Complete Mountain West preview for the 2018 season.
The Mountain West Conference heads into 2018 with familiar faces projected to be at the top of the league. Boise State claims the top spot in the Mountain West predictions, and coach Bryan Harsin’s team should challenge for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. In the West, San Diego State and Fresno State are the teams to beat once again. The Aztecs edge the Bulldogs in the projections, but it’s a tossup for No. 1 in the West. Utah State and Wyoming are the biggest challengers to Boise State in the Mountain Division, with Colorado State also projected to reach bowl eligibility.
Few Air Force quarterbacks have possessed Arion Worthman’s combination of power and speed, but he’s still struggling to master the position. He must mature as a passer and option distributor for the offense to thrive. If he fails to mature, he could lose his job to Isaiah Sanders, who led the Falcons to victory in last season’s finale against Utah State.
Someone, or a few someones, must emerge on defense to stop the run. A September 8 trip to Florida Atlantic will do much to reveal the Falcons. If FAU stampedes to a big rushing day, Air Force could be destined for a repeat of last season’s troubles.
If pass catchers can step up — and if QB Brett Rypien can elevate them — it would go a long way for a team that averaged “only” 32.5 points per game, the program’s lowest output since 2012. The defense and special teams return a ton of talent, so there is little reason to believe the Broncos can’t make a run at a second straight Mountain West title and contend for a New Year’s Six Bowl.
The offense might be able to avoid a significant drop-off if QB K.J. Carta-Samuels is able to learn coach Mike Bobo’s playbook well enough to make the proper reads and check-offs. The quarterback run is likely to become part of the CSU offense, given the athletic abilities of Carta-Samuels and his top two backups — junior J.C. Robles and redshirt freshman Justice McCoy. The Rams were even experimenting in the spring with some option plays. A difficult early schedule that includes three consecutive games against schools in Power 5 conferences — Colorado, Arkansas and Florida — could put the Rams into a tailspin that might be difficult to reverse.
If the offense clicks, the defense forces turnovers and little drop-off occurs on special teams, UNM can approach its 2016 form when it went 9-4. Any early struggles, however, could spell disaster.
With four of the first six games at home, the Aggies — who return 16 starters and feature talent on across the board — could build some momentum by midseason and put themselves in position to be a factor in the Mountain Division for the first time in three years. At a minimum, Utah State should head to a bowl game for the seventh time in eight seasons.
Even when Josh Allen was still starting quarterback with the Cowboys, they weren’t as productive offensively as coach Craig Bohl expected. If the new quarterback can be efficient and protect the ball and the rest of the offense improves, Wyoming is good enough to contend for the Mountain Division title and do something that has never been done in school history — play in a bowl game for a third consecutive season.
Jeff Tedford was a well-deserved National Coach of the Year finalist after Fresno State became just the second FBS team to go from double-digit losses (1-11) to double-digit wins (10-4). What can he do for an encore? A good start would be taking the MW title away from Boise State after the two teams split the regular-season finale and MW Championship Game in consecutive weeks. With so many key starters back and a softer non-conference schedule (i.e. no Alabama or Washington), it’s perfectly fine to dream bigger.
The changes have been sweeping for a team that has six new assistant coaches, including defensive and special teams coordinators, and will see coach Nick Rolovich call the offensive plays. The schedule gets more manageable, with no Power 5 foes for the first time in 16 years. But producing the first winning season since the 10-4 Western Athletic Conference tri-champions of 2010 still figures to be an uphill battle.
Nevada’s high-powered offense, a manageable non-conference schedule and a conference slate in which the Wolf Pack’s toughest opponents travel to Reno could have Nevada flirting with bowl eligibility. If Nevada’s defense can jell, the Wolf Pack have the potential to sneak up the standings and be a factor in the West Division.
San Diego State
San Diego State is a stellar 32-9 over the past three seasons and once again figures to be among the best of the Group of 5 teams. The Aztecs have become a dominant force in the Mountain West — they are 22-4 with two titles over the past three seasons — and the yearly expectation under coach Rocky Long is that they will be in the mix for a conference title. Long’s method of pounding the ball on the ground offensively and assaulting opponents with an opportunistic defense assures that the Aztecs will be in the hunt for their fourth consecutive season of 10 or more wins.
San Jose State
Trepidation will linger until a quarterback proves himself during games, although the skill positions offer promising talent. Defensively, there is optimism thanks to a strong defensive line and some young talent in the back eight. If the injury bug can stay away and a QB emerges, the Spartans can double their win total from a year ago.
With a favorable home schedule that includes non-conference games against UTEP and Prairie View A&M and a conference slate once again void of Mountain West heavyweight Boise State as well as Wyoming and Colorado State, the pressure will be on coach Tony Sanchez to guide his team to a bowl game in 2018.