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TGS 2017 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 2016 SU and pointspread records included.

One telltale sign of getting old is recalling entire lifetimes of stadiums and arenas. In pro sports, depending upon the city, the process can be more accelerated; heck, in some locales, we’re into third generations of stadiums over just the past fifty years (take Atlanta, for example). But for colleges, such change usually takes more time. Such as at Colorado State (2016 SUR 7-6; PSR 9-3-1; O/U 7-6), which from 1968 thru 2016 had played its games at Hughes Stadium. Now, however, the Rams prepare for their long ballyhooed opening of Colorado State Stadium, to debut on August 26 vs. Oregon State.

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Why the move? Hughes, while still a functional facility, was about four miles from campus, into the foothills, and was showing its age. The stadium was in need of significant upgrades, and since its location was never particularly popular with the locals, momentum began a few years ago to build an on-campus facility right in the heart of Fort Collins. Which the Rams now have along with a new practice center which previously opened a couple of years ago. The new stadium will seat 42,000 at the outset (about 10,000 more than Hughes) and is capable of expanding further.

The latter fact is something important and part of what was an ulterior motive to get a new facility, as CSU has made no bones about the fact it would like a bigger stage than the Mountain West. As was confirmed last year when the Rams eagerly applied to the Big 12 for membership when it looked as if that loop was poised to expand. In the end the Big 12 didn’t make a move, but importantly for CSU it made the first “cut” of schools to be considered, something that MW rival Boise State did not.

Whatever, the Rams now have a shiny, fancy new home on campus, which long-term should benefit the program. Nothing is too wrong with CSU short-term, either, as for a time last season the Rams were the talk of the Mountain West, especially at the end of the season when burying New Mexico and San Diego State, the latter at Qualcomm Stadium and breaking the Aztecs’ 18-game MW win streak. The scoreline vs. SDSU was a shocking 63-31, part of a late-season stretch in which the Rams were scoring points like Larry Eustachy’s CSU hoopsters. The Rams tallied a whopping 53 ppg in their last four games, though they did lose two of those, including an embarrassing 61-50 loss in the Potato Bowl vs. an aroused Idaho in game that wasn’t that close. The four-week gap between the win over the Aztecs and the bowl apparently drained whatever late-season momentum that CSU had generated.

It was nonetheless a bit of a roundabout season a year ago for Rams HC Mike Bobo, watching his second CSU edition team get plastered 44-7 in the opener at Denver vs. Colorado. It was especially roundabout for jr. QB Nick Stevens, who was benched after starting in early September and seeming likely to transfer, as first grad transfer Faton Bauta, and then-true frosh Collin Hall, took over first-string QB duties. Hill, however, tore an ACL at midseason, and Stevens was rewarded for his patience, seizing the job down the stretch and posting big numbers, passing for 1859 yards and 19 TDs with just three picks in the final seven games. Stevens is the anointed starter entering the fall, but with the promising now-soph Hill recovered from the ACL injury and still in the mix, Bobo has some uncommonly good depth for the MW at the QB spot.

Stevens welcomes back his top two receivers as well, including sr. Michael Gallup, a former juco who seemed to catch everything thrown his way down the stretch last fall and ended with a whopping 76 catches for 1272 yards and 14 TDs. Senior speedster Dietrich Clark is another deep threat who also doubles as a QB in Bobo’s occasional Wildcat sets (Clark gained almost 10 ypc on 36 rushes last season). The top three RBs also return, led by slashing former Purdue transfer Dalyn Dawkins (919 YR in 2016) and power back Izzy Matthews (734 YR and 13 TDs in 2016). Up front, sr. C Jake Bennett is probably the team’s top NFL prospect.

The “D” was rather young in 2016 and would spring a few leaks last season, especially down the stretch when the offense was scoring at will and Ram games began to resemble ping-pong matches, but we believe CSU’s defense was a bit better than some of the stats indicate. Eight starters are back in the fold, and that doesn’t include potential impact LB Donte Clyburn, who missed last season due to blood clots but was one of the top defenders in 2015 and now returns with a clean bill of health. Clyburn figures to pick up the slack for LY’s now-graduated top tackler, LB Kevin Davis.

