EMU football's future non-conference opponents, ranked
From 1-15, ranking the future games and teams EMU fans have to look forward to in the upcoming non-conference slates.
Welcome to The Ypsilanti Eleven! Now that it’s May, we have nothing but the future to look forward to. We’ve also got way too much time on our hands between now and Week 1, so I’ve decided to do something different to help us get through the offseason. Maybe this will turn into some good fodder for future offseasons as well.
There are 15 non-MAC schools signed up to play against EMU’s football squad now through 2029, and what better way to talk about the future dates than by putting everybody in a list?
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There’s just so much that goes into scheduling non-conference games. How teams from geographically and sizably-different leagues schedule their appointments is a conversation in logistics. Why teams seek out certain opponents and figuring out what the potential future impact of a game or series is another.
Here, we’ll look more at the latter, and try to see what upcoming games could impact the brand of Eastern Michigan football, for better or for worse.
What’s a good non-league game for EMU? What’s even a bad one? These are two simple questions to ask but might be tough to actually categorize as one or the other. A future game against, say, a SEC affiliate might mean another loss in the record books, but it also mean more revenue for a MAC school’s athletic budget. An FCS team coming to town should mean an easy win to help propel teams into a bowl game, but that also means the host school has to pay the FCS team to come though.
Priorities on which teams to [try, and] put on a school’s future schedule(s) are dependent on the schools’ situations. What goals have the two sides set for themselves? What’s the competitive expectation of a future game? What’s the recruiting impact over one (or two or three or four) future football game(s)?
Am I the right kind of expert to analyze Eastern’s future football dates? Absolutely not!
Do I have some preferences on the discussion with a functioning keyboard? You bet!
There’s not a particular criterion that I’m sticking to here, but there are some factors that matter to me in this exercise of ranking EMU’s agreements with its future opponents.
Distance of road games
Future date(s) set
There’s no formula worth sticking to here, so it’s illegal to tell me I’m right or wrong about any of this.
2022 (Week 2, road), 2025 (Week 4, home)
Even with head coach Billy Napier’s departure, the Ragin’ Cajuns are still playing on good soil. To state how much better of a place the school is now for having hired Napier: Louisiana never had a 10-win season in program history, had three over his four seasons, and the whole university was able to stamp its brand, nationally, as Louisiana instead of Lousiana-Lafayette.
Louisiana lost a lot of talented players via transfer portal (2 to Napier’s Florida, 4 to LSU), not to mention its starting QB from the last three seasons is graduated to the NFL, so the roster’s definitely got some things it’ll need to figure out between now and Week 2 of this season. Hopefully the team’s pedigree doesn’t take a dip by the time it comes to EMU in 2025.
Recruiting-wise: Eastern doesn’t have too much business in Louisiana, nor does it recruit many players from the school’s surrounding pockets (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Southern Alabama), but grabbing a win would at least, slightly, improve the national profile of EMU football. In a growing and morphing world of college football and its refiguring conferences at the FBS level, what better time for a team like EMU in a league like the MAC to perhaps catch a win or two over a growing team (Louisiana) in a league that’s growing in both size and power (Sun Belt)?
1-1 record: EMU and Louisiana have played each other in the 2005 and 2006 seasons. EMU, then under Jeff Genyk, beat Louisiana at home 31-10 in 2005, then lost the 2006 road trip, 33-14.
2023 (Week 1, home)
Howard’s a cool team to throw on the schedule every once in a while, and the profiles of Eastern Michigan and HBCU football have both been heightened since EMU last hosted the Bison in 2013 when the Eagles, still coached by Ron English at the time, won 34-24.
All-time, EMU is a healthy 3-0 against Howard so you love to see that. If Howard’s band and cheer squads make the trip to EMU too, then that’ll make for a more lively Week 1 event.
Scheduling FCS teams usually aren’t worth looking forward to, but Howard gets the added benefit of being a respected HBCU and, hopefully, a traveling band to enjoy as well. No other team outside of Howard traveling to Rynearson Stadium needs to bring their band as far as I’m concerned.
