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TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE MTN WEST--PART II

                                                      by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After previewing the “West” of the Mountain West in our previous installment, we focus on the “Mountain” half of the loop. Once again, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2015 SU and pointspread records included.

The end of an era, perhaps? Fans at Boise State (2015 SUR 9-4, PSR 6-7) were acting so after the Broncos surrendered the Mountain West crown last season and lost multiple times on their home blue carpet for the first time since 1998. The rabid support base was caught off-guard much as the “remain” crowd in the UK for the recent Brexit vote. How could it happen?

Some are suggesting the fall from the perch was inevitable after HC Chris Petersen left following the 2013 season for Washington, though we believe that is too simple of an explanation. Remember, Petersen’s last team finished an underwhelming 8-5, so it is not as if the ground has suddenly given way beneath the blue carpet for successor Bryan Harsin, whose two-year SU record at Boise is a solid 21-6.

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If any Broncos fans are looking for positive bounce-back analogies, we remind them that the NHL Edmonton Oilers won their last Stanley Cup two years after the departure of Wayne Gretzky. (You’ve heard of him, right...Paulina’s dad.)

So, lots of regional observers are anticipating a quick recovery by the 2016 Broncos, whose flagship status means much to the Mountain West. Though Boise will be traveling only once outside its region (for an opener at UL-Lafayette on September 3), most onlookers in the Rockies believe the Broncos are still the league’s best chance to make an impression on the national scene.

Harsin, who earlier in his career had served as Petersen’s o.c., has not exactly been the captain of the Titanic. Last year’s Boise scored a whopping 39.1 ppg and gained over 500 ypg, hardly dropping off of the map. The Broncos also closed their season with a 55-7 dismantling of a representative Northern Illinois side in the Poinsettia Bowl, allowing the Huskies only 33 total yards in the process. So, if nothing else, Boise hit the offseason with a spring in its step.

Speaking of spring, the seasonal variety, it was adjustment time again as the Broncos worked in their fifth different offensive coordinator in six seasons after Eliah Drinkwitz took a similar post at NC State. (Mike Sanford left the previous year for Notre Dame.) For 2016, Zak Hill has been imported from Eastern Washington, where he oversaw a high-powered spread in recent years, to be joined by Scott Huff, promoted from OL coach, in a joint o.c. effort, though Harsin will put on his old play-calling hat and assume those duties. Meanwhile, former LB coach Andy Avalos has been promoted to defensive coordinator after Marcel Yates was lured away by Rich Rodriguez at Arizona.

Prospects are bullish for a strike force that returns eight starters including soph QB Brett Rypien, Mark’s nephew, who passed for 3353 yards and 20 TDs as a true frosh last fall. That was good enough to earn Rypien All-MW honors, though Harsin will want to make sure Rypien stays healthy with no experienced cover behind him. Still, the ride was not all smooth last fall for Rypien, who had a few erratic efforts that contributed to late-season losses vs. New Mexico and Air Force, and his arm seemed to tire as the season progressed, as the deep ball threat disappeared in November. Giving Rypien the benefit of the doubt, he was expected to redshirt last season before starter Ryan Finley broke an ankle in mid-September; Rypien’s first start came in the fourth game, September 25 at Virginia. If he can stay healthy, and with more experience avoids the "tired arm" syndrome, Rypien should be firing all of the way into a higher-profile bowl game this fall.

Experienced playmakers still dot the offense, with RB Jeremy McNichols worth 1317 yards rushing, 460 yards receiving, and 26 TDs a year ago to qualify as one of the nation’s top all-purpose threats. Senior wideout Thomas Sperbeck, the Fiesta Bowl MVP two years ago, was good for 88 receptions a year ago, while fellow WR Chaz Anderson (42 catches LY) and TE Jake Roh (33 receptions 2016) are other proven contributors. Frosh likely provide skill-position depth (watch WR Bubby Ogbehor out of Frisco, TX), while four starters are back along the OL. Last year’s PK (Tyler Rausa, who was 25-30 on FG tries LY) and P (Sean Wale) both return.

