There’s programs reloading, programs growing and programs trying to find ways to stay successful this year in the Mountain West. But, at the end of the season, things are going to look very familiar. Boise State stands on top with Utah State and Nevada giving chase. San Diego State and Air Force look to continue last season’s momentum. Colorado State looks to put it back together. New Mexico, yes New Mexico, looks to surprise. Even though you’re pretty sure you know how the journey will end, getting there should be fun.
1. Boise State
The Broncos are coming off another Fiesta Bowl win and the mid-major that could will probably find themselves playing on New Year’s Day again this year. 17 starters return, and even though QB Grant Hedrick isn’t one of them the offense will not have any issues. There is a ton of experience on the offensive line and 7 of last year’s top 10 receivers are back. The offense shouldn’t take much of a step back from a conference-best 44 ppg, even though the quarterback competition will be between two sophomores and two freshmen. The defense was solid in the air and on the ground and returns two All-MW selections and a 2nd-Team All-American in FS Darian Thompson. This is a top two defense. As if they needed help in the scheduling department, they give the top three in the West a miss while giving their resume a boost against Washington, Virginia and BYU. Ten wins isn’t a question here.
2. Utah State
The Aggies are a good and improving program this is now eternally stuck behind a great program. They’ll feature a deep offense, lead by four-year starting QB Chuckie Keeton, who became the school’s all-time passer last year. While the passing game will be fine, they have to improve the rushing game (12th in MW last year). They finally have depth for the first time since Robert Turbin was here, and they’ll feature the between-the-tackles power of Devonte Mays. The defense loses a lot from last year’s top defense in the league. However, the cupboard isn’t bare, they are loaded with upperclassmen and anchored by Nick Vigil (123 tkls, 9.5 tfl, 7 sks) it inside linebacker. So while they’ll have to replace the Mountain West defensive player of the year, the defense will still be a top unit in the league. They do run up against a tough schedule, drawing Nevada, San Diego St., and Fresno St. out of the West, but they host Boise and that will be the Mountain division title game.
3. Air Force
Air Force is coming off the biggest turnaround in school history (2 to 10 wins). They’ll have a tough time getting back to 10, but another bowl is on the horizon. QB Nate Romine steps up for departed Kale Pearson. He gets a few games (Morgan St. and San Jose St.) to get used to the system before going to Michigan State. He’ll be surrounded by talent and experience at the skill positions (5 starters back, 8 upperclassmen in the 2-deep). The conference’s top rush defense returns three on five starters, including 2nd-team all-MW DE Alex Hansen and even more upperclassmen. On the ground the D shouldn’t be far off of last year’s 141 rypg. The pass D will continue to improve around 1st-team All-MW and 1st-team All-Name SS Weston Steelhammer (61 tkls, 6 int) and he should be on the Thorpe shortlist. The schedule isn’t bad. The Falcons miss Nevada and San Diego St. out of the West, host Utah St, and have four winnable road games. Another 10 wins might be out of the question this time around, but a 6th bowl in 7 years is a guarantee.
4. New Mexico
How could I possibly put a team that has won 4 games in the last 3 years to leap frog a team coming off a 10-win season? Well, there are a few things going for the Lobos. They return 1,000 yard rusher Jhurell Pressley, and 3 offensive line starters that opened up a league-best 6.3 ypr., Add in more depth at quarterback to help expand the option offense. There were two main things that were working against UNM last season. First, they had to absorb 17 season-ending injuries. Hopefully, they’ll have much better health this season. Second, the only part of the defense that worked was the line, that ranked 4th in the league in sacks. For the rest of the unit, there is no where to go but up. The Lobos have to hit the road to face Boise St. and Nevada, but get Utah St. and Colorado St. at home and give Fresno and SDSU a miss. Is a bowl possible? Maybe. Will this be the first winning season since 2007? Yes.
5. Colorado State
In contrast, the Rams have plenty going against them this year. They have to overcome the loss of their head coach, their all-time leading passer Garrett Greyson and a 1,300 yard rusher Dee Hart. Soph Nick Stevens is leading the QB competition, but only threw 25 passes last season. The offense’s success depends on the strong-armed Stevens or one of his 3 competitors in stepping up. A lot of experience returns on defense, but their top two tacklers departed. The secondary does return all four starters. No matter who gets the starting job, they’ll have to improve on last year’s +2 in turnovers. They miss Nevada, and host Boise State but have to travel to Utah St. and Fresno St. This is the most volatile team in this division and they legitimately could repeat last year’s 2nd place finish. But I’m going to be the eternal pessimist and call for them to fall off the cliff.
