As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. Last weekend, we opened with the Sun Belt. Today, we continue with 10 things to know about the Mountain West.
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1. It is Boise State's world, and everyone is chasing the Broncos. After a down 8-5 season in 2013, Chris Petersen left for Washington, and it was uncertain what the next step for the Broncos' would be. But they hired former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, and after a messy opening loss to a good Ole Miss team and a surprising loss to Air Force, they ran the table, winning another Fiesta Bowl, 38-30 over Arizona, upon claiming the Group of Five's automatic bid to a major bowl. Quarterback Grant Hedrick (3,696 yards), tailback Jay Ajayi (347 carries, 50 catches) and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford (now at Notre Dame) may be gone, but nearly everyone else returns, making the Broncos the favorite to get back to a New Year's bowl. They might as well be the Alabama of the mid-majors. They're a favorite until further notice.
2. Boise State's major bowl hopes appeared to be dead late last September, when the Broncos lost 28-14 at Air Force, who was coming off a 2-10 season. It turned out that losing to the Falcons was hardly inexcusable. Air Force finished 10-3 and is one of the leading non-Boise State contenders in the Mountain West this year. Losing eight of the top 12 tacklers on defense is tough, as is replacing starting quarterback Kale Pearson, but this should still be a dangerous team. New QB Nate Romine has experience -- he started the season-ending upset win over Colorado State -- and he has a solid supporting cast, led by 1,000-yard rusher Jacobi Owens and star receiver Jalen Robinette. Aside from the 2013 season, Troy Calhoun has put consistently good Air Force teams on the field -- no small feat at a military academy -- and there's little reason to think that won't continue. The Falcons are a good bet to go bowling for the eighth time in nine seasons.
3. Colorado State won six conference titles between the WAC and Mountain West from 1994-02 under Sonny Lubick, turning into one of the most consistent programs in college football. After a downturn, Jim McElwain quickly reversed course, taking the Rams from 4-8 to 8-6 to 10-3, and turning that into the Florida job. With a new stadium in the works, it's up to former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to sustain the momentum. He'll have to do it without star quarterback Garrett Grayson and tailback Dee Hart, but Colorado State has the talent to avoid a big drop-off. Fifteen starters return, including superstar receiver Rashard Higgins, who caught 96 passes for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns. Bobo is a sound offensive mind, and new QB Nick Stevens has solid weapons around him. The Rams will inevitably take a step back from 10-3, but beyond the loss of Grayson, Bobo has plenty to work with to ensure that the Rams stay competitive.
4. It's abundantly clear that the Mountain Division is stronger than the West. Within the division, there's a clear divide between the Mountain's top four and the bottom two, but New Mexico and Wyoming are both improving. Bob Davie's New Mexico offense was quietly prolific last year, ranking 20th nationally in yards per play, thanks especially to tailback Jhurell Pressley, who averaged a staggering 9.5 yards per attempt on 114 carries (1,083 yards, 12 touchdowns). Whether or not the Lobos can make a bowl game for the first time since 2007 depends on progress on defense, given that they ranked 126th in yards per play allowed. With three winnable nonconference games, it's not impossible. Wyoming still has a ways to go, talent-wise, and it returns only nine starters, but there's little reason to doubt that Craig Bohl will have the Cowboys headed in the right direction. He led North Dakota State to three straight FCS national titles, and while Wyoming is probably a year away from making a serious bowl push, the backfield combination of Indiana transfer QB Cameron Coffman and running backs Shaun Wick and Brian Hill is enough to make things interesting. They may be at the bottom of the division, but both teams are tough outs, as New Mexico showed last year in a 60-49 loss to Boise State, and as Wyoming will inevitably show as a fundamentally sound team under Bohl.
5. At the bottom of the West Division, the trajectory of Hawaii and UNLV is a mystery. Budgetary issues have plagued Hawaii athletics, and Norm Chow enters 2015 on the hot seat with an 8-29 record in three years. There's some hope, as the Warriors improved last year, and now they welcome in USC transfer Max Wittek as the starting quarterback, which shoulder bolster an offense that ranked last in the Mountain West in yards per play. But in a 13-game schedule, Hawaii has road trips to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Boise State in the first five weeks of the season. Those Big Ten paydays will be nice, but the results won't be pretty. UNLV is also trying escape the league's basement, and the Rebels already hit reset again by firing Bobby Hauck. In 2013, he took the Rebels to their first bowl since 2000, only to win two games last year, for the fourth time in five seasons. In fact, UNLV has won exactly two games in eight of the last 11 seasons. It desperately needs new ideas, which is why it rolled the dice by hiring Tony Sanchez, coach of high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. It's impossible to predict how such a hire will work out, but Sanchez shouldn't be judged on what happens this year, because right now it's all about establishing a foundation and building for the future.
