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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. 76: Wyoming

Hold on tight: Wyoming might go from down (2008), to up (2009) to back down again.

So much for that one-year rebuilding plan I touted in last year’s preview. I suppose I should have expected nothing less from the man largely responsible for the proliferation of the balanced, no-huddle spread offense so popular on the college level. Dave Christensen’s auspicious debut saw Wyoming return to bowl play after a five-year absence: a satisfying start for a coach who, at the time of his hiring, was the most underappreciated assistant in major college football. For his efforts, Christensen landed a one-year contract extension — and the respect he has long deserved.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Laramie, Wyo.

Nickname
Cowboys

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 111

2009 record
(7-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 67

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Southern Utah
  • Sept. 11
    at Texas
  • Sept. 18
    Boise St.
  • Sept. 25
    Air Force
  • Oct. 2
    at Toledo
  • Oct. 9
    at T.C.U.
  • Oct. 16
    Utah
  • Oct. 23
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 30
    San Diego St.
  • Nov. 6
    at at New Mexico
  • Nov. 13
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Nov. 20
    Colorado St.

Last year’s prediction

I predict some difficulties for Wyoming this fall as the team experiences the growing pains associated with learning the intricacies of Christensen’s new offense. This, when combined with the normal learning period that comes with any coaching change, makes them my pick to finish last in a very, very strong Mountain West. Having said that, there is reason to believe that the team may surprise some people. For starters, this team did win four games last fall (albeit only one in conference play) with a pitiful offensive attack. But a difficult nonconference schedule (Florida Atlantic is going to be a tough game), combined with a deadly M.W.C. stretch (from Air Force through T.C.U.), will doom the Pokes to a rebuilding season.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Cardiac Cowboys? Has that name been taken yet? Wyoming was given fans palpitations throughout a very satisfying 2009, winning six games by a touchdown or less — trailing in the fourth quarter in each of its last five wins. Let me tell you: they build plaques for title-winning team, hang banners for conference championship, bowl berths and all-Americans. Often, however, the most unforgettable seasons are merely those that come up and bite you, especially when your squad exceeds expectations. While some predicted Wyoming to challenge for a bowl berth — I sure didn’t, unfortunately — the seven-win 2009, when taken in conjunction with the manner in which the Cowboys won most games, made last year the most memorable in the last decade of Wyoming football. You know what’s the only problem with success? Now people are going to expect it every season. I’m looking at you, Dave Christensen.

High point Seven victories coming by an average of 6.7 points, though that total is skewed by a 37-13 rout of New Mexico on Oct. 10. The most satisfying win, however, was a 17-16 defeat of Colorado State in the final game of the regular season. That pushed Wyoming to six wins on the season and into the New Mexico Bowl, where it upset Fresno State by a touchdown.

Low point Good teams had their way with the Cowboys: Texas, Air Force, Utah, B.Y.U. and T.C.U. outscored Wyoming by 170-30. In hindsight, a 24-0 loss at home to Colorado in September was especially sour.

Tidbit A good omen for the future of this program: Wyoming started nine true freshmen last fall, tied for the second-most in the F.B.S. with Tulsa. Texas A&M started the most first-year players, 12, while Air Force, with 20, played the most true freshmen. The Cowboys played 12 true freshmen, tied for the sixth-most in the country.

Apple turnovers are good. Turnovers on the field? Not so much.

Tidbit (turnovers edition) We all know just how important the turnover battle can be. If you didn’t, well, you wouldn’t be reading this preview. I can accept that. Take a look at how Wyoming reversed its fortunes from 2008 to 2009: from 118th in the country in turnover margin in Joe Glenn’s final season — minus 1.8 turnovers per game, which is staggering — to 17th in the nation last fall, plus-eight overall. The Cowboys forced 22 turnovers while giving the ball away 14 times; maybe this new coach knows what he’s doing.

