Even though it’s considered a step below the Power Five conferences, the Mountain West may be set to make an argument for stepping up into a Power Six. Long considered just a playground for Boise State, the Mountain West this year features at least two very competitive teams that could make a run at a major bowl and, if the cards fall right, a slot in the College Football Playoff.
Granted, that may be a longshot. Boise State and San Diego State are head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the conference, but neither one may appear in either the Associated Press or the USA Today Coaches poll. And ascending from unranked to playoff team might be an impossibility, given the voters’ reluctance to advance non-Power Five teams toward the top, regardless of their record or resume. Still, an undefeated Boise State or San Diego State would make an attractive playoff team, especially if none of the other conferences have undefeated teams.
True, the level of play from top-to-bottom in the Mountain West doesn’t hold a candle to conferences like the SEC or the Big Ten. And even if the Broncos or Aztecs reach a major bowl or playoff game, there’s still every possibility that they’ll get hammered by better competition on the national stage. But the same was said of the 2007 Boise State team that advanced to the Fiesta Bowl to play the Oklahoma Sooner. That team entered as a 7.5-point favorite, and exited as the winner of one of the best bowl games of all time.
Keep an close eye on the Mountain West in 2016 – because you might just be watching the Cinderella story of this year’s college football season.
- San Diego State (10-3). While Boise State will be a solid favorite to win the Mountain West, San Diego State could also pose a significant threat both in the conference and nationally. We project that the Aztecs will lose at home to California and the next week on the road at Northern Illinois, but they could just as easily win both of those games. If they do, you could have an insane matchup in the Mountain West final between two highly ranked teams with a chance at a major bowl. The Aztecs look strong on offense, though they’ll have to grow up a young starter at QB (likely sophomore Christian Chapman). The offense will be paced by RB Donnel Pumphrey, who is the best in the MWC. He will benefit from a strong line, especially on the left side. The defense returns seven starters, including OLB Calvin Munson, who we project as the conference player of the year. The second-best player could also be the best – CB Damontae Kazee, who is always a threat to pick off passes.
- Nevada (8-4). The only team that has any hope of challenging the Aztecs in the West is Nevada, which returns nine starters on offense. The Wolf Pack will run early and often, primarily on the legs of RB James Butler, who is one of the conference’s best. Nevada returns its entire passing attack, including QB Tyler Stewart and WRs Hassan Henderson and Jerico Richardson. The entire offensive line is also back. On defense, Nevada must replace six of the front seven, but returns its entire secondary, including FS Dameon Baber, who picked off six passes a year ago. The schedule is favorable – aside from a road game at Notre Dame, the Wolf Pack’s two biggest games (San Diego State, Nov. 12; Utah State, Nov. 19) are at home.
- San Jose State (6-6). The Spartans are on an upswing, particularly after sneaking into the Cure Bowl with a 5-7 record, and subsequently winning that game. This year, San Jose State has a good chance of reaching a bowl without a losing record, especially with 14 starters returning. On offense, senior QB Kenny Potter will line up behind one of the conference’s better offensive lines. The biggest question mark is running back, where the Spartans must replace all-conference rusher Tyler Ervin, who will play on Sundays this fall. As the season approaches, they are still planning to “run by committee” until one running back separates from the rest. Seven defensive starters return, including MLB Christian Tago, who will anchor the unit. They will need to get a lot stronger against the run – last season the Spartans ranked 102nd in the nation with more than 200 yards per game. The passing defense might slip a bit from last year, when they were the nation’s 2nd ranked unit. The schedule doesn’t do them any favors, with games at San Diego State and Boise State two weeks apart.
- UNLV (4-8). The Rebels are striving for improvement and have potential, but are facing a sizeable rebuilding project. Seven starters must be replaced on both sides of the ball, starting at quarterback. Johnny Stanton is a JUCO transfer who comes to UNLV from Nebraska by way of Saddleback College. After a huge season at Saddleback, he is the likely candidate to get the snaps from center. The Rebels are deep at running back, but will have to do without RB Keith Whitely, who will sit the first three games. WR Devonte Boyd is an attractive target and should top 1,000 yards. There is some chance that UNLV will improve on offense, but it will need to, given that last year’s Rebel defense gave up close to 34 ppg, and loses most of its starters. The front seven will be the strength of the defense, led by DT Mike Hughes and OLB Tau Lotulelei. The secondary has some experience, but is suspect. The Rebels will need to take advantage of a favorable home schedule to have a chance at a bowl game.
