The Broncos enter the 2019 season with high expectations, but plenty of uncertainty. They will need to replace a four-year starting quarterback in Brett Rypien and an NFL running back in Alexander Mattison. Perhaps the biggest question comes on the defensive side of the ball, where the Broncos will have to replace defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.
While there are plenty of questions, expectations will remain the same. The Broncos expect to win the Mountain Division and compete for a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. This might be the deepest Bronco squad since Kellen Moore was on campus. Coach Harsin and staff have dominated the Mountain West in recruiting, and it shows when you look at the depth chart. Last year, the Broncos were plagued by injuries to key players. But, those players will be back, and the Broncos should have an excellent chance to represent the Mountain Division in December.
Let’s take a look at each unit and what to expect this season.
Reasons for optimism: Depth. Plain and simple. I am not sure if the Boise State offense has ever had this kind of depth at receiver, and they haven’t had this kind of depth at running back since Doug Martin, DJ Harper, and Jeremy Avery shared carries. The receiver position is the strongest on the team. A lot will be made of who starts, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. If there is one thing we have learned from Coach Harsin, it isn’t about who starts but who finishes. The Broncos have six electric receivers that are all capable of leading the teams. John Hightower, CT Thomas, Khalil Shakir, Stefan Cobbs, and Akilian Butler. Keep an eye for Octavius Evans, big things were expected from the junior in 2018, but an injury plagued season kept him from reaching his full potential.
Experience on the offensive line. The five projected starters all have significant experience. Ezra Cleveland will anchor the left side of the line along with John Molchon. Cleveland has been receiving a ton of love from NFL scouts and is a prime candidate to leave early for the NFL draft. John Ojukwu showed a ton of potential after being inserted into the lineup halfway through the season. Big things are expected out of the sophomore; his ability to succeed will play a big part in the early success of the new quarterback.
Depth at running back. The Broncos have a tradition of riding a workhorse running back to a one thousand yard season. That may change in 2019. Andrew Van Buren is expected to get the bulk of the carries, but junior Robert Mahone has shown flashes of potential and could get some carries. Keep an eye out on Danny Smith; if he is ready to contribute it will allow the Broncos to redshirt their two, four-star running back recruits in George Holani and Keegan Duncan. With that being said, I would be shocked if we don’t see Holani get some carries this season.
Cause for concern: Quarterback. Listen, there is a ton of potential at this position, but anytime you are putting a new starter out there, you have to be a little bit worried. The first start for the new quarterback will come in a hostile environment against the Florida State Seminoles. Will the Broncos stick with one quarterback, or will we see a couple of guys get snaps? The health of Chase Cord is a cause for concern. Will his history of ACL issues impact his play if he is the guy? Hank Bachmeier is another possible starter. Will the true freshman be able to overcome his lack of experience? In recent seasons, the Broncos have had to worry about depth at the quarterback position; that shouldn’t be a problem this year. But, the lack of experience is a major cause for concern.
Can the offensive line start strong? The offensive line has started slow for two consecutive seasons. The skill and experience of Brett Rypien and Alexander Mattison have allowed the offensive line to get away with some poor performance, but that can’t be the case in 2019. The offensive line needs to be strong from the opening whistle. They will need open holes for running backs and give the new quarterback time to work their magic in the pocket.
Key Stat: 104. The projected starting offensive line has combined to start 104 games. That is a lot of returning experience and should make the transition for the new quarterback a little bit easier.
Wild Card: The tight ends. Outside of Jake Roh, the tight ends have had little production in the passing game since Bryan Harsin took over as head coach. Fans have been clamoring for another pass-catching tight end, and the Broncos might have their guy in Tyneil Hopper. Hopper looked the part in the Spring game and appears ready to play a role in the passing game.
Reasons for optimism: Experience. The Broncos bring back nine starters and a ton of production. The Bronco defense was hampered by injuries in 2018 and took a noticeable step back after the DeAndre Pierce injury. Pierce is back and will form the most experienced secondary tandem with Kekoa Nawahine.
The defensive line. The Broncos will have the best defensive line in the Mountain West and should be two-deep at each position. Curtis Weaver will look to finish with double digit sacks for the second consecutive season, and like Ezra Cleveland, he is a prime candidate to leave early for the NFL draft. The Broncos are expected to have a more aggressive approach under new, defensive coordinator, Jeff Schmedding. I expect the sack numbers to be even higher this season. Weaver will be joined by a pair of run-stopping defensive tackles in Sonatane Lui and Scale Igiehon. I expect Scale to have a huge sophomore season and will be the next Bronco to get attention from NFL scouts.
Cause for concern: Corner. The Broncos lost a four year contributor in Tyler Horton. Avery Williams will be returning, and Jalen Walker is the likely starter on the other side. However, Williams and Walker both struggled against larger receivers last season. They will need to show significant improvement if the Broncos are going to return to the national spotlight this season. Keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Chris Mitchell and Tyric LeBeauf. Mitchell look solid in the spring game and should challenge Walker for snaps.
