In the first game of 2015, a 24-13 loss to FCS North Dakota, Wyoming starting quarterback Cameron Coffman got injured, and sophomore backup Josh Allen, a transfer from Reedley College in California, completed a pass on the final play. It was as innocuous a debut as you'll ever see.
Allen came out firing the next week against EMU, leading an eight-play touchdown drive to start and racing 24 yards to the EMU 44 on a third-and-five on Wyoming's second drive.
Allen had come to Laramie with big plans. A full qualifier out of high school, he chose the JUCO route to stand out, and as a freshman at Reedley, starting for only about half the season, he threw for 2,055 yards and rushed for 660 more. He completed just under 50 percent of his passes, but his upside was such that he had a three-star rating.
For all of Wyoming's struggles, however, luring three-star quarterbacks wasn't one of them. He landed second on the depth chart, ahead of three-star freshman Nick Smith and behind Coffman, a Kansas State transfer. Coffman's injury appeared to open a door, and Allen looked like he was seizing the opportunity.
At the end of the 24-yard run, however, he broke his clavicle. Smith went 3-for-13 in a 19-point loss to lowly EMU, and Coffman took the starting job back. Wyoming went a dreadful 2-10 in Bohl's second season, falling from 111th to 114th in S&P+.
My 2016 Wyoming preview vaguely alluded to Allen while talking about what a hard job UW is and how the Cowboys were in the wrong division for quick growth. Sure, maybe UW could expect to progress, but how much would it matter in the same division as Boise State, and when Air Force, Colorado State, Utah State, and New Mexico were only a step or two away from breakthroughs?
In 2016, Allen threw for 3,203 yards and rushed for 712 more (not including sacks). Brian Hill rushed for 1,860 yards, Tanner Gentry caught 73 balls for 1,316 yards, the Cowboy offense improved from 104th to 33rd in Off. S&P+, and Wyoming beat Boise State and took the MWC West title. They bowled for the first time in five years and won eight games for the second time in 18.
We often see coaches produce third-year breakthroughs. The second year is the most likely time for improvement, but if the rebuild is extreme enough (as it was at EMU, for instance), sometimes an extra year is needed. But this one can be tied to a big arm and a healthy clavicle. The Cowboys’ defense got a little bit better but was still more of a liability; adding a big-time QB to the offense changed everything.
How big-time? Fair or unfair, NFL draft analysts had him pretty high on the list of QB prospects this year before he elected to come back to school.
Whether Allen elected to ignore the draft hype, or whether it didn’t comply with what he was hearing from NFL scouts, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he’s back in brown and gold. He gives the Cowboys a bankable name, and he could make Bohl’s fourth year another positive one.
Of course, he’ll be working without Hill or his top three targets. I guess we’ll find out how much of last year’s resurgence was because of him.
A year ago, Bohl was 6-18 at UW and looking for a spark after leaving North Dakota State, which sent former Bohl QB Carson Wentz to the Philadelphia Eagles. Now, he’ll have NFL scouts trekking to southeastern Wyoming, and he’s got a division title to defend. He’s got one of college football’s best offensive players, and he’s got one of college football’s most experienced defenses. His Cowboys get upset opportunities early with a trip to Iowa and a visit from Oregon, and they’ll be favored in about seven of the other 10 games.
This year’s preview has a slightly different tone than last year’s, huh?
2016 in review
Step one for Wyoming was figuring out how to create a high ceiling again.
Step two: taking that ceiling on the road. Aside from an awesome performance at Colorado State on October 1, the Cowboys were mostly strong at home and mostly awful away from it.
- Wyoming at home (6-1): Avg. percentile performance: 74% | Avg. yards per play: UW 6.1, Opp 6.0 (plus-0.1) | Avg. score: UW 37, Opp 28 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-13.7 PPG
- Wyoming away from home (2-5): Avg. percentile performance: 34% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.1, UW 6.0 (minus-1.1) | Avg. score: Opp 40, UW 35 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-2.8 PPG
Typical home-field advantage is worth about two to 3.5 points for the home team. Flip a game from one home field to the other, and you might see a five- to seven-point impact.
