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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 75: Idaho

It took a bit, but Robb Akey has these Vandals sacking the opposition. Like old times.

Now that Idaho has won — has finally won, rather — can the Vandals handle the expectations surrounding an eight-win team? To be sure, there’s a difference between coming off a bowl season and a two-win season: your own confidence is higher, your faith is confirmed, but an eight-win team does not sneak up anyone; the WAC is ready for these Vandals. So, Idaho. Congratulations. I couldn’t be happier for you. Now, about last year’s ranking…

Conference
WAC

Location
Moscow, Id.

Nickname
Vandals

Returning starters
14 (4 offense, 10 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 119

2009 record
(8-5, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 60

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    North Dakota St.
  • Sept. 11
    at Nebraska
  • Sept. 18
    U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 25
    at Colorado St.
  • Oct. 2
    at Western Michigan
  • Oct. 16
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 23
    New Mexico St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Hawaii
  • Nov. 6
    Nevada
  • Nov. 13
    Boise St.
  • Nov. 20
    at Utah St.
  • Nov. 27
    at Fresno St.
  • Dec. 4
    San Jose St.

Last year’s prediction

The Vandals get seven straight games (from Northern Illinois to Boise State) against teams with at least six wins in 2008, as difficult a stretch as any non-B.C.S. conference team in the country has. How many wins can they eke out of that stretch? Maybe one? Over all, if the Vandals can patch together a decent pass rush, the team defense will be better than a season ago. However, even with a defensive improvement the Vandals will be underdogs in nearly every game this season. I can’t see them being any better than a season ago: 2-10, with the possibility of a WAC upset pushing them to 3-9.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A wonderful season. I was not the only one to expect the Vandals not just to struggle in 2009, but to be outright terrible: most, if not all, believed this team only slightly improved — if improved at all — over its 2008 version. And, to be honest, there was not that great an improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The Vandals held their first seven opponents to 22.6 points per game; not surprisingly, this team opened with six wins in seven tries. Over the last six games, however, it was the same old Vandals: 48.7 points per game — a combined 133 points against Nevada and Boise State — to go with their 2-4 mark. So how did this team shock the WAC to win eight games? Offense — plenty of offense. Idaho scored 425 points, a program record on the F.B.S. level, cracking the 30-point barrier eight times.

High point One could very well cite the 6-1 start, one marred only by a road loss at Washington. Or a come-from-behind win over Louisiana Tech on Oct. 31, which virtually guaranteed Idaho’s first bowl appearance in more than a decade. To me, however, the high point of Idaho’s season was a 43-42 Humanitarian Bowl victory over Bowling Green: Akey channeled his inner Tom Osborne with a gutsy two-point conversion call with four seconds remaining to provide the final one-point margin.

Low point A few signs of the Idaho we used to know and love. The Vandals allowed 70 points and 484 yards of rushing offense in a loss at Nevada on Oct. 24; 63 points at Boise on Nov. 14; and 52 points two weeks later in a humbling home loss to Utah State. U.S.U. had scored more than 42 points in a game only twice since 2002.

Tidbit My 59-spot miss on Idaho, while awful, was not my biggest error from last summer’s Countdown. I predicted Illinois to be the 27th-best team in the land heading into the season; the Illini finished No. 90 in my post-season re-ranking. That’s a 63-spot miss. In other bad news, I said on a podcast last August with the great Wiz of Odds that — and I don’t recall the exact wording — it’s always nice to know Idaho would be one of the worst five teams in the country, that it makes my job a little easier; and that Illinois would be one of the bounce-back teams in the F.B.S. in 2009.

Tidbit (defense edition) Idaho has allowed at least 413 points in eight of the last nine years, including 468 points a season ago. In fact, Idaho has allowed fewer than 27 points only 14 times since 2005. Yes, only 14 opponents scored fewer than 27 points on the Vandals over the last half-decade.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 P T.J. Conley (New York Jets), OG Mike Iupati (San Francisco), WR Max Komar (Arizona), RB Rolly Lumbala (Miami), OG Jake Scott (Tennessee), LB David Vobora (St. Louis), FB Eddie Williams (Chicago), RB DeMaundray Woolridge (St. Louis).

Arbitrary top five list

Most intimidating barbarian tribe
1. Huns.
2. Mongols.
3. Vandals.
4. Visigoths.
5. Avars.

