Mountain West preview
** Based on projected depth charts at ourlads.com
Air Force Falcons
The Military academies have a deep football tradition but have fallen by the wayside because of the emergence of Power 5 programs. Troy Calhoun has quietly built Air Force into one of the country's most consistent programs despite having certain disadvantages when it comes to recruiting. The Falcons have been to 10 bowl games in the last 13 years and went 11-2 in 2019; beating a high-octane Washington State team in their bowl game. They are the one MW team that has already played a game in 2020-- routing Navy 40-7.
The biggest loss to this team is QB Donald Hammond. After a breakout season in 2019, Hammond has fallen out of good standing with the school, and it is unknown when he will return to the field. Haaziq Daniels will be their quarterback this season. As most people are aware, the Military academies tend to be very run-oriented teams offensively. Air Force has a three headed rushing attack (four if you include the QB) made up of last year's leading rusher Kadin Remsberg, fullback Timothy Jackson, and Brad Roberts. The unit has eight seniors this season, including the entire offensive line and starting receiving corps.
Air Force usually has a decent defense, but they will have to replace most of last year's unit. They figure to be led by a front seven that had mostly seniors, and the secondary will be the least experienced of the group. It should also be noted that they only have four players back who have been legitimate contributors in the defensive rotation.
The Falcons will resume their season Saturday against San Jose State.
Boise State Broncos
Boise has become one of the premier Group of 5 programs in the last 15-20 years. Head coach Bryan Harsin, in his seventh year, has continued what his predecessors started--averaging 10 wins per season throughout his tenure. The Broncos have won three of the last six MWC titles, and, if that wasn't enough, are coming off their first ever season with an undefeated MWC record.
Hank Bachmeier returns to lead the Broncos at quarterback. The Mountain West's top offense will also see lead rusher George Holani and WRs Khalil Shakir, Octavius Evans, and CT Thomas return. They do lose top WR John Hightower and three starting offensive linemen from last year's team. However, four of their projected starters up front have been part of the o-line rotation. Honorable mention All-Conference tight end Joh Bates will also be a part of the equation.
The Broncos have had some pretty good defenses over the years. Last year's squad finished as the 4th best defense in the conference. This year's team will rely much more on the back seven (linebackers and defensive backs), since the defensive line is filled with younger transfers. Demetri Washington has the unlucky honor to replace DE/OLB Curtis Weaver, who set just about every school and conference pass rushing record. LB Riley Whimpey is back after leading the team in tackles and finishing with the second most in the conference. He'll be joined by Benton Wickersham and NC State transfer Brock Miller. The secondary returns CB Jalen Walker and safety Kekaula Kaniho-- both of whom have NFL potential. The rest of the secondary will be filled by guys who have had playing time as reserves.
Boise plays Utah State this weekend.
Colorado State Rams
CSU has had some bad years recently and is hoping that hiring Steve Addazio as head coach will help fix that. Candidly, I don't see his presence making them much better at all. He had decent success at Temple. but had several below average teams during his time at Boston College, ultimately leading to his firing. The best things he did were improve the pass rush and improve the running game. He may give them a step in the right direction, but I don't think he's the one that turns them into a contender. It will likely be a long year for this team.
Colorado State loses QB Collin Hill, who was beat out by Patrick O'Brien and is now starting for South Carolina. They will also be without top WR Warren Jackson, who opted out of the season to pursue the NFL. Marcus McElroy Jr. will take over as the starting running back for an offense that finished 3rd in rushing in the MWC last year. Dante Wright will lead the wide receivers, and tight ends Trey McBride and Cameron Butler may both have pro futures.
Last years CSU pass defense was the best in the conference in terms of yardage, but they finished second to last in interceptions. They'll need to capitalize on more opportunities this year to compete. They were also 4th in sacks. DLs Ellison Hubbard and Manny Jones were near the top on the team in sacks and will look to continue that trend. LBs DeQuan Jackson and Cam'ron Carter are also back, as is safety Logan Stewart. This side of the ball needs to be much improved after giving up 32.1 points per game in 2019.
