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10 things to watch for in Wyoming athletics in 2021

10 things to watch for in Wyoming athletics in 2021


Will UW football be

able to rebound?

Wyoming football is doing something it hasn’t done in five years: Enter an offseason on the heels of a losing season. There were a myriad of factors at play amid a pandemic-shortened season, but simply put, the Cowboys underachieved with just two wins in their six games in Craig Boh’s seventh season at the helm.

UW’s 2-4 showing included a mistake-filled loss to rival Colorado State that ended its four-game winning streak in the Border War and an ugly loss to a New Mexico team that had the nation’s longest active losing streak at the time. And the Cowboys looked similar to years past in how they did it with a defense that kept them in every game and an offense that rarely produced much outside of the running game.

UW had strung together four straight bowl-eligible seasons before this fall, and that should be the minimum expectation for the Cowboys’ program at this point, particularly with the Mountain West’s second-highest paid coach at the helm. UW will work to get back there against what should be a full schedule or something close to it next fall.

Speaking of offense …

Will the offense finally evolve?

In an age where offense is seemingly all the rage in college football — the top 50 scoring offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision are averaging at least 30 points — UW is in danger of getting left behind if the Cowboys don’t make changes, particularly in a passing game that’s been holding them back in recent years.

UW had just one passing touchdown all season and failed to complete at least half its passes for the third straight year, and that was with the Mountain West’s second-best rushing attack. UW averaged 26.5 points this season, which ranked in the top half of the league. But as has been the case so often, the Cowboys largely went as their running game went.

UW averaged 30.6 points in games they ran for at least 280 yards. When they failed to reach the 200-yard mark on the ground? Just 22 points per game. UW’s pro-style offense won’t ever be confused with the Air Raid, but if the Cowboys are serious about becoming a contender again in the Mountain West, they desperately need a multi-dimensional attack.

Can Sean Chambers stay healthy?

Chambers has been UW’s starting quarterback since the end of his true freshman season in 2018, but the third-year sophomore has started just 12 games since then because of an injury bug that’s been a nuisance for Chambers throughout his career.

Chambers’ third season-ending injury in as many years happened on UW’s first offensive possession of the season. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder sustained a fractured left leg he’s still recovering from, and whether he’ll be ready to go for spring practice in April is unknown. Chambers sustained a similar injury to his right leg at the tail end of the 2018 season and returned in time for practice the following spring.

But Chambers has already said he’ll be back at some point next year, and whenever that happens, he’ll likely return to the top of the quarterback depth chart. Redshirt freshman Levi Williams and true freshman Gavin Beerup will also be returning next season, so the good news for the Cowboys is all three of their scholarship quarterbacks will be back.

But Chambers is easily the most dynamic playmaker UW has at the position (22 career TDs in 13 games; 6 yards per carry). He’ll have to improve on his career completion clip of 46%, but keeping Chambers on the field would go a long way in helping UW diversify its offense.

Will men’s basketball’s early success translate to conference play?

The Jeff Linder era of UW hoops has gotten off to a rousing start with the Cowboys winning six of their first seven games. Many Cowboy fans don’t need reminding, but this is the same program that combined for just 17 victories the last two seasons and didn’t win its sixth game last season until February.

But now the real tests come with the start of Mountain West play. UW will open its league slate with a two-game series at Fresno State beginning Saturday.

Linder’s roster overhaul has put more shooters around returnees Hunter Maldonado, Hunter Thompson, Kwane Marble II and Kenny Foster. The Cowboys are tops in the Mountain West in scoring and 3-point field-goal percentage, and true freshman Marcus Williams (17.9 points per game) leads four UW players averaging double figures.

But the Cowboys are still a work in progress defensively, and none of their seven non-conference opponents are higher than 134th in the KenPom rankings. UW will play four league teams currently in the top 100, including road series at San Diego State (22) and Utah State (80) and home series with Boise State (72) and Colorado State (95).

UW also hasn’t played since beating Omaha on Dec. 17, so there may be some rust to shake off after such a long layoff. But the Cowboys are rested and have looked like a team that’s better than the No. 9 team in the Mountain West, which is where UW was picked to finish in the league’s preseason poll. UW will show over the next two months whether or not that’s actually the case.

Exactly how much football attrition will there be?

With the offseason comes attrition for every college football program, but there are some different dynamics at play this year.

With a one-time transfer exception allowing players to be immediately eligible expected to be passed later this month, the transfer portal figures to be busier than ever. UW already has three players — senior receiver Dontae Crow, freshman defensive back Keshaun Taylor and freshman defensive end Cameron Smith — who have knowingly left the program, and there will likely be more in the future.

Seniors also have the option of coming back for another season given the eligibility relief the NCAA has granted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Receiver Ayden Eberhardt and safety Braden Smith, both starters this past season, have said they’ll be returning next season, but the Cowboys are still awaiting word from the majority of their 13 seniors.

