Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck is no stranger to overcoming odds or beating established teams. Coming out of Sugar Grove, Ill., Fleck earned a scholarship to Northern Illinois. Then-NIU coach Joe Novak decided to offer Fleck a scholarship over the objection of most of his staff members.
Four years later, in 2003, Fleck was involved in a memorable photo, pointing to his NIU helmet after the Huskies defeated Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Yes, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Thirteen years later, Fleck is the driving engine behind No. 12 Western Michigan earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl against No. 8 Wisconsin.
Dreams do certainly come true. On Jan. 7, Fleck displayed a Cotton Bowl logo on a screen for his players to see, serving as a motivation to be the Group of 5 champion. The Broncos defeated Ohio 29-23 in the Mid-American Conference Championship game. The Broncos, adopting Fleck's Row the Boat mantra, will be heading to Arlington, Texas with finishing undefeated as their main goal. Fleck, in his fourth year, guided the Broncos from a 1-11 mark in his first season to a 13-0 record.
"Who would have thought that here we are accepting a bid to the Cotton Bowl 10 months later," Fleck said. "It's pretty amazing to really kind of see it in full force and really pan out the way hit has. It's a credit to our players."
Many things happened in the final weekend to make Fleck's vision become a reality. The Broncos received some help when Navy lost to Temple, helping the Broncos edge out a number of one- and-two-loss Group of 5 teams for their at-large berth.
"We're the best Group of 5 team in the country," Fleck said. "We didn't lose a game. Whoever they put on our schedule, we beat. There's two undefeated teams in the country us and Alabama and there is no argument."
With wins over Northwestern and Illinois on the road, the Broncos hope to cap the best season in school history with win No. 14. Western Michigan is only the second MAC program to earn a New Year's Six or BCS bid. Fleck's alma mater, Northern Illinois, lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 2013.
"If you go undefeated in sports, it's very special, no matter what," Fleck said. "To go undefeated takes a ton of resolve, resilience, energy, commitment, trust and belief."
Still, the odds are stacked against the Broncos. The Badgers (10-3) nearly won the Big Ten title, but Penn State stormed back in the second half to knock off Wisconsin. The Badgers do own big wins over LSU, Nebraska and Iowa and battled highly ranked Ohio State to overtime and lost by seven points at Michigan.
Wisconsin running back Corey Clement, a 1,000-yard rusher, is one of the best backs the Broncos have faced in the past few years. The Broncos will look to make the Badgers a one-dimensional team, applying pressure to the quarterback duo of Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston. The Badgers are not a high-scoring team, with WMU quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Corey Davis one of the best combinations in the country.