Expectations are elevated at the University of Idaho as the Vandals begin their final season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Idaho finished 9-4 in 2016, reaching nine wins for the first time since 1998 and taking home only its third bowl win in program history.
While Sun Belt coaches predicted the Vandals will finish sixth in the 12-team conference in their preseason poll, the enthusiasm inside the program couldn’t be higher.
Idaho opens the 2017 season at home against Sacramento State on Thursday.
The Vandals return starting quarterback Matt Linehan, who already ranks third in Idaho history in career completion percentage (.611), fourth in average yards per game (248.5) and passes completed (724), fifth in attempts (1,184) and yards (8,696) and sixth in touchdown passes (46).
Linehan is one of five starters back for an offense that averaged 30.8 points and 397.0 yards per game. Also returning are running back Aaron Duckworth (672 yards, 5 TDs), wide receiver Jacob Sannon (28 receptions, 303 yards, 2 TDs) and offensive linemen Noah Johnson and Jordan Rose.
Defensive end Aikeem Coleman, the 2016 Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year, headlines a group of six returning starters on defense. Coleman was named to the 2017 Nagurski Trophy watch list after collecting 41 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, eight sacks, seven quarterback hurries and two pass breakups a year ago.
Linebackers Kaden Elliss, Tony Lashley, Ty Graham and Ed Hall, and free safety Armond Hawkins, round out the Vandals’ returning starters on defense. Elliss and Lashley were Sun Belt honorable mention picks last season, with Elliss hauling in five interceptions and Lashley a team-leading 107 tackles.
Special teams may have the largest hole to fill with the loss of punter/kicker Austin Rehkow, a four-year, first-team all-conference punter who was recently released by the Buffalo Bills. Rehkow finished his career as Idaho’s all-time leader in field goals made (70) and punting average (45.8 yards per punt).
Idaho returns to the Football Championship Subdivision and Big Sky Conference beginning in 2018-19, but the Vandals don’t plan to go quietly.
Three of the Vandals’ first four opponents — Sacramento State, UNLV and South Alabama — finished with losing records last season. Only reigning Mid-American champion Western Michigan, who the Vandals play in Week 3, had a better record than Idaho last season at 13-1.
The favorable schedule could mean the Vandals open the season with a record of 3-1 or better.
Idaho State tries to put controversial, dramatic offseason behind it
No matter how many points Idaho State scores at Holt Arena during its season opener Thursday against Division II Western Oregon, it will struggle to create the fireworks that surrounded the Bengals in the offseason.
Head coach Mike Kramer left Idaho State in March after he compiled an 18-50 record in six years, including 10-38 in the Big Sky. The Bengals announced Kramer’s departure as a retirement, but Athletic Director Jeff Tingey said Kramer wouldn’t have returned in 2017 if he hadn’t retired, and Idaho State will pay the final year of his contract, worth approximately $164,000.
Rob Phenicie, the wide receivers coach last season, takes over the Bengals. But that didn’t placate boosters, who threatened to withhold $80,000 in donations if the school didn’t fire Tingey and school president Arthur Vailas.
Vailas announced his retirement three days later but denied it had anything to do with the boosters’ threat.
All of that followed a 2-9 season, including 1-7 in the league, that saw Idaho State surrender 41 points per game and limp to its 12th losing record in 13 years.
“We play for each other,” Idaho State linebacker Mario Jenkins told the Idaho State Journal as the booster controversy swirled. “We don’t worry about the negativity.”
Idaho State finished last in the Big Sky preseason media and coaches’ polls. But the return of seven starters on defense should help a unit that’s given up 30 or more points a game for 11 years in a row. Among those seven starters are the Bengals’ top two tacklers: linebackers Jenkins (Columbia High) and Joe Martin.
The offense also brings back seven starters, including junior quarterback Tanner Gueller, who completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,351 yards, 20 TDs and 10 interceptions in 2016.
He’s aided by an offensive line that fields eight players with Division I game experience. Guard Skyler Phillips, a second-team FCS Preseason All-American, returns after missing most of last season with an injury. And Dallen Collins (Vallivue High) started all 11 games at center last year as a freshman.
College of Idaho opens with loss, will chase first winning season of new era
The College of Idaho began its fourth season since reinstating the football program in 2014 with a 16-14 loss at No. 19 Montana Western on Saturday.
The Yotes entered the season picked sixth in the eight-team Frontier Conference coaches’ poll after going 4-7 for the third straight year.
The defense received a big boost when safety Nate Moore (Mountain View High) received an extra year of eligibility from the NAIA. Moore is a two-time NAIA first-team All-American. He set a school record with 119 tackles last fall, ranking fourth in the nation.
But the offense will have to replace its top weapon, tight end Marcus Lenhardt (Eagle High), who opted to forgo his fourth year of eligibility to enroll in graduate school.
The Yotes didn’t declare a starting quarterback before the season as junior Tyler Cox (Boise High) and sophomore Darius-James Peterson continued to battle for playing time. Cox started seven games last season, but Peterson took over at the end of the season. The dual-threat quarterback led the Yotes with 848 rushing yards and a school-record 17 rushing TDs.
A loaded offensive line will protect the quarterback as College of Idaho returns its top seven linemen from 2016, including left tackle Sam Zvirzdys and right guard Andrew Galloway, who have started 33 straight games at their positions.
College of Idaho hits the road Sept. 2 to face the first Division I opponent in its history — Northern Colorado — before returning for its home opener at 1 p.m. Sept. 9 against Southern Oregon.
2017 Idaho football schedule
at W. Michigan
at S. Alabama*
at New Mexico St.*
at Georgia St.*
* - Sun Belt Conference game, all times Mountain
Idaho State schedule
at Utah State
at N. Colorado*
at Sacramento St.*
at Montana St.*
at Weber St.*
* - Big Sky Conference game, all times Mountain
College of Idaho schedule
at Montana Western*
at N. Colorado
at Rocky Mountain*
at S. Oregon*
at E. Oregon*
* - Frontier Conference game, all times Mountain