Usual suspects favored in Mountain West

Not much is expected to change in the Mountain West this season.

Fresno State is the favorite in the West Division, and the Mountain title should wind up in the hands of Boise State or Utah State.

At least that’s the opinion of the media covering the conference. It has been known to be wrong in previous seasons.

Here’s a look at the teams in the Mountain West, in the order in which they were ranked by the reporters who cover the conference.

WEST DIVISION

FRESNO STATE

■ Last season: 11-2, 7-1 MW (first in the West Division). Defeated Utah State 24-17 in the Mountain West championship. Lost to Southern California 45-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Josh Quezada, WR Josh Harper, FS Derron Smith

■ Three key losses: QB Derek Carr, WR Davante Adams, OL Austin Wentworth

■ Outlook: Fresno State loses a load of talent from a team that averaged 43.4 points and 547.8 yards per game, so expect the Bulldogs to take a step back toward the pack. They will replace talent with talent, however, so they remain the ones to beat in the West Division.

■ Coach Tim DeRuyter: “I think this is a unique year that there’s no clear front-runner, and there’s nobody way, way behind. They could’ve picked four teams, and nobody would’ve been surprised if Nevada was picked or San Diego State was picked or San Jose or even UNLV coming off a bowl game. (Being favored) is flattering. Our guys expect to compete for a championship, but we’ve got to develop this year’s team and this year’s personality and temperament to see if we’re up to it.”

SAN DIEGO STATE

■ Last season: 8-5, 6-2 MW (second). Defeated Buffalo 49-24 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Quinn Kaehler, WR Ezell Ruffin, DB J.J. Whittaker

■ Three key losses: RB Adam Muema, LB Nick Tenhaeff, DB Nat Berhe

■ Outlook: The Aztecs bring back a talented quarterback in Kaehler, who passed for 3,007 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and Rocky Long-coached teams usually can be counted on to play defense. San Diego State had its chances to win the division last season, and expect the Aztecs to be in the mix again.

■ Long: “I think Quinn Kaehler came in last year in a very difficult situation and ended up being a really good player by the end.”

UNR

■ Last season: 4-8, 3-5 MW (fifth).

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Cody Fajardo, DE Brock Hekking, LB Jonathan McNeal

■ Three key losses: WR Brandon Wimberly, OL Joel Bitonio, DB Markus Smith

■ Outlook: Coach Brian Polian’s first season was a rough one, with the Wolf Pack failing to qualify for a bowl for the first time since 2004. He brings back most of the starters from that team, including Fajardo, so the Wolf Pack should be able to compete for at least the division title. Fajardo is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,668 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 621 yards and eight TDs.

■ Polian: “The two teams ranked above us in the poll are there because they ought to be there. … We want to be considered a heavyweight, but in order to do that, you’ve got to knock off the heavyweights, and the heavyweights right now are those two schools. We have them at our place in November. Hopefully, it’ll be freezing, and let’s go find out.”

UNLV

■ Last season: 7-6, 5-3 MW (tied for third). Lost to North Texas 36-14 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense

■ Three players to watch: WR Devante Davis, OT Brett Boyko, SS Peni Vea

■ Three key losses: QB Caleb Herring, RB Tim Cornett, DT Tyler Gaston

■ Outlook: UNLV comes off its best season in 13 years, but the Rebels have the burden of replacing key players in Herring and Cornett. They believe they have the pieces to build on last season, however, with coach Bobby Hauck talking about making a run at the conference championship. UNLV also will try to make a bowl for the second season in a row for the first time in program history.

■ Hauck: “I think everybody in the West has a chance … including us for the first time, which is cool.”

SAN JOSE STATE

■ Last season: 6-6, 5-3 (tied for third).

■ Returning starters: 5 offense, 11 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Jarrod Lawson, LB Christian Tago, CB Dasheon Frierson

■ Three key losses: QB David Fales, WR Chandler Jones, LB Keith Smith

■ Outlook: Fales showed his value at the end of the 2013 regular season when he outdueled Fresno State’s Carr, putting the Spartans in position for a bowl bid, though they didn’t receive one. Now Fales is gone, as are many other top players. San Jose State does return most of its defense, but the Spartans have some work to do to become contenders again.

■ Coach Ron Caragher: “The best teams transcend change. We definitely have our challenges. Everyone has their challenges. You’ve got to be able to take on those challenges and overcome them.”

HAWAII

■ Last season: 1-11, 0-8 MW (sixth)

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Joey Iosefa, DL Beau Yap, LB Jerrol Garcia-Williams

■ Three key losses: QB Sean Schroeder, WR Chris Gant, LB Brenden Daley

■ Outlook: Hawaii played better than its record last season, losing five games by seven points or fewer, including two in overtime. A healthy Iosefa is a huge boost. He played in only five games last season because of a foot injury but averaged 118 yards per game and 4.7 per carry.

