The Mountain West just completed their second season as a 12-team conference. Boise State managed to win the conference by beating Fresno State 28-14 in the Championship Game. The Bulldogs gave a valiant effort and were fortunate to win the Mountain Division with a 5-3 record, earning the tiebreaker over San Diego State (5-3). The Broncos went 8-1 in conference play for the season and were clearly the class of the conference.
A whopping seven teams from the MWC went to bowl games last year. Despite their 3-4 record in those games, the MWC is still 31-23 in bowl games since ’04, trailing only the SEC (57.4%) in winning percentage. There were 23 teams in college football that won 10 games last year, and four of those came from the Mountain division in Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State and Air Force.
Air Force was the most improved team in the country last year going from 2-10 in ’13 to 10-3 in ’14. One surprising stat is that Air Force was seventh in the FBS in rushing offense, yet it was only the fourth-best rushing attack in the conference. The Mountain West is obviously loaded with high-powered rushing attacks with the likes of AF, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada leading the way. But it was New Mexico, San Diego State and Boise State who led the conference in rushing last year, respectively.
The Mountain West has five of the top six highest elevations and seven of the top 12 in the FBS. That makes it very difficult for opponents to go and play there with breathing being an issue. I’m going to give my predictions on how the MWC plays out in 2015 with my Mountain and West division winners, as well as my pick in the Championship Game. Let’s take a look.
Mountain Division Predictions
1st: Boise State (10-2, 7-1 MWC)
The Broncos only managed one co-title in their first three years in the Mountain West with zero outright titles. In Brian Harsin’s first season last year, they went 12-2 and won the Mountain West with a 28-14 win over Fresno State in the Championship Game. They beat their two Mountain contenders in Utah State and Colorado State by a combined 44 points in the process. Now they return 17 starters and will be the most talented team in the entire conference. They do lose their two most productive players on offense in QB Grant Hedrick and RB Jay Ajayi (1,823 yards, 28 TD), but they have plenty of talent at RB and sophomore Ryan Finley is ready to take over at QB. They avoid three of the top teams from the West in San Diego State, Nevada and Fresno State. They do have to play Utah State on the road on a short week in a span of three road games in less than four weeks. Even if they lose that game, I still believe their 7-1 record within the conference will be enough to win the Mountain.
2nd: Utah State (8-4, 6-2 MWC)
Ohio State grabbed all of the headlines by using three different quarterbacks last year in winning the National Title. Well, Utah State used four different starting QB’s last year, and three in 2013. That makes the job that head coach Matt Wells has done nothing short of spectacular. The Aggies are 13-4 in league play with one title game appearance the past two years. They had just seven returning starters last year and won 10 games with their only MWC losses to Boise State and Colorado State, both on the road. Now Wells may have his best team yet with 15 returning starters. If QB Chuckie Keaton can finally stay healthy for a full season, the Aggies will give Boise State a run for its money. Even if Keaton doesn’t, the Aggies know they have a proven backup in Kent Myers to lead the way, along with Oregon transfer Damion Hobbs. Unfortunately, they have to play SDSU, Fresno and Nevada from the West division after avoiding all three the last two years. They do get Boise State at home on October 16, but I have them suffering two conference losses and finishing in second place in the Mountain division for a second straight year.
3rd: Colorado State (8-4, 5-3 MWC)
Many expect the Rams to drop off dramatically with the loss of head coach Jim McElwain to Florida. They also lose QB Garrett Grayson, RB Dee Hart, their top offensive lineman and their top two tacklers on defense. However, former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo steps into a great situation, and he’ll have a chance to follow in McElwain’s footsteps by showing well at CSU and getting a bigger job down the road. Bobo inherits 15 returning starters from a team that outscored MWC opponents by 10 points per game last year. The Rams welcome back a whopping 55 lettermen while only losing 11. The biggest concern is the schedule. The Rams will be playing their 7th straight week when they host Air Force, and they will be coming off back-to-back games against Boise State and Utah State. While that may be a trap game, the Rams still have the talent to compete for an MWC title. They play both Boise State and San Diego State at home, so the schedule at least puts them in the discussion. I’ll call them 3rd in the Mountain with a 5-3 record.
