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Boise State football’s no longer a sure thing, but the bar remains high

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The Broncos have lost too many weird games over the last few years. Their talent advantage remains, however.

NCAA Football: Cactus Bowl-Boise State vs Baylor Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published April 17 and has since been updated.

Bryan Harsin attended Boise State just as the emerging FCS power was transitioning to FBS. He completed 11 of 39 passes for 155 yards, a touchdown, and an interception over four seasons (1996-99), but while his playing career wasn’t noteworthy, his time in Boise was.

During Harsin’s freshman season, BSU went 2-10; his senior year, under Dirk Koetter, they went 10-3. In the 17 seasons since, the Broncos have never won fewer than eight games in a season. When Harsin signed on as BSU tight ends coach in 2002, the Broncos went 12-1. When he became a coordinator in 2006, they went undefeated. And when he returned as head coach, his Broncos secured the Group of Five’s first Playoff bowl autobid and won the Fiesta Bowl.

Harsin has been on either the two-deep or coaching staff for most of Boise State’s best moments. And over the last couple of seasons, he’s been in charge for some disappointing moments, too.

It's all about expectations, isn’t it? Boise State remains the most consistent mid-major in the country; the Broncos have ranked in the S&P+ top 40 for 10 of the last 11 years and have won at least nine games in 14 of 15. They have won five of their last six against power conference opponents. They have won 31 games in three years under Harsin.

This is a level every Group of Five team wishes it could maintain. But for Boise State, it almost feels problematic. The Broncos have been sloppy at the wrong times.

In 2015, they suffered a combined minus-nine turnover margin in losses to Utah State and New Mexico and lost the MWC Mountain race to Air Force. In 2016, they gave up a late safety in a two-point loss to Wyoming, ceding the division tiebreaker, and suffered their third straight Air Force loss.

For back-to-back seasons, the class of mid-majordom has not even managed to be the class of its own division. And last year finished with an uninspired, 19-point bowl loss to a Baylor that had looked lost itself for most of the season.

Are these actual problems or just Boise Problems? Are the kinks in the system, or have the bounces just gone the wrong way at precise times?

My guess is more latter than former. Over the last five years, USF is the only mid-major to recruit better on average. BSU’s five-year S&P+ average is 27th overall and better than that of teams like Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, or Texas. They have ranked first in S&P+ among MWC teams in each of the last three years, even if bounces and tiebreakers have gone against them.

The components seem as strong as ever, and BSU brings a lot of exciting pieces back: quarterback Brett Rypien, receiver Cedrick Wilson, center Mason Hampton, nose tackle David Moa, and corner Tyler Horton, to name a few.

Still, there’s just been enough turnover to make you wonder about certain areas of the depth chart, and the brutal schedule includes trips to Washington State, BYU, San Diego State, Utah State, and Colorado State, not to mention visits from Troy, Virginia, Wyoming, and BSU’s recent nemesis, Air Force.

It feels strange to say it about a coach averaging more than 10 games per year, but damned if it doesn’t feel like Harsin is under pressure. Or at least, he could be soon.

Of course, that notion could feel silly soon. BSU was nine points from finishing the regular season unbeaten despite bad turnovers luck (minus-3.1 points per game, 10th-worst in the country). Rypien had a passer rating of 210 or higher in three MWC games last year and is likely the conference’s best offensive player. Moa might be the conference’s best defensive player.

BSU might have more pure talent than every opponent on the 2017 schedule. If there are issues regarding talent, depth, or Harsin’s coaching, we’ll find out. But “have more talent” is a good starting point.


2016 in review

2016 Boise State statistical profile.

The Broncos played at a top-50 level, with a high-caliber offense and decent defense. Still, it was a clear drop-off from the level BSU established early.

  • First 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 82% (~top 25) | Avg. yards per play: BSU 7.0, Opp 4.8 (plus-2.2) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-5.1 PPG
  • Last 8 games (5-3): Avg. percentile performance: 66% (~top 45) | Avg. yards per play: BSU 6.8, Opp 5.4 (plus-1.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-12.7 PPG

For five games, BSU was nearly untouchable. On a per-play basis, the Broncos drastically outgained two Pac-12 opponents — Washington State by 1.2 yards per play, Oregon State by 1.3 — and handled two potentially confounding conference foes, Utah State and New Mexico. As Colorado State came to town, the Broncos had proved themselves by far the class of the mid-majors.

