Always in the hunt to burst the Bowl Championship Series bubble, the Boise State Broncos got off on the wrong foot during their opener against Washington in Seattle, falling hard in a 38-6 decision. The team picked up a couple of expected blowouts versus UT-Martin and Air Force, but the much-anticipated meeting with Fresno State on the road ended up being a gut-wrenching 41-40 setback, which meant the Broncos were 2-2 after just four contests.
The program, one of the best since the start of the millennium, managed to capture five wins in the next six games, but an overtime loss at San Diego State (34-31) left it a mere 8-4 at the end of the regular season. The team was chosen to take part in the Hawaii Bowl versus Oregon State and was easily handled by the Beavers in a 38-23 final that wasn't even that close, after OSU advanced to a commanding 31-6 advantage at halftime.
The Broncos, the second-highest scoring team in the Mountain West Conference at 37.5 ppg, ended up 8-5 overall and 6-2 in league action. The five defeats were the most for the program since a 6-5 mark under Dirk Koetter back in 1998 when the school was a member of the Big West Conference. The disappointing effort also snapped a run of seven straight campaigns with at least 10 victories (the only FBS program able to make that claim going into last season).
Always on the radar of other teams in the power conferences, head coach Chris Petersen had spurned the interests of those programs over the years as he built one of the top teams in the program, but the persistent calling apparently became too much in early December when he opted to take his talents to the University of Washington.
Boise State filled the void momentarily with assistant Bob Gregory, before giving the job to Bryan Harsin, the head coach at Arkansas State in 2013 and a former player with the Broncos himself, just a few days later.
"We're coming home," said Harsin, who spent a decade on the BSU staff before leaving for Texas in 2011. "Kes (his wife) and I are thrilled about returning to Boise State, it's a special place built by special people. One of the hardest decisions we ever made was leaving Boise. We did that so I could become a better coach, so I could one day have the opportunity to return as head coach - that day has arrived."
Coach Harsin has a lot to live up to on the blue turf, as Boise State is first in the nation in overall winning percentage (.856, 155-26), home winning percentage (.955, 85-4), and conference winning percentage (.917, 99-9) since 2000.
OFFENSE: Harsin's most important decision to begin his tenure with the Broncos will be selecting a new starting quarterback. Despite being a bit shaky from time to time under Petersen, Joe Southwick was still someone who could handle the high-powered BSU offense, but he's no longer around which means Grant Hedrick probably has the inside track to the position for the time being.
Hedrick is the only returning player who has experience at quarterback. He appeared in all 13 games a season ago, completing 69.0 percent of his pass attempts for 1,825 yards and 16 touchdowns against five interceptions. Often playing during so-called garbage time at the end of games, Hedrick will have to refocus as he most likely takes on the starting role right out of the gate.
Named to the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award Watch List, Hedrick has the luxury of having Matt Miller on his side. An All-Mountain West selection each of the past two seasons, Miller led the team with a school-record 88 receptions for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago and has caught at least one pass in each of his 39 career games, the longest active streak in the nation.
Also giving Hedrick a reliable outlet down the field is Shane Williams-Rhodes who, in just 11 games, grabbed 77 balls for 702 yards and six touchdowns.
Coming out of the backfield, BSU has a horse in Jay Ajayi. The running back has been named to the watch lists for the Walter Camp Player of the Year, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards. Of the 50 players on the Walter Camp list, Ajayi is one of only seven running backs, and is one of the four players representing the Mountain West Conference.
Ajayi raced for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns on 249 carries, but those attempts also took a toll on the back as he had trouble maintaining possession of the ball occasionally.
Making it a bit tougher for Ajayi this time around is the fact that the Broncos have only two returnees along the offensive line in Marcus Henry and Rees Odhiambo.
DEFENSE: It used to be that the dominant offense of the Broncos went hand-in- hand with a stifling defense, but that was not necessarily the case a season ago when the team allowed 24.8 ppg. Granted, that number was good enough for second in the MWC, but still ranked the program just 50th nationally, a far cry from some of the other stupendous efforts put forth in previous years under Petersen.
The good news here is that the top two tacklers from 2013 and five of the top six are making their way back to Boise to try and show that last season's numbers were a bit of a fluke. Linebackers Ben Weaver and Corey Bell were in on much of the action as they delivered 89 and 76 tackles, respectively, but by the time the action got to them in the middle of the field opponents had already gained key yardage.
The big loss for the group is along the defensive line where three starters are no longer putting on the pads. The most significant of the trio is Demarcus Lawrence, who was not only third on the unit with 72 stops, he was one of the top players in the country in terms of tackles for loss with 20.5. Lawrence and his team-high 10.5 sacks will be hard to replace for sure. Let's also not forget that two of BSU's three blocked kicks came from Lawrence as well.
Because opponents found it was possible to move the ball on the Boise State defense, there were plenty of passes thrown in the direction of the secondary, and many times those attempts landed in the waiting hands of defensive backs. There are four starters coming back to reprise their roles at safety and defensive back, three of whom recorded at least four picks a year ago.
Chief among the ball hawks was Donte Deayon who logged six picks, while Darian Thompson coupled his 63 tackles with four INTs and Bryan Douglas also had four interceptions, to go with a team-high tying nine pass breakups. Deayon and Jeremy Ioane have both earned spots on the preseason Thorpe Award Watch List.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Also finding a spot on a preseason watch list is kicker Dan Goodale after hitting on 17-of-19 field goal tries in 2013. An All-MWC selection, Goodale actually missed three PATs during the campaign, but he's still the most reliable kicker the Broncos have.
Providing some comfort in the kicking department, although it is often overlooked, is the return of long-snapper Kevin Keane.
Also on the plus side of the special teams, Williams-Rhodes could again be the top return threat on punts and Douglas, if he's not worn out from all his action on defense, could be the main man on kickoffs, particularly since he showed his speed and elusiveness on a 100-yard return for a touchdown in 2013.
OUTLOOK: If history is any indication, the good news for the Broncos is that they have a winning record against all but one of the 2014 opponents that they have already played. The exception to that is San Diego State, which has won two of three previous encounters.
With Harsin as the offensive coordinator for the Broncos between 2006-10, the team posted an incredible mark of 61-5, including undefeated seasons in both 2006 (13-0) and 2009 (14-0). During that stretch, Harsin had the offense rolling along at a staggering pace, generating a mind-blowing 2,733 points, the most by any team in the nation.
The team certainly has the pedigree to strike fear into opponents, but the Broncos can no longer live in the past and must play in the here-and-now.
"If we want to be able to continue to say that we're a strong team and a team that is going to continue to be looked at as a potential Mountain West champion, then we're going to have to keep attacking the future," says Bell. "We're going to have to keep going as if none of that stuff's happened because as soon as we start focusing on the past, we're not going to be striving to reach what could happen in the future."