Mountain West football preview


The Mountain West has a new look, but the same sort of outcome is expected.

Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State shared the title last season, and all three teams are expected to contend again this year.

Boise State and Fresno State, in fact, were picked by the media to win their divisions.

Splitting into two six-team divisions is new for the Mountain West, which began play in 1999. But the conference is at 12 teams for the first time, allowing it to split and create an end-of-season championship game.

The teams are listed in the order they were picked by the conference media.

WEST DIVISION

Fresno State

■ Last season: 9-4, 7-1 MW (tied for first). Lost to Southern Methodist 43-10 in the Hawaii Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.

■ Three players to watch: QB Derek Carr, WR Davante Adams, S Derron Smith.

■ Three key losses: RB Robbie Rouse, LB Tristan Okpalaugo, S Phillip Thomas.

■ Outlook: An argument can be made that Fresno State is more talented than Boise State. Carr was the conference Offensive Player of the Year last season, and Adams was named the top freshman. Smith is considered one of the NFL’s top prospects at safety. If they all produce, the Bulldogs could be headed for a conference title showdown with Boise State.

■ Coach Tim DeRuyter: “I want our guys’ expectation to be that we’re going to compete for championships and not apologize for it. We’ve got a good nucleus from last year going back this year.”

San Diego State

■ Last season: 9-4, 7-1 MW (tied for first). Lost to Brigham Young 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Adam Muema, LB Jake Fely, S Nat Berhe

■ Three key losses: TE Gavin Escobar, C Alec Johnson, CB Leon McFadden

■ Outlook: The Aztecs have been on the rise in recent seasons, but this is the first time since 1998 they come off at least a co-conference championship. They field a team capable of competing for another title, but just getting out of the West with Fresno State and San Jose State will be difficult.

■ Coach Rocky Long: “We’re picked high, but that’s because we’re picked high in the division. That might be fifth or sixth if you put us all together.”

San Jose State

■ Last season: 11-2, 5-1 Western Athletic Conference (second). Defeated Bowling Green 29-20 in the Military Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB David Fales, WR Noel Grigsby, CB Bene Benwikere

■ Three key losses: RB De’Leon Eskridge, OL David Quessenberry, DL Travis Johnson

■ Outlook: Fales completed 72.5 percent of his passes last season, and all three of his top wide receivers return. But the Spartans lost a 1,000-yard rusher in Eskridge, and Johnson made 21½ tackles for loss. Still, San Jose State appears to be on the rise as it attempts to play in back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1987. First-year coach Ron Caragher is used to following a big opening act, having gone 44-22 after succeeding Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.

■ Caragher: “There are high expectations, and there were at my previous school as well. I don’t burden myself with that. I don’t really think about it.”

UNR

■ Last season: 7-6, 4-4 MW (fifth). Lost to Arizona 49-48 in the New Mexico Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Cody Fajardo, WR Brandon Wimberly, DL Brock Hekking

■ Three key losses: RB Stefphon Jefferson, OL Jeff Nady, LB Albert Rosette

■ Outlook: Chris Ault no longer will walk the sideline, the third time he has stepped away from coaching his alma mater. This time, it looks like a permanent move, and first-year coach Brian Polian has the difficult task of following someone who positively impacted college football, and UNR, in many ways.

■ Polian: “We’ve been given a blueprint, and in a lot of the cases, we’re going to follow the blueprint, the most visible being the offense. Why are we going to change the Pistol? There’s really no reason to. As the same time, I’ve got to be myself. I can’t try to be Chris Ault. It’s not fair. So there are things that we believe in as a staff, and I believe in personally, that we’re going to put our fingerprints on the program. Ultimately, if we succeed or fail, I’m held accountable for that.”

UNLV

■ Last season: 2-11, 2-6 MW (eighth)

■ Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Nick Sherry, RB Tim Cornett, DL Sonny Sanitoa

■ Three key losses: OL Yusef Rodgers, OL Doug Zismann, LB John Lotulelei

■ Outlook: Coach Bobby Hauck knows he needs to win after three consecutive two-victory seasons or probably be out of a job. The good news for him is this should be his best team, and the schedule sets up favorably early so that success in the first half of the season could lead to key victories late.

■ Hauck: “People have hung with us. We haven’t been all that lovable. So for me, the most important thing … is that our fans and people that have hung with us get to enjoy college football and enjoy some success in Rebel football, which has been over a 30-year span pretty hard to come by.”

Hawaii

■ Last season: 3-9, 1-7 MW (tied for ninth)

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Taylor Graham, RB Joey Iosefa, DL Tavita Woodard

■ Three key losses: RB Will Gregory, DL Paipai Falemalu, P Alex Dunnachie

■ Outlook: Hawaii is banking a lot of hope on Graham, a transfer from Ohio State. He has the ability to be one of the league’s top quarterbacks, and the Rainbow Warriors need all the help they can get. They will be challenged early with an opening schedule that includes home games against Southern California, Fresno State and San Jose State and trips to Oregon State and UNR.

