Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:57 AM
Mountain West Outlook
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Mountain West Conference - West Division
In reconstruction terms, he’s college football’s answer to Ulysses S. Grant. We’re talking about Jeff Tedford, who has authored one of the most-startling turnarounds in memory at Fresno State (2018 SU 12-2; ATS 10-4; O/U 4-10), which, if you recall, was coming off of a train-wreck of a 1-11 campaign in 2016 (one in which HC Tim DeRuyter was cast aside mid-stream) when Tedford inherited the job at his alma mater. Two seasons, 22 wins, and a pair of bowl triumphs later, Tedford and the Bulldogs are at the top of the Mountain West pyramid after their dramatic conference title game win on Boise’s snowy blue carpet last December, and subsequent triumph past Pac-12 Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
This is one of those matches-made-in-heaven scenarios, with FSU as the beneficiary. Success like Tedford’s the past two seasons at a Mountain West outpost would likely prompt havey interest from suitors further up the college football food chain. Tedford, however, has been through the meatgrinder of the “big time” at Cal, where he was eventually dismissed after more than a decade of service. Tedford, a onetime QB for Jim Sweeney’s Bulldog teams in the early ‘80s, apparently has no desire to make another career move; most regional observers believe Tedford is content to ride the Fresno job into retirement. Best of all for the Bulldogs, however, is that Tedford (who turns 58 in November) isn’t that old, and is likely to stay in the Central Valley for many years. It seems a win-win for everyone at Fresno.
It is fair to ask, however, what Tedford might be able to do for an encore in 2019. And there are a few doubters who recall that Tedford’s Cal star burned brightest in his early years on the job (when he had a pair of first-round NFL draftees at QB, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers) before the glow began to fade. Might those handful of naysayers have some grist for their mill this fall?
Possibly. Tedford inherited a mostly-veteran roster that had underachieved badly at the end of the DeRuyter regime, and the change of staff plus augmenting the offense with Oregon State transfer QB Marcus McMaryion proved a potent mix. McMaryion (25 TDP and just 5 picks LY, plus nearly 69% completions), however, has graduated, and of the possible successors, only RS jr. Jorge Reyna, who threw 12 passes in mop-up duty a year ago, has taken a college snap. Indeed, there’s a near-complete overhaul on the offensive side where just two starters return. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer moved, too (to Indiana), with Ryan Grubb promoted from OL coach to the o.c. chair. Among others who have moved on was star WR KeeSean Johnson, who exited FSU as the Bulldogs’ all-time leader in catches and receiving yards before being taken by the Cardinals in the April NFL Draft. There is some experience in the backfield, where slashers Ronnie Rivers (743 YR in 2018) and Jesse Mims (436 YR LY) rotated to good effect a year ago. Tight end Jared Rice, perhaps the MW’s best, also returns after catching 55 passes last term. Up front, the return of LT Netane Muti from last year’s Achilles tear adds more experience to the forward wall and bookends the OL with another returning starter, RT Sylvan Tuitele. But, Tedford’s sage tutelage or not, reaching 35 ppg as a year ago would seem to be a challenge.
What really marked the return to prominence for the Bulldogs the past two years was the emergence of the defense, which once again ranked among the nation’s turnover leaders (keying a 9th rank in TO margin) and allowed only 14.1 ppg, ranking third nationally. Graduation losses were less severe on the stop end, as six starters return, though early departures to the NFL of LB Jeffrey Allison and FS Mike Bell have nonetheless thinned the ranks a bit. D.c. Bert Watts, however, adequately filled the gaps up front a year ago after graduation wiped out the 2017 DL, and continued to mix and match in spring when moving All-MW DE Mykal Walker to MLB, where he is expected to flourish. DB Arron Mosley has also been switched to an OLB spot. A couple of veteran ballhawks in the secondary, including SS Juju Hughes (4 picks LY), also return. The schemes and speed of the platoon figure to keep the Bulldogs robust on the stop end.
Schedule-wise, it probably would have been better to draw Pac-12 USC in last year’s opener, rather than this upcoming August 31. As would a revenge situation in the second game vs. Big Ten Minnesota, which was beyond fortunate to nip the ‘Dawgs in Minneapolis last September. But by the time conference play begins Sept. 28 vs. Air Force, Fresno should have worked out most of its kinks. And if Reyna or one of the QBs proves serviceable, Tedford’s Bulldogs remain the team to beat in the West.
Spread-wise, note that Tedford has been nothing short of magical as well, as FSU is 20-6-2 vs. the line the past two seasons. Most notably, Tedford is 10-2-2 vs. the line away from Bulldog Stadium the past two years. Those numbers, however, might be hard to replicate with a less-experienced roster. And, once again, note that Tedford’s Fresno has been mostly following the blueprint of his Cal teams, which also were pointspread phenoms his first few years in Berkeley. It wasn’t until Tedford’s fourth and fifth seasons with the Golden Bears that spread fortunes began to level.
What’s this? Rocky Long’s San Diego State (2018 SU 7-6; ATS 3-10; O/U 4-9) is switching to the spread? What next, California voting straight GOP in 2020? Old-fashioned as Long might be, however, even he had to realize that something had to change after the Aztecs collapsed down the stretch last season, losing four straight (the worst slump of Long’s Aztec career) to close the season, including shock home losses to 23-point dog UNLV and 18-point dog Hawaii, capped by an ugly 27-0 battering by Frank Solich’s Ohio in the Frisco Bowl. When the dust cleared, SDSU barely scored 20 ppg, ranking 120th nationally. Even Rocky reckoned a change was in order.
Now, don’t expect the Aztecs to evolve into Texas Tech, as the run game will still be integral to the offense, even if the QB will be lining up in the backfield instead of directly behind center. Thus, the featured performers likely remain the RBs, and jitterbug Juwan Washington (999 YR in 2018) should still be a focal point. But the Aztecs are planning to use more of the field and make it a bit easier for sr. QB Ryan Agnew (just 51% completions and 10 TDP in his eight starts last season) to locate his targets. Expect jr. WR Tim Wilson (19 catches LY, but out in spring with foot problems) and fellow wideout soph Ethan Dedeaux (22 catches in 2018) to get more work this fall. Three starters return on the OL led by All-MW C Keith Ismael, though the holes were not as big for the RBs to ramble through a year ago (which might have been a byproduct of the stodgy offensive design). If vet o.c. Jeff Horton can get Agnew comfy enough in the new looks, the offense should at least not be a hindrance like it became a year ago.
