Mountain West Outlook
July 5, 2018
By Joe Nelson
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With six bowl teams and three bowls wins the Mountain West is coming off a solid season although the league has failed to provide a New Year’s six representative since Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl in the first season of the College Football Playoff system four years ago.
Expectations are high for Boise State to be a team that could run the table to be in that conversation this season but this is a conference that has offered some surprises in recent years, including Fresno State’s rise to the West title last season after failing to win a FBS game the previous season. Here is an early summer look at the 12 Mountain West teams and the season ahead in 2018-19.
Boise State: Bryan Harsin is 42-12 at Boise State including posting an 11-3 record last season after defeating Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. Harsin’s name certainly has come up in consideration for major conference openings and that isn’t likely to change with another double-digit win season expected. Boise State takes on a few difficult non-conference games and will face a difficult draw from the West though the toughest conference games will be home games. Brett Rypien returns as one of the top passers in Broncos history but last year’s team took a big step back on offense and was led by a sound defense that was very tough against the run. That defensive success should continue with 10 defensive starters back in 2018 as the Broncos are the clear favorite in the division with the potential to emerge in the national conversation if they can win at Oklahoma State in September.
Utah State: In what felt like a critical season for Matt Wells, Utah State rebounded with a steady season getting back to a bowl game and ultimately finishing 6-7 with an Arizona Bowl loss in overtime. The Aggies possess a veteran offensive line and sophomore quarterback Jordan Love showed some potential last season. The Aggies have an ideal scheduling draw in conference play missing the top contenders on the west side but they are one the road for the key Mountain division games which makes a rise to the top unlikely. Another bowl-eligible season looks possible with a pair of favorable non-conference tests and favoritism likely in all six home dates. Wells has seen his defense get worse each of the past two years and returning to the strong results from his first three seasons in Logan will determine whether or not the Aggies take a leap forward in 2018.
Wyoming: Despite having a NFL draft pick at quarterback Wyoming had terrible offensive production last season, averaging only 288 yards per game in conference play. The Cowboys were outstanding defensively allowing only 17.5 points per game on the season and that unit keyed a second straight bowl bid and the program’s first bowl win since 2009. This year’s team should again dominate defensively with stars at every level of the defense. The offense could actually improve as well with a more stable offensive line helping the running game back to the success the Cowboys had as division champions in 2016-17. Wyoming has a pair of power five non-conference games plus drawing last year’s West champion on the road as there are some hurdles ahead in trying to match or surpass the eight-win count from last season. Boise State and Utah State will both have to head to Laramie for a potential edge as Wyoming is a threat in the Mountain race.
Colorado State: Mike Bobo’s squad doesn’t return a great deal of experience for his fourth season in Fort Collins but a few notable transfers will put major conference talent in his offense. The Rams have made but lost bowl games every season under Bobo with three consecutive 7-6 campaigns. While expectations for a breakthrough are growing it will be a tough act to deliver in 2018. Colorado State does have a preferable draw of the West teams missing the top two threats but a very tough non-conference schedule with three power five dates will leave little margin for error in Mountain West play regarding bowl eligibility. Ultimately a Colorado State defense that surrendered 436 yards per game while going 5-3 in league games last season doesn’t look likely to be greatly improved.
Air Force: After winning 10 games in 2016, that count was cut in half for Air Force last season, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The Falcons lack proven depth on the offensive line which is always the key component of the option attack but top rusher and passer Arion Worthman returns. The pull from the West features three difficult games with two road tests vs. quality teams and the non-conference schedule is a bit tougher than expected with Army and Florida Atlantic coming off strong seasons. Air Force is 20-4 S/U at home the past four seasons and the Falcons will need to maintain an edge in Colorado Springs to have a successful season with most of the pivotal swing games coming at home.
New Mexico: A great rebuilding run for Bob Davie collapsed last season as the Lobos fell to 3-9. Davie wound up suspended for a month in the winter surrounding misconduct allegations as New Mexico isn’t well positioned for a great season. There is some returning experience and this team lost a couple of very tight games last season to fall from 9-4 to 3-9. The schedule in 2018 is daunting with perhaps the three best West teams on the path and four very difficult home games in conference play. The Lobos have a talented young quarterback and the top rusher from last season back but the defense could slide backwards after two respectable seasons with capable defensive numbers. Ultimately a lot is adding up for potential problems for New Mexico to have a successful season and it won’t be a shock if the program looks to go another direction at some point.
