Boise State has been known to be one of the top little engines that could in college football, and this season should be no different. In fact, this little blue engine could have enough steam to make for some heated conversations later in the season if things start off well for the Broncos. Considering the strength of the Mountain West Conference as a whole compared to other Group of Five conferences, it would appear likely the conference champion will once grab the New Years Six bowl spot as Boise State did last season. But could there be something bigger on the horizon for Boise State? The Broncos have gotten in their own way before, so assuming would be unwise for Boise State fans. However, it sure is fun to talk about now.
1. Boise State (12-0, 8-0 MWC)
The biggest concern to have about Boise State is how they replace running back Jay Ajayi and quarterback Grant Hedrick with a new offensive coordinator. The good news is Ryan Finley should slide in nicely under center, and the running game will come along. Boise State could also have the best defense in the conference, and that should carry them through some difficult tests early on. Boise State opens at home against former coach Chris Petersen and Washington. A win in the opener puts the Broncos well ahead of the Group of Five pack, but this Boise State squad could potentially make for some more entertaining debates along the way. The biggest tests outside of Washington will all come on the road (BYU, Colorado State and Utah State). This is the Group of Five team to beat, but can they be more?
2. Utah State (8-4, 6-2 MWC)
As was the case last season, the biggest question here is how long can quarterback Chuckie Keeton stay healthy. If healthy and mobile, Utah State has the best quarterback in the conference, and that is enough to carry them to another bowl season. But Utah State also packs a mean defense with perhaps the Mountain West’s top defensive player, Nick Vigil, solidifying the middle of the field.
3. Colorado State (8-4 , 5-3 MWC)
Colorado State took some giant steps forward last season, but how much of that can carry over to the 2015 season after losing a bunch of key seniors and head coach Jim McElwain to Florida? I’m looking for the Rams to take a step backward in the conference, although they certainly will not be falling flat to the bottom of the division. The depth across the board is much better than when McElwain took over, and the Rams can still pose a threat to teams like Utah State and Boise State.
4. Air Force (7-5, 5-3 MWC)
What makes Air Force a threat is their offensive style. It is enough to grind out some tough wins along the way and give the likes of Boise State a run, but the depth is not up to par to stay in the running for a division title. There should be plenty of offense on display by the Falcons with wide receiver Jalen Robinette putting up some good numbers, but the defense could be a problem. Just four starters return and the entire unit is a tad smaller than much of the opposition (due to physical limitations in the United States Air Force). Bottom line, Air Force can get involved in some wild games but the defense will prevent the Falcons from winning some of them.
5. New Mexico (5-7, 3-5 MWC)
Bob Davie is entering year four in his return to coaching, and it could be another year taking a step forward at New Mexico (which coincidently could move him into some interesting coaching rumors in the offseason). There are going to be some tough games for New Mexico this season though, and the second half of the season could be a long on for the Lobos. Jhurell Pressley is back after a 1,000-yard rushing season last fall, and he should once again be the top offensive player for the team this fall. The defense also returns four starters in the front seven, including all three linebackers, but the secondary should be a work in progress. Getting to a bowl game is not quite out of reach, but I think they come up just short.
6. Wyoming (5-7, 2-6 MWC)
Craig Bohl started well in his tenure off at Wyoming after leaving FCS power North Dakota State (after three straight national titles), but quickly realized things are a tad tougher in the Mountain West Conference. Wyoming started 3-1 last season but the Cowboys won just once more after mid-September. The defense was a mess at Wyoming and it may not be a ton better in 2015. But Bohl is the kind of coach that will make adjustments and address needs where needed, so expect to see at least some improvement on the defensive side of the football despite just four returning starters. A bowl berth will be just out of reach this season despite another positive start (I have Wyoming actually starting 4-1).