Date: 2024 (Week 2, road)
Assuming nobody leaves, this will be a fun moment for Chris Creighton to go up against one of his former EMU offensive coordinators, Kalen DeBoer. DeBoer, who won three NAIA national titles with at Sioux Falls, then rode that success into offensive coordinating positions with Southern Illinois, then Eastern Michigan from 2014 through 2016.
EMU only won three games in DeBoer’s first two seasons as OC and QB coach, but the team went from five games with 0-7 points scored in 2014 (15.2 points per game) to no fewer than 13 points scored in a game in 2015 (25.4). In 2016, EMU won seven games and made its first bowl game since 1987 thanks to another big boost in offense — 29.6 points per game.
Recruiting-wise: Gaining an advantage on the recruiting trail isn’t about impressing all of the potential recruits out in the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes it’s just about capturing the right victories.
I have no idea how the DeBoer will go at Washington, so I remain cautiously optimistic leading up to it. There’s just a lot of stuff the school has to figure out on how it wants to identify itself through athletics during ~all of the changes. On the football side, DeBoer is expected to put on a good offense while the conference has added pressure to perform & impress the masses quickly.
Maybe things will work out for Washington in the long run, maybe they won’t. But let’s be optimistic here and think that EMU could be at a point in three years where it could beat a team like Washington. That’s not a crazy thought by any means; Washington lost to an FCS team in 2021, EMU beat three Big Ten teams in the Creighton era.
If EMU travels to Washington and ends up beating the Huskies, then that’s a new recruiting pitch many never expected to hear: the Eagles beat a former Playoff team. And depending on how some MAC teams fare between now and then, EMU could be the first MAC team to beat a former Playoff team in this scenario.
I think that’d be pretty neat if it did happen.
#4 Michigan State
2026 (Week 2, road)
I love a good trip to Michigan State. Convenient to meet up with friends who went to State. This eventual matchup is still a few years from happening, but it’s still important to have these in-state games on the books.
It’ll be a good chance for Creighton and his team to redeem themselves in Lansing since the last road trip ended in an undeniably undefeated Jim Ross-Vine moment.
(Sadly, this is written years after Vine went down and virtually everything uploaded to the app is gone, including the Jim Ross call. This Vine still exists though.)
(Here’s a YouTube link, in case *that* Vine link eventually gets wiped from the digital public as well.)
MSU’s a good bar to set your program at, on the field and on the recruiting trail. I don’t expect EMU to ever recruit MSU at a higher clip on the whole. But EMU playing respectably to entertain MSU’s home fans (or give them some panic, like in 2012) and entertain potential EMU recruits that want to see that EMU isn’t the same team that got molly-whopped 73-14 in 2014 by the Spartans.
All-time: EMU is 0-10 against MSU, dating back to 1898. The two met seven times from 1996-2014, and hadn’t met since. Then-AD Lyke scrapped EMU’s previously-signed commitment with MSU which had EMU playing at State in 2012, 2014, and 2016, and MSU would come to EMU in 2020. The first two games were already played by 2015 when EMU replaced the remaining two games with a pair of road trips to Missouri (2016, 2020).
2025 (Week 3, road)
Of the 15 schools Eastern Michigan’s football team has lined up to play between now and 2029, Kentucky is the only SEC trip EMU has scheduled. Scheduling SEC teams usually comes at the cost of knowing there’s a built-in loss on the schedule virtually every time, but at least the school gets a nice paycheck out of it. Some MAC schools like this approach to scheduling non-conference foes more than others. EMU doesn’t schedule as many of these blatant paycheck games as it used to. If you look closely, there tends to be some sort of cultural similarities between EMU and whichever non-MAC school(s) it schedules.
Of all the head coaches and schools in the SEC, Mark Stoops and Kentucky carry themselves within the conference most similarly to Chris Creighton and Eastern Michigan. Obvious, built-in disadvantages at both schools within both of their respective leagues, but they’ve both found ways to improve the brands of both schools through the national media — the ones who still never travel to Lexington nor Ypsilanti. Both teams are much more competitive within their conferences. Both teams are winning more games on the field, on the recruiting trail, and the lost art of having fun in bowl season is still traditionally celebrated at both Kentucky and Eastern.