If Clyburn performs as expected, the LBs figure to be the strength of the platoon, with an undersized DL perhaps helped by 335-lb. RS frosh NT Christian Colon. Bobo and d.c. Marty English were not too pleased with the secondary in the spring, however, and moved backup WR Anthony Hawkins to CB to improve DB depth.  Maybe no reason for alarm, as the Rams offense can make opposing secondaries look bad, and sophs FS Jamal Hicks and CB Robert Awunganti are two of those who picked up valuable experience when forced into action as frosh, and improved as last season progressed.

So, the excitement is about off of the charts in Fort Collins, partly because of the new stadium, and Bobo was confident enough to bypass a sure W in the originally-scheduled home opener vs. Abilene Christian and move Oregon State into its place instead. The Rams will then have less than a week to get ready for a Friday revenge game vs. Colorado in Denver. (The date vs. Abilene Christian was moved to Sept. 9). Then there is a trip to Alabama on September 16, where a Jim McElwain-coached Ram team dd not embarrass itself a few years ago, but there’s a real chance that CSU could open the season at 1-3. Still, given the established firepower and the excitement of the new facility, the Rams could build up some momentum in October before a four-game stretch vs. division foes New Mexico, Air Force, Wyoming, and Boise State that likely decides the Mountain half’s rep for the MW title game. It would not be a surprise if CSU ends up on top of the pile.

Spread-wise, the Rams were one of the best performers in the country last season, sporting a 9-3-1 mark vs. the number, covering all five as a true visitor. Back to McElwain’s first season in 2012, and including Bobo’s two years in charge, the Rams are 20-9-1 vs. the spread as host the past five campaigns (we’ll see if that pointspread mojo carries over to the new stadium). CSU is also working on five straight wins and covers vs. New Mexico since Bob Davie took the Lobo job in 2012.


Has an era really ended at Boise State (2016 SUR 10-3; PSR 3-9-1; O/U 5-8), where Bronco fans have been living the dream for so long that they reacted in disbelief like Hillary Clinton’s crowd at the Javits Center in Manhattan on the night of last November’s election, in shock that their team could have surrendered the Mountain half of the MW two years running? Or lose for a third straight year to Air Force? Or get routed in their bowl game by what appeared to be a disheveled Baylor side? Or have forgotten how to cover pointspreads at home on the blue carpet? (More on the latter in just a moment.)

In truth, no reason for Boise fans to panic, though having surrendered the top spot in the Mountain West the past two seasons does have the Bronco faithful a bit concerned. And maybe the Boise magic is rubbing off just a smidgen. After all, HC Bryan Harsin, with a 31-9 SU mark over the past three seasons, was not able (at least yet) to convert his success with the Broncos into a job in the Pac-12 as did predecessor Chris Petersen, with Harsin not making it to the final cut when Oregon was looking to replace Mark Helfrich in the offseason (South Florida’s Willie Taggart won that assignment instead).

Still, dips in form for Boise are not like dips elsewhere in the Mountain West, or most locales other than Tuscaloosa or Columbus. Indeed, a lot of schools would trade for the Broncos’ 17-7 SU mark the past two seasons. The last time Boise “sagged” in such a manner was in 2013, when the Broncos skidded into the Hawaii Bowl with an 8-4 record and without Petersen, who took the job at Washington before the bowl game. Boise, under interim HC Bob Gregory, lost to Oregon State in Honolulu, but that merely preceded a glorious debut in 2014 for Harsin, who steered the Broncos to a 12-2 mark and a New Year’s Six Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona. Still, it had been a while since Boise was undressed as it was in last December’s Cactus Bowl by Baylor, a rare time the Broncos looked outclassed, and unable to match the Bears’ speed.

Fortunately, that sort of assignment does not seem to await in 2017, at least in the regular season, when the Broncos’ toughest non-league test is probably a game at Pullman vs. a Washington State side that Boise beat a year ago. But the Broncos, who still wear a big target in the MW, have not been able to avoid the occasional banana peel in recent years, and navigating the tricky Mountain half of the loop (teams against which Boise is 4-5 SU its last nine games) will require considerable care.