The Rams will have to wait another week as their season opener against New Mexico has been canceled.
Players opting out: WR Warren Jackson
Fresno State Bulldogs
Fresno was built into a very solid Group of 5 program but took a step back last year; finishing 4-8. They are also entering the year with a new head coach, Kalen DeBoer. DeBoer has been an offensive coordinator for many programs, including Indiana just last season. He has also previously been the OC at Fresno during a time in which they had back-to-back 10 win seasons. He takes over for Jeff Tedford, who stepped down due to health concerns.
The offense is obviously most helped by the DeBoer hire. Not only is he an offensive coach, but his Indiana offense was in the top 5 in the Big Ten in nearly every category. RB Ronnie Rivers is the star for the offense. In 2019, he ran for 899 yards and 13 touchdowns while also being the team's 2nd leading receiver. Zane Pope was the lead receiver and will be joined by Keric Wheatfall and Jalen Cropper in the starting lineup. Cropper is a speed threat that they will use many ways and was second on the team in all-purpose yards as a true freshman. Washington transfer Jake Haener figures to take over at quarterback behind an o-line that returns four starters. The weakest spot will be left guard, where they will be playing a freshman.
Last year's Bulldog defense was not good, and it may be worse this year. Top tacklers Justin Rice, Mykal Walker, and JuJu Hughes are all gone. They will have mostly new starters all over, and only one starter (Kevin Atkins) returns on the d-line. They relied a lot on the back seven to make tackles and were consistently burnt in the passing game, and that will likely continue. LB Aaron Mosby and DB Wylan Free are their best players.
Fresno opens against Hawaii this weekend.
Since going 3-9 in 2017, Hawaii has ripped off two straight winning seasons. Last year's team went 10-5 and beat Power 5 teams in Arizona and Oregon State. They lost to Boise State in the conference championship, but defeated BYU in their bowl game. Head coach Nick Rolovich has been hired by Washington State and will be replaced by veteran coach Todd Graham. Graham has 12 years of experience as a college head coach, including the most successful six year run in Arizona State history.
Hawaii always has explosive offenses. They love to throw the ball around the field and put up all the points they can. Many of their quarterbacks have been deemed "stat sheet stuffers" and "system quarterbacks" because of the nature of the overall schemes. This year, they will be turning to a new quarterback and missing three of their top four receivers. Jared Smart is the lead returning receiver, and they figure to replace the others with transfers Rico Bussey, Zion Bowens, and Aaron Cephus. They also bring in RB Calvin Turner as a transfer, who will help make form a solid duo with Miles Reed (908 rushing yards and 8 TD in 2019). Chevan Cordeiro is the most likely starting QB and has three career starts. The offensive line returns starting tackles and center but will have brand new guards.
Hawaii's defense was the 2nd worst run defense in the MWC and 3rd worst in sacks while allowing 31.9 points per game. They return two starters on the d-line in Mason Vega and Blessman Ta'ala. Linebackers Penei Pavihi, Darius Muasau, and Jeremiah Pritchard are also back, as well as Khoury Bethley, Eugene Ford, and Cortez Davis in the seondary. That kind of continuity should allow the defense to improve, but they may also need a star to emerge.
Hawaii plays Fresno State this weekend.
Nevada has been a hit or miss team in the four seasons under Jay Norvell but has still surpassed preseason expectations in each season. Last year's team went 7-6 with a bowl victory and a Power 5 win over Purdue. The Wolfpack have now been to two consecutive bowl games and will look to take the next steps to contend in the Mountain West.
Several core offensive skill players return to Reno this season. Carson Strong split time with the other quarterbacks last year but appears to be clear choice at the position this season. They also get back their top two rushers, Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, and their top two receivers, Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs. The offensive line returns four of five starters after losing OT Miles Beach to retirement. While the continuity is good, there's a lot of improvement needed from this team after finishing near the bottom of the MWC in many offensive categories.