- Hawai’i (4-9). The Norm Chow experiment is officially over at Hawai’i. After just 10 wins in four years, Chow was cut loose and replaced by Nick Rolovich, a former Warrior quarterback. Rolovich was Hawai’i’s offensive coordinator and worked with its quarterbacks for four seasons until Chow replaced him in 2012. He will return to a rebuilding project that returns very few pieces on offense, and even less on defense. A newly-installed offensive set may eventually pay dividends, but in this first season, eclipsing last year’s total of three wins will be a victory. A rebuilt offensive line will need to quickly gel in order for the QB (yet to be determined) to be successful. The running game will be critical for the Warriors, who return last season’s leader, Paul Harris, and get back Diocemy Saint Juste from a season-long injury in 2015. The defense will be a major project, with only four starters back from a unit that gave up more than 35 ppg last year. The unit does have a number of seniors, especially in the secondary, but will have difficulty keeping opponents from moving the ball and scoring. The Warriors open in Australia against Cal, then travel to Michigan to play the Wolverines. After that, they’ll enjoy six of 11 games in Honolulu, where they enjoy one of the best home advantages in college football.
- Fresno State (2-10). No team in the MWC has suffered such a reversal of fortune as have the Bulldogs, who went from perennial conference contenders to basement-dwellers. Granted, one season doesn’t establish a trend, but a second year at the bottom might. And with only nine starters returning from last year’s 3-9 team, that potential is absolutely in place. In fact, Fresno State is the only team that has no players on the preseason All-MWC team. The offense is pinning its hopes on QB Chason Virgil, who was mildly decent last season before being injured in the third game. The entire offense will have to rise up from last season’s disastrous performance, which saw the Bulldogs ranked 107th in scoring and 121st in total offense. A substandard rushing attack and patchwork offensive line will make that difficult. The picture isn’t much brighter on defense, where just four starters return. Last year’s defense surrendered 38 ppg, and opponents moved the ball at will on the ground. With a retooled front seven, a repeat performance seems likely. There is experience in the secondary, especially at cornerback, but they may be spending more time tackling opposing runners than defending receivers. Back-to-back games in September against Toledo and Tulsa will tell if Fresno State is back or still on the way down.
- Boise State (13-0). Look again at that number – you did see 13-0. Yes, it’s true that we may be one of the only sites that pick Boise State not only to win the Mountain West, but to go undefeated along the way. Granted, it’s a risky pick. Two early contests at home against Washington State and on the road at Oregon State could undo the entire season. Then there’s the presumed matchup against San Diego State in the MWC title game. But the Broncos have the horses to do it. Brett Rypien (son of former NFL QB Mark) returns as the starting QB and leads an offense that should be among the best in the nation. RB Jeremy McNichols is one of the better rushers in the conference, and the WR tandem of Thomas Sperbeck and Chas Anderson is experienced and potent. The line also returns four of five starters. The defense is a bit more complicated, as seven starters will need to be replaced, including five of the front seven. Still, the foundation is strong, and LB Ben Weaver and CB Jonathan Moxey will provide strong leadership as the unit gels. If the Broncos are 3-0 entering October, they should clean the rest of the regular season slate.
- Air Force (9-3). Last season, the Falcons exceeded expectations by winning the MWC Mountain and almost upsetting San Diego State in the championship game. This year, hopes should still be high, especially with the return of QB Nate Romine, who was lost early in the season last year. He will lead a diverse attack that will include an unusual tendency toward the pass, especially with WR Jalen Robinette, who has all-conference potential. Defensively, Air Force should have one of the best squads in the MWC, with nine returning starters and four preseason all-MWC players. The entire secondary returns, including CB Roland Ladipo and SS Weston Steelhammer (who has one of the all-time best football names). DT Lochlin Deeks will anchor the line, which OLB D.J. Dunn will shore up a very talented linebacking corps. If the Falcons play to form, the season finale at home against Boise State will decide the Mountain Division.