Linebacker. I’m not nearly as concerned about linebacker. Riley Whimpey seemed to be figuring things out before he suffered a season ending injury, and Zeke Noa looked like the real deal the second half of the season. However, depth is a concern. Young guns like Phillip Mills, Brandon Hawkins, and Casey Kline will likely need to contribute.
Key Stat: 7. The Broncos intercepted only seven passes in 2018. Forcing turnovers was a major concern. There are huge expectations for this defense; they will need to force more turnovers in 2019.
Wild Card: David Moa. Moa only played in one game last season and was granted a medical redshirt. The sixth year senior will join an experienced defensive line. Moa was getting a ton of attention from NFL scouts following his sophomore season. If he can get anywhere close to that kind of production, opposing offenses are in big trouble.
Reason for optimism: Speed Kills. The Broncos will have no shortage of capable returners this year. Khalil Shakir, Avery Williams, and John Hightower have all shown promise in the return game. I would be shocked if we don’t see a few touchdown returns this year.
Cause for concern: Who is going to kick the ball this year? The Broncos haven’t had a consistent kicker for quite some time. Will that change in 2019? We will just have to wait and see. Expectations have been high for Joel Velazquez for quite some time. We know he has a huge leg, but can he be consistent enough to win the job? If Velazquez can win the kicking job, the Broncos might have their first kicker/punter since Kyle Brotzman.
Key Stat: 1. That’s how many points Velazquez scored last year. He will need to prove that he is a capable kicker, or he will be losing his job to a younger teammate.
Wild Card: Gavin Wale. I can’t recall the last time Boise State had a true freshman kicker or punter, but Wale will come in and have a chance to win the job. I expect that he will have a decent chance to get at least some of the punting duties in 2019, but he might need a year in the weight room before he is ready to contribute.
8/31: @ Florida State (Jacksonville)
9/6: vs. Marshall
9/14: vs. Portland State
9/20: vs. Air Force
10/5: @ UNLV
10/12: vs. Hawaii
10/19: @ BYU
11/2: @ San Jose State
11/9: vs. Wyoming
11/16: vs. New Mexico
11/23: @ Utah State
11/30: @ Colorado State
Thoughts: Coach Harsin and his staff would have probably preferred a more balanced home schedule. The Broncos will play half of their home games in the month of September and play their last two games on the road against division foes, but it is hard to be too upset. The Broncos don’t have to play Fresno State or San Diego State and host Wyoming, Air Force, and Hawaii. The toughest conference game is shaping up to be a road contest in Logan against Utah State. Will that game determine the division winner like it did in 2018? It is very possible.
Another thing to keep an eye on is the weather in November. The Broncos start the month with two home games and will travel to Logan and Ft. Collins for their final two contests. Weather could play a factor in all of those games.
Best case scenario: I think it is possible that the Broncos win their opening game in Jacksonville against Florida State, but it is highly unlikely. However, the Broncos lose a close game against a Seminole squad that finishes second in the ACC to Clemson. The offense shows flashes of brilliance and a quarterback (Chase Cord or Hank Bachmeier) emerges as the new face of the football program. Boise State rides the momentum over the course of the year and finishes the season 11-1 and goes undefeated in the Mountain West for the first time under Coach Harsin.
Worst case scenario: Boise State gets blown away in the opener and is completely out-classed by a team with more talent and better athletes. The Broncos limp into Bronco Stadium and narrowly defeat a capable Marshall squad. Boise State loses their two Utah games against the Cougars and the Aggies and lose a random, home game to finish the season 8-4. They miss out on the conference championship game and are relegated to the New Mexico Bowl.
Most likely scenario: Boise State loses a close game to Florida State and loses a random Mountain West conference game (like they seem to do every year). Boise State splits the Utah games, narrowly losing to BYU and defeating Utah State. The Broncos finish the season 9-3 and do just enough to represent the Mountain Division in the conference championship game. The Broncos will be on the road for the championship game for the first time in program history, where they will face off against the Fresno State Bulldogs.
What I think will happen: Boise State marches into Jacksonville and puts up a fight against an improved Florida State squad. However, the offense struggles to find its stride until the second half where it is too little, too late, and the Broncos lose 27-17. The Broncos then run through the rest of September with three convincing wins at home. They also defeat Utah State and BYU to continue their dominance over Utah schools. They will lose some random, Mountain West game to finish the season 10-2 and 7-1 in the Mountain West. Boise State will host the Mountain West Championship game against Fresno State and come up victorious in the rubber match. The Broncos then go on to represent the conference in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Amidst all of the questions, we will soon have answers! The Broncos will travel to Jacksonville to take on Florida State on August 31st. The game will air at 5:00 MT on ESPN.