The best thing about new Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton is that he's never lost. Now, he's lost – 46 times in 17 years, in fact – but Creighton has never suffered through the Eagles' annual birthright: a losing season.
By turning to Creighton, formerly of Drake, EMU has turned away from a recent program and MAC tradition. In 2004, EMU hired longtime Northwestern assistant Jeff Genyk, who went 16-42 through 2008. In 2009 the school hired Ron English, the former Michigan assistant with ties throughout the state. English was three-fourths of the way through last season. Neither brought prior head-coach experience to the table.
Credit Northern Illinois and Jerry Kill, perhaps. The Huskies were the first to buck the trend of dipping into the Big Ten pool, hiring Kill in 2008 after long and fruitful stints on college football's lower levels – not as an assistant, but as a head coach. Six years later, things have changed: MAC programs, particularly those tumbling on the outer fringes of the Football Bowl Subdivision, are more and more willing to cast their lot with a proven lower-level coach than a coordinator at a larger program.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Mid-American Conference
So enter Creighton. He started at Ottawa University – that's in Kansas, not the Great White North – went to Wabash College and then to Drake, turning in 17 winning seasons in a row and winning or sharing six conference titles. Apples to oranges, maybe, but consider: Creighton has 17 winning seasons in as many tries; EMU has 15 winning seasons in the last half-century.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Yes, there's some experience up front and in the secondary, but does EMU have the tools to be successful against the MAC's elite offenses? Let's put it this way: it would be a surprise if EMU won six games. Five wins would be a pleasant surprise; four would be nice; three would be expected; two wouldn't raise an eyebrow. To beat many teams on this schedule, EMU would need to play a perfect game. Is that possible?
In a nutshell: For the second time in three years, the Eagles topped Howard in the opener. In 2011, that win was the impetus toward a six-win season, one that earned English due praise as the MAC Coach of the Year. Two years later, a win against Howard was followed by eight losses in a row and, on Nov. 8, English's ouster after a profanity-laced tirade directed toward players was made public. In came Stan Parrish, the king of MAC interim coaches, and the long, tired wait until another cold offseason. For the fourth time in five years, the Eagles lost 10 or more games.
High point: Beating Western Michigan by a field goal on Nov. 9. That EMU's lone conference win came a day after English's dismissal was no coincidence. Playing the woeful Broncos at home didn't hurt.
Low point: Perhaps the worst show of defense in football history. From Sept. 21 through Nov. 2 – a six-game span – EMU allowed five opponents to score 50 or more points and a sixth, Buffalo, to score 42 points.
Tidbit: EMU has gone 18 years without a winning season. In comparison, the next-longest active down periods in the MAC (excluding Massachusetts): Akron has gone eight years (2006), Miami (Ohio) three years (2010), Western Michigan two years (2011) and Central Michigan and Kent State one year. Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Northern Illinois, Ohio and Toledo had winning seasons in 2013.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Creighton's coaching staff is new, with one slight exception: Jay Peterson, the running backs coach, was an EMU defensive assistant from 2004-8. The Eagles' offensive coordinator will be pass-happy Kalen DeBoer, who comes over from Southern Illinois, while former Drake coordinator Brad McCaslin will run the defense. Two other hires worth noting: Former Michigan State standout Herb Haygood will coach the receivers and ex-UAB, Buffalo and Nebraska assistant Jimmy Williams will coach the defensive line.
Tidbit (history edition): Creighton and the gang will have to battle against a century-plus of history. EMU enters 2014 ranked 109th nationally in career winning percentage among FBS programs (44.5%) and third-to-last in the MAC, ahead of only Buffalo and Kent State. If you remove Elton Rynearson (114-58-15 from 1917-48) from the equation, EMU's mark drops to 40.7%, 122th in the FBS.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Best NBA players from Creighton University
1. Paul Silas
2. Kyle Korver
3. Benoit Benjamin
4. Anthony Tolliver
5. Rodney Buford
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The offense will build around sophomore Brogan Roback, a former four-star signee who qualifies as the highest-rated quarterback recruit in EMU's history. He played from the start: Roback stepped in for nine games last fall, eventually replacing Tyler Benz and playing about as well – or poorly – as one might expect from a raw true freshman lining up behind an error-filled offensive line on a team often playing from touchdowns behind. Now, the ceiling? Yeah, it could be high. But translating Roback's talent into production is high on Creighton's to-do list, right behind teaching a roster and program inured to the taste of defeat just what it takes to play competitive football in the MAC. For now, Roback is an obvious work in progress – but the potential is clearly there. Of issue is DeBoer's system: EMU's new coordinator wants to throw first, run second, and that could be a dangerous combination for an offense clearly slanted toward a powerful running game. Don't look for Roback to play lights-out football as a sophomore.
Helping matters is a strong backfield combination and a vastly more experienced front five. The line is strongest at the edges: Lincoln Hansen is an all-conference pick at right tackle while sophomore Andrew Wylie should take a step forward in his second full season on the left side. When it comes to the starting lineup, EMU can survive without right guard Orlando McCord; there are seasoned bodies ready for full-time starting roles in Campbell Allison and Kent Collins, and each should give a taste of leadership to a pair of sophomores – Darien Terrell and Jake Hurcombe – still learning on the job. In a perfect world, Collins would take charge at center, Allison would take over at right guard and either Hurcombe or Terrell would prove ready for the top job at left guard.
