'We've got good players': CMU, EMU, WMU part of MAC's record bowl haul
It was August 2020, and the Mid-American Conference had just canceled the football season amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic. Jim McElwain made what he now calls the "stupidest" decision of his life.
"I thought it was brilliant at the time," McElwain, who was just starting his second year as Central Michigan's head football coach, recalled over the weekend. "I sent our whole freshmen class home last year when we didn't think we were going to play. Then, all of a sudden, they said, 'By the way, you are gonna play.'
"We were playing with about 56 guys on the team.
McElwain can laugh about it now, and, oh, he sure does.
But the about-face by the MAC, and eventually by all the Football Bowl Subdivision Conferences, made for some chaotic times and uneven results 2020. The Chippewas, who played in a MAC Championship Game and finished 8-6 in McElwain's first season in 2019, went 3-3 in in the shortened 2020 season.
Now, they're back in the bowl picture for 2021, after an 8-4 season that saw them beat Michigan's other two MAC schools. They did so thanks in large part to an explosive offense that featured the nation's leading rusher. Central Michigan learned Sunday it will play Boise State in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson, on Dec. 31.
It's a far cry from 2020, and, heck, even from spring practice this year — when he essentially was rolling out two freshman classes at once.
"We had 61, 62 new people that showed up this year, counting two freshman classes and then some transfer guys," McElwain said. "We had to have name tags on so people knew who each other were."
All five Division I football teams from Michigan, including Michigan (College Football Playoff vs. Georgia) and Michigan State (Peach Bowl vs. Pittsburgh), have made bowl games in 2021. It's the second time that's ever happened — the first being in 2019. None of them played in a bowl in 2020, the condensed COVID year.
Eastern Michigan (7-5) will play in the Lending Tree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama on Dec. 18 against Liberty (7-5) an independent. Western Michigan (7-5) will stay the closest to home and play in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit on Dec. 27 against Nevada (8-4). That game, like the Central Michigan-Boise State, is a MAC-Mountain West showdown.
The MAC is sending a record eight teams to bowl games, including all five from the MAC West Division, home of Central, Eastern and Western.
"I'll tell you what, this conference, I think, is a little underappreciated, until we get to MACtion," McElwain said, referencing the midseason switch from weekend games to weekday nights. The move generates more eyeballs thanks to the league's deal with ESPN. "Then, people kind of see it's pretty good. We've got good players."
Central Michigan has more than its fair share, particularly on offense, where the Chippewas rank 19th in the nation in total yards (450.7), one spot behind Michigan and four behind Western Michigan.
CMU had four players make first-team all-MAC offense, including junior linemen Bernhard Raimann and Luke Goedeke, junior receiver Kalil Pimpleton (Muskegon native; Virginia Tech transfer) and red-shirt freshman running back Lew Nichols III (Detroit Cass Tech).
Pimpleton was the league's special teams player of the year, averaging 20.25 yards a punt return, and returning two for touchdowns, both in the 42-30 victory over rival Western Michigan.
Nichols, meanwhile, was the MAC's offensive player of the year, rushing for 1,710 yards, tops in the nation — just ahead of Michigan State Heisman Trophy candidate, Kenneth Walker III (1,636). Nichols actually was MAC freshman of the year in 2020, but he wasn't a true freshman, having red-shirted in 2019. Central Michigan expected big things in 2021, but probably not this much. He was penciled in to be the secondary option out of the backfield until junior running back Kobe Lewis blew out his knee in training camp.
"I kind of just pulled him aside and said, 'Look, here we go, let's jump on your back and ride,'" McElwain said. "I've been at some pretty good places, had a Heisman Trophy winner (Flint's Mark Ingram Jr. in 2009, when he was an assistant at Alabama), and had some other things.
"But to lead the nation in rushing, that's a heck of a feat."
Nichols, CMU's first MAC offensive player of the year since quarterback Dan LeFevour in 2009, was recruited by the previous Central Michigan coaching staff. McElwain was able to finish the job and lure him in as part of his first recruiting class. McElwain was impressed with Nichols' first step and path-finding, but acknowledged the man they now call "Sweet Lou" wasn't a finished product when he arrived on campus.
He averaged almost 5.5 yards a carry and had 15 rushing touchdowns, to go with 300 receiving yards and two touchdowns. That made him another option on the outside to go with Pimpleton as well as senior JaCorey Sullivan (Muskegon) and junior Dallas Dixon, both third-team all-MAC receivers.
The explosiveness will be put to the test in the Arizona Bowl against a Boise State team that is better than average defensively. The game will be unique this year in that, now sponsored by Barstool, it will only be streamed online and not on traditional TV. Boise State is a program McElwain is familiar with, from his time coaching in the west, notably his three years as head coach at Colorado State. McElwain noted he hasn't beat Boise State since he was at Eastern Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, back when Boise State was in the Big Sky Conference.
"So that," McElwain said, still laughing, "should tell you something."
McElwain's success at Central Michigan — he took over a program that was 1-11, and has gone 19-13 with two bowl bids — is starting to get his name back in the coaching-carousel rumor mill. His image has been somewhat rehabbed from an at-times turbulent and an often-bizarre three-year stint at Florida.
Last week, a Denver Post columnist wrote that it's time for McElwain to "come home," and take the job at Colorado State, where he was 22-15 from 2012-14 and beloved before taking the Florida job. McElwain is a Montana native, and there is expected to be some dialogue soon, if there hasn't been already.
McElwain, asked about the buzz and his future at Central Michigan, didn't directly address the Colorado State situation, but instead turned his attention to recruiting. He was on the road for two in-home visits Sunday, shortly after the Chippewas learned their bowl destination.
"Well, the one thing I'm grateful for is to be a Central Michigan Chippewa," said McElwain, who is in the third year of a five-year contract that pays him more than $700,000 a year. "We're having a blast here, great kids, a great administration, the community and the people we've met have been fantastic.
"You know what, that's why I'm on the road trying to get some more Chips right now."
Western Michigan is in a bowl game for the third time in five seasons under coach Tim Lester, as the Quick Lane Bowl returns after a one-year hiatus. Eastern Michigan is in a bowl for the fourth time in eight years under coach Chris Creighton — before his arrival, the Eagles hadn't played in a bowl game since 1987.
We're running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.