Historically, the Wyoming Cowboys have struggled to build a winning football program in the Mountain West Conference. 1999 was the inaugural season of the Mountain West Conference. That season, the Cowboys finished 7-4 under third-year coach, Dana Dimel. Following the season, Dimel became the head coach at the University of Houston. Since that time, Wyoming has not had a football coach who finished with an overall winning record during his tenure with the Cowboys.
However, things appear to be changing in Laramie. This season, Craig Bohl enters Year 5 as head coach at Wyoming, coming off of consecutive, eight-win seasons. Prior to coming to Laramie, Bohl helped build North Dakota State into an FCS power-house that won three-straight championships. Since leaving Fargo, the Bison have continued where Bohl left off, winning 3 of the last 4 FCS Championships. Bohl is a program-builder.
While his first two seasons at Wyoming were rough with Wyoming winning only 4 games in 2014 and 2 games in 2015, Bohl did not take shortcuts. Instead of looking for JUCO recruits that would help the depth chart immediately, Bohl focused on recruiting the vast majority of his players from high school and developing them along over the course of 4 to 5 years of eligibility. The early growing pains from changing systems under a new coaching staff paired with the initial youth on the roster mixed with inheriting players recruited by the previous coaching staff were predictable. However, the youth movement started yielding dividends the past couple of seasons in Years 3 & 4 under Bohl. During this time, Wyoming further committed to Bohl’s vision of the Cowboys as a developmental program by constructing the High Altitude Performance Center. The 44 million dollar complex is designed to help further the development and training for Wyoming athletics. Meanwhile, Bohl now has a team with a roster full of his own recruits that he will now have the benefit of using these top facilities to help develop his own players.
Further committing to the long-term vision, Bohl signed an extension at Wyoming through 2023 near the end of 2016. This is how you go about trying to build a sustainable football program. One that might finally be poised to become a consistent winner in the Mountain West Conference.
Reasons for optimism: The Wyoming offense returns a lot of experience. Wyoming lost much of the skill position talent surrounding Josh Allen from the offense after the 2016 season. As such, Wyoming had a lot of inexperienced players on the 2017 offense that now have a season’s worth of experience and another year of development in the program that can be put onto the field this fall.
Cause for concern: That inexperienced offense in 2017 struggled much of the year. Even worse, Josh Allen is gone. The number seven overall pick in the draft is playing for the Buffalo Bills. Under Allen, Wyoming went 8-3 last season. Without him, 0-2.
Key stat: 1,414. That’s the total rushing yardage for Wyoming in 2017. Wyoming did not have a single player get to 500 yds rushing on the season. Comparatively, Wyoming ran for 2,865 yards in 2016. That’s less than half the previous season. If Wyoming wants to improve on offense, they need to greatly improve in the running game. Especially, since the Cowboys will be breaking in a new starting QB.
Wildcard: Redshirt Freshman, Tyler Vander Waal. After spring ball, Vander Waal appears to be the frontrunner to replace Josh Allen at QB. It’s a very large unknown as to how well he’ll perform as the starting QB. While expectations should be fairly low to start the season, it’s worth noting that Josh Allen was a similar unknown for the Cowboys a couple of seasons ago. Additionally, this coaching staff has a history of developing successful QB play, going back to their time at North Dakota State.
Reasons for optimism: The Wyoming defense took a huge step forward last season under their new defensive coordinator, Scottie Hazelton. Wyoming finished 23rd in Total Defense. More impressively, Wyoming led the country in turnovers. That defense returns a lot of experience and should be poised for another strong season.
Cause for concern: Realistically, Wyoming is unlikely to generate 38 turnovers again. That number (roughly 3 per game) is likely due for some regression. While the overall defense returns a lot of experience, both of the top cornerbacks are gone from last season since Robert Priester and Rico Gafford have now graduated.
Key stat: 4.6. That’s the amount of yards per play opponents had against Wyoming in 2017. That was an improvement by nearly 2 yards per play from 2016 (6.5 yards per play). If an experienced Wyoming defense can hold opponents down like they did in 2017, the 2018 Cowboys should be able to stay in the majority of their games, with or without improvement from the offense.
Wildcard: Redshirt Junior, Antonio Hull. Hull was a key contributor at cornerback entering 2017, having played a lot in 2015 and 2016. However, Hull was injured Week 1 and never made it back from injury the rest of the season. As such, Hull is coming off of a medical redshirt in 2018. Hull may be relied on for leadership at corner as redshirt freshmen Keyon Blankenbaker and CJ Coldon will be seeing the field for the first time at Wyoming this fall as the next up on the depth chart.
August 25th - @ New Mexico State
September 1st - Washington State
September 8th - @ Missouri
September 15th - Wofford
September 22nd - BYE
September 29th - Boise State*
October 6th - @ Hawaii*
October 13th - @ Fresno State*
October 20th - Utah State*
October 26th - @ Colorado State*
November 3rd - San Jose State*
November 10th - BYE
November 17th - Air Force*
November 24th - @ New Mexico*
Thoughts: The Cowboys have 6 home games and 6 road games. In 2017, Wyoming had 7 home games and 5 road games. Just in that sense, the 2017 schedule is less favorable. No change in conference opponents - just flip the home field. Wofford is a good FCS team, but Wyoming should win at home as long as they don’t overlook the Terriers. New Mexico State is coming off of a bowl win that capped a winning season. That said, New Mexico State has historically struggled at football and is now going at it alone as an Independent after the Sun Belt declined to renew a conference membership with the Aggies. Missouri is an SEC team that went 7-6 in 2017, although Missouri did not beat an FBS team that finished with a winning record last season. Washington State went 9-4 in the PAC-12 last season. However, Washington State has experienced a lot of change in the depth chart and the coaching staff since the end of the 2017 season.
Best case scenario: The offense finds stability at quarterback and in the running game, becoming a capable, stable unit. Meanwhile, the defense continues to play at a top level, and the Pokes win a lot of games. Wyoming finishes with 10 or more wins, wins the Mountain Division, and plays in the MWC Championship game for 2nd time in 3 years.
Worst case scenario: The offensive regression from 2017 continues into 2018. The Wyoming defense suffers injuries and regresses. Wyoming loses close games as the defense falters at key moments and the offense sputters. The Pokes fall back to a losing record winning only 4 or so games.
What’s probably going to happen: The Wyoming defense continues to play very well after returning the majority of the contributors on defense. The offense takes some steps forward from 2017, despite losing some of the occasionally spectacular play at QB from Josh Allen. A more productive (though less flashy offense) does enough to win the majority of the time due to having a strong defense playing behind it. The Pokes finish with a winning record of about 7-5 in the regular season and have a chance to go to a bowl game again. Doing so, Wyoming goes bowling three-straight seasons for the first time in program history.