Harsin returns just 8 starters from last season, split evenly between offense and defense, and while Boise is not about to fall off of the map, it must navigate around some potential problem areas. There is concern that a succession of great Boise RBs might have ended with the graduation of do-everything Jeremy McNichols, who followed the footsteps of Doug Martin and Jay Ajayi to the NFL. But only two RBs on the current roster have played a down for the Broncos, and it’s no sure thing that projected bellcow Alexander Mattison ((328 YR LY) is going to be the next Ajayi or McNichols. There is also not much experienced depth at the WR spots after school career receptions leader Thomas Sperbeck graduated, though lanky sr. Cedric Wilson did catch 56 passes last season and is a likely NFL draftee next April.

A key, however, will be jr. QB Brett Rypien, whose progress seemed to stall at times last season when his decision-making skills came into question despite throwing for 3646 yards. He’ll also be working minus recent supporting cast stalwarts McNichols and Sperbeck. The OL provided better protection last season as the sack total dropped from 31 in 2015 to 19, but only two starters return. Boise’s 33.8 ppg from last season also sounds good, but it ranked only 6th in the MW and was the Broncos’ second-lowest scoring output since 1998.

The defense, an often overlooked element of Boise success over the past two decades, also regressed a bit in 2016, especially in the takeaway category, forcing just nine turnovers all season. The “D” also recorded a nation’s best 17 sacks in its first four games but only notched twelve in the remainder of the season.

Like the offense, only four listed starters from 2016 return, though d.c. Andy Avalos is said to be implementing a more aggressive scheme featuring added blitz packages. If that’s all it takes, why weren’t the Broncos doing some of those things last season? We’re pretty sure that Avalos wasn’t intending to be less aggressive with his 2016 defense, when the platoon allowed only 23.3 ppg, ranking 29th nationally.

Still, there are some playmakers within the ranks. Junior David Moa recorded 8.5 sacks last season from the NT spot and now slides over to DT, which should create more room to create havoc. All-name jr. LB Leighton Vander Esch sounds like a midfielder for Ajax Amsterdam, but is a potential impact performer who was slowed by injuries a year ago. There are also four safeties in the fold who made at least one start last season, and juco CB Michael Young could make an immediate impact. Though one of last year’s top tacklers, LB Joe Martarano, left the team in March to pursue a baseball career.

Throughout the near 20 years of dominance, Boise has seemed to be able to intimidate its conference foes, but we’re not sure that’s the case any longer in the MW, where most opponents (especially those in the Mountain half of the loop) no longer have fear of the Broncos. The schedule is no cinch, either, as the Broncos have road dates at aforementioned Washington State, plus at BYU, San Diego State, and Colorado State this term. The Broncos will still win a lot more than they lose and return to a bowl for the 16th straight season. By Boise standards, however, we’re not sure the 2017 edition will measure up.

Ah yes, about those pointspread failures as host. By now the oddsmakers and wagering public might have realized that the Broncos are consistently overvalued on the blue carpet, but Boise continues to have a hefty premium attached at home, resulting in an 0-6 spread mark at Albertson’s Stadium last year. That sinks the Broncos to 11-27 vs. the line on the blue carpet since late in the 2010 campaign. And, as mentioned, Boise, favored each time, has dropped three in a row SU and four in a row vs. the line against Air Force.

 
Anyone who remembers football at New Mexico (2016 SUR 9-4; PSR 6-7; O/U 10-3) in the Mike Locksley era might be confusing successor Bob Davie with Ulysses S. Grant. Using reconstruction analogies, the comparisons have some basis (if we can indeed compare rebuilding the Lobo football program to rebuilding the nation...just play along for the time being!).

To wit: In the three seasons prior to Davie’s arrival, New Mexico won a total of three games (Locksley actually won just two of those; interim George Barlow gets credit for the other win after Locksley was sent packing early in the 2011 campaign). The demolition job following the forced resignation of Rocky Long (who hasn’t done too badly at San Diego State the past few years) was as complete as any we recall over the past 50 years. Davie would inherit a carcass of a program five years ago, a threadbare roster that would have to count upon some of Long’s last recruits and a few Locksley holdovers plus a cast of newcomers to hold the fort in 2012 while Davie went about shoring up the leaks.