For Wyoming games, the impact was about 14 points.
Whoever came up with “defense travels” was not talking about the Cowboys. Granted, six of the top eight defensive linemen, four of the top seven linebackers, and four of the top six defensive backs were either freshmen or sophomores. That level of inexperience typically translates to volatility anyway.
For UW to repeat as MWC Mountain champions, this level of home-road split will have to change. Colorado State and New Mexico must come to Laramie, but trips to Utah State, Boise State, and Air Force would doom a division campaign for an awful road team.
It's amazing what high-caliber quarterbacking can do. Allen's development and emergence changed Wyoming's potential, but it's too simple to say Allen was the sole reason for improvement.
Allen has massive potential, but his completion rate is still lower than what is typically correlated to pro sucecss, and his sack rate (6.5 percent) and interception rate (4 percent) are in the "trying too hard to make a big play" danger zones.
Allen also had a lot of help. And he'll be relying on the development of some young skill guys. Hill and backup Shaun Wick combined for 31 carries and 158 yards per game in what was a run-heavy attack. Allen had a part to play in the ground game, but Wyoming rushed 68 percent of the time on standard downs (20th in FBS and eight percent higher than the national average) and 40 percent on passing downs (27th and five percent higher). You could make the case that Hill was as or more instrumental to Wyoming than Allen.
Meanwhile, Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt, tight end Jacob Hollister, and Hill combined for 19 targets, 11 catches, and 179 yards per game. The leading returning running back carried 11 times last year, and only one returning wideout caught more than 11 passes.
What we've seen of some young guys is encouraging.
- Sophomore utility man Austin Conway caught 11 of 11 passes for 103 yards and rushed 17 times for 110 yards in 2016.
- Sophomore Z-receiver C.J. Johnson (Gentry's backup) had a catch rate of 70 percent and averaged 14.5 yards per catch, a lovely combination. If you take part in a fantasy league: Johnson's a potential 1,000-yard receiver.
- Sophomore running back Kellen Overstreet was a Parade All-American and averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a freshman in 2015.
- Running back Milo Hall and receiver John Okwoli are three-star sophomores who didn't get a chance in 2016 but might still have potential.
A lot will be asked of this young unit, but guys like Johnson and Conway are intriguing. They've showed just enough to make you believe Allen will have the weapons. But if they get hurt, Wyoming could be relying on redshirt freshmen.
The line should be everything Allen needs, at least. Four-year starting center Chase Roullier is gone; he was first-team all-conference last year. But five other returnees started at least seven games last year, and sophomore Gavin Rush could be ready for the load at center.
Bohl went all-in on freshmen in his 2017 recruiting class. That's always a sign of confidence in personnel. You could wonder if that is over-confident when it comes to the defense, but while there is a lot of skill talent to replace, the order of succession seems strong.
This is an interesting opportunity for Bohl and coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen. The duo left North Dakota State after 2013 but still got their fingerprints on eventual No. 2 draft pick Wentz. Now, two years after Wentz was taken, they could end up having groomed another first-round pick.
The Vigen attack has aspects of power, finesse, spread, and whatever we're now defining as "pro-style." "You'll develop like crazy and get picked in the first round" would be one hell of a recruiting draw. Vigen's NDSU attack was steady and smart, and we'll see if Allen can continue developing enough to both land a high pick in 2018 and live up to it.
The Mountain West is a funny place at the moment. Seemingly every MWC team has a high-caliber run game, and nearly every team has a disappointing defense. This is despite the presence of some coaches who, in previous lives, were regarded as high-caliber defensive coaches.
New Mexico head coach Bob Davie was at one point the hottest defensive assistant in the country, pulled from Texas A&M to become Lou Holtz's heir apparent at Notre Dame. His Lobos ranked 40th in Off. S&P+ and 121st in Def. S&P+ last year, his fifth in Albuquerque.
Meanwhile, the former overseer of NDSU’s championship defenses had 2016’s No. 33 offense in the country as his defense had to improve just to rise to 96th in Def. S&P+.
That the Cowboys improved at all defensively was a good sign, though, considering the role youngsters played and the role experience could play moving forward.