They'll be blocking for a nice pair in the backfield. The first piece is senior Bronson Hill (1,101 yards), a reigning third-team all-conference pick who should again reel in postseason accolades running behind Hansen and Allison on the strong side. EMU will spell Hill with senior Ryan Brumfield (509 yards), an effective reserve, and even find carries for junior Darius Jackson (201 yards), the perceived heir apparent in 2015. To be honest, you couldn't ask for a stronger backfield crop to help Roback break into his new status as the Eagles' full-time starter. At the same time, however, you wonder if DeBoer will play this offense to its strengths – running behind Hill and Brumfield – or ask the offense to leap with both feet into his pass-leaning system.
Defense: Not too bad on offense, right? (Not awful.) Well, the defense is terrible. One thing EMU did well a year ago, however, was create pressure in the backfield – not that it necessarily translated into a strong pass defense, but the potential is there with a stronger effort in the secondary. Along the back end, the one certainty is cornerback Willie Creear, the lone returning starter; other returning defensive backs have starting experience, but only Creear seems assured of a starting role. But it's safe to presume that seniors Pudge Cotton and Kevin Johnson will get first crack at safety, replacing a pair of lost starters, while senior Darius Scott moves into a larger role at cornerback despite his limited size. Hey, at least EMU could start four seniors in the secondary.
Maintaining last year's pass rush is vital. Though no one rusher stood out – one, then-senior Kalonji Kashama, came close – the Eagles were able to cobble together pressure from the entire front seven, a good omen looking ahead to 2014. But finding new edge rushers up front to team with Pat O'Connor (44 tackles) and Mike Steals will be a priority: EMU can rely on O'Connor for pressure but must land steady bursts from the outside, putting pressure on holdovers Omar McFarlane and Alex Jones. Another option? With Travis Linser back in town, perhaps EMU could use Steals, Linser and Arron Pipkins inside and free O'Connor to be a larger end, as was the case for most of 2013. O'Connor has shown an ability to get to the quarterback alone, at least, and the same can't be said of his buddies up front.
Another player crucial to EMU's rush is linebacker Hunter Matt, who can fit into certain packages at each spot along the second level and give the defense some aggressiveness. He'll likely spend this fall in the middle as a replacement for Sean Kurtz, though another option would be to shift Grant Ibe (62 tackles) from strong side, giving sophomore Derric Williams the opportunity to build on a promising rookie season. One mistake would be shift Ike Spearman (82 tackles) away from the weak side: Spearman can make plays in space, and the only thing EMU might need more than toughness against the run is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.
Special teams: It's great that Tyler Allen can return kicks – bringing one back to the house in 2013 – but does he have to return so many? Alas, Allen returned 51 kicks last fall, the second-most in college football; it'd be better if he only returned 30, of course. EMU's special teams woes can be tied back to the team's lack of overall talent, which trickles through return teams to coverage teams. Increased talent means more talent can be used in coverage. EMU has almost zero talent to start with, so forget about athletic players running downfield on kickoffs and punts.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: EMU has the MAC's best tight end in Tyreese Russell (44 receptions for 594 yards), a senior who could earn praise outside the league's borders should Roback develop ahead of schedule. The Eagles can also team Russell with Duwhan Alford, a solid in-line blocker and converted fullback with the potential to sneak behind defenders focusing attention on his all-conference teammate. Russell alone can serve as Roback's security blanket, giving the sophomore a bona fide next-level talent to call upon during MAC play. At the same time, EMU clearly needs to augment Russell's production with a solid supporting cast at wide receiver – with locating a proven target out wide a long and painful hurdle for this program to overcome.
Beyond Roback, the key to the entire offense may be the play of juniors Dustin Creel (46 for 593) and Jay Jones (25 for 293), the only two legitimate receiver options on the roster. In this case, the Eagles will need help from a pair of good-bodied freshmen, Jacob King and Austin Stone, who took a redshirt last fall; junior David Gibson, who caught a touchdown pass from Roback in the spring game; and incoming freshman Kenny Jones, the gem of February's recruiting class.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Massachusetts: It works both ways: Both UMass and EMU look at this midseason matchup as their best chance for a league victory. Let's give EMU the edge even given the Minutemen's home-field advantage, such as it is. The Eagles will play seven road games, including a pair against Michigan State and Florida, and will be outclassed more often than not during MAC play – particularly against the best of the West Division. It's not going to be easy.
FOOTBALL FOUR: Rating and debating college football
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The question isn't whether Creighton will win today, because he won't – sorry, but that's not happening in 2014. Instead, the question is whether he'll win at all, and if so, when. The earliest: 2016. That would give one full season to teach his players how to win, another to fine-tune the process and the third to put both pieces – what it takes to win and how to actually do it – into action. Benefit of the doubt sits in his corner: Creighton has won at each of his previous three stops with a similar approach, and with some player development and corners-of-the-globe recruiting could conceivably do the same at EMU after some early speed bumps.
And the speed bumps are coming. Ignore the roster, if you can, and focus on a single idea: EMU is so broken, so tattered, so bereft of any sort of confidence that it'll take Creighton more than a year simply to get the team and program pointed in the right direction. While attempting to instill a winner's mindset, Creighton must also deal with an offense in transition, a young quarterback, a lack of explosiveness out wide and a dreadful defense. Daunting, right? If anything, it might be more difficult than at first glance.
So this isn't a rebuilding season – because EMU nothing in place for Creighton to build upon. It's just a building season, plain and simple, and wins and losses are secondary to the greatest task on the newcomer's plate: turning the Eagles in the right direction. If Creighton goes 0-12 but reverses a losing culture, it'll be a successful season. Morgan State might be a win, but it's hard to identify a likely MAC victory outside of UMass.
Dream season: EMU beats Morgan State and Old Dominion in September and nets three wins during MAC play to finish 5-7.
Nightmare season: Winless.
Who's No. 125? This team went 0-4 last fall against teams from Alabama.
SPRING FOOTBALL HIGHLIGHTS