USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The best hire of the offseason took place more than a mile above sea level, well off the college football's beaten path, at a program willing and able to entice one of the most successful coaches of his generation to roll the dice and take the next step.
So how did Wyoming get Craig Bohl, anyway? By offering, for one, where others had taken a wait-and-see approach: Bohl had remained on the fringes of coaching search after coaching search despite his pitch-perfect pedigree, a run of torrid success at North Dakota State that ended with the last three Football Championship Subdivision national championships – not to mention a 7-3 record against opponents from the Football Bowl Subdivision.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Mountain West
But what drew Bohl to Wyoming was, well, Wyoming. It's Nebraska in miniature, to a degree: Wyoming's no football power, but the program presents the same sort of tried-and-true, up-before-dawn, roll-up-your-sleeves mentality inherent to the farmlands and prairies of the upper Midwest. In this sense, Wyoming shares more with Nebraska and North Dakota State than any other FBS program in the country.
Bohl has found the perfect incubator. His style takes more from Tom Osborne, his former boss in Lincoln, than from any current or near-current coach in the country; in philosophy, scheme and approach, Bohl's how-to reeks of vintage Cornhuskers, which isn't a bad place to start. Wyoming will appreciate this formula more than his predecessor's up-tempo, no-huddle philosophy, which stressed a four-letter word – finesse – over down-home physicality.
Wyoming is the sort of place that won't only adopt Bohl's approach but adore it, from the fan base through a team and roster hungry for the sort of winning mentality only a hire of this magnitude can provide. So, you ask, why Wyoming – and why now? Well, why not? Wyoming is Bohl's kind of place.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The offense, now led by Christensen himself, has the weapons to spread the field and keep defenses uncomfortable. The defensive line has a future all-conference pick in Yarborough, not to mention players like Bernthaler and Hala'api'api moving into new roles – I think all three will do fairly well. The secondary is the most experienced unit on the defense. Wyoming could be one of the surprise teams in the MWC, echoing the Cowboys' run in 2009, Christensen's first season with the program. But while I think Wyoming can get to six wins, I doubt its ability to really make noise in conference play.
In a nutshell: Dave Christensen's final season opened with a bang: Wyoming gave Nebraska all it could handle in the opener before rolling off four wins in five tries, leaving the Cowboys in prime position to secure its third bowl bid in five years. Then the bottom dropped out, with Wyoming's defense plummeting, its offense struggling to keep pace and the team throwing in the towel, resulting in the end of Christensen's ultimately disappointing tenure. Let's provide the postmortem: Wyoming reached bowl play twice, won more than seven games once, made strides offensively during the last three seasons but ultimately lacked the balance needed to make waves in a top-heavy Mountain West Conference. In the future, Wyoming's quest for annual contention – unseen since the days of Joe Tiller and Dana Dimel – hinges on Bohl's ability to instill a stiffer sense of mental and physical fortitude.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: A 38-31 win against New Mexico on Oct. 12 left Wyoming with four wins at the midway point. It'd be a sour second half.
Low point: The disappearance of the defense. Wyoming allowed at least 35 points in each of its last six games, sending the Cowboys tumbling out of bowl contention.
Tidbit: Wyoming allowed a school-record 440 points last fall. The Cowboys were one of two teams in the Mountain West to set a new school low in scoring defense, joining Air Force, which shattered its previous low-water mark in allowing 480 points.
Tidbit (offense edition): How bad was last year's defense? The Cowboys lost eight games despite notching four of the best offensive performances in school history: Wyoming gained 793 yards against Hawaii on Nov. 23, 622 yards against Air Force on Sept. 21, 602 yards against Nebraska on Aug. 31 and 599 yards against San Jose State on Oct. 26. All four yardage totals rank among the 20 best single-game showings in Wyoming's history.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Bohl's staff is heavy on former NDSU assistants, as you might expect. Former NDSU linebackers coach Steve Stanard will run the defense – Bohl's ex-coordinator, Chris Klieman, was named as his successor – while Brent Vigen will continue to run the offense. Though Stanard was a position coach at North Dakota State, he was formerly the defensive coordinator at Tulane, Colorado State and New Mexico State. Elsewhere: Kenni Burns remains the receivers coach, Scott Fuchs the offensive line coach, John Richardson the cornerbacks coach and AJ Cooper the defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator. Of the new guys, running backs coach Mike Bath comes from Miami (Ohio), defensive backs coach David Brown from Fresno State – a nice poach by Bohl from a MWC rival – and defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis is a holdover from the Christensen era.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Single-season FCS teams
1. 1996 Marshall
2. 2013 North Dakota State
3. 1989 Georgia Southern
4. 1996 Montana
5. 1999 Georgia Southern
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Bohl has to love his depth and proven production in the backfield. Despite some alterations – the Bison were more prototypical power than option-based attack – Bohl's running game steals much of the mentality from Tom Osborne's Nebraska teams, particularly in how the offense rolls from run to pass, rarely vice versa. In players like junior Shaun Wick (979 yards) and D.J. May, who returns after missing all of last season, Wyoming has a pair of athletes capable of putting up yards in bunches once the offense hits its rhythm – though much will depend on how a rebuilt line adjusts to the new philosophy. There's more depth: Wyoming also returns sophomore Omar Stover and redshirt freshman Joshua Tapscott while adding in a pair of freshmen, Nico Evans and Brian Hill, so the running game won't lack for options. The combination of Wick and May is promising, to put it lightly.
