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You’ll never believe this, but Boise State is stocked and ready for a Mountain West title run

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Crazy, right?

Boise State v BYU Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

[The text of this preview has been updated to reflect offseason roster changes.]

Under Nick Saban, Alabama has redefined what we think of as dominance. The Crimson Tide have won five national titles in nine seasons, have posted 10 consecutive top-10 finishes, and haven’t lost more than two games in a season in eight years. They only recently had a lengthy streak of top-ranked recruiting classes broken.

The Tide’s success has driven much of the SEC insane. Georgia fired Mark Richt as he was polishing off a run of 50 wins in five years, and LSU fired Les Miles after he won 61 in six. Our dominance compass is a little bit broken.

Dominance used to look like what Boise State is doing to the rest of the Group of 5. The Broncos have only been to one BCS/NY6 bowl in eight years since scoring Fiesta Bowl titles in 2006 and 2009, but while the cast of characters remains hilariously volatile from year to year, BSU just lingers near the top.

  • The Broncos have won 42 games in four years since Harsin took over for Chris Petersen.
  • They have won three MWC titles since joining the conference seven seasons ago.
  • They are second in the Group of 5 in two-year recruiting rank (behind only Cincinnati) and third in five-year recruiting rank (behind USF and Cincy). They’re No. 1 in the MWC in both.
  • They are an easy first in five-year S&P+ ranking among G5 programs, with average plus-9.0 rating putting them as far ahead of second-place Toledo (plus-6.4) as Toledo is ahead of ninth-place Navy.
  • The last time they didn’t rank among the top-10 mid-majors in S&P+ was 2001. They were 13th.

BSU has proved a sustainability that shouldn’t be possible. And the Broncos haven’t even been in FBS for 25 years yet. There might not be a mid-major Bama, but Boise lingers near the top of the leaderboard, never missing the cut, like an elite golfer.

On 2017, it was BSU’s turn to win some hardware again. After upsets prevented them from playing for the MWC title in 2015 and 2016, the Broncos blazed through, losing only at Fresno State in a game that meant nothing, since both teams had already clinched division titles, and then beating the Bulldogs the next week in the title game.

If there was a non-Boise flavor to 2017, it came early. The Broncos dropped a wild game at Washington State in Week 2, then laid a stunning egg in losing 42-23 to Virginia at home. Their running game was a mess, their QB was hurt, and they blew chances for P5 victims, a rarity for this program.

All’s well that ends well, however. After winning eight of nine to take the MWC, they blitzed Oregon early in the Las Vegas Bowl, racing to a 24-0 lead and holding on to win, 38-28. That ended a three-game P5 losing streak and capped a hell of a rebound.

Boise State in 2017

Category First 4 games Last 10 games
Category First 4 games Last 10 games
Record 2 W, 2 L 9 W, 1 L
Avg. score BSU 30, Opp 29 BSU 34, Opp 20
Avg. yards per play BSU 5.1, Opp 4.7 BSU 6.1, Opp 4.9
Avg. percentile performance 56% (44% offense, 56% defense) 70% (58% offense, 67% defense)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection -9.9 PPG +6.9 PPG

After a rickety start, BSU was back at the top of the MWC and near the top of the Group of 5. And now the Broncos bring back their quarterback and leading rusher, a majority of their offensive line starts, and almost all the pieces from a defense that ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 30 for the first time since 2012. Of their five toughest MWC opponents, four come to Boise.

The G5’s near-annual safest bet won’t be any less safe this fall.

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon
Bryan Harsin
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Offense

Boise State’s offense took off when Rypien started looking like Rypien again. The former four-star prospect produced a 141 passer rating as a true freshman in 2015, then bumped it to 155.7, 18th in the nation, in 2016. But he struggled in last year’s season-opening win over Troy, then suffered a head injury early against Washington State.

