- Boise State is the reigning champ in the Mountain West, but there's still enough talent at San Diego State to make a run for its third conference title in four years.
Three teams have won a Mountain West title since TCU left the conference after the 2011 season: Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. Entering 2018, all odds are on the MWC winner coming from that same group, with Boise State at -175, SDSU at +500 and Fresno State at +550. There's a significant drop-off after that, with Utah State holding the fourth-best odds at +1600. So, just how strong are the Aztecs' and Bulldogs' chances of taking down the Broncos when the conference championship game rolls around?
Odds to win the Mountain West:
Boise State -175
San Diego State +500
Fresno State +550
Utah State +1600
Colorado State +2500
Air Force +4000
New Mexico +10000
San Jose State +25000
(In order of predicted finish)
1. Boise State
The Broncos have set (and maintained) the standard for mid-major college football excellence, so it's easy to forget that their Mountain West title last year was their first since 2014. This year's group should still improve further. Senior quarterback Brett Rypien is a seasoned veteran by now, and has experienced skill-position players around him like 1,000-yard rusher Alexander Mattison. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is gone from the defense, but almost no one else is. End Curtis Weaver (11 sacks as a redshirt freshman) is the new defensive star.
2. Utah State
Quarterback Jordan Love showed promise after taking over the starting job midway through last season, and he'll be well-positioned to take big strides forward as a sophomore. The entire starting five along the offensive line returns, and WR Ron'quavion Tarver and TE Dax Raymond give him big targets to throw to. The real strength of this team is its defense, though, where nine starters are back from a unit that was solid in 2017, especially in the secondary.
It would seem natural to predict a big drop-off for the Cowboys, who lose the most prominent player in program history in QB Josh Allen. Thing is, Allen's entire supporting cast was so young (and bad) that there's really nowhere to go but up as that group matures. Even if the Cowboys offense can't figure it out, a defense headlined by everywhere-at-once safety Andrew Wingard figures to carry the team to a bowl game once again.
4. Colorado State
A 1-4 finish to the season left Colorado State 7-6 in 2017, a bitter disappointment for a program sporting its best roster in years. Most of the best players from that team have left town, and now head coach Mike Bobo and the Rams are starting over. There's still talent to work with here, and Bobo will pull out all the stops to overachieve to compensate for having underdelivered. Former Washington QB K.J. Carta-Samuels is in as a graduate transfer, and returning skill-position players would appear ready to step into feature roles. Former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek's arrival in Colorado Springs raises the floor for the Rams D.
5. New Mexico
This program is not in a good place, coming off a 3-9 season and a spring where head coach Bob Davie served a month-long suspension. New OC Calvin Magee will oversee a transition from a triple-option attack to a spread-option, and the consensus seems to be that sophomore QB Tevaka Tuioti is the perfect guy to run the new scheme. The defense brings back several key players, so New Mexico seems set to improve upon last season's performance—not that that's saying a whole lot.
6. Air Force
Perhaps no FBS defensive front was more feeble last season than the Falcons', which finished dead last in both sacks (10) and yards per carry allowed (6.0). The 2018 slate will take no mercy on this weak squad, whose out-of-division schedule features Florida Atlantic, Navy, San Diego State and Army. The bright spot of the roster is QB Arion Worthman, who is a terror running the option and will make games watchable for Air Force fans.
(In order of predicted finish)
1. San Diego State
Donnel Pumphrey, Rashaad Penny and Juwan Washington. Familiarize yourself with that third running back, as he looks primed to join the first two as SDSU RBs who ran over, around and through Mountain West defenses. Washington scampered for 759 yards as the backup to Penny (2,248) last season; needless to say, there are lots of rushing yards to be had in this offense. On defense, most of the contributors are back from a strong unit that should be even better this season.
2. Fresno State
A lot can change in a year. Last August, the Bulldogs were hoping to at least quadruple their 2016 win total (one) as Jeff Tedford took over as head coach. This year, suffice to say that expectations are much higher: Tedford's team won a stunning 10 games in his first year at the helm, and Fresno now has its eyes on a possible conference title run as much of that squad returns. Quarterback Marcus McMaryion holds a 9-2 record as a starter, and 1,000-yard wideout KeeSean Johnson returns as McMaryion's favorite target. The defense brings back its eight leading tacklers.
UNLV fans have plenty to look forward to, with a maturing young team likely to improve upon its 5-7 mark from 2017 and a running game that's awfully fun to watch. RB Lexington Thomas (1,336 rushing yards) was a first-team All-MWC selection, QB Armani Rogers (915) was the conference Freshman of the Year, and RB Charles Williams (763 in 2016) is back after missing last year due to injury. Things are less rosy on the other side of the ball, but incoming defensive coordinator Tim Skipper brings hope for positive growth.
Like UNLV, Nevada will field an offense that is much better than its defense. Ty Gangi threw 25 touchdowns in 10 games, and six of his top seven receivers are back for the quarterback's senior year. Leading rushers Kelton Moore and Jaxson Kincaide return, as well. As has regularly been the case in Reno, though, the D was dismal last season. The secondary loses several players after allowing opposing QBs to complete two-thirds of their passes, which perhaps is not the worst thing.
The West Division is home to the MWC's two worst teams in Hawaii and San Jose State. The Rainbow Warriors have a little more going for them, but that's not saying much. A defense for a 3-9 team losing its best linemen and defensive backs is bad news, but linebacker Jahlani Tavai leads an excellent position group. There are significant losses at the skill positions on offense, too, but a program return to a run-and-shoot system should at least make things fun.
6. San Jose State
The Spartans were as bad as their 2-11 record suggested last season, finishing last in the country in turnover margin (-26) and average time of possession (24 minutes). Almost all of their offensive production is back—2017 leading passer and rusher QB Montel Aaron and RB Tyler Nevens are only sophomores this year—but four starters along the offensive line are gone. Key contributors at linebacker and defensive back also depart, suggesting the defense is unlikely to improve significantly.
Pick to win the Mountain West: Boise State
Pair the Broncos' year-after-year recruiting advantage over the rest of the Mountain West with the experience returning from last year's conference-winning team, and the Broncos are the pick to win the MWC title for a second consecutive year.
Best value bet: San Diego State
The Aztecs have won 10 games in three straight seasons. An out-of-conference schedule featuring Stanford and Arizona State makes reaching that mark a fourth time less than likely, but SDSU comes closest to matching Boise State's talent in the Mountain West. At +500 to win the conference for the third time in four years, the Aztecs are a value buy.