Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
So much of football is about giving yourself margin for error, and even in a resurgent Mountain West, Boise State has more of it than anyone else.
In 2018, the Broncos were without stud free safety DeAndre Pierce and senior defensive tackle David Moa. They lost linebacker and anchor Riley Whimpey to a knee injury in November. Seemingly every other key defensive contributor missed time with injury.
As a result, BSU’s defense regressed ... to 38th in Def. S&P+, still one of the best marks in the Group of 5. The offense stayed mostly in one piece and rose from 64th to 18th in Off. S&P+.
BSU won at least 10 games for the 16th time in 20 years and topped a historically good Utah State to win the MWC Mountain. A historically good Fresno State needed overtime in Boise to take the conference crown.
This time, four-year starting quarterback Brett Rypien is gone, as are 1,400-yard rusher Alexander Mattison and leading receivers Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson. The defense does return quite a bit, and plenty of players got more experience than expected due to injuries, but BSU has to replace pass rusher Jabril Frazier, Horton, and an excellent run stuffer in Maeva. More importantly, they have to replace an excellent coordinator in Andy Avalos, who took the Oregon DC job.
For most G5 programs, that might be too much to overcome. But Boise State is projected to improve to 24th in S&P+. The Broncos are a projected favorite in every game, and only three are particularly close.
This level of stability is just ridiculous:
Boise State doesn’t win the MWC every year, and it’s actually been a few years since the Broncos were atop the G5 rankings. But BSU is the known entity. The Broncos are going to win double-digit games, lap most of the G5 field in recruiting, and compete for the NY6 bowl bid.
The end of the Rypien era does come with a smidge of regret, though. BSU averaged more than 35 points per game over the last four years, twice ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 30, and twice finished in the AP top 25, but won only one conference title. Their best bowl was a 2017 Las Vegas Bowl appearance.
I can talk all I want about ridiculous consistency, but you expect more than that over a four-year span. And with the way 2018 began — a 36-point win over a good Troy, a 62-7 destruction of UConn, and a quick rise to 13th in S&P+ — winning only 10 games and finishing 28th felt like a letdown.
These are still nice problems to have, as far as G5 programs are concerned. A new era of sorts begins in Boise. And it’ll probably be as successful as the last one. Maybe even more so.
Harsin found a kindred spirit when he brought in former EWU and Hawaii assistant Zak Hill as a co-coordinator in 2016. Now sole coordinator, Hill presented a pretty exciting vision of the Boise style in 2018: minimal negative plays, super-high efficiency, and far less tempo and more physicality than you imagine.
Despite having Rypien and a loaded receiving corps, Hill liked balance — BSU ran 58 percent of the time on standard downs, almost right on the national average of 60 percent. On passing downs, he told Rypien to go make a play, and it worked frequently, but the Broncos also didn’t face many passing downs.
That said, the offense was occasionally dragged down by a lack of big plays.
Mattison never quite cleared the bar set by his RB predecessor, Jeremy McNichols. McNichols rushed for 3,046 yards at 5.5 per carry in 2015-16, Mattison 2,501 at 4.9 in 2017-18. BSU faced enough excellent run defenses in 2018 that the Broncos ranked 14th in Rushing S&P+ despite a No. 54 ranking in rushing marginal efficiency, but I’d be surprised if their output got worse in Mattison’s absence, both because the schedule eases up a tad (after the season opener against Florida State, anyway), and because last year’s backups were good, too.
With a 45.5 percent success rate, sophomore Andrew Van Buren and junior Robert Mahone nearly matched Mattison’s 48 percent. Plus, redshirt freshman Danny Smith and star freshmen George Holani and Keegan Duncan are waiting their turn.
The line returns all five starters and 107 career starts. That includes two two-year starters and first-team all-conference guys in tackle Ezra Cleveland and guard John Molchon.
Still, this is a Boise State offense. There will be passing yards. And who might throw for them is a bit of a mystery. There seem to be three primary candidates:
- Sophomore Chase Cord, last year’s backup, completed six of nine passes for 67 yards and rushed eight times for 109 but tore his ACL midyear and missed some valuable spring practice time.
- Senior Jaylon Henderson, a former three-star UTSA signee, spent a lot of time with the No. 1 offense this spring and acquitted himself reasonably well.
- Freshman Hank Bachmeier was, per the 247Sports Composite, a four-star, the most-touted BSU QB since Rypien. He too spent time with the No. 1s this spring.
Cord should be at full strength by fall camp, and my guess is that either he or Bachmeier win the job. But whoever’s taking snaps will have a ridiculous receiving corps, even without Modster and Richardson.
In Hightower, BSU boasts one of the most explosive WRs in the conference; he averaged 16.3 yards per catch and gained 163 yards on just eight carries, as well. Beyond that, there are high-efficiency slot receivers CT Thomas and Akilian Butler, four-star sophomore Khalil Shakir, junior Octavius Evans, and a foursome of mid-three-star freshmen (true and redshirt) waiting their turn.