4th: New Mexico (5-7, 3-5 MWC)
Bob Davie stepped into a major rebuilding situation at New Mexico and has led the Lobos to just 4, 3 and 4 wins the past three years. They are 4-20 in MWC play in Davie’s three seasons in Albuquerque. But he took over a team that was coming off three straight 1-11 seasons, so it was going to take some time. Davie should have his best team yet with 14 returning starters and one of the most talented RB/O-line combos in the conference. Six of their eight losses last year came by 11 points or less, so they were competitive in almost every game they played. The offense will be explosive behind Jhurrell Pressley, who averaged a ridiculous 9.5 yards per carry last year and rushed for over 1,000 yards. But the defense has to improve after giving up 35.9 points and 519 yards per game last season. It will be better, but this is still one of the worst stop units in the MWC. I expect the Lobos to push for their first bowl game since ’07, but to come up one win short.
T-5th: Air Force (4-8, 2-6 MWC)
The Falcons were the most improved team in the country last year going from 2 wins in ’13 to 10 in ’14. They were the only MWC team to beat Boise State, pulling off the 28-14 upset at home despite getting outgained by 132 yards. They had everything go right for them last year. They were actually outgained by 20.1 yards per game in conference play despite their 5-3 MWC record. They now go from having 16 returning starters to just 11 this year. They lose QB Kale Pearson, who had a 14-to-3 TD/INT ratio and actually gave the Falcons a threat of a passing game. They do return almost everyone else on offense, including all of their top playmakers, but only four starters are back on D and they lose eight of their top 12 tacklers. They do avoid San Diego State from the West, but I don’t expect them to come close to matching last year’s win total. Their lack of experience at QB and on D has me picking them in a tie for last in the stacked Mountain division.
T-5th: Wyoming (5-7, 2-6 MWC)
It’s hard to pick a head coach who was 33-2 in his final three years at North Dakota State with three FCS national titles to finish last in the Mountain division. The Cowboys went just 4-8 in Craig Bohl’s first season last year as they getting accustomed to his systems. But they weren’t that bad as they were only outgained by 40.0 yards per game in conference play despite their 2-6 MWC record. They will have one of the top backfields in the MWC this season, and Indiana transfer Cameron Coffman finished second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game back in 2012. However, the Cowboys are the most inexperienced team in the MWC with just nine starters back. They lose a whopping 46% of their lettermen from last year as well. They draw San Diego State and Nevada from the West. They do get New Mexico and UNLV at home, but those are the only two games I foresee them winning, and that may even be a stretch as the Lobos beat them last year and are improved.
West Division Predictions
1st: San Diego State (8-4, 6-2 MWC)
A quick look at the records for SDSU and you would think that Rocky Long is slipping a bit. The Aztecs have won 9, 8 and 7 games over the past three seasons. However, the Aztecs actually outgained MWC opponents by 84.9 yards per game last year, which was the second-best mark in the conference. They were arguably the second-best team, but three road losses at Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State kept them out of the MWC title game. I have 100% conference that the Aztecs will win the West and play in the MWC title game in 2015. This may be Long’s best team in his 16 seasons as a head coach. SDSU returns 14 starters and the best defense in MWC. Eight starters are back on D from a unit that only gave up 19.8 points and 332 yards per game last season. The offense features a dominant O-line and the best RB in the MWC in Donnel Pumphrey, who rushed for 1,867 yards (6.8/carry) and 20 touchdowns last year. Kentucky transfer Maxwell Smith will be an upgrade at QB over Quinn Kaehler, who had a 9-to-12 TD/INT ratio last season and held the offense back. The Aztecs avoid Boise State from the Mountain division and get both Nevada and Fresno State at home.
2nd: San Jose State (7-5, 5-3 MWC)
The San Jose State Spartans have had some very poor luck in Ron Carragher’s first two seasons on the job. They did go 6-6 in 2013, but were not selected to a bowl game. They slipped to 3-9 last year despite finishing with the third-best yardage differential (+82.8 yards/game) in Mountain West play. They were also -12 in turnovers last year and had poor offensive (20.4) and defensive (12.1) yards per point. The Spartans will be the most improved team in the MWC in 2015 as they return the second-most starters (16) in the conference. The offensive will be explosive with 10 starters back, including QB Joe Gray, their top rusher, their top three receivers and four starters along the offensive line. The defense wasn’t bad last year in allowing 357 yards per game and should at least match those numbers with six starters back. They do draw the MWC’s top two teams in Boise State and San Diego State at home, so they could be a surprise contender in the conference if they can pull off upsets in one or two of those games. I foresee them going 5-3 at worst in MWC action.
