Bronco Beat

Boise State football’s road slate could be treacherous

The Boise State football team’s 2017 schedule, at least on its face, should be one of the most difficult in years. On Tuesday, we took a look at the Broncos’ home slate, full of challenging offenses.

Now, for the road schedule, which will be the most difficult part. The Broncos’ road schedule includes a potential top-25 opponent, one of the Mountain West’s up-and-coming teams in Colorado State, and visits to three sites at which they lost in recent visits (BYU and Utah State in 2015 and San Diego State in 2013).

In fact, ESPN’s Football Power Index has Boise State as likely to win just two of its six road games. Here’s a look at the road schedule and where the Broncos’ opponents stand after spring practices.

Saturday, Sept. 9: at Washington State

Last season: 8-5

Key returners: QB Luke Falk, Sr. (4,468 passing yards, 38 TDs, 11 INTs); WR Tavares Martin, Jr. (64 catches, 728 yards, seven TDs); DL Hercules Mata’afa, Jr. (47 tackles, 13.5 TFL, five sacks)

Spring recap: The Cougars should again have one of the nation’s best offenses, and this likely will be Boise State’s most challenging game of the season. Washington State could be ranked when the season starts, thanks to having the top active passer in the Football Bowl Subdivision in Falk. Though top receiver Gabe Marks is gone, the Cougars still have plenty of weapons. The Cougars’ defense made strides last season, but had 13 fewer sacks and 30 fewer tackles for loss than in 2015.

“We’ve put a major emphasis on finishing the plays behind the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch told The Seattle Times. “If you sack the quarterback, now maybe it’s third-and-extra-long instead of third-and-10.

ESPN FPI: Boise State has a 17.5 percent chance of winning.

Friday, Oct. 6: at BYU (8:15 p.m., ESPN)

Last season: 9-4

Key returners: QB Tanner Mangum, Jr. (247 passing yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT in 2016, 3,377 yards, 23, TDs, 10 INTs in 2015); LB Fred Warner, Sr. (86 tackles, 10.5 TFL, three INTs); DB Dayan Ghanwoloku, So. (48 tackles, three INTs)

Spring recap: Mangum takes the reins again after Taysom Hill was healthy for almost all of last season. The Eagle native had a successful debut as a freshman in 2015 and after “an awkward situation” as a sophomore, as offensive coordinator Ty Detmer put it, it took some adjusting this spring.

“He’s a totally different person this year,” Detmer told The Deseret News. “You can see the confidence level with him taking charge, controlling the huddle and moving guys around at the line of scrimmage, making sure they’re lined up right. It’s a different mentality. I’m sure it’s one he’s embraced and enjoys.”

The Cougars must replace the school’s all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Williams, and they have plenty of candidates, including former Boise State commit Squally Canada. Two talented linebackers in Butch Pau’u and Fred Warner return, but safety Kai Nacua and defensive lineman Sae Tautu’s have graduated, which will leave a void. Coach Kalani Sitake said the spring was fruitful, telling The Salt Lake Tribune, “I thought we got way better.”

ESPN FPI: Boise State has a 38.7 percent chance of winning.

Saturday, Oct. 14: at San Diego State (8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Last season: 11-3

Key returners: RB/KR Rashaad Penny, Sr. (1,018 rushing yards, 31.2 yards per kickoff return, 16 total TDs); QB Christian Chapman, Jr. (1,994 yards, 20 TDs, 6 INTs); S Kameron Kelly, Sr. (38 tackles, 5 INTs)

Spring recap: The two-time defending Mountain West champions lose the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher in Donnel Pumphrey, but it may not be as huge of a loss as one may think. The electric Penny and sophomore Juwan Washington (441 yards on 55 carries and a kickoff return TD) should be able to fill the void. Four offensive line starters graduated, however, which was a focus in the spring.

“My experience is the offensive lineman and defensive linemen don’t really get into the swing of things until halfway through the season,” coach Rocky Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I think they’re going to be really good someday. Hopefully, they’ll be good soon.”

