FILE -- In this Dec. 23, 2015, file photo, Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols maneuvers through the Northern Illinois defense with a pass reception during the first half of the Poinsettia Bowl NCAA college football game in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenn
Lenny Ignelzi, File
August 21, 2016

For a brief stretch of last season, Boise State lost its way.

Coach Bryan Harsin's usually methodical program suffered a brief lapse and with it went the Broncos' spot as the dominant power in the Mountain West Conference.

''We needed to focus a little bit better than we did last year,'' Harsin said. ''Also understand that we weren't a surprise to anybody when we played.''

Losses to New Mexico and Air Force last November served as a turning point. Boise State's response to missing out on the Mountain West title - beating San Jose State and then routing Northern Illinois 55-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl - gave Harsin the belief that the resolve needed for the Broncos to remain a power in their conference and in the national discussion was still there.

''What I think you saw the last two games ... was the kind of football team that we want to be,'' Harsin said. ''And hopefully that will continue and carry over. That's who we are.''

The potential is there for another special season on the blue turf. Offensively, the Broncos have three of the top talents in the Mountain West with sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, running back Jeremy McNichols and wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck. They also return an experienced offensive line.

The question will be its defense. The Broncos are fine at linebacker with Ben Weaver and Tanner Vallejo, but are inexperienced on the defensive line and in the secondary. And that secondary will get tested early, namely Week 2 when the Broncos host Washington State, their most challenging non-conference opponent.

ENCORE, ENCORE: Rypien wasn't supposed to play last season. The plan was to redshirt the quarterback. When Ryan Finley went down with an injury, Harsin immediately turned to Rypien. He responded by throwing for 3,353 yards and 20 touchdowns in his college debut.

Rypien was helped by McNichols, who ran for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns, and Sperbeck was his favorite target. Even though it came in a loss, Sperbeck set a Boise State record with 20 catches against New Mexico. That trio should be able to help carry the Broncos offense early while their defense matures.

YOUTH SERVED: Linebacker is not an issue for the Broncos. It's elsewhere on the defense where Boise State is counting on new faces to get up to speed in a hurry. The defensive line has some experience on the edge but little playing time among the possible interior linemen. In the secondary, cornerback Jonathan Moxey and safety Chanceller James return but the rest are inexperienced. Getting the secondary solidified is a priority.

''I think they have to mature,'' Harsin said. ''I think our entire team does. ... I've seen an experienced side of the ball be crummy and an inexperienced side be dumb enough to go out there and dominate. I hope we all have this rookie mentality.''

SEASON OPENER: Youth is the theme of Boise State's defense entering the season and it may get tested right away. The Broncos open at Louisiana with former LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings the presumptive starter for the Ragin' Cajuns. Boise State understood its new secondary was going to get tested against Washington State in Week 2 but the opener could be a litmus test of where the young Broncos defensive backs are in their development.

KEY GAMES: The last time a non-conference team came into Boise and beat the Broncos in a regular-season game was 2001 when Washington State won 41-20. The Cougars provide Boise State its first challenge, but the toughest stretch for the Broncos comes in mid-October. The Broncos travel to New Mexico, host Colorado State and then five days later host BYU. Survive that stretch and the Broncos may not be challenged again until the season finale at Air Force.

PREDICTION: The schedule is set up for Boise State to be part of the national conversation. The Broncos' two toughest non-conference games - Washington State and BYU - are at home. They avoid San Diego State until the Mountain West title game at the earliest. Expect Boise State to find a way into the Mountain West title game but with a stumble somewhere along the way.

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