Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:03 AM
MWC Mountain Preview
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MOUNTAIN WEST - MOUNTAIN PREVIEW
(SU - Straight Up, ATS - Against the Spread, O/U - Over/Under)
Back where it should be on top of the Mountain West in 2017, Boise State (2017 SU 11-3; ATS 8-5-1, O/U 6-8) is once again aiming higher this fall, with legit designs on a return to the New Year’s Six bowl mix as the rep of the “Group of Six” conferences. It wouldn’t be the first time for the Broncos, who turned a similar trick in 2014 in what was the first season for HC Bryan Harsin, topping Arizona 38-30 in a wild Fiesta Bowl. After subsequently kicking away the Mountain half of the MW in the next two seasons to Air Force and Wyoming, respectively, the Broncos used a 7-game midseason win streak to sew up a return to the conference title game, which Boise used to avenge a regular-season defeat at Fresno State. Real excitement for 2018, however, was generated in a 38-28 cruise past Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl that wasn’t as close as the final scoreline suggests.
Along the way, Harsin has become as well-established on the blue carpet as predecessors Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins, and Chris Petersen, though they are rightly concerned in the state capital that Harsin could be lured away like the others. Harsin has been in the mix for a couple of Pac-12 jobs in recent years and figures to stay on the radar of Power 5 openings, but for the time being seems content in Boise, which has made several concessions to keep Harsin in the fold, including enhanced compensation for assistants and continuing improvement to what is now called Albertson’s Stadium, which unveiled plans for expansion while campaigning for inclusion in the Big 12 a few years ago.
By Bronco standards, last year’s 32.5 ppg was a bit pedestrian (indeed, it was Boise’s lowest scoring output since 2012), but the pieces are in place for an even more-explosive mix this fall. Vet QB Brett Rypien is now a senior and the active FBS leader in career passing yards (9876). After sharing snaps with Kansas transfer Montell Cozart early in the season, Rypien was in charge down the stretch and for the long win streak, tossing just one pick in the last right reg.-season games. The latest recruiting class is full of receivers who could make an impact (watch true frosh Khalil Shakir, who was courted by much of the Pac-12), and several returnees are expected to step into the breach, especially soph Octavius Evans, the star of spring work. Boise has now featured a 1000-yard rusher for nine straight seasons, and jr. Alexander Mattison looks to make it ten in a row after motoring for 1086 YR a year ago. Five linemen who made at least one start last fall populate the OL.
It’s on defense, however, where the Broncos have been constantly underrated for the last decade, and where they made their real mark a year ago, finishing a very respectable 21st overall in national rankings. Best of all, nine starters are back, though one of the vacancies is that of impact LB Leighton Vander Esch, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in late April. All three starters are back on a DL with a combined 56 starts among them, and one that helped fuel a 17th-ranked rush defense. The secondary is extremely deep, paced by jrs. DeAndre Pierce and Kekoa Nawahine, who combined for 191 tackles last season. The platoon and its many ball-hawks helped fuel an impressive +13 TO margin that ranked 9th nationally.
Now, for that New Year’s Six candidacy; to be taken seriously, Boise is going to probably have to win September dates at Troy and Oklahoma State. The Mountain half of the MW is tricky, and West heavyweights Fresno and San Diego State are both on the schedule, though each will have to play on the blue carpet. A look at the slate in summer, however, suggests that the only game where Boise might project as an underdog is at Stillwater. The opportunity for a memorable campaign is present.
Spread-wise, a puzzling and enduring trend has been Boise’s overvalue as home chalk; laying points on the blue carpet, the Broncos are now 13-31-1 since the 2010 season. (Last year it was only 2-4-1.) Harsin, however, was 6-1 vs. the line away last year, and broke a recent slump against bogey team Air Force, which had upset the Broncos three straight years and covered five in a row in the series before Boise won 44-19 in mid-November.
Talk about some interesting forks-in-the-road. After the 2014 season, Oregon State, looking to fill its coaching job that became vacant when Mike Riley bolted to Nebraska, made a call to Wisconsin HC Gary Andersen to inquire about Utah State (2017 SU 6-7; ATS 6-7; O/U 8-4-1) HC Matt Wells, a former Andersen aide in Logan who had taken his first two Utag teams to bowl wins. Beaver inquiries, however, apparently never reached Wells, as Andersen decided that he was interested in the Corvallis opening and soon took the OSU job instead. (Anderson would leave prematurely from the Beavers last season, but we’ll delve into that a bit further when we get to our Pac-12 previews).
