The Boise State football team opens the season Saturday at Troy. Here are five questions surrounding the team as the Broncos begin their quest for a fourth Mountain West championship and fourth major bowl berth:
5. What will the passing attack look like? The Broncos’ pass game was more liability than asset for the first half of last season but greatly improved after that. Now they’ll try to get back to the high-powered tradition of Boise State football without the two most important receivers off that team, Cedrick Wilson and Jake Roh. It’s clear that sophomore Octavius Evans is expected to become a standout, but he was held out of team drills during Fan Fest on Saturday — casting some doubt on his status. A.J. Richardson and Sean Modster showed significant progress last year but need to do more this year. Sophomore wide receiver CT Thomas and a group of tight ends with little track record need to step up, too. They’ll be fed by senior quarterback Brett Rypien, who will be counted on to hold the passing game together and avoid the big mistakes that have bitten him throughout his career.
4. Is the short-yardage problem fixed? The Broncos were a grisly 3-for-17 on fourth down last season, and they had trouble on third-and-short, too. It got so bad that one of the solutions was to use Roh, a tight end, as a goal-line ball carrier. The offensive line is good enough and experienced enough that it should be able to take charge in these situations.
3. Is Alexander Mattison the next great back? Mattison started last season banged up and in a funk. But after back-to-back games where he rushed for a total of 21 yards, he rushed for at least 100 yards four of the next six games — including a 242-yard showing against Colorado State. He was hobbled again late in the season and limited to three carries in the bowl game. Word around the Broncos during camp was that he looks healthy and explosive — putting him in position to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons like his immediate predecessors, Jeremy McNichols (2015-16) and Jay Ajayi (2013-14).
2. Will the defense improve? The Broncos finished 38th in scoring defense last year at 22.9 points per game. They held eight opponents to 14 or fewer points and forced 26 turnovers. That defense was the key reason they won the Mountain West title — and nine starters return. If the group can take the next step toward dominant play and crack the top 10 in total or scoring defense — the Broncos were 21st in total defense last season — then this team becomes a strong contender for an undefeated season.
1. Can the Broncos sustain success? Boise State under coach Bryan Harsin hasn’t been able to produce a complete season. The Broncos get hot, and then make a blunder. Or they stumble, and then reel off a bunch of wins when everyone writes them off. This team seems built to make a run at the Broncos’ first season with one loss or none since 2011, back when those seasons were commonplace for this program. But they’ll have to show the consistency that has been lacking.
In 2014, there was a 3-2 start followed by nine straight wins and a Fiesta Bowl trophy. In 2015, inexplicable, back-to-back home losses derailed a conference title chase. In 2016, there was a 7-0 start undone by three losses in the final six games. And in 2017, a seven-game win streak erased a 2-2 start and led to Mountain West and Las Vegas Bowl titles.
Former coach Chris Petersen preached for years about the difficulty of keeping 105 football players focused on the day-to-day grind for months — while posting five one- or no-loss seasons in eight years.
Nine years after the Broncos’ last undefeated season, it’s probably easier for people to believe him.
Harsin thinks this team is capable of that unwavering focus. Saturday’s game will give him a better indication.
“If we don’t operate like that, we are not a good football team,” Harsin said. “... If our team is truly about the competition and our process, (I) feel good about it. If we’re on the hype train all the time and we’ve got to get social media feelers to feel good about ourselves and we’re looking at that all day ... then watch out, you’re going to get punched in the face, and then what are you going to do? You don’t have a response because you haven’t been thinking about it. We’ve been down this road, the ups and downs — we’ve dealt with that, and the best way for us to deal with it is to get ourselves ready, to go practice and then play our (butt) off when we go play against Troy.”