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Idaho can play for titles in FCS, but the Vandals’ last season in FBS is still sad

The Vandals are headed down to the FCS’ Big Sky Conference, but not before attempting to replicate last year’s nine-win run.

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NCAA Football: Idaho Potato Bowl-Idaho vs Colorado State
Idaho QB Matt Linehan 
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Things are going to be alright. If you take anything away from Idaho's 2016, take that.

It was easy to go to a dark place when talking about Idaho football. In the four years between 2011 and ‘14, the Vandals won all of five games. It was a definitive sign of improvement when they went 4-8 in 2015.

In the meantime, the WAC folded, and they barely found a home via short-term deal with the Sun Belt. And with such a miserable run, the Sun Belt announced that Idaho and NMSU would be booted from football membership when their contracts ran out after 2017.

Even with a sudden turnaround, Idaho would be blocked from potential Mountain West membership by both rivalry (Boise State wouldn't allow it) and math (the MWC already has 12 members and likely wouldn't be in the market for just one more). So given no hope for a landing spot and considering the challenges of long-term independence, Idaho announced it would be dropping to FCS.

The dread in that scenario is obvious. Idaho was basically relegated, which is basically the story of Idaho's entire football existence.

The program was in the Pacific Coast Conference until the 1950s, when USC and company started a new conference and didn't send an invitation to Moscow.

Idaho stuck it out as an independent from 1959 to 1974, then dropped down a division.

After a successful run at the I-AA level, the Vandals returned to I-A in 1996, only to watch rival and former community college Boise State surge. The Broncos have won 10-plus games 14 times and finished ranked 10 times since the move. Heading into 2016, the Vandals had been to two bowls (both in Boise) and finished with a winning record just four times.

All of this is bad. Throw in Idaho-in-late-fall weather, a cranky-at-its-happiest fan base, and the aging nature of the Kibbie Dome, and you've got a dreary existence.

Despite impending relegation, Idaho went out and played fun, aggressive, and frequently successful football in 2016. The Vandals absorbed a 2-3 start, then ignited when the scheduled eased up a hair. They finished the regular season with six wins (four by double digits) in seven tries, then raced out to a huge lead on Colorado State in the Potato Bowl and won a ridiculous shootout, 61-50.

It might not have saved them, but 2016 was Idaho’s best FBS season since its 9-3 run in 1998. It reminded the Vandals and their fans of what could lie on the horizon: wins. And soon, in theory, title runs.

Here are the top 10 FCS teams in 2016's Sagarin ratings, with Idaho added:

  1. James Madison (No. 33 overall)
  2. North Dakota State (No. 44)
  3. Eastern Washington (No. 54)
  4. Youngstown State (No. 67)
  5. Idaho (No. 73)
  6. South Dakota State (No. 82)
  7. Wofford (No. 85)
  8. Sam Houston State (No. 89)
  9. Jacksonville State (No. 91)
  10. Chattanooga (No. 94)
  11. Northern Iowa (No. 95)

Idaho would have ranked just below the four FCS semifinalists. Depending on home-road splits, the Vandals might have won the Big Sky, one of the FCS' best conferences.

Granted, this came with an allotment of 85 scholarships (Idaho will have to work down to 63 at the FCS level). And granted, these scholarships were accepted because of the promise of FBS play. Plus, this was only one season.

Still, this was a reminder that Idaho was a pretty big deal at the FCS level. The Vandals went to the I-AA/FCS playoffs 11 times between 1982 and 1995, reaching the semifinals in 1988 and 1993. They were able to hire FBS-level coaching talent like Dennis Erickson (1982-85), Keith Gilbertson (1986-88), John L. Smith (1989-94), and Chris Tormey (1995-99). They attracted eventual NFL-level talent like quarterbacks John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier and lineman Mark Schlereth.

Plus, let's face it: The Sun Belt isn't all that much tougher than the Big Sky. Per Sagarin, the top six non-Idaho teams in the Sun Belt had an average ranking of 84; the top six in the Big Sky: 107. There are plenty of big games in Idaho's future.

But first things first: the encore. They bring into battle a 3,000-yard passer, two 600-yard rushers, an all-conference right tackle, and maybe the best linebacking corps in the Sun Belt.

S&P+ isn't a huge Idaho fan because of recent history and recent recruiting, but if the Vandals avoid the more vengeful side of the injury bug and thrive in tossup games, they could reach one more bowl before their goals shift from Potato Bowl to FCS Playoffs.