Fast forward to 2018, and Wells is still at Utah State, and still waiting for another call from a Pac-12 entry. Wells’ star has fallen a bit the past few years, as the Ags haven’t finished above .500 the past three campaigns. No one considers him on the hot seat, however, as Wells did steer USU back to a bowl last December (though not memorable, a bitter OT loss to aroused New Mexico State) and has only missed the postseason once in five seasons at Logan.
Many MW observers are convinced that Wells is sitting on his best USU team since the 2014 version finished 10-4 and whipped UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl. A slew of starters (16 overall, including 9 on offense) are back in the fold. That would include soph QB Jordan Love, who looked electric at times in his six starts as a RS frosh last fall. The big play is part of the arsenal for Love, who passed for 353 more yards despite completing only 5 more passes than the QB for the first half of last season, sr. Kent Myers. All-name sr. wideout Ron’quavion Tarver (48 catches last season) is already established as a dangerous downfield threat and will benefit from a full spring with Love at QB. A new feature RB must be uncovered after LaJuan Hunt’s graduation, but touted juco Darwin Thompson and former WR Gerold Bright (who moved to RB late last season) should ably handle the overland chores as they run behind a vet OL returning all five starters.
The Utag “D” made upgrades last fall and returns 7 starters, though d.c. Kendrick Shaver has moved to Washington State. Veteran Keith Patterson comes over from Arizona State to share duties with holdover Frank Maile, and will oversee one of the top pass defenses in the MW and one that ranked 19th nationally a year ago. The Utags lost a pair of All-MW DBs, but RS frosh Andre Grayson wowed ‘em in spring and likely steps into a CB spot opposite returnee Camerion Haney. Touted juco DJ Willaims could also get invovled in the CB mix. Former TCU LB Tipa Galeai arrives as a transfer and potential big-play contributor after recording 5.5 tackles for loss as a Horned Frog in 2016.
As a year ago, the Ags open their schedule on a Friday night in Big Ten territory (last year Wisconsin, this year Michigan State), but we’ll probably get a better idea of where USU stands when it faces New Mexico State in an Arizona Bowl rematch the following week. The MW schedule is tricky, with trips to Mountain contenders Wyoming, Colorado State, and Boise State, but the Utags miss the expected heavyweights from the West half of the loop, Fresno State and San Diego State. Expect another bowl trip, with the hope that Love stays healthy and progresses enough for the Nov. 24 game on the blue carpet at Boise to be the decider for the the top spot in the Mountain half of the loop.
Spread-wise, Wells was able to stop the bleeding last season when USU entered the campaign having dropped 14 of its previous 17 vs. the number; the Utags were 6-7 vs. the line last term, not great but also not the extended spread slump that began midway in the 2015 campaign. A negative spread trend endured thru 2017, however, as the Utags have now dropped 7 in a row vs. the line against non-conference foes away from Logan.
While we have all the respect in the world for HC Craig Bohl, we have to wonder how Wyoming (2017 SU 8-5; ATS 8-5; O/U 2-10-1) is going to fare minus QB Josh Allen, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills. We know some of the responses; even with Allen in the fold for most of last year, Wyo finished in triple digits nationally in almost every relevant statistical category, including passing (104th). But without Allen late last season, the Cowboys put only 7 points on the board in a home loss to Fresno State before truly embarrassing themselves when losing at woeful San Jose State. Allen returned for a Potato Bowl romp past Central Michigan..but don’t cite the team stats and try to tell us Allen’s presence wasn’t meaningful.
The fact is that it was quite a feat for Allen to look good and gain the attention of the NFL running a horse-and-buggy offense more designed for Jerry Tagge and 1970 Nebraska by Husker alum Bohl, who earlier in his decorated career at North Dakota State wooed a QB named Carson Wentz (who didn’t start for the Bison during the Bohl reign). Bohl’s credentials as a coach, however, are not based upon explosive offenses, rather a commitment to fundamentals, running the football, defense, and limiting mistakes. In all of those areas, Bohl’s teams usually excel.
Last season, that was especially true of a defense that forced an eye-opening 38 giveaways en route to a staggering +24 turnover margin, a clear number one in the nation. That the Cowboys didn’t win more than eight games with that sort of advantage in such an all-important category might be an indictment of the Bohl offense, but we digress. The “D” ranked 9th nationally last year in scoring (17.5 ppg) and returns eight starters for coordinator Scottie Hazelton, who knew the MW from an earlier stint at Nevada. Two first-team All-MW performers (DE Carl Granderson and DT Youhanna Ghaifan) are back to anchor the DL, while the safety due of seniors Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps combined for nine picks in 2017 and might be one of the MW’s, if not the nation’s, best. No worries, then, about the Wyo defense.
