It’s time to talk about that 8-0 football team in the state of Michigan. No, not THAT one. The other one. While Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are steamrolling the competition halfway through the college football season, fourth-year coach P.J. Fleck and the Western Michigan Broncos are making some serious Cinderella noise in Kalamazoo. They stormed into the Top 25 polls for the first time in school history last week and look like clear favorites to win their first Mid-American Conference championship since 1988.
WMU is 7-0, including two road wins against Big Ten teams: Northwestern in the season opener (22-21) and Illinois in Week 3 (34-10). It destroyed rival Central Michigan on the road, 49-10. It just beat Eastern Michigan. Even Northern Illinois, which has won the past six MAC West championships and three of the past five MAC championships, lost to the Broncos, 45-30.
Leading the way for WMU is a lethal offense, ranking No. 7 in the nation. Senior quarterback Zach Terrell is throwing at a 70 percent clip with laser-like precision. Senior wide receiver Corey Davis is a match-up nightmare and is a likely first-round selection in next spring’s NFL draft. And then there’s Fleck who, preaching the “Row the Boat” mantra, transformed the Broncos from a 1-11 team in 2013 to possibly the best mid-majors in the nation.
Does Western have any real shot at a New Year’s Six bowl? The short answer is, of course, yes. But the chance is not a great one. The biggest factor in WMU’s favor is its remaining strength of schedule – at Ball State, at Kent State, vs. Buffalo and vs. Toledo. That would leave the MAC championship game which, at this point, would likely pit Western Michigan up against either Akron or Ohio. Either match-up would likely be winnable.
Given how previous MAC teams have fared in the Top 25 polls when going unbeaten in regular-season play, Western could realistically end up in the top half of the rankings, maybe even the Top 12, despite the strength of schedule. A couple of examples are Ball State in 2008 and Northern Illinois in 2012. Ball State had a shot at playing in a big game, but they lose the MAC Championship to Buffalo. Northern Illinois was selected to play on New Years Day and were throttled by Florida State.
WMU has a decent shot at 13-0 going into bowl season but, despite six major bowl games instead of four under the old BCS format, there are just two at-large spots for the “Group of Five” schools, and both are for the Cotton Bowl. By rule, the top-ranked conference champion from the “Group of Five” must be selected for one of the Cotton Bowl berths. So a 13-0 Western Michigan team should be picked, right?
The problem is, it’s also competing with the likes of Boise State and Navy. Boise State has an excellent shot at finishing unbeaten and winning the Mountain West Conference. They just escaped a good one against BYU and the rest of the schedule in not too daunting. Navy’s chances are much smaller, but it’s also the team that beat Houston, 46-40 and is competing against the Cougars in the American Athletic Conference’s West division.
In other words, WMU needs to go 13-0 to have a chance. Even then, depending on how the rest of the college football season shakes out, it could be dicey; if you’re a Broncos fan, you’ll want to keep an eye on Boise State and Navy from here on out.
As for Western’s schedule, the toughest test might be Toledo in the regular season finale on Nov. 25. Other than that, every game should be a victory – and, with maybe a little luck, WMU could be able to carry its “Row The Boat” mantra into a big New Year’s Six bowl match-up.