New d.c. Avalos has a bit more work to do with a stop unit that lost seven starters and, despite ranking 12th nationally, was overrun by a couple of Mountain Division option teams (New Mexico and Air Force) that both won on the blue carpet last November. The line is the area of utmost concern with all new starters up front and little experience in the fold aside from sr. DT Sam McCaskill, one of last year’s rotation pieces. Newcomers will need to play important roles. The strength of the platoon is likely at the LB spots where 2015 leading tackler Ben Warren and third-leading tackler Tanner Vallejo return as starters. Three seniors are slated to start in the secondary, including CB Jonathan Maxey & S Chanceller James, but young talent needs to provide depth.

Already, there is a buzz in Boise about the September 10 visit of Mike Leach’s Washington State and potential Heisman candidate QB Luke Falk, but if the Broncos survive that test they likely enter conference play in the national rankings. Boise has a score to settle vs. three Mountain foes (New Mexico, Air Force, and Utah State, on the road to face the Lobos and Falcons, the latter having beaten Harsin the past two seasons) that won vs. the Broncos a year ago, and worth noting that Boise misses heavy West favorite San Diego State. At least until a possible showdown in the conference title game, which, in a perfect world for the MW, would see the winner qualify for a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, as the Broncos achieved in 2014 when invited to the Fiesta (and beating Arizona).

Spread-wise, it has been a while since Boise was dominant on the blue carpet. Ongoing heavy pointspread premiums resulted in only a 2-4 performance vs. the line at home last season (one of those W vs. Big Sky Idaho State) and an 11-21 mark dating to late 2010 and the final stages of the Petersen era. The Broncos, however, continue to excel as road chalk, now 31-14 in that role since 2008 (4-2 a year ago).


The last reconstruction job as successful as the one undertaken by HC Bob Davie at New Mexico (2015 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-6)? Perhaps it was Ulysses S. Grant trying to mend the Union after the Civil War. In football terms, Davie has done a near-comparable job in Albuquerque after inheriting a carcass of a program from the failed Mike Locksley regime in 2012.

To refresh memories, Locksley was the ill-fated hire made by New Mexico after forcing out alum and longtime HC Rocky Long following the 2008 season. Locksley proceeded to author the definitive deconstruct of a program that would win a mere one game each of the next three seasons, the latter in 2011 with interim CH George Barlow in charge for the lone W (vs. UNLV, by the way) following Locksley’s ouster early in the campaign. Enter Davie, the former Notre Dame mentor who left a cushy gig at ESPN and a pleasant home in Scottsdale to take his first sideline job in over a decade. So desperate was his coaching itch that he took on the challenge of resurrecting maybe the worst program in the country upon his hiring.

That was four years ago, and Davie began to mix and match with a threadbare roster of only 51 remaining players on scholarship, almost none from the first Locksley recruiting class three years earlier. Off of the bat, Davie schemed effectively, leaning upon a handful of holdover fifth-year seniors originally recruited by Long for leadership, and reckoning the an option-based run offense out of the Pistol was his best chance to slow down the games and run the clock and keep his undermanned defense off of the field. The Lobos didn’t win consistently right away, but they weren’t Locksley-bad, either, as the program slowly began to take on the look of a real college football entry.

Which brings us to last year, and what would be the cherry on top of the cake for Davie’s efforts, a surprise 7-5 regular-season record and qualification for the hometown New Mexico Bowl against Arizona. Never mind that the Lobos lost that one in a wild 45-37 shootout; Davie’s accomplishment at getting New Mexico to the postseason rates as one of the top coaching jobs we recall in the past decade. The Lobos were even good enough to notch one of the biggest pointspread upsets in modern history when winning win at Boise State as a 30 1/2-point underdog in mid-November. To prove that was no fluke, New Mexico would end its regular season with a decisive home win over Mountain Division champion Air Force.

With expectations now enhanced in Lobo-land for the first time in almost a decade, Davie seems well-positioned for an encore and another bowl bid. We’ll see how New Mexico embraces the new target on its back after flying under the radar to this point in the Davie era.