■ Coach Norm Chow: “I think our team will be a lot better, but the schedule is scary — flat-out scary. I know we’re going to be better than the forecasts. Does that equate to wins and losses? I don’t know.”

MOUNTAIN DIVISION

Boise State

■ Last season: 11-2, 7-1 MW (tied for first). Defeated Washington 28-26 in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.

■ Returning starters: 5 offense, 4 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Joe Southwick, WR Matt Miller, DL Demarcus Lawrence

■ Three key losses: RB D.J. Harper, DL Sam Ukwuachu, CB Jamar Taylor

■ Outlook: It’s a year of heavy turnover for Boise State, but as long as coach Chris Petersen remains in control, the Broncos figure to be major contenders. They are again this season, and Southwick probably will need to carry a heavier load with so many starters gone. But Petersen recruits talent to replace talent, and few would question his ability to get the most out of his players.

■ Petersen: “We’ve been lucky. It starts with good players. We haven’t had a bunch of injuries that’s hurt us because that can change everything.”

Utah State

■ Last season: 11-2, 6-0 WAC (first). Defeated Toledo 41-15 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Chuckie Keeton, LB Jake Doughty, LB Zach Vigil

■ Three key losses: RB Kerwynn Williams, WR Matt Austin, CB Will Davis

■ Outlook: Utah State was so impressive last season in winning the WAC championship that Wisconsin snatched up coach Gary Andersen. In steps Matt Wells to oversee what has become a strong program, but one in transition as it joins the Mountain West. But having the do-it-all Keeton at quarterback makes that switch much easier.

■ Wells: “What makes me sleep well at night is knowing I’ve got five (offensive) linemen, a tight end and a quarterback back, and seven defenders off a very successful defense. We’re going to be youthful in some spots that aren’t household names around the Mountain West, and they’re not household names in Cache Valley and Logan (Utah), either, yet. But I think there’s some talent in some spots.”

Air Force

■ Last season: 6-7, 5-3 MW (fourth). Lost to Rice 33-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 3 offense, 5 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Kale Pearson, WR Ty MacArthur, S Christian Spears

■ Three key losses: QB Connor Dietz, RB Cody Getz, LB Alex Means

■ Outlook: In an effort to remake the program after going 13-13 in the past two seasons, the Falcons are trying to add size and more of a passing element. The transition could spell further trouble for this season. Seeing Air Force challenge Boise State and Utah State for supremacy in the Mountain isn’t likely.

■ Coach Troy Calhoun: “We’re pretty inexperienced. That doesn’t mean when you play you can’t gain some experience. We need to be able to digest some big bites in a hurry, and we may and we may not. We are fired up, though, about the quality of kids we have.”

Wyoming

■ Last season: 4-8, 3-5 MW (tied for sixth)

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Brett Smith, WR Robert Herron, CB Marqueston Huff

■ Three key losses: WR Chris McNeill, C Nick Carlson, DL Mike Purcell

■ Outlook: LIttle went right for the Cowboys last season, and little is expected of them this year. But as long as the multidimensional Smith is at quarterback, they have a chance to win games. His issues with concussions last season were critical in some close losses.

■ Coach Dave Christensen: “It was a tough season for all of us. We weren’t that far away. We were an injury away from the opportunity to be 8-4 as opposed to 4-8. I think our kids believe in what we’re doing. … They’ve continued to battle, believe, work hard, and they’re going to see the results of all that hard work.”

Colorado State

■ Last season: 4-8, 3-5 MW (tied for sixth)

■ Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Garrett Grayson, RB Donnell Alexander, LB Shaquil Barrett

■ Three key losses: OL Joe Caprioglio, DL Lanston Tanyi, P Pete Kontodiakos

■ Outlook: Colorado State showed some signs of life late last season, finishing with a three-game home winning streak. Now maybe the Rams can take the next step and qualify for a bowl. Their chances of reaching the postseason aren’t great, but they could get there if Grayson can establish himself as the unquestioned starter by taking advantage of his athletic ability.

■ Coach Jim McElwain: “I think the momentum we gained at the end of last season was huge as far as going into our (winter) program and into spring ball. All reports are it’s really carried over with our team this summer. There are more guys around. There are more guys up watching film. There’s a lot going on in a positive way.”

New Mexico

■ Last season: 4-9, 1-7 MW (tied for ninth)

■ Returning starters: 5 offense, 3 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Kasey Carrier, DL Jacori Greer, LB Dallas Bollema

■ Three key losses: QB B.R. Holbrook, TE Lucas Reed, DL Reggie Ellis

■ Outlook: Winning four games last season was quite an accomplish for a program that won three games combined in the previous three seasons. New Mexico’s success was due to a combination of fielding a veteran team and playing a weak schedule. The Lobos appear to be a long way from becoming a team that will make a difference in the conference.

■ Coach Bob Davie: “Every team in this league is looking at (us) like we’ve got one (a victory) now. That’s still the reality of where we are. We’re better. We’re going to be a pain in the butt to play. But the reality is we’re picked where we’re picked in that league. I saw that, too, and that’s fair.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

 

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