The calling card for Rocky’s teams has usually been on defense with his pet 3-3-5 alignments that date to his years as HC at New Mexico, where Brian Urlacher was once a featured performer. The stop unit has continued to more than hold its own and ranked 21st overall a year ago, so plugging some of the annual gaps caused by graduation should not be a huge concern. There is, however, some curiosity along a rebuilt DL that Rocky has fortified with juco transfers, including rugged DT Jonah Tavai. Featured performers include MLB Kyahva Tezino (All-MW a year ago with 127 tackles and 8.5 sacks) and playmaking FS Tariq Thompson, who has recorded seven picks and three fumble recoveries the past two seasons. They’re among six returning starters on what should be another gnarly platoon. Rocky’s D usually keeps the Aztecs in games; only Stanford scored more than 30 points (31) in regulation time a year ago, and offensive mistakes helped the Cardinal on the scoreboard. If SDSU undershoots, it likely won’t be the fault of the defense.
Another note of some interest to Aztec backers is the future venue, which became a hot topic once the Chargers decided to abandon Qualcomm (now SDCCU) Stadium after the 2016 season. SDCCU’s days are numbered, but the replacement plan is now in motion with a new 35,000-seat stadium okayed via ballot measure for the Mission Valley site which will also house an extension of the cramped SDSU campus a few miles away. The target date for the stadium might be 2023 at the earliest, and for now SDCCU will continue to host Aztec games for 2019 and likely 2020 before being demolished. A temporary move to the MLB Padres’ Petco Park will probably be the answer to bridge that gap, which SDSU hopes will last no more than two years. Stay tuned for further developments.
The schedule is manageable enough, with no cross-country trips further than Las Cruces to face downtrodden New Mexico State, and UCLA (at Pasadena on Sept. 7) the only “Power Five” foe. A once-spirited rivalry vs. BYU from the old WAC and early Mountain West days renews on November 30 at SDCCU. Long and his new offense also miss Boise on the 2019 slate and get West favorite Fresno State at SDCCU. If the spread works, perhaps Rocky gets SDSU back to the top of the West, but even falling short in that quest, the ninth straight bowl on Rocky’s watch looks a good bet.
Spread fortunes also waned a year ago for the first time in Long’s HC tenure that began in 2011, as SDSU dropped 7 of its last 8 vs. the line. Eye-opening have been recent failures as home chalk, reflected in a poor 2-12 mark laying points at SDCCU since late in the 2016 campaign.
Talk about breaking in like gangbusters! That’s what it was like the first month of last season for Hawaii (2018 SU 8-6; ATS 5-8-1; O/U 8-6) and QB Cole McDonald, who was on a David Klingler/Andrew Ware type of pace thru September, sitting on a whopping 24 TD passes before the calendar hit October 1, as UH was in the midst of a breathless 6-1 break from the gate. McDonald would then miss a bit of time with injuries (including internal breeding) and could not sustain that sort of pace upon his return but still ended up on 36 TDP and confirmed that HC Nick Rolovich had successfully re-implemented the Red Gun offense from his days as a QB for June Jones at Aloha Stadium. Inheriting a mess from predecessor Norm Chow, Rolovich took a couple of years before being able to embrace the old Jones offense last fall. Despite slowing down in the second half of the season, in the end Rolovich got the Rainbow Warriors to their second bowl in three years on his watch and first winning record for the school since the Greg McMackin era (2010). About all that was missing was the cultured descriptions from retired play-by-play man Jim Leahey (whose son Kanoa is now featured on many telecasts); it was the elder Leahey who described a 56-14 win over BYU in 1989 as“better than statehood!” (No wonder we miss him!)
Believe it or not, there is some question whether McDonald will take as many snaps this fall, as the presence of island product and touted RS frosh Chevan Cordeiro, who hails from the same high school (St. Louis) that produced Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagalaivoa, and who came off the bench to beat Wyoming with three TD passes in the 4th Q last October 6, has created a bit of a QB derby. McDonald likely remains the man but Cordeiro provides Rolovich with a change-of-pace option and quality depth. The QBs could miss game-breaking WR John Ursua, though srs. Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward combined for 130 catches and 18 TDs a year ago. Overall, eight starters return on the attack side, including almost all of the OL, though Rolovich would like to see more production from the infantry as it mostly did in the Jones Red Gun era with varieties of downhill runners. A 250-lb. sledgehammer, Dayton Furuta, reminds of the pile-driving Polynesian West Keliikipi from the Jones era, with slashing Fred Holly III (468 YR LY) another alternative.
There should be some improvement in a stop unit that could use an upgrade after allowing more than 35 ppg (ranking 109th) a year ago). But nine starters are back in the fold, including the top three tacklers (LBs Solomon Matauita and Penei Pavihi, and S Ikem Okeke), plus the return of a former starter, LB Jeremiah Pritchard, off of a redshirt year. Another to watch up front is DE Kaimana Pedello, who had 13.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Yet the platoon could be more opportunistic after forcing just 12 giveaways a season ago, contributing to a lowly 114th ranking in TO margin. On the plus side, d.c Corey Batoon returns for a second season, part of a very positive development for Rolovich who has kept his staff in tact for the first time in his four years on the job. High costs of living in Honolulu are an obstacle for Hawaii assistants, so Rolovich was especially pleased he didn’t have to recruit any new coaches after 2018.
Schedule-wise it looks as if Hawaii is petitioning the Pac-12 for membership with Arizona, Oregon State, and Washington in a row out of the chute (the first two of those at Aloha Stadium). Rolovich would like to get at least one win out of that stretch, and will also be tested early in MW play with back-to-back road games at Nevada and Boise to open the league slate. Visits from Fresno State, San Diego State, and rugged Army to conclude the regular season constitute the sort of slate the could keep Hawaii from bowl eligibility, though a spot likely awaits in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl if the Rainbows can get to six wins (UH plays 13 reg.-season games but was able to petition successfully to play in the hometown bowl in 2016 when Rolovich’s first team was only 6-7).
