The 2012 season was a bit of an odd one for the Mountain West. The conference had built a reputation as the best of the non-AQ conferences and home of the BCS busters. For years, Mountain West teams were in the BCS and national title discussions.
In 2012, though, none of that was to be found. TCU and Utah had left for greener pastures, and perennial contender Boise State had to replace numerous stars like record-setting quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin, and receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young. The Broncos still managed to go 11-2 in a “rebuilding” year, but an early loss to Michigan State left them out of the BCS discussion.
Still, the year was a great success for the conference, mainly because of what happened off the field. Boise State and San Diego State reversed their decisions to join the Big East and decided to remain in the Mountain West while Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawai’i joined the league. Two more WAC schools join the league this year, and both are coming off their best seasons in years. Utah State and San Jose State both went 11-2 and finished the year ranked in the top 25. Plus, the addition of those two schools increases conference membership to 12 teams, meaning that the Mountain West will have a conference championship game for the first time in its history.
The 2013 season should be an exciting one in the Mountain West. There is plenty of quality talent to be found, especially at the quarterback position. The league is full of quality signal callers with Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Nevada’s Cody Fajardo, Wyoming’s Brett Smith, Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, David Fales of San Jose State, and Boise State’s Joe Southwick.
Boise State is, well, Boise State, and is lead by one of the best coaches in the country in Chris Petersen. Even in a down year, the Broncos still reached double-digit wins and finished the season ranked. They’ll be even more dangerous this year now that Southwick has a year under his belt. Fresno State rebounded under first-year head coach Tim DeRuyter and recorded nine wins last year. With a host of returning talent and a favorable schedule, the Bulldogs have their sights set on taking down nemesis Boise State and recording double-digit victories for the first time in over a decade. San Diego State is enjoying its best stretch in 40 years, having reached three straight bowl games after playing in only four total prior to 2009. The Aztecs handed Boise State only its second home loss since 2001 and finished the year 9-4. Having established themselves in the upper echelon of the Mountain West, the Aztecs will be looking to finally reach the top.
Newcomers Utah State and San Jose State are looking to prove that they can sustain success and that last season wasn’t a fluke while Nevada is moving on after legendary coach Chris Ault, creator of the “Pistol” offense, retired. Air Force is always tough and disciplined, but the Falcons have fallen off a bit over the past couple seasons. Coach Troy Calhoun will be looking to right the ship while reaching a seventh-consecutive bowl game.
Colorado State went 3-2 to close out the season and provide some optimism heading into Jim McElwain’s second year at the helm. The Rams have their sights set on making a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Wyoming has been on a weird cycle the past few years: the Cowboys have improved or worsened their win total by at least three games each of the past four seasons. Since last year was a down year, that means a bowl game is probably in the cards. Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie took over a New Mexico squad that had gone 2-26 under his predecessor and turned the Lobos into a gritty, competitive bunch. With Cole Gautsche and Kasey Carrier running the triple option, New Mexico won more games in 2012 (4) than it had the three previous seasons combined. While New Mexico is still a long way away, there is at least light on the horizon for the first time in a long time.
As for UNLV and Hawai’i, well… um… Vegas is fun, and the islands are gorgeous.
Cream of the Crop
Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah State, San Jose State
Boise State is the clear class of the conference. The Broncos are perennial BCS busters, having gone a mind-boggling 50-3 from 2008-2011. Boise had to replace a ridiculous number of starters last season, including phenomenal quarterback Kellen Moore, so naturally there was a bit of a letdown on the field.
Of course, since it’s Boise State and Chris Petersen, “letdown” means “10-2 and top-25 ranking.” With a year of experience under their belt, the Broncos should once again reach double-digit wins and earn another conference title. While Boise’s offense was good last season, it wasn’t as explosive as it had been in the past. With Southwick’s experience and improved play from the offensive line and receiving corps, that should change for the better this season. The defense has to replace some losses along the line, but this is still a formidable unit. The one major chink in the armor is the kicking game, and that will keep Boise fans up at night since missed field goals probably denied the Broncos a shot at a national championship and certainly some BCS berths.