In retrospect, Davie’s embrace of an option-centric “Pistol” formation was a brilliant move, slowing down the games and allowing the Lobos to play some ball control and keep their undermanned defense off of the field. In subsequent years, New Mexico would get so good at its version of the Pistol that it would score too quickly to keep the “D” on the sidelines. That, however, is not a bad problem to have, and last season Davie’s defense finally progressed beyond roadkill status. The result was a 9-4 SU mark and a tie for first in the Mountain half of the MW plus a hometown New Mexico Bowl win over UTSA.

To the surprise of a few MW observers, Davie has decided to stick around for an encore, and maybe several encores, with no plans to hang ‘em up anytime soon. Some regional insiders believed that Davie might leave after rehabilitating the program and taking it to consecutive bowls for the first time since the Long era. Not the worst legacy to leave. But Davie, who was forced out as Notre Dame’s HC after 2001 and spend the next decade working for ESPN, seems to be having so much fun that he wants to stay in Albuquerque a bit longer. Besides, with ESPN making so many cuts, we’re not sure Davie could get his old job back anyway.

Davie looks a good bet to make it three bowls in a row this fall with the core of a prolific offense and the nation’s top-ranked rushing attack back almost intact from a year ago. That would include sr. QB Lamar Jordan, who has been sharing snaps with other Lobo QBs for the past three seasons but looks to have the job all to himself in 2017. Five of the top six rushers from the ground-gobbling juggernaut that gained 350 ypg on the ground a year ago also return to the fold. That would include not only Jordan (who gained 739 YR himself) but also Tyrone Owens and his 1097 YR from 2016. Four starters also return along an experienced OL that helped the Lobos pop for a staggering 129 runs of 10 yards or more.

And Davie was wondering last year if opposing defenses had caught up with the New Mexico version of the Pistol!

Of course, there remains the annual question if the Lobos are going to better balance their attack. Davie and o.c. Bob DeBesse partially addressed that the past two seasons with liberal use of their “passing” QB, the graduated Austin Apodaca, but the thought now is that Jordan is better prepared to put the ball in the air when needed. The Lobos attempted fewer passes than all but four teams last year, but Jordan showed improvement as the season progressed, and in the final two games of the 2016 season competed 7 of 9 passes for 199 yards. That’s about a quarter’s worth of passing for some pass-happy teams but in the case of New Mexico is a noteworthy development. There is much hope that 6'4 WR Delane Hart-Johnson, a big target who runs a 4.6 40-yard dash, can emerge as a dangerous weapon after missing all of last season due to a vertebrae injury. He was the Lobos’ second leading receiver in 2015.

Usually the less said the better about Lobo defenses in recent years, but under d.c. Kevin Cosgrove, New Mexico has progressed beyond the point of getting trampled every week. Far from it; last year, the Lobos allowed 394.8 ypg, not Alabama-like, but good enough to rank 56th in the nation, quite a difference from the platoons that ranked in triple digits in preceding years. Indeed, Cosgrove inherited a stop unit that allowed over 516 ypg in 2013, and in three seasons cut that by more than 120 ypg. Davie believes that improved recruiting will allow his defense to seamlessly replace eight graduated starters, including tackle-machine LB Dakota Cox, who will be spending this summer in the camp of the Minnesota Vikings instead.

Davie and Cosgrove have high hopes for all-name RS frosh DE Teton Saltes and another RS frosh, LB Rhaushaun Epting. There is some experience in the secondary, with past senior rotation pieces such as S Kyle Rothschiller and Jadon Boatright now looking at more snaps, while juco D’Angelo Ross and dynamic athlete soph Elijah Lilly could make an impact on the corners.

The schedule provides an early test in the MW with a date at Boise State on September 16, though remember that the Lobos won the last time they played on the blue carpet in 2015. Otherwise the slate appears manageable (Tulsa the toughest non-MW test, though the Lobos will not overlook rival New Mexico State after getting upset by the Aggies, 32-31, last season). MW West favorite San Diego State, with former Lobo HC Rocky Long, is back on the schedule for the first time since 2014.

Spread-wise, the one area that continues to prove a challenge is that of favorite, as New Mexico is 2-6 its last 8 as chalk. Davie, however, continues to dominate vs. Air Force, covering his fifth straight vs. the Falcs last season, and has won SU the last three and covered the last four vs. Wyoming. Colorado State, however, remains a problem, which has won and covered all five vs. Davie’s New Mexico since 2012.