Spread-wise, the most glaring development has been performance as chalk; Rolovich has failed to cover as spread in nine straight games laying points to FBS opposition, with the only cover as a favorite the past two seasons as a favorite coming against FCS Wes!ern Carolina!
It’s easy to be a fan of Jay Norvell, a career assistant who finally got his first HC opportunity a couple of years ago at Nevada (2018 SU 8-5; ATS 7-6; O/U 5-8). With career stops at a variety of high-profile locales (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, UCLA, Arizona State, plus the NFL Raiders), Norvell was 52 when he worked his first game as a head coach. Well-liked in the ranks, there were plenty of smiles when Norvell’s Wolf Pack turned the corner a year ago, uncorking a four-game win streak down the stretch to secure bowl eligibility. The happy ending came in the Arizona Bowl when Nevada rallied late to force OT and eventually won 16-13 over Arkansas State in Tucson.
Getting back to a bowl might be a bit of challenge this fall, however, with a couple of tough non-conference dates right off of the bat (more on those in a moment) and some not-so-subtle rebuilding needed on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The offense, in particular, might have trouble matching the 31.1 ppg it scored a year ago behind functional sr. QB Ty Gangi; none of the potential replacements really stood out in spring, though most expect holdover sr. Cristian Solano, who had limited work behind Gangi last fall, to take snaps in the opener vs. Purdue. Redshirt frosh Carson Strong and his big arm, and former FSU Seminole and juco Malik Henry (known for his role in TV’s ”Last Chance U”) will push for snaps in fall camp. If one can emerge, Norvell’s version of the Air Raid could flourish, especially with the diversion of punishing soph RB Toa Taua (872 YR LY). The attack for Norvell and o.c. Matt Mumme (son of spread guru Hal Mumme) mostly features a bevy of capable receivers, led by sr. Keith Fossum (734 receiving yards last season). A possible breakout performer could be soph Cole Turner. Only two starters return on the OL, though they’re the bookend tackles (Jake Nelson and Nate Brown), and sr. PK Spencer Pruitt has plenty of experience.
The key to getting back to bowl eligibility lest year, however, might have been an improved defense that adapted to vet coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 "stack" looks. Only two of the top seven tacklers return from 2018, but CB E.J. Muhammad, who missed much of 2018 with shoulder problems, is back in the fold. There is experience at the LB spots with srs. Gabriel Sewell and Lucas Weber, while sr. Daniel Brown emerged as one of the top cover CBs in the Mountain West last fall. If there is real concern, it’s at the safety spots where limited experience is in the fold, though Norvell and Casteel believe that converted offensive performers ex-WR Daiyan Henry and ex-QB Kaymen Cureton can make the adjustment and contribute in the secondary.
Oh yes, that schedule. Norvell’s Nevada will be a solid underdog in the opening pair of games vs. aforementioned Purdue, and Oregon, though the Boilermakers will be making the odd trip to Reno (their first-ever visit to a MW venue) in the opener. The MW schedule also cycles a bit tougher in the odd-numbered years when the Pack has to play at San Diego State and Fresno State in the West, with back-to-back trips to Boise and Wyoming at midseason. Norvell will be doing very well to get Nevada back to last year’s 8 wins and another bowl game, with much to be determined by how soon the QB situation sorts itself out.
Spread-wise, Norvell has made a bit of a fortress out of Mackay Stadium for the first time since the Chris Ault era; the Pack enters 2019 having covered 8 of its last 10 at Reno, the ignominy of a 30-28 loss to 30-point Big Sky underdog Idaho State in Norvell’s first year on the job now a distant memory.
There are dwindling excuses for the ongoing indifferent form of UNLV (2018 SU 4-8; ATS 6-6; O/U 7-5) and the incremental progress it has made in the tenure of HC Tony Sanchez, who enters his fifth year on the job this fall. Long-standing excuses of subpar facilities and stadium have been or are being addressed; a new, state-of-the-art football complex is now a reality and full completion coming soon, while a move into the NFL Raiders’ new stadium next year removes the default excuse of far-flung Sam Boyd Stadium as an albatross. What it has also done is ramp up the pressure on Sanchez, who after seeing his Rebs increase from 3 to 4 to 5 wins in his first three years on the job, saw UNLV regress to 4 wins a year ago. When you’re still under .500, that’s the wrong way to be trending.
And, make no mistake, Sanchez is feeling real pressure from AD Desiree Reid-Francois, who belies her fashion-model appearance with a hard-nosed edge and not-so-veiled threat to Sanchez to get the Rebs bowl-eligible this season, or else. Many believe Desiree would have pulled the plug on Sanchez after last season except for the deep-pocketed Fertitta clan, boosters more known for owning the profitable Stations Casinos and formerly the UFC enterprise, which netted the clan several billion (that’s with a “b”) when sold a few years ago. Sanchez, who moved to UNLV directly from local high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman, has been preferred by the Fertittas, and Desiree was not about to dismiss their hand-picked coach before the new football facility, bearing their name, was complete. But with the facility due for completion soon, not even the Fertitta support could likely save Sanchez from another losing record.
To that end, Sanchez and every Rebs backer will be crossing their figures that potential program-transformational QB Armani Rigers can stay healthy this fall. The 6-5, 225-pound Rogers has missed significant slugs of each of the last two seasons, with a toe injury last fall really undermining any hopes the Rebs had of making a bowl. A redshirt junior, Rogers is back this fall, and it is not lost on Reb supporters that this might be the last go in Vegas for Armani, who could be a grad transfer candidate somewhere else in 2020, especially if Sanchez departs. Rogers has been a running threat extraordinaire, gaining 1345 yards on the ground with 16 rush TDs despite missing eight games across the past two seasons. His passing accuracy, however, has gotten progressively worse, as his 44.4% completion mark a year ago would suggest. The aerial show for the Rebs took another hit when 2018's top receiver, Brandon Pressley (35 catches LY), went down with a torn ACL in spring.