Not willing to rest on his laurels, Davie has been altering the recipe a bit lately, especially with an offense that might have lost its element of surprise out of the Pistol. Though the Lobos still ranked a very respectable 9th nationally in rushing, their 252 ypg last fall was more than 50 yards beneath the lowest total in Davie’s first three seasons. Davie has since juggled assignments for most of his offensive staff, though Bob DeBessie (now tutoring the WRs instead of QBs) retains the coordinator role.

The slow changes began last season when the Lobos would demonstrate a bit more balance by attempting more than 50 passes above any previous Davie UNM entry. Part of that was to do with the presence of former juco and one-time Washington State QB Austin Apodaca, the designated “passer” threat of a two-man platoon alongside Lamar Jordan, who took more snaps and actually passed for more yards. Though Jordan remains the “run” QB after rushing for 807 yards a year ago. Both return to what would appear to be a similar arrangement for the fall, with Apodaca likely utilized again as an effective change-of-pace option.

The main question for the offense likely involves breaking in three new starters along the OL. Teriyon Gipson remains a coast-to-coast threat at RB, and Davie has had no shortage of quick-hitting backs in recent years. The top two receivers, led by sr. WR Dameon Gamblin (35 catches LY), also return. As does one-time QB Cole Gautsche, hampered by injuries throughout his career but a mega-athlete and now a 260-lb. moose ready for work at TE after getting healthy in a redshirt season a year ago. Davie will also be looking for a new kick-return threat after the graduated Carlos Wiggins brought five back for scores in his career.

While the Lobo offensive numbers in 2015 still bore a resemblance to previous Davie editions, it was upgrades along the “D” that allowed New Mexico to go “bowling” for the first time since 2007. The improvements need to be viewed in context; the Lobos were still susceptible to dramatic collapses, as evident in the bowl loss to Arizona. But those came less frequently than previous years when the Lobos routinely ranked in triple-digits in all relevant stat categories. Last year, it was merely high double-digits all of the way, and the 28.4 ppg allowed was by far the best of any UNM defense back to the Rocky Long era. The Lobos allowed 81 ypg fewer than in 2014 and had 15 more takeaways than in 2013, the year before d.c Kevin Cosgrove arrived. UNM also recorded 30 sacks a year ago, another Davie-era best, and excelled in the red zone last season, allowing only 34 scores in 49 opponent forays, which ranked 4th-best in the nation.

The good news is that nine starters return from 2015, including star MLB Dakota Cox, the heart-and-soul of the platoon and one of the MW’s best who led the Lobos with 97 tackles a year ago. In fact, the entire starting front six in UNM’s 3-3-5 returns, including most of the rotation pieces along a DL anchored by sr. DE Nik D’Avanzo. Cox, with fellow srs. Kimmie Carson and Donnie White, might make up the top LB corps in the MW. There are some depth concerns in the secondary, partly due to the tragic death of S Markel Byrd in a car accident just a few days after the bowl loss to Arizona, though FS Daniel Henry and nickel back Lee Crosby, the most productive players on the back end, return for their senior seasons. As indeed are ten of the eleven projected starters, making the Lobo “D” one of the most experienced in the nation.

The schedule is favorable, with an odd trip to rebuilding Rutgers probably the toughest non-conference challenge. The game vs. Mountain Division foe Air Force has been moved from Colorado Springs to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and Boise State (against which Davie's teams are 4-0 vs. the line) visits University Stadium on October 8. Absent from the slate is heavy West favorite San Diego State.

Spread-wise, notable in recent years has been Davie’s success vs. the line on the road, where the Lobos are 11-5 vs. the spread their last 16 tries. Within the Mountain Division, Davie’s team has covered four straight not only vs. Boise State, but Air Force as well, though it has dropped four straight vs. Colorado State.


Two
years ago, we weren’t sure how much longer we would be talking about HC Troy Calhoun at Air Force (2015 SUR 8-6; PSR 8-5). The Falcs had been losing altitude for a while and were off of a brutal 2-10 collapse in 2013 that was the program’s worst-ever mark, which included some very lean years in the 1970s. Moreover, long-serving AD Hans Mueh, the man who hired the former fly-boy Calhoun to replace his mentor, Fisher DeBerry, for the 2007 season, was ready to retire from his post. The gears seemed to be in motion for a change unless Calhoun could get things turned around and quickly.

