Mountain West Football Predictions
The Mountain West featured a three-way tie at the top in 2012, with Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State all finishing up at 7-1 inside the conference. While it was competitive within, the MWC was actually one of the weaker conferences as a whole last year. They went a combined 18-24 in non-conference play, finished just 6-3 vs FCS teams and were a mere 1-4 in their five bowl games.
The MWC took a hit when they lost lost TCU, BYU and Utah to conference realignment, but appear to have improved the level of talent by adding in San Jose State and Utah State out of the WAC. Both the Spartans and Aggies went 11-2, won their bowl game and finished ranked inside the Top 25 last year. The two new additions make this a 12-team league in 2013, which has resulted in the conference being split up into divisions. The six teams who are located in the Mountain Time Zone will make up the Mountain Division, while the other six teams all on the West Coast (including Hawaii) make up the West Division.
Here’s my prediction on how the newly shaped Mountain West Conference will play out during the 2013 regular season.
West Division Predictions
1. Fresno State – The Bulldogs were a force in the first season under new head coach Tim DeRuyter. They finished 9-4 overall and with 16 starters coming back they look like they will field an even stronger team in 2013. While they lose star running back Robbie Rouse and talented safety Phillip Thomas, they get back their best player in senior quarterback David Carr, who many believe will be a first round draft pick. The Bulldogs do have to go on the road to face both San Diego State and San Jose State, plus draw Boise State out of the Mountain, but I strongly believe this is the best team in the West and will end up playing in the inaugural MWC Championship Game.
2. San Diego State – The Aztecs weren’t expected to be a factor in the MWC last season, but head coach Rocky Long continues to get the most out of his players. The Aztecs certainly have the potential to win the West. San Diego State will look to beat teams with a strong running game and solid defense, as they return junior running back Adam Muema, who rushing for 1,458 yards and 16 touchdowns and nine starters to a defense that allowed just 24.4 ppg in 2012. My big concern with the Aztecs is they lose they must replace starting quarterback Ryan Katz and their top two playmakers at receiver.
3. San Jose State – The Spartans really came out of nowhere in 2012, as they hadn’t had a winning record since 2006. A lot of their success was a direct result of the play of starting quarterback David Fales, who completed 72.5% of his attempts for 4,159 yards with 33 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. Like Carr, Fales could be hearing his name called early in next year’s NFL Draft. Given the talent they have at the quarterback position, it was hard to pick them to finish third in West, especially considering they get to host both Fresno State and San Diego State. However, I feel like this team benefited a lot from an easy schedule and will struggle a bit with the step up in competition under a first year head coach in Ron Caragher.
4. Nevada – The Wolf Pack have been to eight consecutive bowl games and last year’s 7-6 record was their fourth straight season above .500. With the loss of legendary head coach Chris Ault and just 11 starters returning, I think both of those streaks are in serious jeopardy in 2013. Nevada does get back talented junior quarterback Cody Fajardo, but lose their go to running back in Stephon Jefferson, who led the MWC with 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns. They also will feature a defense that must replace seven of their top eight tacklers. It certainly looks like a rebuilding year for first year head coach Brian Polian.
5. UNLV – The Rebels are coming off a poor 2-11 finish, marking the third straight season they have won exactly two-games. Head coach Bobby Hauck, now in his fourth year at UNLV, will need to show some kind of improvement in 2013 if he wants to keep his job. Fortunately for Hauck, he should field his best team yet with 18 returning starters. This is a definitely a sleeper team in the West. I expect them to win at least five games and potentially pull off a big upset against one of the top teams in the MWC.
6. Hawaii – The Warriors struggled in the first season under head coach Norm Chow, but that was expected given they had just nine returning starters and were making a drastic change offensively with the move from a spread to a pro-style attack. With 16 starters back for the 2013 campaign, big improvements are expected in Chow’s second go of things. Unfortunately for Hawaii, they play a brutal schedule. With home games against Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State, almost all of their winnable games inside the MWC come on the road.
Mountain Division Predictions
1. Boise State – You have to tip your hat to head coach Chris Peterson. Boise State went into the 2012 season with just six returning starters and had to replace their all-time leading passer in Kellen Moore and an NFL running back in Doug Martin. All the Broncos did was go out an finish 11-2 and they weren’t far from going undefeated as their two losses to Michigan State and San Diego State came by a combined six points. While the Broncos have just nine starters returning, there’s no reason to go against Peterson and his staff. Boise State does draw a couple of difficult road games at Fresno State and Utah State, but I strongly believe this is the best team in the MWC.
2. Utah State – Much like San Jose State, the Aggies really surprised everyone with just how well they played in 2012. Unfortunately their success also came at a price, as they lost their head coach Gary Anderson to Wisconsin. New head coach Matt Wells steps into a very strong situation, as Utah State gets back 14 starters, including their dynamic quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 3,373 yards and rushed for another 819 (35 combined TDs). The Aggies actually have a much easier conference schedule than Boise State, but a tough non-conference slate and being in the first year of a new coach have me picking them to finish second in the Mountain.
3. Colorado State – There always seems to be a team in the MWC that comes out of nowhere and I think that team in 2013 will be Colorado State. The Rams finished just 4-8 last year and haven’t had a winning season since 2008, but get back 17 starters and should be in much better shape in the second year under head coach Jim McElwain. With big improvements expected on both sides of the ball, I’m calling for Colorado State to finish 4-4 inside the conference and to get back to a bowl game for the first time in five years.
4. Air Force – The Falcons are coming off their first losing season since 2006, but they did manage to go to a sixth consecutive bowl game. My big concern with Air Force is the way they closed out last year. They went just 1-4 over their final five games with all four losses coming by at least 19-points, including a 14-33 defeat to Rice in the Armed Forces Bowl. With just 10 starters back, I think this is going to be a rebuilding season for head coach Troy Calhoun and Falcons.
5. Wyoming – The Cowboys have been a difficult team to figure out under head coach Dave Christensen. Wyoming has alternated a winning season with a losing campaign in each of his first four years. There’s a decent chance that trend will continue. The Cowboys went just 4-8 in 2012, but had four losses by a touchdown or less. With 14 starters coming back and the expected continued maturation of junior quarterback Brett Smith, the Cowboys are another team in the Mountain that could surprise.
6. New Mexico – I think it’s pretty safe to say that Bob Davie’s first season at New Mexico was a success. The Lobos ended up finishing at just 4-9, but that’s more wins than they had in the previous three years combined (3-33). They also had five losses by 7-points or less, including a shocking 29-32 defeat at home to Boise State as a 25-point underdog. With that said, 2013 doesn’t look to be quite as promising. New Mexico has just 10 starters back and won’t be catching teams off-guard like they did in 2012.
MWC Championship Game: Boise State defeats Fresno State