The two schools never played each other until 2017 to kick-off a one-game contract between the two schools. In 2015, EMU and Kentucky agreed to two contracts. One was a one-game contract where EMU traveled to Kentucky in 2017 ($1.2 million guaranteed), the second was a two-game, home-and-home series with EMU as the home team in 2019, then Kentucky as the host in 2020.
The Eagles traveled down in 2017 and lost (27-20), then things in this series got weird.
Four months before the 2017 game, EMU AD Heather Lyke left for Pitt and her position would later be filled by Scott Wetherbee — a Michigan native, Ball State grad, and recently worked at Mississippi State. In March 2018, Wetherbee announced that EMU would cut four total sports at the end of the school year, citing a ~$4.5 to $5.5 million projected budget deficit. Five months later, it was announced that the home game against Kentucky in 2019 would be moved to Lexington, making the game an $800k guarantee in EMU’s favor instead of EMU writing a check to Kentucky for $200k.
EMU, originally contracted to be the home team in the 2019 contest, lost as the away team (38-17), and had one more matchup to look forward to. FBSchedules.com reported that a [would-be] fourth matchup between the two schools was struck in early March of 2020, to be played in 2025 ($1.4M). The scheduling of this one-game contract came before Covid-19’s effect on the world. The 2020 game would later be canceled as the MAC became the first to cancel its football season, then bring it back to a reduced, conference-only iteration.
I’d have Kentucky up higher on the list if a makeup game could’ve been drawn up and signed off on by now, but that’s just not the case. So having to wait until 2025 for a third road game has to hurt somewhere.
Could EMU ever get to host Kentucky?
Given that the lost home game was drawn up under a former AD, it’s tough to say. Plus, if it would’ve made sense to make the third contract a home-and-home instead of a one-game deal, then that probably would’ve happened already. Not counting 2025, Kentucky’s already got its non-conference schedule(s) filled up through 2027. In 2028, Kentucky will be at Toledo, so I wouldn’t count the SEC team trying to make two MACtion road trips in the same season. I also wouldn’t bet on an SEC team making two MACtion road trips in back-to-back seasons either, so I’m going to rule out 2029 too. So if EMU and Kentucky decided to work out a deal where EMU would get to finally play host to the Wildcats, I would say be patient and know that it wouldn’t come any sooner than 2030 at this rate. Even still, don’t hold your breath.
#6 Eastern Kentucky
2022 (Week 1, home)
This season’s going to begin with a should-be victory at home over an FCS team, but get this: it’d only be Eastern Michigan’s first win over Eastern Kentucky after their fifth matchup all-time. That’s right, EMU is actually 0-3-1 against EKU if you can believe it.
1948, EMU (er, Michigan State Normal College) lost 20-0 at Eastern Kentucky (Eastern Kentucky State College at the time).
1949, the Normalites lost 27-6 at home to the Maroons, and finished the year 0-8.
1970, Eastern Michigan lost 21-10 on the road to Eastern Kentucky.
1971, EMU held a 4-0 record on the year before the Colonels of EKU came to Ypsilanti and battled the Hurons to a 0-0 tie.
EKU’s a football program that’s trying to be at the FBS level, which is why it broke up with the Ohio Valley Conference to join the Atlantic Sun last year. The Colonels will be as inspired as ever, and this program’s long-term goals really hinge on whether or not EMU can show up (and win) games like these.
2023 (Week 2, road)
EMU won’t play a Big Ten team this year, but next year they’ll see a similar face in traveling to Minnesota for the first time. P.J. Fleck will be in his sixth year leading the Gophers after he led rival Western Michigan to a four-year climb to putting on one of the best teams in MAC history. The 2016 Broncos were not only one of the best teams in WMU’s history, but one of the best teams in MAC history.
Chris Creighton went 0-3 against Fleck’s WMU Broncos (2014-2016), but has since led EMU to run of victories over Big Ten teams (three of last four, over Rutgers, Purdue, and Illinois) before that winning streak was halted by Wisconsin last year.