While the Broncos are the clear favorites, they are vulnerable. San Diego State and Fresno State offer the strongest challenge, but they each have their own issues. The Bulldogs went 9-4 last year and have a bevy of talent coming back. They were simply dominant at times, defeating Colorado by 55 points, three teams by over four touchdowns, Colorado State by three touchdowns, and New Mexico by 17 points. Quarterback Derek Carr is an NFL prospect and racked up 4,104 yards passing with 37 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. Running back Robbie Rouse is gone, but the team’s top two wide receivers are back. Davante Adams caught 102 passes for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns while Isaiah Burse added another 850 yards and averaged 14.9 yards a catch. DeRuyter, a longtime defensive coordinator, worked him magic on the other side of the ball and created a unit that wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. Stud safety Phillip Thomas is gone, but Fresno State returns an excellent secondary and an aggressive front seven. However, the Bulldogs have never been able to get past Boise State. Back during Pat Hill’s heyday, a loss to the Broncos would always prevent the Bulldogs from winning the WAC outright and potentially getting into a BCS game. Last year, Boise knocked off Fresno 20-10. Can the Bulldogs overcome that mental block, or are the Broncos in their heads?
San Diego State actually did beat Boise last year, marking just the second time since 2001 that the Broncos lost on their famed blue turf. The Aztecs featured a run-heavy offense last year behind powerful running back Adam Muema (1,458 yards rushing, 6.2 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns) after quarterback Ryan Katz was lost to injury. Look for that conservative trend to continue this season. SDSU’s defense was pretty stout last year and should be even better this year. Rocky Long’s unique 3-3-5 scheme stood up well against the run and can pressure the quarterback, but the unit is vulnerable through the air after losing two cornerbacks. A repeat of last year’s 9-4 record, give or take a game, is likely. The defense is sound, but the offense isn’t explosive enough to keep up with Boise State and Fresno State. Like Oregon State in the Pac-12, San Diego State is capable of upsetting one of these teams, but not both.
For both Utah State and San Jose State, 2013 is a time of uncertainty. Both schools are coming off arguably the best seasons in school history, but while they ought to be basking in the glow of success, questions loom. Both programs lost their coaches to BCS programs (Gary Anderson to Wisconsin and Mike MacIntyre to Colorado, respectively). Whether or not their replacements can sustain and build on last year’s success remains to be seen, but for this year at least, both teams have some talented and experienced players coming back that should ease their transition into a new conference.
The Aggies went 11-2 and finished the year ranked 16th in the polls. Their two losses came by a combined five points, to Wisconsin and BYU. Win those two games, and Utah State likely would have been in a BCS bowl. The defense was downright nasty and was the best non-BCS unit in the country while heady quarterback Chuckie Keeton guided an offense that was explosive in the second half of the season, notching 485 yards against San Jose State and then somehow increasing that total each of the next four games. Keeton returns, but the Aggies have to replace starters at running back and receiver. Much of the defense returns, but with a new head coach and defensive coordinator, will they be as effective as they were a year ago? The schedule is tough (Utah, USC, and San Jose State on the road, BYU and Boise at home) and new coach Matt Wells is unproven, but the Aggies are the sleeper team in the Mountain West. Utah State was the best non-AQ team in the country last year. If they can survive those tough games and play like they did a year ago, then they can win the Mountain West.
