(Part 6 of a 12-part Sun Belt football preview series)
Riding the momentum of a breakthrough season, the Idaho Vandals intend on exiting the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference with a bang.
Idaho and New Mexico State were both voted out of the league by fellow Sun Belt members for geographic reasons. Next year, the Vandals will return to the FCS.
As for this year, the Vandals are seeking to put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1998 and '99. After managing just nine victories in the previous five seasons combined, Idaho (9-4, 6-2) finished the 2016 campaign on a five-game winning streak. Capping the program's first winning season since 2009, the Vandals outscored Colorado State 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Hit hard by graduation on both sides of the ball, the Vandals will have to reload in a hurry to duplicate last year's success.
Only five starters return from an offense which ranked second in the Sun Belt in scoring (30.8 points per game), seventh in rushing (147.8 yards per game), second in passing (249.2 ypg) and fourth in total offense (397 ypg), while posting a league-best plus-11 turnover margin.
Despite the losses, fifth-year coach Paul Petrino's cupboard is far from bare.
Matt Linehan returns for his fourth year as the starting quarterback after completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,184 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also added four rushing touchdowns.
Petrino also welcomes back the team's top two running backs in junior Isaiah Saunders (159 carries, 731 yards, 9 TDs) and senior Aaron Duckworth (144-672-5).
Three of the top five receivers are missing, including tight ends Trent Cowan (48 receptions, 547 yards, 6 TDs) and Deon Watson (41-695-3). Senior wide receivers Alfonso Onunwor (39-403-1) and Jacob Sannon (28-303-2) are the most experienced targets.
Sophomore Joe Wysocki and junior Alex James are the new tight ends.
Senior left tackle Jordan Rose, a four-year starter, and sophomore left guard Noah Johnson will be joined on the line by three newcomers.
Defensively, the Vandals ranked eighth in scoring (31.3 ppg), fifth in rushing (144.8 ypg), 11th in passing (121 ypg) and eighth in total yardage (428.3 ypg).
Despite the presence of senior end Aikeem Coleman (41 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 7 quarterback hurries), the 2016 Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year, the defensive line is a question mark.
Junior linebackers Kaden Elliss (65 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 INTs, 3 forced fumbles), Tony Lashley (107 tackles, 10 TFL) and Ed Hall (70 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) are the heart of the defense.
Senior free safety Armond Hawkins (34 tackles, 2 TFL) is the lone returnee in the secondary. Dorian Clark (45 tackles, 1 INT in 2015) has reclaimed a starting cornerback post after sitting out the entire season with an injury. Sophomores Lloyd Hightower and Denzal Brantley, a pair of converted wide receivers, are the projected to start at cornerback and strong safety, respectively.
For the first time in four years, someone other than Austin Rehkow will handle the Vandles' kicking assignments. Rehkow, who holds all of the school's all-time career kicking records and punting records, departed as the only four-time, first-team All-Conference honoree in Idaho football history.
Freshman kicker Cade Coffey and sophomore punter San Fenlason are Rehkow's projected replacements.
2017 IDAHO SCHEDULE
(All times Central and subject to change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 31 (Thurs.) Sacramento State 8 p.m.
Sept. 9 UNLV 6 p.m.
Sept. 16 at Western Michigan 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 at South Alabama* TBD
Oct. 7 Louisiana-Lafayette* 4 p.m.
Oct. 14 Appalachian State* 4p.m.
Oct. 21 at Missouri TBD
Oct. 28 Louisiana-Monroe* 4 p.m.
Nov. 2 (Thurs.) at Troy* 8:15 p.m.
Nov. 18 Coastal Carolina* 4 p.m.
Nov. 25 at New Mexico State* TBD
Dec. 2 at Georgia State* TBD