USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Allow 30 or more points, lose. When was the last time Idaho gave up at least 30 points and still pulled out a victory? Try the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl – 43-42 win against Bowling Green – a moment that triples as the Vandals' first, last and only highlight-reel moment as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Even for a program like Idaho, the postseason has never seemed as far away as today: In April, the NCAA instituted a one-year bowl ban as a result of the football program's low Academic Progress Report scores, throwing a large shadow on an otherwise feel-good spring. At least the Vandals already know they won't be booking a trip in December.
Don't blame second-year coach Paul Petrino; a recommitment to academics under his watch might save Idaho from a two-year postseason ban, in fact, with that a major concern as the program prepares for its newfound membership in the Sun Belt Conference. Another factor keeping Petrino awake at night: The NCAA mandates that academically eligible seniors can transfer to another FBS school without penalty, meaning the Vandals might – though probably won't – lose a few key cogs from this year's roster.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Sun Belt Conference
This isn't Alabama, Florida State or in-state rival Boise State, let alone Sun Belt rivals Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State. This is Idaho, and the likelihood of a postseason berth even before the NCAA dropped its hammer stood somewhere between slim and none. In that case, couldn't the ban free the Vandals to ignore the win column and maybe – gasp – have a little bit of fun?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Personnel-wise, Idaho is no match for the majority of the teams on this year's schedule. And what a schedule it is. Seven road games. Five games at home, with those dates including Northern Illinois (a sure loss), Fresno State (a sure loss), Temple (a very, very probable loss) and Texas State (based on last season, a probable loss). The road games include Florida State, Washington State, Mississippi and Arkansas State. Where are the wins coming from?
In a nutshell: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Has there ever been a more lopsided FBS-on-FBS pairing in history than Idaho and Florida State? The Seminoles were on the road to the national title; the Vandals were one week removed from a 59-38 loss to Old Dominion, a team still transitioning to the FBS. The final score told the story: 80-14. How did Idaho score twice? It was that sort of season for the Vandals and this defense, which gave up at least 40 points to 10 opponents – 59 or more four times. It held only two foes, Texas State and New Mexico State, to less than 400 yards of offense. Partially lost in the shuffle was the play of Petrino's up-tempo offense, which bodes well for 2014.
High point: Beating Temple on Sept. 28. Not the Owls' finest hour.
Low point: Any of the many, many losses. Additional negative points for the postgame handshake between Petrino and Washington State's Mike Leach.
Tidbit: Idaho has not defeated a team from a current Big Five conference since Sept. 23, 2000, when it upset Washington State on the road. The program holds an all-time record of 46-271-11 against opponents currently in these major leagues, with all 46 of the wins – and 248 of the losses – coming against active Pac-12 competition. Eighteen of the victories have come against the Cougars: Idaho and Washington State's rivalry, the Battle of the Palouse, is named for the lentil-producing region the two schools share.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
St. Louis Rams' coaches since 2000
1. Mike Martz
2. Jeff Fisher
3. Joe Vitt
4. Scott Linehan
5. Jim Haslett
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Here's what we know about the offense: Mike Marboe will start at center and Dezmon Epps (77 receptions for 971 yards) at wide receiver. The rest? Check back in August. In what can only be described as a wise move – even if one born from necessity – Petrino and coordinator Kris Cinkovich will essentially carry over a nine-position battle for snaps into fall camp, hoping that an offseason of workouts and a few weeks of August brings the best out of a group long on questions and short on answers. Even if the offense stands far in front of the defense – not much of a compliment – Petrino won't be satisfied until he can identify his best starting 11, let alone another 10-plus athletes capable of stepping into sizable reserve roles.
The line builds around Marboe, a potential all-conference center with the experience to solidify a group plagued by inconsistency. If you can pencil Steven Matlock, Dallas Sandberg and Kato Fawkes into jobs at guard, the situation at tackle likely won't be resolved until JUCO transfer Jerrett Olson arrives during the summer. He could conceivably slot into either the left or right side – quick and strong, respectively, in Idaho's parlance – and help protect a young starting quarterback. The Vandals also bring back Jesse Davis, so the two tackle spots could change dramatically between spring camp and August. The line still has a ton to prove.
Epps is a true star at wide receiver. An item of note: Epps did step afoul of team rules during the offseason, so he could be facing a suspension to the start the season. But the Vandals – and every opponent on this schedule – know Epps will deliver; does Idaho have options to take advantage of the attention paid to the all-conference senior? One name to keep in mind is converted quarterback Josh McCain, who might have showed enough in the spring to justify a starting nod on the outside. The receiver corps will also benefit from two new faces and one little-known holdover: JUCO transfers Jermaine Johnson and Kenny Torrence arrive in the fall, while Reuben Mwehla, a redshirt freshman, could be the speed-stretching target this passing game needs.
Richard Montgomery will move between receiver – he'll play in the slot – and the backfield, and it's in the latter role that he could drastically alter a sluggish, pile-of-dust running game. Speed is sorely missing: Idaho had only 10 rushing plays of 20 or more yards last fall, tied for the seventh-fewest in the FBS, and even if the offense rolls through the air the Vandals do need more explosiveness on the ground. Montgomery is valuable, therefore, and could be a nice change-of-pace option behind Jerrel Brown (216 yards), Kristoffer Olugbode and Elijhaa Penny.