EMU wants to get back to being able to say “we beat a Big Ten team”, especially since this program had zero wins over Power Five schools until the 2017 victory at Rutgers. Getting paychecks from road trips to Ann Arbor or Lansing are nice and all, but fans need to see wins, not paychecks.
Minnesota recently lost pretty embarrassingly to Bowling Green last season (14-10) so I feel pretty safe in saying that Eastern’s going to have a shot in next year’s matchup.
There are no previous matchups between EMU and Minnesota.
2022 (Week 5, home), 2023 (Week 3, home), 2024 (Week 1, road)
Like all rankings, they might be dependent on what kind of mood the writer (heyo) is in. Sometimes I think I should have UMass’s games with EMU ranked higher than this, but I’d rather wait and see if there’s going to be anything to this new regime of UMass football we’re going to see (or not see) under Don Brown. But until we see otherwise: there are still three more UMass games to be played, which might mean three should-be wins to add to EMU’s record books.
With respect to those who make up the UMass football community, EMU’s worked its way to a point to where UMass should be easy wins on the schedule, but maybe the transfer portal’s going to have something else to say about how this series is expected to tilt.
While this series is absolutely not going to be seen on TV (ESPNEWS at best), this series should, at best, historically distance EMU from being socially recognized as the ~130th best team in college football. Hyperbole, yes, and EMU certainly has gained plenty of respect over the years, but it’s important to keep distancing itself from the bottom of the FBS pecking order.
All-time, EMU is 1-2 against UMass which is not exactly a fun thing to say out loud. The last time these two met up, EMU won 42-28 in 2021.
#9 Georgia Southern
2027 (Week 4, road), 2029 (Week 4, home)
Even though it ended as a loss, he 2018 Camellia Bowl will probably forever go down as one of the most emotional and heart-felt competitions games I ever found EMU playing in. It’s a totally vibes-based take, but that bowl game really did set a standard for what EMU should look like on any given week. But the problem with that game, like I said, is how it ended.
It wasn’t until 2021, though, when the two schools finally decided to set up a future home-and-home: six years from then.
Georgia Southern’s a cool program that has an incredibly fun and niche place in college football, but it’s definitely not the same-looking program that won Division I-AA national titles six times from 1985-2000. Even when things got better under Chad Lunsford, he was fired after a 1-3 start in 2021.
Lunsford’s replacement? Clay Helton.
#10 San Jose State
2026 (Week 1, home), 2029 (Week 1, road)
The branding efforts of this future home-and-home series will be worked around the ~30th anniversary of the 1987 Cal Bowl, the first and [so far] only matchup between Eastern Michigan and San Jose State. This recently agreed-to series couldn’t quite happen on the game’s 40th-year anniversary since SJSU already has four non-conference commitments made for the 2027 season.
If EMU hosts a good enough game for SJSU in the 2026 home opener, maybe we can get the ball rolling on celebrating the ‘87 Hurons with a contracted home game against SJSU in 2037 before the Eagles make their road trip in 2029.
The 1987 Cal Bowl still stands as EMU’s only bowl win in program history (1-5 all-time) while SJSU was standing on stronger footing than EMU leading up to that bowl game. As a quick history lesson: San Jose State was a program that won eight Division 2-level conference titles from 1932-1949, three Pacific Coast Athletic Association titles from 1975-1978, and five Big West titles from 1981-1991. San Jose State never won a conference title in the Western Athletic Conference (1996-2012), and only recently won its first Mountain West title in 2020.
For casual fans: At the current rate for both programs, this should be an enticing series once 2026 and 2029 rolls around, but what’s the excitement level of this game outside of fans that actually care about these two teams individually? This series should be good enough to be on CBS Sports Network to catch the eyes of the broader public, but what’s CBS going to do to promote this MAC vs. Moutain West series?
