If we're talking honestly about who the National Underdog should be, there is but one candidate: the Idaho Vandals. Scoffed at by their more successful neighbors as both drunk and uncivilized ... cast aside as a one-time conference mate of USC, et al, because they weren't competitive enough ... led by a coach whose glorious voice sounds like that of a 1980s professional wrestler ... forced by circumstance to play their games both in potato country (the most American of vegetables for their innate fryability), and in a football stadium that resembles a beautiful cross between a basketball field house and a plant that processes frozen french fries. That's about as American as it gets, right?
Idaho Coach Robb Akey is an incredibly likable, hilariously gruff coach who gives football fans everything they would want in an underdog. But he'll need to give Idaho fans a few more wins this fall. The Vandals rode some luck and timing to a blessed 2009 season that included a 5-1 record in close games and a dramatic win over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl, but they have now lost 14 of their last 18 games (including six of their last close games), most of their skill position players, and most of their defensive front seven.
Akey's Vandals have trended in the wrong direction recently, and it is difficult to tell exactly how much time he's going to get to right the ship, especially if his squad sinks in the new WAC.
From last year's preview again:
This is an enjoyable team. They wing the ball around on offense, they attack (for better or worse) on defense, and their coach is fantastically fun to listen to in interviews. But are they capable of actually playing good football? How good? Our Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections are not optimistic about Idaho's prospects this year, giving them just a 13% chance of reaching bowl eligibility.
While we got plenty of projections wrong, this one was dead-on correct. Idaho was nature's balance to Wyoming's "win every close game" high-wire act. The Vandals finished just seven spots behind the Cowboys in the F/+ rankings (110th to 103rd), and they lost almost as many games by double digits as Wyoming did (they lost six, Wyoming five), but while Dave Christensen's Cowboys thrived in the clutch, going 5-0 in one-possession games, Idaho balanced things out by going 1-4. The Vandals would have needed to win all five close games to reach just 6-6, of course. They fell victim to a myriad of slow starts and were blown out frequently; and while they occasionally rebounded -- they came back from 22-7 down to beat San Jose State, 32-29 -- in all, they limped to a relatively hopeless 2-10 season.
Close games make such an enormous difference, especially at the mid-major level where overall talent is rather similar across the board. As mentioned above, Idaho went 5-1 in close games when they were making their 2009 bowl run, and they have paid for the good luck ever since. Meanwhile, Wyoming has bounced from 6-0 in such games in 2009, to 2-3 in 2010, to 5-0 again last year. Idaho has some interesting attackers on defense, and its line play is solid on both sides of the ball. But the Vandals were unable to generate easy scores last year, and it hurt them considerably.
At first glance, 2012 doesn't appear to be any different in that regard.
Idaho's solid 2009 run was fueled by a downright strong offense. The Vandals ranked 24th in Off. F/+, converted passing downs at a strangely (and, evidently, unsustainable) high level and scored at least 29 points nine times.
In 2011, they scored at least 29 points just three times and were held to 15 or fewer six times. They immediately fell into passing downs (they ranked 120th, dead last, in First Down S&P+). They had no hope for big plays (they ranked 116th in PPP+ and 118th on standard downs). Their slow starts were devastating (2.4 yards per play versus Texas A&M until a garbage-time touchdown drive, 2.9 yards per play over their first 11 drives versus San Jose State, 1.7 yards per play in their first seven drives versus BYU). And if slow starts put them on shaky ground, turnovers finished them off; they committed four (worth 18.9 Equivalent Points) in a seven-point loss to New Mexico State and four (worth 21.8) in a 13-point loss to Louisiana Tech.
Former Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser, just 32 years old, takes over as Akey's offensive coordinator this year, and to say the least, he has plenty of work to do. Do you start with a quarterback position split between newcomers and an entirely ineffective backup? A complete lack of explosiveness in the skill positions? A rebuilt offensive line that has to replace three starters?
Quarterback. Last year's starter, Brian Reader, departs, leaving behind a race between junior Taylor Davis (234 yards, 45.2 percent completion rate, 1-to-4 TD-to-INT rate, 10.1 percent sack rate) and one-time Washington signee and enormous junior college transfer Dominique Blackman (6'5, 274 pounds). Technically incoming freshman Austin DeCoud could also factor into the race if neither Davis nor Blackman takes advantage of opportunities offered to them this spring.
Explosiveness. Three of last year's top four running backs, and one of the top two receivers have departed. That might not be a huge loss, as aside from occasional bursts from running backs Princeton McCarty and Kama Bailey, there were no playmakers. Z-receiver Mike Scott (691 yards, 6.0 adj. yards per target) is a decent possession receiver, but the Vandals desperately need someone to create some easy scores, and unless Arizona State transfer Ryan Bass is that guy (Bass struggled through injuries and averaged just 4.0 yards per carry last year), I'm not sure they have one on the roster.
