What will Josh Allen’s NFL career mean for Wyoming? Let’s look at some of his small-school predecessors

Earlier this year, Wyoming assistant football coach Mike Bath received a text from Ben Roethlisberger. Bath, a onetime college teammate of the veteran Steelers quarterback, had been quoted in a Cleveland Plain Dealer article comparing Roethlisberger to Josh Allen, the Wyoming quarterback Cleveland was then considering with its first overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.

“He said, ‘Oh, really? You’re going to compare me to a 22-year-old kid, huh?’” Bath recalled.

At the moment, Allen’s youth might be the only thing giving him the edge in that comparison.

While “Big Ben” is a 15-year NFL veteran, two-time Super Bowl champion and likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, Allen has yet to secure a starting spot ahead of his first NFL season.
But what if? What if Allen’s career winds up mirroring Roethlisberger’s in the same way that Allen’s arm, size and competitive nature currently remind Bath of a college-aged Roethlisberger? What would that mean for Wyoming?

Or, what if Allen’s time in the national spotlight has already peaked and he fails to find footing as an NFL star, or even starter? What, then, would his legacy mean for his alma mater?
If there is a crystal ball with those answers, it does not reside in the offices of the Casper Star-Tribune.
Even in the history of UW football, there is little precedent for Allen.

No Cowboy has ever been drafted higher than seventh overall, where the Buffalo Bills ultimately took Allen. No Cowboy had even come off the board in the first round since 1976, when the NFL Draft was far from its current media spectacle. And no Wyoming quarterback has ever thrown a pass in the NFL.

But Allen is not the first small-school quarterback to be selected in the early moments of the draft.
Nor would he be the first quarterback from outside the so-called Power Five conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference — to become a household name. Roethlisberger’s Miami RedHawks play in the Mid-American Conference, which is considered a Group of Five league, as is Wyoming’s home, the Mountain West Conference.
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Fargo, North Dakota, is typically Minnesota Vikings country, but Matt Larsen has seen a lot of Philadelphia Eagles jerseys there lately.

“And this is coming from people who grew up being Vikings fans their whole lives,” the North Dakota State A.D. said.

The reason for the Eagles gear is that former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz has gone on to be a Super Bowl champion and MVP-caliber player in Philadelphia. (You may have already seen the Buffalo Bills T-shirts popping up in Wyoming, Broncos be damned.)

Now, when Larsen dons a North Dakota State shirt while traveling around the country, it holds a similar meaning.

“People come up and say, ‘Hey, Carson Wentz,’” he said. “And so there’s that brand recognition right away. There was good brand recognition to begin with, but Carson has taken it to a completely different level. He really has.”

North Dakota State is actually considered one step below even the Group of Five, playing in the Football Championship Subdivision. But most football fans knew of the Bison even before Wentz was drafted second overall in 2016, thanks to the dynasty current Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl helped build in Fargo. North Dakota State won five straight national championships from 2011-15 (three with Bohl), something no other NCAA team has ever done.

Having a player of Wentz’s stature, though, has added another layer.

“From him coming back in the national championship game after being out for eight weeks to win the national championship,” Larsen said, “then going on and doing so well in the Senior Bowl and all the hype, ESPN coming into Fargo for his Pro Day, and then obviously being picked second overall — that was a crazy three, four months for North Dakota State. And obviously Carson as a representative (was) in just about every media market across the country. You really can’t put a dollar figure or a price tag on that type of value.”

You can try. Through research company Joyce Julius & Associates Inc., UW commissioned a study to quantify the media exposure Cowboy football received from the start of its 2017 season through the NFL Draft. The final estimation was over $159 million. Allen’s name was only mentioned once in the university’s two press releases about the study, but there was no question as to why the department chose that time span. The second half of the study, which stretched from the beginning of 2018 to mid-May, more than doubled the valuation of the season — despite the fact that Wyoming didn’t play a single football game in that time. Rather, it was the NFL Draft, and the corresponding months of build-up, that drew the most eyeballs of all.
“You walk in now to a high school in rural east Texas and you’ve got the bucking horse on your shirt, they know Josh Allen,” said Bath, Wyoming’s fullbacks and tight ends coach. “They know the University of Wyoming. And they knew it before, but now it’s on the forefront of their mind, because they saw him at the draft.”
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Each of the aforementioned quarterbacks are helpful Allen analogues, but no comparison is exact. Allen was selected seventh overall, not first like Smith and Carr or second like Wentz or third like Bortles. That said, analysts often included Allen in those same discussions; he was considered as a possibility for the Browns at No. 1 up until hours before the draft.
One major benefit for Wyoming is that Allen was drafted in 2018 rather than, say, 2004, when Roethlisberger came off the board 11th overall. As Bath has seen, the NFL Draft has grown into an absolute media behemoth. This year, the draft was aired on ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network, FOX and ABC, depending on the day.

“We had to force it,” Bath said of the coverage Roethlisberger received as a draft prospect. “… Where now, it’s out there. It’s not that we’re tweeting anything about it. It’s out there. It’s ESPN. It’s Mel Kiper. It’s Todd McShay. It’s everybody talking about it.”

Sayler, Miami’s A.D., said the RedHawks wouldn’t have minded the social media attention.

“With Josh at Wyoming, I know that I saw a bunch of clips on Twitter and different places that people put together,” he said. “I think people’s jaws would drop if they saw some of Ben’s athletic ability that he possessed when he was here at Miami. I just don’t think it got the national attention as much because of the social media and all the video sharing that goes on today.”
Seeley, UCF’s associate A.D., happened to overlap with Smith at Utah, too, and said the media environment was far different for Smith in 2005 than it was for Bortles nine years later.
Another blessing for Wyoming is that its highest-drafted player in program history is a quarterback.

“If you just look at the draft every single year, and this year was no different with the strong quarterback class, they always get looked at a little bit differently and scrutinized a bit more,” Sayler said. “So there’s no question that quarterback does seem to raise a bit of interest within the NFL Draft, especially in the first round.”

While Fisher gifted Central Michigan the bragging rights that come with a first-overall draft pick, the fact that he is an offensive lineman meant that his draft buzz was slower to accumulate. For example, it actually took some convincing from then-head coach Dan Enos in 2012 for Fisher to represent the offense at MAC media day instead of the Chippewas’ quarterback.
“But I can tell you once it ramps up, there’s no difference,” said Wyman, Central Michigan’s associate A.D.

The hype had all but ramped up to a fever pitch for Allen in 2017 when the Cowboys hosted Oregon. While the Pokes were outclassed in that game, they had the good fortune of playing two Power Five teams that season — the Ducks and Iowa — while everyone was paying attention to Allen. The quarterback also played in two bowl games as a Cowboy, as well as the 2016 Mountain West Football Championship Game, which Wyoming hosted.

That’s something Sayler said Miami might have done differently with Roethlisberger.

“If I were to have a quarterback like Ben that you knew was coming back for another year, I would try really hard to showcase us in some larger games,” said Sayler, who was not yet at Miami during Roethlisberger’s time. “That’s difficult, because of how football scheduling is done, but there are things that come across your desk sometimes that you could change and rework, and I would’ve looked to maybe have done something to get him a little bit more national visibility if I could.”…