Vet o.c. Barney Cotton has fashioned a smashmouth offense that has ranked in the top 20 in rushing each of the past two years, and a healthy Rogers should keep things humming, even with hoemrun RB Lexington Thomas (1067 YR LY) having graduated. Cal transfer Biaggio Ali Walsh, grandson of Muhammad and a local Bishop Gorman product, will likely get carries alongside Charles Williams (332 YR LY), who ran with some flair while spelling Thomas a year ago. A vet OL, featuring nine players with starting experience, should be one of the MW’s best.But can Rogers do his part and compelte better than 50% of his passes? And can he stay healthy? (Backup QB Max Gilliam, who played roughly half of last season in place of Rogers, remains in the fold.)
Another ongoing concern for Sanchez, and one that haunted predecessors Bobby Hauck, Mike Sanford, and the end of the long-ago John Robinson era, remains on defense; UNLV ranked last in points allowed in the MW and a poor 120tjh nationally at 37.8 ppg. A chronic problem has been allowance of big plays, especially an oft-burned secondary that conceded a whopping 29 TD passes and almost 270 yards pg a year ago. Beleaguered d.c. Tim Skipper authored some position switches in spring; Gabe McCoy, one of the few bright spots on the stop unit a year ago when recording 13.5 tackles for loss, has moved from an OLB to a DE spot. The other DE, Nick Dehdashtian, returns after missing all of 2018 due to the dreaded Lisfranc fracture in his foot. Among the nine-player juco haul Sanchez made in the offseason are five defenders who figure to at least improve depth, and, in the cases of LB Vic Viramontes and DE Tavai Tuitasi, get significant playing time off of the bat.
UNLV usually takes a few swings at the big boys in non-conference play and will trek to Northwestern and Vanderbilt in its adventures vs. Power 5 foes this season. After covering numbers at Michigan, UCLA, Ohio State, and USC on the watch of Sanchez, don’t dismiss the Rebs as an underdog in those spots. Boise State, San Diego State, and Fresno State all visit Sam Boyd, but the slate is no picnic. Given the injury history of Rogers, and Sanchez yet to make a breakthrough, odds are the Rebs miss a bowl again and get pushed off of page one of the sports section of the LV Review-Journal by the time the NHL Golden Knights begin their season in early October. That would hardly be the way to enter a new era in their shiny new home stadium next year, when Pac-12 Cal (in the opener) and Arizona State will be among those paying a visit. Sanchez certainly knows what must be done for him to still be in the pilot's seat come the move to the fancy new digs.
Spread-wise, Sanchez has made one positive mark as a road dog, a role in which the Rebs failed considerably in the Hauck era; under Sanchez, UNLV is 14-7 getting points away. Though the Rebs are only 6-10 vs. the line at Sam Boyd since 2016.
This is not trending the right way for San Jose State (2018 SU 1-11; ATS 8-4; O/U 6-6) and especially 3rd-year HC Brent Brennan. Since 2015, the Spartans have dipped from 6 to 4 to 2 to 1 win in successive seasons. Not good, especially for Brennan, who has been at the helm for the last two of those years, and was a surprise hire of the Oregon State staff after 2016. Brennan’s candidacy was based mainly upon the fact he had coached at SJSU in the past and thus knew of the tightrope the program always walks to stay competitive, but thus far all the Spartans have done on his watch is regress. Even at San Jose, there are some standards, and needless to say that Brennan could fall into the soup with another 1-or-2 win season. (Though there was some encouraging news last fall...more on that in a minute).
Having said all of that, there were a few positive developments last season, and Mountain West sources say some possible further upgrades were on display in the spring, when the speed element seemed better on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with more big-play potential. Given where SJSU sits in the FBS food chain, any improvement would be noticeable, especially on offense after scoring just 21 ppg (ranking 117th) a year ago and sitting dead last, by a wide margin, in national rushing at a puny 61 ypg, with only four runs all season of more than 20 yards! Sheesh!
Nonetheless, the Spartans scored an even 50 in their win over UNLV and showed some spark on occasions when now-fifth-year sr. pocket-passer QB Josh Love was healthy. He wasn’t for all of the season and only played in 8 games, sacked 18 times in the process, but he did pass for 14 TDs and for more than 330 yards twice. He could miss TE Josh Oliver (drafted by the NFL Jags after caching 58 passes a year ago) but big-play wideouts Tre Walker (18.3 yards per catch LY) and Bailey Gaither (20.4 yp catch in 2018) return as legit downfield threats. Tyler Nevens (554 YR LY) is back after providing whatever minimal productions from the RB spot last year, but if RS frosh Kairee Robinson is as good as advertised, Love will have another diversion. Four starters do return along the OL (which might or might not be a good thing) and is augmented by Minnesota grad transfer transfer Quinn Oseland, already plugged in at RT.
Unfortunately, the defense was as bad as the offense in 2018, ranking in triple digits nationally in every relevant stat category, and a woeful 127th in pass D and 126th on overall D. SJSU’s scoring defense wasn’t much better at 36.6 ppg ranking 115th (that’s almost rarified air for this platoon). If there is a sliver lining, Brennan and d.c. Derrick Odum believe they finally have enough depth up front to rotate nine different lineman in SJSU’s 3-4 looks, and the stop unit’s top two tacklers (Ethan Aguayo and Jesse Osuna) both return from last season. Immediate help in the secondary could come from juco CB Chad Earle, especially as both starting corners departed (again, maybe not a bad thing).
SJSU will at least be racking up frequent flyer miles this season, as the schedule features games in five different time zones, including a dreaded trip to West Point to face the brutal Army option in late October, squeezed between high-profile home dates vs. San Diego State and Boise State. Well, at least the fall foliage is something to see around West Point. The Spartans ought to exceed last year’s win total, which can’t be too hard after finishing 1-11. They’re not used to swallowing contracts at San Jose, but Brennan might give the Spartans no choice unless the Spartans begin to turn things in the other direction...soon.
Now for the encouraging news. Brennan’s San Jose wasn’t bad against the number a season ago, covering 8 of 12, and 8 of 11 if not counting an unfair matchup vs. the punishing Army option that ran roughshod 52-3 pulverizong played at Levi’s Stadium. In fact, dating to the end of the 2017 campaign, the Spartans are 10-4 their last 14 vs. the line after covering just 3 of their first 11 on Brennan’s watch. The Spartans are also 8-2 against the spread their last ten in MW play as they lately have had a tendency to make the big pointspreads work in their favor. A few straight-up wins would be better, but these days, SJSU backers will take any good news they can get.
