Canton, Ohio – So what can Western Michigan do for an encore after having an unbeaten regular season and earning its first Mid-American Conference championship since 1988 before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl last year?
Well, getting back to the MAC title game at Ford Field would be a great accomplishment, especially since Western Michigan lost its passing attack of quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis, who was selected with the No. 5 overall pick by the Tennessee Titans in April's NFL Draft.
And the Broncos would more than likely have to beat Toledo, a team that was picked to win the West Division and conference championship in a poll released during MAC Media Day Wednesday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Western Michigan was picked to finish second in the West.
No doubt, the Broncos' passing game will be a work in progress with Jon Wassink taking over at quarterback and Tom Flacco recently leaving the program.
Still, Western Michigan should get the ball into the end zone with one of the best rushing attacks in college football.
The Broncos have Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan back running behind All-MAC offensive linemen Chukwuma Okorafor and John Keenoy.
“I don’t really worry a ton following the magical season because whether I was here or someone else was here, when Corey Davis and Zach (Terrell) walk out the door you’re going to be a different team,” said first-year Western Michigan coach Tim Lester, who replaced P.J. Fleck after he moved on to Minnesota. “My biggest thing is getting the team to move on from that season. We’ve really focused a ton on getting new leaders to step up. We just have to figure out who we are.
“Our O-line and tight end unit is special. The two cards you want to have in your back pocket if you’re trying to develop a quarterback is a defense and a running game, and I think we’re going to have those two things. It doesn’t make developing a quarterback any easier, but it makes it a lot more fun and a lot less stressful on that quarterback because you’re hopefully not putting him in that many tough situations.
“One of the reasons I hired Kevin Johns as our offensive coordinator was because two years ago at Indiana they were the fourth offense in the history of college football to have two different 1,000-yard backs from the same team and their quarterback threw for 3,000, which I kind of thought fit us pretty good because I could see us having that (two 1,000-yard backs). If we’re going to play in the MAC championship game, which we sure in the heck plan on doing, we have to be able to make plays through the air and we’re going to have to develop that over time.”
Franklin is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher (3,639 yards, 41 touchdowns for career) and Bogan ran for 923 yards last season after a 1,000-yard freshman year. Matt Falcon, a former four-star recruit and Michigan commit who embodies Franklin’s power and Bogan’s speed, will be making his debut this season, and LeVante Bellamy is coming back from a knee injury.
“It’s exciting, being that we won the championship, it’s a lot of responsibility now for us as a team,” Bogan said. “At the end of the day we understand what it takes to win one now, but what you have to understand that to win back-to-back championships it’s going to take us to work harder than last year. We lost some really good players, Zach Terrell, Corey Davis and (tackle) Taylor Moton, but we have some awesome players back. It will take something different to win it this year.”
Something different, like in Lester, a former Western Michigan quarterback who led the Broncos to the MAC championship game in the late '90s. While Lester threw for 11,299 yards and 89 touchdowns at Western, he knows the importance of a running game and plans to pound the ball while eating up the clock.
“They’re on two different ends of the spectrum. Coach Fleck is Coach Fleck and Coach Lester is Coach Lester, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do the job just as good as Coach Fleck,” Bogan said. “The offense is just about the same (as last season). He’s done an excellent job since he’s been here building relationships with us. We love him.
“When we talked to (athletic director) Kathy (Beauregard) before he got here we said we wanted a coach that when we leave, success would continue at Western Michigan and it will be with him.”
Bogan has high praise for the offensive line.
“The last four years we’ve had a really good offensive line, those guys showed up and played really, really hard, and I think we were ranked as one of the top three offensive lines in the country,” Bogan said. “We were able to run the ball because they were so, so good so we’ve been fortunate. Our running backs, we run hard, try to do our jobs to the best of our ability.
“Matt Falcon, great guy, great kid with the potential to be really, really good. I always tell him, once you understand how to play football at this level, you’ll be the best running back to come out of here. He’s in a great place right now, got through a spring healthy and he’ll have a role to play.”
And Western Michigan will return eight starters on a defensive unit that forced 26 turnovers to help the Broncos lead the nation in turnover margin (plus-18).
Western Michigan opens the season at Southern Cal on Sept. 2, receiving $1.1 million to play the game.
WESTERN MICHIGAN 2017 SCHEDULE
Sept. 2, at Southern Cal, 5:15 p.m.
Sept. 9, at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 16, Idaho, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23, Wagner, TBD
Sept. 30, Ball State, TBD
Oct. 7, at Buffalo, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 14, Akron, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 21, at Eastern Michigan, 2 p.m.
Nov. 1, Central Michigan, 8 p.m.
Nov. 8, Kent State, TBD
Nov. 15, Northern Illinois, TBD
Nov. 24, at Toledo, TBD