The Mountain West belonged to the San Diego State Aztecs last season. They went 8-0 within the conference to win the West division while topping Air Force 27-24 in the Championship Game. The Aztecs would finish 11-3 after thumping Cincinnati 42-7 in their bowl game.
Speaking of Air Force, the Falcons were the surprise winners of the Mountain division. This was easily the more competitive of the two divisions as four other teams finished within one game of the Falcons. Boise State was expected to win it coming in, but upset losses to Utah State, New Mexico and Air Force did them in.
Mountain West fans should be excited for the 2016 season. I believe both Boise State and San Diego State could make runs at unbeaten seasons when they meet in the MWC Championship Game. Check out my complete predictions for both MWC divisions in 2016 below with my projected records and standings.
MWC Mountain Predictions
1. Boise State (11-1, 7-1 MWC)
The Broncos fell short of expectations last year by falling victim to three upsets in conference play. However, they were better than their record would indicate as they outgained conference opponents by 143.6 yards per game, which was the second-best mark in the MWC. The Broncos figure to have the best offense in the MWC this year with eight returning starters including a trio of studs at the skill positions in QB Rypien, RB McNichols and WR Sperbeck. The defense will also be among the league’s best despite just five returning starters. Boise State could be unbeaten heading into its Nov. 25 showdown at Air Force, and even a loss in that game would likely have it still winning the Mountain Division.
2. Air Force (10-2, 6-2 MWC)
The Falcons made their first Mountain West Title game last year and only lost 24-27 to San Diego State. Now they return 15 starters, which is a ton for a service academy. They do lose QB Karson Roberts, and he’ll be tough to replace even though Nate Romine has starting experience. Air Force will have the best set of running backs and offensive line in the MWC, which is a recipe for success. They should be even better defensively with nine starters back from a unit that gave up 25.5 points per game last season. They do have tough road games at Utah State and San Jose State while getting only three conference home games with their game against New Mexico played on a neutral field. If they can upset Boise State at home on Nov. 25 they’ll have a chance to repeat, but I’ll call for them to settle for second this year.
3. Utah State (6-6, 4-4 MWC)
The Aggies went through an injury-plagued 2015 campaign and managed to finish just 6-7. However, they were better than their record as they outgained conference opponents by 47.3 yards per game. The offense should be even better with seven starters back, but my concern is with the defense and just three returning starters. They lose all of their linebackers and seven of their top eight tacklers. They also draw San Diego State from the West and have road games against Boise State, Colorado State and Nevada in Mountain West play. They’ll have to pull off a few upsets to finish higher than this because of the schedule. I’ll call for a .500 season overall and in league play for the Aggies in 2016.
3. New Mexico (7-5, 4-4 MWC)
Bob Davie is doing a tremendous job of turning around the culture at New Mexico. He got the Lobos to a bowl game last year for the first time since 2007. Along the way they upset the likes of Boise State as 31-point dogs, Utah State as 16-point dogs, and Air Force as 10-point dogs. They have proven they can hang with the league’s best. Now Davie will have 15 returning starters. He should have his best defense yet with 10 starters back on that side of the ball. The offense is still in good shape with QB Lamar Jordan returning along with a talented stable of running backs. The Lobos also have a generous schedule as they have just three true MWC road games because they play Air Force on a neutral field. They did get outgained by 93.9 yards per game in league play last year, so some regression is likely. But I still have them getting to 7-5 and another bowl game because of the generous schedule.
3. Colorado State (6-6, 4-4 MWC)
The Rams were only outgained by 25.6 yards per game in MWC play last season and could easily have finished better than 7-6. Still, they made a bowl game in Mike Bobo’s first season on the job. He did benefit from having 15 returning starters, but now the Rams only have 10 starters back in 2016. They are likely to struggle defensively with only four starters back. The offense brings back six starters, including QB Nick Stevens. But he does lose each of his top four receivers from last season, including the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards in Rashard Huggins. If the Rams can improve upon their -12 turnover differential, they can get back to another bowl game. I think they will as they have a favorable home schedule with UTSA, Northern Colorado, Wyoming, Utah State, Fresno State and New Mexico in their six home contests.
6. Wyoming (2-10, 1-7 MWC)
The top five teams in the Mountain Division all had winning records last year, while Wyoming finished in the basement with a 2-6 conference mark. It certainly has a lot of ground to make up after getting outgained by 85.5 yards per game in MWC play. The good news is that the Cowboys are the most experienced team in the MWC with 18 returning starters. The bad news is that the schedule is brutal. Their four MWC home games come against four of the top teams in the league in Air Force, Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State. That means basically all of their winnable games are on the road. They are going to have to pull off some major upsets to finish better than my 2-10 projection.