Mountain West Conference - Mountain Division
No, it's not Michael J. Fox or Christopher Lloyd, but it is “Back to the Future” at Utah State (2018 SU 11-2; ATS 9-3-1; O/U 9-4) as HC Gary Andersen returns to the sideline. When last seen in Logan, Andersen had resurrected the Utags, with back-to-back bowl visits capped by a sterling 11-2 mark in 2012, capped by a 41-15 Potato Bowl rout of Toledo. But a roundabout six years would be just beginning, as Andersen made a move soon after to Wisconsin, where the job had surprisingly opened when Bret Bielema bailed out for Arkansas. Andersen won enough (19-7 in two years) at Madison, but the shadow of AD Barry Alvarez loomed large, and when the opportunity came to jump back to the West, Andersen enlisted at Oregon State to succeed Mike Riley. But after a couple of disappointing seasons and a slow start in 2017, Andersen abruptly left the Beavers (and several millions dollars left on his contract). A brief stopover at Utah working for old boss Kyle Whittingham (under whom Andersen had served as d.c. a few years before) would again precede a second enlistment at Logan after Andersen’s successor at USU, Matt Wells, was lured to Texas Tech. The fact Andersen still had a home in Logan made the move all that much smoother.
Andersen is inheriting a much better situation than he did in 2009 when USU was off of a 3-9 record and more than a decade (11 straight campaigns, to be exact) of sub-.500 teams. Before moving to Lubbock, Wells became a hot ticket last autumn when steering the Utags to an 11-2 mark with one of the nation’s most-dynamic offenses, one that scored a staggering 47.5 ppg. Though the triggerman, jr. QB Jordan Love (32 TDP & only 6 picks LY), is back in the fold, only one other offensive starter returns (soph LT Alfred Edwards). Not that there aren’t some other accomplished weapons on hand; slashing sr. RB Gerold Bright rotated into the lineup a lot last fall and rushed for 888 yards and 13 TDs. Plenty of speed also remains at the wideout spots, where the likes of Jordan Nathan (28 catches in part-time work LY) and Taylor Compton should make the most of their new opportunities. The challenge will come in rebuilding an OL that was strafed by graduation. The younger Mike Sanford, well-regarded as an assistant earlier in his career (inclduing a stint as Boise State's o.c. in 2014) before failing in his HC test at Western Kentucky, takes over the coordinator. duties.
Andersen, an accomplished d.c. at Utah earlier in his career, knows how to make the pieces fit on his stop units, and the upcoming version will deploy in his preferred 4-2-5 alignments. There is plenty of strength and experience up front; watch sr. DE Tipa Galeai, who recorded 10.5 sacks last fall and might be the MW’S premier defender. Unless that’s jr. LB David Woodward, who led the Utags with 134 tackles last fall. Overall, seven starters return from a ballhawking platoon that keyed an impressive +14 TO margin, ranking third nationally.
The schedule includes a couple of far-flung trips to Power 5 locales (Wake Forest, in the opener, and LSU in early October) but otherwise does not seem especially daunting. A potential MW Mountain showdown with Boise State is played at Maverik Stadium on Nov. 23, where the Utags will be looking to avenge a bitter loss on the blue carpet last November that gave the Broncos the Mountain title. No surprise if the late-November result again decides the Mountain crown. Best of all for USU, Andersen’s homecoming has been well-received, his credentials are solid, and most believe Gary has no intention of leaving Logan if he can help it.
Spread-wise, like everything else last season at USU, things went swimmingly, covering 9 of 13. Those Utags had enough offense to handle some hefty prices at Maverik, where they were 4-0-1 as chalk, but we’ll see if similar dynamics emerge in the fall. Worth noting that Andersen’s last team at Logan in 2012 finished 11-2 vs. the line, and his Utags were 16-5 as a dog between 2009-2012.
Calling Boise State (2018 SU 10-3; ATS 7-5-1; O/U 5-8) the “Gonzaga of College Football” wouldn’t be far off the mark. The Broncos began to ascend to prominence on the gridiron in the late ‘90s, about the same time the Zags began to hit stride on the hardwood. Twenty years later, the Broncos and Zags keep winning, and the beat should go on at Boise this fall as the Broncos look to secure their 18th straight bowl invitation (we say “invitation” because last December’s Dallas Bowl date vs. Boston College was cancelled due to inclement weather). They’re also happy in potato country that HC Bryan Harsin has thus far resisted offers to leave after predecessors Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins, and Chris Petersen all used the Bronco job as a stepping-stone to Power 5 assignments. Though many in Boise believe Harsin eventually moves elsewhere, for the time being he seems perfectly content racking up the wins on the blue carpet.
The Broncos have won so much over the years that it would be foolish to downgrade them too much just because long-serving QB Brett Rypien (the Mountain West’s all-time leading passer with 13,578 yards) has finally graduated. The successor remains up in the air into fall camp; five candidates who had thrown 10 college passes between them were competing for snaps in spring. Given that Boise hasn’t been caught short at QB in 20 years, it’s safe to assume that a viable option will emerge. It could be true frosh Hank Bachmeier, a California prep who enrolled in time for spring ball and regarded as one of the most ballyhooed Boise recruits in years. Top rusher Alexander Mattison, who gained 914 YR in the last six games of 2018, left early for the NFL and was drafted in the third round by the Vikings in late April, and if Harsin opts for a RB-by-committee approach (as it seemed in spring), Boise’s string of 10 straight years with a 1000-yard rusher might cease, though the strike force has maintained proper balance throughout the program’s glory era. There is ample big-play speed at the wideout spots (sr. John Hightower had eight TDs on 39 touches last fall, with six TDs of more than 40 yards). All five starters also return along the OL, so if one of the new QBs emerges, any dropoff from last year’s 35.4 ppg could be minimal.
