Boise State reclaimed supremacy in the Mountain West last season and could be even better this fall. Some key players on both sides of the ball need to be replaced, but head coach Bryan Harsin has a four-year starter at quarterback and returns nine starters on defense. Reliable targets will need to emerge in the passing game and the defense must replace its best player, but the Broncos have enough pieces to emerge as the best Group of 5 team this season.
Previewing Boise State Football's Offense for 2018
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Senior quarterback Brett Rypien is the active leader in the FBS in career passing yards (9,876), and after a shaky first half of the season, he was sharp down the stretch, throwing only one interception in his final eight regular-season games after tossing three in his first four games. His return is vital for a passing game that loses receiver Cedrick Wilson (school-record 1,511 yards in 2017) and tight end Jake Roh (team-high nine TD catches).
Rypien will have no shortage of options, as the team added five receivers and two tight ends in the latest recruiting class. Senior receivers A.J. Richardson and Sean Modster had 33 and 32 receptions, respectively, last season, while sophomores CT Thomas and Octavius Evans showed significant potential as true freshmen. The team's returning tight ends had four combined receptions last year.
Junior running back Alexander Mattison rushed for 1,086 yards and 12 touchdowns, extending the program's streak of seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher to nine. In a statistical anomaly, Mattison averaged 120.7 yards in true road games and only 50 yards at home.
Two starters graduate off the line, but five who made at least one start last season are back, including sophomore left tackle Ezra Cleveland, the only lineman to start all 14 games.
Previewing Boise State Football's Defense for 2018
At times, the Broncos' defense was dominant in 2017, and it returns just about everyone. The one problem: The team's best player, Leighton Vander Esch, is one of the players not coming back. A recruiting afterthought when he signed in 2014, the Idaho native ended his career as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Ten of the top 11 tacklers are back, plus those responsible for 12 of the team's 15 interceptions and 30 of its 34 sacks. Boise State allowed fewer than 20 points nine times and created 26 turnovers after forcing just nine in 2016.
Senior cornerback Tyler Horton is an All-Mountain West performer, and sophomore Avery Williams has a nose for the ball. Safety is extremely deep, led by juniors Kekoa Nawahine and DeAndre Pierce, who combined for 191 tackles.
Junior middle linebacker Tyson Maeva is a smart, productive presence who is poised for an important role as the team searches for Vander Esch's replacement. Idaho graduate transfer Tony Lashley is also expected to compete for snaps at linebacker this fall. There is some intriguing versatility, as nickel back Kekaula Kaniho and "Stud" end Curtis Weaver were not full-time starters as freshmen, though Kaniho scored a pair of TDs, while Weaver had 11 sacks.
All three defensive line starters return with 56 career starts among them, key parts of a rush defense that finished 17th nationally.
Previewing Boise State Football's Specialists for 2018
The Broncos took a quantum leap forward last season, improving in nearly every special teams facet, including two punt return touchdowns by Williams. Placekicker Haden Hoggarth was solid as a junior, hitting 18-of-23 field goals, and reliable punters Joel Velazquez and Quinn Skillin also return.
If pass catchers can step up - and if Rypien can elevate them - it would go a long way for a team that averaged "only" 32.5 points per game, the program's lowest output since 2012. The defense and special teams return a ton of talent, so there is little reason to believe the Broncos can't make a run at a second straight Mountain West title and contend for a New Year's Six Bowl.
National Ranking: 19
MW Mountain Prediction: 1
(Top photo courtesy of Allison Corona/Boise State University)