The journey of Craig Bohl in his first two seasons as the head coach of the Wyoming Cowboys is not a particularly unusual story in the history of competitive athletics.
Coach X dominates at a given level of competition.
Coach X scratches the competitive itch.
Coach X fails miserably in his first few seasons at a higher level of competition.
The 2016 college football season is Bohl’s chance to transform his tenure in Laramie. He wasn’t expected to flourish right off the bat, but he’s approaching the point at which his capabilities will be questioned if he can’t begin to coax more production out of his Cowboys.
Many coaches get a fourth season on the job even if the first three seasons fall short of expectations. If the job is a long-term project as opposed to a quick fix — Wyoming can very reasonably fall into that silo — season three isn’t a career-defining campaign. Bohl therefore inhabits a situation in which his FBS career is not squarely on the line.
However, for any coach who does get a fourth season, season three — if short on wins — must at least initiate a transformative process, so that the following year’s class can break through.
Bohl — who won three straight FCS national championships at North Dakota State before scratching the FBS itch with the Pokes in 2014 — knows he doesn’t have to figure out everything this season.
He also knows he has to leave the 2016 season with tangible gains … which he utterly lacked at the end of 2015.
The first year of the Bohl era at the University of Wyoming was marked by a meager level of output from the team’s offense.
The coach who guided North Dakota State to one FCS conquest after another over a three-year span could not get his FBS Cowboys to mosey into the end zone in 2014. A 21.1 points-per-game average might not seem that bad in isolation, but at a stage in college football’s evolution when passing offense has never been more pervasive, that number placed the Cowboys at No. 107 in the FBS rankings, near the bottom of the sport.
Bohl received a hostile reception from the Mountain West and the FBS in 2014. The result was predictable, but first seasons at a new level of competition almost always come with the disclaimer: “Don’t use as a definitive verdict on a coach in any sport.”
Second seasons are made for adjustments. They might not be definitive verdicts, but they offer a larger glimpse into a coach’s ability to move pieces on a chessboard.
Bohl and Wyoming — at least viewed through a strictly numerical lens — regressed in season two.
In 2015, Wyoming’s per-game scoring average fell to 19 points, 115th in the country. The Pokes were one of just 15 FBS teams to average under 20 points an outing.
There’s (much) more to the erosion of the Cowboys’ offense in 2015: Wyoming’s red-zone scoring percentage (61.5) was dead last in the FBS. A team which already faced extremely small margins for error forfeited many chances to make games more competitive. If you can possibly believe it,
Touchdowns might trump field goals any day of the week, but Wyoming’s pronounced inability to make field goals — in terms of kicks missed, but also kicks not attempted for various reasons — translated into a lot of hidden points the Cowboys lost.
Wyoming was one of just seven FBS teams to convert fewer than 70 percent of its red-zone scoring chances. Bohl’s team was one of only two FBS teams to convert fewer than two-thirds of its red-zone possessions into points. (Vanderbilt was the other.)
It’s no wonder that Wyoming went 2-10 in 2015 after a 4-8 season in 2014. It is as though the Mountain West is scoffing at Bohl: “You thought your FCS methods at North Dakota State would work here? HA! Eat our dust.”
Bohl is the latest coach to climb the ladder and find that it’s harder to breathe at a higher elevation. He doesn’t have to conquer the Mountain West this season, but he does have to give his younger skill-position players the knowledge that they can — and will — score at a higher rate, especially in the red zone.
A 2016 surprise would be cheered throughout the state of Wyoming, but as long as a decorated FCS coach can set the table for 2017, the Cowboys will know they made important Bohl gains this fall.