Don’t expect to get any clues about the prospects for this season’s Air Force (2016 SUR 10-3; PSR 6-7; O/U 8-5) from Falcon HC Troy Calhoun. Call him peculiar, or maybe sly like a fox, Calhoun treats discussions about his football team as if he is guarding national security secrets. No question about his team ever generates more than a basic answer. Scribes who have covered the Force for their newspapers have long been frustrated at the antics of Calhoun, who is so averse to providing bulletin board material for foes that he hardly provides any material at all.

We have always thought that Calhoun reminded us of a CIA officer, or one of the many spooks one finds around Washington, D.C. Had Calhoun not decided upon a career in football coaching, we’re sure he would have been well-suited to a secretive job in national security. (Who knows, maybe he has a job on the side?)

Calhoun, however, has also proven he can coach up a storm after yet another banner season with the Force in 2016, recording 10 wins and another bowl triumph (vs. South Alabama in the Arizona Bowl). Calhoun has averaged nearly 8 wins over his ten seasons in charge, putting him on pace with predecessor, mentor, and College FB HOF inductee Fisher DeBerry. Calhoun has also had the Falcs “bowling” in nine of his ten seasons in charge, the only miss in 2013 when injuries ravaged the Force and a 2-10 record ensued.

The recipe has remained much the same with the Falcs since the Kenny Hatfield days of the early ‘80s, and subsequently DeBerry, with an option-based offense and swarming defense. Calhoun, who played at AFA in the ‘80s and coached under DeBerry, has tweaked the offense and added several more wrinkles over the years. But the prospect of returning back to the Falcs’ pure option roots in 2017 must have Hatfield and DeBerry wearing big smiles these days.

Junior QB Aaron Worthman is one of the reasons. Taking over starting duties midway thru last season, Worthman effectively saved the campaign for the Falcs, piloting six straight wins down the stretch, culminating in the bowl romp. There wasn’t much mystery to the Force attack with Worthman, who was definitely not afraid to call his own number. In his first 28 snaps as the starting QB, Worthman carried the ball 19 times. In his six starts, he averaged 22 carries. And the offense attempted just 7.6 passes pg with Worthman at the controls. Still, the Force scored better than 38 ppg in Worthman’s starts. Somewhere, Marty Louthan, the option-master QB for Hatfield’s teams in the early ‘80s, is managing a big smile.

Indeed, Worthman reminds many of recent Navy signal-caller Keenan Reynolds, but it provides some comfort to Calhoun that backup QB Nate Romine, a better passer, also has starting experience. Wear-and-tear on Force QBs is part of the job description, and Calhoun has often had to use multiple signal-callers in the past. He has two QBs he can trust this fall.

Still, Worthman could work a bit on his pocket skills and getting the ball downfield after missing several wide-open targets last season. And that was with the mercurial but now graduated Jalen Robinette, the best Falc receiver since Ernie Jennings in the Ben Martin era. Last season he accounted for more than half of the team’s catches (35, big stuff for a Force WR) and receiving yards (959, and a staggering 27.4 yards per catch), and was the only wideout to catch a TD pass om 2016. We’d say those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Junior Jake Matkovich is most likely to emerge as Robinette’s successor, though Worthman and/or Romine will also likely make better use of TE Ryan Reffitt, who also has the capacity to go deep and double as a vicious blocker.

There have been seasons in which Calhoun has had to replace his OL en masse, but he welcomes back three starters from a forward wall that helped pave the way for 317 ypg on the ground a year ago and a No. 3 ranking in national rush stats. A usual group of slashing runners is also on hand, led by Tim McVey, who gained a school-record 8.4 ypc last season and already has 26 career TDs. Along with Worthman (who added 674 YR in a bit more than half of last season), the Falcs should have another devastating infantry.

Now the bad news. The “D” lost almost everyone from a scrappy platoon that ranked 10th vs. the run and 33rd in total defense in 2016. Coordinator Steve Russ must replace 12 of the top 13 tacklers from last season, as only sr. LB Grant Ross saw much playing time last season. Still, there is potential with stout, thick soph NT Mosese Fifita, who could be the Force’s first-ever 300-pounder. Most of last year’s backups now get their shot in starting roles, included sr. DE Santo (Francis Ford) Coppola, the star of spring drills. Russ is also keeping close tabs on jr. LB R.J. Jackson, who hinted at becoming a force prior to an ACL injury; his recovery to prior form will be crucial. But the secondary is loaded with inexperience and must replace one of the all-time service academy hitters, all-name S Weston Steelhammer.

