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A college sports blog from The Oakland Press, dedicated to covering Michigan and Michigan State athletics as well as former Oakland County athletes at other schools.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Michigan's MAC schools will have lowered expectations this year

DETROIT — As the dean of Mid-American Conference coaches, Western Michigan’s Bill Cubit knows as well as anyone what flies in the league, and what doesn’t.

And he’s not necessarily buying the assertion — put forward by the media-voted preseason poll unveiled at Friday’s MAC Media Day at Ford Field — that Central Michigan’s reign atop the league is done.

“It’s hard to beat the champion. I’m a Philly fan, and I’m watching what’s going on there (with the Phillies). Everyone leaves them for dead and all of a sudden — hey, the kids know how to win,” said the fifth-year Broncos coach of the archrival Chippewas, who have won three of the last four MAC titles, and won the in-state rivalry game four straight years. “I told somebody, until somebody beats them, they’ve got the right to say anything they want.”

Understandably, the members of the MAC media contingent were voting with an eye on how many of those “winning” kids returned for CMU, noting the league-low 41 returning lettermen. Most glaring in his absence is record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour, and not just because his giant picture — which loomed over the entrance to Ford Field for two years, from across the street on the outfield wall of Comerica Park — is no longer up on a promotional billboard.

A sixth-round pick of his hometown Chicago Bears in the NFL draft, LeFevour is gone from the league he’d helped dominate throughout his four-year career, and so are his two favorite targets, Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson. For that matter, so is his coach, Butch Jones, who bolted for Cincinnati.

For all that the MAC has been a quarterback-driven league — from Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington and Ben Roethlisberger to Charlie Frye, Josh Cribbs and Bruce Gradkowski — you can’t just vote based on name-recognition at the QB position, Cubit insisted. Just look at his own team from a year ago.

“We had the least amount of starters back, but because you have a quarterback — that’s a media thing, to look at that. I knew it was going to be (a rough year). I was hoping it wasn’t going to be as bad,” said Cubit, who grimaced when his Broncos were picked for a close second behind CMU last year, only to finish a distant third, with a 5-7 record. “Still, we’re about three plays away from going 7-5, and making a bowl game with a bunch of young kids. ... I really think we’re going to be a lot better off, in that respect, but now everybody looks and says, ‘Well, you don’t have a quarterback.’ ”

True, the Broncos also graduated a decorated signalcaller in Tim Hiller — who made it to training camp with the Indianapolis Colts — but Cubit isn’t buying that the Broncos will fall off a cliff without Hiller, especially given the supporting cast inherited by his likely replacement, sophomore Alex Carder.

“We had a deficiency on the offensive line ... and the easiest thing was to put it on Tim’s shoulders. We don’t have to do that this year,” said Cubit, noting the maturity of his offensive line, which will enable the Broncos to be more smash-mouth again. “It’s the surrounding guys that make it (work). That’s probably what hurt Tim last year: Our surrounding guys weren’t as good as the year before. ... I think there’s a little hesitation (in voting), because there aren’t as many quarterbacks returning as there have been in the past. And quarterbacks (that) are going to play well, those teams are going to win, and if they don’t play well, you’re not going to win. But you’ve gotta have some guys around them.”

The Broncos were picked to finish third in the MAC West, behind Northern Illinois and CMU. The Huskies had dipped the last few years under longtime coach Joe Novak, but have come back under second-year coach Jerry Kill, after a very quick retooling of the program.

With CMU’s recent success — four straight bowl games, capped by the program’s first-ever Top 25 ranking last fall — new Chippewa coach Dan Enos knows he’s probably not even going to have the luxury of even that kind of time.

“Even if ... the perception is maybe you have a little time, or you don’t, whatver — coaches, we put it on ourselves, anyway. As a coach, you never say, ‘Oh, we have some time. If we win four games, five games this year, we’re OK,’ ” said Enos, who came to CMU from his alma mater, Michigan State.

“I think it’s a total positive that we’re at a place that has high expectations, because if you think about what the opposite end of it can be, if there were no expectations, that’d be tough. It’d be tough on the players and the coaches. One thing that our coaches have commented on since we’ve been there is that our football team expects to win. When you take over a football team that maybe hasn’t won ... part of your process is trying to get into the mindset of your players, that they have to learn how to expect to win, and learn what it takes to win. And I don’t think we’ve had to spend a whole lot of time talking with our players about expectations, and what it takes to win. ... The previous two staffs did an outstanding job of building a culture where guys expect to do that.”

Unfortunately, a coach who knows all too well what it’s like being on the opposite end of that spectrum is Eastern Michigan’s Ron English. After an 0-12 campaign in his first season a year ago, the Eagles lost 14 players to graduation, and another 25 to other forms of attrition.

English understands all too well the rebuilding project he’s been handed.

“I was talking to a friend of my family last night. He’s from Detroit, and I said, ‘Look Wayne, if you go to Detroit right now, and you buy one of these old houses, are you going to try to refurbish it, or are you going to knock the thing down and start over?’ You’re going to knock it down and start over,” English said. “That’s really what we did (at EMU), to be honest with you. We said we’re going to take a hit here, but we’re not going to tread water. We’re going to knock the thing down and start over.”

The MAC season kicks off with five non-conference games on Thursday, Sept. 2, and the league season commences with a doozy, when CMU visits Temple, the team tabbed to win the MAC East, on Sept. 9.

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