■ Coach Norm Chow: “We have to learn to finish, and that comes with the leadership that’s involved. The challenging thing, obviously, is the schedule with three Pac-12 schools right off the bat.”

MOUNTAIN DIVISION

BOISE STATE

■ Last season: 8-5, 6-2 MW (second in the Mountain Division). Lost to Oregon State 38-23 in the Hawaii Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Jay Ajayi, WR Matt Miller, LB Ben Weaver

■ Three key losses: QB Joe Southwick, DL Demarcus Lawrence, DL Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe

■ Outlook: Coach Chris Petersen no longer roams the Broncos’ sideline, having exited after eight seasons to take over at Washington. Coach Bryan Harsin has the difficult task of following a coach who went 92-12 and put the Broncos on the national map, and he will oversee a Boise State team in transition. The Broncos no longer are as feared, but they still are the program to beat.

■ Harsin: “I think this: Football in Boise, Idaho, is really important. So those kind of expectations put on our program, we don’t shy away from them. They’re a good thing. It’s how it is. (Petersen) won year in and year out. It takes a tremendous amount of work to get that going.”

UTAH STATE

■ Last season: 9-5, 7-1 MW (first). Lost to Fresno State 24-17 in the Mountain West championship. Defeated Northern Illinois 21-14 in the Poinsettia Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense

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

■ Three key losses: RB Joey DeMartino, LB Jake Doughty, S Maurice Alexander

■ Outlook: The Aggies overcame the loss of Keeton to a knee injury six games into the season to make the inaugural conference title game. And now that Keeton is back, they should be even more dangerous. The divisional championship could come down to the Nov. 29 visit to Boise State.

■ Coach Matt Wells: “We were one series short (of winning the conference championship). One series short, and the trophy’s in (Fresno State’s) building and not ours, and that burns in our brains every single day.”

COLORADO STATE

■ Last season: 8-6, 5-3 MW (third). Defeated Washington State 48-45 in the New Mexico Bowl.

■ Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Garrett Grayson, LB Cory James, LB Max Morgan

■ Three key losses: RB Kapri Bibbs, LB Shaquil Barrett, DB Shaq Bell

■ Outlook: The Rams ended a four-year postseason drought last season, and Bibbs was the main reason they made it to a bowl. He’s gone, but third-year coach Jim McElwain is putting the program in position to be competitive on a more consistent basis. Colorado State will be tough to beat again, especially with Grayson taking the snaps.

■ McElwain: “Garrett’s really evolved into the position. There’s a lot that goes into being a quarterback, other than just taking a snap and throwing it to a guy. I think his progression throughout the season, where he was from the start to the end, he may have made as much progress as any college quarterback in the country. I’m excited to see how he takes this team this August and puts it on his shoulders a little bit.”

WYOMING

■ Last season: 5-7, 3-5 MW (fourth)

■ Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense

■ Three players to watch: RB Shaun Wick, WR Dominic Rufran, DE Eddie Yarbrough

■ Three key losses: QB Brett Smith, WR Robert Herron, FS Marqueston Huff

■ Outlook: A second consecutive losing season resulted in a coaching change, with the Cowboys bringing in Craig Bohl, who won the past three Football Championship Subdivision national championships at North Dakota State. He won’t have Smith at quarterback after the junior declared early for the NFL Draft, and Wyoming needs time to become competitive again.

■ Bohl: “We need to make progress our first year. Typically, when you start getting into your third year, you start to see the fundamentals of your offense, defense and kicking game … come into play. We’re not taking a super long-range approach, but this is not a quick fix. We’ve got to come in and establish a different culture, and that’s going to take some time.”

NEW MEXICO

■ Last season: 3-9, 1-7 MW (fifth)

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense

■ Three players to watch: WR/KR Carlos Wiggins, DE Brett Bowers, MLB Dakota Cox

■ Three key losses: RB Kasey Carrier, WLB Dallas Bollema, FS Dante Caro

■ Outlook: Third-year coach Bob Davie said he believed this would be the season the Lobos begin to make a strong push toward being competitive. He has gotten plenty out of his first two talent-wanting teams with the triple-option offense that has put a scare into several opponents.

■ Davie: “It bottomed out last year to where it was all young. Now we have a chance to start building the momentum, we really do. We really actually have some good young players in this program that are going to be around for a while.”

AIR FORCE

■ Last season: 2-10, 0-8 MW (sixth).

■ Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense

■ Three players to watch: QB Nate Romine, LB Joey Nichol, DB Christian Spears

■ Three key losses: RB Anthony LaCoste, LB Reggie Barnes, DB Steffon Batts

■ Outlook: The Falcons were expected to struggle last season, but not to that extent. Air Force doesn’t appear close to getting out of the hole, either. Coach Troy Calhoun tried to establish more of a passing game last season, but the Falcons —despite the presence of several tall wide receivers — are heading back to their run-based roots.

■ Calhoun: “We’re going to have to be one of the 10 best teams in the country running the football.”

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

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