He missed the New Mexico win, looked awful against Virginia, then labored through the next three games against solid defenses. BSU was winning pretty easily — 24-7 vs. BYU, 31-14 vs. SDSU, 24-14 vs. Wyoming — because of a surging defense, but a rebuilt running game and shaky passing game were stunting the offense.

By late-October, however, Rypien looked fine.

  • Brett Rypien, first 6 games: 62% completion rate, 10.4 yards per completion, 2.3% INT rate, 117.2 passer rating
  • Rypien, last 7 games: 63% completion rate, 14.9 yards per completion, 1.4% INT rate, 159.7 passer rating

Rypien was splitting time with Kansas graduate transfer Montell Cozart early, but once Rypien settled down, Cozart was relegated to just a series here and there.

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon
Brett Rypien
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Cedrick Wilson was a mainstay in the receiving corps, but a healthy and confident Rypien distributed the ball much better. A foursome of complementary wideouts — A.J. Richardson, Sean Modster, and freshmen Octavius Evans and CT Thomas — went from catching 35 balls for 274 yards in the first half of the season to 60 for 807 over the second.

That’s heartening because Wilson’s gone, as are tight ends Jake Roh and Alec Dhaenens. Wilson finished his two-year career with 139 catches, 2,640 yards, and 18 touchdowns and was by far the No. 1 target. But Richardson, Modster, Evans, and Thomas return, and BSU has five former three-star recruits at tight end, including 6’6 sophomore John Bates.

Add in slot receiver and return man Akilian Butler, who tore his ACL early in 2017, and it appears Rypien has all the efficiency targets he needs. Plus, Richardson averaged 18.1 yards per catch in those final seven games (replete with an 87-yard TD catch against Air Force), suggesting he can take on the vertical X-receiver role Wilson has left.

There are some exciting newcomers ready to challenge, too: three-star redshirt freshman Damon Cole, JUCO transfer John Hightower, and a quintet of touted freshmen, including four-star wideout Khalil Shakir and nearly-four-star tight end Tynell Hopper.

Richardson, Modster, and Butler are seniors, but pretty much everybody else in the receiving corps will be a sophomore or younger. We should get a glimpse of BSU’s present and future WRs.

In redshirt freshman or sophomore UTSA transfer Jaylon Henderson, we might get a few glimpses of BSU’s future QB, too.

Air Force v Boise State
A.J. Richardson
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Rypien’s injury was doubly harmful because the running game was still in what I’ll call a developmental phase. The Broncos had to replace 1,700-yard rusher Jeremy McNichols and three all-conference linemen, and the line was a shuffled mess — only left tackle Ezra Cleveland, a redshirt freshman, managed to start all 14 games.

The offense was a rising tide of sorts: as one area improved, so did everything else. Alexander Mattison went from averaging 4.6 yards per carry over the first seven games to 5.7 thereafter, and senior backup Ryan Wolpin went from 3.1 to 4.2 in the same span.

Mattison had a breakout performance in a thrilling comeback over CSU (23 carries, 242 yards, three touchdowns) before running out of steam. Sophomore Robert Mahone wasn’t incredible in the No. 3 role (3.3 yards per carry), but if he’s not ready to step up, then perhaps incoming freshmen Andrew VanBuren or Danny Smith will be.

The line has a new opportunity for stability: all-conference center Mason Hampton and right tackle Archie Lewis are gone, but the other five with starts are back, and Cleveland is no longer a freshman.

Defense

One assumes it’s only a matter of time before Andy Avalos ends up a head coach. Under the guidance of the second-year coordinator, BSU improved to 30th in Def. S&P+. The Broncos pulled off a tricky combination: big-play prevention (eighth in the country in IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of explosive gains), but with turnovers prowess.

BSU forced 15 fumbles (12th in FBS), defensed 66 passes (27th), parlaying those opportunities into 26 takeaways (16th). Just imagine what Avalos might do now that his defense has experience.