Things got more difficult from there. Injuries began to thin out the defense. BSU started slowly and ceded the field position advantage against Colorado State and needed drastic turnovers luck (and special teams oddity) to get past BYU. They outgained Wyoming by more than 1.5 yards per play but suffered massive field position disadvantages and fell via safety dance. And following the annual, unlikely loss to Air Force, BSU had no answers for Baylor’s passing game.

This was never a bad team, but it failed to clear the bar it set once injuries set in. The star power and high-end athleticism seem as high as ever, but depth and poorly placed injuries could create a similar feel in 2017.


Offense

Boise State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Zak Hill’s first year as BSU coordinator was, until the bowl game, an exercise in consistency and improvement. The Broncos bounced back from an uncharacteristic No. 53 ranking in Off. S&P+ in 2015, surging to 19th and averaging at least 6.1 yards per play in 10 of 13 games. The former Eastern Washington passing game coordinator attempted balance on standard downs and told Rypien to go make a play on passing downs; the recipe worked.

Hill’s job gets a little bit harder this fall. Continuity in the receiving corps is a major predictive indicator, and while Rypien returns, three of his top four targets do not. Thomas Sperbeck caught 80 passes for 1,272 yards (10.2 per target) out of the slot, while receiver Chaz Anderson and running back Jeremy McNichols combined for 68 catches and 876 yards.

[Update: QB depth took a hit when Rathen Ricedorff left the team in April, but Kansas grad transfer Montell Cozart, an 18-game starter, joined in May.]

Junior slot men Sean Modster and Akilian Butler appear to have massive potential, but Cedrick Wilson is the only returning X- or Z-receiver who caught more than two passes last year. Wilson is awesome — 1,129 yards, 11.9 per target, and five 100-yard receiving games in 2016 — and the combination of slot receivers and a glut of tight ends (seniors Alec Dhaenens and Jake Roh, juniors Jake Knight and Chase Blakley, sophomore Matt Pistone, redshirt freshmen Nick Crabtree and John Bates) should mean plenty of efficiency options.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Hawaii
Cedrick Wilson
Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Still, you need field stretchers out wide, and a lot will be expected of junior wideout A.J. Richardson, a former mid-three-star who caught a 31-yard pass in the opening game of 2016 but only caught one more the rest of the year. He had four receptions for 74 yards in Boise State’s spring game. Modster and Butler, meanwhile, had six for 44.

The lost of McNichols hurts more than the passing game. He was the only Boise back who showed any big-play potential — he had 15 of BSU’s 17 rushes of 20-plus yards — and he carried a massive load. He averaged 24.2 carries per game, and backups combined for only 8.1 per game.

A couple of those backups are gone, leaving only sophomore Alexander Mattison (4.9 yards per carry), senior walk-on Ryan Wolpin (3.0), and youngsters like redshirt freshman Robert Mahone and true freshman Drake Beasley. Mattison and Beasley are both former mid-three-stars, so there’s probably upside, but it’s been untapped.

Oh yeah, and there might be concerns up front. Starting center Mason Hampton and tackle Archie Lewis return, and sophomore tackle John Molchon started three games last year. But in Travis Averill, Mario Yakoo, and Steven Baggett, BSU must replace three starters who earned all-conference honors and combined for 119 career starts. Harsin was concerned enough that he signed a couple of JUCOs.

Of course, if Rypien continues to progress, he’ll mask a lot of weaknesses. The former four-star has lived up to the hype thus far, and while Wyoming’s Josh Allen has earned hype (and justifiably so), Rypien had a higher completion rate, more passing yards, and fewer interceptions last year. He’s a stud.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Boise State
Sean Modster
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Boise State defensive radar

Harsin had to replace both coordinators last year, and while his offensive coordinator hire worked out beautifully, his promotion of Andy Avalos to defensive coordinator held the fort. BSU fell three spots in Def. S&P+ but maintained a top-40 level.