San Jose State had a spectacular year in 2012, going 11-2 and losing only to Utah State and Pac-12 champion Stanford (by only three points, too). The Spartans should be good again in 2013. Nick Fales is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and a presumptive first-round NFL draft pick. The senior completed a stellar 72.5 percent of his passes for 4,193 yards and 33 touchdowns with only 9 interceptions. He should have another oustanding season in 2013, especially since most of his receivers return. Defensive star Travis Johnson, the WAC’s all-time sack leader and 2012 defensive player of the year, is gone, but plenty of starters return on defense along with some intriguing additions. San Jose State avoided major injuries last year, and that luck doesn’t seem to last for multiple seasons. Another 11-win season is unlikely, but make no mistake, the Spartans will be one of the better teams in the Mountain West. They avoid Boise State and get Utah State, Fresno State, and San Diego State at home. Pencil them in for 8-10 wins.
Middle of the Pack
Air Force, Nevada, Colorado State, Wyoming
The service academies face daunting challenges that other schools don’t have to face. Cadets endure a strenuous academic schedule while also learning the military way of life. They must be nominated to attend the academy instead of earning a scholarship, and they have a commitment they must uphold with their respective branch of service. To further complicate things, the players can’t get too big because of military requirements and basic training. Despite all those difficulties, Troy Calhoun has done an outstanding job during his tenure at Air Force. The Falcons have made six-straight bowl games and hadn’t suffered a losing season since 2006 until last year’s 6-7 campaign. That being said, Air Force has definitely slid backwards the past couple seasons. It didn’t help that the Falcons had to replace basically their entire starting lineup last year. They were again decimated by graduation this year. If one thing is certain, it’s that Air Force will run the ball. The Falcons haven’t finished outside the top 10 in rushing since 1986. On defense, the line is a strength, but the linebackers are inexperienced. The secondary got torched last year and must improve this year. Air Force won’t contend for a top spot in the conference, but the Falcons will do what they always do: grit their way to bowl eligibility while being a pain in the butt for everyone else.
Nevada faces the difficult task of replacing not only the best coach in school history, but a Collegiate Hall of Famer. Luckily, they have done it before. Chris Ault–Nevada grad and former quarterback, coach, and athletic director–has had three different tenures as head coach of the Wolf Pack. Brian Polian gets the dubious task of following in the legend’s footsteps. He inherits an inconsistent team but is blessed with a potent offense. Quarterback Cody Fajardo excels in the Pistol attack and completed two-thirds of his passes last year for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns while contributing another 1,220 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Nevada’s top three receivers and tight end Kolby Arendse are back to form a nice pass-catching unit while the usually prolific running game must replace All-American Stefphon Jefferson and top backup Nick Hale. The defense struggled mightily against the run last year and suffers losses in the secondary but does get help in the form of JUCO transfer Ian Seau, nephew of former star NFL linebacker Junior Seau. The younger Seau put up gaudy statistics in junior college and will be asked to give some playmaking ability to the front seven. The offense will put up some points, but a suspect defense and tough road slate will hurt the Wolf Pack. Another 7-6 season seems likely.
Colorado State and Wyoming aren’t quite at the same level as the Falcons and Cowboys, but they’re not as bad as New Mexico, UNLV, or Hawai’i. The Rams went 3-2 to close out the season and showed improvement as the season wore on. The players are buying into what Jim McElwain is preaching, and fans are optimistic about where the program is headed. Both Garrett Grayson and Conner Smith return at quarterback along with a deep backfield, and they’ll be playing behind a battle-tested, talented offensive line keyed by NFL prospect Weston Richburg at center. The pass defense, keyed by Shaq Bell and Trent Matthews, is a strength, but the run defense must improve. Plenty of work remains to be done in Fort Collins, but for the first time in years, a bowl game is a legitimate, albeit probably unlikely, possibility.