It’s offense where we have some legit post-Allen concerns. Senior QB Nick Smith has a handful of starts in his career, but also the stain of piloting that inexcusable loss at San Jose late last November. He’ll have to fend off RS frosh Tyler Vander Waal, who looks a better long-term option. All of the top receivers return, though it is hoped that top deep threat jr. CJ Johnson (17.7 yards per catch in 2017) has recovered from a knee injury in the bowl win in time for the opener at New Mexico State. More pop is needed from soph RB Trey Woods, the leading returning rusher who barely gained 3.5 ypc a season ago. The entirety of the OL returns in tact, but won’t be blocking for an NFL first-round QB draftee (Allen) as a year ago.
Last year, Wyo (with Allen) was outscored a combined 73-16 by Power 5 foes Iowa and Oregon, so there is reason to fret about back-to-back September tests vs. Mike Leach’s Washington State (at Laramie) and a trip to Missouri to face QB Drew Lock, a possible first-round NFL draft pick next April. Bohl will be hoping his QB situation has settled somewhat in time for the MW opener at War Memorial Stadium vs. Mountain favorite Boise State on September 29.
Spread-wise, Bohl has made a bit of a fortress out of Laramie, standing 11-3-1 vs. the line his last 15 as host. And the Cowboys did run off a 7-game spread win streak last fall in games started by Allen until the late-season Fresno loss. “Totals”-wise, note that Wyo also enters 2018 on a 12-2-1 “under” run.
We’ve seen Air Force (2017 SU 5-7; ATS 5-7; O/U 8-4) look as if it was about to drop off of the map before. Most recently, after the 2013 season, in which an injury-ravaged Falcon team dipped to a woeful 2-10. But underestimate the Force, and HC Troy Calhoun, at your own risk; Calhoun rallied the subsequent 2014 team to a surprising ten wins. Which reminded a bit of his initial Falcon team back in 2007 that finished a surprising 9-4 on the heels of a 4-8 mark in Fisher DeBerry’s final season. Indeed, last year’s 5-7 was only the second sub-.500 mark in Calhoun’s 11 years as HC at the foot of Pike’s Peak. And the program has not endured back-to-back losing campaigns since the end of the DeBerry era.
For those reasons, this looks like a potential “Calhoun special” in 2018 at Falcon Stadium. Expectations are tempered. Army and Navy have better cases to make for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. And Air Force is truly flying under the radar.
Just as Calhoun likes it.
Granted, there are various issues, especially on an offense that returns only four starters and will have a mostly-new OL (though such turnover along the forward wall is not uncommon for a Service Academy team). Tim McVey, one of the most-versatile tailbacks in recent Air Force memory, is one of those who graduated. More consistency is needed from now-sr. QB Arion Worthman, one of the most physically-gifted Force QBs of the option era that began way back in the Kenny Hatfield regime of the early ‘80s. Worthman at times appeared a one-man team last season, though Calhoun option-based offenses rarely function at their bext when the QB does too much; Worthman called his own number too often a year ago, as his whopping 22 carries pg were a Falcon high for QBs in the Calhoun era (no other Calhoun QB avergaed more than 14 carries). Though the pass is still an occasional diversion for the Force, Worthman was too erratic in his limited aerial sorties, too, completing barely 49%. Now-jr. Isaiah Sanders ran the offense as efficiently late in the season after a Worthman injury and threatens to take snaps if Worthman sags. Still, another top-ten rushing attack (ranked 4th a year ago) should hum as usual even with rebuilding up front and new featured backs needing to be identified. But jr. Joseph Saucier looked a dangerous lead back in spring, and sr. WR Reggie Cleveland has flashed big-play potential. We’re trusting Calhoun here to field another quirky attack that will keep foes off balance.
