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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. 95: Idaho

Robb Akey has punched his ticket elsewhere, once — or if — he decides to parlay his amazing turnaround at Idaho into something bigger. The Vandals, of course, hope that Akey opts to make his stay in Moscow a permanent one, eschewing the opportunity to take on a B.C.S. conference endeavor for the positives of comfort and one’s own personal rebuilding project. Don’t underestimate the draw of the latter: Washington State would hold cachet for Akey, but it wouldn’t quite be the same as creating and maintaining a winning atmosphere with the Vandals, would it? Well, the paycheck would be nice.

Conference
WAC

Location
Moscow, Id.

Nickname
Vandals

Returning starters
12 (4 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 75

2010 record
(6-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 82

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Bowling Green
  • Sept. 10
    North Dakota
  • Sept. 17
    at Texas A&M
  • Sept. 24
    Fresno St.
  • Oct. 1
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 8
    Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 15
    at N.M.S.U.
  • Oct. 29
    Hawaii
  • Nov. 5
    at S.J.S.U.
  • Nov. 12
    at B.Y.U.
  • Nov. 19
    Utah St.
  • Dec. 3
    at Nevada

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell At the current rate of bowl expansion, the day will soon come where a 6-7 team, like Idaho last fall, will earn a bowl berth. For now, however, rules are rules: you must be .500 to have your ticket punched, and two painful losses sealed Idaho’s fate. The Vandals were able to shake off the first, a 36-34 setback to Colorado State, since it occurred way back in late September. More chances to come, one loss doesn’t ruin a season and so on, said Idaho. The second, on Nov. 27, was an absolute heartbreaker: trailing by 10 points with a little less than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Idaho rolled off back-to-back scores to take a 20-16 lead over Fresno State but a touchdown with 14 seconds left gave the Bulldogs the win. The defeat dropped Idaho to 5-7, ending its bowl hopes and making the season finale against San Jose State essentially meaningless. The Vandals won that one, giving them five wins against F.B.S. competition that combined for 15 total victories.

High point The best win on the season: Idaho 33, Western Michigan 13. On the road, no less. The Broncos finished the year 6-6; the four others F.B.S. teams Idaho defeated — U.N.L.V., New Mexico State, Utah State and the Spartans — combined to go 9-41.

Low point The Vandals played three really good teams after September: Boise State, Hawaii and Nevada. Combined final score: 160-41. The verbal jousting between the Vandals and Broncos is enjoyable; on the field, it’s all Boise.

Tidbit From Sept. 25 — Oct. 30, Idaho played five teams in five separate time zones. In order: at Colorado State, Mountain; at Western Michigan, Eastern; at Louisiana Tech, Central; home for New Mexico State, Pacific; then off to Hawaii, which plays in the Hawaii-Aleutian time zone. That’s quite an itinerary. The Vandals went 2-3 over this stretch, winning at Western Michigan and beating the lowly Aggies in Moscow.

Tidbit (home field edition) What’s the largest crowd in Kibbie Dome history? Try 17,600 strong — about 10 percent over capacity — on Nov. 11, 1989, when the Vandals hosted rival Boise State. Each of the five-most attended games in Kibbie Dome history have come against the hated Broncos: 17,600 in 1989; 17,000 in 2006 and 2008; 16,500 in 1987; and 16,453 last fall.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) Most of Idaho’s western border runs along Oregon, though Moscow is extremely close to Washington, not Oregon. Still, one would think that the Vandals would have some success with recruits in Oregon; the Vandals do very well in Washington but not in the Beaver State. Idaho has only two players from Oregon on the roster: quarterback Ian Silbernager and receiver Leonard Weaver. That’s as many recruits as Idaho has landed from Europe: defensive end Marius Burgsmueller is from Germany and linebacker Jeffrey Bediako from the Netherlands.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 P T.J. Conley (New York Jets), QB Nathan Enderle (Chicago), TE Daniel Hardy (Tampa Bay), OG Mike Iupati (San Francisco), S Shiloh Keo (Houston), WR Max Komar (Arizona), OG Jake Scott (Tennessee), LB David Vobora (St. Louis), FB Eddie Williams (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Great moments in Vandals’ history
1. Sack of Rome (455).
2. Acquisition of Numidia (435).
3. Destruction of Roman fleets (460).
4. Victory over Castinus (422).
5. Siege of Carthage (439).

Coaching

Robb Akey (Weber State ’88), 17-34 over four seasons at Idaho. The last two seasons have found Idaho actually factor into the F.B.S. bowl mix, but it was 2009 that saw the former Washington State defensive coordinator, 3-21 through his first 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 not just for that season but for keeping the Vandals in the mix last fall, though they came up just short. 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 2009 season – to continue his recent 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 2011. 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 few 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

When I look back at Idaho’s growth under Akey over the last four seasons, one player comes to mind: Nathan Enderle. I can take a bit of pride in having touted the strong-armed Nebraskan way back when, back when I thought the Vandals would be terrible and they’d actually be terrible, and his departure after four seasons in the starting lineup marks the end of an era under center for the program. In fact, when recalling Enderle’s strong college career, it’s easy to forget that there was a time, only two years ago, when Enderle’s job seemed in jeopardy: he was pushed by JUCO addition Brian Reader, but held off the challenge and retained his starting role.