Fast-forward two years and Calhoun is back again on firm footing after 18 wins, a pair of bowl appearances, and a Mountain Division crown, causing Gregg Popovich and other alums to chuckle and wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. Calhoun has now qualified for the postseason in seven of eight campaigns at the Force, something even the legendary DeBerry, now in the Atlanta College Football HOF, could not accomplish with the Falcs (DeBerry never went to more than six bowls during any of his eight-year spans).

In retrospect, 2013 was the aberration, a season wrecked by a cascade of injuries that especially decimated the QB position. With a bit better injury luck, Air Force has returned to its normal perch in the MW under Calhoun in the two seasons since.

(We’re glad Calhoun is still in the fold, if for no other reason than being annually amused by the Air Force coach at the summer Mountain West Media Days, where Calhoun’s peculiar demeanor and manner more resembles that of a CIA spook than the usual coaching stereotypes.)

As Air Force’s option-based offense has routinely reloaded over the years, there is not much worry at the Academy at the thought of the strike force replacing seven starters, including almost the entirety of last year’s starting OL, for this fall. There is near-giddiness, however, at the thought of nine starters back and experience all across the field for a defense that was one of the best in the Calhoun era and ranked in the top quartile nationally of several key stat categories.

The key a year ago for d.c. Steve Russ was the ability to bring pressure from all angles in the hopes of disrupting opposing QBs who would be less likely to exploit the Falcs’ athletic mismatches on the edge. The Force’s 37 sacks confirmed the Russ tactics and would rank a very respectable 23rd in the nation and key the ascent to the Mountain half crown.

Even with all of the returnees, there is some concern about filling the role of graduated Alex Hansen, a pass-rush beast considered by Calhoun as the best DE he has ever coached. (That sort of praise is so out of character for the normally-calculating Calhoun that we have to believe him.) But still in the fold is perhaps the best defensive playmaker in the MW, all-name SS Weston Steelhammer, a rare combo of aggressiveness against the run coupled with ball-hawk tendencies, partly explaining his 11 career interceptions. Steelhammer’s value to the Force “D” was never underlined more than after his ejection in the Armed Forces Bowl vs. Cal, when the Falc stop unit unraveled afterward. An all-senior 2ndary also features CB Roland Ladipo, an All-MW selection a year ago.

Last year, the offense would continue to post its usual top ten rushing stats (in 2015 it was 319 ypg, good for fourth nationally), though it had to revert to a more pure version of its option roots after QB Nate Romine, the rare Force QB who passes better than he runs, was lost to a knee injury in the second week vs. San Jose State. Senior relief pitcher Karson Roberts was well-versed in the nuances of the option but could not stretch a field with his arm as Romine, who returns for his senior season with perhaps the best Falc receiving threat since the long-ago days of Ernie Jennings, Jalen Robinette, a unique big-play target. Even with the limited Roberts at the controls, Robinette caught 26 passes for a staggering 24.7 yards per reception with 5 TDs in 2015 and should significantly improve upon those numbers if QB Romine can stay healthy this fall.

As usual, Calhoun’s offense will feature a deep collection of runners. As Robinette is a playmaker for the passing game, slashing TB Jacobi Owens (1092 YR in 2016) is for the infantry, gaining serious yards last season even after he was temporarily switched to the FB spot due to injuries. Junior Timothy McVey offers relief for Owens and perhaps a greater homerun threat after gaining a whopping 8.5 ypc last fall. Though injured for parts of last season, fullbacks Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson are brutishly effective, as Air Force option protocols demand, when healthy. Junior PK Luke Strebel missed only 1 of his 11 FG tries a year ago.