2016 in review

2016 Idaho statistical profile.

For Idaho, the season basically started on October 8. Before then, the Vandals were the sketchy team they were projected to be. After that, it was 1998 all over again.

  • First 5 games (2-3) — Avg. percentile performance: 25% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-11.3 PPG | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.4, Idaho 4.6 (minus-1.8)
  • Last 8 games (7-1) — Avg. percentile performance: 63% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-14.8 PPG | Avg. yards per play: Idaho 6.2, Opp 6.1 (plus-0.1)

The improvement was almost all offensive, as you can see. Quarterback Matt Linehan had a 105.7 passer rating through the first five games, then had a 154.8 from that point forward.

Opponent quality had something to do with this, but so did certain guys stepping up (including Linehan). Jordan Frysinger, for instance, missed the first five games, then averaged 3.3 catches for 58.1 yards per game thereafter. Meanwhile, the run game became a bit sturdier when Isaiah Saunders took off. He averaged just four carries per game over the first six contests but averaged 23.4 carries for 112.6 yards over the final five games (all wins).

Saunders and Linehan are back, but Idaho does have to replace Frysinger, twin-tower tight ends Deon Watson and Trent Cowan (combined: 1,242 yards, 9 touchdowns), and Z receiver Callen Hightower.

Including sophomore Jante Boston, who missed 2016, the top five returning wideouts combined for a decent 104 catches in their last seasons of action. But they averaged just 9.9 yards per catch, and for all of his strength, Saunders isn't a home run hitter either. The Vandals will need to find some new big-play guys.


Full advanced stats glossary.

Petrino might be as cranky as the Idaho fan base, but he and coordinator Kris Cinkovich can coach an offense. Even with last year's slow start, the Vandals finished in the Off. S&P+ top 85 for the third consecutive year. That's not amazing, but it's clear improvement: Idaho ranked 115th in each of Robb Akey's last two years.

The Vandals' running and passing games were polar opposites of each other last year. Hell, the run game was the opposite of itself. Aaron Duckworth, the primary ball-carrier for the first half of the year, was all-or-nothing, carrying the ball at least five yards a paltry 31 percent of the time but showing nice explosiveness. When Saunders took over, he brought more efficiency but rarely broke bigger gains.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Idaho v Colorado State
Isaiah Saunders
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the passing game provided the efficiency. Idaho ranked 12th in passing success rate, with Linehan completing 62 percent of his passes and finding a nice stable of efficiency options -- Watson (52 percent success rate), Cowan (61 percent), Hightower (55 percent), Frysinger (67 percent!), etc. Idaho had only 48 gains of 20-plus yards, 107th in FBS, and the big-play capability sank when Duckworth began getting fewer carries. But the efficiency was high enough to pull it off.

With Watson (17 yards per catch) and Frysinger (17.9) gone, Idaho's big-play potential might be even further tamped down in 2017. That could be an issue, especially against a defense that is sturdy enough to limit efficiency.

Linehan has good size and a good arm, and Idaho has solid size both at running back (Saunders, Duckworth, and sophomore Denzal Brantley average 5'10, 213) and on the offensive line (three returnees with starting experience average 6'5, 318). The Vandals are nice and physical, even though the line now lacks for experience with the loss of six players from the two-deep.

But big plays are the biggest issue here. Where are they going to come from? Might Duckworth become efficient enough to earn more carries again? What might Bradley or redshirt freshman back Dylan Thigpen have to offer? Can a younger receiver like Boston, sophomore Michael Garner, redshirt freshman Brandon Luckett, or freshman J.J. Wills bring some explosiveness to the table?

Idaho's quick passing game reduces negative plays and keeps the ball moving forward. But you need some chunk plays.


If you have a specific identity, these radar charts are designed to find them. With the offensive chart above, you quickly see that Idaho was good at passing efficiently but couldn't bring a lot to the table with the run or big plays.

With this defensive chart, you see the opposite.

Idaho played sturdy run defense but struggled with efficiency and against the pass. The Vandals ranked 65th in Rushing S&P+ and gave up only four rushes of 30-plus yards all year (seventh in FBS), but they ranked 106th in Passing S&P+. Opponents completed 63 percent of their passes with a 147.3 passer rating.

Pass defense was a tipping point of sorts. In Idaho's nine wins, opponents still managed a 135.7 passer rating but completed just 58 percent of their passes with a nearly 5 percent interception rate. Idaho strangled the run game and forced opponents into passing aggressively. Within this environment, the Vandals typically made enough plays to offset what they were giving up.