It’s Reader’s time now. A senior, he’s played off-and-on over the past two seasons, coming in for certain packages or spelling Enderle late; a total of 152 attempts over two years, which is quite a bit for a first-year starter. One area where he improved last season, his second on campus, was in turnovers: 6 picks in 81 attempts in 2009, only 1 in 71 attempts in 2010. Reader did average about two fewer yards per attempts, though the sample size is probably small enough where you can’t draw any real conclusions from the decline. Reader might not be Enderle, but the situation — a new face replacing a four-year starter — could certainly be worse.

Three offensive linemen, all seniors, return up front. Matt Cleveland and Tyrone Novikoff will bookend the line at left and right tackle, respectively, with 2010 10-game starter Sam Tupua at left guard. So there are some experienced pieces to work with; that doesn’t mean new offensive line coach John McDonnell doesn’t have some work to do. He’s done a nice job so far, according to Akey, but I’m a little worried about the interior of the line. Tupua is a nice piece, and should be better with a year of experience under his belt, but I wonder about redshirt freshman Matt Marboe at center. Sophomore Jordan Johnson made two starts at right guard last fall, so he’s a logical choice to step in for departed starter Tevita Halaholo. The line is less of a question mark than it was heading into 2010, but last year’s group was so bad protecting the quarterback (118th in sacks allowed) that I’m not sure what type of improvement we’ll see.

The running game moves forward without leading rusher Deonte’ Jackson, who also added 25 grabs in the passing game. So he was a nice piece, though one Idaho hopes can be replaced with relative ease by game-tested senior Princeton McCarty (380 yards, 15 receptions). He’s played plenty over the last few seasons, finishing second on the team in rushing in each of his first three years, so I’m sure McCarty is starving for a chance at being the team’s lead back. Throw juniors Troy Vital and Ryan Bass – a former Arizona State transfers – into the mix and you have a nice backfield. Perhaps we’ll see a greater emphasis put on the ground game, much as we saw in 2009, though that also depends on the play up front.

The defensive line has been touted as Idaho’s best under Akey, and I’m pretty sure I agree. It’s deeper than in the past, has several players with starting experience and should be equally good at getting to the quarterback, an area where Idaho took a major step forward in 2010. But I am worried about one spot: nose guard. It’s here that you look at the potential depth chart and inhale slightly, seeing that the Vandals are poised to enter 2011 with a pair of freshmen, Karel Kearney and Ryan Edwards, battling to take the starting nod. Maybe it’s not all bad, however: JUCO transfer Dontae Scott is also available, and he may just need time to acclimate himself to the college game.

Akey did speak highly of the freshman, so keep an eye on that pair – and keep an eye on Edwards’s knee, which cost him a good part of spring ball. There aren’t similar issues with youth elsewhere up front: junior end Benson Mayowa and senior tackle Michael Cosgrove are returning starters, and seniors Andre Ferguson and Charles Smith will factor into the rotation at end. The key will be replacing the production lost to graduation; Aaron Lavarias was a menace at end, leading the Vandals with 10 sacks, and Jonah Sataraka came into his own as a senior tackle.

Linebacker looks the strength of the defense. Three players with starting experience are back, led by senior Robert Siavii (team-leading 91 tackles, 14 for loss, 3.5 sacks) on the weak side. He’s an all-WAC performer, and one of three seniors in the starting lineup: Homer Mauga on the strong side, Tre’Shawn Robinson in the middle. Robinson started the second half of last season in place of an injured JoJo Dickson.

Shiloh Keo just made plays. And more plays. And more. Like Enderle, he was a key factor behind Idaho’s resurgence over the last two seasons, and he’s as close to irreplaceable as you can get on a defense that despite his presence managed to finish in the bottom half nationally in most statistical categories. Without him in place, Idaho turns to junior free safety Gary Walker (58 tackles, 2 interceptions) as a leader along the back end of the secondary. Keo’s spot at strong safety should be filled by senior Quin Ashley, though Thaad Thompson also qualifies as a capable replacement.

