The list of high-water marks set by No. 17 Western Michigan and head coach P.J. Fleck this season could stretch from Kalamazoo to Ford Field in Detroit.
The Broncos have a chance to add another one Friday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) by shoring up their case for a spot in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl with a conference championship. Fleck’s team has set records for wins, individual offensive output and attendance, among many others — 49 of them and counting the coach said during a news conference in Detroit earlier this week.
“We’re not done yet,” Fleck said. “There’s a lot to accomplish. It’s been a year of the firsts. Last year was a year of the nevers, this was a year of the firsts.”
The Broncos have become college football’s Group of 5 darlings this season while building a 12-0 record (including two wins over Big Ten teams) with a unique and engulfing culture that mirrors the energy of their 36-year-old coach. Their No. 17 ranking is as high as any MAC team has climbed during the three years of the College Football Playoff era. A win against Ohio (8-4) Friday night would give them the league title they need to earn an invite to the New Year’s Six group of bowls.
Navy lurks two spots behind Western Michigan in this week’s CFP rankings and will face Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship Saturday afternoon. That leaves a little bit of uncertainty and no room for a slipup from the Broncos this weekend.
The Midshipmen could throw a major wrench into the bowl selection process if they slide ahead of Western Michigan in the rankings. Their annual mid-December rivalry game with Army could hold up a long list of postseason matchup assignments if the Group of 5 Cotton Bowl spot isn’t settled this weekend. Fleck declined to stump for his team’s right to be there earlier this week, saying its body of work says enough and “I’m not going to say anything that’s going to make [the selection committee] think differently.”
To reach Dallas, and the team’s first MAC title since 1988, the Broncos have to go through Ohio and Frank Solich, a coach whose persona couldn’t be more different from that of the man he faces Friday. Solich is twice Fleck’s age and is in his 12th season coaching the Bobcats. His team is led by the conference’s best defense (21.7 points allowed per game) and MAC Defensive Player of the Year Tarell Basham, who has 11 sacks this season.
“We realize we have a tough challenge ahead of us,” Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell said. “We’re going to have our hands full.”
Terrell, who for the past four years has teamed with Corey Davis, the most prolific receiver in FBS history, has thrown 30 touchdowns and only one interception this season. He has a chance to become the first quarterback since South Carolina’s Connor Shaw in 2013 to throw passes in at least 13 games with only one interception during the course of a season. Perhaps one more first to add to the list.