure for Cincinnati following the 2009 season; Ball State, Toledo and NIU are a combined 108-49 during the same span. Dan Enos' record against this threesome? Try 1-11, with the one outlier a 48-41 shootout against the Huskies in 2011.
There is no gap between the haves and the have-nots in the West Division; it's a chasm, and even if CMU is closer than its Michigan peers the Chippewas have a huge swath of space to traverse before reentering the title conversation. It's been a rough four years.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
There are some very nice pieces on the roster, mostly in underclassmen, and there's little doubt that CMU is in a far better place today than at any point in either 2010 or 2011, when the jury remained out on the staff's ability to build a consistent winner. Last season ended those questions: Enos deserves time to take a slight step back in the win column in 2013 while the Chippewas continue to build from the bottom up.
In a nutshell: CMU beat only one winning team, Ohio, and was otherwise rocked by the stronger opponents on its schedule – Michigan, UNLV, N.C. State, Toledo, Ball State and Northern Illinois. Essentially, the Chippewas painted a picture of a team good enough to win six games against the MAC's ineffective second half but one that stood miles away from competing with the league's elite. Hey, it's the same old story. That CMU added three wins to its 2012 total is nice, but let's just focus on one thing: last year's team was not noticeably better – or better, period – than its previous incarnation. It'll take a stronger performance this fall to keep Enos and his staff off the hot seat.
High point: A three-game winning streak to end the season. Western Michigan, Massachusetts and Eastern Michigan combined for 32 losses, but let's ignore that.
Low point: More blowouts at the hands of the MAC West's top half. CMU never sniffed Toledo and Ball State, while NIU charged away in the second half.
Tidbit: Of the 21 teams to win 10 or more games in 2009, CMU is one of seven to fail to match that mark in one of the past four seasons, joining Georgia Tech, Texas, Pittsburgh, Iowa, Penn State, Navy and Middle Tennessee State. Each of the remaining 20 schools have won at least eight games in one of the last four seasons, however, while CMU's top win total in the post-Jones era has been seven.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Major staffing changes are nothing new to Enos, who has made at least one major change in each of the last three seasons. This year's a little different, however: CMU lost then-offensive coordinator Mike Cummings to Connecticut, where he'll serve as Bob Diaco's top offensive assistant, and rather than make any major alterations opted to promote Cummings' replacement from within the existing staff. That'd be Morris Watts, the longtime quarterbacks coach who will work in conjunction with Enos in leading the Chippewas' attack. Technically, Cummings' spot will be filled by new tight ends coach Sherrone Moore, who spent the last five seasons at Louisville.
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PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The silver lining to Zurlon Tipton's injury-ravaged senior season – the former all-conference back was limited to six games last fall – was the opportunity it handed to a number of would-be reserves. One year later, this experience will come in handy as CMU transitions its ground game to a by-committee approach. There's still a lead back, such as it is: Saylor Lavallii (807 yards) heads into his junior season as the Chippewas' top option, thanks to his steady play a season ago, but look for Enos and Watts to share Lavallii's touches with sophomore Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore (261 yards) and Anthony Garland (159 yards). Another option, sophomore Martez Walker, could conceivably carve out a smaller role in a specific capacity; likewise with a few incoming freshmen, though carries will be hard to find behind the top threesome. No one back pops – Lavallii is promising, however – but the group as a whole is certainly good enough.
This offensive front will be improve. One reason for optimism: CMU is far more battle-tested than at this point a year ago, when left tackle Eric Fisher was one of four starters gone off the line; a year later, the Chippewas' rotation returns nearly intact. Another reason to be positive: Enos and his staff have added young talent in the last two recruiting classes, bolstering the overall depth behind the top quintet. The line is strongest along the interior, where both left guard Andy Phillips and center Nick Beamish are in line for all-conference accolades – with Phillips an absolute lock, if not the top interior lineman in the MAC. This pair is joined inside by sophomore right guard Connor Collins, a nine-game starter last fall, with junior left tackle Ramadan Ahmeti and senior right tackle Kevin Henry on the edges. It's a solid group. Add in six true and redshirt freshmen – three of the three-star variety – and this line seems in solid hands.
