The Idaho Vandals won four football games last season, bringing them to a total of nine victories over the past five seasons. Two of those losses were by a single possession, so they were, in theory, *thatclose* to a bowl game. That being said, when a season that sees your team bowl-ineligible with two games still to play is also your best season in five years, it's hard for a headline like that to seem like anything besides gibberish.
Well, it just so happens it's the absolute truth. As much as we trash talk the Vandal administration here, and as bleak as their future within the Sun Belt conference may seem beyond the immediate, if there ever was a year that things should click into place, this is that year.
According to Bill Connelly's S&P+ projections, Idaho currently sits at 108 in the country. That's not amazing, and it's only good for seventh in the Sun Belt, but it's also right behind everyone but the top three. The Sun Belt is not unlike Conference USA for the upcoming season; a very clear top and bottom, but the rest of the middle is wide open for the taking.
The top three teams in the conference are Georgia Southern at 52, Appalachian State at 59, and Arkansas State at 89. Idaho plays Appalachian State on the road but misses the rest of the top three. The entire remainder of the conference is in the bottom 25 (yes, I'm rounding you down from 103 Troy), and so the differences in baseline at least at this point in the year are not large.
Idaho is likely to at least be a fractional favorite in every other conference game except maybe at Louisiana-Lafayette. Add in non-conference games on the road at UNLV (a projected 114 S&P+) and at home against Montana State (a projected S&P+ of FCS) and you have a schedule that lines up nicely for the Vandals.
Granted, that slim margin of difference means that their home game against Montana State and the road tilt at Louisiana-Monroe are the only games where Idaho will be a clear favorite. Even then, if Idaho has the potential to win somewhere between three and nine games, that's four out of seven possible win totals that get them bowl eligible.
All they really need to do is win all of the games in which they will definitely be favored (at home against South Alabama, New Mexico State, and Montana State, on the road at Louisiana-Monroe), and they'll be two toss-up wins (at home against Troy or Georgia State, on the road against Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State or UNLV) away from a bowl game.
What's going to make the difference? Experience in spades, at least on offense. Matt Linehan is entering his third season under center, and after being the best passer not named Nick Arbuckle last season, he holds that title alone this year heading into spring practices.
While Linehan wasn't perfect, he did lead a strong passing attack featuring Callen Hightower, Trent Cowan, Deon Watson and Dezmon Epps. Epps' departure matters less because of all the time he already missed, and an improved catch rate from Watson (58.3% yikes) could mean quite the robust vertical attack.
The Vandals also replace one offensive lineman and their starting tailback, but Idaho returns more of their offensive production than any SBC team except Georgia Southern and New Mexico State. Combine that with bringing back nearly the entire offensive line two-deep, and improvements in the passing game should more than offset the loss of Elijhaa Penny.
In addition, factor in that every team outside the top three is either replacing more talent than the Vandals, had less talent to begin with, or both, and the defense could simply improve from "awful" to "bad" and make some huge leaps in the on-field results. They could very easily be the 2015 Tulsa of the conference, win the shootouts this season that they lost last season, and just sneak into a bowl game.
The Idaho Vandals are a very serious threat to go to a bowl game and a dark horse to even win a share of the conference title in 2016. Let that marinate in your head for a bit. We'll reconvene when you've recovered.