Idaho will transition back to the FCS after this season, which is interesting timing considering the Vandals are coming off of their most successful season as a FBS member. After winning nine games, including the Potato Bowl over Colorado State, can Idaho make a splash in its final season in the Sun Belt? To challenge the other top teams in the conference, head coach Paul Petrino will be counting on a rebuilt offensive line and needs new targets to emerge for his veteran quarterback. The defense returns just five starters with the biggest question mark being how the new-look line holds up. Idaho probably won’t match last season’s win total, but the schedule lays out nicely for the Vandals to leave the FBS ranks on a high note.
Previewing Idaho Football’s Offense for 2017
The Vandals are loaded at the skill positions, but coach Paul Petrino needs to replace three starters on the offensive line and the top two tight ends to give his talented quarterback, running backs and wide receivers time and space to operate.
Quarterback Matt Linehan has started since his freshman season, and the senior is coming off a 19-touchdown campaign that saw him throw for 3,184 yards and earn MVP honors at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Linehan will be without his top two targets from last season — tight ends Trent Cowan and Deon Watson — but seniors Alfonso Onunwor (39 receptions, 403 yards) and Jacob Sannon (28, 303) give the 6'3", 239-pound quarterback threats on the outside.
Idaho’s strength on offense is in the backfield, where Isaiah Saunders (731 yards) and Aaron Duckworth (672) form a productive two-headed monster. They will be pushed by redshirt freshman Dylan Thigpen, who has been so impressive that Denzal Brantley, last year’s third-leading rusher, switched to defensive back.
The giant question will be the offensive line. Two full-time starters return — tackle Jordan Rose and guard Noah Johnson — but can the Vandals put together a unit that can protect Linehan and open holes for the talented backfield? If the line isn’t a liability, Idaho’s offense should flourish.
Previewing Idaho Football’s Defense for 2017
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Five starters return from last season, including junior linebacker Tony Lashley, who led the Vandals with 107 tackles, including 10 for a loss. Fellow linebacker Kaden Elliss also returns, and he had five interceptions and forced a team-high three fumbles last season.
The defensive line has some major rebuilding to do, but end Aikeem Coleman gives Idaho a proven pass rusher. The senior had a team-high eight sacks and seven quarterback hits. Seniors Arie Anderson and Zach Cable must assume larger roles and be productive for the Vandals’ front to make a huge impact.
Two starting cornerbacks must be replaced, but sophomore Lloyd Hightower has starting experience, and safety Armond Hawkins is the unit’s leader. Brantley, the converted running back, is a big hitter with a bright future.
Idaho’s defense can be solid if the D-line holds up and the linebacking corps continues to improve and make plays.
Previewing Idaho Football’s Specialists for 2017
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for Idaho will be replacing four-year starter Austin Rehkow, who handled the kicking and punting chores with excellent results. The two-man battle between redshirt freshman Cade Coffey and sophomore Sam Fenlason is one to keep an eye on. The Vandals do have experienced returners in Onunwor and Brantley, but Idaho’s history of strong kicking and punting must continue for the program to record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1998-99.
It’s the last hurrah for Idaho as an FBS program, and you can bet the Vandals will have a chip on their shoulder. Idaho won nine games last season — matching its best total in football’s highest division — and has one last chance to win its first conference title as an FBS member since 1998. It’s been quite a turnaround for a program that won nine games combined from 2011-15.
With a favorable schedule — only one game against a Power-5 conference opponent (Missouri) and six home games, including two of the top teams in the conference heading to Moscow — the Vandals feel they can go out in style. They’ll need to stay healthy and have both the offensive and defensive fronts grow up quickly. If that happens, Idaho may have the last laugh and a chance to remain perfect in bowl games (they’re 3–0 all time).
National Ranking: 104
Sun Belt Prediction: 5
(Matt Linehan photo courtesy of Idaho Athletics)