As noted, however, the Cowboys' line needs to join the party. For now, it's the biggest concern facing this offense – yes, ahead of quarterback, even if that competition was the dominant storyline of spring ball. The Cowboys will build around a pair of returning starters, junior right guard Jake Jones and senior right tackle Connor Rains, two steady hands with the ability to lead this ground game on the strong side. But it's thin elsewhere; it's also young, two negatives that point to an early-season learning curve. At least the three new starters have tasted the starting lineup: Rafe Kiely earned five starts at center last fall, while sophomore left guard Chase Roullier and sophomore left tackle Nathan Leddige made a combined four starts. That's a concern, as is this: Wyoming's second tier – the projected backups from left to right tackle – are three redshirt freshmen and two sophomores. Yeah, there's going to be a learning curve.
The receiver corps returns a strong top threesome but must locate a tight end to fit Bohl's vision. Unfortunately, seeing that Christensen was allergic to the position, Bohl didn't inherit a full deck. But of the three recruits set to play tight end, one, Jacob Hollister, enrolled early; that'll give him a huge leg up in grasping the offense. Out wide, the Cowboys return seniors Dominic Ruffran (75 receptions for 960 yards) and Jalen Claiborne – Ruffran's an easy all-conference contender – and sophomore Tanner Gentry (39 for 376), the three likely starters come the opener. But keep an eye on sophomore Jake Maulhardt, the unit's lankiest target and one of the strongest performers during spring ball.
Defense: Look for the defense to hit a speed bump in the transition to the new staff: Wyoming will move to a 4-3 base set, one Bohl and his staff used to such great effect – leading the FCS in total defense each of the past three years – during the title runs at NDSU. For the Cowboys, the best news comes on the line of scrimmage, where a number of talented holdovers return to form the backbone of this four-lineman front. The best of the bunch is junior Eddie Yarbrough (89 tackles, 4.5 sacks), a woefully underrated all-conference selection who should burst on the national radar in this new scheme. Yarbrough's every-play consistency opens things up for this entire defensive front; given how well he played last fall, it's almost unfathomable to consider how this defense disintegrated during the second half.
In addition to Yarbrough, Wyoming returns senior tackle Patrick Mertens (34 tackles), who was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA; sophomore tackles Chase Appleby and Uso Olive, who will assume Justin Bernthaler's role alongside Merterns in the middle; and senior Sonny Puletasi (47 tackles, 10.0 for loss) and junior Siaosi Hala'api'api, two former hybrid end-linebackers who will transition to a three-point stance on the end of the line. Any group with Yarbrough is going to be among the best in the MWC, in my opinion. Still, what Wyoming truly needs – especially after last year's collapse – is steady play on the interior, so the pressure is on Olive and Appleby to deliver between the tackles.
That Wyoming returns four experienced linebackers has led to some shuffling and confusion on the second level – not in a bad way, however. Of these four reliable hands, only one, senior strong side linebacker Mark Nzeocha (101 tackles, 10.0 for loss), holds sole possession of a starting role; the remaining trio spent the spring battling for snaps with the first-team defense, creating an all-hands-on-deck competition that will continue in August. One competition is more interesting than the other: Wyoming brings back senior Jordan Stanton (134 tackles), last year's leading tackler and an all-conference honorable mention, but has given senior Alex Borgs the opportunity to win the starting job – not that Stanton won't eventually come out on top, but it's proof that Bohl and the staff are starting from scratch. On the weak side, it'll come down to either senior Devyn Harris or sophomore Luke Wacha (88 tackles).
The secondary returns a few players from injury, boosting overall depth and experience, but the void left by free safety Marqueston Huff looms large. Does Wyoming have a returning defensive back capable of matching his output and production? Well, no. But let's remember that even with Huff in tow – as well as the majority of this year's projected two-deep – the Cowboys were abysmal in coverage. In short, Huff's a big loss but not a crippling one, if that makes sense. The new leader on the back end is senior cornerback Blair Burns, he of the 32 career starts, who teams with senior DeAndre Jones to give Wyoming a solid pair on the outside. At safety, two players returning from injury have already cemented down starting jobs: Darrenn White is back at free safety after missing the second half of last season and Jesse Sampson takes over at strong safety after an injury-ravaged first season off the JUCO ranks.