In four losses, they got positively gashed: 73 percent completion rate, 171.8 passer rating, 13 touchdowns to three interceptions.

The secondary was scuffling all year. Safety Jordan Grabski and corner Dorian Clark missed all season after combining for 79.5 tackles in 2015, and only three of nine remaining regulars played in all 13 games. Safeties Jayshawn Jordan and Russell Siavii combined for eight picks, 12 breakups, and three tackles for loss, but the unit had little continuity.

Still, the partial effectiveness was a nice step forward. Idaho ranked 117th, 123rd, and 125th, respectively, in Def. S&P+ over Petrino's first three seasons but improved to 98th last year. That's something.

This coming fall, the strengths might need to flip. Four of the top five linemen are gone; departees Tueni Lupeamanu, Kevin Shelton, Glen Antoine, and Khalin Smith combined for 19 tackles for loss, and they were four of only five linemen to record more than 11 tackles. Idaho got away with iffy depth up front because these five players missed a combined one game.

Assuming Grabski and Clark return at full strength, the secondary might have the continuity it lacked. Jordan, Siavii, and corners D.J. Hampton and Desmond Banks are all gone, but in Grabski, Clark, and safeties Ty Graham and Armond Hawkins, there's a decent base of experience. If a lesser known player -- sophomore Qendarrion Barnett, sophomore Lloyd Hightower, redshirt freshman Vaughn Daggs II, JUCO transfer Tyrece Parker -- is able to step up, and Idaho avoids significant injury, maybe the pass defense gets by. But those are some unsteady ifs.

Luckily, Idaho still has its linebackers. Juniors Tony Lashley, Ed Hall, and Kaden Elliss combined for 20 tackles for loss, five sacks, five picks, and four breakups. They were play-stoppers against the run and play-makers against the pass. Linebackers can't do much if the guys in front of and behind them stink, but if Idaho is semi-stable elsewhere, the linebackers could assure another top-100 ranking at least.

Idaho v Washington State
Tony Lashley
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Special Teams

Marginal improvement on defense helped Idaho to break through, but special teams helped as well. Austin Rehkow was one of the nation's steadier kickers, and while punt returner Denzal Alfonso Onunwor lacked in explosiveness, he was steady and efficient. Idaho ranked 18th in Special Teams S&P+, and the point or two per game that Idaho drew from special teams certainly helped to assure the Vandals' 4-0 record in one-possession games.

Onunwor's back, but in Rehkow Idaho loses a great place-kicer and a solid kickoffs guy and punter all in one. The Vandals are starting over in this unit, in other words.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Sacramento State NR 28.0 95%
9-Sep UNLV 118 1.7 54%
16-Sep at Western Michigan 74 -15.4 19%
21-Oct at Missouri 53 -21.4 11%
TBA Appalachian State 62 -14.1 21%
TBA Coastal Carolina 114 1.0 52%
TBA UL-Lafayette 112 0.5 51%
TBA UL-Monroe 121 3.9 59%
TBA at Georgia State 113 -5.1 38%
TBA at New Mexico State 124 -1.5 46%
TBA at South Alabama 108 -6.1 36%
TBA at Troy 79 -14.2 21%
Projected S&P+ Rk 119
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 91 / 121
Projected wins 5.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.5 (89)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 125 / 128
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 6.0
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 50% (56%, 43%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.7 (2.3)

The 2016 season was an unquestionable success for Idaho, but the Vandals might struggle to replicate that in their last FBS go-round. Among other things, a 4-0 record in one-possession games is hard to replicate, especially with Rehkow and the rare offensive big-play guys gone. But even if you think of Idaho as more of a seven-win team in 2016, that bar might also be hard to clear with this schedule.

S&P+ is a little bearish on Idaho because the Vandals don't stand out well in recent recruiting (deep into the 120s) or returning production (a below-average 50 percent) and because 2016 was a single successful season. And with a conservative projection, S&P+ basically sees one likely win, four likely losses, and seven games that range between 36 and 59 percent win probability.

It would be a shame if Idaho couldn't go out with another nice season, but last season showed us what Idaho might be capable of at a lower level. And while relegation is never a pleasant experience, there is, I guess, a benefit to punching in your weight class.

Idaho will probably be just fine in the Big Sky. More regional games, wins, playoff appearances, etc. Still, it's been a while since FBS lost a team to a lower level. And it's unfortunate.

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