The Mountain West has undergone a serious makeover in recent years. It lost three of its most powerful teams in BYU, Utah and TCU at certain points over the last five years. However, it has remained competitive by adding the likes of Boise State, Fresno State, Hawai’i, Nevada, San Jose State and Utah State from the WAC.
This conference has been divided into two divisions; the Mountain and the West. The six teams in the Mountain Division are all located in the Mountain Time Zone. Aside from Hawai’i, the West Division is comprised of all the teams in the Pacific Time Zone. This conference went just 20-28 in non-conference games last year, including 1-18 against BCS schools. After going 21-19 against the Pac-12 the previous six years, the MWC went just 1-12 against that conference in 2013.
San Diego State is the only team with a winning record that has been in the conference the past five years. Dating back further, Air Force actually has the best record (48-40) in the conference over the past 10 years. The MWC takes a hit this year as they lose their top two quarterbacks in terms of passing yards, five of their top six running backs who all topped 1,000 yards last year, and their top two receivers. Here is how I have this conference playing out in 2014.
Mountain Division Predictions
1. Boise State (10-2, 8-0 MWC) – The Broncos had gone 75-5 over a 10-year stretch in the WAC before coming over to the MWC. Sure, they are 31-8 in their new conference over the last three years, but they have not won an outright Mountain West Title. They had five losses last year for the first time since 1998. This year, new head coach Brian Harsin steps into a tremendous situation as he’ll be working with 15 returning starters. That includes stud running back Jay Ajayi (1,425 yards, 18 TD last year), QB Grant Hedrick and his top two receivers in Matt Miller (88 receptions, 1,140 yards, 12 TD) and Shane Williams-Rhodes (77, 702, 6 TD). The Broncos will be favored in every MWC game because all four of their conference road games come against teams that had losing record last year. They will win their first outright MWC Title in 2014.
2. Utah State (10-3, 6-2 MWC) – Stud quarterback Chuckie Keaton was lost for the season after six starts last year due to injury. After losing to Boise State in their first game without him, the Aggies went on to win each of their final five games to get into the MWC Title game. There, they gave Fresno State a run for their money but lost, and then went on to beat Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Aggies have the fewest returning starters (8) in the MWC, but the key is that they get a healthy Keaton back at quarterback. They are still one of the most talented teams in the conference despite the inexperience. They are the second-best team in the Mountain Division this year.
3. Air Force (6-6, 4-4 MWC) – Troy Calhoun managed to take Air Force to a bowl game in each of his first six years on the job. They finally missed out on a bowl last year with a disastrous 2-10 season, but that was his least-experienced team yet. Several injuries in the summer and during the season made matters worse, and the Falcons ended up getting outgained by 193.6 yards per game in MWC play. Look for Calhoun’s team to bounce back in 2014 and to become bowl eligible. They have 16 returning starters while losing only 15 lettermen. They are actually the most experienced team in the MWC since they will be starting mostly upperclassmen.
4. Colorado State (5-7, 3-5 MWC) – The Rams actually went 8-6 last year and had a miracle comeback against Washington State in their bowl game. It was a step in the right direction for head coach Jim McElwain in his just second year on the job. I do look for the Rams to take a step back in 2014 due to some key losses on offense. They part ways with RB Kapri Bibbs, who rushed for 1,741 yards and 31 touchdowns. They can’t replace that production, especially when you consider the offensive line loses four starters who started in all 14 games last year. The road schedule features four tough games, including a trip to Boise State. I have them losing all four of those contests as well as their home game against Utah State to finish 3-5 within the MWC.
4. Wyoming (5-7, 3-5 MWC) – The Cowboys had a pretty fun team last season as they went 5-7 and just missed out on a bowl game. Their offense was dynamic with 31.3 points and 473 yards per game, but their defense was terrible, giving up 36.7 points and 482 yards per game. Head coach Craig Bohl comes over from North Dakota State where he he went 104-32, including 33-2 over the last three years while winning three FCS National Championships. He will be working with 16 returning starters in 2014. It could take this team some time to adjust to his new systems, which is the only thing preventing me from picking Wyoming to finish higher.
