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Idaho made strides in 2015, reaching four wins and actually being competitive throughout the year. The previous two seasons the Vandals were just 2-21. Their defense is still going to be a problem, but offensively, with a returning quarterback, they should be just as good or better than the 30.3 points per game scored a year ago. Reaching a bowl game is the next task in line for head coach Paul Petrino.
Matt Linehan made vast improvements in his second year as Idaho's starter, completing 63.4% of his passes for 16 TDs and 11 INTs. The offense was good enough to keep the team around in most games and that should be the case again. Linehan has his top guys to work with starting with Callen Hightower (57 receptions, 749 yards) and Rueben Mwehla (159 yards) at receiver. Tight ends Buck Cowan (619 yards, 4 TDs) and Deon Watson (551 yards, 7 TDs) are what make this offense work, though.
Getting consistency at running back will be important with new guys stepping up. That could be either Aaron Duckworth (256 yards, 3 TDs) or any number of backs like Isaiah Saunders or freshman Dylan Thigpen. Either way, the offensive line is stocked with four returning starters. The lone newbie may end up being a freshman at left guard.
Idaho returns 12 players that made at least one start last year on the defensive side, but that's not saying much. The Vandals lose their most productive players on this side of the ball from a group that gave up 42.1 points per game. Not great.
In a 3-4 defense, sophomore linebacker Kaden Elliss takes the lead after starting every game in 2015. Not much experience surrounds him, although the line is filled with seniors. The secondary is another question, but gets some starters back and safety Jayshawn Jordan is returning from an injury. The defense can't be much worse than last year, giving up 50-plus points four different times.
Getting a win over Montana State in the opener will be important because their next three road games all look like losses, although UNLV is beatable. Getting past three Sun Belt wins will be the goal this season. Home wins over Troy, NMSU and South Alabama all need to happen, while road wins at UL Monroe and Texas State are definitely possible.
Idaho should've had six wins a year ago and now they'll try to reach that feat with more consistency. The schedule will allow them to do it, but reaching that mark is another thing in itself after so many losing seasons. The offense has the pieces, but can the defense survive just long enough to bring in more wins?
2016 Idaho Vandals Football Schedule
Sept. 1 vs. Montana State
Sept. 10 at Washington
Sept. 17 at Washington State
Sept. 24 at UNLV
Oct. 1 vs. Troy
Oct. 8 at Louisiana-Monroe
Oct. 15 vs. New Mexico State
Oct. 22 at Appalachian State
Nov. 5 at Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 12 at Texas State
Nov. 26 vs. South Alabama
Dec. 3 vs. Georgia State
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