Idaho Vandals 2016 Preview and Prediction

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#119 Idaho Vandals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#119

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#8

HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino, 6-29 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kris Cinkovich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Breske

Idaho improved from one win in 2014 to four last season, and the Vandals gave up leads in two other games that would have made them bowl eligible. Paul Petrino has 13 starters returning from a team that's looking to take care of some unfinished business and get Idaho back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

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Previewing Idaho’s Offense for 2016


Junior quarterback Matt Linehan made great strides during his sophomore season, increasing his accuracy (63.1 percent) and number of touchdowns (16) while reducing the number of interceptions (11) thrown. The son of Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will rely on a pair of senior tight ends in Buck Cowan and Deon Watson, who combined for 90 catches and 11 touchdowns last season. Watson also is expected to play some wide receiver, which should create mismatches in the secondary.

Callen Hightower, who caught 57 passes a year ago, is the top returning wideout, though Jacob Sannon and David Ungerer are back from injuries and should be in the mix with Reuben Mwehla and Jante Boston on the outside.

The strength of the offense lies in the offensive line, which returns four starters. Center Steven Matlock is the leader, while 6'6", 322-pound Jordan Rose is a force at tackle. Idaho reduced its sacks allowed in 2015 by 12 from the previous season, and lowering that number again will only help Linehan and the passing game.

The most interesting position will be running back, where four players — Aaron Duckworth, Isaiah Saunders, Denzal Brantley and true freshman Dylan Thigpen — will vie to replace bruising 1,000-yard rusher Elijhaa Penny. If the Vandals can generate a consistent run game to complement their passing attack, this is an offense that can be very dangerous.

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Previewing Idaho's Defense for 2016


The good news is that Idaho returns 12 players who made at least one start. But the Vandals lost leading tackler Broc Westlake and dynamic playmaker Quinton Bradley. The unit ranked 123rd in scoring defense and 118th in total defense, so there is plenty of room to improve. Idaho needs to generate a pass rush to give its secondary a chance against the many pass-happy offenses it will face this season.

Safety Russell Siavii is the only returning player who had more than one interception in 2015, though the secondary should be bolstered by the return of Jayshawn Jordan from an injury. 

Sophomore linebacker Kaden Elliss had a monster freshman season, recording 83 tackles while starting all 12 games. He’s expected to be the focal point on defense, getting help from linebacking mates Tony Lashley and Ed Hall.

Tueni Lupeamanu anchors a defensive line that had trouble stopping the run last year.

Many players saw action on defense last season because of injuries. That experience should make the defense better, though forcing turnovers likely will be key for a team that recorded only 17 takeaways last season.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Idaho’s Specialists for 2016


Senior Austin Rehkow handles both kicking and punting, and he’s one of the best in the country. As a freshman in 2013, he led the nation in punting average and was twice a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. He also made 23-of-27 field goal attempts last season. Idaho’s other special teams units all ranked in the bottom 10 nationally. 

Final Analysis
 

The Vandals just missed a .500 season in 2015 — they blew huge leads in losses at South Alabama and New Mexico State that would have given them a 6–6 record — and a postseason appearance. “It’s a goal we should accomplish this year, no question,” head coach Paul Petrino says. “I think it’s a year we can take a big step forward.”

The Vandals are looking for their first winning season since 2009 and have a shot if Linehan’s efficiency trajectory keeps climbing and he gets help from unproven but talented skill players. Idaho’s margin for error isn’t very large, so the Vandals must stay healthy and catch a break or two to reach a bowl game for just the third time in school history.