The Wolfpack defense is led by a veteran defensive line comprised of Dom Peterson, Sam Hammond, Tristan Nichols, and Chris Green. Peterson and Hammond are the only starters returning up front, but the others have playing experience. Lawson Hall returns at middle linebacker and will be joined by new starters on the outside. They also lose a starter in the secondary, but EJ Muhammad leads a group of players that may be ready for bigger roles. Honestly, almost anything would be better than last year's defensive performance.
Nevada opens this weekend against Wyoming.
New Mexico Lobos
New Mexico hasn't had a winning season since 2016. Last year's team went 2-10 and lost nine consecutive games--eight in conference play-- leading to the dismissal of Bob Davie. Former Arizona State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzalez takes over hoping to get some improvement from the team.
The 2019 Lobo offense was okay at getting yardage but really struggled to score. They actually had the third best rushing offense in the Mountain West, but you wouldn't know it by their record. This year, they lose leading rusher Ahmari Davis but bring back 2nd-leading rusher Bryson Carroll. Four starters are also back on the offensive line, so the run game should survive. QB Tevaka Tuoiti returns after starting nine games. The rapport between him and his receivers (Jordan Kress, Anselem Umeh, and TE Marcus Williams) will be the biggest factor in the offense's growth.
The defense loses almost everybody, but that might not be such a bad thing. New Mexico's defense was last or next to last in the conference in every defensive category. Letayveon Beaton and Patrick Peek are the only starters returning, and Peek is returning from a season-ending injury. Pretty good time for a fresh start under a defensive coach.
The Lobos were scheduled to start the season this weekend against Colorado State, but the game has been canceled.
San Diego State Aztecs
SDSU has also become a good program under the leadership of Rocky Long. The team has used a consistent running game and good defense to win 10 games in four of the last five seasons. Long has stepped aside and is being replaced by Brady Hoke. Hoke has previously been a head coach at Michigan-- where he went 11-2 in his first season but digressed from there. He even earned the nickname "Brady Choke" during his tenure in Ann Arbor. We'll see if redemption is in the cards as he takes over a new team.
The running game should be a strength once again. The Aztecs return four players who were part of the rotation on the offensive line and three of their top four running backs. Chance Bell, Chase Jasmin, and Jordan Byrd should all have significant roles. Although their passing game isn't a huge priority, they also return three of their top four wideouts, lead by Kobe Smith. Carson Baker is expected to start at QB. The pieces are there for improvement from an offense that was last in the MWC in scoring.
When you struggle to score but win 10 games, your defense is probably great. The Aztecs led the conference is basically every defensive statistic last season. They return Cameron Thomas and Keshwan Banks on the defensive line, Andrew Aleki and Caden McDonald at linebacker, and Tariq Thompson, Dwayne Johnson Jr, and Darren Hall in the secondary. The defense should be able to carry the Aztecs once again.
SDSU plays UNLV on Saturday.
San Jose State Spartans
The Spartans have sent some players to the NFL but have really struggled in recent years. Their last winning season was in 2012. Last year's team went 5-7. Brent Brennan, now in his fourth year, faces a make-or-break season after taking over for Ron Caragher in 2017. Caragher and many other head coaches in the program's history have been let go after their fourth years. They've had to rely on many freshmen but really need to have a good year.
The offense brings back its top three receivers in Tre Walker, Isaiah Hamilton, and Bailey Gaither, but will have a new quarterback. The team had the best passing attack in the MWC in 2019. Grad transfer Nick Starkel appears to be the starter after sharing the job at Arkansas. He has big shoes to fill as he replaces Josh Love, and I'm not so sure he can do it well enough. They also lose their top three rushers, and freshman Shamar Garrett is slated to start. With three starting OLs back, maybe he can get the running game going.
The Spartans defense was excellent against the pass and horrible against the run in 2019. This year, they will bring back seven starters, including three in the secondary. Linebackers Rico Tolefree and Kyle Harmon and whoever wins the nose tackle job will be key in improving the run defense.
