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University of Wyoming quarterback Sean Chambers stiff arms a defender before running into the end zone during the Mountain West game against UNLV on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie. The Cowboys won the game 53-17. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Don’t bother telling University of Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl that Las Vegas doesn’t consider the Cowboys a legitimate Mountain West title contender. Don’t tell it to any of the players, either. It’s going to go in one ear and out the other.

Why?

Because, as Bohl so eloquently stated, the Cowboys “have some tools in the toolbox” this season.

Before the college football world got turned upside down by a pandemic and a revised, eight-game schedule was released for the Cowboys, UW’s over/under for wins in Las Vegas was somewhere between six and 6.5, which seems fairly low given a few key factors: 1) The Cowboys went 8-5 last season and 2) are probably better on paper now than they were a year ago.

Win totals have since been taken off the board completely in Las Vegas for the 2020 season, per Vegas Insider.

Is it a matter of disrespect? Not necessarily, as Bohl isn’t really concerned with the forecasts of Sin City or any of the handful of college football magazines that list Boise State has the nearly unanimous winner of the Mountain Division and conference.

But even the seventh-year coach of the Pokes had to chuckle when told of his team’s projected fate.

“We’re a long ways away from Las Vegas,” Bohl said with a laugh. “That’s the nicest way I can say that.”

The last time the nation saw the Cowboys was on New Year’s Eve, when a Levi Williams-led team demolished a normally potent Georgia State squad 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl. It was the team’s eighth win of the season, tied for the most the program has had in a campaign since the 1996 Pokes went 10-2.

Williams is back, as is quarterback Sean Chambers, fully recovered from a knee injury that led to him missing the back half of the season. Also back are seven players who have started games on the offensive line, as is defending MW rushing champion Xazavian Valladay. An offense that at times lost its footing a season ago should have no problems lighting up the scoreboard this time around, even if questions linger at wide receiver.

Yes, UW will miss star defensive playmakers like Logan Wilson, Cassh Maluia and Alijah Halliburton, a trio that helped pave the way for one of the top defenses in all of college football last season. But the 2020 Cowboys consider themselves MW contenders in every sense of the term. And after a stretch of brutally close regular-season losses to end 2019, UW is as motivated as ever to do something it’s never done: Win the MW.

“I believe we’re going to win the conference championship,” redshirt senior running back Trey Smith said. “I just have that amount of faith in my guys.”

Having been on the cusp of something so special has left the Cowboys longing for more, and the strides the team took in 2019 puts a potentially special 2020 within their grasp.

This year’s Pokes have something to prove.

“Looking back at least year’s tape, seeing all the mistakes we made, it puts a chip on our shoulder, too,” said Williams, who battled Chambers in fall camp for the starting job under center. “I would not be surprised. Don’t count the Cowboys out in any game, that’s for sure.”

After a 6-2 start with Chambers as the starter, things fell apart offensively for the Cowboys, who limped to a 1-3 finish in the regular season with Tyler Vander Waal under center. UW lost road games at Boise State, Utah State and Air Force by a combined 22 points. The loss to the Broncos was especially painful, a 20-17 overtime loss due, in part, to a missed kick by Cooper Rothe.

A glimpse back at each painful loss is a constant reminder of just how close the Cowboys were to a truly special 2019 season.

“I have a bigger chip on my shoulder that people don’t think Wyoming can play good football,” Chambers said. “(People say we) have good starts and bad finishes.”

Could this be the UW team that finally finds itself in the mix for a New Year’s Six Bowl, something even the Josh Allen-led teams of 2016 and 2017 couldn’t do? Perhaps, but there’s a reason Bohl thinks the Cowboys aren’t being hyped up to that extent: Allen isn’t walking out into War Memorial Stadium anytime soon.

As good as the Cowboys’ offense looks on paper, the unit still has yet to prove success over an extended period of time. And when it comes down to it, the most important player on the field is always the quarterback. While UW has two people fit for the job, to project them to Allen’s level of stardom would be unfair to all parties.

“I think, certainly, expectations changed. We had a more competitive team, even though our won-loss record wasn’t significantly different than the last year,” Bohl said. “(Last season’s end) put a real sour taste in players’ and coaches’ mouths.”

The man tasked with building consistency on offense is coordinator Brent Vigen, who was the target of fans’ aggression on more than one occasion last season when the offense stalled in the latter portion of the schedule. Vigen has been Bohl’s right hand man since 2009, when Bohl named him offensive coordinator for his North Dakota State Bison.

Vigen has a solid reputation for coaching up quarterbacks and of producing explosive offenses. In the past three seasons, however, UW has averaged just 23.2 points per game, and that includes a 2017 squad led by Allen. Cowboys quarterbacks combined to throw a total of just 11 touchdowns in 2019.

Is Vigen coaching to make stat wizards and fans happy? Of course not. But he finds himself with a chip on his shoulder, too. Over the final four games of the regular season, UW averaged just over 15 points per game, and averaged 25.4 points per game overall, which ranked 91st in the country.

With so many key pieces returning on offense and a handful of question marks on a defense that paved the way to eight wins last year, pressure is on Vigen and the offense to take things to another level in 2020.

“You always have something to prove as a coach. You always want to be better than you were before,” Vigen said. “You look at those 13 games, that’s a reflection of your work. … We saw some real high times, and there were times we underachieved, and that’s fair.

“That’s how I approach it. We need to be better. We lost five games last year … What can we do to win as many games as possible?”

On the other side of the coin is a defense that surrendered just 17.8 points per game in 2019, but lost a handful of key faces, including All-American linebacker Logan Wilson, a third-round selection by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2020 NFL draft.

Also gone is defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, cornerbacks coach John Richardson and defensive ends coach A.J. Cooper, all of whom joined Nick Rolovich’s staff at Washington State.

Former Minnesota and Wake Forest defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel will replace Dickert, and the man tasked with trying to replace the giant void left by Wilson is junior Chad Muma.

Both understand expectations are high, but each remains eager to prove there will be no drop-off, despite the numerous changes.

“I definitely think there’s some pressure to it, but I’m not stressing about it,” Muma said.

If it’s possible to fly under the radar, yet have sky-high expectations, the 2020 Cowboys are doing just that. There may not be a ton of hype for UW from the outside, but the forecast from within is to win the MW.

It’s a difficult balance, but one Bohl understands. He’s seen what the best teams in the conference have done to reach the top of the mountain, and he realizes his team has yet to do those things. His team needs to be confident but also remain hungry.

“Typically, your past performances will tend to skew all the experts. It’s always amazing … living on some past laurels,” Bohl said. “If you had to look, Boise has been a team that has been in the championship … San Diego State is always a school that has a lot of firepower … We have kind of bantered around. … We’ve been competitive. But as far as making a real run … we have not been back to that level.”

In previous seasons leading UW, Bohl could honestly admit to himself his team wasn’t a legitimate threat to make waves in the MW, as hard of an ideal as that was to grapple with.

This year? Bohl truly sees the Cowboys as a contender.

“Some years, even if all those other things come to play, I couldn’t look the media guys in the eyes and say we have enough fire(power),” Bohl said. “I understand we’re on the outside looking in a little bit (in 2020), but we do have a shot.”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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