Tidbit (simple addition edition) I make it my job to read every team’s media guide from cover to cover. I have a great job. One thing stood out to me when looking through Wyoming’s — which, I should add, is typically among the most in-depth in the country: I was somewhat surprised to see Wyoming’s defensive statistics, which listed five players with at least 98 stops — the only team in the country to do so. Was this the result of some creative fudging from the university’s athletic department? I don’t think so. Firstly, this was not a deep defense; there was not an optimal amount of rotation on defense. Secondly, Wyoming was in position to make a high number of tackles on the season (1,066 in total). By my count, the team was eligible to make 854 total stops: that’s adding up the 511 rushing attempts and 257 completed passes by the opposition; the 45 kick returns and 36 punt returns by opposing special teams; and the seven Wyoming interceptions and seven lost fumbles. I understand not every play results in a tackle. Yet it’s logical that with shared tackles to go with the individual stops, Wyoming would have made more than 1,000 tackles on the season. And it’s logical that five players on a thin defense would have made at least 98 tackles.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 DT John Fletcher (Baltimore), WR Malcolm Floyd (San Diego), OT Adam Goldberg (St. Louis), LB Weston Johnson (Atlanta), S Derrick Martin (Green Bay), RB Devin Moore (Indianapolis), OT Ryan Otterson (San Diego), DE Mitch Unrein (Houston), S John Wendling (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Actors that appeared in “Young Guns” or “Young Guns II”
1. Viggo Mortensen.
2. Charlie Sheen.
3. James Coburn.
4. Jack Palance.
5. Kiefer Sutherland.

Coaching

Dave Christensen (Western Washington ’85), 7-6 after one season with the Cowboys. Christensen came to Laramie from Missouri, where he spent the last eight seasons as the offensive coordinator. Prior to Missouri, Christensen served as an assistant at Toledo (1992-2000)), also under Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. His extensive tenure as an F.B.S. offensive coordinator has shown Christensen to be one of the nation’s top offensive minds. From 2005, when it first made the switch from a traditional offense to the pass-happy, no-huddle spread, until Christensen’s departure in 2008, Missouri went 37-16, including 22-6 over his final two seasons. Christensen finished second in the voting for the 2007 Frank Broyles Award, honoring the top assistant coach in the country. To see just how effective this offense can be, look no further than the dynamic, quick-strike capabilities of the Missouri offense as piloted by Chase Daniel, the two-time Heisman contender. While the Daniel-led offense focused on the pass, Christensen tinkered with the look to give his predecessor, Brad Smith, more running opportunities, showing how the attack can be altered to match personnel. Christensen’s offensive background is undoubtedly what attracted Wyoming, but his hands-on experience in program building is another strong asset. Under Pinkel, Christensen helped build winners at Toledo (73-37-3 from 1991-2000) and Missouri (59-41 from 2000-8); the Tigers won only 60 games in the 16 years before their arrival. For Wyoming, a program that has recently fallen behind the top teams in the Mountain West Conference, landing a coach of Christensen’s stature is a welcome stroke of good luck. I believed heading into last season that the Missouri assistant would suffer one rebuilding season before leading the Cowboys into bowl contention. Now that Christensen has already led Wyoming into bowl play, his goal will be to maintain his solid start.

Players to watch

This offense was my prime concern heading into last season. The Cowboys were expected to break in a new cast of characters will learning a new, often complex offensive system. Not exactly a recipe for success, or so I thought. However, while the offense was far off from where it will someday be under Christensen — only 18.3 points per game — the Cowboys were able to do just enough to eke out those aforementioned narrow victories. This group should be more potent in 2010. Returning under center is sophomore Austyn Carta- Samuels, the reigning M.W.C. Freshman of the Year. He started the final 10 games of last season, throwing for 1,953 yards and 10 scores against only five interceptions. He’ll be better as a second-year player, as Carta-Samuels will have a much stronger grasp of the offense and confidence in his own abilities.

His favorite target is clearly senior David Leonard, one of the finest possession receivers in the Mountain West. He won’t burn you deep, but Leonard, thanks to his strong frame and hands, can help move the chains. He made 77 receptions for 705 yards and 3 touchdowns last fall — leading the team in all three categories — after making only 29 combined grabs as a freshman and sophomore. Leonard is also a valuable return man, averaging nearly 13 yards per his 29 punt returns. Experienced seniors Zach Bolger and Travis Burkhalter will continue to serve in important roles in the passing game, as will rising sophomore David Tooley. JUCO transfer Mazi Ogbonna and DeJay Lester arrived in time for spring practice and have rapidly moved up the depth chart.