Offensive Line. The line was easily the strength of last year's offense, ranking 62nd in Adj. Sack Rate and 103rd in Adj. Line Yards. Their sack rate might have been even better without Davis involved -- starter Brian Reader was sacked just 5.6 percent of the time. Sophomore center Mike Marboe and junior guard Jordan Johnson are promising (each was a rare three-star signee for the Vandals), but UI will need contributions from either newcomers or last year's scrubs.
Gessar is an intriguing hire, but he doesn't appear to have much to work with in his first fall as coordinator in Moscow.
Comparatively speaking, the Idaho defense was rather solid in 2011.
The line stood up beautifully to the run, which led to solid rushing numbers, but with no hope for generating a pass rush, opponents passed on them quite a bit (and quite successfully) on standard downs. Once they had leveraged opponents into passing downs, however, Idaho teed off. They ranked 37th in Passing Downs Success Rate+, easily one of their best overall rankings on either side of the ball. In all, Idaho's defense got better as both the game and a set of downs advanced. They fell victim to the occasional draw play, but overall, this was a solid attacking defense -- 12 tackles for loss versus Hawaii, 10 versus Virginia -- when it gave itself the opportunity to attack.
The personality should remain similar in 2012, even though quite a few names will change in the front seven. Gone is middle linebacker Tre'Shawn Robinson, who made over 12 percent of Idaho's tackles last year and racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, along with strongside missile Korey Toomer, who made 10.5 tackles for loss and broke up four passes. They were the two best defensive playmakers last year, though they were probably asked to make a few too many plays by a line that was decent at occupying blockers but made very few plays itself. Idaho should get a boost, however, from the return of senior Robert Siavii, a speedy linebacker who made 12 tackles for loss and forced four fumbles in 2010 but missed last season with a knee injury. (We're going to assume he's still speedy after the knee injury.)
The Vandals ranked 66th in Adj. Line Yards, suggesting that line play was a reasonable strength, at least against the run. The line loses two of its three best ends and one starting tackle, but there is solid rebound potential here. Former three-star recruit and future action movie star Maxx Forde will likely play a larger role at end alongside Benson Mayowa (4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles), while fellow three-star sophomore Dontae Scott is a favorite to replace Mike Cosgrove at tackle. Idaho was relatively big and slow up front, able to stand up to run blocking but unable to generate a pass rush without blitzing; that should be the story again in 2012. And if Siavii and weakside linebacker Conrad Scheidt (eight tackles for loss, three forced fumbles) are able to match Robinson's and Toomer's playmaking, that might be alright.
While the front seven must prove it can fill in some holes, the secondary is deeper than it has been in a couple of years. Yes, two starters (strong safety Quin Ashley, cornerback Matthew Harvey) depart, but free safety Gary Walker (88.0 tackles, four tackles for loss, three passes broken up) and corner Aaron Grymes (seven passes broken up, one interception) return. Plus, senior safety Thaad Thompson is back after missing 2011 to injury, the entire second string returns (including an interesting safety in Bradley Njoku), and a pair of three-star freshmen -- Jayshawn Jordan and Ma'ne Manaea -- arrive to help out this fall. The secondary was asked to bail out the front seven quite a bit, and while that may be the case again in 2012, it should be able to do its job a bit more capably this time around.
The best-case scenario for Idaho in 2012 is pretty obvious: generate one or two more big plays per game, take advantage of opportunities in close games, and wipe the floor with the weaker teams on your schedule. Idaho hosts Eastern Washington (a quality FCS opponent, but still an FCS opponent), Wyoming, New Mexico State, San Diego State and UT-San Antonio this season. Plus, they face at least one winnable road game at Texas State. Win those six (or balance out a slip-up with an upset, say, at Bowling Green or Utah State), and you're going bowling. The Vandals have almost no margin for error whatsoever -- with four almost sure losses at LSU, North Carolina, BYU and Louisiana Tech, they must win six of the eight other games -- but this has to be considered the goal nonetheless.
As I have mentioned plenty of times, I have a soft spot for all perpetual underdogs; when said underdog features an insanely likable coach and plays its games in something called the Kibbie Dome, it's all the better. I have hope for Akey and the Vandals moving forward, but one has to acknowledge that their odds for success in 2012 are minimal.
They just have no explosiveness on offense, and unless Dominique Blackman is able to make an instant impact, their given starting quarterback is unlikely to maintain longer drives without making mistakes. The defense will have to dominate, but it is only capable of dominating on second- or third-and-long (but only marginally capable of getting to second- or third-and-long).
Good luck, Coach Robb P.S. Akey. You're going to need it.