1. Football looks to repeat
The Wyoming football team had a breakout year in 2016, going 8-4 in the regular season and winning a Mountain Division title. Now what? The Cowboys have plenty of youth, but they also have plenty of holes to fill — especially on offense, where Wyoming will lose running back Brian Hill, receivers Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt, center Chase Roullier and tight end Jacob Hollister, all starters.
Plus, Wyoming recently decided not to renew the contract of defensive coordinator Steve Stanard. His replacement, and that replacement’s ability to make the most of a group of players that struggled down the stretch in 2016, will have a big role in determining whether or not the Cowboys can repeat in the tough Mountain Division.
2. Bryce Meredith seeks a championship
Wyoming football might be miles ahead of where it was in 2015, but it’s not in contention for a national championship. Meredith is. In 2016, he reached the national finals as just a sophomore. Now, the 141-pound junior is ranked in the top 10 in his weight class and looking to finish the job.
The Cheyenne Central graduate secured an individual title in the Northern Colorado Open, reached the finals in both the Cliff Keen Invitational and Reno Invitational and picked up a pin in Wyoming’s Big 12 opener against Iowa State. Wyoming hadn’t had an NCAA finalist since 1996 before last year. The Pokes probably won’t have to wait that long for their next one.
3. Men’s basketball contends in Mountain West
Allen Edwards’ squad is already outplaying expectations in his first season as head coach. As conference play begins, the Cowboys look like a team that can compete with any team in the Mountain West. Only Nevada had a better record in non-conference play than the Pokes, who finished the slate by winning seven of eight, the only loss coming in overtime to a ranked Southern California team.
Wyoming has length, depth and shooting, three things that bode well for conference play. Finishing near the top of the conference would be considered a success for this team, which was picked to finish second to last in the Mountain West before the season. Does this team have the ability to run the table at the Mountain West tournament for the second time in three years?
4. Women’s hoops on the rise
Speaking of Wyoming basketball teams turning heads. The Cowgirls did what the Cowboys couldn’t in non-conference play: defeated a ranked team. Wyoming’s win at then-No. 15, and then-undefeated, Colorado on Dec. 21 was the Cowgirls’ first win against a ranked team since 2010.
The Cowgirls wrapped up non-conference play with a 9-2 record, second best in the Mountain West. Wyoming hasn’t finished better than fifth in the Mountain West since 2012-13 and hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2007-08. Is this the year that drought ends?
5. Cowboys in the draft
Wyoming running back Brian Hill decided to leave Laramie a year early to enter the NFL Draft, but he could have company joining him in the league. Cowboys center Chase Roullier has been receiving NFL attention for some time now, and players like receiver Tanner Gentry and soon-to-be-safety D.J. May could be fighting for a roster spot as well.
Plus, there’s linebacker Lucas Wacha, who will be participating in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. And don’t forget about long snapper Brendan Turelli, who has practiced with NFL long snappers, though it can take a couple years for a player at that position to catch on at the next level. And there still is the chance quarterback Josh Allen will decide to leave after his redshirt sophomore season.
6. In heaven there will be beer
Wyoming will begin selling beer and wine at football and basketball games for the first time in Fall 2017. It’s a trend that has picked up steam for college athletics departments that have no choice but to look into every potential revenue stream. Some claim it’s not worth the safety risk while others say it’s actually the safer option, as fewer feel the need to load up pregame.
Either way, it’s here, and it should be interesting to see how it affects the tailgating atmosphere on game days. Will there be any security issues? Will attendance get a bump? Will the “Beer Song” become the official Wyoming fight song?
7. Football’s recruiting haul
Wyoming football has done well enough at recruiting, as the product on the field showed this season, but there’s a new level of attention that comes from potential recruits when you actually start recruiting. Head coach Craig Bohl has already noted that Wyoming is getting its foot into doors that were previously out of its league.
Now it’s time to seal the deal. The Cowboys already have 18 known verbal commits at the turn of the calendar, with numerous impressive prospects. Wyoming generally plans on late-blooming recruiting classes, as the staff wants players who believe they’re Power Five players but don’t end up getting the big-school offers they covet. With a strong finish, this could be one of the most impressive Wyoming recruiting classes in years.
8. High Altitude Performance Center construction
The Cowboys broke ground on the High Altitude Performance Center before Wyoming’s game against Boise State, an upset of a ranked team that in many ways was proof that the school and state’s financial commitment to athletics was beginning to pay off. The center could be one of the biggest pieces of that puzzle.
Not only will the new facilities benefit current student-athletes, but it will also serve as an invaluable recruiting tool to bring in new players. Wyoming can’t offer the big city or the beach, so emphasizing altitude as its niche looks to be a smart move. Construction began after the conference championship game in early December and is expected to take 12 months.
9. Men’s basketball recruits arrive
Allen Edwards had quite the haul in his first recruiting class, signing four-star in-state talent Hunter Thompson from Pine Bluffs as a walk-on, New Jersey recruit and Villanova target Anthony Mack and Colorado small forward Hunter Maldonado. Thompson said he will likely redshirt his first season, but it will still be interesting to see the talent show up on campus.
Will Mack or Maldonado contribute as true freshmen? Even if they don’t, Wyoming will see an addition of talent next season as athletic UTEP transfer Brodricks “Buddha” Jones comes off a redshirt year, and walk-on Washington State transfer guard Ny Redding will be eligible as well.
10. Financial direction of UW athletics
Wyoming’s athletics department has managed to stay afloat for the most part in face of the state’s economic turmoil. The department cut $1 million from its upcoming budget, which A.D. Tom Burman said was the largest percentage cut of any department but still left athletics with enough to be successful. Plus, the department kept 80 percent of its state match, good for $8 million over a two-year span.
Still, there is little certainty when it comes to funding in Wyoming right now. Will the energy market take a turn? Will athletics be forced to trim even more? How will Craig Bohl’s contract extension and assistants’ upcoming raises affect the other sports’ budgets? Will the $1 million cut make a noticeable difference? Time will tell.