Chapman was out for the spring, so sophomore Ryan Agnew saw plenty of work, and the Aztecs will add Rutgers transfer Chris Laviano this summer. At times last season, the Aztecs’ defense was just nasty, so losing the likes of defensive end Alex Barrett (7.5 sacks), linebacker Calvin Munson (116 tackles) and cornerback Damontae Kazee (seven interceptions) will not be easy to replace.

ESPN FPI: Boise State has a 45.9 percent chance of winning.

Saturday, Oct. 28: at Utah State (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Last season: 3-9

Key returners: QB Kent Myers, Sr. (2,389 passing yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs, 449 rushing yards); RB Tonny Lindsey, Sr. (763 rushing yards, 6 TDs); S Dallin Leavitt, Sr. (57 tackles, 3 INTs in eight games)

Spring recap: Besieged by injuries last season, the Aggies got younger players some experience last season, but still they lose a lot of production. The top three tacklers departed, but safety Dallin Leavitt, a BYU transfer who missed four games with injury, is a steady presence on the back end. The defense had only seven interceptions last season, with Leavitt having three.

Running back Devante Mays was drafted in the seventh round by the Green Bay Packers and most of the offensive line graduated, as did tight end Wyatt Houston. Sophomore receiver Rayshad Lewis (476 yards as a true freshman) left the team after spring practices. The offense will have a new look under new coordinator David Yost, who has worked in high-octane offenses at Missouri, Washington State and Oregon.

“I love it,” Myers told the Deseret News. “I just like the Air Raid portion of it. There’s always going to be somebody open, and we do a lot of tempo. We’ve just got to get everybody in shape.”

ESPN FPI: Boise State has a 72.5 percent chance of winning.

Saturday, Nov. 11: at Colorado State (8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Last season: 7-6

Key returners: WR Michael Gallup, Sr. (76 catches for 1,272 yards, 14 TDs); QB Nick Stevens, Sr. (1,936 passing yards, 19 TDs, 5 INTs in 10 games); LB Josh Watson, Jr. (90 tackles, 7.5 TFL)

Spring recap: The Rams are feeling confident after a season that saw some pretty scary potential from its offense, which averaged 47.8 points per game in its last six games. Colorado State also will break in a brand-new, $220 million on-campus stadium this fall. Stevens overcame an atrocious start to his season to play better than any quarterback in the conference in the final weeks. Top receiver Gallup returns along with three running backs who had more than 500 rushing yards. Two offensive line starters have 54 combined starts; the rest have 10.

Defensively, coach Mike Bobo was frustrated in the spring with the inability to create turnovers. The Rams lost super-productive linebacker Kevin Davis, but every starter currently listed on the post-spring depth chart has at least one career start. A focus for the Rams this spring was to handle difficult situations. They almost came back against Boise State and in the Potato Bowl against Idaho, but dug too big a hole.

“When things are going good, we hang in there pretty good,” defensive coordinator Marty English told the Loveland Reporter-Herald. “When we hit some adversity like we have a couple of times, we fell apart.”

ESPN FPI: Boise State has a 46.1 percent chance of winning.

Saturday, Nov. 25: at Fresno State (1:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Last season: 1-11

Key returners: WR KeeSean Johnson, Jr. (66 catches, 773 yards, six TDs); QB Chason Virgil, So. (2,021 passing yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs); WR Jamire Jordan, Jr. (45 catches, 713 yards, two TDs)

Spring recap: New head coach Jeff Tedford inherits a big challenge in the Bulldogs, coming off a brutal season that did not include a single FBS win. A well-known offensive mind, he has some pieces to work with, especially at wide receiver, which returns Johnson and Jordan, who both are all-conference caliber. It’s a nice start to a career for receivers coach Kirby Moore, the former Boise State receiver. According to the Fresno Bee, it took some time for the team to enjoy playing again after four wins the last two years.

“We’ve been around each other enough to know now that it’s good to celebrate, it’s good to have fun in the right way,” Tedford said. “To do it with class and integrity and have fun with the game is a major part of what we’re doing.”

The Bulldogs focused on improving in short-yardage and third-down situations, a major problem last season. The defense was also bad on third downs, allowing FBS foes to convert 43.6 percent of them. The defensive line and linebackers struggled, but return some experience.

ESPN FPI: Boise State has a 78.6 percent chance of winning.