6. New Mexico (4-8, 2-6 MWC) – Bob Davie has taken over a team that went exactly 1-11 for three years running to seven wins over the past two seasons. Sure, the Lobos are only 2-14 in MWC play in his tenure, but consider that seven of those 14 losses came by a touchdown or less. This team isn’t that far off, though they did get outgained by 125.1 yards per game last year. They have just 13 returning starters this year, but they do have 85 scholarship players for the first time since 2006. They should top last year’s three-win total, but they aren’t quite ready to take that next step and make a bowl game.
West Division Predictions
1. Fresno State (7-5, 6-2 MWC) – The Bulldogs would have been playing in a BCS Bowl last year if not for a late-season loss to San Jose State. They still had a very successful season with a Mountain West Title, though they were overmatched by USC in the bowl. Now, they lose the school’s all-time leading passer in Derek Carr, who threw for 5,082 yards and 50 touchdowns against eight interceptions last year. Duke transfer Brandon Connette figures to get the start in 2014 and should flourish in this system. This team still has plenty of talent with 13 returning starters, including eight on a defense that should be much-improved. Fresno State is still the best team in the watered-down West Division.
2. Nevada (6-6, 5-3 MWC) – Like Boise State, Nevada has struggled since joining the MWC. It went 24-7 in its final three seasons in the WAC, but is just 7-9 in MWC play the last two years. The Wolf Pack’s four wins last year were their fewest since 2001. Brian Polian was in his first year and had just 11 returning starters, so he didn’t have much to work with. Cody Fajardo is among 17 returning starters in what will be one of the most improved teams in the MWC in 2014. He threw for 2,668 yards and 13 touchdowns against three interceptions, while also rushing for 621 yards and eight scores last year in only 10 starts due to injury. The Wolf Pack play a very easy MWC road schedule this year with games at Hawaii, SJSU, Air Force and UNLV, so most of their toughest opponents come at home, meaning it could be a very special season if things break their way.
3. San Diego State (6-6, 4-4 MWC) – The Aztecs played in their fourth straight bowl game last year for the first time in school history. However, they won a whopping six Mountain West games by a touchdown or less last year, including three in overtime. They are very unlikely to be that fortunate again in close games, especially considering they are inexperienced with just 10 returning starters. They lose 1,000-yard rusher Adam Muema and five of their top six tacklers. With road games against Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State, I just can’t foresee anything better than a middle-of-the-pack finish for the Aztecs in 2014.
4. Hawai’i (4-8, 3-5 MWC) – Norm Chow enters his third season as Hawai’i head coach, so he finally has his players in place. There are no more excuses for him after the Rainbow Warriors have gone 1-15 in MWC play in his first two years on the job. Chow will be implementing a spread offense this year to try and better utilize his talent and put more points on the board. He’ll be working with 13 returning starters this year, including RB Joey Iosefa, who had 590 yards and five touchdowns last year in only five starts due to injury. The offensive line returns nine of the top 10 and 82 career starts in all. They get UNLV and Wyoming at home and should be one of the more improved teams in the conference, though that’s not saying a whole lot after a 1-11 campaign last year.
5. San Jose State (3-9, 2-6 MWC) – The San Jose State Spartans had some impressive performances last year, including their 62-52 win over Fresno State in the regular season finale. David Fales, the school’s all-time leading passer off a year in which he threw for 4,189 yards and 33 touchdowns, had departed. The Spartans only have five starters back on offense in all and will take a big step back on that side of the ball. They also have to play Utah State and Colorado State from the Mountain. The defense should be improved with eight returning starters. The month of November will be their downfall as they face five tough conference games in a row, including three on the road in a four-week span.
5. UNLV (3-9, 2-6 MWC) – The Rebels were one of the biggest surprise teams in the country last year as they made their first bowl game since 2000 with a 7-6 record. They still have some talent coming back this year with 13 starters and one of the best offensive lines and receiving corps in the MWC. However, they lose their starting QB Caleb Herring (63.2%, 2,718 yards, 24 TD, 5 INT) and leading rusher Tim Cornett (1,284 yards, 15 TD), as well as four of their top five tacklers on defense. Last year, the Rebels beat just one team with a winning record and were outgained by 21.4 yards per game in MWC play in spite of their 5-3 conference record. With a much tougher schedule this year, the Rebels won’t be going bowling again.
MWC Championship Game: Boise State defeats Fresno State
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