#MACtion enters the final stretch on Friday night from Ford Field in Detroit as the 2016 MAC Championship Game kicks off between an upset-minded Ohio squad and a Western Michigan team aiming for an undefeated season and an elusive berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
The Broncos have carried the league’s banner all season long and are riding a 14-game winning streak heading into the league title game, a mark good for second in the country behind fellow undefeated Alabama. A high-powered offense has been a big reason for their success under head coach P.J. Fleck as wide receiver Corey Davis could be a first-round draft pick this spring after becoming the FBS career leader in receiving yards last week. Quarterback Zach Terrell (third in the country in passing efficiency) and tailback Jarvion Franklin round out a potent trio that is trouble for any defense and are hoping to bring home the school’s first conference title since 1988.
Standing in Western Michigan’s way is an Ohio team looking to prove people wrong and end an 0-3 mark in the league championship game. Veteran head coach Frank Solich has done one of his best jobs this season in leading the Bobcats to the East Division title, navigating a tricky injury situation down the stretch at quarterback while rotating tailbacks Dorian Brown and Maleek Irons effectively. The defense has been the team’s calling card as well and allowed the fewest yards per play in the conference this season.
This is Ohio’s first trip to the MAC title game since 2011, with the Bobcats seeking their first conference championship since 1968. Western Michigan also is looking to end a long drought, making its first trip to Detroit for the neutral-site title game and hoping to come home with just its second MAC championship (1988). The two didn’t face each other this season in conference play, but the Broncos came out on top 49-14 in Athens last October in the most recent meeting.
Western Michigan vs. Ohio (Detroit)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Broncos -19
Three Things to Watch
1. Broncos’ Offensive Fireworks
If you’ve caught any bit of mid-week #MACtion over the years, you know the league is known for some offensive fireworks during conference play. That trend should continue on Friday as Western Michigan sports one of the best groups of skill position players in the Group of Five and beyond. Quarterback Zach Terrell has an astonishing 30-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season and has hit the 3,000-yard passing mark for the third year in a row. A big part of his success is wideout Corey Davis, who holds a host of WMU, MAC and FBS career records. While you may think the Broncos are pass-happy, they can run the ball very effectively as well. Jarvion Franklin is 20th in the country in rushing and his backup, Jamauri Bogan, ran for 198 yards against a good Toledo team last week.
2. Backs Against the Wall
Ohio enters the championship game with a respectable 8-4 record but won one of the worst divisions in all of FBS football thanks to a 9-3 win over Akron in the final game of the season. The Bobcats aren’t flashy and rely heavily on their stingy defense to win games in one of the most offensively-fueled leagues in the country. There’s a reason the team is a nearly three-touchdown underdog heading to Ford Field on Friday but at the same that also means the team has little to lose. The coaches on Frank Solich’s staff have seen just about everything in their lengthy tenures and are no strangers to pulling off with an upset. There’s some talented players on the roster like defensive end Tarell Basham and young cornerback Javon Hagan (three picks, five forced fumbles on the year) and it will be interesting to see what they do with their backs against the wall and a championship on the line.
3. Outside Noise
Every head coach wants his team focused on the task at hand but it’s inevitable in today’s age that some outside noise comes across the players on the team. In the case of Western Michigan, that noise is coming across through a loudspeaker. The Broncos are playing with the burden of trying to run the table undefeated and are sitting at No. 17 in the College Football Playoff rankings. While they are in line for the Group of Five bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game, Western Michigan will need to win and win convincingly in order to make sure it stays ahead of a surging Navy team in the rankings. Add to that constant rumors about the status of head coach P.J. Fleck and there’s plenty the players are hearing about that doesn’t even include their opponent in Ohio. Stranger things can happen in college football so WMU better bring its A-Game or else things could get very interesting against a well-coached Bobcats team in Detroit.
There are few leagues in the country that are quite as wild during the regular season as the MAC has been over the years and the end result has produced some whacky and memorable conference title games. While many of those featured a number of very good teams, few have had quite the stakes of the 2016 edition at Ford Field.
Western Michigan enters with the second-longest winning streak in the country and dreams of a Cotton Bowl berth if the Broncos can convincingly close things out on Friday. WMU has some of the best skill position players in the country and maybe the hottest head coaching candidate in all of FBS in P.J. Fleck. While some may knock the Broncos for playing in the MAC, everybody from the College Football Playoff Selection Committee on down agrees there’s plenty to like about the West Division champions.
Standing in their way is an experienced Ohio squad out of the East Division that is built on playing tough defense, running the ball and creating turnovers. Few are giving the team much of a chance in this game but that’s probably just what veteran head coach Frank Solich wants after pulling off some remarkable upsets over the years. There is some hope that senior quarterback Greg Windham will be back for this one after missing the team’s last three games and he could provide a nice boost to the offense that will need some sort of jolt if the Bobcats’ defense can’t dominate in the trenches like they were earlier in the year.
With all that being said though, Western Michigan is the far superior team in this one and is well aware what a win could mean beyond the first conference championship in 28 years. No MAC team has come within two scores of the Broncos during the regular season and it’s hard to see that being the case with Ohio. Maybe there’s a surprise or two left for Friday but otherwise, Western Michigan rows the boat all the way to a title and states its case that the Broncos are the best Group of Five team in the land.
Prediction: Broncos 45, Bobcats 17
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.