DETROIT, MI – It was just over a year ago that Central Michigan introduced Jim McElwain as its new football coach, and at that point, the Chippewas were about as far from a championship as possible.
They'd won one game all season, and that was against an FCS opponent.
Now CMU is playing for a Mid-American Conference title.
“Amazing," McElwain said. “To know where we started from a year ago ... and just to see the growth, and it is a little bit improbable.”
The Chippewas take on Miami of Ohio in a rather unexpected MAC championship game Saturday. CMU was understandably picked to finish last in the MAC West in the preseason media poll. Miami was second in the East in that survey, but well behind division favorite Ohio. It's the first time either of these teams has been in this game since 2010.
McElwain's early success to some degree parallels what happened when he was at Florida. He became the first person in Southeastern Conference history to reach the league title game in his first two seasons as coach, although the Gators lost those games in 2015 and 2016.
CMU entered the final week of the season tied with Western Michigan for first place in the division. When WMU lost to Northern Illinois on Nov. 26, that gave the Chippewas an opportunity three days later, and they took full advantage by routing Toledo 49-7.
“From where these guys have come from, and how far they've taken this season, I just can't tell you how happy I am for them," McElwain said. "Now we've got to hopefully go down and play well against a really good football team."
This is the first appearance in the title game for CMU (8-4, 6-2) since 2009, when the Chippewas beat Ohio 20-10.
Miami's most recent appearance was in 2010 — a 26-21 win over Northern Illinois. The RedHawks (7-5, 6-2) certainly took their lumps early this season when they lost nonconference matchups with Iowa, Cincinnati and Ohio State. The last of those defeats was a 76-5 blowout against the Buckeyes.
“You've got some moments that you really search and decide who you're going to be, and are you tough enough to bounce back?" Miami coach Chuck Martin said.
Immediately after that Ohio State game, Miami fell behind 14-3 in its MAC opener against Buffalo. Then the RedHawks stormed back with 31 unanswered points, eventually winning 34-20.
“We decided to keep moving forward, and we came out with a win," defensive back Manny Rugamba said. "I'm pretty sure that game right there really shaped our character as a team.”
The last time Miami was in the MAC title game, it was in the same situation as CMU is this year. Miami went 1-11 in 2009 before making it to — and winning — the conference championship game the following year.
CMU quarterback Quinten Dormady played at Tennessee and then spent a redshirt season with Houston before eventually ending up with the Chippewas this year. He's completed 67% of his passes this season.
“This is by far the most fun that I've had playing college football in my five years," he said.
Miami's Brett Gabbert is also a newcomer. He's thrown for 1,967 yards as a freshman.
CMU has lost 15 fumbles on the season, a stat that contributed greatly to its minus-6 turnover differential.
GRINDING IT OUT
Miami made it this far despite being next-to-last in the MAC in total offense. The RedHawks reached 30 points only twice in league play.
It has been an emotional week for the CMU community because of the death of radio broadcaster Don Chiodo. He died in a car crash Wednesday.
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