Can Ryan Finley maintain the momentum of a very successful 2014 campaign at Boise State?
Boise State will look to win its third Fiesta Bowl.
The Boise State Broncos are starting a new era in 2014 with former head coach Chris Petersen moving on this offseason to take over the Washington Huskies. He leaves the program on a bit of a downturn after the team finished just 8-5 in 2013, the most losses in a season for Boise State 1998 (including Petersen’s largest margin of defeat in a 32 point shellacking at Washington). The timing was right for the Broncos to get a fresh start under new leadership in 2014.
But don’t expect things to change philosophically all that much in Boise as the team brought back Bryan Harsin to be the next head coach of the program. Harsin is a former offensive coordinator for Boise State who spent last season as the head coach of the Arkansas State Red Wolves where he emulated the Boise blueprint, going 8-5 in his one season at the helm. He’s filled out his staff with young, energetic coaches with Boise State ties who are hungry to return the Broncos to the top of the mid-major mountaintop.
Boise State looked like they were in trouble at quarterback when starter Joe Southwick went down with an injury but backup Grant Hedrick stepped in and played very well down the stretch. He finished the year completing 69 percent of his passes as he racked up 1,825 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in six starts. He flashed big-time playmaking ability in a five-touchdown, 305-yard performance against the Colorado State Rams last season and will get a full year under center to show what he can do in 2014.
At running back, the Broncos have solid depth though they lose their top reserve running back Aaron Baltazar to transfer. Jay Ajayi returns for his junior season after leading the team with 1,425 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns in 2013. Fumbles were an issue for Ajayi last season, however, and cost the Broncos dearly in close games. Look for Boise State to try and get more out of backups Jack Fields and Derrick Thomas to create a solid rotation while also utilizing the athletic talents of Hedrick at quarterback after he averaged 6.6 yards per carry last season as he racked up 351 yards rushing and six touchdowns on the ground.
The receiving corps takes a bit of a hit this offseason, losing three of the top five pass catchers from 2013 to graduation. Luckily, the top two receivers from last season, Matt Miller and Shane Williams-Rhodes, both return. Miller led the team as a junior with 88 catches for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns while Williams-Rhodes added 77 catches for 702 yards and six touchdowns. They were the clear leaders in the passing game, as no other receiver recorded more than 40 receptions last season, but will need someone to step up to fill the No. 3 and No. 4 receiver roles.
The defensive front takes a major hit heading into 2014 as the team loses three of their starters on the defensive line. They will have to find someone to step up and replace the production of Demarcus Lawrence at defensive end after he led the team with 20.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks a season ago. Look for Gabe Perez and Beau Martin to step up into featured roles after the pair combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2013 as the team’s top two returning disruptive linemen.
In the back seven, however, the team is loaded with experience. Basically every linebacker and secondary player of significance is back with the linebackers being led by sophomore Ben Weaver. As a freshman last season, Weaver led the team with 70 tackles, including four tackles for loss and a sack, and will be tasked with a bigger leadership role in 2014. Look for the coaching staff to get more aggressive with Weaver and the rest of the linebacker corps after the group managed just 1.5 sacks in 2013.
The secondary is similarly stacked with experience with a trio of playmakers who showed they can create turnovers in the passing game. Safety Darian Thompson and cornerback Bryan Douglas each had four interceptions in 2013 with Thompson adding a forced fumble and Douglas breaking up another nine passes. Leading the way, however, will be cornerback Conte Deayon who had a team-high six interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2013.
Boise State is poised for some quick success under Harsin thanks to one of the Mountain West Conference‘s most experienced groups and a favorable schedule. Last season, all five of the team’s losses came on the road, including the trip to Hawaii for the bowl game. This season, Boise State has all their biggest conference challenges on the friendly blue confines of Albertsons Stadium. It’s no guarantee that they will win all these games, but it gives them an excellent boost as they look to regain MWC supremacy.
They start the year off with a season-opener against the Ole Miss Rebels in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in the Georgia Dome. This will be a very big challenge for the Broncos and could knock them out of the national spotlight early, but it won’t be the end of their year by a long shot. The rest of their schedule is very Bronco-friendly with the Fresno State Bulldogs, BYU Cougars, San Diego State Aztecs, and Utah State Aggies coming to Boise.
While they likely aren’t going to match the level of those Boise State teams who were perennially in the top 10, this Broncos club should make a strong push for the Mountain West title and reclaim their position as one of the premier mid-major programs in college football. Look for Boise State to win around nine games this year.
One of the downfalls of having great coordinators and assistant coaches on your staff is that other schools will look to steal them away. It’s one of the unforeseen consequences of putting a solid staff together that finds some success. That’s the situation that Larry Fedora and the North Carolina Tar Heels find themselves this offseason as offensive coordinator Blake Anderson leaves Chapel Hill to become the next head coach of the Arkansas State Red Wolves.
Anderson has been with Fedora for the last six seasons including the last two at North Carolina as the offensive coordinator. With the Heels, Fedora and Anderson have built an up-tempo offensive machine that pushed the tempo on defenses and pressed an offensive advantage with some of the best in the ACC. This season, they averaged 32.2 points per game as they seemed to struggle a bit keeping up consistent offensive production, but still ranked No. 23 in the nation in passing averaging 286.3 yards per game.
At Arkansas State, Anderson will take over a program that has become a stepping stone for coaches to go on to bigger jobs after just one season. Anderson will be the fifth head coach of Arkansas State in the last five years. He’ll be replacing Bryan Harsin who left the program after one season at the helm to take over as head coach of the Boise State Broncos. Before that, Gus Malzahn spent one season as the head coach before he returned to the Auburn Tigers this season and led them to the BCS National Championship.
For North Carolina, Fedora says the team will take time to find the right fit for the next offensive coordinator. They will still be an up-tempo offense the presses the pace as Fedora has done at every stop in his coaching career. He recognizes that losing Anderson is a reflection of the work that he has done on the UNC staff and calls it an opportunity that he wholly deserves. Will a change at OC hurt the Heels in the Belk Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats and into 2014?