As in every season, there are dual goals for the Force, winning the Commander-in-Chief Trophy as well as the Mountain West. The Falcs, who won the former as recently as 2014, get nemesis Navy at home on October 1 as the highlight of non-conference action. There is also no San Diego State from the West on the 2016 slate and no distractions of a trip to Hawaii (the Rainbow Warriors instead visit Falcon Stadium on October 22), though the Falcs rather enjoyed their time in paradise last Halloween when blasting UH, 58-7, given an escort out of Aloha Stadium by Hawaii Five-O. The Mountain title could come down to the regular-season finale at home on Thanksgiving weekend vs. Boise State, which has been outplayed and beaten by Calhoun each of the last two years.

Spread-wise, Calhoun has also rehabilitated the past two seasons after the downturns of 2012 & ‘13, when the Falcs were a combined 6-19 vs. the line; Air Force is 16-10-1 against the number since. Moreover, the Force has once again turned Falcon Stadium into a fortress, standing 9-2-1 vs. the line as host the past two seasons after slumping at Colorado Springs in previous years. Interestingly, the Falcs have been “over” 20-7 the past two years.


It has been an interesting few seasons for Utah State (2015 SUR 6-7, PSR 5-8). The Utags have not only switched leagues (WAC to Mountain West in 2013) but have also qualified for five straight bowls, which would have seemed a pipe dream in Logan not long ago, especially before HC Gary Andersen arrived in 2009 from a successful stint as d.c. at Utah. Andersen would thus revive the program before leaving for Wisconsin and turning over the reins to his o.c. Matt Wells, who has continued the uptick with three straight bowl visits.

(Andersen, however, continues to be indirectly impacting the program. Sources inform us that when Oregon State called Andersen, still at Wisconsin, after the 2014 season, and looking for a recommendation on Wells to become the new coach in Corvallis, Andersen would instead offer himself as an alternative to succeed Mike Riley, who had moved to Nebraska. Presto, Andersen was OSU’s new coach and Wells stayed at USU. But the Andersen/Beaver connection to Logan remains, as this fall’s projected OSU starting QB Darell Garretson is a transfer from...you guessed it, Utah State. Not to mention new OSU d.c. Kevin Clune, hired from...yep, Utah State.)

There are some signs, however, that the Utags might be slipping just a bit, as a late-season fade in 2015, including a bitter Idaho Potato Bowl loss to Akron, would drop the team to 6-7 and the first losing campaign since 2010. All of this after a midseason 52-26 rout of Boise State in Logan seemed to stamp the Utags as the team to beat in the Mountain half of the loop. Then, in the offseason, both coordinators, the aforementioned d.c. Kevin Clune (to Oregon State) and o.c. Josh Heupel (to Missouri...not Oregon State!) both moved. Thus, both the “O” and “D” will be looking at their third (and fourth, technically, with co-d.c.’s lined up) coordinators, respectively, in as many seasons this fall. Another familiar face, that of longtime and injury-susceptible QB Chuckie Keeton, has also left the Logan scene after his eligibility, which seemed to date to the Merlin Olsen era, was finally exhausted.

The Wells offense, which sagged to a 93rd national ranking a year ago, is now under the shared tutelage of co-coordinators Jevon Bouknight, promoted from passing game coordinator, and Luke Wells, who has been on the USU staff since brother Matt was promoted in 2013. The braintrust began to implement their new ideas in spring when emphasis was mostly centered upon establishing the run. “I want a 1000-yard back,” said HC Wells. “I want to be able to say we are a run-first football team.” Well, if the head coach insists, that’s what we suppose the Utags will get this fall.

Spring work showcased plenty of RB options, though for the time being it would appear as if powerful 220-lb. Devante Mays, a bit reminiscent of recent USU star RB Robert Turbin, is Wells’ likely 1000-yard man after nearly reaching that plateau last fall when gaining 966 YR. Along with jr. RB LaJuan Hunt, and returnee QB Kent Myers, the trio would combine for 1660 YR a year ago, numbers that figure to increase this fall.

The elusive jr. Myers, who took most of the snaps last season as Keeton was again sidelined with injuries, is a playmaker who has passed for 21 TDs (vs. just 6 picks) and nearly 2500 yards the past two seasons while filling in for Keeton or splitting snaps with now-departed Garretson in 2014. Myers and his arm were good enough to throw for 364 yards and 4 TDs vs. Air Force last November, so we wonder if the coaches should perhaps turn Myers loose rather than worry so much about establishing the run. The Utags must replace departed top receiver Hunter Sharp, who caught 71 passes last season, but sr. TE Wyatt Houston (28 catches in 2015) is one of the best in the MW, and plenty of candidates are in the queue at WR, including ex-RB Kennedy Williams and one of the stars of srping, RS frosh Gerold Bright. Four starters also return on the OL.