Coaching

Robb Akey (Weber State ’88), 11-27 over three seasons at Idaho. Last fall saw the former Washington State defensive coordinator, 3-21 through two years in Moscow, lead the program to its most wins since 1998 and second-most in a single season since joining the F.B.S. a year earlier. Let’s give the man a hand. Idaho, long on the fringes of the F.B.S., went from potentially hitting rock bottom in 2008 – the 21 losses from 2007-8 was a new program two-year low – to experiencing the highs of a bowl trip and win right in its own backyard. His team’s success in 2009 vaulted Akey into the mix with a handful of openings in the F.B.S. this past offseason, though he did not interview for or receive serious interest from any open job. Perhaps other programs are waiting for Akey – who did sign an extension after the season – to duplicate last season’s success, which, with all due respect to Akey, would be wise. However, there is no denying the effect he has had on this program, which can begin to put more distance between itself and its well below-average past with another solid season in 2010. Unfortunately for Idaho, another winning season and bowl trip would make Akey’s name even more appetizing to programs searching for a new coach. Given Washington State’ disastrous two seasons under Paul Wulff, would the Cougars come calling on Akey as their next coach? One thing about Akey’s future is perfectly clear: unlike Tom Cable and Nick Holt, big names who flamed out with the Vandals, he’ll always be known as the coach who won at Idaho.

Players to watch

It’s been nothing short of a pleasure to watch senior Nathan Enderle develop as a quarterback on the college level over the last three years. Since I always admit when I’m wrong — I’ve done so multiple times in this preview alone — let me take some credit when I’m right: I was high on Enderle, then a rising sophomore, in my 2008 preview, when I cited his big-time arm and prototypical size as a reason to expect at least a modicum of improvement over the remainder of his college career. He’s lived up to my expectations and more over the past two years, throwing for 2,906 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall despite sharing snaps with JUCO transfer Brian Reader. Most impressively, Enderle has increased his completion percentage since bottoming out as a freshman, completing only 44 percent of his attempts: last fall, the senior hit on 61.5 percent of his throws. There was some thought last season that Reader, not Enderle, was the best fit for this offense. While Reader played admirably when called upon, this is Enderle’s team. He is poised for a big final season.

Losing Max Komar hurts: he was Enderle’s favorite target last fall, nearly doubling his previous career totals with 62 receptions for 1,052 yards and 11 scores, all team bests. While one of the returning receivers must step up into a larger role, there is enough talent on this roster to expect little drop-off in the passing game; in fact, I think Idaho will be even better throwing the ball in 2010 than it was a season ago. This is due to players like senior tight end Daniel Hardy, who exploited mismatches with opposing second-level defenders to the tune of 39 catches for 691 yards; that’s good for a superb 17.7 yards per reception average. Maurice Shaw (32 catches for 666 yards, a team-leading 20.3 yards per catch) and Preston Davis (33 for 460) will lead a deep receiver corps, one that will again allow Idaho to rotate at least six pass-catchers into the mix. Expect senior Eric Greenwood to grab the third starting receiver spot.

The Vandals have some big shoes to fill at running back, where it must replace the production of former Washington State transfer De’Maundray Woolridge: 979 yards and 18 touchdowns. Idaho does return two experienced backs, however, and this pair will be called upon to provide balance to this offense. The first is junior Princeton McCarty, who chipped in with 680 yards rushing a year ago. McCarty was also a valuable receiving option out of the backfield, making 11 grabs for 202 yards, including a key 58-yard scoring catch in Idaho’s win over Northern Illinois. Senior Deonte’ Jackson brings 18 career starts to his final season; his 387 yards in 2009 ranked third on the team. The Vandals will likely turn to sophomore Troy Vital in an effort to add a between-the-tackle rusher to the mix. Vital, a 210-yard rusher in 2008, redshirted last season.

There is reason to believe this Idaho defense will improve in 2010. The most meaningful rationale for such a statement, of course, is the 10 returning starters from a season ago. The second factor is increased depth across the board, impressively so in the secondary. According to the Idaho staff, the Vandals can feel comfortable turning to as many six cornerbacks to combat some of the WAC’s high-powered passing attacks. That might be wishful thinking, but Idaho does bring back four cornerbacks with meaningful game experience: sophomore Aaron Grymes, junior Kenneth Patten and seniors Isaac Butts and Eric Hunter. The star of the secondary, of course, is the talented senior free safety Shiloh Keo, who paced the Vandals with 113 tackles and 3 interceptions a season ago. The unexpected departure of Virdell Larkins shortly before the start of the 2009 season allowed players like sophomore Gary Walker and senior Brandon Artz to earn significant game action at strong safety a year ago; expect that pair to battle for the starting role in 2010. This group must improve; Idaho, yet again, finished with one of the worst numbers against the pass last fall. Yet with Keo, two experienced contributors at strong safety and options at cornerback, this might be the best Idaho secondary in years.

The front seven returns intact. The Vandals are led at linebacker by senior JoJo Dickson, who finished second on the team in tackles (79) and interceptions (2). He’ll man the strong side, with senior Paul Senescall (51 tackles, 4.5 for loss) back in the middle and junior Robert Siavii (58 stops, third on the team) again manning the weak side. As in the secondary, there will plenty of depth at the position: leading reserve Tre’Shawn Robinson chipped in with 49 stops (5.5 for loss), sophomore strong side linebacker Conrad Scheidt is poised to step into a larger role and JUCO transfer Homer Mauga is expected to make an immediate impact.

