Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 5 Eastern Michigan.
Seven wins in four years. You’ve been warned.
Had I not already looked at New Mexico State, Eastern Michigan would be the runaway choice for Worst Program in the Deadspin 25 (as it relates to on-field production). Given the dejected state the Eagles find themselves in for the 20th straight season, they probably still hold at least a partial stake to that title.
Chris Creighton is in his third year as head coach; in that time, he’s amassed five wins with the Eagles without making many discernible improvements to a program in shambles long before he considered the job. Last year, improvement came in the form of a four-point loss to Old Dominion in the season-opener—the 38-34 defeat marked the first single-digit loss for Eastern Michigan since 2011. The highpoint of the season occurred when the Eagles were able to upend Wyoming 48-29 in Week 2. The Cowboys went on to post a 2-11 record.
There’s a clear abundance in blame to be dished out, but the easiest way to explain last year’s 1-11 record is record is shit happens when your defense allows 519.3 yards and 42.1 points per game.
The issues with the Eagles’s defensive unit start—but don’t end—up front. Eastern Michigan allowed 2015 opponents to rack up 316.6 yards per game on the ground, the worst mark in the nation by a comfortable 36.1 yards. Not that it provides a full answer as to why the rush defense was as embarrassing as it was, but the Eagle were playing without starting defensive ends Jeremiah Harris and Pat O’Connor for the majority of the season. Having O’Connor back should be a legitimate improvement to the defense; in 2014, he lead the MAC with 7.5 sacks and ranked sixth with 14.0 tackles for loss. Also returning after a year off due to injury is linebacker Ike Spearman, who will line up alongside Kyle Rachwal in the team’s new 4-2-5 scheme. Still, even with O’Connor and Spearman back, the issue remains—the Eagles, in their first true test of 2016, displayed few signs of meaningful improvement.
Against the Tigers (arguably the second-worst team in the SEC East), Eastern Michigan allowed 450 passing yards to Drew Lock and a Missouri offense that ranked 113th in the nation a year ago with an average of 165.5 yards per game. After accruing four sacks against Mississippi Valley State, the Eagles didn’t bring down Lock once, allowing him to carve up the defensive backfield at his leisure. The secondary—rounded out by corners Ross Williams and DaQuan Pace and safeties Jason Beck, Jaun Giraldo, and Vince Calhoun—is still waiting for its first interception of the year. The season is long, and new defensive coordinator Neal Neathery shouldn’t be expected to turn things around over the course of an offseason and a couple games, but if the Eagles want to post a winning season before 2020, its defense needs to be along for the ride; right now, it’s getting left behind.
Eastern Michigan’s offense, on the other hand, is not terrible—middling, absolutely, but not terrible.
All five starters on the offensive line are back for the Eagles; the group consists entirely of seniors. Center Matt Thornton and tackles Andrew Wylie and Cole Gardner all had at least 16 starts under their belt heading into the season and constitute the team’s sole unit that can be qualified as nearing-or-above average. The veterans will block for sophomore running backs Ian Eriksen and Shaw Vann. Eriksen didn’t see the field for the Eagles last season; Vann was the No. 2 back, amassing 586 yards and four scores on 100 carries. Through two weeks, the duo has combined for 353 yards and five scores—Vann actually took over the top slot and bolstered the team’s rushing attack in a blowout loss to Missouri this past weekend, running for 90 yards and a score.
Todd Porter received the nod at quarterback in each of the past two games after Brogan Roback, who started 10 games and played in 12 for the Eagles in 2015, was suspended for the season opener. Roback was the first four-star recruit in program history and presumed starter throughout the offseason, but has since seemingly been supplanted by Porter, who has been decent thus far in his first action since 2013. Against FCS member Mississippi Valley State, he completed 68.2 percent of his throws for three scores and an interception; against Missouri, he threw the ball 45 times, completing just 23 throws for 287 yards and a score to go along with three picks. As the starter last season, Roback fell somewhere in the middle, completing 61.0 percent of his passes for 192.0 yards per game to complement a 16:11 touchdown-interception ratio. Neither seems to possess the innate poise of say, Trevor Semien, but this is what the Eagle have to work with.
As Eastern Michigan is not a particularly well-known or well-liked program, itseems the YouTube highlight overlords opted against creating a highlight reel for Pat O’Connor. Instead, because he is still a guy to know, enjoy this GIF of him completing the annual Ford Lake Frozen Leap.
O’Connor dislocated his shoulder in the spring of 2015 and tore his labrum in Week 2, forcing him to take on a medical redshirt to continue his eligibility. Now, as a redshirt senior and a reputation as one of the premier pass-rushers in the conference, O’Connor returns as the best part of an otherwise miserable Eagles defensive unit. At 6-foot-4, 257 pounds, O’Connor is a bull on the end, and was thought to possess Big Ten-level talent coming out of high school, something he’s shown on the field for the Eagles. It was a tad disappointing not to see him show up in the Missouri backfield last week—the Tigers allowed 2.5 sacks per game last year—but O’Connor, who already netted two sacks in Week 1, will again be among the MAC’s best defensive linemen. As of now, he’s four sacks away from being the school’s career leader in the category.
This is a program that had its sole existence threatened with the UAB treatment less than six months ago. Eastern Michigan’s focus is far from the playoff; let’s not confuse them.
Chris Creighton, like O’Connor, also jumps into freezing water for good causes, but has been a terrible football coach as far as winning is related. But being at the helm of a godawful program and being a decent person is better than the alternative; luckily for Creighton, it seems the people in charge understand three years isn’t quite the end of his rope as it comes to turning the program around.
At the least, he doesn’t call his team bitches and let them know they deserve to be disrespected and they’ll “always be fucked up,” like his predecessor Ron English.
Sept. 2: Mississippi Valley State
Sept. 10: @ Missouri
Sept. 17: @ UNC-Charlotte
Sept. 23: Wyoming
Oct. 1: @ Bowling green
Oct. 8: Toledo
Oct. 15: @ Ohio
Oct. 22: @ Western Michigan
Oct. 29: Miami (Ohio)
Nov. 8: @ Ball State
Nov. 16: Northern Illinois
Nov. 22: Central Michigan