Let’s see what sophomore Alvester Alexander can accomplish as Wyoming’s unquestioned lead back. He was terrific in fairly limited action last fall — only 136 carries, four starts — leading the team with 640 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. He was given the chance to make an impact in the New Mexico Bowl, rushing for 137 yards and a score in Wyoming’s victory. Alexander is the only returning running back of any consequence: lining up behind Alexander are true or redshirt freshmen Nehemie Kankolongo, Tedder Easton and Andrew Meredith.

There is reason to worry about the offensive line, where Wyoming must supplant multiple-year starters in all-conference left tackle Ryan Otterson and center Russ Arnold. The Cowboys will move junior Clayton Kirven to the blind side to replace Otterson, one year after Kirven started the final 12 games at right tackle. Sophomore Josh Leonard, a former defensive lineman, could also step in at left tackle; however, it seems that he’ll start on the strong side, with Kirven’s experience the deciding factor in giving him first shot at stepping in for Otterson. Sophomore Nick Carlson will move from right guard to center, with senior Jack Tennant getting the nod at guard. So there is one position remaining static: senior Sam Sterner will remain at left guard.

Wyoming will make the move from the 3-4 defense to a base 4-3 in 2010, so expect a new look from a team accustomed to a four-linebacker set. Position changes at linebacker, which I’ll touch on below, will test the depth at the position. There is one sure thing at linebacker: junior Brian Hendricks will remain in the middle after making 116 tackles last fall, third on the team. He’ll be flanked by relative unknowns, however. Speedy sophomore Ghaali Muhammad will start on the weak side after making 21 tackles and an interception as a freshman. He’s a very good fit athletically on the weak side. The competition is ongoing on the strong side, where senior Keith Lewis, a converted safety, left the spring holding a slight edge over redshirt freshman Devyn Harris. It’s very clear that Christensen and defensive coordinator Marty English are trying to have as much athleticism at linebacker as possible.

Perhaps only T.C.U. touts a better secondary in the Mountain West than does Wyoming, which returns all four starters from last season’s defensive backfield. For the third consecutive year, it will be brothers Marcell and Tashaun Gipson at cornerback. Tashaun, a junior, tied for the team lead with three interceptions last fall; Marcell, a senior, led the Cowboys with seven pass breakups. Sophomores James Caraway and Kenny Browder will be the top reserves at the position. The safety tandem is very good. Free safety Chris Prosinski, a senior, led Wyoming with 140 tackles in 2009: that’s more than 10 tackles per game, if my math is correct. That total stands for the fourth-highest single-season tally in school history, and helped Prosinski land second-team all-M.W.C. honors. He was joined on that all-conference team by sophomore Shamiel Gary, who also earned Freshman all-American accolades in his standout rookie campaign. Gary had, perhaps, the most auspicious debut in school history, picking off three passes in the season opener against Weber State; that tied a single-game school record. Between the Gipsons, Prosinski and Gary, the Cowboys will make life difficult for Mountain West quarterbacks.

