Eastern Michigan is “The Factory” with the gray turf featuring sledgehammerin’ lineman, cinder blocks, and a dynasty-building coach that’s building a competitor out of one of the toughest jobs in the sport. Western Michigan might be in the twilight of the P.J. Fleck supernova, but still has “Row The Boat” and a MAC title from a mere five years ago.
What does Central Michigan have?
Glad you asked! Depending on your immersion level of the college football landscape, you might know nothing about the Fightin’ Chippewas of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. For instance, did you know that Central Michigan is where Brian Kelly got his first FBS gig? It’s true! After building a dynamo at Grand Valley State - going 118-35 with two national championships - Kelly was called up to guide Central Michigan out of a rut. Kelly only went 19-16 overall in his three years at the helm but went 9-3 in his last year while winning the MAC. He then took the Cincinnati job and his replacement at CMU was none other than Butch Jones (who also succeeded Kelly at Cincinnati once the latter took the Notre Dame job).
Jones continued the engine that Kelly kickstarted, going 27-13 in three years thanks to my personal favorite Darkhorse Heisman candidate of all time, Dan LeFevour. LeFevour was the second player in college history to pass for over 3,000 yards and run for over 1,000 (Vince Young was the first). He is also the only player to this day with over over 12,000 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing as well as ranking second all-time in offensive production.
LeFevour was rudely passed over for the Heisman and most high-profile awards but one of his teammates, left tackle Joe Staley, wasn’t. After completing his college career without allowing a sack, Staley became the first player from the MAC to be drafted in the first round in the NFL Draft. The second MAC player to be drafted in the first round was another Chippewa, offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who went first overall to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013.
So this little team in the middle of Michigan is home to two FBS coaches - one of whom was pretty dang good - a Heisman candidate, and the only two MAC players ever drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. They’ve won 10 games twice in the past fifteen years and won three MAC titles in that same time frame. But recently it hasn’t been so great.
Dan Enos replaced Butch Jones, and while initially struggling, got the Chips a winning record for the first time in four years at the conclusion of the 2014 season. However, despite earning a pay bump and contract increase, he resigned in January of 2015 to take the Arkansas offensive coordinator position. This was before Early Signing Day and he left the Chips with no coaching staff for a February signing day three weeks away. That CMU signing class signed to play for a school with no head coach and the results went basically as you expected. John Bonamego was the only guy who was willing to take the job but once that lost recruiting class became the upperclassmen the leadership and talent fell of a cliff, winning one game in the 2018 season and getting Bonamego fired. Enter: a disgraced coach who lied about death threats sent to his players and possibly humped a shark... our favorite ex-Florida football coach, Jim McElwain.
McElwain took that one-win team and immediately turned it into a 8-win team that played for the MAC. Yes, seriously. Last year wasn’t so great, though. Here’s the schedule:
The MAC let ten weeks go by before getting their season underway, opting for a super-short six-game season that was all conference games. CMU lost a good chunk of that MAC West championship team but also struggled with COVID (as did many teams last year). The Chippewas got smoked by eventual-MAC Champion Ball State, blasted a bad Northern Illinois squad, and played four one-possession games in which they went 2-2. They might have been better if they had an actual fall camp and an actual season to play, but overall they were a perfectly average MAC team that could have been so much better.
Jim McElwain - 3rd Year - 11-9 (9-5)
McElwain has been a successful coach at almost every college stop that wasn’t Florida - and even then his Gators went 10-4 and 9-4 with two SEC East titles in two of his three years. You don’t get much wiggle room when you’re a curmudgeon to work with, however, and his sour attitude did him no favors when he begun accusing “Florida fans” for sending death threats to his players with no evidence to back it up. That was enough for the Gainesville leadership to fire him halfway through a 4-7 season and get him the wide receiver’s coaching position at Michigan - a job that unapologetically screamed “REHAB STINT”. He took the first gig offered to him and it just so happened to be the opening in Mt. Pleasant, a two hour drive north on US-127. In his two short seasons he’s won the West division and improved recruiting, bringing in one of their best recruiting classes in years with this 2021 crop, ranked 87th according to 247 composite rankings. He also has them primed to be a contender in the West once again given their returning production and the promise of the younger guys returning to the 2021 squad.
Kevin Barbay - Offensive Coordinator: Barbay was McElwain’s Director of Player Development at both Colorado State and Florida. He called plays at Stephen F. Austin after the McElwain Florida staff got canned then reunited with his old boss at CMU as, first, a wide receivers coach, and then getting the OC promotion for 2021. McElwain still seems to have tight control of the schemes on offense but Barbay’s developmental skills in practice and play-calling ability during games will be the actual test of his talents.
Robb Akey - Defensive Coordinator: Akey is my favorite Idaho head coach (also, one of the two I can remember) stemming from the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl. The Vandals were down to Bowling Green at halftime and during that before-halftime-cut-away interview the sideline reporter asked him whatever BS question they usually ask and he responded with a gravelly yell, “WATCH THE SECOND HALF YOU’RE GONNA LOVE IT” then winked and ran away. The Vandals won 43-42 when Akey’s boys scored with no time on the clock at the end of the game and went for two and the win. The rest of his Idaho tenure wasn’t great - and his career since has been a mish-mash of far-flung college locales and low-level NFL employment - but that’s one of those “I love college football” moments that I’ll certainly never forget.