The Spartans play Air Force this weekend, so that run defense will be tested early.
There's a reason most people don't think of UNLV as a football school. The Rebels haven't had a winning season since 2013, and every coach since 1981 left with a losing record. Marcus Arroyo will come in looking to change all that. He has been part of prolific offenses as the offensive coordinator at Oregon and as a position coach at Oklahoma State and was instrumental in the development of QB Justin Herbert. You'd think he would bring a new look to the Rebels offense.
That offense has plenty to work with. They return their top two rushers, including the program's 7th leading career rusher Charles Williams. Receivers Randal Grimes, a USC transfer, and Steve Jenkins lead a group of five wideout that have had roles in the offense. The team had the fourth best rushing offense in the Mountain West but loses most of its offensive line. QB Kenyan Oblad will look to build on a decent 2019.
The defense was the source of many struggles for UNLV. The unit finished as the second worst scoring defense and third worst overall defense in the conference. They were also last in sacks. This is another situation where starting from scratch might not be a bad idea, especially since NT Kolo Uasike and LB Farrell Hester are the only returning starters.
The Rebels will play San Diego State this weekend.
Utah State Aggies
Gary Andersen returned to the Aggies with a 7-6 record. That was a step back after an 11-2 season in 2018. They've been pretty good overall and played some tough games. 2020 might be a trying season as they look to replace many key players.
The biggest player to replace is QB Jordan Love, who put up some fantastic numbers and was a 1st-round NFL Draft pick. They will also need to replace their top receiver and leading rusher. Second leading rusher Jaylen Warren takes over at running back, and the team will have two of its top three receivers (Jordan Nathan and Deven Thompkins) returning. Utah transfer Jason Shelley has won the quarterback job.
The Aggies' defense was bottom four in the conference in everything but passing and scoring. The pass defense should continue to stand out with Shaq Bond and Troy Lefeged Jr returning. Overall, they have four starters back and four key reserves taking on expanded roles. The rest will be transfers or first time contirbutors.
The Aggies have a tough opener against Boise State this weekend.
Wyoming is a program on the rise. Craig Bohl, who helped build North Dakota State into and FCS power, enters his 6th year looking to contend in the Mountain West. The Cowboys went 8-5 last year and have steadily developed a few NFL players. After going 2-10 in 2015, Wyoming is looking for its fifth consecutive bowl berth.
Running back Xazavian Valladay enters the season as the offensive star after a breakout 2019 in which he ran for 1265 yards and six touchdowns. Louisville transfer Trey Smith returns from injury to form one of the conference's best 1-2 punches in the backfield. Center Keegan Cryder leads a veteran offensive line group that helped pave the way for the Mountain West's 2nd best rushing attack. They'll likely have to lean on the running game again, since they will have a new QB (Sean Chambers) and an entire new group of receivers.
The defense loses LBs Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia to the NFL and will also be without DBs Alijah Haliburton and Tyler Hall. Easton Gibbs and Chad Muma are projected to start at linebacker, and Azizi Hearn and Rome Weber will try to hold down the fort in the secondary. They'll get some help as CB CJ Coldon returns from injury. Up front, the Cowboys have pass-rushers Garret Crall and Solomon Byrd and will get DT Ravontae Holt back from a season-ending injury. They need to improve against the pass, but they may have one of the conference's better defenses.
Wyoming plays Saturday against Nevada.
Utah State @ Boise State, 10/24
Hawaii @ Wyoming, 10/30
Boise State @ Air Force, 10/31
San Diego State @ Utah State, 10/31
BYU @ Boise State, 11/6
Hawaii @ San Diego State, 11/14
Air Force @ Wyoming, 11/14
Utah State @ Wyoming, 11/19
Boise State @ Hawaii, 11/21
Air Force @ Utah State, 12/3
San Diego State @ BYU, 12/12
Boise State @ Wyoming, 12/12