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Western Michigan’s PJ Fleck Quickly Rising As Top Coaching Candidate

Ryan Mayer

The college football season nears its relative midway point as we now enter Week 7 and the coaching carousel has already begun to take shape in terms of which jobs will likely be open come December. LSU fired Les Miles a couple of weeks ago and have been positioning themselves for the man who is expected to be the prize of this year’s coaching sweepstakes: Houston’s Tom Herman. With rumblings surrounding the job security, or better yet, lack thereof, of Texas coach Charlie Strong, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, USC coach Clay Helton and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, there are obviously more schools that will try and get Herman.

Obviously, via simple math, you’re able to tell that only one school can get Herman. That leaves us with the question: who are the other potential candidates for these openings? Well, there’s one rising quickly in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Western Michigan Broncos made their first appearance in program history in the AP’s Top 25 poll this week, coming in at No. 24 following a 6-0 start to the year. On the way, the Broncos have knocked off Big Ten opponents Northwestern and Illinois, in-state rival Central Michigan, and perennial MAC power Northern Illinois. So, as you can tell, they haven’t exactly faced cupcakes. More important to note is the turnaround that Fleck has engineered in his four years as head coach.

After taking over for Bill Cubit in 2013, Fleck’s depleted roster went 1-11 in Year 1. He followed that up with consecutive 8-5 years and two bowl appearances, winning one of them (last year’s Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl). Now, there’s this year’s 6-0 start.

Fleck, at 35, is even younger than Herman. However, his age belies the experience that he’s had. Prior to taking the job at WMU in 2013, he was a wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rutgers, Northern Illinois and as the offensive coordinator for the Huskies for one season. He has improved the Broncos, not only on the field, but in recruiting as well in quantifiable ways.

Let’s take the offensive and defensive scoring rankings over Fleck’s tenure. The Broncos have gone from 17.2 points per game in his first year (118th nationally) to 44.8 points per game this season (tied for 6th), steadily improving in each season. The same can be said for the defense, which was giving up 35.4 points per game (107th) in his first year and now sits at 20.5 (29th). For comparison, in Cubit’s eight seasons, the team never averaged more than 36 points per game (35.6 in 2011) and the lowest points per game allowed by the defense came in 2006 at 19.9.

The recruiting front is more impressive. According to 247sports recruiting rankings, in Cubit’s final four seasons in Kalamazoo, his classes averaged a ranking of 92nd nationally and fourth in the MAC. Fleck’s first year (2013) was rough at 112th nationally and seventh in the conference, but since then he has signed the top class in the MAC the last three years at an average of 73rd nationally. He currently has the 48th ranked class in the 2017 rankings, which is once again the top rated class in the conference.

If you want to dive in even further, Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings are a good indication of where teams stack up based on the totality of their statistical profile. If you need a full explainer on how S&P+ is calculated, head over here.  In Fleck’s first year, the Broncos were 117th in the final S&P+ rankings. Since then, they’ve finished 62nd, 53rd, and now sit 61st after just six games this season.

There will be multiple big-time programs that will be disappointed by the fact that they don’t get Tom Herman. However, that disappointment should abate somewhat when they realize that there’s another pretty good coaching candidate out there at the Group of 5 level who could provide the kind of youth, coaching ability, and recruiting acumen necessary to potentially right the ship at one of these schools. Maybe the blue bloods won’t go after him because he’s not a “big” name. If they don’t, that would seem to be a mistake.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

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