With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 10 things to know about the Mountain West.
* * *
1. The Mountain West is in an odd place. The West Division has won three of the league's four titles games, including San Diego State the past two years. But once again, the Mountain is much deeper than the West, as it's stronger from top to bottom with more conference title contenders. It's possible that any Mountain team swapped into the West would finish at least second in that division. The struggles of the West have resulted in three of the six teams making coaching changes after last season, on top of Hawaii and UNLV making switches the previous two years. Both divisions could feature a lot of parity -- at least in the race for second place in the West -- but while everyone in the Mountain is aiming for bowl bids or better, the West will just hope to have two teams finish with winning records.
2. No team in college football has a better chance of winning its division than San Diego State. Yes, that includes Alabama in the SEC West. While the Aztecs do face obstacles after finishing ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1977 -- a reshuffled O-line, the loss of FBS career rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey, several stars gone from defense -- they were far ahead the rest of the West Division last year, ultimately finishing with a second straight 11-3 record overall, capped by a blowout win over Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Aztecs beat each of the other five West teams by at least two touchdowns and gave up a total of 29 points in those games. The gap will close this year because San Diego State is going to take a step back, but this program has stability under Rocky Long and remains well ahead of the rest of the division, at least for now. Despite playing behind the prolific Pumphrey, Rashaad Penny rushed for 1,018 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per carry last year, and the Aztecs are still likely to have the conference's best defense. Rebuilding the offensive line is clearly the biggest question mark for a team with a physical identity, but it won't stop San Diego State from winning another division title.
3. Of the three teams with new coaches -- Nevada, Fresno State and San Jose State -- Nevada is the most intriguing in 2017. That isn't necessarily saying much. If things break right, any of them could wind up second in the division … or if things break wrong, any of them could end up last. Previously known for Chris Ault's use of the pistol, Nevada fired Brian Polian and hired Jay Norvell, who is installing an Air Raid offense with the help of Matt Mumme, the son of Hal Mumme. Unfortunately, the team's best player, RB James Butler (1,336 yards), decided to transfer to Iowa in the summer. While Alabama transfer David Cornwell will start at quarterback, there's likely to be a bumpy transition to the new scheme, and significant defensive improvement is needed after the Wolf Pack allowed a national-worst 297.6 rushing yards per game.
Fresno State plummeted over the past few years without Derek Carr, bottoming out at 1-11 last year. Ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford takes over a team that went winless in the conference last year but brings back plenty of veterans, in addition to recently adding Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion at quarterback. McMaryion will try to challenge sophomore Chason Virgil for the job, and any competition is welcomed as Tedford tries to revive a unit that has fallen all the way from sixth nationally in scoring back in 2013 to 125th last year. Expect a rough Year 1, given a schedule that includes Alabama, Washington, BYU and cross-division games against Boise State and Wyoming.
Meanwhile, while San Jose State wasn't as bad as Fresno State last year, winning three conference games, Brent Brennan -- most recently receivers coach at Oregon State, and a former San Jose State assistant -- takes over at a program that has had one winning season in the past decade, when it went 11-2 under Mike MacIntyre in 2012. The Spartans return much of their defense and offensive line, but there's passing game uncertainty and a tough 13-game schedule featuring seven road games, including trips to Texas, Utah, BYU, Hawaii and Colorado State, in addition to hosting South Florida. New hires create optimism that this division will grow deeper, but it's not an overnight fix for anybody.
4. Few jobs warrant more patience than UNLV, and an outside-the-box hire like Tony Sanchez, formerly the coach at prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman, made sense. Why not try something different? The Rebels bowled in 2013, but they have won exactly two games in eight of the past 13 seasons. Sanchez has at least avoided that so far, going 3-9 in 2015 and 4-8 last year, including a three-OT win over Wyoming. Some progress has been made, and the Rebels offer intrigue on offense if redshirt freshman Armani Rogers sparks the passing game. Star receiver Devonte Boyd is back, as is most of the supporting cast around the QB. This could turn into a fun offense that gives the Rebels a chance to pull off a surprise or two. However, the Rebels lose 10 of their top 13 tacklers from a defense that allowed 36.8 points per game. There are wins to be had in this division, but the uncertainty on defense makes it difficult to predict a rise to six wins and a bowl.