Harsin saw d.c. Andy Avalos leave for Oregon, but new d.c. Jeff Schmedding (over from Chris Petersen’s Washington staff) inherits a platoon featuring nine performers with at least nine career starts under their belts. And returning after missing almost all of 2018 is 6th-year sr. DT David Moa, who had 8.5 sacks in his last full season of 2016. Playmakers abound, including jr. OLB Curtis Weaver, with 20.5 career sacks, and there is plenty of experience in the 2ndary, including sr. safeties Keloa Nawahine and DeAndre Pierce. While the D looks as if it could be robust once more, at the same time Harsin is going to look for big improvement from special teams that were faulty almost across the board last fall and prompted asst. Lee Marks being promoted to the ST coordinator role.
The schedule reminds more than a bit of 2014, when Boise opened the season as an underdog vs. SEC Ole Miss at Atlanta. This time, it’s Florida State in not-so-neutral Jacksonville. But the Broncos might be catching the Noles (off of a rare losing and bowl-less season) at the right time, and as of mid-summer, FSU was rated only a slight favorite. If Harsin can coax a mild upset out of his troops at Jacksonville, the Broncos should appear in the rankings and become one of the early favorites to become the “Group of Six” rep in the New Year’s Six bowl mix, a role in which Boise has appeared before. Though we suspect winning the Mountain half of the MW might come down to a November 23 game at Logan against Utah State, which will be looking to avenge a bitter late-November loss on the blue carpet last year.
Spread-wise, mention of the blue carpet reminds us that it has not been much of an advantage to the Broncos in recent years; Boise has covered only 16 of 51 laying points at home since late in the 2010 campaign, though last year’s 3-3 mark in that role temporarily slowed that runaway go-against-at-home train. The trend has endured for so long, however, that the notion of Boise being overvalued perhaps hasn’t been properly gripped by the wagering public, which at times still seems glad to lay big points with the Broncos, an exercise that proved worthwhile in the Hawkins and early Petersen years, but not much lately. Conversely, Boise has overachieved as visiting chalk for the past decade, recording a 38-18-1 spread mark as an away favorite since way back in 2008.
Underestimate HC Troy Calhoun and Air Force (2018 SU 5-7; ATS 6-4-2; O/U 5-7) at your own risk. Yes, the Falcs have missed bowls two years running, but we have seen Calhoun’s teams rise up when least expected in the past. In recent times, recall 2013, when an injury-ravaged Force would fall to 2-10, its worst record in history, then bounced back to 10-3 in 2014 and a romp past P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan in the Idaho Potato Bowl. But the downturn wasn’t an accident the past two seasons, as the Falcs simply lacked their normal playmakers of the best Calhoun teams. There were not many breakaway weapons on offense, and the defense was missing impact performers like S Weston Steelhammer, who spearheaded the latest Falc revival a few years ago. Does Calhoun, who learned under crafty mentor Fisher DeBerry, and has the demeanor of a CIA spook, have some of his old tricks up his sleeve?
Maybe so. MW sources believe that jr. QB Donald Hammond III has enough ability to be a game-changer, as a test run last November suggested that might not be far off the mark. Behind Hammond, the Falcs won 2 of their last 3, with Hammond rushing for 371 yards and 9 TDs and passing for 625 yards and 5 TDs in limited 2018 work. He’s relegated former starter Isaiah Sanders to the bench and could become a lethal force for Calhoun, who is desperate for some offensive playmakers. Four linemen with starting experience are back in the fold, and while there don’t appear to be any homerun hitters in the RB corps, punishing 230-lb. sr. FB Cole Fagan (997 YR LY) is a prototypical option FB, and jr. RB Kadin Remsberg is the sort of north-south runner who has excelled in Force offenses since the days of Kenny Hatfield. Speedy sr. WR Geraud Sanders averaged nearly 20 yards per catch last season and could become the sort of deep threat for which Calhoun’s teams are famous, able to get behind enemy DBs while one of the QBs takes a sneaky shot downfield. The Falcs did score 30.3 ppg last season and could improve upon that if Hammond stays healthy this fall.
Seven starters are back on defense, and mention of star Steelhammer from a few years ago prompts comparisons to sr. SS Garrett Kauppila, who is from the same aggressive (reckless?) mold. Aolng with fellow sr. S Jeremy Fejedelem, the Falcs have one of the MW’s best safety tandems. The Force was rugged against the run last term (ranking 16th nationally) partly because of the rare Academy 300-pounder, thick NG Mosese Fifita. Fellow lineman, DE Jordan Jackson, made 12.5 tackles for loss last season, while sr. ILB Kyle Johnson is an established big-hitter. Indeed, many project this as the best Falcon D since that bowl team of 2014, led by Steelhammer.
There is usually not much variety in the Air Force schedule, with Commander-in-Chief games vs. Army and Navy annually taking up half of the non-conference slate. (The fact the Falcs must play those service academies every year is a prime reason the MW doesn’t expand beyond an 8-game league slate). A once almost-annual rivalry with nearby Colorado from the late ‘50s and ‘60s will renew September 14 at Boulder. A semi-break in the MW schedule sees likely division favorites Fresno State and Utah State both visiting Falcon Stadium, and we suspect that Calhoun gets the Force back into the bowl mix this fall and maybe even return the Commander-in-Chief Trophy to Falcon Stadium for the first time since 2016 (QB Hammond, for what it’s worth, has already guaranteed a win over Army!).
Spread-wise, Calhoun’s teams can never be dismissed, and have at times experienced some smashing success vs. the number. Even in another bowl miss last season, the Falcs more than held their own (6-4-2) vs. the line. Remember that Air Force has been a consistent overachiever as a dog in the Calhoun era and is 17-7-1 getting points the past four seasons. The Falcs have also covered five straight as a road dog in non-league play, something to think about for this season’s battles at Colorado and Navy.
There’s only so much sugar-coating we can give to Wyoming (2018 SU 6-6; ATS 5-7; O/U 5-7) and its late surge to bowl eligibility last fall. Entering late October at 2-6, getting to the postseason was the last thing on anyone’s mind at Laramie during a campaign that figured to be a bit choppy after QB Josh Allen moved to the NFL Buffalo Bills. But even with four wins down the stretch to close the campaign, the Cowboys had no bowl suitors, partly a function of the Mountain West not having enough available postseason slots. While they cursed MW Commish Craig Thompson in Laramie, we don’t think the bowl season was any poorer without the Cowboys, who bordered on torturous to watch a year ago and notched three of their wins vs. New Mexico State, San Jose State, and FCS Wofford.
