UW Football

Wyoming defensive linemen Mario Mora, left, and Garrett Crall celebrate against Idaho as fans look on at War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 14, 2019, in Laramie. The Cowboys have 21 of their 22 starters and 95% of their production returning from last season.

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LARAMIE — When it comes to expectations for Wyoming’s football program entering the 2021 season, they’re as high as they’ve ever been in the Craig Bohl era.

That’s what happens when you have one of the most experienced teams in the country. Specifically, the Cowboys are set to return 95% of their production from last year’s pandemic-shortened season. Only Toledo (98%) is in line to bring back more in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

That includes 21 of 22 starters from last season, including all 11 from a defense that ranked 24th in the FBS in points allowed. Throw in a backfield (led by all-conference running back Xazavian Valladay) and a starting offensive line that remains fully intact, and it’s easy to see why UW believes it has the necessary pieces to go from a disappointing 2-4 record last season to a legitimate Mountain West title contender this fall.

“I feel like we can do something special this year, something we’ve never done,” senior safety Esaias Gandy said this spring. “And that’s win a Mountain West championship.”

It’s not only players and coaches who feel that way. UW athletic director Tom Burman said he also expects much bigger things from the football team this fall.

“I’m optimistic,” Burman said. “I like our schedule. So, yeah, I think we’re going to have an excellent season.”

As for that slate, the Cowboys don’t have a Power Five opponent on their non-conference schedule.

UW will open the season at War Memorial Stadium against a Football Championship Subdivision team, Montana State, on Sept. 4 before getting defending Mid-American Conference champ Ball State at home on Sept. 18.

UW will also travel to Northern Illinois (Sept. 11) and UConn (Sept. 25) before getting a week off ahead of its first conference game at Air Force on Oct. 9. Ball State and NIU went a combined 7-7 last season. UConn chose not to play last season because of safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic while Montana State opted out of the Big Sky’s spring season for the same reasons.

From a personnel standpoint, Burman acknowledged most teams are going through the offseason feeling good about their situations given all football seniors were provided the opportunity to return for another season of competition this fall if they chose to do so. The NCAA last year granted all fall-sport athletes an extra year of eligibility in response to the pandemic.

That eligibility relief gave UW a chance to keep some of its most impactful players around for one more season. Defensive end Garrett Crall (UW’s active career leader in tackles and sacks), starting safeties Esaias Gandy and Braden Smith, starting offensive linemen Logan Harris and Alonzo Velazquez, wideout Ayden Eberhardt (UW’s leading receiver last season) and running back Trey Smith (the Cowboys’ second-leading rusher a season ago) all chose to run it back with the Cowboys one last time.

As a result, UW had 10 players recently named to Athlon Sports’ preseason all-Mountain West teams, one of six teams in the conference to have double-digit selections. Valladay, center Keegan Cryder and linebacker Chad Muma led the Cowboys’ picks as first-teamers.

“The thing I’m a little leery of, though, is I think most schools are saying the same thing because they’ve got a lot of players back, but I think we’ve got a lot of good players back,” Burman said. “And I think we have the right mindset going into the season.”

Of course, arguably the most anticipated return was that of quarterback Sean Chambers, who’s fully recovered from yet another season-ending injury that cost him all but three snaps last season. Chambers, a two-time captain who’s 9-3 as a starter, was recently named the starter again heading into fall camp ahead of Levi Williams, whom he competed with for the job this spring.

Chambers, who’s rushed for 12 touchdowns in 13 career games, has a strong case as the top running signal caller in the Mountain West, but it’s the passing game where the Cowboys need their quarterbacks to be more efficient in order to become a viable championship contender in the Mountain West again. Despite ranking in the top 40 in the FBS in rushing and top 45 in total defense each of the last three seasons, UW has not finished higher than third in the Mountain Division or the overall conference standings during that time (the league did away with divisions last season since some teams were scheduled to play an uneven number of games, but the Mountain West is expected to return to division play this fall).

The Cowboys’ lone Mountain West championship game appearance under Bohl came back in 2016, but it’s not just those associated with UW’s program that believe the Cowboys could break through this fall given their combination of seasoning and opposition. UW still has its annual meetings with rival Colorado State and Mountain West heavyweight Boise State as well as a trip to defending conference champ San Jose State on this year’s conference schedule, but the Cowboys miss out on San Diego State and Nevada from the West Division — teams that combined for a 10-4 conference record last fall.

“This should be Bohl’s best UW team yet,” College Football News publisher Pete Fiutak recently opined of the 2021 Cowboys. “There’s not a game on the slate it can’t win, and at the very least, this should be the first time in eight seasons the program gets past the eight-win mark.”

Boise State, which played in its fourth straight league title game last season, is likely to again be the media’s Mountain Division preseason favorite when Mountain West Football Media Days roll around next month. But if there’s a team in the division that could pose a real threat to the Broncos this fall, safe to say that many believe it’s UW.

Working to reschedule

Burman said the football program is also working to reschedule most of the non-conference games from last season if they haven’t been already.

UW was initially supposed to play Weber State, Utah, Louisiana and Ball State in addition to its conference schedule last season before the Mountain West ultimately decided to play a conference-only schedule in response to the pandemic. The Cowboys were supposed to travel to Ball State and Louisiana last season to start those home-and-home series.

Burman said a return trip to Ball State is still being worked out while the Cowboys’ trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, has been rescheduled for 2029. Louisiana is scheduled to begin the series by visiting War Memorial Stadium in 2026, but Burman said the two sides are talking about changing the date of that game as well.

“It could all change again,” Burman said of the Louisiana series.

The Utah series has already been rescheduled for 2025 (Laramie) and 2027 (Salt Lake City). Since Weber State was a one-off that didn’t include UW making a return trip in the future, Burman said that game won’t be rescheduled.

Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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