A three-game push at the end of last season got the Central Michigan Chippewas to a 6-6 record, but after locking down head coach Dan Enos to a contract extension through 2016, fans are hoping the ex-Michigan State Spartans assistant can fire up the Chips to a MAC championship in 2014.
With some key players returning and the conference seemingly more up-for-grabs than in previous seasons, there are rumblings of a waking contender in Mount Pleasant.
Last season, the Chippewas experienced key losses in-season that left the offense scrambling, including QB Cody Kater and running back Zurlon Tipton. With big production sitting on the bench, Saylor Savelli stepped up for the Chips, starting eight games and rushing for 807 yards and five touchdowns before Tipton returned to start the final three games. This season, Savelli returns to pound into opposing defenses, with help coming from Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore and Anthony Garland, who combined for over 400 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 2013.
The QB situation was also in flux last season, as Alex Niznak and Cooper Rush were thrown into the fire following Kater’s injury. This season, the redshirt sophomore Rush will likely be the man under center, although Kater and Ryan Lamb, a JUCO transfer, are breathing down his neck. Continuity at the position will be key for the Chips, though, having Titus Davis (61 receptions for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns) in the fold will make things easier. The talented pass-catcher looks like a good candidate to continue the Chippewas’ growing lineage of star receivers to successfully make the jump to the NFL. Central Michigan will likely need a young player to step up to help take some pressure off of him, however.
The offensive line was certainly missing the leadership of departed No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher last season with 31 sacks allowed; although they did lose starters Jake Olson and Cody Pettit early to injuries. The 2014 campaign should usher in an improved line with Pettit and Second-Team All-Conference selection Andy Phillips returning at right and left guard, respectively.
The Chips were not very imposing on defense last season, allowing over 200 rushing yards per game with a lackluster pass rush. One bright spot, however, was nose tackle Leterrius Walton, who recorded 34 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss. Walton returns in 2014, though, the Chips do lose some key players in Shamari Benton (111 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss), Jeremy Gainer and Avery Cunningham (76 tackles). Solid contributors Louis Palmer and Blake Sherpa will be joined by JUCO transfer Nathan Mitogo at the end spots and last year’s leading tackler, linebacker, Justin Cherocci returns to man the middle at linebacker. Outside linebacker could be a position of concern, with Cody Lopez (18 tackles) bringing back the most game action from 2013. In the secondary, Kavon Frazier, Kevin King and Jared Chapman will look to replace Cunningham’s production, while senior Jason Wilson (61 tackles, three interceptions) and junior Brandon Greer (49 tackles, two interceptions) will be reliable pass defenders at corner.
The Chippewas went out and scheduled a few major conference programs for their non-conference schedule, with the exception being the season opener at home against Chattanooga. That being said, Central could win all four of its non-conference games. The Syracuse Orange will travel to Mount Pleasant and road games against the Purdue Boilermakers and Kansas Jayhawks, basement dwellers of their respective conferences, should be close. From there, Central will travel to Ohio to take on the Toledo Rockets before welcoming the Ohio Bobcats to Mount Pleasant for homecoming.
A road game the following week against the Northern Illinois Huskies will be less daunting with QB Jordan Lynch gone, and games against the Ball State Cardinals (home), Buffalo Bulls (away) and Eastern Michigan Eagles (away) should serve up at least two wins. Following that stretch, the Chips will get a week off before hosting the Miami Redhawks and rival Western Michigan Broncos in the final two games.
While Central certainly has some noticeable holes, there’s also plenty of reason to believe the Chippewas will at least be in the running for a MAC title. Their schedule appears to offer some stretches to gain momentum, which could be bad news for the team that gets to play them in a bowl game.