Scott Slant Wednesday Weekly: The Mountain West needs some magic

I haven’t run down Bill Connelly’s ESPN post-spring football SP+ rankings yet. Let’s do it now. They’re based on returning production, recent recruiting and recent history. The good news for Bronco Nation: Boise State is the highest-ranked team in the Mountain West. The bad news: the Broncos are only No. 62. For a team accustomed to bubbling under the top 25, that’s a blow. But what does it say about the league? Fresno State is second at No. 68; then you have to go all the way down to No. 81 to find Air Force. Half of the conference shows up below No. 100, including New Mexico at No. 132, the second-worst ranking in the land. No surprise that there are so many Mountain West doubters out there, and that there’s so much pressure on the conference to do something impressive during its non-conference schedule.


Respected writer Chris Murray of Nevada SportsNet in Reno ran down the top football jobs in the Mountain West last week. He has Boise State at No. 1, but what strikes me is his fair assessment of the Broncos. Hard to argue with anything. The highlights from Murray: “Boise State’s perhaps the most successful Group of 5 school over the last 25 years. The team has averaged fewer than one conference loss per season since 2000, which is mind-boggling. Boise State’s streak of 19 straight seasons appearing in the AP Top 25 was snapped in 2021, and it also wasn’t ranked in 2022. So, the Broncos are post peak, but it still has excellent facilities, first-class community support and a strong brand. It does come with high expectations since anything less than 10 wins and a conference championship is a failed season.”


The transfer portal isn’t just for immediate help. It’s for building what Boise State coach Andy Avalos calls “dependable depth,” and developing for the future. It would seem the Broncos’ latest addition out of the portal falls into that latter category. It’s Howard Brown, a 6-2, 312-pound defensive tackle from Iowa State. Brown saw action in only six games for the Cyclones as a redshirt freshman last season; he has three years of eligibility remaining. There are some great stories, though. Jordan Kaye of the Idaho Press dug up the fact that Field Turf had some of Boise State’s old blue turf in a warehouse and sold to Brown’s high school, Lincoln College Prep in Kansas City, so he has already played on the Blue. And Brown did it while playing quarterback, no less—back when he weighed just 275.


Now this sounds like a guy Bronco Nation can get behind. Boise State has its first commitment for the 2024 recruiting class, and he comes from Thompson Falls, Montana, population 1,391. His name is Hayden Hanks, a 6-4, 270-pound defensive lineman. Hanks is the first guy from his high school ever to land an FBS offer. “The whole town is freaking out,” he told Kaye by phone. Thompson Falls High School’s graduating class is 44, and it just last season moved from eight-man football to 11-man. Maybe he can take a page out of Leighton Vander Esch’s book.


When one-time Idaho athletic director Mike Bohn departed as USC AD last week, I looked for the first projected pool of replacements. Boise State’s Jeramiah Dickey wasn’t in it. Then came Trojans Wire at USA Today on Sunday. Writes Matt Wadleigh, “Dickey appears to be supremely competent at the various things athletic directors are supposed to do. He has the big-picture vision and the gift of person-to-person retail politics to carry it out, one person at a time. Yet, he walked into a situation where a lot of stakeholders knew improvement was needed. The USC job is about maintaining a championship standard after significant recent gains due to great coaching hires by Bohn. Dickey is skilled, and he has a vision, but in the Big Ten, would his vision fit USC’s needs? That’s a question worth asking.” Now, will the Trojans ask it?


The Idaho Steelheads are resting up for their first Kelly Cup Finals appearance in 13 years after dispatching the Toledo Walleye 5-1 in Game 5 of the ECHL Western Conference Finals last Saturday night. The championship series will start Saturday night on home ice, and it’ll be against the Florida Everblades, led by former Steelheads coach Brad Ralph. The Everblades went two overtimes at Newfoundland Tuesday night before winning 3-2 and eliminating the Growlers four games to two in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was going to be monster travel either way. As the crow flies, Boise is 2,793 miles from Estero, FL. St. John’s, Newfoundland, is even further: 2,970 miles. This will be a rematch of the Steelies’ first Kelly Cup Finals in 2004, when they bested Florida four games-to-one.

The Steelheads have been meticulous in making sure the Everblades have accommodations in Boise when the Kelly Cup Finals start. Little-known fact: the Steelheads didn’t know the Toledo Walleye were coming to town until May 14, and by that time every hotel in the city was full, thanks to the Luke Combs concert at Albertsons Stadium and the state high school tournaments and meets in the Treasure Valley. So Toledo’s players ended up staying in the suites inside Idaho Central Arena after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Walleye president and CEO Joe Napoli credited the Steelheads organization for going the extra mile. The suites were cleaned and the accommodations were prepared for the players. The Walleye refused to use the highly unusual situation as an excuse.


Payette’s Sting Ray Robb came across as a “happy to be there” and “dream come true” guy in the days leading up to his first Indianapolis 500. But Robb projected a different persona after he was knocked out of the race in a crash on lap 91 Sunday. A late pass by Graham Rahal on turn one forced Robb to the outside, and he lost control, slid up the track and hit the wall. A reporter asked him if he could chalk up his first Indy 500 to a learning experience. “I’ve had way too many learning experiences this year,” said Sting Ray. “I’m sick and tired of them.” And he had harsh words for Rahal’s maneuver. “When you’re not leading the race, can’t do that,” he said.


After an opening round 68 at the Charles Schwab Challenge last week, Troy Merritt struggled to a second-round 75 last Friday and missed another cut. It was another week of misfortune for the former Boise State star. Merritt has now missed 12 straight cuts in conventionally-formatted tournaments dating back to January. But June brings another try. Merritt tees off Thursday at The Memorial, the storied tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus in Dublin, OH.


The Boise Hawks’ 2023 start has sure been different than 2022. After dropping their Opening Night game against Idaho Falls, the Hawks reeled off five straight victories going into the six-game homestand versus the Ogden Raptors that was supposed to start Tuesday night. The late-afternoon thunderboomer adventure made the field unplayable, so there’ll be a doubleheader tonight (two seven-inning games). The Hawks are surely enjoying their first-place status. A year ago, they were 2-4 at this point of the season, and it was about to get worse.

This Day In Sports…brought to you by BBSI BOISE…payroll, process and prosperity for your business.

May 31, 1943: The birthday of a quarterback who helped changed the face of pro football. Joe Willie Namath’s legend began when he chose the AFL’s New York Jets over the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals following each league’s draft in 1965. But the defining moment of his 13-year pro career was easily Super Bowl III, before which he boldly guaranteed a Jets victory over the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts. Namath and the Jets would go on to beat the Colts 16-7 in one of the signature upsets in sports. Broadway Joe Namath…80 years old today.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)

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