No. 23 Boise State
How in the world did Boise State manage to open fall camp as an under-the-radar team?
They've lost 29 games over the last 15 years, are coming off a 10-win season — their 12th in over that same time — and return one of the nation's best quarterback-receiver duos.
2016 Record: 10-3 (6-2, Mountain West)
After winning nine games in 2016 — just their third non-double-digit-win season since 2002 — Boise State quickly returned to double digits with a 10-3 season. However, they still lost two conference games, giving them five such losses the last two years, the highest two-year total as an FBS program.
They went 10-3. This was not a bad season. But when you're a program like Boise State, these minor losing outliers are noticed.
Head Coach: Bryan Harsin (4th year, 31-9 overall)
Bryan Harsin said it took a "millisecond" for him to begin dreaming of a return to his alma mater following the departure of Chris Petersen in 2013. While it was a terrific job and huge opportunity, he and everyone else knew how difficult it would be replace a man who won 88 percent of his games over eight seasons.
Harsin has more them kept the Broncos afloat, winning 31 games in three seasons, including the Mountain West Championship and Fiesta Bowl in 2014. Now the 40-year-old find himself and the program in rare territory as an underdog with skeptics galore.
“I don’t think we have to sit there and say we have the target on our back or that we’re the underdog,” Harsin said this summer. “But what I do know is we have a lot to prove.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Brett Rypien, RB Alexander Mattison, RB Ryan Wolpin, WR Cedrick Wilson, OT Archie Lewis, C Mason Hampton
Boise State's offense ranked 21st nationally — and first in the Mountain West — in total yards and 13th in third-down conversion rate. Yet they aveaged 33.8 points per game, sixth in the conference and 38th in the FBS.
Eighteen turnovers and a 84.6-percent red-zone conversion rate crushed quick-moving drives. New play-caller Zak Hill (offensive coordinator) is trying to make them more consistent on all areas of the field. The biggest weapon at his disposal is junior quarterback Brett Rypien.
He has completed 62 percent of his passes for more than 3,300 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons.
As good and reliable as running back Jeremy McNichols was last year, he carried a whopping 314 times, accounting for nearly all of their ground production and leaving them inexperienced for 2017. Alexander Mattison is their only returning running back who had more than 15 carries for 60 yards, though it's senior Ryan Wolpin who could be their starter Week 1.
“To be honest I would say Ryan is ahead of Alexander as of right now,” running backs coach Lee Marks said this week. “He went through the whole spring as the guy so going into fall camp I’m going to let Ryan try to keep his job and do some things.
The departures of McNichols and leading receiver Thomas Sperbeck are big reasons the Broncos return less than 59 percent of the offensive yards from 2016 (78th nationally). Rypien does get back senior Cedrick Wilson, a former JUCO transfer who averaged 20.2 yards per catch (56 catches for 1,129 yards).
The offensive line returns two starters, both seniors in center Mason Hampton and left tackle Archie Lewis.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT David Moa, DE/LB Jabril Frazier, LB Leighton Vander Esch, CB Tyler Horton
When Boise State lines up against Troy on Sept. 2, they could have zero senior starters. Of their six all-conference defenders, tackle David Moa is the only returnee. He led the team with 8.5 sacks and added 10.5 tackles for loss.
"We’re young,” Moa said. “But we’re hungry.”
They're particularly hungry for more turnovers after creating just nine last year — seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries. They forced 31 in both 2015 and 2016.
“We lost a lot of leaders from last year but it makes it better for guys to step up and become leaders," Moa added. "We have a lot of young guys that are hungry and when they are hungry they want to learn. They are all paying attention and trying to perfect their craft.”
One in-between player is junior corner Tyler Horton (below). The 5-foot-11, 178-pound junior is transitioning from a promising young star to veteran leader. He had nine passes defended in 2016.
Jabril Frazier returns at stud, their hybrid linebacker/end position responsible for mass disruption. He had five tackles for loss and four sacks as a sophomore. He'll be flanked by weak-side linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who's been limited to 14 games in two seasons due to injuries.
Notable Player Losses
RB Jeremy McNichols, WR Thomas Sperbeck, OT Mario Yakoo, G Travis Averill, DE Sam McCaskill, LB Tanner Vallejo, LB Ben Weaver, CB Jonathan Moxey, S Chanceller James
The Broncos only had two players drafted — Jeremy McNichols and Tanner Vallejo — but they lost many other key contributors at every level on both sides of the ball (except quarterback).
Thomas Sperbeck and his 3,600 career receiving yards are gone, as are First-Team All-Mountain West offensive linemen Mario Yahoo and Travis Averill.
Defensively, leading tackler Ben Weaver graduated after racking up 327 tackles and 13 tackles for loss in his career. Safety Chanceller James led an interception-challenged unit with three picks, and Jonathan Moxey had 13 passes defended.
Notable Player Additions
RB Drake Beasley, OT Ezra Cleveland, LB Desmond Williams, CB Mike Young
Three new players could start immediately in redshirt freshmen Ezra Cleveland and Desmond Williams and JUCO transfer Mike Young. Williams is competing with senior Gabe Perez for the strong-side linebacker spot.
Drake Beasley is a true freshman running back from California who passed on offers from Colorado and UCLA, among others. Look for coordinator Zak Hill to use Beasley creatively as a true all-purpose player.
After opening the season at home against Troy, Boise State visits Washington State, whom they beat, 31-28, last September.
They play non-Saturday games for three consecutive weeks, a stretch that includes a trip to BYU on Friday, Oct. 6.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Troy|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Washington State|
|Thursday, Sept. 14||vs. New Mexico|
|Friday, Sept. 22||vs. Virginia|
|Friday, Oct. 6||at BYU|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at San Diego State|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Wyoming|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Utah State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Nevada|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Colorado State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Air Force|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Fresno State|