Western Michigan suffered its only loss of the 2016 college football season in the Cotton Bowl. Regardless, the Broncos still had a phenomenal season, and the future in Kalamazoo is very bright.
Western Michigan was unable to put a bow on an undefeated season on Monday afternoon, as the Broncos fell to Wisconsin, 24-16, in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It was the first loss of the season for P.J. Fleck’s squad, which entered the contest at 13-0 following its MAC championship game win over Ohio.
As the recipient of the Group of Five’s automatic New Year’s Six bid, WMU had another chance to slay a Big Ten dragon, having already logged notable wins over Northwestern and Illinois. But the Broncos were unable to contain Badgers tight end Troy Fumagalli, who hauled in six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown on his way to becoming the offensive MVP. Despite generating some momentum in the fourth quarter, Fleck’s squad could not complete the comeback and finish at 14-0.
Despite the setback, there should be no shame in the Broncos’ game following their first loss in 14 months.
Quarterback Zach Terrell threw three of his four interceptions on the season in the last two games, including one against the Badgers, but he led an explosive offense that also featured wide receiver Corey Davis, who finished the year with a whopping 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns, as well as the running back tandem of Jarvion Franklin (1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Jamauri Bogan (923 yards and eight scores). It was an explosive offense—one that was fun to watch—all season long.
While Western Michigan will lose several notable stars from this breakthrough season, the future remains bright in Kalamazoo. The boat shall continue to be rowed.
Unless we see the coaching carousel start back up in earnest, the 36-year-old Fleck will be back next year with a more lucrative deal for all of the success he has had at WMU. Athletic director Kathy Beauregard said that she expects conversations about an extension for Fleck to intensify now that the season is over.
After the loss to the Badgers, Fleck’s star quarterback praised the head coach for giving his all to the university and said that no one should fault him if he ultimately did move onto a bigger job because he is well-deserving of the attention. For now, though, #RTB remains in Kalamazoo.
The fourth-year head coach gave his Bronco players a fiery speech in the locker room before the Cotton Bowl loss, reminding them about the naysayers that did not think such a rise to prominence was possible. Now, a more difficult endeavor begins: keeping Western Michigan football relevant in the national conversation.
Terrell is graduating, and Davis is primed to be a fairly high pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. But Fleck and his tireless assistant coaches have changed the game on the recruiting trail in the MAC. He didn’t waste any time pursuing talent upon arriving in Kalamazoo, putting together a strong first class, and it has only improved each year. WMU’s Class of 2017 is tremendous for a Group of Five school, with 19 three-star recruits currently committed. Fleck loves to recruit, so that isn’t slowing down any time soon. As long as he stays put, the Broncos will remain a top-tier Group of Five program.
Western Michigan has a chance to really be put on the national map next season. The Broncos’ first two games are road contests against USC and Michigan State. If Fleck can deliver wins in both of those games, we could have a real conversation—similar to what we had for a stretch with Houston this fall—about a possible Group of Five squad flirting with a CFP berth.
While a loss in the finale dampened such a standout campaign, WMU still finished higher in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s final rankings than any Group of Five school to date. The Broncos were No. 15.
The Broncos went from one win during Fleck’s debut season three years ago to being the last FBS team other than Alabama with a chance to finish undefeated this season. Fleck has laid the foundation to succeed even with the loss of Terrell and Davis, both of whom experienced the pains of that one-win season in 2013. Because it competes in the MAC, though, WMU must continue to play notable Power Five opponents. New Year’s Six games and a possible CFP berth can become the norm and not the aberration under Fleck. As long as he continues to have his players believe, nothing is beyond their grasp. That’s always been Fleck’s mentality, and look how far it took the Broncos in 2016.
From 1-11 to a spot in a New Year’s Six game in such a short amount of time makes evident that the impossible can be attained at a small school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that has won just one bowl game in its history.
Fleck was emotional after the Cotton Bowl loss because he knows 2016 will go down in the books as one of the most special seasons in Western Michigan history. As long as he is in Kalamazoo, players will come and go. But the values he’s instilled in the program will remain. And it’s a formula that has just started to produce breakthrough results.