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NCAA Football Preview - Idaho Vandals

<p>The Vandals opened up the season with four straight losses, allowing 40 points or more in each outing. They managed to snap their losing streak at 10 games on Sept. 28 when they downed Temple at home, 26-24.</p>

The Vandals opened up the season with four straight losses, allowing 40 points or more in each outing. They managed to snap their losing streak at 10 games on Sept. 28 when they downed Temple at home, 26-24.

That taste of victory would be their last, however. They closed out the campaign with seven straight losses, with only their last game at New Mexico State (24-16) coming by single digits.

Idaho's league shuffling ends in 2014, as its now situated in the geographically-mismatched Sun Belt Conference, joining NMSU, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State as newcomers to the league.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Few teams in the nation were worse offensively last season than Idaho, as it put up only 18.2 ppg (115th in the country) and 369.1 ypg. While plenty of adjustments still need to be made in order to improve, the unit will benefit from the return of seven starters, including four along the offensive line.

Chad Chalich was far from impressive during his seven games before going down for the season with an injury, passing for 1,224 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, but his completion percentage (.614) was much better than his replacements Taylor Davis (.462) and Josh McCain (.481).

Chalich's starting job isn't safe, as redshirt freshman Matt Linehan will be given every opportunity to earn the starting gig in camp.

"They're just two kids that you love and that you want on the team," Petrino said. "I don't have a timeline exactly right now (on naming a starter). I could even see, to be honest with you, playing both of them in the Florida game (Week 1)."

Dezmon Epps' accomplishments at receiver last season were especially impressive given his team's poor play and opposing defenses keying in on him. He corralled 79 passes for 980 yards and four scores and figures to be in for a similar campaign as a senior. Deon Watson (24 receptions, 279 yards, TD) also brings some experience out wide.

James Baker (593 yards, six TDs) has moved on, but his 4.1 ypc won't be too hard to replace. Expect Jerrel Brown (216 yards) and Richard Montgomery (196 yards, two TDs) to get plenty of opportunities to break out.

DEFENSE: As poorly as the offense performed, the main reason for the Vandals' struggles in 2013 was due to the atrocious play of the defense, as the unit ranked dead-last in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing an eye-popping 46.8 ppg. Hopefully a nice mix of experienced players (six returning starters) and fresh blood will call for an improvement this time around.

Top tackler Marc Millan will anchor the unit once again after collecting 91 tackles, 11.0 TFL and four sacks while starting all 12 games. Eric Tuipulotu (54 tackles, INT) also returns to the linebacking corps.

Maxx Forde (63 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks) is a solid pass rusher, and he and Marius Burgsmueller (20 tackles, 2.0 TFL) will try to pick up some of the slack left by the departure of QuayShawne Buckley (16.0 TFL, 7.0 sacks).

Bradley Njoku (89 tackles, INT) and Jayshawn Jordan (77 tackles, INT) are back in the secondary, with Jordan Grabski and Delency Parham expected to join them in the starting lineup.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Austin Rehkow returns to his post as both the place kicker and the punter. His field goal showing a season ago was disappointing (10-of-17), and he was just 2-of-5 from beyond 40 yards with a long of just 41. As one of the nation's busiest punters, he averaged 47.8 yards per boot over 75 punts.

Epps' dynamic playmaking ability will be utilized on special teams as well after he picked up an additional 421 return yards last season. Montgomery (15 returns, 327 yards) may also see kickoff returns on top of his increased roll on offense.

OUTLOOK: Idaho has been one of the FBS bottom-dwellers for the past several seasons, winning just four games since 2012, but now that it has found a permanent home in the Sun Belt, it can retain some stability as it begins to rebuild.

Petrino has already seen a difference in his team in training camp.

"They understand now how we're going to work," Petrino said. "Overall the passion (is improved), the passion of loving football and wanting to get better every day."

Moving to a full-time Sun Belt schedule will be slightly less strenuous than last season's slate of games, when it had to play Northern Illinois, Washington State, Fresno State, Ole Miss and Florida State, so there will be more opportunities to win games. Expected improvements from the quarterbacks and the defense should result in a slight bump in wins, but the Vandals are still a long way from being even a .500 team.

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