All this receiver corps needs to do is lend senior Titus Davis (61 receptions for 1,109 yards) a hand. Not that he can't go it alone: Davis was the one productive option in the passing game last fall – the go-to target in virtually every situation – and nevertheless delivered at an all-league clip, pacing the Chippewas in every meaningful category despite little to no help from his supporting cast. While CMU knows Davis will come through, it's vital that junior Andrew Flory (31 for 377), senior Courtney Williams (23 for 251 and junior Jesse Kroll add production against single coverage; they're going to be open, due to the attention paid to Davis, and need to provide this passing game with effective alternate targets. But that's a concern, in my mind. So is the lack of production at tight end: CMU has bodies, including two coming in February's class, and it'd be nice for the Chippewas' starting quarterback – still unknown, as we'll discuss below – to have that added security blanket in the short passing game and the red zone.
Defense: With this much experience on defense – eight returning starters, the majority of the two-deep – CMU can spend the offseason tinkering with the returning personnel and addressing two positions short on proven production. One is safety, where Avery Cunningham's calming presence along the back end seems difficult to replace. This takes on added importance given the scheme itself: CMU's 4-2-5 defensive blueprint demands aggressiveness, opportunism and leadership from the secondary, so replicating Cunningham's impact might be the defining factor behind the Chippewas' projected defensive growth. Will it be a tall order? Without a doubt. But with so many returning contributors to choose from – the silver lining to last year's shuffling two-deep – defensive backs coach Archie Collins won't struggle for options.
Six returning defenders earned starts a season ago, so let's consider two items: one, that experience shouldn't be an issue, and two, that Collins and CMU could conceivably create a high degree of competition throughout the offseason. That would be a good thing, in my mind, though it's very difficult to see senior Jason Wilson (61 tackles, 3 interceptions) and junior Brandon Greer (49 tackles, 2 interceptions) lose their starting jobs at cornerback, for example. Turn to safety, on the other hand, where even without Cunningham the Chippewas have enough options to push a projected starter into a reserve role. Kevin King is going to start, based on the spring, as should Tony Annese, a promising sophomore. Junior Denzel Wimberly, formerly a little-used reserve, made a strong push for a starting job during the spring; that's still a possibility, though CMU does need to find a way to get junior Kavon Frazier (67 tackles, 3 interceptions) and senior Jarrett Chapman on the field.
The second level is headlined by an easy all-conference pick in senior Justin Cherocci (121 tackles, 9.5 for loss), a multiple-year starter who should earn heavy consideration for the league's defensive player of the year should CMU's attack roll behind this more experienced starting cast. Cherocci's sideline-to-sideline production fits perfectly into the program's scheme; it also should allow CMU to replace Shamari Benton and not miss too much of a beat, though Benton was among the MAC's most underrated starters as an upperclassmen. His shoes will be filled by some combination of senior Cody Lopez and juniors Nathan Ricketts and Tim Hamilton, with Lopez the likely starter. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Jeff Perry, a converted safety with the speed to move ahead of the two juniors and into a spot on the two-deep.
The Chippewas are in good shape at tackle but must locate production at end without three main cogs in last year's line rotation. When it comes to the interior, CMU brings back senior Leterrius Walton (34 tackles, 9.5 for loss), an all-conference contender; junior Jabari Dean, who started the first month of last season before being lost to injury; sophomore Kelby Latta, who moved into the lineup after Dean's injury; junior Shafer Johnson, who played in all 12 games a season ago; and senior Matt Losiniecki, who has been sidelined but should return in time for fall camp. That's enough options – and enough size – for this run defense to expect a degree of improvement. But the pass rush stands out as perhaps the defense's biggest concern: CMU has no explosiveness at the position, though juniors Blake Serpa and Louis Palmer are strong enough to lend another boost to this run defense. The linebackers contribute in the pass rush, but the Chippewas need these ends to deliver some danger on clear passing downs.