- Colorado State (6-6). A year ago, few teams were hotter in the last six weeks of the season than Colorado State, which won five of its last six games to gain a bid to the Arizona Bowl. Unfortunately, the Rams must replace its entire starting receiving corps and seven starters on defense, which will make improving on last year’s seven-win season difficult. Preseason All-MWC QB Nick Stevens is back, as is starting RB Dalyn Dawkins. They will benefit from playing behind an experienced line that returns four starters, including NFL hopeful OG Fred Zerblis. Even with new receivers, scoring points shouldn’t be too difficult for the Rams. However, stopping opposing offenses might be. The entire defensive line will feature new starters, as does three-quarters of the secondary. The linebacking corps will have to be the heart of the defense, led by last season’s leading tackler, Kevin Davis. The best asset on the defense might be all-conference punter, Hayden Hunt. The Rams’ four toughest games (Minnesota, Boise State, Air Force, San Diego State) all come on the road.
- Utah State (6-6). Not too long ago, the Aggies were one of the biggest doormats in college football. Recently, Utah State has been to five consecutive bowl games, but before that, the Aggies endured a 14-year postseason drought. If not for a very tough out-of-conference schedule, they’d be a lock for another bowl bid. An early home game against Arkansas State, plus road games at USC and BYU will give Utah very little room for error in the MWC. The Aggies return a very potent running attack, led by RB Devante Mays, who should hit the 1,000-yard mark. The offensive line returns both tackles and the center, but will have new starters at both guard spots. QB Kent Myers doesn’t throw a lot, but is the MWC’s top returning quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The defense was especially good against the pass last year, but loses eight starters, including the entire linebacking corps. The secondary will be decent, but will be made better by pressure from DE Ricky Ali’ifua and NT Travis Seefeldt. The Sept. 24 home game against Air Force is a must-win for the Aggies.
- New Mexico (4-8). Head coach Bob Davie has brought a big name to New Mexico, but until last year, not much success. The Lobos were one of the conference’s best stories in 2015, but will be hard-pressed to duplicate that in 2016. New Mexico employs a dual-quarterback system, and both Lamar Jordan and Austin Apodaca return. The problem for the Lobos is that neither is especially good at passing. Fortunately for them, the guts of the rushing attack returns – and New Mexico ran for more than 250 ypg last year. Unfortunately, three of five offensive line starters will be new. On defense, nine starters return to a bend-but-don’t break unit that ranked 97th nationally in yards allowed, but 28th in the nation in points allowed. The front seven is back – led by DE Nik D’Avanzo and MLB Dakota Cox – but will need to get a lot better both against the run and in getting pressure on the quarterback. The secondary will be senior-laden, but lacks a playmaker. The schedule isn’t especially friendly; three of six home games are against San Jose State, Boise State and Nevada.
- Wyoming (2-10). About 20 years ago, the Cowboys were on the road to building a decent football program. Then in 2000, started a downward trend that extends to the present. With only three winning seasons in the past 15 years and only one year where the Cowboys have outscored opponents, they have become firmly entrenched in the MWC’s cellar. Don’t look for a turnaround this season. Most of the offense is back, but last year’s unit ranked 115th in the nation in scoring, so fresh talent wouldn’t be a bad thing. On the upside, RB Brian Hill is a preseason conference favorite; he accounted for almost 40 percent of Wyoming’s offense last season. This season he could do even better behind a veteran line led by LG Chase Roullier. The passing game may be better, and returns the starting receivers and tight end, but will have to do it a new starting QB. Unfortunately, Wyoming’s defense will hamper any improvement made by the offense. Last season, the team gave up 34 ppg, and while the passing defense was 26th in the nation, part of the reason was because teams had such an easy time running on the Cowboys. FS Andrew Wingard is a bona fide talent, but may not affect many games unless the front seven can slow down the ground game.
Bowl teams: Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force, Nevada, Colorado State, San Jose State, Utah State.
Offensive player of the year: Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
Defensive player of the year: Calvin Munson, LB, San Diego State
Coach of the year: Brian Harsin, Boise State
Tomorrow: 2016 Conference-USA preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt