No. 81 Idaho
Idaho might be transitioning to the FCS but they're far from a second-tier program. After a miserable stretch of five total wins between 2011-14, the Vandals improved to four victories in 2015 and were shot out of a cannon in 2016, winning nine games.
Don't get fixated on Idaho's FCS drop, or even a roster that lost two dozen key contributors; they will reach bowl eligibility and might even flirt with nine wins again.
2016 Record: 9-4 (6-2, Sun Belt)
They scored at least 33 points in even of the wins, held three of their final five opponents to 14 points or fewer and ended the season on a five-game winning streak.
Head Coach: Paul Petrino (5th year, 15-33 overall)
A longtime FBS assistant, Paul Petrino accepted of the most difficult jobs in the FBS when he took over the Vandals in 2013.
Two years removed from his second-straight one-win season (and third-straight for the program), Paul Petrino delivered nine victories and just the third bowl appearance in program history. And suddenly the 50-year-old is once again the subject of whispers for a promotion.
Key Returning Offensive Players
Matt Linehan returns for his senior campaign after completing better than 61 percent of his passes the last two seasons. Though he still threw at least 10 interceptions for the third-straight year, the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder closed 2016 with two impressive, efficient games against Georgia State and Colorado State.
In the two wins, he went 36-for-50 for 507 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, and has been lauded for his command of the offense.
“He just kind of has that energy, that flame,” said tight end Buck Cowan last year. “It just kind of builds off guys. They see it and they want to get going too. He brings that off-the-field charisma into the huddle, and it definitely helps me personally and I think it helps other guys as well.”
Linehan's top two rushers return in Saunders and Duckworth. Saunders, now a junior, exploded in the second of the season, rushing for 563 yards and eight touchdowns in their final five games, including 147 and three scores in the bowl victory over CSU.
The duo lost all-conference center Steve Matlock but they'll still have all-conference-caliber blockers in Jordan Rose and guard Noah Johnson. Johnson played very well as a true freshman.
Linehan's top three receiving targets are gone, though he does get back four seniors with experience, namely Alfonso Onunwor. The JUCO transfer had 39 catches for 403 yards in his first year with the Vandals.
Key Returning Defensive Players
Idaho lost seven starters but not their most important one, defensive end Aikeem Coleman.
The JUCO transfer was the Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year after leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He's joined in the front seven by three returning senior linebackers, led by leading tackler Tony Lashley.
Lashley, a 6-foot-1, 236-pound junior, exploded in 2016, racking up 105 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries. He, Ed Hall and Kaden Elliss — the latter of whom is terrific in pass coverage — are seeking to drop the Vandals' scoring average from 31.3 points.
“We’re way faster,” Petrino said of their defense, referencing a secondary led by senior Armond Hawkins and junior Dorian Clark, who returns from injury that kept him out all of 2016.
Clark had 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, five passes defended and one interception as a sophomore the year prior.
Notable Player Losses
As mentioned, Matt Linehan lost his top lineman Steve Matlock and top three receiving targets, including two senior tight ends in Buck Cowan and Deon Watson. The pair combined for 2,417 yards and 20 touchdowns the last two seasons. They would've loved another season from receiver Jordan Frysinger, a 5-foot-10 speedster who averaged nearly 18 yards per catch.
Defensively, the most notable losses come in secondary with the departures Jayshawn Jordan and D.J. Hampton. They ranked first and second in passes defended and combined for eight of the team's 17 interceptions.
Austin Rekhow handled both punting and kicking duties for most of the last four years. He departed Moscow with a 96.4 clip on PATs, 76.1 percent on field goals and 44.4-yard average on punts.
Notable Player Additions
RB Dylan Thigpen,OT Carlos Collado III, C Conner Vrba
Idaho is set at running back but they'll still gladly take talented freshman Dylan Thigpen. He redshirted last year and will provide relief for Saunders and Duckworth in 2017.
Up front, two more youngsters will make an impact in redshirt freshman center Conner Vrba and true freshman tackle Carlos Collado. Both are Idaho natives who are competing for starting jobs on a retooled offensive line.
Idaho's 2017 schedule is laced with back-to-back home and away games. After opening the season with FCS Sacramento State and UNLV, they have tricky matchups against Western Michigan and South Alabama.
|Thursday, Aug. 31
|vs. Sacramento State
|Saturday, Sept. 9
|Saturday, Sept. 16
|at Western Michigan
|Saturday, Sept. 23
|at South Alabama
|Saturday, Oct. 7
|vs. UL Lafayette
|Saturday, Oct. 14
|vs. Appalachian State
|Saturday, Oct. 21
|Saturday, Oct. 28
|vs. UL Monroe
|Thursday, Nov. 2
|Saturday, Nov. 18
|vs. Coastal Carolina
|Saturday, Nov. 25
|at New Mexico State
|Saturday, Dec. 2
|at Georgia State