Now 22-28 in his coaching career, Christensen watched his charges drop three consecutive games coming out of the gate in 2012, the first outing being a 37-17 defeat at the hands of nationally-ranked Texas in front of more than 100,000 on the road. The Pokes then bowed to both Toledo and Cal Poly by a combined five points in back-to-back home dates before finally breaking through against Idaho (40-37), in overtime no less on Sept. 22. After a break in the schedule, Wyoming returned the first week of October and played to overtime for the second time in as many games, but this time the squad absorbed a 35-28 loss versus Nevada in Reno.
The Cowboys went on to lose three more games in succession, one by just a single point to Air Force, but the other two versus Fresno State and Boise State by a combined margin of 87-28. That four-game slide was met with a three-game win streak against the likes of Colorado State, New Mexico and UNLV, but those were three programs that between them had a total of just 10 wins on the entire season. In the regular-season finale, Wyoming did give San Diego State a hard time for the most part, but still bowed by two touchdowns (42-28) nonetheless.
Wyoming struggled on defense in a big way, allowing every opponent on the schedule at least 23 points, leading to an average of 33.4 ppg which was eighth in the league and 97th nationally. In terms of rushing yards permitted, there were few teams as weak as the Pokes in that department as they let up a hefty 232.3 ypg which ranked them 117th in the country.
OFFENSE: There are several key elements that return for the Cowboys on offense, namely quarterback Brett Smith who has all the qualifications for being not only an all-conference performer, but quite possibly an All-American as well. Smith was on the mend last year after suffering an injury, yet still stepped up to complete 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,837 yards and 27 touchdowns, against only six interceptions. In addition to his passing prowess, Smith also makes himself a valued piece of the running game, scoring a team-best six TDs in 10 games in 2012. Considering the Cowboys are bringing back a number of experienced runners, like Brandon Miller and D.J. May, Smith should be able to limit the times he over-exposes himself to aggressive defenses.
"Obviously, Brett (Smith) is a great player in this conference," said coach Christensen. "He has had a great offseason. He works extremely hard, and is getting better every day. Brett was very sharp during spring drills. Hes done everything right, and is a tremendous playmaker."
Also working in favor of Smith and the aerial attack, is the return of a trio of starting receivers in Robert Herron, Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran. Herron was an all-conference wideout in 2012, separating himself from the pack by becoming the only player in the Mountain West to have two games with at least 150 yards receiving.
Unfortunately for the Pokes, the offensive line will need some retooling, after losing all-conference center Nick Carlson and fellow seniors Josh Leonard and Kyle Magnuson in the trenches. The unit retains the services of senior left guard Tyler Strong and also brings back Jake Jones who made a huge impression by starting all 12 games as a redshirt freshman.
DEFENSE: First and foremost, the defense has to replace its top three tacklers from a year ago, chief among them being linebacker Ghaali Muhammad who paced the unit with 106 tackles, 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage and four recovered fumbles. Also on that list are Korey Jones (103 tackles) and Mike Purcell (93 tackles, eight TFL), leaving Blair Burns as the top returning tackler after logging a modest 60 stops from his cornerback position.
Clearly, having a player from the secondary be the leading tackler on the squad is by no means optimal, which is why it is crucial for Eddie Yarbrough and Justin Bernthaler to get settled in at new positions in order to take some of the heat off the secondary. Both players are making the move from defensive end to defensive tackle, opening the door for some new faces to make an impact.
"Along the defensive line, we have four returning players who have played significant roles for us in the past in Patrick Mertens, Eddie Yarbrough, Sonny Puletasi and Justin Bernthaler," notes Christensen. "I think all of those guys are very solid defensive linemen. We are going to have to have some of the guys behind them play and provide us the depth we need to keep players fresh."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Far from a reliable scoring resource last season, placekicker Stuart Williams figures to hold on to his job in 2013, even after converting just 7-of-13 field goals and having a pair of attempts blocked. Williams, who missed a couple of PATs as well, may be the choice for the new punter too following the departure of Tim Gleeson. Punting an average of more than five times per game last season, Gleeson landed a third of his kicks inside the 20- yard line and averaged 43.0 yards per effort overall, so taking over those responsibilities will not be easy for Williams.
Ranking last in the conference and 113th in the nation in kickoff returns with an average of just 18.0 yards per attempt, the Cowboys have their work cut out for them in that department also. Part of the problem in 2012 was that no single player brought back more than nine kicks, amounting to as inconsistent of an effort as you can find. May, Claiborne and Shaun Wick all had their hands in the action and that figures to be part of the process again this season.
OUTLOOK: As long as Smith can remain healthy and not take too many chances with the offense, the Cowboys should have a decent campaign, the fifth under coach Christensen.
While the team does kick off the season with a visit to Nebraska, an opponent that it has come up short against in all six previous meetings, the month of September still shapes up as one that could generate some excitement in Laramie.
The Cowboys have home dates versus Idaho and Northern Colorado, as well as road trips to Air Force and Texas State. Add to that host dates versus New Mexico and Colorado State in the middle of October and it is conceivable that Wyoming could be among the leaders in the league standings. However, the second half of the schedule is far less forgiving with matchups at San Jose State, Boise State and Utah State, with home tests versus Fresno State and Hawaii sprinkled in. That tough road down the stretch could bring the Cowboys back to reality in a hurry.