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Wyoming looks a little more like a Craig Bohl team each year

The Cowboys might be too young to compete for another division title, but they’re going to be fun and physical as hell.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Wyoming
Craig Bohl
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

It’s been a theme of many of my MWC previews thus far: this conference improved rapidly in 2018. San Jose State improved in S&P+ but went 1-11, UNLV improved but fell to 4-8, Air Force improved but remained 5-7, etc.

It was a bad time to have to find yourself, in other words.

After back-to-back eight-win seasons and a 2016 MWC East title, Wyoming and head coach Bohl headed into 2018 with a redshirt freshman at quarterback (Tyler Vander Waal). The Cowboys lost their top two returning running backs (Trey Woods and Kellen Overstreet), most explosive wide receiver (CJ Johnson), and starting right guard (Gavin Rush) to injury before the season.

Then, during the season, both lines got detonated by injuries and shuffling. The OL ended up giving more than 60 percent of its starts to freshmen and sophomores.

Wyoming was a team in flux, even more than expected, and while the defense remained excellent (41st in Def. S&P+ after ranking 36th in 2017), the offense had to figure itself out. By the time it did, the Cowboys had already played five teams that would finish 31st or better in S&P+ — Missouri and Washington State in non-conference play, then Fresno State, Boise State, and Utah State within the MWC. The result: a 2-6 start with four losses by at least 20 points.

And yet, the Cowboys finished bowl eligible. The schedule eased up, and a change at quarterback prompted a change in identity.

With true freshman Sean Chambers behind center, the Cowboys’ offense turned into an old-school meat grinder. Not including sacks, Chambers and running back Nico Evans combined for 44 carries and 233 yards. They averaged 50 and 297 over the next two games (wins, both) as well.

Chambers was lost with injury the next week against Air Force, but Vander Waal led a comeback win. Evans and backup Xazavian Valladay combined for 334 rushing yards in an easy win over New Mexico.

By the end, Wyoming had become the nasty team Bohl dreams of. Chambers returned healthy for spring practice, and he and Vander Waal have been battling for the No. 1 job. (If it seems as if Chambers should be the no-brainer pick, realize that he never really had to throw the ball. He threw only 23 passes in his three full games. So we didn’t get a complete picture.)

You can sort of see whatever you want to in Wyoming. Chambers could be the second coming of Collin Klein — thick (6’3, 215) and durable enough to carry a rushing load and just good enough at passing to punish preoccupied defenses — and the offensive line returns eight players with starting experience. The linebacking corps is scary, every cornerback from a dynamite pass defense returns, and while there are quite a few linemen to replace on defense, the Cowboys got a head start, with all the injuries they had to deal with last year.

Of course, they are still going to be led by either a redshirt freshman or sophomore quarterback. Valladay is the only returning RB who had a carry last season, and while CJ Johnson is back, leading receiver James Price isn’t. The line still has to replace two stalwarts who combined for 86 career starts, and the defensive line really does have a lot to replace.

Wyoming could become scarier and scarier over the next couple of seasons. But the Cowboys are still going to be awfully young this year, and the MWC is still going to be awfully good.

Offense

Even with Vander Waal behind center, Wyoming was a run-heavy team. It’s in both Bohl’s and coordinator Brent Vigen’s DNA. When Wyoming won the division in 2016, it was powered by running back Brian Hill, who carried the ball almost as many times (349) as quarterback Josh Allen threw it (373).

That probably means big things for Valladay. He very much looked like the redshirt freshman he was in 2018, producing only a 34 percent success rate to Evans’ 45 percent. But after gaining just 181 yards on 45 carries in the first 10 games, he exploded for 215 in 26 in the last two.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Wyoming
Xazavian Valladay
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t even pretend to worry about the line. Rush returns, and if Wyoming could rush for all those yards late in 2018 with a ton of freshmen and sophomores up front, it can do so with sophomores and juniors.

I can find concern for the backfield, though. Even if Valladay takes a permanent step forward, he’s going to need some help, and it would likely come from either redshirt freshman Reow Jackson or one of three three-star true freshmen. That’s not a recipe for efficiency.

Without run efficiency, the pass quickly gets dicey. That is true for all of college football, but it’s particularly true for Wyoming. The Cowboys ranked 48th in rushing marginal efficiency but only 122nd in passing marginal efficiency -- 77th on standard downs but 118th on passing downs.

Vander Waal was dramatically up-and-down, even for a freshman. He produced a 145.1 passer rating against Boise State and a 151.9 against Air Force. But he was not only below 100 (horrible by the college formula) on five occasions, he was below 60 on three. Against Wazzu, Utah State, and New Mexico, he was a combined 19-for-56 for 146 yards and two interceptions. That’s as bad as you’ll ever see, and it’s why Chambers got an opportunity.

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Boise State
C.J. Johnson
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Chambers made the most of his pass opportunities, going 15-for-25 for 266 yards and three scores. Wyoming’s fate may rest on how representative that tiny sample turns out to be.

The receiving corps indeed has to replace Price and tight ends Tyree Mayfield and Austin Fort. If there’s good news, it’s that Price wasn’t particularly efficient as a No. 1 target; his production was replaceable even though he had explosive moments.