Wyoming does have a few veterans to replace. Nose tackle Chase Appleby was a stalwart up front and provided a decent play-making presence, while linebackers Lucas Wacha and D.J. May combined for 17.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and four pass breakups in 2016. Still, when that's all you lose, you're optimistic.
Just to be sure that improvement is coming, Bohl brought in a new/old coordinator. Scottie Hazelton rejoins Bohl after spending 2010-11 as North Dakota State’s coordinator. For the last three years, Hazelton was linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The defense Hazelton inherits was good at getting off the field once the opponent was leveraged into passing downs. Wyoming ranked 65th in Passing Downs S&P+, 49th in PD success rate, and 49th in PD sack rate. Five players had at least three sacks, and four return — ends Kevin Prosser and Carl Granderson, tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, and linebacker Logan Wilson. Plus, safeties Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps were tremendous attackers, combining for 13.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, eight breakups, and four forced fumbles.
The problem, as you're guessing, was forcing passing downs. Wyoming ranked 81st in Rushing S&P+ and gave up an incredible 41 rushes of 20-plus yards, easily worst in FBS.
The problems weren't down for down; the Cowboys showed major efficiency potential, but the glitches were enormous and frequent. Experience should help, but Wyoming was so inexperienced last year that the Cowboys will still be leaning on a lot of sophomores — Ghaifan, Wilson, linebacker Cassh Maluia, etc.
If the run defense holds up, I'm guessing the pass defense will be pretty good. Continuity in the secondary is extra huge for year-to-year improvement, and basically everybody's back. Wingard and Epps could be outstanding once they have learned to officially balance play-making with play prevention, and cornerbacks Antonio Hull, Rico Gafford, and Robert Priester combined to pick off five passes and break up 14 more.
I think this is close to resembling what a Bohl-and-Hazelton unit is supposed to look like. I'm not going to pretend the Cowboys are about to allow 13 points per game like Hazelton’s NDSU did in 2011, but the bar isn't high when it comes to Mountain West defense, and I'm betting Wyoming clears it soon.
D.J. May was a rare combination. He was listed as a linebacker (really a nickel back as much as anything) and also served as one of the country's most dangerous kick returners. He and punter Ethan Wood were the strongest pieces of a special teams unit that ranked 64th in Special Teams S&P+, and they're both gone.
Austin Conway has major potential in punt returns, and while Cooper Rothe didn't show massive range in place-kicking, he was young, and he was mostly accurate inside of 40 yards, at least. I can't imagine the Cowboys' special teams ratings improve without Wood and May, but they might not regress a ton. That's something.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|14-Oct||at Utah State||73||-4.7||39%|
|21-Oct||at Boise State||29||-15.2||19%|
|11-Nov||at Air Force||116||6.3||64%|
|25-Nov||at San Jose State||105||4.3||60%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||80|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||67 / 88|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||1.4 (61)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||110 / 113|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||3 / 5.5|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-0.9|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||66% (45%, 87%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||7.3 (0.7)|
S&P+ tends to be conservative at reacting to teams that have one good year. Wyoming surged to 61st last year, but after a run of eight seasons at 94th or worse, S&P+ sees the baseline more around 80th or so and projects a six- or seven-win season.
A lot will depend on the new skill guys. Allen is exciting, but he'll rely on sophomores ball carriers, and that's never a guarantee. Meanwhile, the defense should improve, but whether that means a top-60 unit or a top-90 unit remains to be seen. And if it's closer to the latter, there's little assurance that Wyoming's crazy home-road splits will even out.
Still, if you're bullish on Wyoming, it's not hard to see why. The Cowboys boast a major-league talent behind center, and they surged to eight wins despite a defense that was dependent on freshmen and sophomores. This is a more experienced team just about everywhere, and the potential is as high as it's been for a while. Bohl is a proven coach, and he's starting to piece together a pretty intriguing two-deep.
A road slate that includes trips to Iowa, Utah State, Boise State, and Air Force will probably assure Wyoming's ceiling isn't much higher than last year's, but this should be another fun team, even if isn't a MWC Mountain favorite.