San Diego State, Boise State favored in Mountain West

Three Mountain West football teams got a head start on most of the rest of the country and opened their seasons on Saturday.

UNLV’s first game is at 6 p.m. Saturday against Howard at Sam Boyd Stadium, so here is a look at how the conference could fare.

Teams are listed in order of how the Mountain West media picked them to finish.

WEST DIVISION

1. San Diego State

Coach: Rocky Long, seventh year at San Diego State (54-26), 18th year overall (119-95)

2016 record: 11-3, 6-2 MW, defeated Wyoming 27-24 in the MW championship, defeated Houston 34-10 in Las Vegas Bowl

Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense

Who they will miss most: RB Donnel Pumphrey (2,133 yards rushing, 17 TDs)

All eyes will be on: RB Rashaad Penny (1,018 yards rushing, 11 TDs)

Biggest question: The Aztecs are inexperienced in the secondary, so opposing teams could test them downfield. How will the Aztecs address that potential weakness?

Coachspeak: “First of all, I don’t think we’ve created a gap (in the West Division). Second of all, I think we’ve got several new coaches on our side. Their teams are going to play a lot more excited, with a lot more energy, probably a lot more confidence, and the target on our back just got bigger.”

2. Hawaii

Coach: Nick Rolovich, second year (8-7)

2016 record: 7-7, 4-4 MW, defeated Middle Tennessee 52-35 in the Hawaii Bowl

Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense

Who they will miss most: WR Marcus Kemp (73 catches, 1,100 yards, 8 TDs)

All eyes will be on: LB Jahlani Tavai (129 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks)

Biggest question: The Warriors allowed 37.3 points per game last season, which made getting to a bowl remarkable. Will they have to outscore their own defense again?

Coachspeak: “It’s time to maybe start backing off a little bit of that stuff (off-field promotions Rolovich has done) and really concentrating on the next level we need to get to. Getting in that Mountain West championship game. Scoring a point versus San Diego State. I’m not here to be court jester of the Mountain West, but I am here to try to promote our program.”

3. UNLV

Coach: Tony Sanchez, third year (7-17)

2016 record: 4-8, 3-5 MW

Returning starters: 9 offense, 2 defense

Who they will miss most: LB Tau Lotulelei (117 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss)

All eyes will be on: QB Armani Rogers (most-hyped UNLV QB since Jason Thomas in 2000)

Biggest question: UNLV could average seven touchdowns per game, but the Rebels’ defense could do the same. Can the inexperienced side make enough stops to give its offense a real chance?

Coachspeak: “We need to make plays (on defense), create turnovers and play better against the deep ball, but if we’re going to win football games, we’ve got to score points. This is not going to be a year where we win a bunch of games 17-14.”

4. UNR

Coach: Jay Norvell, first year

2016 record: 5-7, 3-5 MW

Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense

Who they will miss most: RB James Butler (1,336 yards rushing, 12 TDs)

All eyes will be on: DE Malik Reed (59 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks)

Biggest question: How long will it take the “Air Raid” offense to become effective?

Coachspeak: “I know a lot’s been talked about the ‘Air Raid,’ but if anybody’s watched me coach over the last 30 years, we’ve always run the football. We’ve always tried to be physical. So that’s going to be an important part of what we do.”

5. San Jose State

Coach: Brent Brennan, first year (0-1)

2016 record: 4-8, 3-5 MW

Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense

Who they will miss most: QB Kenny Potter (59.4 completion percentage, 2,273 yards passing, 16 TDs)

All eyes will be on: LB Frank Ginda (99 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks)

Biggest question: The Spartans allowed 50 sacks last season, highest in the nation. With only one offensive line starter having departed, will San Jose State’s experience be enough to better protect the quarterback?

Coachspeak: “I think it can be a great place. I say that all the time. I say that to donors. I say that to students. I say that to our team. There’s no reason we can’t have a great football team there.”

6. Fresno State

Coach: Jeff Tedford, first year at Fresno State, 12th year overall (82-57)

2016 record: 1-11, 0-8 MW

Returning starters: 10 offense, 6 defense

Who they will miss most: LB Jeff Camilli (108 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 4 sacks)

All eyes will be on: QB Chason Virgil (2,021 yards passing, 13 TDs)

Biggest question: Tedford made a winner of California, and he will try to use those lessons to rebuild Fresno State. How long before he can see similar success at his alma mater?

Coachspeak: “There are a lot of similarities between (Fresno State and Cal) — chemistry, mindset — of a team that just won one game. That doesn’t change very much. Guys are beat down. So there is a consistency with having to overcome that setback from winning only one game.”

