2016 season preview: Boise State Broncos
The Boise State Broncos have been one of the most consistent programs in the nation for a while now, so much so that last year’s 9-4 season was a disappointment. There have been some staff changes — most notably the arrival of Zak Hill as co-offensive coordinator and the promotion of Andy Avalos to defensive coordinator — but by and large head coach Bryan Harsin has a familiar support staff, and returns many of his most talented players.
A perennial BCS buster, Boise State has traditionally tried to crack the system from the outside without truly succeeding, but given their application to join the Big 12, they may now be following the “if you can’t beat them, join them” maxim.
Let’s take a look at their offense, defense, biggest star and breakout candidate entering the season:
The Broncos’ offense returns a lot of talent and should provide a challenge for every team on their schedule, led by sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien. A true freshman in 2015, Rypien didn’t open the season as the starter, rather he had to wait for the third game of the season against Idaho State, when an injury to Ryan Finley gave Rypien his chance – he never looked back. What followed was a series of (mostly) impressive performances that gave him the second-highest overall grade among an impressive true freshman class.
Freshman mistakes are expected of course, and Rypien made a few, but now he returns as an established starter, and one with some highly talented support players. In particular Rypien can lean on running back Jeremy McNichols and wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck, two of the most productive players in the country in 2015. Sperbeck had 88 receptions for 1337 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015, and had the sixth-highest grade among returning wide receivers in the nation. That rises to the second-highest grade is we remove the first two weeks of the season when Rypien didn’t play – their connection is key for Boise State.
On the offensive line they are without center Marcus Henry, who played more snaps than any other Boise State lineman last season. On the plus side, they do return their next four most featured linemen, Steven Baggett, Mario Yakoo, Travis Averill and Archie Lewis, all of whom graded positively.
Things are a little less clear cut on the defense, where most of the key players from 2015 have moved on, including the top four defensive linemen. It’s not all doom and gloom though, Sam McCaskill and Eliot Hoyte have seen significant playing time over the past two seasons and are likely to occupy two of the three starting positions on the line.
Replacing the pass rush of Kamalei Correa is a more pressing concern, and the burden is likely to fall on the fit again rush linebacker Gabe Perez, who sat out 2015 through injury. Perez had four sacks and 22 total pressures in a rotational role in 2014, they will look for him to ramp it up as a starter. Alongside Perez will be a trio of very experienced linebackers, Tanner Vallejo, Ben Weaver and Joe Martarano. Between them they have amassed 3290 snaps over the past two seasons, and all three have graded positively over that span. Vallejo in particular, he led the team with 37 defensive stops in 2015, and 59 in 2014, when he finished the season as the third-highest graded linebacker in the nation.
It’s a similar story in the secondary where they have lost their best players from 2015, but return plenty of experience, particularly in the form of senior corner Jonathan Moxey.
While the Rypien-Sperbeck combination is one key to the Broncos’ fortunes, speedy running back McNichols is definitely another. In this era of great running backs, it’s easy to overlook a player like McNichols, he lacks the hype of LSU’s Leonard Fournette, and receives far less national exposure than Stanford’s Christian McCaffery, and yet he finished 2015 with the fourth-highest overall grade among returning running backs.
In 2015, McNichols averaged 3.5 yards after contact and forced 57 missed tackles, that’s one missed tackle for every five touches on offense. He is also a talented receiver, catching 66 passes over the past two seasons without a single drop, and his combination of speed and elusiveness makes him dangerous in space once he has the ball. McNichol was a workhorse for the Broncos last season, accumulating 1797 yards of offense and 26 touchdowns – expect them to lean on him again in 2016
Cornerback Raymond Ford. The Broncos need someone to step up opposite Moxey and Ford should be that guy. Ford joined Boise State as a junior college transfer student ahead of the 2015 season, and earned a spot in the rotation as an outside cornerback. He acquitted himself well, he didn’t give up a touchdown, allowed a completion rate of just 33.3 percent on the 30 passes into his coverage, and had two picks and two further passes defensed. He finishing the year with the third-highest coverage grade on the team, and the highest among returning players.
The Broncos’ offense looks potent and could be good enough to see them safely navigate their Mountain West schedule. However, even if they were to sweep the conference (which wouldn’t be easy) they likely don’t have the meat on their schedule to catch the eye of the playoff committee. An out-of-conference slate of Louisiana-Lafayette, Washington State, Oregon State and BYU lacks the cache needed to propel a team from outside of the Power-5 into that conversation. A 10-win season and a return to the Mountain West title game is certainly a possibility.