The Rant Sports 100 Teams in 100 Days College Football Preview continues with #24, the Boise State Broncos.
Boise State is college football’s perennial overachiever – the team routinely racks up double-digit win seasons and conference championships but they’re always on the outside looking in during bowl season.
That might change soon: the Broncos are in their second and final season in the Mountain West before joining the Big East in 2013. Before they go, they want an MWC title to take with them. Last year, TCU upset Boise State on a field goal to snatch the championship. (Fun Fact: Boise State is two missed field goals from a 40-game win streak.) With TCU already in the Big East, the Broncos have their eyes on the prize – but 2012’s team will look much different from the team that was thisclose to an undefeated season in 2011.
The Broncos return just five starters, and the players they need to replace left massive holes. The biggest loss is quarterback Kellen Moore, a four-year starter and college football’s winningest quarterback, who had 142 touchdowns and just 28 interceptions in his career. His top target, Tyler Shoemaker, is also gone, as is running back Doug Martin, a first-round draft pick. The team also loses leading tackler Byron Hout along with a slew of All-Conference players: offensive tackle Nate Potter, defensive linemen Shea McClellin and Tyrone Crawford, and safety George Iloka.
Boise State has become a factory that churns out productive, successful teams year after year – but after graduating so many players on both sides of the ball, can they reload and make 2012 their personal Mountain West Farewell Tour?
One of the key players will be the quarterback, although the Broncos don’t have one yet. They have four guys competing for the job – junior Joe Southwick, sophomore Grant Hedrick, redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea and true freshman Nick Patti. Southwick got most of the snaps in the spring game and is the frontrunner based on his years with the program, but Patti’s making a push to start.
Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of a strong supporting cast. Three of Moore’s top four receivers return, as do four offensive linemen. The receivers are all reliable, and together, they’ll keep the passing game productive.
Also easing the transition is sixth-year senior D.J. Harper. Harper had 568 yards and 9 touchdowns last season, but he’s struggled with injuries throughout his career. He’s a precise, explosive runner, and he’ll have a big year if he stays healthy. Senior Drew Wright and redshirt freshmen Jay Ajayi will shoulder some of the workload to help keep Harper on the field, as will senior fullback Dan Paul, who was missed last season with an injury. True freshmen Devan Demas and Jack Fields will also get chances to play.
Everyone’s focusing on replacing the top offensive playmakers, but head coach Chris Petersen says the focus should be on the defense, which returns just two starters.
The concern is the defensive line, which breaks in four new starters. Senior Michael Atkinson will provide stability at nose tackle, and junior Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, who missed half of last season due to suspension, should make an even bigger mark this year. The team also hopes Demarcus Lawrence, a JUCO All-American last year, will give the pass rush a big boost.
The secondary should be the strength of the defense. Seniors Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins are quick, instinctive, experienced corners. Sophomore Lee Hightower, who played his way into a starting cornerback role as a true freshman, moves to safety, where he’s a more natural fit.
Senior linebacker J.C. Percy hasn’t missed a game during his career, but this season will be his first as a full-time starter. Sophomore Blake Renaud, who had 10 tackles as a true freshman, will likely win the start at middle linebacker and could steal the show.
The Broncos’ trip to Michigan State on opening weekend is the team’s biggest obstacle to an undefeated season. Their other nonconference test, against BYU, also comes in the first month of the season. Even in a rebuilding year, Boise State should breeze through their Mountain West schedule. Their final game, against Nevada, is the only one that might give them trouble.
The weak MWC schedule will help the Broncos win out even after losing so many key players, but as usual, it’ll work against them when it comes to bowl invitations. The Broncos don’t have any meaningful games late in the year, so if the new players are still building chemistry and slip in the early nonconference tests, they can’t make up for it later.