5. Hawaii's Nick Rolovich showed that quick turnarounds in the West Division are possible. After a rough four years under Norm Chow that ended with a winless Mountain West record in 2015, Rolovich oversaw a stellar rebuild as the Rainbow Warriors took advantage of the problems elsewhere in the division. With a 13-game schedule, Hawaii went 6-7, ultimately getting a bowl invite thanks to a double-OT win over Air Force and season-ending close wins over Fresno State and UMass. The Warriors did this with a freshman QB, Dru Brown, who threw for 2,488 yards and 19 TDs and rushed for 306 yards in a promising debut. This year's Warriors are experienced, particularly on offense, and the defense is lead by one of the conference's best players in LB Jahlani Tavai. Hawaii was in the middle of the conference pack on both sides of the ball last year, and this year the Warriors could make more progress, against a schedule that features typically arduous road trips -- including a long-distance opener at UMass -- but isn't as daunting.
* * *
All-Mountain West Team
QB: Josh Allen, Wyoming
RB: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
RB: Tyrone Owens, New Mexico
WR: Michael Gallup, Colorado State
WR: Cedrick Wilson, Boise State
TE: David Wells, San Diego State
OL: Austin Corbett, Nevada
OL: Jake Bennett, Colorado State
OL: Antonio Rosales, San Diego State
OL: Archie Lewis, Boise State
OL: Dejon Allen, Hawaii
DE: Garrett Hughes, New Mexico
DE: Malik Reed, Nevada
DT: David Moa, Boise State
LB: Frank Ginda, San Jose State
LB: Jahlani Tavai, Hawaii
LB: Logan Wilson, Wyoming
LB: Evan Colorito, Colorado State
CB: Andre Chachere, San Jose State
CB: Tyler Horton, Boise State
S: Andrew Wingard, Wyoming
S: Trayvon Henderson, Hawaii
K: John Baron, San Diego State
P: Michael Carrizosa, San Jose State
AP: Timothy McVey, Air Force
* * *
6. Defensive questions will make it difficult for Air Force and New Mexico to duplicate last year's success. Both are still good enough to compete for bowl bids, but after Air Force won 10 games for the second time in three years and New Mexico won nine for the first time since 2007, their defenses face huge tasks competing in a division featuring Josh Allen, Brett Rypien and Nick Stevens. Beyond one rough season in 2013, Air Force has been reliable under Troy Calhoun, who has guided the Falcons to nine bowls in 10 years. Although they lose big-play receiver Jalen Robinette and leading rusher Jacobi Owens, the Falcons have solid experience on offense, led by RB Tim McVey and a pair of QBs with starting experience in Arion Worthman and Nate Romine. But Air Force loses 12 of its top 13 tacklers, putting its defense in a tough position. The postseason may come down to how the Falcons perform against rivals Army and Navy in nonconference play.
New Mexico loses eight of its top nine tacklers from a defense that already struggled to stop anybody, despite the breakthrough 9-4 season and back-to-back bowl bids. Bob Davie has put together a fun, exciting offense based around an explosive running game, and that won't change with QB Lamar Jordan and RB Tyrone Owens among the returning players. However, the Lobos allowed a Mountain West-worst 7.2 yards per play on defense in conference games last year, and the secondary in particular looks like a problem area. The offense gives New Mexico a chance to pull off an upset or two again to make another bowl appearance, but with steep competition in the division, a step backward is likely.
7. For two years, Matt Wells kept Utah State playing at the high level established by Gary Andersen in 2012. But after slipping to 6-7 in 2015, the Aggies cratered last year, finishing 3-9 with only one win -- against hapless Fresno State -- in conference play. It was a rough season featuring four conference losses by a touchdown or less. That's the type of note that indicates a possible rebound, but now the Aggies have to deal with losing four of their five starters on the offensive line and five of seven starters in the defensive front. After three straight top-two finishes in the Mountain West in yards per play allowed, the defense still finished third last year despite losing a lot of key pieces, so they have earned the benefit of the doubt. The running ability of QB Kent Myers is intriguing, but bouncing back to the potseason, after five straight trips from 2011-15, hinges on how well the Aggies can recover at the line of scrimmage.