Second-team all-WAC defensive end Aaron Lavarias, a senior, paced Idaho with four sacks a season ago. Lavarias also led all defensive linemen with 54 tackles (8 for loss). His development as a junior, which came after earning only a single start over his first two seasons, can be at least somewhat attributed to the solid play of interior linemen Jonah Sataraka and Michael Cosgrove, who combined for 64 tackles and 6 sacks a season ago. Depth on the interior of the line was a slight concern last fall; Idaho hopes to address this lack of depth with the addition of JUCO transfer Aaron Strumski, who is expected to quickly break into the tackle rotation. Junior end Andre Ferguson (34 tackles) will join Lavarias in the starting lineup, with sophomore Benson Mayowa and junior Charles Smith again holding secondary roles. One key for this defensive front: landing an improved pass rush; the Vandals counted for only 15 sacks a year ago. As we all know, a healthy pass rush can help overcome a questionable secondary.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line A major concern heading into the fall, the Idaho offensive line returns only 19 career starts, one of the smallest totals in the country. Nearly all of those starts come in the body of junior left tackle Matt Cleveland, who spent all of 2009 in the starting lineup after missing his freshman season with a broken leg. He’s now a team leader; last season, he was the youngest cog in a veteran, experienced offensive front. Fellow junior Tyrone Novikoff, a five-game starter on the strong side as a freshman, will start at right tackle. Perhaps the biggest question heading into September is which returning contributor will replace all-American Mike Iupati at left guard. As of now, the edge goes to sophomore Guy Reynolds, who has yet to earn any significant action with the Vandals, though JUCO transfer Sam Tupua — who is positively mammoth — is likely the most capable option for Akey and his staff. Tupua could double at center, where little-used senior Clell Hassenbank earned some positive feedback during the spring. Senior Tevita Halaholo is the favorite at right guard after serving five games in a reserve role a year ago. One thing is perfectly clear: barring a miracle — or some great coaching — this group pales in comparison to last season’s starting front. Idaho can only hope it rounds into form once the team enters the heart of WAC play.

Game(s) to watch

A road date with Hawaii on Oct. 30. In my opinion, the Warriors and Vandals are nearly neck-and-neck in terms of landing the WAC’s last bowl bid. Much will be decided when Idaho travels to Hawaii to end October. I suppose you could say the same of Fresno State, where the Vandals go on Nov. 27, but I think the Bulldogs a step above both U.H. and Idaho.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I don’t think Idaho can replicate last season’s success. Not to say I don’t believe this season cannot be deemed a success, merely that I think we’ll see Idaho fall slightly short of bowl play, landing likely five, though perhaps six wins from its 13-game schedule. My rationale, sure to anger the Idaho fan base, is simple — if hard to define: the Vandals were able to sneak up on teams last fall, particularly in the early going, and will not have that luxury in 2010. Perhaps the second half of 2009 gave us a taste of what to expect from the Vandals in this coming season; I don’t think Idaho will struggle that much defensively, however, thanks to the 10 returning starters and increased depth on that side of the ball. Surprisingly, while I believe the defense far from steady, my largest concern may be with this rebuilt offensive line. If — and it’s a sizable if — Idaho can patch together a line able to keep Enderle clean and open up holes for its deep backfield, the offense may very well again be able to carry this squad to seven wins. I’m going to play it safe: five or six wins, just a touch shy of bowl eligibility. Of course, we all know how playing it safe went for me last summer. Regardless, it’s a statement to the job Akey has done reversing Idaho’s losing culture that a five-win campaign could be construed as a letdown.

Dream season Idaho has no problem raising the bar, landing eight regular season wins for the first time on the F.B.S. level.

Nightmare season No, this team has little danger of falling back into the 10-loss range. It would therefore be a nightmare if the Vandals slid to say, 3-9, and if the offense was largely unable to duplicate last season’s success.

In case you were wondering

Where do Idaho fans congregate? Yet again, all I have is GoVandals.net. I suppose you could also check out the Web site of The Idaho Statesman, though the paper is very heavy on the Boise State coverage. As always, list your favorite choice below. I don’t care if it’s your personal blog about your favorite team — it can be your mom’s blog, as long as it’s college football-related — if you post it in the comment field below, I’ll link to it in this section. Brian, as you can see below, took advantage of the opportunity. Per his suggestions, take a look at the Web site of the Lewiston Tribune and the blog Vandal Nation.

Up Next

Who is No. 74? If its motto is to be taken literally, our next university asks each of its students to act like a man, but talk like a woman.

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Comments

  1. Colin says:

    I think that’s the state motto of Maryland?

  2. Jay says:

    University of Maryland Motto:

    Motto: Fatti maschii, parole femine
    Motto in English: Manly deeds, womanly words

  3. Alan says:

    Are you playing Dragon Age?

  4. Zaboo says:

    In retrospect, this article is not “nasty and inebriated” enough…

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