Defense: This secondary will make San Diego State look like the San Diego Chargers. It's basically a 4-2-5 defense, because Idaho plays so often in the nickel, but even with the added defensive back Idaho's pass defense should again rank among the nation's very, very worst. For now, it's a simple matter of personnel: Jayshawn Jordan has come on strong at cornerback, Russell Siavii at safety and Bradley Njoku at nickel, but there isn't a defensive back on this roster with the ability to shut down the opponent's top target. Hence the number of summer arrivals: Idaho will bring in a trio of potential helpers before August, hoping that fresh blood breathes new life into a group desperate for an influx of talent. What would mark progress? Instead of giving up 40 touchdowns, giving up 35.
At least the Vandals have some beef inside, which should help improve last year's numbers against the run – 2,541 yards and 32 touchdowns on 5.44 yards per carry. Quayshawne Buckley (46 tackles, 16.0 for loss) is big, not to mention a bit of a menace. At 325 pounds, Glen Antoine is bigger. Alfonso Hampton – listed at 346 pounds, but that's if he's been fasting – is biggest, and a major asset should he qualify academically before fall camp. While I question how many snaps Antoine and Hampton can play, that's a pretty sizable interior. On the edges, Maxx Forde (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks) should contend for all-conference honors, Quinton Bradley seems prepared to leap into a starting job and Marius Burgsmueller is a very serviceable reserve, if not someone Idaho wants taking starter's snaps. You know what? If the big guys join the party in August, the line should be an asset.
Look for good things from senior strong side linebacker Marc Millan (91 tackles, 11.0 for loss), last year's leading tackler and, with Forde, the co-leader of this defense. It will be interesting to see how the Vandals orchestrate a starting lineup: Irving Steele's arrival seems to have led the staff to audition players at several spots – though Millan has remained on the outside – which could lead to more shuffling in August. Based on the spring, the starting lineup entering the summer had Millan on the strong side, Juan Martinez moving to the weak side and Steele in the middle. The linebacker corps isn't in terribly bad shape, but the staff does need to settle on a rotation.
Special teams: Sophomore Austin Rehkow once punted a ball from Idaho to Hawaii. He's got a boomer of a leg, as evidenced by his average of 47.83 yards per punt last fall, and barring a future slump will be an All-American contender for the remainder of his college career. He'll also double as the Vandals' kicker – he's far better as a punter – even after being slowed during the spring by a back injury.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: You're more likely to get Petrino's PIN code than any revealing comments about the Vandals' quarterback competition. Here's what we know: Idaho has two quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Matt Linehan and sophomore Chad Chalich, and each took snaps with the first-team offense during the spring – Linehan perhaps slightly more than Chalich, but not enough of a gap to make any educated leaps as to which direction Petrino's leaning. With seven games under his belt – he led the team in completion percentage by a wide margin last fall – Chalich is more experienced. Linehan looks the part, however, and seems to have the edge in overall physical gifts. Production? It was fairly even during the spring, with each lighting up the Vandals' defense during the end-of-drills scrimmage; grain of salt, but that neither performed noticeably better than the other is noteworthy. My guess: Linehan gets the nod in August – but Chalich takes a significant number of snaps during the regular season. Petrino seems very happy with his young options under center. I think his optimism is justified.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Georgia Southern: The Vandals' best shots at a Sun Belt victory come against the Eagles and, one game later, New Mexico State. In total, Idaho will play five home games and seven away from home, with two road matchups coming against a pair of FBS newcomers – Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Idaho must find motivation amid the postseason ban while also dealing with the painful process of building a winner from the bottom up, a frightening combination that could – and should, perhaps – lead to another season spent on the lower rung of the FBS. This isn't Ohio State, which found drive from a coaching change and the NCAA to finish undefeated in Urban Meyer's first season, even if the perfect record was ultimately fruitless. This is Idaho, one of the nation's struggling programs, and for the progress he's made, Petrino faces the greatest challenge of his career – by leaps and bounds – in attempting to motivate a team and roster playing out the string.
I have a feeling this could be an issue. At the same time, let's think of two major positives: Idaho is not only moving in the right direction, which is obvious, but also a stronger team in terms of personnel, even if some trouble spots loom large heading into summer conditioning. The secondary is a significant concern, as is the offensive line. The young quarterbacks will need time; the offense as a whole has two sure things, Epps and Marboe, surrounded by question marks. Even with the bigger defensive front and deeper linebacker corps, Idaho's defense could take a step forward and still finish in the bottom 20 nationally.
The schedule presents two fantastic shots at victory, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. Unfortunately, both opponents – along with Texas State – come on the road, where Idaho hasn't won a game since Nov. 5, 2011. The Vandals also draw Florida, San Diego State and Ohio in non-conference play, ensuring an ugly out-of-conference season, and will face a number of teams propelled by the forward pass, the Vandals' perceived Achilles heel. Does Petrino have what it takes to succeed where others have failed? Not in 2014.
Dream season: Idaho wins five games: New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
Nightmare season: The defense takes a step back while the offense treads water, leading Idaho to drop a victory from last year's total to finish winless.
Who's No. 120? This program is 1-4 in overtime games since the 2002 season.