Keith Murphy - Special Teams Coordinator
Cornell Jackson - Running Backs
Alvin Slaughter - Wide Receivers
Tavita Thompson - Tight Ends/Offensive Tackles
Mike Cummings - Offensive Line
Justin Hinds - Defensive Line
Tim Skipper - Linebacker
Michael Zordich - Defensive Backs
The Chippewas offense was predicated on just hanging out and having fun until someone broke a big play. The running game was ok (63rd) but stunk at getting 4-yard carries and was one of the worst at getting short yardage. The passing game was even worse, ranking 102nd in success rate as the Chips threw short, easy passes with a few downfield shots mixed in. But when those deep shots hit, woah momma did they destroy; a 47th-ranked explosiveness passing game somewhat hides the fact that the 27 deep balls connected for over 19 yards per catch, with a third of those going for touchdowns. That type of approach is not very efficient and certainly won’t cut it against more talented defenses, but it’s definitely something that can win a decent amount of MAC games.
Quarterback - Daniel Richardson - Redshirt Freshman
The Lilliputian freshman was thrust into the starting quarterback role in what would have been his redshirt freshman year - which, for classification purposes, he will now repeat due to the NCAA turning off the eligiblity clock for 2020 participants - and that inexperience showed. McElwain did everything he could to protect his quarterback, calling runs on 63% of first downs (34th in the nation) and throwing passes to outside receivers less than five-yards down field. Again, this works as long as your receivers can break a few and your quarterback can make the right read. And despite the Chase Daniel-ian stature (5’10”, 205 pounds) Richardson maintained a mere-human 64% accuracy rate and his receivers had much more luck burning the defense 20-yards down the field than jitter-bugging a screen for big gains. Richardson’s development will be key for the evolution of a passing game that needs to provide more deep threats.
Running Back - Lew Nichols III - Redshirt Freshman
Kobe Brown was the workhorse starter but Nichols is the breakaway talent. In 27 fewer carries he had 40 more yards, 2 more yards per carry, and gained 5+ yards 9% more often than any other ball carrier on the team. Again, the running game wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination but it was way more consistent than their passing game and was able to hit just as many home runs as the receivers did. If the offensive line improves in opening up holes, especially in short-yardage situations, the Chips ground game could be formidable.
Wide Receiver - Kalil Pimpleton - Redshirt Junior
The former Virginia Tech transfer, Pimpleton was, essentially, the lone reliable weapon in the receiving corps. He did have a 7.5% drop rate but was asked to haul in the rare deep ball, resulting in 6.5 yards per target but over 10-yards per catch. He was also used as a runner on sweeps, rushing 16 times for 135 yards. His usage might not have been as high as expected but he is a high-impact athlete that can punish defenses for overlooking him.
Volatility was the name of the game for the CMU defense. Akey utilized a lot of aggressive pressures to hide deficiencies in the back end and, much like the offense, it either connected on a knock out or blew up in their faces. The Chippewas were 19th in the country (!) in havoc rate but 92nd in explosive play rate allowed. Similarly, the Chippewa defense allowed 5.3 yards per play and 20 points per game in their wins but a full yard more - 6.3 - and 40 points per game in losses. If the defense connected, they won! If they didn’t, they lost! Their two stud linebackers return to continue their havoc ways but they need to be able to play basic coverage as well if they want to improve.
Defensive Line - Robi Stuart - Graduate Student
Stuart is benefiting from the extra year of eligibility and its certainly a good thing for the Chippewa defense as he lead the line in snaps for 2020, eating up double teams for the linebackers to wreck shop. The Chips will see some new faces in the pass rushing department so having a steady, experienced hand in the middle will certainly help their development.
Linebacker - George Douglas - Redshirt Junior
Douglas and fellow battery mate Troy Hairston combine for 53 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, an interception, and three forced fumbles. They rarely left the field and were consistently in place to make a stop on any given play. Nullifying their havoc-inducing skills is key to overcoming the Chippewa defense so an established passing game will be key.
Defensive Back - Dishon McNary - Redshirt Junior
The All-MAC cornerback was the lone bright spot in a defensive secondary that flat-out stunk. 15 tackles, a tackle for loss, 7 passes broken up, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble is about as complete a season as you can ask from one lonely competent corner. He’ll be breaking in some new faces and covering for some old ones so expect him to be matched with the most dangerous receiver on the field.
So what does it all mean?
This is game one of 2021. Eli Drinkwitz starts his second season with a MAC team at home, fresh off of a successful 2020 campaign and a ton of momentum on the recruiting trail.
In essence, it would be in everyone’s best interest to win this game.
Are there risks of a Tiger loss? Sure! That’s the case anytime Missouri steps on to the field. The new secondary could be caught flat-footed against the tiny rocket known as Kalil Pimpleton, or the lack of a Nick Bolton-type player could lead to some big runs broken by the Brown-Nichols tandem. And a defense that loves to feast in the backfield might get a few early shots and knock the Tigers off course enough to cause a few mistakes in an effort to catch up.
But, in reality, you play - and recruit - in the SEC so the Missouri athletes will be better and deeper. Early struggles are ok as long as the team pulls away in the end which the Tigers absolutely should do. Anything can happen but this should be a win to start the season before a big, early test the following week.