Special teams: Sophomore kicker Ron Coluzzi needs only to develop a stronger leg – one that allows CMU to at least attempt field goals from 40-plus yards – to stand as one of the MAC's best. He may also double as the Chippewas' punter in 2014, should incoming freshman Cooper Mojsiejenko not take to the role during fall camp. CMU's return game and coverage teams are fine, though the Chippewas do need to address some lapses on punt coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: And the competition rolls on. Spring began with sophomore Cooper Rush and senior Cody Kater battling for the starting job; summer begins with Rush and Kater still neck-and-neck on the two-deep; fall camp will began with Rush and Kater, yes, still jostling for the top spot. And this doesn't even mention JUCO transfer Ryan Lamb, who signed in February with the express goal of leapfrogging ahead of the two holdovers to lead the Chippewas' offense. That seems like a longshot: Rush and Kater are substantially ahead of the pack, with Rush a hair ahead of Kater, per Enos, and it's overwhelmingly likely that it's one of the two options come the season opener. The senior brings nothing if not motivation: Kater was anointed the starter last fall but lasted less than one game, a 50-point loss to Michigan, before suffering a season-ending injury. He was replaced by Rush, who tossed 15 touchdowns against 15 interceptions as a raw – but promising – thrown-to-the-wolves starter. If Rush's experience and room for growth in Enos' system gives him an edge, Kater's strong play throughout the spring – and win against the Rush-led Maroon team during the spring game – raised the interest level surrounding this competition heading into the fall. My guess? It'll be Rush in August, but he'll need to ratchet up his consistency to keep Kater on the sidelines.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Purdue: Beating a Big Ten opponent in September would work wonders for CMU's confidence, even if this Big Ten foe is, well, Purdue. It's a schedule split into two distinct parts: August, September and October are simply nasty, but November provides as kind a stretch as you'll see in the MAC. As for the first half: CMU takes on three major-conference programs before opening league play against Toledo, Ohio, Northern Illinois and Ball State. It doesn't get any worse than that. But the Chippewas close with Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan, meaning a two-win team could secure bowl eligibility in the final month.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The most experienced team in the MAC, going by returning starters, prepares for a make-or-break 2014 season. This stands for Enos more than the rest: CMU's incumbent staff needs a breakthrough to ensure security moving forward, and despite a difficult first-half schedule should place expectations at six or more wins during the regular season. If everything clicks, notching another season of bowl eligibility is well within the Chippewas' capabilities. More than that – say, eight wins and West Division contention – hinges on how well this staff sews together the various nicks, cuts and cracks still seen on this two-deep.
But asking everything to click might be a tall order. For one, this staff has been largely unimpressive throughout its tenure; CMU has fallen rapidly from the MAC's upper crust, and even with this experienced personnel is a full step – if not more – behind the league's best. At the same time, the Chippewas must solve the situation at quarterback, must find additional targets at receiver, must find a pass rush and must settle those position battles in the secondary, the grouping most key to the defense's overall degree of success. This is not a perfect team by any means despite the 18 returning starters, nor is this a coaching staff that necessarily inspires confidence.
My biggest concern: CMU doesn't find its identity, groove and rhythm until late October. It'll be too late by that point. What good is an easy November if the team is 2-6 or 1-7 after two months? And how should we view a team that gets to six wins, yes, but nets five against Chattanooga, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan? I'm taking a cautious approach with a team and program that still must prove itself against the meat of its schedule – while also admitting that any group with this much experience must be viewed as one capable of meeting or exceeding all of its expectations. I'd say CMU does get to six wins, but the résumé of victories doesn't inspire confidence.
Dream season: The Chippewas beat Purdue and Kansas in non-conference play and finish 9-3, just behind Northern Illinois in the West Division.
Nightmare season: Given this team's experience and expectations, a 3-9 finish should lead to a coaching change.
Who's No. 84? This school is the second-oldest public institution in its home state, trailing only a university whose official motto spans 21 characters, not including spaces, and includes eight vowels (including y).
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