Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The 2013 football season was a very uncharacteristic one for the Boise State Broncos, who had been accustomed to asserting their clear dominance over the competition.
From 2009 to 2012, the Broncos suffered just four combined losses and won at least 11 games in each of those campaigns, including a perfect 14-0 season in 2009 which culminated in a 17-10 victory over then-No. 3-ranked TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.
Life had been good for the Broncos, who could seemingly exhale and blow opponents clear off their feet.
In former coach Chris Petersen's final year with Boise State (2013), it seemed the rest of the Mountain West was finally catching up. The Broncos dropped regular-season contests to conference opponents Fresno State and San Diego State as well as non-conference foe BYU. Their first loss came in the season opener against Petersen's eventual landing spot - the Washington Huskies.
The 2014 season will be Boise State's first without Petersen's leadership since the end of the 2005 campaign, when the former coach took over the reins to the program. Petersen had been with the program since 2001, when he was hired as the Broncos' offensive coordinator.
That's also the same time current head coach Bryan Harsin got his start with the Broncos, if you don't count his playing days with Boise State as a quarterback from 1995-99. This upcoming season will be Harsin's first at the helm of the Broncos' program following two seasons as Arkansas State's head coach.
Boise State has a new head coach for the first time in almost a decade, and lost three starters on the offensive line. The Broncos also are losing a significant contributor on offense in quarterback Joe Southwick, who tossed 12 touchdown passes and ran for another three during a season in which he suffered a broken ankle in an Oct. 19 game against Nevada. The defense also will have to adjust to life without one of the nation's best pass rushers in Demarcus Lawrence, who registered 10.5 sacks a year ago and was third on the team in total tackles.
The Broncos finished 2013 with an 8-5 record, which included a 15-point loss in the Hawaii Bowl to Oregon State. It was also the first time in five years in which Boise State didn't finish the season ranked in the nation's Top 20.
So it would seem as though the Broncos are taking a downturn and headed for mediocrity, right?
Well, not so fast.
There's reason for optimism in the Blue Nation and it starts with the large number of experienced players. And not just starters, but significant performers as well.
There are seven offensive starters returning for the upcoming season, including a quartet of skill position masters.
Quarterback Grant Hedrick threw for 16 touchdown passes and 1,825 yards in 2013, and finished the season with a quarterback rating of 150.0. He'll be complemented by star running back Jay Ajayi in the backfield.
Ajayi was a force to be reckoned with last season after dashing for 1,463 yards on 249 carries. He added an eye-popping 18 rushing touchdowns for the Broncos, and caught a touchdown pass as well.
Hedrick gets a boost in the passing game with last year's top two receivers returning for another shot at the Mountain West title. Matt Miller, who caught a team-leading 12 touchdown passes with 1,140 yards, comes back for his senior season, while Shane Williams-Rhodes (six touchdowns) will line up with Miller at receiver.
Boise State's top two tacklers are back for the 2014 season in Ben Weaver (89 tackles) and Corey Bell (76 tackles). The Broncos also retain cornerback Donte Deayon, who topped the squad with six interceptions in 2013. Darian Thompson and Bryan Douglas recorded four interceptions each last year and will be part of a strong defensive backfield this upcoming season.
The schedule for the Broncos isn't particularly tough in 2014, although a Week 1 matchup with SEC power Ole Miss isn't the most favorable way to start a season. If Boise State can get past the Rebels (the game is on the blue turf in Boise), the team's schedule gets plenty easier. Colorado State and Connecticut aren't exactly feared opponents, and the Sun Belt's Louisiana won't strike fear into Boise's high-powered offense. The tough conference games - Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State - are all being played in Boise.
The Broncos play road games against four Mountain West programs that had losing records last season and will play BYU at home this time around.
Having managed double-digit wins in 12 of the past 14 years, it's safe to say the Broncos have a winning formula. Sure, Petersen helped the team along greatly and had the program take enormous strides toward excellence. But for 2014, the players on the roster are still Petersen recruits and were developed by him. Having 15 starters return who all proved they can be difference makers is the key.
It looks like the 8-5 season Boise State endured last year was more of a fluke combined with an unlucky schedule that featured tough road games. But don't expect a talented team like the Broncos to repeat those efforts this season. It helps that programs like Colorado State and Utah State lost some pretty big contributors following the 2013 season.
The departure of a long-time and talented head coach can be daunting, but the Broncos seem up for the challenge.