The non-conference schedule, as always, is highlighted by Commander-in-Chief games vs. Army & Navy, rivals both beaten by the Falcs in 2016. As usual, retaining the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is the top priority. Calhoun will also have a chance to match wits with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh when the Force visits Ann Arbor on September 16. The Mountain half of the MW, however, is by far the tougher half of the loop, and Calhoun will be doing extremely well to match last season’s 10 wins. Regressing a bit would be no surprise, though we expect Calhoun to reach another bowl game in December.

Spread-wise, Calhoun has resurrected his underdog prowess from earlier in his AFA tenure; the Falcs are 10-4 getting points since 2014. Calhoun has also owned Boise State since the Broncos entered the MW in 2013, with the Falcs covering all four and winning the last three outright, each as a dog. Calhoun, however, is 0-5 vs. the line against New Mexico since Bob Davie took over the Lobos in 2012.


It’s not hard to figure out why Wyoming (2016 SUR 8-6; PSR 9-4-1; O/U 9-5) has resurrected its football program. Anyone who has spent time around Cowboy HC Craig Bohl is not surprised by the recent success in Laramie. Indeed, it has been said by attendees of various college conference media days that Bohl is the one coach they would like to play for if they could return to college. Honest to a fault and with no-nonsense demeanor, Bohl is easy to trust, cuts through coach-speak, and the often distasteful hype and self-promotion that afflicts many in his profession.

Bohl, of course, did not arrive empty-handed in Laramie back in 2014. Three previous FCS/Div. I-A titles at North Dakota State had made Bohl something of a legend at the lower levels. Bohl’s roots at Nebraska have also caused many Husker backers to wonder if he might eventually become the coach in Lincoln (for some, sooner rather than later with the Mike Riley regime yet to ignite).

Wyo fans, however, might not have to worry about Bohl leaving Laramie anytime soon. According to the coach himself, his preferred style could only play and flourish at a locale such as Wyo. Which is a special place for Bohl, recommended long ago by Nebraska coaching legend and Bohl mentor Bob Devaney, who was already Husker AD when Bohl played as an undergrad for Tom Osborne in the late ‘70s. Devaney, of course, had coached at Wyoming before his HOF career at Nebraska. “He (Devaney) told me what a special place Wyoming was, and how the right coach with the right style could win in Laramie,” said Bohl at last summer’s Mountain West Media Days. (Bohl’s contract was also upgraded and extended thru 2023 after last season.)

When watching Wyo, you get the idea of what Bohl is taking about. Nothing too fancy-shamncy on offense for the Cowboys, who prefer a straight-ahead power running game with the traditional two backs, and the QB usually lined up directly behind the center. No spreads or Air Raids, Shotguns or Pistols. It’s a lot like watching a Bob Devaney Cornhusker offense in 1970, with Jerry Tagge handing off to Joe Orduna or Jeff Kinney.

Which brings us to last season, when the Bohl formula finally began to produce dividends. After slowly putting the program together in his image the previous two years, 2016 was a breakthrough campaign, as the Cowboys tied for the top spot in the competitive Mountain half of the MW and won the crown on tiebreakers, qualifying to host the league title game. That was a bitter 27-24 loss to a San Diego State side that the Cowboys had beaten just two weeks earlier. Along the way Wyo beat main Mountain contenders Boise State, Colorado State, and Air Force, and would qualify for what would be the final Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, losing a narrow 24-21 decision to BYU.

While convinced that Bohl is the real deal and the perfect fit at Wyo, we’re not sure the Cowboys are going to have things fall their way in the same manner this fall. Wyo was involved in an inordinate number of close games (eight decided by one score), won games by 1 and 2 points, and another in OT. The difference between winning the Mountain half of the MW and a bowl miss was narrow. It was no accident that Wyo won most of those close games, but the Cowboys might have an even lesser margin for error this fall.