Special teams: Everyone returns on special teams. This is a good thing. Among the familiar faces: Stuart Williams at kicker, Ethan Wood at kicker, Brendan Turelli as the snapper and Justin Martin as the kickoff specialist. While it's no secret that Wyoming needs more punch in the return game, the Cowboys do return Claiborne, Wick and Rufran. You might be surprised to hear this, but Bohl's teams at NDSU also controlled the tempo on special teams.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Wyoming lost its starter and its primary backup, which would be painful enough had each not left at least one additional season of eligibility on the table. Here's the big story: Wyoming needs to replace a legend in Brett Smith, one of the finest quarterbacks in MWC history; that's the big story, not the fact that Smith's departure was followed by Jason Thompson's leap to Utah, where Christensen now serves as the Utes' offensive coordinator. A few months later, and even after a series of spring drills, to say the situation under center is muddled would be an understatement – it's totally unsettled and absolutely up for grabs, and the looming theme of fall camp when the Cowboys return to the practice field in August.
It's the same story as in March: Wyoming has senior Colby Kierkegaard – let's hope he doesn't find the offense unfathomable – senior Sam Stratton and sophomores Tom Thornton and Aaron Young, the latter a JUCO transfer. Though Kierkegaard topped the two-deep coming out of the spring, it's clear that Bohl and Vigen will renew the competition in August, adding a pair of true freshmen for good measure. But one thing you saw during the spring was general improvement: Wyoming's quarterbacks played better in the second scrimmage than the first, for example, and did a fine job protecting the football – a prerequisite in Bohl's system. If the year started today, you'd think Kierkegaard would get the start; still, the only option lagging behind the group is Young, who didn't hit the ground running as an early enrollee.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Air Force: With Oregon, Michigan State, Utah State, Fresno State and Boise State looming, it's vital that Wyoming start the year on a high note. That's a possibility: Wyoming opens at home against Montana and Air Force – no pushovers, but beatable – before the schedule shifts in the second half of September. To reach bowl eligibility, the Cowboys likely have to be 4-2 at the midway point; that would allow for losses to two of USU, the Bulldogs and Broncos, which seems like a strong possibility.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: A fascinating coaching tenure begins with Bohl, one of the greatest coaches in FCS history, meeting Wyoming, a want-to-improve program lacking any consistent success for the better part of two decades. I'd call it a perfect match, but we knew that already: Bohl and Wyoming are a perfect pair, if a surprising one, and out of such beautiful marriages are born contention, success and fulfilled expectations. In the long run, Wyoming's potential – in specific, the potential for eight-plus wins on an annual basis – is one of the biggest storylines in the Mountain West Conference. In the present, however, the Cowboys' coming season will be defined in simpler, less dramatic terms: Wyoming has the right guy, but it's not yet the right fit.
In terms of personnel, that is. Consider the simultaneous transitions: Bohl is bringing this offense away from the finesse-based spread attack to the meat-and-potatoes style used so destructively at NDSU; on defense, he's leading Wyoming into a more traditional 4-3 base set. Once Wyoming adapts, these are simpler, more universal styles that will work with the Cowboys' style of recruits – speed from California, toughness from closer to home. For now, however, the Cowboys are slightly behind the curve. On offense, the lack of experience up front and the muddled quarterback situation are causes for concern. On defense, Wyoming is young in the middle, unsettled at linebacker and banking on players coming off injury-defined seasons in the secondary. To me, it's clear the Cowboys are not quite ready to fit the bill.
But when they are, this is going to be interesting – if not the most fun Wyoming fans have had in decades. How did your team fill its offseason void? If it wasn't with a three-time national champion, well, get in line behind the Cowboys. In hiring Bohl, the university has granted this program the sort of respectability so elusive between the white lines; Wyoming football now has a face, a leader and an icon, and his résumé of success paints this program as one to watch not only in the Mountain West but in the entire region. Even if a losing season lies ahead – as I think it does – Wyoming is in a better place today than at any point since the 1990s.
Dream season: Wyoming storms out of the gate with an 8-4 regular season, losing out the Mountain Division to Boise State but starting strong under the new staff.
Nightmare season: The Cowboys fall to 3-9 amid a struggle adapting to Bohl's general philosophy.
Who's No. 102? This program has allowed the opposition to gain at least 400 yards of offense 28 times since the start of the 2010 season.
PHOTOS: RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014