8. Historically, Wyoming isn't a stranger to success and some national prestige. It is one of the most difficult jobs in the country, but the Cowboys made a pair of Holiday Bowls in the 1980s, and they even went to the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 6 in the AP poll way back in 1967. Despite brief flirtations with prominence, the spotlight is about to shine on Wyoming brighter than ever before. The Cowboys have a prized junior quarterback in Josh Allen, who turned heads last year with a stellar starting debut in which he passed for 3,203 yards and 28 TDs and rushed for 523 yards and seven TDs, leading the Cowboys from 2-10 in 2015 to a division title last year. With a big arm, NFL size and mobility, Allen is being touted as a first-round pick who could even be the No. 1 pick in the draft. This year, he'll try to correct some of the flaws in his game -- including cutting down on 15 interceptions -- with the eyes of the NFL watching him, in addition to losing his top three receivers and 1,800-yard rusher Brian Hill. The Cowboys are experienced on defense, and coach Craig Bohl has earned respect in rebuilding Wyoming after establishing North Dakota State as the FCS power. With Allen, Wyoming is a conference title contender again, and it also has a couple of intriguing early games at Iowa and at home vs. Oregon that will make the Cowboys worth watching all season.
9. Colorado State's offense experienced an impressive surge in the second half of 2016. Can its defense rise to match it? The answer might decide the division, the conference as a whole and maybe even the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl bid. After some early uncertainty, Nick Stevens took hold of the starting QB job again and caught fire down the stretch, averaging at least 10 yards per attempt in each of the Rams' final five games. They also scored at least 37 in each of their last six. Stevens is back, as are top rushers Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey and prolific wideout Michael Gallup, who caught 14 TDs. The Rams are opening a beautiful new stadium, and fans will get to enjoy not only an updated facility, but one of the most entertaining offenses in the country. So which defense will show up? Eight starters are back from a unit that was most recently seen allowing 61 points to Idaho in the bowl game. The defense will improve, and the Rams have advantages, including a home date with Boise State and no San Diego State in the regular season. After a pair of 7-6 seasons, they're ready to contend for the Mountain West crown. Jim McElwain left Fort Collins for a bigger gig after posting a 10-3 record in his third season. Mike Bobo may find himself in a similar position.
10. It never feels like a bad idea to pick Boise State to win the Mountain West. So: We're picking Boise State. Surprisingly, the Broncos have claimed only two conference titles in six years of Mountain West play. While they haven't had a truly bad year in two decades, such a high standard was set under Chris Petersen that going 19-7 over the past two years felt underwhelming. Of course, despite a handful of disappointing losses, this is still a healthy program capable of competing for a major bowl bid most years. Last year's two Mountain West losses were by a total of nine points, and the Broncos finished 10-3 overall despite owning a turnover margin of -9. Those signs point upward, although there are obvious obstacles this year: Prolific running back Jeremy McNichols is gone after racking up 2,183 yards from scrimmage. Ace receiver Thomas Sperbeck is gone, as are six of the top seven tacklers on defense. The Broncos also play a tough nonconference schedule -- Troy, at Washington State, Virginia, at BYU -- and visit both Colorado State and San Diego State. So why will Boise State win the league?
According to 247Sports, the Broncos have signed the Mountain West's top recruiting class every year since joining. Wyoming has Allen, but Boise State QB Brett Rypien threw for 3,646 yards and 24 TDs last year and has been named first-team all-conference each of his first two years. Rypien still has Cedrick Wilson (1,129 yards, 20.2 yards per catch) to throw to, and there are building blocks on defense, like DT David Moa and CB Tyler Horton. A case could be made for at least four teams -- Boise State, Colorado State, Wyoming and San Diego State -- to win the conference. Two years ago, five Mountain Division finished 5-3 or better. While Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming appear to be a step above the rest, it wouldn't be surprising to see a similar tangled mess. While the Rams and Cowboys are enticing and the Aztecs -- with a much easier path to the title game -- are the safest pick, Boise State has the talent to emerge and reclaim its position as the Mountain West's most powerful team.
* * *
1. Boise State 9-3 (6-2)
2. Colorado State 8-4 (6-2)
3. Wyoming 8-4 (6-2)
4. Air Force 6-6 (4-4)
5. Utah State 5-7 (4-4)
6. New Mexico 5-7 (3-5)
1. San Diego State 8-4 (6-2)
2. Hawaii 6-6 (4-4)
3. UNLV 4-8 (3-5)
4. Nevada 4-8 (3-5)
5. Fresno State 3-9 (2-6)
6. San Jose State 2-11 (1-7)
Championship game: Boise State over San Diego State
* * *