2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Western Michigan's dismal 1-11 overall record in the 2013 season doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. The Broncos finished in dead last in the Mid-American Conference West Division - a game behind in- state foe Eastern Michigan in the overall standings, but both squads tied with a 1-7 mark in conference play.
Sure, Western Michigan's lone win last year came against another woeful program in Massachusetts. In fact, Eastern Michigan's only win in conference play came against WMU a week after the Broncos beat UMass. But again, Western Michigan's record doesn't reflect some of the more competitive games the team played.
In the first week of the 2013 season, WMU held tough with Michigan State for a chunk of the contest before falling, and trailed Northwestern 10-7 midway through the second quarter before the Wildcats broke open the doors for the win. Naturally WMU wasn't invited to participate in a bowl game.
The offense averaged just 17.2 ppg, and the defense surrendered 35.4 ppg to opponents - a horrific combination. P.J. Fleck returns for his second season at the helm of the program, and will work with a contingency of returning starters to try and turn the program around.
OFFENSE: Nine offensive starters return for the Broncos heading into the 2014 season, which is a fantastic start for a team looking to get off the ground. The thing is, some of those starters may not be worthy of retaining their positions after the poor season in 2013.
Western Michigan had the strongest recruiting class in the MAC, and pulled in some talent in the offseason. That could be reflected in potential starting lineup changes come opening weekend. For example, quarterback Zach Terrell returns after leading WMU in 2013 with 1,602 passing yards and eight touchdowns. However, true freshman Chance Stewart (6-foot-5) may in fact be the favorite to land the starting gig. It certainly wouldn't be a shock, considering Terrell had his opportunity last year and didn't exactly take advantage.
The running back battle may be lost by an incumbent as well. Dareyon Chance led the Broncos last season with 729 rushing yards and added three touchdowns, but he's expected to get a heavy push from freshman Jarvion Franklin. Chance is the only returning running back on the roster that received double-digit carries in 2013.
"We needed help at the running back position," Fleck said. "You look at those three true freshmen. I don't know if they all had touchdowns (in the team's scrimmage), but they all have one thing: vision."
Thankfully for whichever quarterback gets the starting nod, he'll have three of the team's top four wideouts returning from last season. Corey Davis (941 yards, six touchdowns) and Kendrick Roberts (354 yards, one touchdown) were last year's top two producers at the position. Freshman Lonnie Johnson could have won a starting job, but is ineligible due to NCAA academic qualifications. Junior Eric Boyden is the likely candidate at tight end. The Broncos also have four of the team's starting five offensive linemen back.
DEFENSE: On paper, it looks pretty bleak when a defense that allowed 35.4 ppg to opponents last season only returns five starters for 2014. Leading tackler Justin Currie is back, but he's one of just three players returning that made up the top eight in terms of tackles a year ago.
Currie, the team's strong safety, registered 113 tackles and had six tackles for loss, three pass breakups and three interceptions. He's the unquestioned leader of the defense, and he should get some support from fellow juniors Donald Celiscar and Ronald Zamort (who were the second- and third-leading tacklers that are returning for 2014) at the cornerback slots.
Sophomores David Curle and Keion Adams, along with redshirt freshman Andre Turner, will be three-fourths of the defensive line, while senior Richard Ash is the favorite the fill the fourth spot. The play of the line will be huge, considering WMU allowed 250 rushing ypg last season. Compare that to just 169.2 passing ypg, and it's pretty obvious which aspect needs the most work.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both the place kicking and punting duties will fall on familiar faces this upcoming season. Junior Andrew Haldeman is back to retake his position as the lead kicker after hitting 16-of-20 field goal attempts in 2013. He had a long of 48 yards and was perfect from 20-29 out.
J. Schroeder handled the punting job last season, and is returning for his junior campaign after sending 77 punts away last year. He averaged 39.7 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. He hit eight over 50 yards, and downed 17 inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
OUTLOOK: Like several other programs in the MAC, there's only really one place to go following a 1-11 season, and that's up. The Broncos didn't have anything going for them in 2013, whether it was on offense with the lack of scoring or on defense with a porous bunch.
But with a strong recruiting class coming in, there will, at the very least, be some serious position battles between returning starters, key reserves and incoming freshmen. The team also has a slightly more favorable schedule in 2014.
Western Michigan opens with a battle against Purdue, then gets an open week before traveling to face Idaho. FCS challenger Murray State and Virginia Tech round out the non-conference portion of the slate, while key MAC games include contests against Toledo, Bowling Green, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois.
"We have some growing-up boys, but the future is really bright," Fleck said.
The Broncos aren't about to make a serious push for a conference title, but the team should at least be making its way out of the MAC basement with the strong combination of returning starters and talented freshmen. Give it a few years, and Western Michigan can once again be bowl eligible. The team is heading in the right direction.