Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Even the Losers: Wyoming

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our ninth installment, we'll stay in the Mountain West and examine the Wyoming Cowboys.


2013 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Mountain West)

Summary: The first four games of the 2013 season played out about as well as any practical Wyoming fan could have hoped. The Cowboys opened the season losing by a mere field goal at Nebraska. Their previous five run-ins with BCS conference foes under Dave Christensen had all resulted in grisly defeats, with each coming by at least 20 points. Shaking off the tight loss, the Cowboys returned home and shredded Idaho and Northern Colorado (IAA) by 32 and 28 points respectively. They then opened Mountain West play on the road against Air Force, a team they were just 1-6 against since 2005. They scored 56 points against the Falcons, the high-water mark under Christensen at the time, and won by 33. A third of the way through the season, the Cowboys seemed at worse to be a bowl team, and at best a contender in the conference for the first time since the days of Joe Tiller. The exuberance surrounding the team would last exactly one week. In their fifth game, the Cowboys traveled to San Marcos to face Texas State, a team in just its second year of IA football. In a sign of defensive deficiencies to come, the Cowboys allowed 42 points to the Bobcats and dropped to 3-2. They beat New Mexico in a high-scoring affair the following week, and then things got ugly. Over their final six games, the Cowboys allowed more 50 points than three times (two other times they allowed 48), scored ten points or fewer three times, and won just once more. The win came in overtime, at home, against a Hawaii team that won just once all season. The Cowboys canned Christensen and hired a IAA wunderkind in Craig Bohl. Alright, maybe he isn't a wunderkind, but he has been quite successful.

What Did the Cowboys Do Well?
Score...sometimes. The 2013 Cowboys were the highest scoring team of the Dave Christensen era. His charges averaged 31.3 points per game, about four and a half more than they averaged in 2012. However, outside of the Hawaii game, the Cowboys struggled on that side of the ball in the season's final month. In their other three November contests, they scored ten against Fresno State, seven against Boise State, and seven against Utah State. Over the first two months of the season, the Cowboys had been averaging a robust 36.5 points per game.

What Didn't the Cowboys Do Well?
Stop the pass. The Wyoming defense ranked eighth in yards per play allowed in the Mountain West. With twelve teams in the conference, that is not a terrible rating. However, when it came to stopping opposing quarterbacks, Wyoming was among the worst in the nation. For starters, they allowed 32 touchdown passes on the season. Only two teams, Colorado State (33) and Idaho (40) allowed more, and Colorado State played an extra game. In terms of yards per pass, the Cowboys ranked 101st, allowing 7.9 yards per throw. In terms of quarterback rating, a flawed, but useful statistic, the Cowboys ranked 115th. The pass defense was particularly atrocious in the final eight games, over which the Cowboys allowed 27 touchdown passes and a nearly unheard of 8.8 yards per pass.

The Cowboys Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Wyoming's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Wyoming played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Cowboys averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Cowboys allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Despite the vast difference in their overall record, the 2010 and 2011 Cowboys were basically the same team on a yards per play basis. They were a little worse than average in comparison to their Mountain West brethren in both seasons (remember the league had nine and eight teams in both seasons, not the twelve it currently counts as members). How did they achieve such divergent results? The 2010 team was 0-3 in one-score conference games, while the 2011 team was 3-0. In addition, while the 2010 team was hardly unlucky in regards to turnovers (an in-conference margin of +2), the 2011 team was +10 in just seven games. Despite the winning record, the Cowboys were a good bet to decline in 2012 thanks to their performance in one-score games and their resplendent turnover margin. Sure enough, their record fell, but perhaps more troubling, the underlying performance also cratered. Their yards per play margin befitted a team that was probably worse than the 3-5 mark they achieved. Judging by how far they fell on a play by play basis in 2012, 2013 could certainly be deemed a success. The Cowboys improved on both sides of the ball, including quite substantially on offense. Despite the late-season struggles, an argument could be made to give Christensen another year. Still, with a coach like Bohl on the market, it's hard to blame Wyoming for the decision they made.

The 2014 Schedule:
The Cowboys four non-conference opponents in 2014 feature a little bit of everything. There is the requisite IAA school (Montana), a fellow mid-major (Florida Atlantic), and a pair of potential Rose Bowl teams (Oregon and Michigan State). The games against the Ducks and Spartans both come on the road, and even if they were in Laramie, a win would be a major upset. Montana is a strong IAA team, but the Cowboys should win. Florida Atlantic may hold the key to bowl eligibility for the Cowboys. The Owls surged late in 2013, winning their final four games to improve to 6-6, despite some coaching upheaval. The game is at home, so a win would not be a massive shock across the college football landscape. In league play, the Cowboys host Air Force, Boise State, San Jose State, and Utah State. Three of those squads were bowl eligible last season (all save Air Force). On the road, the Cowboys play Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, and New Mexico. Colorado State and Fresno State were bowl participants last season, while Hawaii and New Mexico won just four total games between them. In order to attain bowl eligibility, the Cowboys will need to win at least four and potentially five (depending on the outcome of the Florida Atlantic game) league contests. Accomplishing this likely requires the Cowboys to split their four road non-conference games. Hawaii and New Mexico appear to be the most likely candidates for road wins, but as stated (so eloquently I might add) in the Nevada preview, shifting the venue of a few of these games would be beneficial to Wyoming's bowl chances. 

Reason For Optimism:
Craig Bohl. The most visible, and perhaps the most important person on any football team is the head coach. Bohl comes fresh from North Dakota State where he led the Bison to three consecutive IAA national championships. Perhaps more impressive than the three consecutive titles, was that Bohl did this while shepherding the Bison up from Division II. During his eleven years in Fargo, the Bison suffered just a single losing season and won more than three quarters of their games.

Final Prognosis:
A winning season and bowl game are certainly not a given, but Craig Bohl has the potential to be a slam dunk hire at Wyoming. Bohl has a great track record at IAA, and the bigger question could end up being, how long will he stay at Wyoming? Still, everything is not rosy headed into his first season. The defense was a major issue, particularly down the stretch in 2013, and his star signal caller decided to turn pro with a year of eligibility remaining. The non-conference schedule virtually guarantees two losses, but I think the Cowboys will at least manage a 6-6 mark in 2014 with bigger things to come down the road.

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