College Football 2017: Idaho hopes to make its last year before rejoining the Big Sky count

click to enlarge Idaho had a surprising run to a bowl win in 2016, and hopes to do it again this year. - IDAHO ATHLETICS
Idaho Athletics
Idaho had a surprising run to a bowl win in 2016, and hopes to do it again this year.

Coach: Paul Petrino, fifth season (15-33 at Idaho & overall)

2016 record: 6-2 Sun Belt / 9-4 overall

2017 preseason prediction: 6th in Sun Belt Conference coaches' poll

The big story: After a brutal first two years, Petrino has turned the program around — just in time for Idaho to become the first school in NCAA history to drop down from the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), and from the Southern-dominated Sun Belt, a poor geographical fit, to the Northwest-centric Big Sky. That happens in 2018.

Idaho's unexpected success last year was due to a potent offense that scored at least 30 points seven times in the final 10 games, more than doubling that in a nationally televised 61-50 takedown of Colorado State at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, as Christmas came to Vandals fans three days early.

Senior QB Matt Linehan is a legitimate pro prospect, but graduation took a serious toll on his supporting cast — the Vandals lost four of their top five receivers and three starters on the offensive line. RBs Isaiah Saunders and Aaron Duckworth combined for close to 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

A defense that gave up more than 31 points per game suffered big losses on the line and in the secondary, where all four starters are new. The line still features two seniors, pass-rushing DE Aikeem Coleman and DE Zach Cable, son of Seahawks offensive line coach and former Vandals head coach Tom Cable; the strength of the unit is junior LBs Kaden Elliss, Ed Hall and Tony Lashley.

The big game: The Vandals have never won a Sun Belt title, and that's still unlikely in their eighth and final opportunity. But a home victory over conference favorite Appalachian State on Oct. 14 could change that narrative. It would be an upset: The loaded Mountaineers placed a dozen players on preseason all-conference teams, and in Taylor Lamb have a QB who can match Linehan throw for throw.

2017 Vandals schedule

Aug. 31 vs. Sacramento St.

Sept. 9 vs. UNLV

Sept. 16 at Western Michigan

Sept. 30 at South Alabama

Oct. 7 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

Oct. 14 vs. Appalachian St.

Oct. 21 at Missouri

Oct. 28 vs. Louisiana-Monroe

Nov. 2 at Troy

Nov. 18 vs. Coastal Carolina

Nov. 25 at New Mexico St.

Dec. 2 at Georgia St.

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