***** NCAA Football Preview - Wyoming Cowboys *****
 
 By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
 
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
 
 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Outside of a three-game win streak during the month of
 November, the 2012 campaign was a disaster for the Wyoming Cowboys. The squad
 went from posting an 8-5 overall record, a 5-2 mark in conference play and an
 appearance in the New Mexico Bowl the year prior, to a tie for sixth place in
 the Mountain West Conference standings with only three victories in eight
 opportunities for head coach Dave Christensen during his fourth campaign in
 Laramie.
 
 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.
 
 2013 ANALYSIS:
 
 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. He?s 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.
 
 
 
 08/23 09:21:58 ET