The Cowboys are one of the most inexperienced teams in the FBS this year. They only return 54% of last year’s lettermen and just 46.4% of last year’s yardage. There is at least experience and depth at running back. The three returnees combined for 1,809 yards a year ago. There’s plenty of opportunity for young guys on offense to breakout. Actually, they’ll need breakouts on both sides of the ball to have any success. Three of the top ten tacklers are back from a defense that was 10th in ppg allowed and passing ypg and 9th in rush ypg, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. The schedule isn’t horrid but they do get Boise St., Utah St., and SDSU on the road. Another four wins is probably just about right.
1. San Diego State
UK transfer Maxwell Smith should make an immediate impact at QB. The Aztecs return the best running back in the conference. Junior Donnell Pumphrey ran for 1,867 yards and 20 TDs a year ago and is poised for a similar season. There is a lot of youth at wide receiver, but there’s plenty of depth for Smith to throw to. SDSU features the best secondary in the league, anchored by 2nd-team All-MW corner JJ Whittaker. In general, there is a ton of experience back on a defense that allowed a MW-best 324 yards a game last year. Plus, they give Boise a miss until the title game and host Nevada, Utah St. and Fresno St. I’ll call for a trip to the title game for the 2nd best team in the league.
At first glance, this offense was hit hard by the loss of dual-threat superstar quarterback Cody Fajardo. But the Wolf Pack does return more than 1,500 of rushing and seven of last year’s top ten receivers, so the supporting cast is there. It looks like redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick will be ready to take over the dual-threat role and start right away. The linebackers are the strong point of defense. The line will behind the pace, having to replace leaders Johnathan McNeal and Nigel Hawkins. Improving the pass defense fast is a necessity as well. Nevada avoids Boise St., but end the season with back-to-back road games at Utah St. and San Diego St. so hopefully the issues at defense will be solved by then. They do get all of their winnable games at home, and with everyone else in the division trying make up ground, a 2nd place finish is a good bet.
3. San Jose State
After being not being invited to a bowl one year then falling off the cliff the next, the Spartans should finally catch a break and get to a bowl this year. They return 10 starters on offense, making them one of the most experienced teams in the conference. Senior Joe Grey is one of the league’s top passers with dual-threat junior Kenny Potter right behind him. Their top seven rushers and six of the top seven receivers are back, so there is plenty of depth that should help them score a lot more than last year’s mark (league-worst 17.4 ppg). The defense is also quite experienced, with three of four starters back from the MW’s top secondary and six overall from last year’s 2nd-best defense. The potential to climb higher is there, but the schedule is kinda brutal. The non-conference bit includes trips to Oregon State and Auburn with Air Force and Boise State from the Mountain. SJSU are an upset away from their first bowl since 2012, although now that I think of that one (a win over BG in the ’12 Military Bowl) they can sit in bowl purgatory for all I care.
4. Fresno State
The Bulldogs have a lot of questions of offense with the need for a new quarterback and a ton of youth at receiver. At least the running game will be strong. 2nd-Team All-MW RB Marteze Waller returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,368 yards and 11 TDs last season and most of his offensive line is back. The biggest weak spot on defense was an inability to stop the run (209 rush yards allowed a game – 10th in the MW). It will be tough to improve quickly with only one starter on the defensive line back, but slowing opposing rushers will be vital. The schedule is brutal as well. Even without Boise, Fresno still makes trips to Ole Miss, BYU, and hosts Utah, Utah St., Air Force and Colorado State out of the Mountain. I could see another 6 win season, but there’s no way they make a return trip to the title game.
First, let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Norm Chow is on one of the hottest seats in coaching. He’s managed a grand total of 4 conference wins in his 3 years and the Rainbow Warriors haven’t sniffed a bowl in four seasons. He’s hoping bringing in some help from USC could turn things around. Max Wittek is set to start under center on day one and his presence can only improve a passing game that was 11th in passing yards and 11th in scoring offense in the conference. This is an average D with 6 starters back and they are all in the back 7. The key may be OLB Jeremy Castro fulfilling his potential since he transferred from UCLA. The Warriors have their normal brutal non-conference schedule, with trips to Ohio State, Wisconsin and then conference road trips to Boise and Nevada. The potential is here though, so drawing even in the league isn’t out of the question. Will that be enough to save Chow’s job is the question.
There are some huge differences between coaching in high school and coaching in college, which new Rebel HC Tony Sanchez is going to find out fast. 2015 will be a learning year for the coach and his team. UNLV has 10 starters back and there is talent on this offense. Chief amoung them is 1st-Team All-MW and freshman All-American Devonte Boyd. After losing three of their top five receivers, Boyd will see even more balls thrown his way this year. There is even less experience on D, but up (36.6 ppg allowed – 11th). They’ll probably be underdogs in 11 games with Northern Illinois, UCLA and Michigan on the non-conference schedule. They’re probably an upset away from matching last year’s two wins.
Championship Game: Boise State over San Diego State
Boise State, Utah State, Air Force, San Diego State, Nevada, Fresno State
On The Bubble: San Jose State, New Mexico