Road trips to Louisiana and Arizona State highlight tough early slate for Eagles.
It won’t be that long until the sounds from the Pride of the Peninsula will be heard from The Factory at Rynearson Stadium all the way to Ypsilanti’s iconic water tower.
However, after their season opener against Eastern Kentucky, the Eagles will play arguably their two toughest opponents of the season in Louisiana and Arizona State, both on the road.
The challenge early schedule should serve as an early guide as to what to expect from the Eagles this fall.
A 2-2 non-conference mark should be expected, a 3-1 or better non-conference record and you can start thinking about a run through the MAC.
Here’s a primer on each of Eastern’s non-conference foes.
Friday, Sept. 2: Eastern Kentucky Colonels @ Eastern Michigan Eagles
Eastern Michigan will begin the 2022 season at home on a Friday night against another Eastern, the Eastern Kentucky Colonels.
The Friday night season opener typically draws a solid crowd, especially when the game corresponds with the University’s new student orientation event. EKU will be starting their second season as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision Atlantic Sun Conference after a long affiliation with the Ohio Valley Conference.
Eastern Kentucky finished 7-4 last season under head coach Matt Wells, who has guided the Colonels since 2020 and had previously served on the staffs of SEC schools like Kentucky and Tennessee. He is 10-10 all time as a head coach. A once-proud program who claims two national titles, Eastern Kentucky has not made the FCS playoffs since 2014.
EKU was ranked 24th in Athlon’s Sports preseason poll, featuring a rosterfilled with Division one transfers.
Receiver turned defensive back Davion Ross was an FCS All-American by several publications last season, returning three interceptions for touchdowns en route to being named the Atlantic Sun defensive player of the year.
Linebacker Matthew Jackson was a Brian Buchanan Award finalist (FCS defensive player of the year award) after having 102 total tackles, and is a legit NFL draft prospect.
EKU returns quarterback Parker McKinney, who was an all-conference selection a year ago with a school record 229 completions and a 18-to-9 touchdown to interception ratio.
Eastern Kentucky last beat an FBS team in 2014, when they beat Miami University 17-10. EMU last lost to an FCS school in in 2012, falling 31-14 to Illinois State.
While Eastern Kentucky is tougher than some of EMU’s past FCS opponents, expect the Eagles to still win but the Eastern faithful shouldn’t be surprised if this one is sneakily closer than expected.
Saturday, Sept. 10: Eastern Michigan @ Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Week two features the Eagles on the road against one of the best nicknames— and best Group of Five teams— in college football, traveling down to Lafayette to take on the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Cajuns are coming off of a 13-1 season a year ago, which featured 13 straight victories including a Sun Belt championship and a bowl victory over Marshall. The Ragin’ Cajuns haven’t missed a bowl game since the 2017 season.
That being said, this could be somewhat of a rebuilding year in Lafayette. Head coach Billy Napier left for the University of Florida, while several players transferred out and the roster was hit hard by graduations, including that of QB Levi Lewis, who was a three-year starter under Napier. The team has just 10 total returning starters.
New head coach Michael Desormeaux is familiar after being promoted to from assistant coach; he guided the program to a bowl victory following Napier’s departure.
A crowded quarterback battle between Chandler Fields, and transfers Ben Wooldridge (Fresno State) and Lance LeGendre of Maryland may not matter as the Cajun’s return running back Chris Smith as an explosive option, as he rushed for 855 yards a season ago but missed their bowl victory and the spring game with a knee injury.
Depending how the roster rebounds from their losses, this Louisiana defense might be among the best EMU faces this season, placing second turnover margin last season, 11th in scoring defense and 14th in passing defense in 2021.
The potential exists for the Eagles to steal one on the road against a depleted Cajun’s squad. However, the Cajuns are still projected as the front runners in the Sun Belt conference, and have a tune up the week before against Southeastern Louisiana of the FCS.
If Eastern can win on the road against another solid non-power five program, fans in Ypsilanti can begin thinking of a potential MAC title.
A tip for the fans, a road trip to Southern Louisiana in early September will test deodorants.
Saturday Sept. 17: Eastern Michigan at Arizona State Sun Devils
Week three will feature another tough task as the Eagles will fly across the Mississippi to face the Arizona State Sun Devils. The game will kick off at roughly ten o’clock Ypsilanti time and will likely be another scorcher weather-wise.
While this game could present quite the challenge for the Eagles football roster, it should be a premier road trip opportunity for fans and alumni with the chance to see Eastern face a Power Five school in sunny Tempe.
Head coach Herm Edwards, formerly of the New York Jets, led the Sun Devils to a 8-5 mark a season ago, which included a Bowl loss to Wisconsin. The Sun Devils haven’t had a losing season since 2016.
Arizona State is another Eastern opponent besieged by departures as numerous impact players entered the transfer portal as the program has been under an NCAA investigation for some time.
Starting quarterback Jayden Daniels left for LSU and is likely to be replaced by former Florida starter Emory Jones. Starting running back Rachaad White is off to the NFL and is likely to be replaced by Wyoning transfer Xazavian Valladay. He had 1,063 rushing yards last season for the Cowboys. LaDarius Henderson is expected to anchor their offensive line.
Defensively, ASU returns only two of their top nine tacklers from a season ago.
Eastern Michigan could again find itself in position to steal a victory against a rebuilding program, in the vein of similar upsets against Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois. The remainder of the offseason will be interesting to see if the Sun Devils lose more players, add some more impact transfers or get clarity from the NCAA.
That being said, it’s still the PAC-12 against the MAC and the challenges of going west (the time zone change, heat and so on) loom large.
Saturday Oct. 1: UMass Minutemen at Eastern Michigan
After a one-week return to the MAC schedule with a game against Buffalo, the Eagles play host to old former MAC foe UMass for homecoming in Ypsilanti.
Eastern will be looking for their second consecutive homecoming victory, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the Minutemen are EMU’s scheduled homecoming foe, as they are coming off of a 1-11 season, which included a 42-28 loss to EMU.
It’s been a tough handful of years for the Minutemen, as their 1-11 finish last year in 2021 matched their 1-11 record from 2019.— and sandwiched an 0-4 COVID season record in 2020.
Massachusetts, an independent, actually leads the all-time series against Eastern two victories to one, with their wins coming in 2014 and 2015 as members of the Mid-American Conference.
What’s old is new again in 2022, as 66-year-old Don Brown is back in Amherst for his second stint of duty as UMass head coach, having previously served in the role from 2004 to 2008, taking UMass to the FCS playoffs twice in that span.
A former defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan, Brown will be making his return to Washtenaw County for this matchup.
Former Western Michigan assistant Steve Casula is his offensive coordinator and they expect to control the game by dominating time of possession and running the football. Casula was previously an analyst at the University of Michigan so picture an offense somewhat similar to that of the Wolverines.
Halfback Ellis Merriweather stands six-foot-two, 225 lbs. and played the part of a work horse last season enroute to 1,138 rushing yards on 218 carries, with no fumbles. He could be poised for an even bigger year as the Minutemen are having a non-descript QB battle.
Power five transfers in Marcus Bradley of Vanderbilt and Marcus Cushnie of Florida State are likely to lead the defense. It is a defense who finished 125th in total defense last season.
While it would seem that the Minutemen should improve simply off the sense that they can’t really get worse, many preseason publications are picking U-Mass to finish 130th out of 131 FBS schools. If they find a run-heavy quarterback and control the time of possession, then maybe they can find more than one win this season.
I just wouldn’t expect it to be against EMU on homecoming. Prepare to enjoy some seltzers Eagle fans.
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