College football handicapper Mark Lathrop previews the upcoming Mountain West Conference season. Read on as he breaks down the contenders for each division crown.
The Mountain West Conference sits just outside the Power 5 conferences, but historically has a program or two that invade the Top 25 in national polls and threatens to make noise in a major bowl game. Here we will look at the two divisions in the MWC and which teams are the haves and have nots for the 2018 college football season. Included are each team's 2017 overall and conference records.
Boise State (11-3, 7-1): Boise State rode the coattails of quarterback Brett Rypien to the 2017 conference championship and he returns to lead the team to beat in the Mountain West Conference this year. All of the hype surrounding Rypien will likely take a back seat, though, as the Broncos defense returns 10 of 11 starters and should be the best defensive unit in the conference. They will have to overcome the absence of first-round draft pick linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who is the only starter not returning on the defense.
Colorado State (7-6, 5-3): The Rams have one of the better home advantages in the country by playing at altitude, but this figures to be a rebuilding team for Colorado State as they replace 8 starters on offense, including most of their offensive line. The QB position is up in the air with presumed starter Colin Hill returning from an ACL injury. The defensive coaching staff was fired after last year after allowing an average of 452 yards per game to opponents. The Rams start with a cupcake game against Hawaii, followed by a tough non-conference schedule that includes Colorado, Arkansas, and Florida.
Wyoming (8-5, 5-3): The Cowboys will have to recover from the loss of quarterback Josh Allen to the NFL, but also have a great home-field advantage due to altitude. They are entering Year 5 of Craig Bohl’s tenure, which finds him in his first full year with his own recruits. Following two 8-win seasons, Bohl has signed an extension to 2023. With the offense in transition, the Cowboys will turn to a defense that led the country in turnovers last year. That is a very random statistic, however, and is not one that is likely to be repeated. An early and winnable power conference game against Washington State will be a good measuring stick to how Wyoming will fare this year.
Utah State (6-7, 4-4): The Aggies are very close to being in a different discussion, as they have lost 8 one-possession games in a row. That’s a testament for them always being competitive, but the Aggies have not returned to form since a great 11-2 season in 2012 that saw coach Gary Anderson bolt for Wisconsin. They’ll return most of their offense, which ranked 18th in adjusted pace last year.
Air Force (5-7, 4-4): The Falcons are a perennial rushing powerhouse, but it was their rushing defense that failed them in 2017 as they gave up 222.8 yards per game on the ground and 32.4 points per game. The good news for Air Force is they return senior QB, Arion Worthman, a dual threat who will end up being one of the best rushers in the league. Look to their Week 4 game against Utah State for an indication if their defense is up to snuff. If they are, the Falcons could be a live underdog in many games this year.
New Mexico (3-9, 1-7): Coach Bob Davie was suspended for 30 days this spring as a result of an investigation into the New Mexico athletic department. They are just two years removed from sharing the Mountain Division championship in 2016, but are picked to finish last in the preseason polls. I can’t find any information that would have me thinking otherwise. The Lobos have a 16-32 conference record with Davie as the head coach.
Fresno State (10-4, 7-1): A lot of folks I follow have Fresno State coming out as an outright winner against UCLA in Week 3, but a winnable game against Minnesota could have them as a trendy pick without value. It will be the 2nd year for Jeff Tedford, who basically performed a miracle in coaxing the Bulldogs to a 10-win 2017 campaign. Fresno State will have a returning QB for the first time since 2013, and standout wide receiver KeeSean Johnson could be the best receiver in the conference. Don’t wait for the UCLA game to back the Bulldogs this year.
San Diego State (10-3, 8-2): The Aztecs have always produced good running backs, but will have a big task in replacing Rashaad Penny, who is now a Seattle Seahawk. They beat Stanford in Week 1 last year and have a repeat game against them in 2018 in Week 1, with another nice non-conference game against Arizona State that I’ll be looking out for. They are picked to finish 2nd in the division behind Fresno State and figure to have a solid rushing attack again.
UNLV (5-7, 4-4): The Rebels will start 2017 conference freshman of the year Armani Rodgers at quarterback this season. He’ll be paired with a capable receiving corps to create one of the better passing attacks in the conference. With a young and unproven defense, though, look for some high-scoring games when UNLV plays in conference against the top offenses in the league.
Nevada (3-9, 3-5): The Wolfpack have senior Ty Gangi returning at quarterback, which is reason to believe they will be fairly consistent on that side of the ball. They return seven starters on defense, but in this case, I don’t see that as a positive as their defense was ranked 119th last season. Look to team totals for opponents with good offenses for value, as Nevada doesn’t have the horses to take a step forward on that side of the ball.
Hawaii (3-9, 1-7): The Rainbow Warriors are going back to the run-and-shoot offense that made them entertaining to watch until 2012. They’ll return only one starter, which may be a positive given the new system everyone has to learn. Look for a lot of high-scoring games with the Hawaii defense being terrible for many years in a row now. The turnaround on that side of the ball won’t be quick.
San Jose State (2-11, 1-7): The Spartans don’t know who their QB is and can’t stop the run in a division with San Diego State, Boise State, and Utah State. They were dead last in the division in time of possession last year and were held to under 20 points in 10 of 11 of their games. If they struggle against UC Davis in Week 1, feel free to fade the Spartans for the rest of the season.