The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 102: Idaho
Coach: Robb Akey (19-43, entering sixth season at Idaho)
2011 record: 2-10 (1-6 in Western Athletic Conference, eighth place in WAC )
Look back: Idaho entered the 2011 season with high expectations. The team won a bowl game in 2009 and posted five wins in 2010, coming up just short of bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year. However, a string of injuries and a tough schedule helped the Vandals stumble to a 2-10 record.
Idaho opened the season with a 32-15 loss to Bowling Green but bounced back with a 44-14 win over North Dakota. The team then took on a tough road game, falling 37-7 at Texas A&M and followed it up with a 48-24 loss at Fresno State. Idaho scared Virginia but ultimately lost 21-20 on the road in overtime.
The losses kept piling up, with Idaho losing 24-11 to Louisiana Tech, 31-24 at New Mexico State and 16-14 to Hawaii. The Vandals scored a 32-29 win at San Jose State, but it would prove to be just the second and final victory of the 2011 season. Idaho lost 42-7 at BYU and a 49-42 double overtime heartbreaker against Utah State. The Vandals closed out the 2011 season with a 56-3 loss at Nevada.
Idaho struggled on both sides of the ball. The team ranked No. 111 nationally out of 120 teams in total offense and No. 101 in total defense. Senior quarterback Brian Reader and the offense struggled to extend drives and scored touchdowns just 65 percent of the time when the team reached the red zone. The team lost the time of possession battle 31:37 to 28:23 during the season, putting more pressure on the defense to make plays.
Vandals coach Robb Akey revamped his assistant coaching staff during the offseason, adding offensive coordinator Jason Gesser and offensive line coach Gordy Shaw.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 6/5
Defensive starters lost/returning: 6/5
Key losses: OL Matt Cleveland, LB Korey Toomer, DB Matthew Harvey, DL Michael Cosgrove, QB Brian Reader, LB Tre’Shawn Robinson
Top returnees: TE Michael LaGrone, P Bobby Cowan, RB Ryan Bass, CB Aaron Grymes, K Trey Farquhar, LB Rob Siavii
Strengths: Idaho has the most depth and experience on the defensive side of the ball. I n addition to returning strong cornerback leader Aaron Grymes, linebacker Rob Siavii returns to the lineup. Siavii was Idaho’s leading tackler during the 2010 season, but he missed the 2011 campaign due to a torn ACL.
Tight end Michael LaGrone and running back Ryan Bass give the Vandals some go-to players to work with on offense. The team also has steady special teams performers in kicker Trey Farquhar and punter Bobby Cowan, who ranked second nationally in punting (46.41 yards per kick last season.)
The Idaho staff hit the recruiting trail to fill holes on the roster. Scout.com gave the coaches high marks, ranking Idaho’s 2012 recruiting No. 1 in the Western Athletic Conference.
Weaknesses: Idaho has yet to identify a starting quarterback. Dominique Blackman and Taylor Davis competed for the job during spring practice, but no one took a commanding lead in the race. It’s always tough for a team to smoothly install its offense when the race for the starting quarterback job continues into the summer and preseason camp.
The Vandals brought in a talented recruiting class, but it will still be tough to replace strong offensive linemen – including starter Matt Cleveland — who left the program at the end of the 2011 season. Idaho also lost some strong linebackers, including Korey Toomer and 2011 leading tackler Tre’Shawn Robinson.
While the football coaches have no control over the situation, it doesn’t help that Idaho’s football future in the WAC is in doubt. The harsh impact of conference realignment has trickled down to college football’s smallest leagues. The WAC is on life support after the rebuilding Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt poached the best teams still available. Idaho has been in the unfortunate least recruited position throughout the process. The Vandals will find a way to continue playing FBS football, but the lack of support for the program, with transitioning FBS schools earning bids to bigger conferences before Idaho, is clearly a big challenge.
Outlook: Idaho once again plays a tough schedule, and it’s going to be challenging for the team to earn a winning record. The team’s success will likely hinge on how quickly the new starting quarterback and revamped offensive line can step up and play at a high level.