1. San Diego State (9-3, 6-2 MWC)
San Diego State’s defense could be very good in the Mountain West Conference, and the Aztecs appear to have a somewhat favorable schedule in conference play. San Diego State gets Fresno State, Utah State and Nevada at home and dodges Boise State. They could even give Penn State a good scare in late September in Happy Valley. San Diego State’s defense returns eight starters from last season when they allowed just under 20 points per game. Calvin Munson is back to give the Aztecs a playmaker (four interceptions and a team-high 83 tackles among returning players). Rocky Long has done well in leading the program, but can they get over the hump and challenge Boise State for the conference crown? That might be a reach, but this team can be dangerous.
2. Nevada (8-4, 6-2 MWC)
If San Diego State stumbles this season, look for Nevada to take advantage. This may not be the best Nevada team we have seen in recent years, but they are still a threat with Brian Polian calling the shots. This is year three under Polian, and it could be the best yet for the Wolfpack despite a few questions that need to be answered on offense. The defense should keep things steady for the most part even with just five returning starters, although things could look ugly early on against Arizona and Texas A&M. The division could come down to the final game of the regular season though, which I currently give the edge to San Diego State.
3. Fresno State (6-6, 5-3 MWC)
Fresno State also has the tools to hang in the West Division hunt, but the beginning of October could be rough with games at San Diego State and home against Utah State. I have Fresno State splitting those two games (beating Utah State), and that may be necessary to get a whiff of the division. The defense should be OK within the division, although there is room for improvement, and the offense could be a rare problem for Fresno State.
4. Hawaii (3-10, 2-6 MWC)
This will be a critical season for head coach Norm Chow, and I predict it will not go too well. Hawaii has no off week this season and plays Ohio State, Wisconsin and Boise State on the road in the first half of the year. Getting to the postseason should prove difficult for the Rainbow Warriors, but there should be some entertaining games along the way. But with a likely losing season in the fold, we could see a coaching change take place with just one year remaining on Chow’s contract after this season.
5. San Jose State (2-10, 1-7 MWC)
San Jose State won just three games last season, and it may be difficult to match that this season. The Spartans had to dismiss a pair of players from the Class of 2015 before ever getting started, which will hurt with the depth moving forward a tad. Things could look bad early on, as visiting New Hampshire could put up a good fight and maybe even return home with a win. San Jose State may still have some offense to make things interesting, but there is no push up front on defense and that will be a problem. But the future should be better as long as its recruits don’t get booted before playing a down in the fall.
6. UNLV (1-11, 0-8 MWC)
UNLV won just two games last year, so they brought in a new head coach. Tony Sanchez is making his college coaching debut this fall after a very successful run as a high school coach at high-profile Bishop Gorman. It is his deep connection to Nevada high school football that could turn things around at UNLV, but it most certainly is not about to happen overnight. This could be a long season as UNLV has room for major improvement at just about every position on the field and just seven returning starters. Six straight high school state titles didn’t happen by accident for Sanchez, so we will see if he can take some of those techniques and start to build something similar with the Rebels.
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Boise State over San Diego State
Boise State will return to the Mountain West Conference game and once again serve as host. San Diego State can be a tricky opponent for the Broncos, but the home field advantage should be enough to allow the Broncos to continue to dream big about another New Years Six bowl game at the end of the season.
Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year: Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State RB
Pumphrey is coming off a season with 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns, and similar production should be expected once again. San Diego State’s success will hinge largely on Pumphrey’s production, and he should have a decent enough offensive line helping him out. He should easily reach the 3,000 career yard mark this fall.
Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Vigil, Utah State LB
The best defensive player may play for the best defensive unit in the conference. Look for Vigil to be just about everywhere when on the field, and he should pile up some big time numbers after recording 123 tackles and seven sacks last season.
Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year: Bryan Harsin, Boise State
If you go undefeated and lead your team to the New Years Six, this is your award to lose. Because I am not also projecting major surprises in the conference this season, Harsin seems like a lock to take home this award within the Mountain West Conference.