They’ll also have by far the highest-ceilinged TE corps in the league. Junior John Bates caught 10 of 14 passes last year, but he’ll be pushed by 6’7, four-star JUCO transfer Austin Griffin and high-three-star redshirt freshman Tynell Hopper. It’s been a while since BSU had anything but a great receiving corps, and 2019 won’t end that streak. They just need a QB getting them the ball.
Hill spent a good number of years at EWU, and it’s worked well enough that Harsin looked back to EWU when it was time to replace Avalos. He brought over Jeff Schmedding, a 15-year EWU assistant and, for the last four seasons, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator.
EWU is known mostly for its offense. But in the tempo- and points-heavy Big Sky, the Eagles allowed under 23 points per game last year, giving up just 5.1 yards per play and playing opportunistic pass defense. Opponents completed 60 percent of their passes, but at just 10.5 yards per completion with an interception rate over 4 percent. (Anything over about 2.5 percent is pretty significant.)
At the least, it makes sense to wants someone with this résumé to work the controls of this secondary. It could be absurdly good.
For starters, six of last year’s seven regulars are back, including a big-time cornerback in Avery Williams (11 passes defensed), nickel Kekaula Kaniho (3 TFLs, seven passes defensed), and safeties Kekoa Nawahine, Tyreque Jones, and Jordan Happle. BSU ranked a solid 37th in Passing S&P+ and 40th in Passing Downs S&P+, and they were quite a bit of the reason.
To this, add the following:
- One of the best pass rushers in the country in Curtis Weaver (15 TFLs, 9.5 sacks). BSU was eighth in FBS in sack rate, second on passing downs, and Weaver was the main reason. Granted, he needs some new complementary pieces after the loss of Jabril Frazier (5.5 sacks), Durrant Miles (4.5), and linebacker Tyson Maeva (four).
- Free safety and 2017 star DeAndre Pierce, who missed most of last season with a [checks notes twice for accuracy] LACERATED SPLEEN.
- Grad transfer Khafari Buffalo, a product of The Citadel who can play corner or safety and recorded a TFL and seven passes defensed in nine games.
- Star 2018 recruits Chris Mitchell and Tyric LeBeauf, who redshirted last year, and star 2019 recruits JL Skinner and Markel Reed.
Whew. Even if the pass rush slides a bit, the secondary should be able to make up for it. BSU was one of the best in the country on third-and-long last year, and I doubt that changes this year.
You have to force third-and-long first, though. That was at times an issue — BSU ranked 51st in Rushing S&P+, which was neither great nor terrible but was worse than the pass defense.
Experience should mean that the Broncos at least match last year’s numbers. Losing Frazier, Maeva, and Miles hurts, but those are basically the only losses in the front seven. Weaver was excellent against the run (17 run stuffs), and the Broncos are stacked at defensive tackle (Sonatane Lui, Scale Igiehon, and Matt Locher all return, as does sixth-year senior David Moa, who’s back from injury) and outside linebacker, where Whimpey’s healthy and sophomore Ezekiel Noa improved dramatically late.
Depth could be dicey — enough backups are gone that injuries would lead straight to a run of freshmen — but that’s not a problem until injuries hit.
BSU fell from 29th to 121st in Special Teams S&P+ last year, and that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched the Oklahoma State game. The Broncos missed a 26-yard field goal in the first quarter, had a punt blocked (setting up a 7-yard TD drive) in the second, then had another punt blocked and returned for a score in the third. It was just about as costly a single-game display as you’ll see, directly costing 17 points in a 23-point loss. Then they missed two field goals in a six-point loss to SDSU, too.
The rest of the year wasn’t that bad. Joel Velazquez’s kickoffs are a strength, and John Hightower has kick return potential, but BSU’s starting over at place-kicker and punter, and that might not be a bad thing.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|31-Aug||vs. Florida State||28||1.6||54%|
|2-Nov||at San Jose State||117||26.3||94%|
|23-Nov||at Utah State||42||2.5||56%|
|30-Nov||at Colorado State||109||22.8||91%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||24|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||41 / 22|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||11.2 (27)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||53|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||11 / 2.5|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+3.3|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||59% (40%, 77%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||8.9 (1.1)|
As always, there are questions. Special teams really were a disaster, and replacement legs aren’t guaranteed to be better than the previous ones. The linebacking corps is a couple of injuries from extreme youth, Weaver’s pass rushing help is gone, and while the QB candidates look reasonably safe and exciting, we don’t know they’re good until they prove it.
This is also still Boise State. Even with the new S&P+ calculations, which are much tougher on teams from G5 conferences, the Broncos have ranked in the top 40 every year since 2006. Their retooling year is most G5 programs’ dream year.
Not surprisingly, they’re projected 24th this time, and they are indeed favored in every game, including the game against Florida State. Only one conference game is projected within 16 points.
Could some other conference foe rise up and vanquish the MWC’s surest thing? Certainly. But it’ll take quite the rise.