And it’s not just players that will be coming and going. Bohl will be in the market for at least one new assistant after offensive line coach Bart Miller recently left to take the same position on Bret Bielema’s staff at Illinois. Bohl said last month he’ll have conversations with each of his 10 on-field assistant coaches.

Can women’s basketball return to the postseason?

It’s not a big sample size, but UW’s women’s basketball team is off to a winning start with a 3-2 record, including a split with UNLV in its Mountain West-opening series.

The Cowgirls, who will host Fresno State on Saturday looking for their third straight win, are in search of their fifth straight winning season. UW won 17 games last season in assistant-turned-head coach Gerald Mattinson’s first season at the helm, but it wasn’t enough to earn a bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, snapping a streak of three straight postseason appearances for the Cowgirls.

UW is led by Lyman native McKinley Bradshaw, who’s averaging a team-best 13 points per game. Four Cowgirls are scoring at least eight points each time out.

When will UW’s other fall sports return to competition?

When the Mountain West reversed course on its initial decision to postpone the football season, that move pertained to football only.

UW’s other fall sports have been waiting for their chance to compete again, though exactly when that will happen still isn’t known. Men’s and women’s cross country, women’s volleyball and women’s soccer still don’t have schedules set for a possible spring season, but the NCAA has tentatively scheduled the cross country championships for March.

Regardless when it happens, the rest of UW’s fall athletes will be competing at some point this year. For many of them, it will be the first time since 2019.

As for winter sports other than men’s and women’s basketball, they will get started soon if they haven’t already. UW’s swimming and diving team began dual action in December while the men’s wrestling team announced its full schedule earlier this week. The Cowboys will begin their season at home against Northern Colorado on Sunday.

Football to put final touches on recruiting class

Even during a recruiting cycle affected by a pandemic, UW still managed to sign the majority of its 2021 recruiting class during December’s early signing period.

But that still leaves some work to do to fill out the class.

There’s still a traditional signing period that begins on the first Wednesday in February. The Cowboys signed 16 players last month and could sign as many as 25 when it’s all said and done, though Bohl said UW likely won’t ink that many. How many the Cowboys ultimately sign could depend on how many seniors elect to return for another season.

UW hit on many of its positional needs during the early signing period, but the Cowboys didn’t sign a quarterback. Teams usually like to sign one in each recruiting class, but with Chambers, Williams, Beerup and another quarterback, walk-on Hank Gibbs, still on the roster, UW could end up using that scholarship elsewhere.

And don’t be surprised if UW becomes more active in the transfer portal. While the Cowboys haven’t typically added many four-year transfers during Bohl’s tenure, if players end up being immediately eligible as expected, the portal could help the Pokes as much as it might hurt them.

Will NIL profits become a reality?

One major off-field development that UW and other Division I schools are keeping an eye on is the idea of student-athletes being able to profit from their name, image and likeness.

Current NCAA bylaws make it a violation for athletes to make money as part of third-party endorsement deals, but college sports’ governing body changed its tune last year when it approved amendments to those rules. Multiple states have passed or proposed legislation that would make it illegal for the NCAA to enforce the current NIL rules, and federal legislation was introduced in September that would make it legal for athletes to profit from their NIL with certain restrictions.

The NCAA has asked Congress to come up with a unified approach when it comes to what would be allowed rather than each state having its own set of NIL rules, but the money would have to come from a third party and not the school itself. There will be legal roadblocks to work through, but NIL profits for student-athletes could become a reality by the end of the year.

Will things get back to normal?

War Memorial Stadium can seat a maximum of 29,181 people. At the Arena-Auditorium, the number is 11,612.

But neither venue has or will come close to full capacity this season as a result of the pandemic, which changed everything once the coronavirus outbreak began last spring. UW worked with the Wyoming Department of Health to initially allow 7,000 fans at home football games before reducing attendance to 5,000.

At home basketball games, attendance was initially capped at 2,000 through at least the end of 2020. But with Wyoming implementing new statewide restrictions last month, the school isn’t allowing any fans inside the Arena-Auditorium through at least Jan. 8 when the statewide restrictions are set to expire.

If the restrictions are extended at that point, it stands to reason the hold on attendance will be, too. But even if attendance is allowed again, it will continue to be limited this season.

A COVID-19 vaccine has begun to be distributed across the country, but it’s not expected to be available to everyone until the spring at the earliest. Even if that happens, will it be enough for UW’s venues to return to full capacity by the fall?

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


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College Sports Reporter

Davis Potter is the University of Wyoming athletics reporter. An Alabama native and 2011 Auburn University graduate, Potter joined the Star-Tribune in 2018 after five years covering Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He lives in Laramie.

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