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Top 10 Players
1. Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State
2. Darian Thompson, S, Boise State
3. Donnell Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
4. Kamalei Correa, DE, Boise State
5. Kyler Fackrell, LB, Utah State
6. Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State
7. Tanner Vallejo, LB, Boise State
8. Nick Vigil, LB, Utah State
9. Eddie Yarbrough, DE, Wyoming
10. Devonte Boyd, WR, UNLV
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6. San Jose State may be couple years away from returning to relevance, but the Spartans are on the right track. There's a ton of prep talent in California, and coach Rod Caragher -- coming off a 3-9 season -- took advantage and signed a top-60 class, with all but one player from California. The Spartans are trending upward, even though they've made only two bowl games since 1990 (2006 and 2012). They return 10 starters on offense, although they have to rebound from a dreadful finish to the season in which they scored a total of 14 points in their last three games. The good news is that they're in the weaker division, meaning a push for six wins is possible, especially if some of that young talent pans out early. The bad news is that the schedule is still tough with Auburn, Oregon State and BYU, plus a tricky game vs. FCS power New Hampshire, in nonconference games.
7. Two teams that usually stand in San Jose State's way, Fresno State and Nevada, are in rebuilding mode. The last we saw of them, Fresno State lost 30-6 to Rice in the Hawaii Bowl and Nevada lost 16-3 to UL Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. These are both still West Division contenders, but there are a lot of pieces to put together right now, making the top priority winning six games. Fresno State won the West last year, but it finished only 6-8, ranking 11th in the conference in offensive yards per play and ninth in defense. All-league tailback Martez Waller returns, but there's a ton of rebuilding to do on both sides of the ball, with a crowded quarterback competition. Nevada has the unenviable task of trying to replace four-year starting quarterback Cody Fajardo, who threw for nearly 10,000 yards in his career and cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark twice. Beyond a 4-8 record in the transition from Chris Ault to Brian Polian in 2013, the Wolf Pack have gone bowling in nine of 10 years. It will be a fight to return to the postseason this year, although a schedule without Boise State, Air Force and Colorado State helps. These are two relatively steady programs capable of rebuilding relatively quickly, but they're a step or two behind the contenders this year.
8. San Diego State is the clear frontrunner in the West Division. Nonconference trips to California and Penn State are probable losses, but every other game is winnable, especially with Boise State off the schedule (at least until the MWC title game). Passing continues to be an issue for the Aztecs, who may hand the reins to Kentucky graduate transfer Maxwell Smith or Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues at quarterback. The Aztecs are an old-school run-and-play-defense team, and the offense will revolve around stud tailback Donnel Pumphrey, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry, rushing for 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns in last year's 7-6 campaign. If Smith -- or whoever wins the starting job -- can open up the offense a bit, this could be a really solid team, because eight starters return to a stingy defense that gave up 19.8 points per game. The style of play isn't the most exciting, but with Pumphrey and that defense returning, there's no excuse not to win the division.
9. The biggest challenge to Boise State is within its own division: Utah State. Once a doormat who didn't win more than four games from 2001-10, the Aggies have made a remarkable rise the last few years, first under Gary Andersen, then continuing under Matt Wells. They've built a hard-nosed identity, winning 19 games over Wells' first two years despite the fact that star quarterback Chuckie Keeton has suffered two straight season-ending injuries. Now returning for a sixth year, a healthy Keeton could allow the Aggies to give Boise State a scare. The defense loses star Zach Vigil, but his productive brother, Nick, returns after recording 123 tackles (17 tackles for loss), as does star Kyler Fackrell, who missed last season with an injury. The Aggies have led the Mountain West in defensive yards per play two years in a row, and they'll continue to field strong defenses, although they're replacing the coordinator on both sides of the ball. With most of the offense returning, Keeton recapturing some of his magic could make this team really dangerous, especially with Boise State visiting Logan.
10. Boise State remains the overwhelming favorite. The Mountain West is a good league, and teams like Utah State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State are not pushovers in the slightest. With that said, after the way they finished last season, there's no reason to bet against the Broncos, even with their questions at quarterback and running back. The entire offensive line returns. Top receivers Thomas Sperbeck and Shane Williams-Rhodes return. Eight starters return on defense, including standouts Darian Thompson, Donte Deayon, Kamalei Correa and Tanner Vallejo. Harsin was an integral part of Petersen's success as offensive coordinator from 2006-10, and he knows how to succeed in Boise. As usual, there are tricky nonconference games, starting with a showdown with Petersen's Huskies in Week 1, plus trips to BYU and Virginia. Throw in the trip to Utah State, and it's not as if Boise State can expect to coast to an undefeated record. Still, even last year's two-loss team made the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos have options in the backfield, and they have more experience and talent elsewhere than any other Group of Five team. Another Fiesta Bowl could be in the cards.
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1. Boise State 11-1 (8-0)
2. Utah State 8-4 (7-1)
3. Air Force 7-5 (5-3)
4. Colorado State 7-5 (5-3)
5. New Mexico 5-7 (2-6)
6. Wyoming 4-8 (2-6)
1. San Diego State 8-4 (6-2)
2. Fresno State 5-7 (4-4)
3. Nevada 6-6 (4-4)
4. San Jose State 4-8 (3-5)
5. Hawaii 4-9 (2-6)
6. UNLV 1-11 (0-8)
Conference Championship: Boise State over San Diego State