Broncos feeling the heat; so what’s new?

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — There was one year the late, great Tigers manager, Sparky Anderson, called the toughest of his career.

Would you believe, it was 1984?

That, of course, was the year the Tigers started a historic 35-5, and went wire-to-wire to win the franchise’s fourth and last World Series championship.

Anderson’s rationale was this: He felt so much pressure after the great start, the rest of the season was almost suffocating, as he didn’t want to be known as the guy who blew it.

Well, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck might know the feeling.

“You know what I really enjoy, these guys,” Fleck said Thursday afternoon, nodding to the two seniors to his left, wide receiver Corey Davis and quarterback Zach Terrell. “When you talk about the process, that’s a very difficult thing to take a lot of joy in.

“As a head coach, you get a lot of money to be paranoid and worried.”

Friday night’s Mid-American Conference championship game against Ohio (8-4) at Ford Field is the next — and, easily, the most important — challenge for the Broncos, who are 12-0 and need one more win to likely secure a bid in the Cotton Bowl.

Navy (9-2) remains in the mix, because of its strength of schedule and quality wins.

So, the pressure on Western Michigan is incredible — but it’s been there pretty much all year. From the inside of the Waldo Stadium walls, where players were told by coaches in January that a special season was very achievable. And from the outside, where the media started asking about players and coaches about the possibility of perfection — way back in September, after the season-opening, thrilling victory over Northwestern of the Big Ten.

“We have yet to exhale,” said Terrell, who orchestrates a run-first offense — but one that can easily shift to the passing game. He has 30 touchdown throws, to just one interception.

“We have a lot left to accomplish. There’s meat left on the bone, so to speak.”

That meat, of course, starts with a MAC championship, which would be just the third in program history — for a program that’s been around more than a century.

Without a win Friday night, all the College Football Playoff committee’s talk about where to put Western Michigan doesn’t mean a lick.

A Cotton Bowl bid will be gone.

“We need to be 1-0 tomorrow,” Fleck said, “or it doesn’t matter.”

That’s what Fleck and the Broncos have talked about all year. They have a lot of phrases, from “Row the Boat,” to “The Ball is the Program.” Another is the one-game seasons. They strive to be 1-0 against Ohio, just like they were 1-0 against Toledo last week, and 1-0 against every other team on the schedule.

Speaking of that schedule, that’s what is giving the CFP pause before just assigning a 12-0 WMU team to the Cotton Bowl over a two-loss Navy team. The CFP, which assigns the four playoff teams and the other New Year’s Six participants, doesn’t like WMU’s strength of schedule, despite two wins over the Big Ten (Illinois was the other), plus wins over MAC bowl teams, such as Toledo, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, with most victories coming in blowout fashion.

Fleck has balked at doing any more lobbying for his team. He doesn’t see the point.

“I will just say this,” he said at Thursday’s MAC press conference. “This is the No. 1 team in my ranking, period, and that’s the only thing that matters to me.

“I’m not gonna say anything that’s gonna make them (CFP committee) think differently. Our schedule is our schedule. The conference is one of the most competitive, across the board, with parity. Any given Saturday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, MACtion Friday, whatever it is, you just don’t know who’s gonna win.

“That’s the only thing we can control. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Western Michigan, which wins with a dynamic offense and a defense with a crazy knack for forcing turnovers — the Broncos are tied for No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin, at plus-18 a figure Ohio coach Frank Solich couldn’t exactly remember, “because it’s so high, I lost track” — is heavily favored in Friday’s game.

Ohio knows that, and hears that, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered that it’s viewed as simply the latest stand-in character in Western Michigan’s storybook season.

The Bobcats have a really good defense, which is why they tend to keep so many games close. To get into this game, it grinded out a 9-3 victory over Akron.

“In general, we’re not an attention-seeking group,” Solich said. “We’re not concerned about where we’re at, in terms of an underdog and how most people are looking at it.”

Most people are looking at it this way: It’s not if WMU will be 13-0, but when.

“There are some sleepers out there that may not think we belong here on this stage,” said Tarell Basham, Ohio’s senior defensive lineman and the MAC defensive player of the year. “We’ve come here on a mission.”

This is Ohio’s third MAC championship game appearance at Ford Field; it lost the other two. This is Western Michigan’s first appearance in the MAC championship game since 1999-2000, and the program’s first trip to Ford Field under Fleck; it also lost its other two MAC title-game appearances, both at Marshall when Marshall was in the MAC.

Ohio’s last conference championship was in 1968, Western Michigan’s in 1988.

Both teams feel the pressure to end long title droughts, but for the Broncos — whose stakes are so high, more than 46,000 tickets had been sold for the game as of Thursday morning, which will shatter this game’s attendance record — the heat is a wee bit hotter.

Then again, they’ve embraced the pressure all year. Why stop now?

“We’ve come a long way as a program, with two (MAC) championships in 108 years to say, ‘Championship or bust,’ ” said Fleck, who guided this program from 1-11 to 8-5 to 8-5 to, now, 12-0. “I kind of like that, the expectations and pressure.

“There is a ton on the line. This is what we wanted. This is the expectation and the pressure that we talked about from the opening press conference when we took over this job.

“If you don’t want the championship pressure and the expectations, and the expectations to be ranked, don’t come to Western Michigan.”