MOUNTAIN DIVISION

1. Boise State

Coach: Bryan Harsin, fourth year at Boise State (31-9), fifth year overall (38-14)

2016 record: 10-3, 6-2 MW, lost to Baylor 31-12 in the Cactus Bowl

Returning starters: 5 offense, 4 defense

Who they will miss most: RB Jeremy McNichols (1,709 yards rushing, 23 TDs)

All eyes will be on: QB Brett Rypien (61.9 completion percentage, 3,646 yards passing, 24 TDs)

Biggest question: The Broncos are breaking in a lot of new players. Will they develop enough chemistry to compete for the conference championship?

Coachspeak: “We don’t sit there ever and think that expectations are too high. We have high expectations. Why does any team go out there and work in the offseason all these hours? To try to win every single game.”

2. Colorado State

Coach: Mike Bobo, third year (15-12)

2016 record: 7-6, 5-3 MW, lost to Idaho 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense

Who they will miss most: LB Kevin Davis (110 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss)

All eyes will be on: QB Nick Stevens (64.0 completion percentage, 1,933 yards passing, 19 TDs)

Biggest question: Optimism is high for a Colorado State offense that averaged 35.3 points last season, but the Rams allowed 30.4 per game. Can the Rams consistently win shootouts?

Coachspeak: “Just on our side (Mountain Division), you’ve got five out of six teams that went to bowl games last year. All six teams on our side have got a returning quarterback that’s started. It’s going to be a tough road for anybody to win this conference.”

3. Wyoming

Coach: Craig Bohl, fourth year at Wyoming (14-24), 15th year overall (118-56)

2016 record: 8-6, 6-2 MW, lost to San Diego State 27-24 in the MW championship game, lost to Brigham Young 24-21 in the Poinsettia Bowl

Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense

Who they will miss most: RB Brian Hill (1,860 yards rushing, 22 TDs)

All eyes will be on: QB Josh Allen (56.0 completion percentage, 3,203 yards passing, 28 TDs)

Biggest question: Allen is being talked about as a possible No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. Can he handle the pressure that comes with such expectations?

Coachspeak: “(Allen has) had a lot of national attention, and I think he’s taking it all in stride. It’s good for college football. It’s really good for the University of Wyoming.”

4. Air Force

Coach: Troy Calhoun, 11th year (77-53)

2016 record: 10-3, 5-3 MW, defeated South Alabama 45-21 in the Arizona Bowl

Returning starters: 5 offense, 1 defense

Who they will miss most: S Weston Steelhammer (80 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 7 interceptions)

All eyes will be on: QB Arion Worthman (546 yards passing, 674 yards rushing, 10 total TDs)

Biggest question: With only one returning starter on defense, can the Falcons grow that side of the ball quickly?

Coachspeak: “You’d like to have four seniors (on defense), four juniors, two sophomores and one freshman start. That would be your perfect model because that way you only have four starters that have left and you’ve got seven that are returning every single year. Yet we haven’t done that, so maybe that falls on us a little bit as coaches.”

5. New Mexico

Coach: Bob Davie, sixth year at New Mexico (27-36), 11th year overall (62-61)

2016 record: 9-4, 6-2 MW, defeated Texas-San Antonio 23-20 in the New Mexico Bowl

Returning starters: 7 offense, 3 defense

Who they will miss most: RB Teriyon Gipson (1,269 yards rushing, 13 TDs)

All eyes will be on: RB Tyrone Owens (1,097 yards rushing, 7 TDs)

Biggest question: With back-to-back winning seasons, Davie hopes the program has momentum going in the right direction. But with three defensive starters back, will the Lobos be able to win high-scoring games?

Coachspeak: “We’re in the (recruiting) hunt with a lot more kids than we were. We do occasionally beat somebody that we didn’t beat (in prior seasons), but it hasn’t dramatically changed. I don’t think it will dramatically change unless we get on a Boise kind of thing where all of the sudden we’re the darling of college football. It’s like at UNLV. It’s always going to be a challenge.”

6. Utah State

Coach: Matt Wells, fifth year (28-25)

2016 record: 3-9, 1-7 MW

Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense

Who they will miss most: LB Anthony Williams (96 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss)

All eyes will be on: QB Kent Myers (2,389 yards passing, 449 yards rushing, 16 total TDs)

Biggest question: With the Aggies in the competitive Mountain Division, a slow start will only increase the questions about Wells’ status. Will they be able to focus and put together a bounce-back season?

Coachspeak: “I don’t think we’re very far away. I didn’t think we were very far away last year. The bottom line is we were disappointed in last year in terms of the won-lost record. We didn’t win close games. That’s the bottom line.”

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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