EMU Football’s Future Week 1 Matchups
2022- vs. Eastern Kentucky
2023- vs. Howard
2024- at UMass
2025- at Texas State
2026- vs. San Jose State
2027- vs. San Diego State
2029- at San Jose State
#11 San Diego State
2027 (Week 1, home)
A bit far out for me to get excited over this game right, even if it is San Diego State. Will San Diego State still be relevant in 2027? What even is the national relevancy of San Diego State today? Doesn’t matter, because instead of getting one of the FCS teams to come play in a Week 1 opener, having a Mountain West team with a pretty good run of success and some sort of national acclaim is a good way to attract fans and, hopefully, recruits.
This EMU home game was originally supposed to take place in 2019 after the Eagles made the road trip in 2018, but SDSU put a rain check on that to catch a road game check from New Mexico State instead. The 2019 Aztec team ended up winning 10 games that year, so maybe EMU’s odds of beating SDSU at home might be better in five more years than they might’ve been three years ago.
#12 Arizona State
2022 (Week 3, road)
This season’s Week 3 matchup for Eastern Michigan will be the program’s second game ever against a Pac-12 team. In 1988, EMU got blanked 55-0 by Arizona.
The Sun Devils are somehow, as of this writing at least, avoiding any harsh punishment from the NCAA after the football program [allegedly] hosted recruits for on-campus visits during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Everybody saw that QB Jayden Daniels hit the transfer portal, but that doesn’t mean Arizona State’s offense is in a hole for it, either. ASU still has six QBs on roster (including a Bama transfer), so I’d expect the winner of that position battle to come out and play competitively at home.
Cool opportunity and destination for EMU’s football team to travel to. If EMU pulls off the upset, then that’ll be great. But other than that thread, I don’t have more reasons, as a fan from home, to look forward to this trip.
2023 (Week 4, road), 2024 (Week 3, home)
An improved program over the last two seasons for sure, but what does the immediate future hold for Liberty? Can the LU offense keep playing respectably over the next two seasons after the graduation of QB Malik Willis? Will Hugh Freeze still be the coach of Liberty, or will he coach himself back into the Power 5 ranks? How much more or less attention will this series receive when Liberty joins the C-USA? (Note: 2022 is Flames’ final year as FBS Independent.)
To give Liberty credit where its due: I’m very surprised that its past two years have been good enough to let a team as new as this see a Top 25 ranking as early as it has, and in a much different fashion than other new FBS teams to crack those very same rankings (like Coastal Carolina).
But even on Liberty’s best days, you’re asking a lot from me to get up and get excited to see any game that involves… Liberty.
Last season’s LendingTree Bowl was the first match between EMU and Liberty. The Flames dominated in QB Malik Willis’ college finale, 56-20.
#14 Texas State
2025 (Week 1, road)
Another distant road trip, in terms of days away and miles to travel, for Eastern Michigan, and EMU will come in as true outsiders for Texas State. Not only has EMU never played a game against Texas State, but EMU has never played a regular-season game in the state of Texas.
The only time EMU has ever played a football game in Texas came in the 1971 Pioneer Bowl when EMU lost 14-3 to Louisiana Tech; the game was played at Memorial Stadium in Wichita Falls, current home of the Midwestern State Mustangs (D2).
Last season, EMU played its first-ever game against a Texas team with a Week 4 home game against this Texas State program. The Eagles handily took care of business (59-21) right after this Bobcat coaching staff, led by Jake Spavital, built its 2021 signing class entirely through the transfer portal — zero high school signees. That’s an error that immediately blew up in Texas State’s face (4-8 overall, 3-5 Sun Belt) with potential for more damage if the Bobcats can’t create wins on the recruiting trail in its own state.
#15 Saint Francis U.
2024 (Week 4, home)
Eastern added Saint Francis to a future schedule last summer leading up to the two school’s first meeting. SFU’s not a great FCS program, but it’s certainly winning more games these days than it did in the late 1990’s through the 2000’s. Current head coach Chris Villarrial, 48, has been leading the team since 2010 (12th season) and raised the floor of the program that made the jump from D3 to D1-FCS in 1993. Now, SFU’s usually winning five games a year, but its last winning seasons came in 2015 and 2016; the school’s last winning season before that was back in 1992.