Spring practice is over, and that means I can start talking about the Syracuse Orange’s actual football opponents for this fall. Maybe the rest of you aren’t as excited about this fact in April. But... I certainly am, so we’re doing it.
SU faces another challenging schedule, so this is not going to be easy, even with an improved and/or healthier team. Still, we’re looking at the positives wherever possible. Today’s foe:
School: Western Michigan University
#BRAND Slogan: #LetsRide
Recommended Blog: Hustle Belt
Conference: Mid-American Conference
Coach: Tim Lester, 2nd year. Utilizing some of the leftover talent and depth from the P.J. Fleck era, WMU alum Tim Lester went 6-6 in year one but missed a bowl game because of conference tie-ins. Of course, you’re already familiar with Lester given his time as QBs coach and offensive coordinator at Syracuse, running an offense that was just slightly more watchable (but still very difficult to sit through) than George McDonald’s. The #MethodCat was once the “Submarine” in XFL trading card circles. This will always be incredibly entertaining.
2017 Record: (6-6) (4-4)
Recapping Last Season: It’s hard to follow up an undefeated regular season and a conference title, but that was the job Lester was tasked with after taking over for Fleck in 2017. The Broncos had to replace nearly everyone on offense, while the defense returned enough to potentially prevent much of a drop-off. Still, the odds were stacked against Lester keeping his alma mater atop the MAC.
But if you viewed the season with a more realistic lens -- keeping a relative level of success going -- 2017 wasn’t half bad for Lester’s return to head coaching after a four-year hiatus (he was in charge at Elmhurst College from 2008-12). WMU went 6-6, including 4-4 in league play. They started with two tighter games against USC and Michigan State, respectively, then reeled off four straight wins, including a record-setting 71-68 triumph over Buffalo in seven overtimes. That was nearly all the offensive firepower they had left, however. The Broncos topped 30 points just two more times, and went 2-4 down the stretch. On the year, the offense ranked in the bottom half of the country, bolstered by that UB win, but was a top-25 rushing attack mostly behind senior Jarvion Franklin.
Defensively, WMU finished in the top half of the country in terms of yards per game allowed, but allowed about 29 points per game. Tim Daoust’s defense got some semblence of a pass rush (21 sacks), but where they really excelled was forcing turnovers. The former Syracuse staffer’s group created 26 turnovers (including 16 fumble recoveries), which was tied for the 16th-best performance in the country.
2018 Season Outlook:
In the MAC, things could potentially go pretty well for WMU. They signed a quality recruiting class (second in the conference and 75th overall according to 247Sports), and bring back enough of the offense to see some return on investment after last year’s middling overall effort. Franklin departs from the running game, but Jamauri Bogan is now a senior and ran for 589 yards last season. Jon Wassink didn’t do half bad in eight games at quarterback last season, with 1,391 yards and 14 touchdowns, versus just four picks. The junior showed some accuracy with a 64 percent completion rating. If he builds on that effort, he should be one of the MAC’s top passers.
But defensively, the Broncos do sort of hit reset, though with Daoust still manning the ship, they’ll stand a chance to stay the course while turning over a lot of players. Five of WMU’s top eight tacklers last year were seniors, including three linebackers and two defensive backs. However, there were also quite a few injuries last year, as Bill Connelly points out in his season preview. Western Michigan’s secondary could be a bright spot as Justin Tranquill returns to the field, along with Stefan Claiborne, Davontae Ginwright and Darius Phillips. That should potentially help balance out the complete reset at linebacker.
If the offense makes strides and the defense avoids a drop-off, this is a team with one sure loss in Michigan, then a whole lot of opportunity. As Syracuse knows all too well, though, just because there are a lot of toss-ups games on paper doesn’t mean you’re going to win even half of them.
Syracuse Game Date: Friday, August 31
Location: Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Odds of Orange Victory: 60 percent
Very Early Outlook:
In year three, it’s less of a risk to face a familiar coach and staff (since there aren’t a lot of players left from their time there), but it’s still the same uneasiness (for me) going into this game as I had going into last year’s matchup vs. Scott Shafer at MTSU. This WMU squad arguably has more talent than that Blue Raiders team, and it’s a road game. Just the same, I’m hopeful that Dino Babers’s team starts turning the corner in 2018. How they come out in this game against a talented MAC team could tell us a whole lot about what we’re working with this fall. Don’t expect a blowout. But the Orange should be able to come away with a victory here.