The offense, however, should be in good hands with jr. QB Josh Allen, projected by many as a potential NFL first-round pick, if not the first player taken in next April’s draft. At 6'5 and 230 pounds with a rocket arm that passed for 3203 yards and 28 TDs last fall, and a rough-hewn style that helped him gained another 523 yards rushing a year ago, Allen proved the difference in several Wyo wins last season. The former juco (who missed 2015 due to injury), however, is not yet a finished product, completing only 56% of his passes a year ago and also tossing 15 picks. Moreover, he will be proceeding minus sidekick RB Brian Hill, a punishing runner in the Bohl mode who ranked third nationally with 1860 YR in 2016 before being taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the recent NFL draft. Shaun Wick, who gained over 2000 YR in his Laramie career, has also departed, so Bohl and o.c. Brent Vigen likely employ a RB-by-committee approach in the fall, with jr. Nico Evans and sophs Kellen Overstreet and Milo Hall the best bets to get the most carries.

Four starters return along the OL, but All-MW C Chase Roullier has graduated and leaves a considerable void. Soph Gavin Rush moved from a tackle spot to Roullier’s old position in spring. Allen also lost his top three receivers from last season, and returnees caught only 4 of last season’s 29 TD passes (and one of those TDs was by QB Allen), though soph C.J. Johnson, the leading returning receiver, ought to exceed the 21 passes he caught last year.

The return of nine starters on defense is not necessarily a good thing after the Pokes ranked 101st nationally in scoring (34 ppg) and 104th in total defense, equally leaky vs. the run (ranked 92nd) and pass (ranked 88th). Bohl, who watched New Mexico run roughshod with 568 yards on the ground and saw UNLV churn for another 401 last fall, might have been tempted to not invite back some of the players but was displeased enough that he let loose of d.c Steve Stanard, enlisting an old friend from his staffs at ND State, Scottie Hazelton, who had been working as the NFL Jacksonville Jags’ LB coach the past three years and with Mountain West roots after serving as Brian Polian’s first d.c at Nevada in 2013, as his new coordinator.

The experience on the platoon along with Hazelton’s nous has a chance to improve the stop unit, though it would help of disruptive 6'5 DE Carl Granderson returns at 100% at tearing an MCL midway thru last season. The other DE, jr. Kevin Prosser, led Wyo in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (11) last season. There is plenty of seasoning in the secondary where all four starters return. The tag-team partnership at the safety spots with jrs. Marcus Epps and Andrew Wingard begins its third season alongside one another in the lineup. The “D” was definitely opportunistic a year ago, upping its takeaways from 10 in 2015 to 27, so it thankfully did one thing right, but now must step up and show some sterner stuff vs. the run and pass.

There are enough winnable dates on the slate (including Gardner-Webb and Texas State in non-MW -play) to get Wyo back to a bowl for the first time in back-to-back years since the Paul Roach era in 1987-88, but the Cowboys will be underdogs at Iowa and likely as well at home vs. Oregon in other non-league tilts, and plays in the far-tougher half of the Mountain West. An October 21 date at revenge-minded Boise State looks a tough assignment in a matchup crucial to Wyo’s hopes to retain its Mountain half crown. We suspect Bohl does enough to get back to a bowl, but in the more competitive half of the MW finishes a bit up the track.

Spread-wise, Bohl has succeeded in turning War Memorial Stadium into a fortress, as the Cowboys are 7-0-1 vs. the line their last eight at 7200 feet dating to late 2015. The bogey team for Bohl remains New Mexico, which has won and covered all three meetings since 2014.


It wasn’t long ago that Utah State (2016 SUR 3-9; PSR 3-9; O/U 6-6) was regarded as one of the punching bags of the region. And that was long before the Utags moved into the Mountain West. The WAC, and briefly before that, the Sun Belt even proved too much for the Logan-based bunch.

At that point, most had forgotten that USU had once upon a time produced a steady stream of talent into pro football, including the iconic Merlin Olsen in the early ‘60s for teams coached by John Ralston, who would move to Stanford and eventual glory in 1963. For two years, Olsen teamed with future Green Bay Packer DE Lionel Aldridge on the line. Future Jets and Broncos PK Jim Turner was a Utag who also played some QB in Logan. Other notable NFL Aggies were QB Bill Munson and RB Altie Taylor, and a few years later, QB Eric Hipple & DE Rulon Jones.