T-3rd: Nevada (6-6, 4-4 MWC)
Head coach Brian Polian took Nevada from 4 wins in his first year to 7 last season. However, the Wolf Pack were outgained by 30.1 yards per game in conference play despite their 4-4 record and benefited from a +11 turnover differential. Now they return just 11 starters and lose star QB Cody Fajardo, who has meant everything to this team the past four years. I would pick them worse than 4-4 in the MWC, but they avoid both Boise State and Colorado State from the Mountain, instead drawing the two worst teams in New Mexico and Wyoming. They could be 4-0 in conference play before a brutal stretch that sees them play three of four games on the road at Fresno, Utah State and SDSU. They play Texas A&M and Arizona out of conference, but I have them getting to bowl eligibility at 6-6.
T-3rd: Hawaii (6-7, 4-4 MWC)
The Rainbow Warriors have been very generous to Norm Chow in giving him another chance. They have won 3, 1 and 4 games in his first three seasons on the job. He’s on one of the hottest seats of all coaches in college football in 2015. Chow should have a chance to get himself off that hot seat with his best team yet. The Warriors return 14 starters from a team that was only outgained by 57.9 yards per game in conference play last year. They had a poor offensive yards per point (17.4) last year and finished -7 in turnover differential. Hawaii got a big boost when USC transfer Max Wittek decided to come to the islands to play quarterback. The offensive should be one of the most improved in the country with eight starters back plus the addition of Wittek. The defense returns four of its top six tacklers and should also be among the MWC’s better units after allowing 26.8 points per game a year ago. While they play Boise State, they do draw two of the worst teams from that division in New Mexico and Air Force. I expect them to improve to 4-4 within the conference and to get to six wins, which won’t be enough to make a bowl because they play 13 games. Still, it will be a step in the right direction for Chow and company.
5th: Fresno State (4-8, 3-5 MWC)
Fresno State managed a rare 6-8 finish last year due to losing to Boise State in the MWC Championship Game and then Rice (6-30) in the bowl. Tim DeRuyter did a remarkable job of getting the Bulldogs to the championship game for a second straight season. They won their final three MWC games of the regular season and got some help along the way. This year they have just 11 returning starters, which is their fewest since a 4-9 season back in 2011. They lose 43% of their lettermen and are the second-least experienced team in the MWC. There is still plenty of talent here led by RB Marteze Waller (1,368 yards, 11 TD last year), but they may be starting a freshman QB in Mississippi State transfer Chason Virgil at quarterback. The defense gave up 456 yards per game last year and returns only five starters. They also draw both Utah State and Colorado State from the Mountain, though they get both at home. They play Ole Miss, Utah and BYU out of conference as well. I can’t see any way the Bulldogs even make a bowl game this season, and I have them finishing just 3-5 in MWC play.
6th: UNLV (2-10, 1-7 MWC)
The Rebels are far and away the worst team in the MWC in 2015. They are coming off a 2-11 season and have hired a local high school sensation Tony Sanchez as their head coach. While he does have two veteran coordinators in OC Barney Cotton and DC Kent Baer who have both been interim head coaches before, the chances of a HS coach having success in his first season at the college level is slim to none. That’s especially the case here, as UNLV returns just 10 starters and is in clear rebuilding mode. They do return QB Blake Decker (2,886 yards, 15 TD), top WR Devonte Boyd (65 receptions, 980 yards, 4 TD) and five of their top six tacklers on defense. But they draw two of the top teams from the Mountain in Boise State and Colorado State. Their only winnable conference game is Nov. 7 at home against Hawaii. They also draw Michigan, UCLA and Northern Illinois out of conference. I’ll call for a 2-10 season overall and a 1-7 mark within the MWC.
MWC Championship Game: Boise State defeats San Diego State
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