LARAMIE — Sean Chambers admittedly isn’t one to pay too much attention to preseason prognostications, but he couldn’t help but notice during Mountain West media days last week when media members picked the Cowboys to finish fourth in the Mountain Division this season.
Wyoming’s quarterback found it humorous.
“I kind of just chuckled and laughed,” said Chambers, who’s entering his first season as the Cowboys’ full-time starter. “I mean, how many of those media guys came up to Laramie and done some stories about us? It’s OK. It’s fine. It’s just more fuel to the fire.”
Wyoming’s predicted finish was a spot lower than the Cowboys actually finished last season. It’s an indication of exactly what those in and around the MW expect this fall from the Cowboys, which isn’t much considering they compete in the same division as two of the league’s favorites, Boise State and Utah State.
Even with questions lingering into fall camp, which began Friday with Wyoming’s first practice, players and coaches aren’t necessarily buying that they’ll finish behind Boise State (picked to win the division for the sixth straight year), Utah State and Air Force.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” senior cornerback Antonio Hull said. “I know those last few seasons, guys were watching out for Wyoming because we just came off the (Mountain Division) championship. Now I think everybody is kind of asleep. We’ve got to wake them up now. We’ve got that opportunity.”
In order for that to happen, the Cowboys have to find answers at a number of positions that lost key contributors off a team that missed out on a bowl for the first time since the 2015 season. Senior Alijah Halliburton will step in for all-league safety Andrew Wingard after starting six games at strong safety last season, but the Cowboys are starting over at free safety, nickel, running back and defensive end with Marcus Epps, Nico Evans and Carl Granderson also no longer around.
Wyoming has already lost two projected starting offensive linemen for the season to injury in guards Gavin Rush and Zach Watts, a receiving corps that was among the least productive in the nation last season is in dire need of playmakers, and then there’s Chambers — a 6-foot-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman that ran for more than 100 yards in each of his first three collegiate games but still has to prove himself as a passer after throwing just 25 times last season.
Chambers, who’s fully recovered from the broken leg he sustained in his fourth game last season, has progressed enough in his second season in the offense that Wyoming is prepared to implement the full playbook. Wyoming still has six available offensive linemen that each started at least one game last season. And despite the attrition on the defensive side of the ball, Wyoming still boasts perhaps the most seasoned linebacker tandem in the MW (seniors Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia), two fifth-year seniors at cornerback in Tyler Hall and Hull, and two returning starters along the defensive line, including sack leader Garrett Crall.
“There’s great optimism,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said, “but there’s also questions.”
And if the preseason projections weren’t motivation enough, there’s still the bowl miss that players and coaches haven’t forgotten about. Wyoming rebounded from a rough start with four straight wins to end last season at 6-6, but as the last team in the league to gain bowl eligibility, the lack of MW bowl tie-ins meant there wasn’t room for the Cowboys in the postseason.
“It drives us crazy, I guess you could say,” Chambers said.
But the Cowboys aren’t just thinking about doing the bare minimum this season. In some players’ opinions, there’s still enough talent and experience on the roster to make a legitimate run at the MW championship like the Cowboys did in 2016 when they won the Mountain Division before falling to San Diego State in the league championship game.
Wyoming is 14-11 with a 9-7 mark in league play since.
“Guys are just tired of being average,” senior tight end Josh Harshman said. “It’s just time to take the next step, and I think this group of guys can do it.
“Why not us? We’ve got guys that are willing to lead this team, and we’ve got the talent I think. I don’t see why we can’t make a run at it. Anything can happen.”
There’s also a schedule that starts with SEC foe Missouri at War Memorial Stadium on Aug. 31 and is backloaded with trips to Boise State, Utah State and Air Force in November. Yet it’s a season Wyoming is approaching with cautious optimism.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m a pretty seasoned football coach,” Bohl said. “I think we’re going to exceed a lot of people’s expectations.”