Both cornerbacks return: senior Kenneth Patten on the left side, junior Aaron Grymes (77 tackles, 2 picks) on the right. Senior Matt Harvey, a one-game starter last fall, lends additional depth. Keep an eye on JUCO transfer A.J. Annelus, who sits behind Grymes on the right side but might make an immediate impact come the fall.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers and tight ends At least the Vandals got a taste of life post-Daniel Hardy after the all-WAC tight end was lost to injury after eight games. His spot falls to sophomore Taylor Elmo, who was one of a whopping dozen Vandals to make at least 12 grabs in 2010. Elmo’s potential makes him a player to watch, but Hardy was – along with Louisiana-Lafayette’s LaDarius Green – one of the nation’s most underrated tight ends. The issue at receiver is not really depth; as noted, the Vandals have many players with experience. The issue will be replacing leading targets like Eric Greenwood and Maurice Shaw, even if Idaho has options. Seniors Kama Bailey and Preston Davis (both had 31 receptions) will start; junior Justin Veltung, who led the team in yards per reception (19.9) and touchdowns (8) will also serve in a major role. More depth comes from Armauni Johnson and John Roberson. So, when looking at depth at the position, it’s really not about finding receivers who can make plays: it’s more about settling the depth chart and locating roles for those returning players, which is more interesting – seeing how things fall into place – than it is a concern.

Game(s) to watch

You can pencil in a pair of wins to start the year and pair of road wins over New Mexico State and San Jose State, I think. You can also pencil in losses in a handful of games, which I’ll touch on below. In my mind, the season will be decided in games against Fresno State, Louisiana Tech and Utah State. Sweep that threesome and you’re bowling.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Remember when Idaho was terrible? It wasn’t so long ago: it just almost feels that way. Just because I don’t think these Vandals will be very good doesn’t mean that I believe in the least that Idaho hasn’t turned a corner. The program most certainly has, and if the Vandals slide down to four or five wins – that’s my prediction – it is not a sign that the Akey-led progress has hit a wall. It just means that there are the sort of issues on this squad that most second-tier programs encounter every so often: issues like the offensive line, a change at quarterback and question marks on the defense, not issues like overall talent or depth, which plagued Idaho during its long dry period. In other words, I don’t think Idaho’s growth is over, not in the least. And I do think the Vandals can go 5-7 this fall; it’s just that those five wins wouldn’t be all that impressive, and I don’t Idaho can match up with the strong teams on its schedule. I do think the Vandals are a step ahead of San Jose State, New Mexico State and Bowling Green, and right along the same line as Utah State and Louisiana Tech, give or take. So the Vandals could win four of those five and add an F.C.S. win to go 5-7: In my mind, that’s not an impressive enough mark to justify a higher ranking. This is a fine team, just not a very good team, in my mind.

Dream season The Vandals go 6-0 against the weaker teams and 2-4 against the better teams to finish 8-4 overall.

Nightmare season A major step back for Akey and the program: 3-9, 2-6 in the WAC.

In case you were wondering

Where do Idaho fans congregate? The options grow each summer. At first, all I had was GoVandals.net. Then came the Web site of The Idaho Statesman, though the paper is very heavy on the Boise State coverage. Last fall, a loyal reader took advantage of the opportunity to list any options I may have missed. Per his suggestions, take a look at the Web site of the Lewiston Tribune and the blog Vandal Nation.

Word Count

Through 26 teams 68,266.

Up Next

Who is No. 94? The congressman representing the district containing tomorrow’s university was an insurance agent prior to entering politics. There are two F.B.S. institutions in his district, actually; tomorrow’s university is the one where he didn’t receive his undergraduate degree.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    It could be either LA-Monroe or Louisiana Tech, as congressman Rodney Alexander represents the Louisiana 5th district which covers both Ruston, LA (La tech) and Monroe.

    That being said, Monroe finished up at 114 last year as a sun-belt team, compared to Tech’s 104 as a WAC team, so my bet is on Monroe.

  2. Ezra says:

    considering how La.-Monroe just lost seven schollies in punishment for a bad APR, maybe they’ve dropped down in the rankings.

    (but I think the APR hit doesn’t start until next year…)

  3. Zac says:

    Well Alexander seems to fit the profile and he went to Tech according to wiki, so sounds like ULM is a pretty safe bet.

  4. M Meyer says:

    Are you sure that these same facts don’t also apply to Tom Latham of Iowa’s 4th District?

  5. Zac says:

    Latham doesn’t work for a few reasons. For starters Iowa State and Iowa are not in the same district, but even if they were, Latham went to Iowa State and the hint says the school coming up is the one the congressman was NOT educated at, which if Latham were the man in question, it would mean Iowa was next, Iowa won’t be popping up anytime soon. Plus I haven’t seen anything to indicate that he was in insurance.

  6. Warden Tressel says:

    ohio state is next

  7. B Boone says:

    Love the information. Just a slight correction: one of the two Oregonians is actually Landon Weaver, not Leonard.

  8. HW86 says:

    Big loss for Idaho, Robert Siavii tore his ACL and will be redshirted according to the Idaho Statesman.

    Paul: Oh no. That’s terrible. Big loss for the Vandals.

  9. HW86 says:

    And the hits keep right on coming, Thaad Thompson tore his ACL, gone for the season as well according to Spokane Spokesman-Review.

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