Avalos’ first defense was a little too much of a bend-don’t-break unit on standard downs, but the Broncos prevented big plays, and when opponents were leveraged into passing downs (which occasionally took too long), the drive ended. BSU ranked ninth in Passing Downs S&P+ despite what was only a decent pass rush.

Most of the line returns, though that only matters if coaches trust more linemen to contribute. Only five made more than 7 tackles a year ago, and two are gone. When end Gabe Perez was lost to injury early in the year, BSU just tightened the rotation. That worked out alright; David Moa and ends Jabril Frazier and Durrant Miles combined for 20 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, and four breakups, and BSU’s run defense was mostly decent. But there were breakdowns, and BSU wasn’t as good in the second half as it was in the first half.

Perez’s return could account for the loss of star end Sam McCaskill, but more options are needed, be they veterans like tackle Daniel Auelua or Perez or younger contributors (sophomore tackles Chase Hatada, Matt Locher, and Emmanuel Fesili, redshirt freshman ends Kayode Rufai, Jabari Watson, and Derriyon Shaw).

NCAA Football: Washington State at Boise State
David Moa
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

New linemen need to step up not only because the line needs improvement; they also need to surge because the back seven has a lot to replace. Granted, injury forced a lot of guys into action, but BSU is still looking at replacing five of its top seven linebackers and four of six defensive backs.

Harsin brought in a couple of JUCOs for help (linebacker Joseph Inda and cornerback Mike Young, both of whom could end up starting), and at the least, there are plenty of options in the back seven. Linebackers Blake Whitlock and Leighton Vander Esch combined for 7.5 TFLs and three passes defensed as backups (and Vander Esch only played half the season), and corner Tyler Horton and safety Cameron Hartsfield will serve as steady anchors for a young secondary that boasts 11 former three-star recruits and a former four-star (freshman Jermani Brown).

Big-play prevention was a strength last year, but youth tends to create ups and downs. We’ll see how much of last year’s back-row steadiness can be retained.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Air Force
Tyson Maeva (58) and Tyler Horton (14)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

After ranking 15th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2015, Boise State returned most of its best pieces but still slumped to 76th in 2016, mostly because Tyler Rausa wasn’t as effective in the place-kicking department. He missed three field goals under 40 yards and missed his only over-40 attempt. That might not seem that bad, but it’s not good.

Rausa and big-time punter Sean Wale are gone, as is part-time kick return Jonathan Moxey. I guess it seems less intimidating rebuilding a mid-70s unit than a top-20 unit, but either way, there’s a rebuild here.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Troy 79 14.6 80%
9-Sep at Washington State 40 0.1 50%
16-Sep New Mexico 110 23.1 91%
22-Sep Virginia 70 11.7 75%
6-Oct at BYU 46 1.5 53%
14-Oct at San Diego State 52 2.3 55%
21-Oct Wyoming 80 15.2 81%
28-Oct at Utah State 73 8.0 68%
4-Nov Nevada 117 24.2 92%
11-Nov at Colorado State 43 1.1 52%
18-Nov Air Force 116 24.0 92%
25-Nov at Fresno State 115 18.9 86%
Projected S&P+ Rk 29
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 19 / 63
Projected wins 8.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.6 (27)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 64 / 64
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -9 / -1.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 55% (60%, 50%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.2 (-0.2)

Man, I just don’t know.

From a stat perspective, Boise State is still one of the surest things around. The Broncos are projected 29th in S&P+, and their games can be broken into two categories: road tossups (four games with win probability between 50 and 55 percent) and likely wins (seven at 75 percent or higher). There are no sure losses, and if quality recruiting produces breakthrough guys, BSU will have another big year.

Those tossups make me nervous, though. BSU has figured out how to lose a couple of games it should win in each of the last two years, and, well, what if a couple of big, new contributors don’t emerge?

What if the offensive line falls off from last year’s pace? What if the new backs are nowhere near the standard set by McNichols? What if the Broncos allow a lot more big plays because of a young secondary? What if the defensive line is no deeper?

Boise State has a lot to prove this year, at least by Boise State standards. The Broncos are dealing with turnover and no longer get the benefit of the doubt in the Mountain West.


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