There are more concerns on a defense that only returns three starters from a Bizarro, “break-but-don’t-bend” stop unit in 2015 that ranked among the nation’s leaders in yards per play (only 4.9) but in the depths of red zone efficiency. Moreover, the hearts-and-souls of last year’s platoon were taken in the third round of the NFL Draft–LBs Nick Vigil (Bengals) and Kyle Fackrell (Packers) with back-to-back selections. Only one starter returns in the front seven, DE Ricky Ali’fua, while NG Travis Seefeldt returns to the mix after sitting out last season following traffic accident injuries. Only three of the 10 LBs who took snaps a year ago are back in the fold.

The most experienced position group on the defense is in the secondary, which returns starters at a corner (jr. Jalen Davis) and SS (sr. Devin Centers). Transfer Dallin Leavitt was a two-year starter at BYU and was running first-string at FS exiting spring. New co-coordinators Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver are familiar with the Logan operation, each on staff in recent years and promoted in tandem to replace Clune.

We should know within the first month of the season if Wells has a contender on his hands, with the first two league games vs. Mountain rivals Air Force and revenge-minded Boise State (this time on the blue carpet). Non-league games at USC and BYU, plus questions on defense, may limit the upside to a minor bowl at best for Wells’ team. To do any better might require Wells turning QB Myers loose, but from the sound of things after spring work, we’re not holding our breath for that to happen.

Spread-wise, the Utags had been a dynamite underdog performer for several years prior to the ascent of Wells, recording a 19-5 spread mark in that role for Anderson before sagging to 5-8 as a “the short” the past three seasons. The Wells Utags have also been a decidedly “over” performer (27-13 the past three seasons).


We wonder what Mike Bobo was thinking after alma mater Georgia was looking for a coach following last season. Of course, Bobo had moved from o.c. on Mark Richt’s staff to the HC spot at Colorado State (2015 SUR 7-6; PSR 6-6-1) prior to the 2015 campaign. Many in SEC country believed Bobo was likely to take a head coaching job, such as CSU, ostensibly to cut his teeth as the top dog, before returning to the SEC, maybe at his beloved Georgia.

Well, Bobo still might get back to the SEC, but probably not at Georgia for a while after the Bulldogs hired Alabama d.c. Kirby Smart instead. Bobo, who would have been an unlikely immediate successor to Richt had he stayed in Athens last season, thus has a bit more time to establish his credentials before perhaps returning home, maybe in the near future if Smart succeeds Nick Saban at Alabama. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The homespun Bobo has some work to do with his own portfolio after proving a bit of an awkward fit in the Mountain West, and not just because there are no Waffle Houses or real Southern style BBQ anywhere near Fort Collins. Bobo effectively junked the Jim McElwain spread offense that produced big numbers and made QB Garrett Grayson an NFL draftee (Saints) before “Coach Mac” took the job at Florida. Bobo would instead introduce an older-style SEC offense to the Mountain West, complete with a traditional fullback (!) that has been an endangered species in the MW for years. The new look certainly did not serve to highlight star WR Rashard Higgins as did the McElwain offense; Higgins’ stats were considerably down from 2014 (receiving yards from 1750 to 1062; TDs from 17 to 6), as was his NFL Draft stock, sinking to the 5th round (Browns) after projecting as a possible 2nd-or-3rd-round pick prior.

The drop from 2014 that most alarmed Rams fans, however, was from 10 wins under McElwain to just seven a year ago. After a brief uptick when winning four straight to close the regular season and get bowl-eligible for a third straight year, the season would end up with a very unsatisfactory feel, too, after losing an All-MW Arizona Bowl vs. Nevada in front of a sparse gathering in Tucson.