BSU pulled off improvement despite eight freshmen and seven sophomores in the rotation. The Broncos had a breakout star in weakside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who made 15.6 percent of BSU’s tackles and combined 8.5 tackles for loss with seven passes defensed and four forced fumbles. He declared for the NFL draft, but he’s almost all the Broncos have to replace. The top eight linemen, five of the top six linebackers, and seven of the top nine DBs all return. They are projected to enter the Def. S&P+ top 20.

NCAA Football: Mountain West Championship-Fresno State at Boise State
Jabril Frazier (8)
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Star power is still high.

  • End Curtis Weaver made 26.5 tackles last year as a redshirt freshman, and 11 were sacks. I laughed out loud typing that sentence. Senior ends Jabril Frazier and Durran Miles combined for 12.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, six passes defensed, and four forced fumbles opposite Weaver. This is one of the best end tandems in the nation.
  • Corners Avery Williams (another sophomore) and Tyler Horton combined for four picks and 19 pass breakups. Boundary safety Kekoa Nawahine and nickel Kekaula Kaniho (another damn sophomore) combined for 11 TFLs, four picks, and eight PBUs.
  • Four of five tackles are back, including 316-pound Sonatone Lui and speedy senior David Moa. And Harsin just signed a monstrous freshman in 334-pound Scale Igiehon.
  • At linebacker, Tyson Maeva and a foursome of sophomores are all back, as is 2016 contributor Blake Whitlock, who missed 2017 with a shoulder injury. The program also added Tony Lashley, a grad transfer from old rival Idaho and former All-Sun Belt guy.
  • Free safety DeAndre Pierce is back.

BSU has the experience it lacked and boasts depth a mid-major isn’t supposed to create. The Broncos basically played about five quarters of bad defense all year — the fourth quarter against Washington State and two each against Colorado State and Virginia — and it will be a little surprising any time they don’t dominate in 2018.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Boise State
Kekoa Nawahine
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

When your offense stinks for half the year and you still go 11-3, it probably means your defense wasn’t the only dominant unit. BSU ranked 29th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to a strong return game and decent legs.

Williams was even more dangerous in returns (a 24.7-yard average in kick returns, plus two punt return scores) than at cornerback, and the legs — punter Quinn Skillin, place-kicker Haden Hoggarth, and kickoffs maestro Joel Velazquez — return. No reason to think this won’t be a strong unit once more.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Troy 78 8.6 69%
8-Sep Connecticut 124 27.2 94%
15-Sep at Oklahoma State 19 -4.5 40%
29-Sep at Wyoming 72 8.2 68%
6-Oct San Diego State 55 9.9 72%
13-Oct at Nevada 101 15.2 81%
19-Oct Colorado State 95 18.5 86%
27-Oct at Air Force 112 17.7 85%
3-Nov BYU 76 13.6 78%
10-Nov Fresno State 44 7.6 67%
17-Nov at New Mexico 111 17.6 85%
24-Nov Utah State 77 13.6 78%
Projected S&P+ Rk 26
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 59 / 17
Projected wins 9.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.0 (27)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 65 / 65
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 9.5
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (54%, 88%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.0 (1.0)

Let’s see.

  • The defense was excellent and gets almost everybody back.
  • The special teams unit was very good and gets almost everybody back.
  • The offense improved dramatically and returns almost everybody responsible for the improvement (Rypien, Mattison, and the wideouts not named Cedrick Wilson).

That seems like a pretty exciting combination, doesn’t it?

BSU has all the pieces to become the class of the Group of 5 again this year. There will be tons of challenging games — early-season road trips to Troy and Oklahoma State, visits from SDSU and Fresno State, plus a visit to Air Force, where the Broncos have yet to win — but S&P+ projects the Broncos 26th overall, second to just UCF within the Group of 5, and projects them as the favorite in 11 of 12 games.

I’m not sure if this will be a great year, but it’ll be another very good one. Harsin has depth, athleticism, roster balance, and star power — young star power, too.

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