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Boise State, Fresno State lead 2013 Mountain West preview

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After going 11-2 last season, Joe Southwick (16) and Boise State will look to make one final BCS run.

Can Boise State make one final BCS charge? Can first-year Nevada coach Brian Polian follow in Chris Ault's footsteps? Which quarterback will shine brightest in a conference loaded with talented passers? Zac Ellis answers these questions and more in his Mountain West conference preview. For more coverage, check out SI.com's 2013 college football preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.

Mountain West Conference Report
 
How They'll Finish
 
MOUNTAIN Conference Overall
Boise State 8-0 12-1
Utah State 6-2 8-4
Wyoming 4-4 7-5
Air Force 4-4 6-6
Colorado State 3-5 5-8
New Mexico 1-7 4-8
 
WEST Conference Overall
Fresno State 6-2 10-3
San Jose State 5-3 7-5
San Diego State 5-3 7-5
Nevada 5-3 6-6
Hawaii 1-7 2-10
UNLV 0-8 2-10
Conference championship: Boise State def. Fresno State
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Derek Carr
2012 stats: 344-of-511, 4,104 pass yards, 37 TD, 7 INT
2013 projection: 360-of-520, 4,450 pass yards, 41 TD, 9 INT
The younger brother of New York Giants quarterback David Carr played through a sports hernia for much of last season, but he still managed to throw for 4,104 yards and 37 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He has tossed 63 touchdowns over his Fresno State career, and most of his weapons return, including the MWC's leading receiver, Davante Adams (102 catches, 1,312 yards in 2012). Factor in a veteran offensive line and a favorable schedule, and Carr could see his stats balloon in his final collegiate season.
 
Defensive MVP
 
DE
Demarcus Lawrence
2012 stats: 48 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles
2013 projection: 62 tackles, 11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles
Lawrence's first season in Boise turned some heads: The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder led the Broncos with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks despite missing two games for unspecified violations of team rules. Now a year removed from transferring from Butler (Kan.) Community College, the redshirt junior is poised to cement his role as Boise's defensive anchor. Lawrence is already pegged by NFL scouts as one of college football's premier defensive linemen. The Broncos' defense will go as far as he takes it.
 
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Utah State at Utah
Thursday, Aug. 29
8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Last fall, the Aggies got past their in-state rival for the first time in 13 tries. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton raced for 23 yards to set up a one-yard Kerwynn Williams touchdown run in overtime, capping a 27-20 victory and prompting fans at Romney Stadium to storm the field. Former Utah State coach Gary Andersen, who orchestrated much of the program's turnaround, is gone. Still, the Aggies return most of their top players, including Keeton, from last year's 11-win team.
 
Boise State at Washington
Saturday, Aug. 31
10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
The Broncos begin this season the same way they ended the last one -- against Washington. Boise State beat the Huskies 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl when kicker Michael Frisna converted a 27-yard field goal with just more than a minute remaining. This time, Chris Petersen's crew must travel to Husky Stadium and face a program with 16 returning starters. Another storyline worth watching? Justin Wilcox, Washington's defensive coordinator, made a name for himself as a Boise assistant from 2006-09.
 
Nevada at UCLA
Saturday, Aug. 31
10 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
Brian Polian takes over for legendary coach Chris Ault in Reno, and the new headman faces a challenging nonconference slate. Nevada's season opener at UCLA could be particularly interesting: The Wolf Pack boasted the eighth-ranked total offense in the country last season, while the Bruins gave up 415.9 yards per game. Nevada may have what it takes to keep up with a developing Pac-12 power.
 
Key Conference Game
 
Boise State at Fresno State
Friday, Sept. 20
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
This meeting could be a preview of the eventual Mountain West title game. The Broncos smothered the Bulldogs in last season's installment, holding Fresno without a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter of a 20-10 win. Still, given the returning talent on the Bulldogs' offense this fall -- and the question marks surrounding the Broncos' defense -- and a reversal of fortunes could be in store in '13.
 
Three Key Questions
 
Can Boise State return to BCS-crashing form? The Broncos notched 11 wins in 2012, but losses to Michigan State (in Week 1) and San Diego State kept Petersen's squad out of the BCS conversation. Much of the blame falls on the offense, which averaged the program's worst output (30.2 points per game) in Petersen's tenure as head coach and offensive coordinator. But there's plenty of experience coming back for an offense that spent much of the offseason tweaking its attack. Senior quarterback Joe Southwick returns, as does most of the program's leading rushers and receivers. With some growth on defense, Boise could put together one final BCS run.
How will the league's new members fare? Utah State and San Jose State officially joined the Mountain West over the summer, and both enter in oddly similar circumstances. Both are fresh off 11-win campaigns in the WAC, are breaking in new coaches (Utah State's Matt Wells and San Jose State's Ron Caragher) and will feature ultra-talented quarterbacks (Utah State's Keeton and San Jose State's David Fales). Both programs also have difficult schedules. The Aggies face USC, BYU and Boise during a likely season-defining stretch from Sept. 21-Oct. 12, while the Spartans travel to Stanford on Sept. 7.
MANDEL: San Jose State's David Fales' journey into the national spotlight
Which under-the-radar team could challenge for the MWC title? It's unlikely there will be more than two double-digit win teams in the Mountain West, but a handful of programs have the potential to make a run. Coming off a nine-win season, San Diego State returns 10 starters from the league's third-ranked defense, which took the Aztecs to their third bowl game in as many seasons. Wyoming returns quarterback Brett Smith, who tossed 27 touchdowns in only 10 games in 2012. And if Nevada can shore up a porous defense, the Wolf Pack's proven offense could help the program raise some eyebrows and contend with Boise State and Fresno State.
 

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