We wouldn’t expect things to look appreciably different this fall with four starters back on the OL, plus a seasoned QB and a two-deep RB attack. The QB is jr. Nick Stevens, who flashed some nice upside in his starting debut, even if his stats paled in comparison to predecessor Grayson; Stevens would throw for 2679 yards and 21 TDs, though his pick total (12) was a bit high, part of an overall giveaway problem reflected in CSU’s poor -12 TO margin, ranking 117th nationally.

To keep Stevens on his toes, Bobo has imported Faton Bauta, a graduate transfer from Georgia who knows the Bobo offense from Athens, even though he took only a handful of snaps with the Bulldogs. True frosh Collin Hill is a recruit from South Carolina who would enroll early to participate in spring practice but is a likely redshirt candidate in the fall.

The Rams played within themselves last season as they strove to balance the offense, taking more than a bit away from the old McElwain passing game while putting more emphasis in the infantry. With the returnees along the OL and top RBs Dalyn Dawkins (former Purdue transfer; 867 YR LY) and soph Izzy Matthews (6.1 ypc in 2015), expect CSU to try to pick up where it left off December. Maybe even with more emphasis on the run, as star WR Higgins has moved to the NFL, RB Dawkins the leading returning receiver (24 catches LY) on the roster, and little experience among the returning wideouts and at TE. If the offense bogs down, Ray Guy Award finalist P Hayden Hunt can usually kick the team out of trouble.

What scares the locals in Fort Collins is that the offense might have to pick up the pace to compensate for a defense in semi-rebuild mode. Coordinator Tyson Summers left to become HC at Georgia Southern, with former LB Coach Marty English inheriting the d.c. duties, which he held as a co-coordinator during the McElwain years. In the process, English will re-install the 3-4 alignments he utilized under McElwain.

Five starters return, though none are on a DL that was a bit permissive vs. the run in 2015, ranking a lowly 107th against the rush. The strength of the platoon is likely at LB, where top tacklers srs. Kevin Davis (101 tackles LY) and Deonte Clyburn (74 tackles in 2015) return to anchor. Two starters return in the secondary but there was news in this area during spring, when former WR Jordan Vaden was moved to CB and exited drills as a starter, while several juco imports, inclduing CBs A’Keitheon Whitner and FS Houston Haynes, made positive impressions.  Touted JC transfer CB Devron Davis arrives for fall camp. 

As usual, the tenor of the early part of the season is going to be set by the game vs. rival Colorado, this September taking place opening week (a Friday night special at that) in Denver. Trips to Big Ten Minnesota, and Mountain West meatgrinders at Boise, Air Force, and San Diego State loom as hurdles. Several winnable games, however, appear to be on tap in the testimonial season of venerable Hughes Stadium, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies and a few miles from campus.  Expect emotion to be heavy for the home finale vs. New Mexico on November 19. We’re guessing CSU moves into its new on-campus stadium next year off of another minor bowl appearance, with 6-6 sounding about right.

Spread-wise, after CSU entered Bobo’s debut season having covered 21 of its last 30 against the number, the Rams were a non-descript 6-6-1 vs. the line a year ago. CSU continued to fare well at Hughes Stadium, covering 4 of 5, and now 14-5 vs. the spread its last 19 as host dating to late 2012.


Well, there’s a couple of ways we can look at what HC Craig Bohl left behind at North Dakota State, where he won three straight national titles before taking the job two years ago at Wyoming (2015 SUR 2-10; PSR 6-6). All the Bison have done since is continue to win FCS-level championships as they had done for Bohl. Plus, QB Carson Wentz would be the second player taken in April’s NFL Draft when tabbed by the Eagles.

So, did Bohl create such a machine at NDSU that it could continue to win after he left? Or did Bohl just have such a talent edge that he couldn't help but  win at the Missouri Valley and FCS levels...something he has yet to do in Laramie.

Though the jury remains out on Bohl with Wyo, most MW insiders are giving him the benefit of the doubt and expecting the Cowboys to start a slow climb back to respectability this fall. After all, Bohl did not inherit a powerhouse from predecessor Dave Christensen. Then again, the Christensen Cowboys were never threatening a winless season as Wyo was a year ago, dropping their first six before finally getting in the W column with a close win over Nevada. The Pokes’ 2-10 SU mark would be the worst at the school since 2002, a performance that forced HC Vic Koenning, who was just 5-29 in three seasons, to walk the plank.