Give old, conservative HC Craig Bohl some credit, however, for at least getting the Cowboys to the brink of a bowl bid. Bohl, a Nebraska product who got the championship ball rolling at FCS North Dakota State before making the move to Wyo, still employs a stodgy, throwback offense full of deep handoffs and looking like it was designed by Bob Devaney for Jerry Tagge to give the ball to Joe Orduna and Jeff Kinney in 1970. The late-season surge mostly coincided with true frosh QB Sean Chambers taking over at QB; Bohl must have thought he was in heaven with a QB who could run like Chambers, who gained 329 YR in less than four full games. Chambers did break his leg in late November but is expected to beat out holdover Tyler Vander Wall, who converted just 5 TDP despite starting in most of the games. Therein lies the Cowboy dilemma; in an era of turbo-charged offenses, Bohl is driving a jalopy, as the Cowboys tossed just 8 TDP all of 2018, and their 125th passing ranking (just 131 ypg thru the air) was above only the most land-locked of the option teams. Bohl must also replace last year’s top MW rusher, Nico Evans (1325 YR), though MW sources believe all-name soph Xazavian Valladay (5.6 ypc in limited work behind Evans LY) only needs a chance at enough carries to become Bohl’s latest 1000-yard RB. The OL, however, suffered a blow in spring when jr. G Gavin Rush, who missed 2018 with a torn biceps, went down with an ACL tear. With only four returning starters (and that includes Vander Wall, not likely to win the QB job), there are depth concerns as well on the attack end. At least the PK spot looks settled with sr. Cooper Rothe a Lou Groza Award finalist LY after hitting 16 of 17 FG attempts.
Bohl’s defense was praise-worthy a season ago, ranking 18th overall nationally, and returns a few key playmakers, especially at the OLB spots, where sr. MLB Logan Wilson led the team with 103 tackles a year ago, and OLB Cassh Maluia was credited with six tackles for loss. There is plenty of experience on the corners, with srs. Antonio Hull and Tyler Hall both returning starters, though Bohl and d.c. Jake Dickert will be looking for new safeties after graduation depleted those ranks following last season.
Bohl has a chance to make an immediate splash this term in a high-profile opener vs. SEC Missouri, which makes a rare trip to the Mountain Time Zone. Perhaps it’s a good time to catch the Tigers in their first game of the post-Drew Lock era, but remember that Mizzou rolled the ‘Pokes 40-13 in Columbia LY. The rest of the non-league slate is favorable, but keep in mind that in odd-numbered years, Wyo has to travel to both Utah State and Boise State, and it’s even worse this fall as those games land back-to-back in November. That should preclude any longshot hopes to steal the Mountain title but no surprise if Bohl gets his Cowboys bowl-eligible for a fourth straight year (even though they were bypassed for a postseason date last December). Then we'll see if the MW can find Wyo a bowl date.
Spread-wise, Bohl’s troops struggled in the early and middle portions of last season, at one point dropping six straight vs. the line in the post-Josh Allen adjustment period, before rallying and covering four of their last five. The previous two seasons, Bohl fashioned a solid 18-9 spread mark, including a 12-4 mark as a dog.
At Mountain West Media Days in Las Vegas last July, Bob Davie sounded almost resigned to the fact that he might be fired at the end of the season by employer New Mexico (2018 SU 3-9; ATS 4-8; O/U 8-4). After all, he had been suspended from his job for 30 days earlier in the offseason, and, fast-forwarding five months, the Lobos were not close to a bowl bid for a second straight year, finishing 3-9 once again. But here we are preparing for the 2019 campaign and Davis is still in place at Albuquerque. What gives? Being that it’s the Mountain West, and buyouts are not quite as routine or easy as at Power 5 schools, perhaps that has something to do with Davie still being on the job, but we, and a lot of regional observers, were still a bit surprised. Earlier, several MW onlookers (and us) thought Davie would stick around no more than five years and looked to have the chance to exit on top after 2016, when New Mexico reached its second straight bowl. A cushy job back at ESPN or another network and a peaceful off-ramp to retirement would probably have been available to Davie...and still might. By this time next year, Davie might indeed be preparing for life in the broadcast booth once more. He has certainly not enjoyed the last two years on the sideline.
We, and many MW insiders, still believe Davie did yeoman’s work in the early phases of his Lobos career, getting UNM competitive after inheriting a carcass of a program from the disastrous Mike Locksley regime (do you think anyone at Locksley’s new HC job with Maryland might have called Albuquerque to get a bit of background info on the new Terps coach?). By implementing a ground-oriented Pistol attack, Davie’s offense was able to effectively slow the pace of the games, keep the clock moving, and an outmanned defense off of the field. But the Lobos lost their bearing offensively once o.c. Bob DeBesse moved to Georgia Southern, and after ranking among the nation’s rushing leaders for several years, UNM couldn’t do anything right a season ago, the infantry dropping all of the way to 89th.
With that in mind, Davie has authorized new o.c. Joe Dailey (via Liberty) to get some balance into the Lobo offense that has more evolved into a Rich Rodriguez-style spread option than the Chris Ault-inspired Pistol. Dailey’s best hope is for soph QB Tevaka Tuioti, who showed lots of upside in limited work last fall before a concussion and broken collarbone would sideline him, can stay healthy for more than a few games, as he seems a better alternative than former juco Sherrion Jones, forced into the lineup for most of 2018. Davie’s former big-play infantry was absent last year, however; perhaps touted true frosh RB Chad Alexander emerges as the coast-to-coast threat the offense needs. There is some speed at the WR spots, but Tuioti’s arm is needed in the lineup to better get the ball downfield. An OL with four returning starters and plenty of juco additions ought to be better than it was a year ago (though that bar is set pretty low).