So there was some history with Utah State football even though the Aggies were losing a lot in the 2000s, at one point going 14 years between bowl visits. A stream of coaches that included Mick Dennehy and Brent Guy could not win in Logan until former Utah d.c. Gary Andersen turned the program around in 2011, and two years later passed the baton to o.c. Matt Wells, who kept the momentum going for a few more seasons. Five straight bowl visits confirmed the Ags as a force in the region.

Wells, however, hit a speed bump in 2016 after his first three Utag editions all went “bowling.” Not last year, however, as a succession of close losses, poorly timed injuries, and a mostly-stagnant offense conspired for a drop to 3-9 and buried in the basement of the Mountain half of the MW. The only conference win came at the expense of Fresno State, which didn’t beat an FBS opponent all season. Suddenly, Wells, who was on the speed-dial of several ADs at higher-profile schools, is looking over his shoulder and wondering if the war drums are about to start beating in Logan. The intense USU fan base, which extends throughout the Beehive State, would rather not return to the days of Dennehy and Guy.

Realizing that the “O” needed a pick-me-up, Wells made staff adjustments in the offseason, with his major coaching recruit being new o.c. Kevin Yost, known as much for his floppy head of hair as his preference for uptempo offense, honed during a long stint with Gary Pinkel, including three years as Missouri’s o.c., before working on staffs at Washington State (under Mike Leach) and Oregon in recent years. Tasked with speeding up the attack and opening up the passing game, Yost will be working with a sr. QB, Kent Myers, a dual-threat who seemed to plateau last season. Myers passed for nearly 2400 yards but for only 10 TDs. An experienced receiving corps should help, as nine of the top eleven pass-catchers return from last fall, including the top two, wideouts Ron’quavion Tarver (46 catches in 2016) and Rayshad Lewis (40 receptions LY). Former QB Damian Hobbs has been moved to TE and impressed in spring.

Completing a mostly-full cast of returning skill players is slashing RB Tonny Lindsey (763 YR), with competition provided this fall by all-name juco transfer Eltoro Allen. Meanwhile, the elusive Myers (449 YR in 2016) remains a threat escaping the pocket. The OL, however, was a recurring problem area last season, and only one starter (RT Preston Brooksby) returns. JC additions could man as many as three of the other OL spots, with BYU grad transfer Quin Ficklin likely taking over at C, but problems up front contributed to a downturn in third-down efficiency, and the kicking game was subpar to say the least, especially net punting (33.4 yard average) ranking 125th. Those shortcomings were further exposed in the many close losses a year ago for the Utags, who were 0-4 in games decided by 7 points or fewer.

After several years of stout work by the stop unit, the platoon sagged last season, and now faces a significant overhaul up front, where new starters will be needed to fill the DL spots in the Utags’ 3-4 looks. A number of former role players will be expected to step into the breach. Teams ran effectively on USU a year ago when the Ags conceded more than 200 ypg, ranking a lowly 91st vs. the rush.

The strength of the platoon appears to be in the secondary, where a couple of seniors, CB Jalen Davis and SS Dallin Leavitt, are expected to contend for All-MW honors. But the defense as a whole is in need of playmakers and forced just ten turnovers the entirety of 2016; only three teams in the nation had fewer.

The Utags have caught a bit of a bad break in that their Mountain half of the MW has turned into the power base of the conference; the other five Mountain reps all went “bowling” last season. Unfortunately, they’re all still on the schedule this term. September road dates at “Big Five” entries Wisconsin and Wake Forest, both bowl winners last season, plus the annual grudge match vs. BYU suggest that soft dates will be few and far between this season. Perhaps new o.c. Yost has a Felix-the-Cat-like magic bag of tricks to unleash upon USU foes, but a return to bowl-eligibility is thus no sure thing. As for HC Wells, he needs to prevent further erosion in the program or risk his name being completely erased from the various coaching “flavor of the month” lists he has frequented in recent years.

Spread-wise, the Utags are a long way from the days when they were a pointspread terror for Andersen, and in Wells’ first two seasons. That’s all a distant memory now as USU is 3-14 vs. the spread since late in the 2015 season. The Utags have also dropped 9 of their last 10 vs. the line away from Logan.

NEXT UP: PAC 12


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