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. 20 Eastern Michigan.
Eastern Michigan won seven games last season—I know to you, the consumer of only the purest strain of available college football action, that seems like a minute accomplishment, one maybe not even worth mentioning. But last year, I preached caution when the Eagles came up as the No. 5 team in the only poll that matters. “Seven wins in four years. You have been warned,” I wrote.
Well, the Eastern Michigan Eagles—just like Central Florida before them—seem to have been blessed by their placement in the Deadspin 25, because after wallowing and sloshing around in the gunk that’s congealed at the bottom of the NCAA’s barrel for 18 painful years, the Eagles, at long last, posted a winning season in 2016. Yes, it was a 7-6 record; yes, the end product was rarely pretty or refined; and no, they didn’t give a shit what the hell they looked like. Eastern Michigan is back, baby.
Under head coach Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan posted just the seventh winning record in its 43-year existence. Outside a four-year run in the 80s under Jim Harkema that included the program’s sole bowl win and a 6-5 finish in 1995, the Eagles have long sucked ass. Heading into the 2016 campaign, Creighton, who came on in 2014, had three wins over two seasons to his name, and they did not appear to be on track to win more than two or three games in his third go-round. Now, Eastern Michigan, with a slew of senior offensive stars back and a defense in place that isn’t this Vine incarnate, might just fuck around and win its MAC division. Nutty world we live in, huh?
Last season, the Eagles expected to lean on returning quarterback Brogran Roback, who threw for 2,275 yards and 16 scores the year before on a 1-11 Eastern Michigan team; instead, Todd Porter stepped in after Roback was suspended for the season opener and performed admirably through the first three games, throwing for 743 yards, six scores and four picks. The Western Kentucky transfer hit a snag in Week 4, though, tossing four interceptions, leading to Roback’s return to the starting spot. Roback would lead the Eagles to victory against the Cowboys before stringing together six 300-yard games, 18 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. Once again, Eastern Michigan will head into the season under the belief that Roback is their guy, which is a great thing for an offense filled with guys who’ve been playing with him for years.
Up front, Eastern Michigan loses a pair of all-MAC tackles in Andrew Wylie and Cole Gardner in addition to two other starters. The Eagles will look to replace them with a trio of returning veterans with starting experience; whether they can live up to or even improve upon last season’s performance of 13 allowed sacks in 13 games will be one of the key questions, though one of the two feature backs they’ll be blocking for will have plenty to answer himself.
In his rookie 2015 season, running back Shaq Vann was good for 6.0 yards a pop, totaling 611 yards and five scores by season’s end. The sophomore slump unfortunately came for Vann last season in the form of a shoulder injury that forced him to miss all but two games. If Roback and the receiving corps do their jobs and have linebackers worried about scrambling to the flats and sidelines, the redshirt junior running back is going to thrive in his return season. At 5-foot-10, 213 pounds, Vann is tank of a man, with the moves to match any light-footed runner. His ability to remain patient in order to set up his next step, be it plowing forward with lowered shoulders or a quick head-fake and side-step, is what sets him apart. He will likely share carries with starter Breck Turner; as long as the duo can stay healthy and the line gels quickly, a pair of 800-plus Eastern Michigan rushers is very much within reach for the running game.
Out wide, the Eagles return all three of their top receivers from last season, starting with senior Sergio Bailey II, who led the team with 868 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. He’ll be joined by Antoine Porter, who proved to have a smooth connection with Roback in the spring game, and Dieuly Aristilde, a 6-foot-4 outside threat who came on strong at the end of last season, posting 24 receptions for 472 yards over the final five games. Tight end Nigel Kilby’s production will be missed, as he transferred to a junior college, but if all three wide outs are healthy—Aristilde missed the bowl game and spring game due to injury—then this group and, dare I say it, the entire Eastern Michigan offense, will be good as hell this year.
Eastern Michigan’s defense took a step forward last year; this wasn’t exactly impressive, as the Eagles entered the year with a unit that allowed 316.6 yards per game in 2015. Opponents still scored a shitload of points against them, hanging 29.9 points per game, and racked up too many yards (432.7 per game), but instead of being the group that both cocked the gun and pulled the trigger as it was in seasons past, the defense was better late in games, holding off opponents in the five victories claimed by seven points or less.
Getting redshirt senior safety Anthony Brown back after injury robbed him of his 2016 season is a big plus for the secondary, which will try to replace playmaker DaQuan Pace at corner. Linebacker Kyle Rachwal registered 109 tackles last season and will be one of the two to line up in the middle of defensive coordinator Neal Neathery’s 4-2-5 scheme. Up front, replacing Pat O’Connor’s production on the end (8.5 sacks) likely won’t happen, but as long as the Eagles’ big men don’t regress to 2015 and continue the positive trends they set last season of not allowing opposing runners to constantly gash them for 10 yards, this group should do enough to get Eastern Michigan to a bowl game.
I don’t have any powers to stave off injury or ensure cohesive offensive line action, but as of now, all signs point to Brogan Roback being fun as hell this year, so rejoice MACtion lovers.
Heading into the 2017 season, he’s expected to be one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks, and for good reason. Roback is a slinger, both in throwing style and ideology—often times during an Eastern Michigan game, the lanky redshirt senior, who likes to flex his out-of-pocket mobility, will roll out and flick a side-armed toss downfield, in hope that one of his wideouts will simply out-jump the defensive back. His throws are not perfectly placed and his method can look a bit off, almost like he’s pushing the ball when he throws slants in the red zone. But when he plants his back foot and lets it rip, the motherfucker throws a mean ball, one that makes arguing over how it looks irrelevant. This will be Roback’s final season of college football, meaning it’s his last chance (and Eastern Michigan’s first since he was born) to go out a bowl game winner; lucky for him, he’s got damn near everyone back to help him do it.
Given the current situation, in which Power Five programs (okay, Big 12 programs) still struggle getting a foot in the playoff, the chances of the four-team playoff being injected with a strong dose of MACtion seems unlikely, if not impossible; considering the Eagles’s 2017 Power Five slate peaks with Rutgers and Kentucky, it’s impossible. Eastern Michigan could—could, could, could!!!—challenge for a MAC division crown.
Yes, Western Michigan, the reigning MAC champ, is coming off a 13-1 season that ended with a Cotton Bowl appearance, but the Broncos lost their head coach, starting quarterback, and best receiver this offseason. The program seems strong given its performances the past three seasons, but let’s not forget that Western Michigan was just like its eastern counterparts just four years back, when it posted its one-win 2013 campaign. If, somehow, the Eagles can win come Oct. 21 (they played the Broncos within two scores last year), their hardest remaining tasks will be beating two very beatable teams in Toledo and Northern Illinois, though they face both on the road.
Creighton didn’t seem to be a dick last year and I haven’t seen much in the news that would sway my opinion, because, well, it’s Eastern Michigan, but as always, drop me a line if you think otherwise.
Sept. 1: UNC Charlotte
Sept. 9: @ Rutgers
Sept. 23: Ohio
Sept. 30: @ Kentucky
Oct. 7: @ Toldeo
Oct. 14: @ Army
Oct. 21: Western Michigan
Oct. 26: @ Northern Illinois
Nov. 2: Ball State
Nov. 8: @ Central Michigan
Nov. 15: @ Miami (Oh)
Nov. 21: Bowling Green