Unfortunately, the Lobo D was perhaps worse than the O last season, ranking in triple digits in every important stat category. Davie, who first came to prominence as RC Slocum's d.c. at Texas A&M in the ‘90s, knew changes needed to be made and promoted safeties coach Jordan Peterson to the d.c role after opponents were mostly able to dictate the fronts and coverages the Lobos deployed last year. Davie wants his stop unit to be more unpredictable, but his new d.c Peterson is only working with two returning starters, both on the DL (DE Nahje Flowers and NT Aaron Blackwell). Losing nine starters from the nation’s 119th-ranked defense might not be a bad thing, but playmakers have to emerge. Perhaps it will be sr. DE Trent Sellers, a former Georgia Tech transfer who suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp last year. Fifth-year MLB Adam Hart was limited to only three games in 2018 due to his own knee injury, but has the savvy to emerge as the platoon’s on-field leader. There is little experience in the secondary, though it’s hoped that more push up front might not leave the DBs as exposed this fall. We’ll see.
Most of the attention with the schedule focuses upon a September 14 trip to Notre Dame, with Davie certain to be a substantial underdog as he returns to South Bend for the first time since being dismissed by the Fighting Irish after the 2001 season. That Davie trip down memory lane aside, the other three non-conference games (Sam Houston, Liberty, New Mexico State) could be winnable, though the Fightin’ Falwells did win a shootout at Albuquerque last season. With San Jose State and Colorado State a pair of winnable clashes to begin MW play, could Davie actually start the season 5-1? The slate does toughen considerably in November, so if Davie needs a bowl bid to save his job, he’s best advised to get those necessary wins before Halloween.
Among other evidence that the Davie era at UNM could be past its sell-by date in Albuquerque are corresponding pointspread failures the past two seasons after the Lobos had been a good value play in a variety of roles during Davie’s first five years on the job. Not the past two seasons, however, when UNM dipped to a combined 8-16 vs. the line. Along the way the Lobos have dropped six straight as home chalk and have covered just one of their last eight at University Stadium. Even Davie’s curious pointspread mastery of Air Force (perhaps due to Davie’s familiarity with the option) ended last season; after covering six straight against the Falcs, UNM took a 42-24 punch in the nose at Colorado Springs last November.
The storm clouds are forming at Colorado State (2018 SU 3-9; ATS 5-7; O/U 4-8), and HC Mike Bobo could be forced to take cover if things don’t change...soon. Coaches are not supposed to see their products drop off of the map in their fourth and fifth years on the jobs when, theoretically, almost all of the roster should be their recruits. As for Bobo, he endured a difficult fourth campaign in 2018, not only because his Rams nosedived to 3-9 (and a scoring margin at a wretched -19.6 pg), but because of medical issues that included hospitalization and treatment for nerve damage in his feet and hands that made it difficult for him to walk in much more than a slow shuffle. We can’t imagine that Bobo’s physical condition was helped by CSU’s steep decline which actually began during the later stages of the preceding 2017 campaign, when CSU dropped 4 of its last 5 SU and its last seven vs. the line, including a New Mexico Bowl loss to underdog Marshall. Another round of staff changes has contributed to an ongoing atmosphere of instability. With a considerable investment in a new football facility and on-campus stadium within the past couple of years, and boosters taking note of what appears to be a couple of shallow recruiting classes in a row., the Rams are not likely to sit idly by and watch another season deteriorate, especially with Bobo entering his fifth season. Let’s say the trendlines are not looking good in Fort Collins for Bobo, whose tenure is starting to remind more than a bit of Steve Fairchild’s aborted regime prior to the Jim McElwain hire in 2012.
The best chance for Bobo to make a stand would be for capable jr. QB Collin Hill (1387 YP in 2018) to stay healthy and on the field. But that has been a lot to ask of Hill, who missed the second half of 2016, all of 2017, and a good chunk of 2018 after a couple of different ACL tears. And since Bobo can’t afford to go the Joel Embiid route and give Hill some games off to reduce the injury risk, it’s cross-your-fingers time for the Rams. Moreover, the OL was broken last season as the run game all but disappeared, ranking 124th nationally. Only two starters return up front, and we can say unequivocally that if the OL doesn’t improve, CSU’s chances of getting back to a bowl are almost nil. Only two scholarship RBs participated in spring drills, increasing the chance that a true frosh or two (watch Louisiana product Tyreese Jackson) could emerge. A couple of SEC refugees, 6-6 Warren Jackson (ex-Bama who caught 32 passes for the Rams LY) and Nate Craig-Myers (Auburn transfer) are among a capable group of targets.But can Hill stay upright and on the field?
Bobo could have thrown d.c. John Jancek, whose debut season in his new role was an outright disaster, under the bus in the offseason, but didn’t. Yet Bobo would have been justified as CSU ranked 111th or lower in total defense, scoring defense, and rushing defense. Not good. While the DL has some experience, the linebacking corps needs to be completely rebuilt. Soph CB Rashad Ajayi endured a baptism by fire during his frosh season a year ago when he started all 12 games and would live to tell about it. In Ajayi and SS Jamal Hicks (leading returning tackler with 93), the secondary might be able to hold its own as it mostly did a year ago. But after surrendering a whopping 37 ppg, the only direction to go is up.
CSU does have a potential Ray Guy Award candidate in jr. P Ryan Stonehouse, whose 48.3 per boot ranked second nationally. Altitude adjustment aside, that’s not too shabby. But Bobo needs something better than a star punter to help get CSU back to howl contention.
The schedule is no picnic, beginning with the grudge match at Denver vs. Colorado as CSU looks for its first win over the Buffs in five years. Two weeks later, SEC Arkansas will be waiting in Fayetteville to avenge a shock upset loss at Fort Collins last September. The crossover portion of the Rams’ schedule in the MW didn’t break well, either, with top West contenders Fresno State and San Diego State cycled in while San Jose State and Hawaii have cycled out. Not the sort of schedule break Bobo could use in a possible win-or-else autumn.
Spread-wise, CSU has been slumping since midway in the 2017 campaign, and has dropped 14 of its last 19 vs. the number, and has covered only 4 of its last 12 in Fort Collins. Bobo at least kept the Rams' recent mastery over New Mexico alive a year ago, as CSU beat Bob Davie’s team for the seventh straight time (6-1 vs. line n those).Unfortunately, the Rams don’t get to play the Lobos every week.