Some MW observers nonetheless believe a breakthrough for Dick Cheney’s alma mater is imminent, citing the return of nine starters to an offense that unfortunately ranked in triple digits nationally in most meaningful categories. There is hope, however, that a full plate of returning starters on the OL and beast-mode jr. RB Brian Hill can lead a resurgence.

Hill, with his punishing Marshawn Lynch-like style and long hair, is now a 220-lb. smash machine who runs with the reckless abandon of Lynch and gained a whopping 1631 YR as the main highlight for Wyo in 2015. That set a Cowboy single-season record and has already made Hill the fifth-leading rusher in school history. Hill carried more of the load last fall because of the early season-ending concussion suffered by backfield mate Shaun Wick, himself the Cowboys’ ninth-leading all-time rusher (2179 YR). Though Hill’s numbers might reduce some with a healthy Wick, this RB combo is as good as any in the Mountain.

Still, Wyo, which scored a puny 19 ppg in 2015 (ranking 115h nationally), doesn’t go anywhere without an upgrade at QB, which has been an issue for Bohl ever since he arrived in Laramie. After former Indiana transfer Cameron Coffman took most of the snaps last season, Bohl and o.c. Brent Vigen enter the fall with their third different starting QB in as many years in soph Josh Allen, who looked good for a handful of plays against Eastern Michigan in week 2 before shattering his collarbone. Now healed, the former juco enters fall camp ahead of soph Nick Smith, forced into action in emergency mode last season.

Consistency, or lack thereof, at the QB spot has been an issue for the Bohl Wyo teams, and the pressure is on Allen to provide an upgrade, and to demonstrate that his big-league arm has some accuracy after reminding some of a right-handed Bobby Douglass. Fortunately he has at his disposal a pair of established wideouts, srs. Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt, who combined for 94 catches and 12 TDs last fall even as Gentry missed the last five games due to injury.

The “D” would be hampered a year ago partly by a sluggish offense that provided little cushion, but also by an alarming lack of big-play ability. The Pokes only forced 10 turnovers in 2015, ranking tied for dead-last nationally in that category alongside defense-poor Rice.

A total rebuild is in store for the DL that must replace all of its starters, including big-play DE Eddie Yarbrough, who will spend summer in the NFL Broncos camp after being ganged up upon by opposing offensive linemen a year ago. Even with Yarbrough, Wyo was pushed around up front last season and conceded a hefty 225 ypg on the ground, ranking a poor 113th nationally. Still undersized up front, the Cowboys need their LBs to play big, though there is experience in that group featuring ILB Lucas Wacha, the team’s leading returning tackler (96) from a year ago.

The strength of the platoon is likely in an experienced secondary that returns three starters including star FS, soph Andrew Wingard, an All-MW selection as a frosh. Four CBs who started last season return, while jr. Jalen Ortiz, a UCLA transfer, is expected to push for playing time at safety or as a nickel back.

Bohl will be excited about a September 10 non-conference date at alma mater Nebraska, though a better indicator of Wyo’s progress prior to MW play will probably be the September games vs. MAC foes Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan. Mountain Division contenders Boise State, Air Force, and Utah State all visit Laramie, which might give the Cowboys a fighting chance, though Bohl will do well to steer the Cowboys into minor bowl contention. Wyo fans will probably be satisfied with adding a few more wins from last season, but their patience with Bohl, his NDSU success or not, will begin to wear thin if Wyo doesn’t get near .500 this fall.

Against the number, Bohl has had more success than his 6-18 SU mark; Wyo is 11-13 vs. the number since 2014, not great but not as bad as 6-18 straight-up. Bohl has yet to make Laramie much of an edge, as the Pokes' two-year spread mark as host is only 4-8. The Bohl trend to note has been a definite “under” slant, now 16-8 over the past two seasons.

NEXT UP:  PAC-12--PART I


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