On the special teams, punter Austin McCoy’s 43.3 yards per punt average in 2009 ranked third in the M.W.C. and 20th in the country, earning him honorable mention all-conference accolades. Sophomore Ian Watts was a hero last fall: three game-winning kicks — against U.N.L.V., San Diego State and Colorado State — and 12 of 15 overall on his field goal tries.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line The entire defensive front in last season’s 3-4 scheme must be replaced, with the most damaging loss certainly that of all-M.W.C. tackle John Fletcher, perhaps the finest defensive lineman in school history. It seems puzzling, given this trio’s departure, that Wyoming will move to a 4-3 base defense in 2010, increasing the need for able-bodied defensive linemen. How will Wyoming deal with the perceived lack of returning contributors up front? By moving junior linebackers Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns down to end, for starters. The duo combined to start 24 of Wyoming’s 25 games last fall, Biezuns on the outside and Knapton in the middle. This is not as difficult transition as one might believe: Biezuns, for instance, was basically a hybrid end last fall, often lining up as a traditional end during Wyoming’s frequent forays into a 4-3 formation. He has really taken to the defensive side of the ball after being moved from fullback — an obsolete position in this new offense — upon Christensen’s arrival in late 2008. Additional depth at end will come from the transfer of another pair of former linebackers, Bryson Studnicka and Matt Birkeness. The interior of the line, believe it or not, might be a larger concern. The Cowboys do return important reserves like junior Alex Stover and sophomore Mike Purcell, but each sat out the spring due to injury. Depth behind this pair is a concern: redshirt freshman Patrick Mertens and sophomores Ben Durbin and Eric Brooks took the majority of the first-team snaps during spring practice. Keep an eye on former JUCO teammates B.J. Sumter and Kurt Taufa’asau, who will figure into the mix once they gain experience on the major college level.

Game(s) to watch

Wyoming will have some ground to make up over the last four weeks. It helps to face this quartet to end the year: San Diego State, New Mexico, U.N.L.V. and Colorado State. I think the Cowboys need to end the year 4-0 to return to bowl play.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s no ignoring this schedule, try as I might. Unfortunately, no team could possibly face a tougher slate over its first eight games than do the Cowboys. The year opens with a laugher against Southern Utah — though Wyoming did scuffle a bit against Weber State last fall — before turning to this murderer’s row: at Texas, at Toledo, at T.C.U. and at B.Y.U.; home for Boise State, Air Force and Utah. Are you kidding me? There’s really only an average chance that Wyoming returns to bowl play; the Cowboys would need to steal one of the above six — Toledo, no powerhouse, represents the best opportunity — beat Southern Utah and sweep their last four. Doable, of course. But I can’t project that to occur. Which is unfortunate: these Cowboys are better than last year’s version, thanks to the added year of experience in Christensen’s system and the return of most of last season’s starters. Wyoming is capable of repeating its 2009 win total. I feel safer projecting the Cowboys to win five games, however, with a hot final month giving this squad the confidence it needs to enter 2011 as a Mountain West contender.

Dream season Not just a repeat of last season, but an improvement. The Cowboys turn last season’s gained experience into a two-win improvement in the win column, tying for second in the Mountain West with a 6-2 conference mark.

Nightmare season The Cowboys never get off the ground. Seven losses in its first eight games send Wyoming to a disappointing 3-9 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Wyoming fans congregate? As San Diego Poke told me the other day, you can frequent “the long history of GoWyoGo.com, and the openness of WyoNation.com” if looking for healthy Wyoming chatter. For a blog’s take, check out Wyoming Cowboys Blog. As always, list your favorite sites below. I know you won’t, but you could.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. There’s been a change, however: answers will only be accepted via my Twitter feed. Don’t forget to include the name you use when commenting to go with your answer. I have very serious doubts that I’m going to get any responses. Here’s the question:

Wyoming posted a 28-30 mark at home from 2000-9, marking the first decade since War Memorial Stadium was christened in 1950 that Wyoming did not post a winning record in Laramie. Can you name the program’s most successful decade in terms of its home record?

Teams already spoken for: Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Up Next

Who is No. 75? Our next university was my biggest miss in last year’s Countdown. The miss was so bad, in fact, that I was embarrassingly called on it during a Pregame Huddle video midway through the fall.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    ’80s?

  2. Colin says:

    Idaho next?

  3. jjtiller says:

    I love Wyoming, too, so there is my favorite Pokies blog: http://wyomingcowboysblog.com/

  4. Jeff says:

    Yeah, next is Idaho (#119), although Middle Tennessee State (#91) was pretty off too.

  5. cowboy tough says:

    Checkout this Wyo blog!!!!

    http://cowboytough.wordpress.com

  6. cowboy tough says:

    Cowboy Tough has now moved to http://7220report.com/

  7. Joe says:

    My favorite UW site is http://wyomingfanshop.com!

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