As mentioned earlier, Wyoming has been a yo-yo of late. One good season with a bowl bid followed by a dreadful season. Rebound to reach another bowl then follow that up with another awful year. If the pattern holds, the Cowboys will reach a bowl game again this season. They certainly have a quarterback in junior Brett Smith who can get them there. Smith had to carry the load since the run game was ineffective, and he responded with 2,837 yards passing and 27 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. He was also an effective runner, but he took a pounding and was sacked 25 times. He’ll have to stay healthy, otherwise Wyoming will have no shot in 2013. The defense has plenty of questions and must improve against the run. One thing that must be pointed out is that kicker Justin Martin is also a strong safety. This is a flawed team, but Smith and the passing game are good. A weak schedule combined with breaks means that Wyoming could very well continue its off-and-on streak and reach a bowl game.
Bottom of the Barrel
UNLV, Hawai’i, New Mexico
UNLV hasn’t won more than two games in Bobby Hauck’s three seasons as coach, but the team did get better last year. Running back Tim Cornett was solid, rushing for over 1,200 yards, but the Rebels are sorely lacking in both depth and size. The defensive line got pushed around as opponents found it easy to run on UNLV. Things won’t be easier this season as the Rebels were placed into the toughest division in the Mountain West. The only weak team in the West Division is Hawai’i; UNLV will have to face Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State, and Nevada. Plus, the out-of-conference schedule includes Arizona and Minnesota. This team will improve, but it’s not likely to show in the win/loss column.
New Mexico made tremendous strides last year, despite only winning four games. They were a mess under Mike Locksley, but Bob Davie really solidified things and gave Lobos fans reason to hope. This team needs a lot more depth and weapons, but they were a gutsy, competitive bunch and should be once again in 2013. The running game will be strong with Gautsche and Carrier, but the passing game needs to take some of the pressure off. Chase Clayton is always a threat to take it to the house on kickoffs, and the kicking game is solid. The defense will struggle, but the foundation is being laid for next season and beyond.
Wow, how times have changed in Honolulu. Under June Jones, the Warriors became known for featuring an explosive passing offense that put up huge numbers. When the school hired Norm Chow, it seemed like a good fit. Chow built a reputation as an offensive guru; it wouldn’t take long for the Warriors to once again light up scoreboards. Instead, Hawai’i had one of the worst offenses in football last year. One bright spot was that the defense improved over the course of the season. Of course, that won’t mean much if the offense doesn’t get better. Chow has pinned his hopes on former four-star recruit and Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham to resuscitate the offense. If Graham can turn into the quarterback people believe he can be, that will go a long way, but Hawai’i is still one of the weaker teams in the conference. At best, the Warriors could win 3-4 games.
West Division Champ
This should be a fun division as much of the cream of the crop in the Mountain West is group in the West Division. Fresno State, San Diego State, and San Jose State are all in this division, and between the three of them, they managed to go 29-10 a year ago. Nevada was only 7-6 but features perhaps the most explosive offense. The Wolf Pack are erratic, but they can definitely give the others trouble. Fresno State is the most complete team, however. San Jose State lacks depth and has a new coach while San Diego State doesn’t have the firepower to win a shootout. The Bulldogs can win a shootout and put points up in a hurry, but they also have a playmaking defense. That gives them the edge.
Mountain Division Champ
As if the Broncos needed any more help, the league gave them a break when it created its new divisions. The stronger division is by far the West, and the only real threat to Boise in the Mountain Division is Utah State. Colorado State, New Mexico, and Wyoming all won four games last year. Air Force went to a bowl game but has to replace a multitude of starters. Utah State is good enough to challenge Boise and gets the Broncos at home, but going up against Chris Petersen with a rookie head coach is no recipe for success. The Broncos are better on offense and almost as solid on defense, and they are no stranger to the spotlight and playing big games. That gives them the edge.
On paper, Fresno State has the ability to take down Boise State. In reality, the Broncos have owned the Bulldogs dating all the way back to their WAC days. Remember when David Carr led Fresno State to upsets of Wisconsin and Colorado and all the way to #8 in the BCS standings? Do you recall which team dashed that dream? It was Boise State. The Broncos are in Fresno State’s heads. Plus, Boise State is more talented. The Broncos win the conference again.