The offense, however, isn’t a much of a concern as the defense that proceeds without longtime coordinator Steve Russ, adept at squeezing the most out of his troops but promoted to the NFL ranks on Ron Rivera’s Carolina Panthers staff. Even Russ, however, couldn’t plug the leaks up front a year ago as the Falcs allowed a ghastly 6 ypc, the nation’s worst mark. It is hoped that soph DE Jordan Jackson, who looked dominant in spring, can become the sort of playmaker to lead the platoon. Junior NT Mosese Fifita is the rare Air Fiorce 300-pounder. The Falcs did finish 10th nationally vs. the pass a year ago, but that might have been more a byproduct of foes choosing instead to run at will vs. the soft AFA defensive front. Senior Kyle Flood is an important cog from the hybrid “stud” position, but the best Falcon defenses in recent memory has excelled at forcing turnovers; last year’s stop unit didn’t, contributing to a -10 TO margin, ranking a poor 120th.
With Army now on the ascent, and Navy still feisty, the schedule has one more speed bump than in most recent years. An early-season trip to Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic might prove a better indicator if the Falcs are up for a rebound year and an eventual return to a bowl, which would be Calhoun’s 10th in 12 seasons. We wouldn't bet against it.
Spread-wise, 2017 was also subpar (just 5-7), but Calhoun continued to be worth a look in the underdog role, covering 3 of 5, improving his mark getting points to 13-6 since 2014. The Force didn’t continue its recent mastery of Boise State a year ago, but had covered five in a row vs. the Broncos into 2017. There is no explanation, however, for the mastery Bob Davie’s New Mexico (won last five SU, covered last six) has held over Calhoun’s Falcs.
There was a time last season when Colorado State (2017 SU 7-6; ATS 4-9; O/U 7-6) was wondering how long it might be able to hang onto HC Mike Bobo, who was in the process of leading the Rams to their best season on his 3-year watch. There were heady times in Fort Collins in mid-October, with the excitement of a new on-campus stadium and a 6-2 record, with the only losses against Power 5 Colorado and Alabama (the latter a more-than-respectable 41-23 loss in Tuscaloosa). Late in the season, however, the Rams had the look of fading horse in the stretch drive at Santa Anita, dropping four of their last five, including a couple of numbing home losses to Air Force and Boise State (the latter in OT after blowing a big lead). CSU backers at Nevada sports books also took the brunt as the Rams dropped their last 7 vs. the number, including numerous breakdowns in a New Mexico Bowl loss vs. Marshall.
Those CSU fans looking for a silver lining, however, might note that Bobo, a former Georgia QB and alum and as southern as a Waffle House, was no longer on the in-demand list, especially in his native SEC, which had six coaching openings after last season. And while Bobo stays in Fort Collins, there are questions if last season’s late fade was just a temporary blip on the radar or an indicator of more problems to come.
There is much replenishment to do on an offense that lost one of the program’s all-time QBs, Nick Stevens, who left as CSU’s career TD pass leader (70). Moreover, star WR Michael Gallup moved to the NFL as a draftee of the Dallas Cowboys. Overall, only four starters return, and the QB job now appears in the hands of Washington grad transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels after soph Collin Hill, who redshirted a year ago after making a brief appearance as a starter in 2016, suffered his second ACL tear in 17 months just before spring practice. Another transfer, ex-Tennessee WR Preston Williams, will be counted upon to pick up some of the slack left by Gallup’s departure. There is some experience at the RB spots, and sr. Izzy Matthews is a punishing 220-pounder who has racked up almost 2000 career rush yards. The transfer theme also includes sr. LT TJ Roundtree, over from Louisville. But much pressure rests upon Carta-Samuels, whose mobility will be worked into the new schemes, but whose durability will be crucial as there is no experience behind him as long as Hill remains sidelined, perhaps until midseason, if he is available at all.
More adjustments are due for a defense that faded as last year progressed and has enlisted a new coordinator, John Jancek, after the retirement of Marty English (who, interestingly, must have gotten tired of fishing and golf as he un-retired a few months later, resurfacing at Northern Colorado). Jancek, formerly at Tennessee, will alter the alignments from the 3-4 preferred by English to a standard 4-3. He inherits some playmakers, including sr. MLB Josh Watson, one of the MW’s best, and an all-upperclass 2ndary anchored by FS Jordan Fogal, a former Utah transfer. Rice grad transfer V.J. Banks is likely to step in at a CB spot.
Bobo’s potential problems do not end with the many personnel changes that come with losing 13 starters. The schedule is by far the MW’s toughest, with a pair of SEC foes (Arkansas, making a rare trek to the Mountain Ttime Zone, and Florida) in back-to-back September weeks, right after facing Pac-12 Colorado in the annual in-state grudge match at Denver. That battle vs. the nearby Buffs comes on August 31, just six days after an early home opener vs. Hawaii, making CSU the only team we recall with two games in August!