MWC West Predictions
1. San Diego State (11-1, 7-1 MWC)
After a 1-3 start last year, San Diego State went 10-0 the rest of the way to finish 11-3 and run away with the Mountain West Title. The Aztecs now have 14 starters back for the best head coach in the conference in Rocky Long. They will certainly have the best defense again with seven starters back from a unit that gave up only 16.4 points and 287 yards per game. The offense is still in good hands with RB Donnel Pumphry (1,653 yards, 17 TD) among seven returning starters. If they can just get respectable QB play they will be improved on this side of the ball as well. It will be hard to match the +22 turnover differential from last year, but this team is head and shoulders above the rest in the West Division. The Aztecs avoid the top two teams from the Mountain in Boise State and Air Force, and I could easily see them running the table this year. I’ll call for them to get upset once along the way, but a repeat to the MWC Title game is almost a foregone conclusion.
2. San Jose State (6-6, 5-3 MWC)
The Spartans might be the most underrated team in the Mountain West heading into 2016. They were able to get to a bowl game despite a 5-7 record last year and made the most of it, beating Georgia State 27-16. It was just their second bowl berth since 2006, so they benefited from the extra practices. Now Ron Caragher returns 15 starters from a team that actually outgained conference opponents by 25.5 yards per game last year. They averaged 405 yards of offense and return eight starters on that side of the ball, and there’s a good chance they will top that mark this year. Their defense was very solid in limiting opponents to 359 yards per game. They return seven starters on D and each of their top three tacklers. While they do draw both Boise State and Air Force from the Mountain, I believe they can go 4-0 at home against the likes of Hawai’i, Nevada, UNLV and Air Force to finish second in this division in 2016.
3. Nevada (5-7, 3-5 MWC)
The Wolf Pack made a bowl game last year and finished 7-6 after topping Colorado State 28-23 in the Arizona Bowl. Now they return 15 starters and should have one of the better offenses in the MWC with 10 starters back. However, I’m concerned about a defense that gave up 405 yards per game last year and brings back only five starters while losing five of their top seven tacklers. They do avoid both Boise State and Air Force, but they have to play San Jose State and ex-offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich on the road this season. I could see them getting to 6-6 and 4-4 in MWC, but I’ll call for them to come up just short of a bowl game due to their porous defense.
3. UNLV (5-7, 3-5 MWC)
The UNLV Rebels were expected to be one of the worst teams in the MWC last year in the first season under Tony Sanchez. He had just 10 returning starters to work with, but he made the Rebels much more competitive than their 3-9 record would indicate. They were within a touchdown in the 4th quarter of all but three games last year, so they had poor fortune in close games. Now Sanchez has 14 returning starters to work with in Year 2 of his systems. The Rebels will have one of the better offenses in the MWC with all of their top playmakers back, plus Nebraska transfer Johnny Stanton at quarterback. The defense has eight starters back and should be improved as well. All four of UNLV’s home games are winnable against Fresno State, Colorado State, Wyoming and Nevada. I have it winning three of four there to finish 3-5 in the conference and just one win short of a bowl berth.
5. Fresno State (3-9, 2-6 MWC)
After an 11-2 season in 2013, the Bulldogs have been on the steady decline the past two seasons. They tumbled all the way down to 3-9 last year in the fourth season under Tim DeRuyter. To his credit, they did have just 10 returning starters last year and now go up to 12. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs have three home games against San Diego State, Air Force and San Jose State, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road. I foresee a repeat 3-9 season from last year considering they play Nebraska, Toledo and Tulsa out of conference. This team is on a downward spiral and I don’t see it getting any better in 2016.
5. Hawai’i (4-9, 2-6 MWC)
Expectations were high for Hawai’i last season as they returned 14 starters. But they were awful to say the least, finishing just 3-10 which led to the firing of Norm Chow. Now former Nevada offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich returns to his alma mater to try and resurrect the program. He steps into a pretty good situation with 15 returning starters, but the Warriors have a lot of ground to make up. They averaged just 17.6 points per game offensively last year and were outgained by 154.3 yards per game in conference play. They were also -23 in turnover differential. The offense should take a big step forward under Rolovich’s watch with nine returning starters. But the defense figures to be horrid once again. The Warriors have winnable home games against Nevada, UNLV and New Mexico and should be more competitive this season. But they draw both Air Force and Boise State from the Mountain Division, so the schedule is not easy. I’ll call for a 4-9 finish overall and a 2-6 mark in conference play for a slight improvement in Year 1 under Rolovich.
MWC Championship Game: San Diego State Defeats Boise State
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