The bad news is that none of the returnees were that efficient either. Johnson’s return should assure explosiveness potential — he averaged 17.7 yards per catch as a sophomore in 2017 — but reliability could still be an issue. Seniors Austin Conway and Raghib Ismail Jr. did combine for a 55 percent catch rate (good for Wyoming, anyway), but they averaged a paltry 9.2 yards per catch, and their success rate was actually lower than Price’s despite Price’s far-too-low 46 percent catch rate.

The hopes have to be that Chambers is a standout in fall camp, that a Chambers-Valladay backfield both produces and stays healthy, and that this opens up play-action opportunities to Johnson and company. But a few too many second-and-9s or third-and-7s would wreck this.

Defense

It took a while for Bohl to replicate the defensive culture he built while winning a billion games at North Dakota State, but once it began to take hold, it evidently locked in. After averaging a Def. S&P+ ranking of 113 in Bohl’s first three seasons, the Cowboys surged to 36th in 2017, then held at 41st last year despite an extended visit from the injury bug.

Leading returning linemen Carl Granderson, Youhanna Ghaifan, and Kevin Prosser missed games, and exciting emerging tackle Javaree Jackson missed half the season.

This hurt the pass rush a ton — the Cowboys ranked only 114th in sack rate, 100th on passing downs — but the combination of line depth and a strong back seven meant that the run defense still had some punch at times. The Cowboys were a decent 58th in Rushing S&P+ and only allowed four-plus yards on 43 percent of non-sack carries (24th).

NCAA Football: Poinsettia Bowl-Brigham Young vs Wyoming
Antonio Hull
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary was outstanding. The Cowboys allowed only 1.3 gains per game of 30-plus yards, ninth in FBS, and they ranked ninth in Passing S&P+ despite the total lack of pressure on the quarterback.

There’s good news and bad news in the back. Safety Alijah Halliburton and corners Antonio Hull and Tyler Hall (who also plays a mean nickel) are all back. Halliburton was as good in pass coverage as anyone on the team, and Hull and Hall combined for three INTs and 17 pass breakups. Three-star sophomore C.J. Coldon could be ready for a larger role, too.

The bad news is that safeties Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps are gone. They were outstanding in both making (nine combined TFLs, 14 run stuffs, and 11 passes defensed) and preventing plays. While coordinator Scottie Hazelton — who left to become Kansas State’s coordinator — played as many guys as possible up front, he deployed basically five guys in the secondary, and maybe the two most important are gone. Sophomore Keyon Blakenbaker could be ready to make plays at nickel, but there are obvious question marks.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Wyoming
Logan Wilson (30)
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

So that’s challenge No. 1 for new DC Jake Dickert. But since he served as safeties coach over the last two years, he knows the new starting candidates.

Dickert was the coordinator for some tremendous Minnesota State-Mankato defenses before joining Bohl’s staff in 2016. His Maverick defenses pressured the passer well, but it’s unclear where Wyoming’s pressure will come from. End Garrett Call, the only of the DL regulars to play in all 12 games, did lead the team, but with only 4.5 sacks. The next returnees are senior end Josiah Hall and linebacker Logan Wilson, who had two each.

The run defense could pick up some slack. Wilson was a heat-seeking missile against the run, leading the team with 17 stuffs and nine non-sack TFLs. Fellow senior Cassh Malula isn’t exactly chopped liver either, and three-star sophomore (and Wyoming legacy) Chad Muma appears to be a spring standout.

Despite attrition, Jackson and Raveontae Holt return at tackle. Depth there could be questionable, but that’s a solid starting point.

Special Teams

Cooper Rothe was a one-man special teams unit in 2018. Wyoming got next to nothing from its return game, and neither of two punters, Tim Zaleski nor Dontae Crow, could prevent Wyoming from ranking in the bottom 15 of punt efficiency.

Thanks to Rothe, though, UW ranked 56th in Special Teams S&P+. Opponents started at or behind their 25 after 87 percent of his kickoffs (28th in FBS), and he not only didn’t miss a kick inside of 40 yards, he went 5-for-6 on longer FGs. He was second in FG efficiency and ended up a Groza Award finalist. He’s back, which means the Cowboys will at least break even in special teams.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Missouri 16 -19.6 13%
7-Sep at Texas State 102 1.6 54%
14-Sep Idaho NR 19.5 87%
21-Sep at Tulsa 95 -1.2 47%
28-Sep UNLV 100 5.3 62%
12-Oct at San Diego State 54 -12.0 24%
19-Oct New Mexico 115 13.1 78%
26-Oct Nevada 83 -0.2 50%
9-Nov at Boise State 24 -19.7 13%
16-Nov at Utah State 42 -14.7 20%
23-Nov Colorado State 109 10.6 73%
30-Nov at Air Force 90 -3.6 42%
Projected S&P+ Rk 92
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 107 / 68
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.7 (95)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 104
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 4.3
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 49% (52%, 46%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.3 (-0.3)

2019 will be a test of culture. There are key departures at running back and safety and on both lines, and the Cowboys rank 120th in returning production. But if Chambers is ready to shine, and some of the sophomores and juniors who have been in the program for a few years are ready to step up, this might be when the culture Bohl built in Fargo starts to sustain itself in Laramie.

Or, hey, maybe that doesn’t happen until next year. S&P+ projects Wyoming to fall to 92nd thanks to the iffy returning production, and that puts the Pokes on the precipice of projected bowl eligibility for what would be the second straight year. It wouldn’t surprise me if they exceeded those projections, but it’s not a given.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.