Spread-wise, we mention again the seven straight spread losses Bobo endured down the stretch last season. All a sharp departure from 2016 when the Rams sported a sparkling 9-3-1 spread mark. The shiny new CSU Stadium also did not prove the pointspread fortress as did old Hughes Stadium in the foothills; after recording a 20-9-1 mark vs. line the last five seasons at Hughes, CSU was just 2-5 vs. the number at home a season ago.
After the program appeared to finally get back on course a few years ago, there looks to be a dust storm forming at New Mexico (2017 SU 3-9; ATS 4-8; O/U 3-9) in the wake of last fall’s about-face. It’s more ominous, however, than the fact the Lobos didn’t win after Columbus Day; the architect of an apparent revival in Albuquerque, HC Bob Davie, found himself ensnared in controversy late last season and would end up suspended from his job for 30 days in January due to reported administrative interference in reports of abusive behavior by UNM football players. Coaches have been known to recover from such self-inflicted wounds, but it becomes a much more complicated when the team is losing. As the Lobos did often last season.
All of which has some Mountain West observers justifiably puzzled, as Davie looked to have done a remarkable reclamation job at University Stadium after inheriting a carcass of a program from the disastrous regime of predecessor Mike Locksley (who was dismissed before the 2011 campaign hit the halfway mark). UNM was just 3-33 from 2009-11. Enter Davie, who had such an itch to coach again that he left a cushy job as an ESPN analyst to tackle what looked like a dead-end assignment. After acknowledging acute defensive shortcomings, Davie installed the Pistol offense in hopes of developing a ball-control infantry that could keep the suspect “D” off of the field. It worked enough to get the Lobos competitive from the outset and into the hometown New Mexico Bowl for the 2015 & ‘16 seasons, and prompted many to believe that it would be the perfect time for Davie to exit, stage left, his and the program’s reputations sufficiently healed. Not the worst final chapter for a long career. But Davie stuck around, and then came 3-9, as things went a bit more than pear-shaped a year ago.
Prospects appear a bit troubling for this coming fall as well. The Pistol look on attack that produced some the nation’s best rush numbers as recently as 2016 has been replaced by a spread option now coordinated by Calvin Magee, formerly on the Rich Rodriguez staff at Arizona and successor to Bob DeBesse, who moved to Georgia Southern in a similar role. Soph QB Tevaka Tuioto, who got a good look last season filling in for the oft-injured Lamar Jordan, will get the first look in the pilot’s chair, though juco Sheriron Jones, a former Tennessee recruit, could emerge as another option. Passing stats, which have been in the Army/Navy range in recent seasons and ranking 123rd nationally a year ago, figure to improve, with previously overlooked receiving targets like soph Jay Griffin V (29 catches LY) now likely to be featured. Junior Elijah Lilly, a returner threat with two career KR TDs, and a former DB, has been moved to offense and could emerge as a deep threat wideout. Senior RB Tyrone Owens (770 YR LY) is not likely to be featured as prominently in the new-look offense, and will be running behind a line with four new starters. Another touted juco, RB Ahmari Davis, should steal some carries from Owens.
Davie’s defenses have improved from the roadkill versions of his first years on the job, with longtime d.c. Kevin Cosgrove proving adept at mixing and matching different looks and coverages out of his 3-3-5 alignments to compensate for a general lack of playmakers and depth. But the pass “D” suffered a year ago, partly because of a lack of consistent pressure on opposing QBs. Six starters return, including both CBs (srs. D’Angelo Ross & Jalin Burrell), but as usual, the Lobos will be only hoping to contain, not stonewall, most of their opponents.
Various regional observers believe Davie needs a good start to keep the vultures from circling before midseason, and a manageable non-league slate (save for a Sept. 8 trip to Wisconsin) could help. Already, many Lobo fans believe the MW opener at UNLV on October 6 might be the most-important game of the Davie era; a loss at Sam Boyd Stadium could start another 2017-like tailspin, one that Davie and staff might not survive. Stay tuned.
Spread-wise, Davie has been formful in a few roles, especially as chalk, was has been a no-go zone lately for the Lobos (they’re 2-11 their last 13 laying points, including 0-5 a year ago). Curiously, the one MW foe that Davie has owned has been Air Force, covering all six since 2012 vs. the Falcons. Davie, however, is 0-6 SU and 1-5 vs. the line against Colorado State.