San Diego State: The Aztecs went 2-0 vs. the Pac-12 last season with a pair of early season upsets but after a 6-0 start, a pair of home losses ended a two-year run on top of the MWC. San Diego State also missed in bowl action losing to Army but Rocky Long has guided this team to a 32-9 record the past three years combined. Christian Chapman is back at quarterback but replacing record setting running back Rashaad Penny could be a challenge. The defense also loses a few contributors but this year’s squad is a threat to get back to the MWC title game. An opening game at Stanford could determine whether or not San Diego State could have more at stake this season. The quartet of road games in league play is daunting as another runner-up finish in the West is realistic as well.
Fresno State: The Bulldogs delivered one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football history as veteran head coach Jeff Tedford turned in a 10-4 season at his Alma Mater after inheriting a team that went 1-11 the previous year. The Bulldogs improved dramatically on both sides of the ball and turned around a lot of close game fortune, winding up falling just short in the MWC Championship but winning the Hawai’i Bowl. Matching last season’s success will be difficult but much of last season’s roster is intact. The schedule is difficult outside of the conference with three perilous non-conference games plus having to play two of the top Mountain squads including making a trip to Boise. A lot went right for Fresno State last season and while the Bulldogs are still a threat in 2018 a slight slide back to the pack looks possible on the 2018 schedule.
UNLV: The Rebels have improved in win-count by one each season under Tony Sanchez and a continuation of that pattern would get the Rebels in a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The schedule ahead features two non-conference road games that will be difficult to win as at least a 4-4 league campaign looks necessary which is the mark the Rebels hit last season. UNLV faces two of the lesser Mountain foes in its path and has a pair of winnable road games in the division. Returning talent on both offense and defense should lead a solid squad with quality in the backfield and a defense with veteran linebackers. The numbers need to get better defensively with 5.4 yards per rush allowed last season while the offense only scored 29 points per game despite posting 427 yards per game as more efficiency will be needed to complete the rise for a breakthrough campaign.
Nevada: Jay Norvell had a disappointing first season at Nevada with the Wolf Pack dipping to 3-9 for the worst season for the program in more than a decade. Nevada allowed at least 30 points in all but three games as the defense has regressed in back-to-back seasons. The offense has capable numbers with Ty Gangi ultimately taking over and delivering a productive season but a program built on running the ball successfully needs more consistent results on the ground. Nevada has a fairly difficult MWC slate as the four home games will all be difficult and winning on the road has been a challenge with Nevada 0-6 in road games last season. The non-conference schedule also features two power five schools and a tough road game at Toledo as a season of improvement isn’t assured even with a low bar to reach and a decent group of returning players.
San Jose State: Brent Brennan stepped into a tough situation but his first season in San Jose was a challenge with the Spartans outscored by 26 points per game on average with only a three-point win in the season finale a FBS victory for the team. Road games at Pac-12 powers will make September difficult and San Jose State isn’t likely to be competitive in four difficult road games in MWC play. The home dates offer some potential however and matching or topping last season’s win count is realistic even with the rebuilding still clearly a work in progress. Goals will need to be modest for the Spartans this season but several teams have been able to regroup quickly for a major turnaround in this conference in recent years.
Hawai’i: The Warriors were a surprise bowl team in 2016 but fell to just 3-9 last season as Nick Rolovich enters his third season with growing unrest. His squad has lost several contributors due to transfers as this will be a very inexperienced team. John Ursua will be the leader in the receiving corps but there isn’t a lot of depth behind him in a system that relies on multiple receiver sets and efficient quarterback play remains a question mark. Defense was the weaker side of the ball last season as well and the three wins came vs. UMass, FCS Western Carolina, and San Jose State last season as competing with the top MWC teams looks unlikely. There are winnable games on the schedule and the Warriors avoid Boise State from the Mountain side while drawing preferable matchups at home.
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