Previewing the Mountain West

Derek Carr and Fresno State will still have a tough time escaping Demarcus Lawrence and Boise State. (USA TODAY Sports)

Derek Carr and Fresno State will still have a tough time escaping Demarcus Lawrence and Boise State. (USA TODAY Sports)

We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. Head over to the main site for the Pac-12 preview, and check back the rest of the week for more.

Here is everything you need to know about the Mountain West:

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1. This is still Boise State’s league. The Mountain West has been re-shaped. For the first time, thanks to the decision to stay by Boise State and San Diego State, it has two divisions and a championship game, with San Jose State and Utah State jumping over to complete the WAC’s demise. It’s the seventh best league, but it nips at the heels of the American Athletic Conference, and two NFL prospects at quarterback give it star power outside of Boise, who remains the most consistently good program in college football. Although though it hasn’t reached a BCS bowl since 2009, Boise State has won at least 11 games every year since 2007 and has reached double-digit wins in all of Chris Petersen’s seven seasons. Until proven otherwise, Boise State reigns supreme.

2. The Broncos will be challenged, though, with a rather difficult road schedule that includes Washington and BYU in nonconference play, and Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State in the league. And it’s the Friday, Sept. 20 date with Fresno State that everyone will circle. Weird Hawaii Bowl blowout loss to SMU aside, Fresno State pulled off a great turnaround in Tim DeRuyter’s first season, getting back to expected levels at 9-4 after a 4-9 end to Pat Hill’s long and successful tenure. Everyone focuses on the talent Fresno State returns, and for good reason: Derek Carr is one of the best quarterbacks in America. The brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, Derek won Mountain West player of the year honors by completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and his All-Mountain West left tackle, Austin Wentworth, and star receiver, Davante Adams (102 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns) return. But the Bulldogs still might have lost their two best playmakers in versatile tailback Robbie Rouse and star safety Phillip Thomas.

3. Carr is on the team that is getting more preseason hype, but San Jose State’s David Fales may be even better. One of the most accurate quarterbacks anywhere, Fales completed 72.5 percent of his throws for 4,193 yards with 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his first year as starter after transferring from Nevada and a junior college. Fresno State is the better team in the West division, but San Jose State will be a threat in the league race, despite the loss of head coach Mike MacIntyre to Colorado.

4. Clearly, the West narrative will surround the two star quarterbacks. Yet San Diego State isn’t going anywhere. It will struggle to survive a nonconference schedule that includes Ohio State and Oregon State, but the Aztecs have the talent elsewhere to challenge Fresno State — who must travel to San Diego — and win the division. QB Adam Dingwell got experience late last season as the Aztecs unexpectedly surged to a 7-1 regular season finish despite the loss of starter Ryan Katz, riding a stout run defense and 1,400-yard back Adam Muema.

5. Really, as many as four teams could challenge for the West division crown. UNLV and Hawaii are lost causes unlikely to reach bowl eligibility, but Nevada will still play a role too, although it must move on from the retirement of Chris Ault. The last time he retired from Nevada, in 1995, the Wolf Pack proceeded to win nine games again before entering an eight-year streak without a bowl. It’s up to Brian Polian, who has spent the last decade as a special teams coach at Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M, to prevent a repeat. The good news is he gets dual threat Cody Fajardo back at QB, and wisely he’ll keep the Pistol offense that Ault made famous.

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The 10 Best Players in the Mountain West

1. David Fales, QB, San Jose State
2. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
3. Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State
4. Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
5. Noel Grigsby, WR, San Jose State
6. Cody Fajardo, QB, Nevada
7. Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State
8. Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State
9. Derron Smith, S, Fresno State
10. Adam Muema, RB, San Diego State

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6. Nevada will keep running often, but two teams in the Mountain division actually ran more often than the Wolf Pack last year: Air Force and New Mexico. We’ve grown accustomed to Air Force’s triple option racking up yards and attempts — triple option teams Georgia Tech, Army and Air Force were the only three teams with 800 rushes — but it’s new at New Mexico, which jumped from 95th in attempts to sixth in the first year under coach Bob Davie. Davie was so averse to passing that the Lobos did not complete a pass (on two attempts) in a 31-24 loss to Nevada, and they completed only one in a 35-14 win over Texas State. Air Force’s 28-23 win over New Mexico resulted in 700 total rushing yards and 11 total pass completions.

7. Air Force, which returns only four starters on offense, and New Mexico, which is still establishing itself in the Davie era, are part of a four-team bottom shelf of the Mountain division clearly set apart from the top two. Both Colorado State and Wyoming finished 4-8 last season, and both have a ceiling of about six wins this year. Wyoming returns a good quarterback in Brett Smith, but at the moment it’s still most known for coach Dave Christensen’s bizarre tirade after a one-point loss to Air Force. Colorado State, meanwhile, was an enigma in former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain’s first season, beating Colorado to open the season, then losing 22-7 to FCS-level North Dakota State the next week. Still, it was a one-win improvement over each of the previous three seasons, and it’s not hard to see a Nick Saban disciple like McElwain pushing for bowl eligibility in Year Two.

8. McElwain certainly is proven as an assistant, as is new Utah State coach Matt Wells, who helped guide Utah State’s transformation into an 11-2 team last year. Gary Andersen capitalized on the success and left for Wisconsin, leaving Wells to keep the momentum going as the Aggies transition to the tougher Mountain West. There’s little reason to think the transition won’t go well, as the Aggies return all five offensive line starters in front of junior QB Chuckie Keeton, who completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,373 yards and ran for 619 yards and eight touchdowns. Plus, for now they draw the weaker division, giving them a clear path to a second-place division finish and a third straight bowl game.

9. Utah State’s biggest obstacle is of course enormous. Boise State is a lock to win the Mountain division. Everyone was worried about the Broncos losing a ton of starters heading into last year, and they responded by going 11-2. Now we can worry about the Broncos losing a big chunk of their production again — three of the four leading tacklers, 1,100-yard rusher D.J. Harper, among others — but, well, Chris Petersen gets the benefit of the doubt. Joe Southwick is the steady quarterback Petersen needs, new tailback Jay Ajayi averaged 6.7 yards per carry as a freshman, and stud pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence leads a defense that gave up more than 21 points only twice last season (amazingly, once was to New Mexico).

10. Boise State will win the Mountain West, but it will not make a BCS game. Sadly, perhaps, that would mean the Broncos are headed to Las Vegas for a ridiculous fourth straight season. Sure, the amount of thinning out on the first team over the last two years is a concern, but Boise State has lost two league games in two seasons in the Mountain West. That trend will continue, if not improve. The problem for Boise State’s BCS hopes is that tricky schedule. The Broncos will slip up; it just won’t be enough to knock them off their conference throne.

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Projected Standings

MOUNTAIN
1. Boise State (10-2, 8-0)
2. Utah State (8-4, 6-2)
3. Colorado State (6-6, 4-4)
4. Air Force (5-7, 3-5)
5. Wyoming (5-7, 2-6)
6. New Mexico (4-8, 1-7)

WEST
1. San Diego State (8-4, 6-2)
2. Fresno State (10-2, 6-2)
3. Nevada (6-6, 5-3)
4. San Jose State (7-5, 5-3)
5. UNLV (3-9, 1-7)
6. Hawaii (2-10, 1-7)

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Contact me at matt.brown@sportsonearth.com and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE.

33 thoughts on “Previewing the Mountain West

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  33. I would suggest learning something about all the teams in the MWC before writing such a pile article.