Whole Nine Sports

Mountain West Conference 2020 Preview

Mountain West Conference
Trevor Finnell
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With the 2020 NFL Draft now in the rear-view mirror, the football world can finally begin to find some rest.  Well, the definition of “rest” is a bit mundane as of late, considering those who are considered to be ‘non-essential’ now work from their homes, if they were lucky enough to keep their job.  The sports world has also endured through this as well, from the NBA, MLB, and NHL postponing their seasons, to the NFL Draft being fully online.  I will add in that I hope the NFL Draft keeps this format for a while, as I was pleasantly surprised as to how well it actually went. 

That said, as we break into the summer months, it’s time for the football world to start waking up and preparing for the next season.  While I’m normally an NFL writer for Whole Nine Sports, I’ve decided to take a step back, and give some spotlight, and proper attention, to the college football conferences who can be ignored, simply due to them not being in the “Power 5.”  I’m not presenting an argument that New Mexico could go into any Power 5 school’s stadium and win.  I am however, highlighting each of the teams, giving insight into what I could see occurring this upcoming season, and highlight some players that will be worthy of our attention in the 2020 season.  That said, let’s start things west of the Rockies with the Mountain West Conference.

Boise State

Boise State

2019: 12-2 (Overall) / 8-0 (Conference)

Rank at Season’s End (AP Poll): 23

Key Losses: LB Curtis Weaver, OT Ezra Cleveland, DL David Moa

The reigning Mountain West Conference Champion Boise State Broncos claimed their third conference title last season and seemed to be riding their usual “Bowl Game High,” especially with a chance to nab a win over former head coach Chris Petersen and the Washington Huskies in the Las Vegas Bowl.  Dreams are always fun, but reality was quick to set back in, as Washington uprooted the Broncos 38-7 in Petersen’s final game as a head coach. 

The 2020 season will be challenging, starting with the need to fill up to 4 spots on their offensive line which were left open at the end of last season.  QB Hank Bachmeier is the presumed starter, though the recent addition of former USC quarterback Jack Sears will all but guarantee that the starting role is up for grabs when training camps open up.  Sears is also a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining and started one game while at USC in 2018 (20-28, 235 yards, 2 TDs). 

The defense is also in a need to fill in the gaps on their line as well.  Last season’s sack leader, LB Curtis Weaver, is now in the NFL, and seniors Riley Whimpey and Benton Wickersham will be looked at to step up in his place.  Having a healthy Ezekiel Noa, coming off of a torn ACL and broken wrist, suffered in their fourth game last season, will be a more than welcome addition as well. 

Key games this season include hosting both Florida State, and BYU.  The Broncos also get division rival Air Force, in Colorado Springs for the second game of the season, in which could end up being the deciding factor for who gets into the conference title game. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but Boise State has shown us before that they can reload.  Still, losing all but one starter on the offensive line does have me worried.  They’ll make a bowl game, but I don’t see a repeat conference title.

Prediction: 9-3 (Overall) 7-1 (Conference)

Air Force

Air Force

2019: 11-2 (Overall) / 7-1 (Conference)

Rank at Season’s End (AP Poll): 22

Key Losses: OL Connor Vikupitz, OL Scott Hattok, LB Kyle Johnson, DL Mosese Fifita

We all knew that head coach Troy Calhoun would turn things around at the Air Force Academy, but after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, not many people were expecting what they were able to achieve in 2019.  11 wins last season were the most in a single season under Calhoun, along with finishing at 22nd in the AP Poll at the end of the season.  Capping everything off though, was the 31-21 victory over Washington State in the Cheez-It Bowl. 

One key name that will need to be followed, and not just by those who cover the Mountain West, is QB Donald (DJ) Hammond III.  While 1,316 passing yards may seem abysmal to most, it’s actually an impressive number coming from an offense whose primary style is the triple option.  Add in 553 rushing yards, with a 4.6 yard per carry average, and 13 rushing touchdowns, and we could be looking at the 2020 Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year.  Is it a bit of an overreach to name him the winner now?  Of course, it is, but Hammond is most definitely a preseason candidate. 

While there were key losses for the Air Force, especially at WR, there are plenty of returning players who can make immediate impacts, such as RB Kadin Remsberg, FB Timothy Jackson, LB Demonte Meeks, and DB Milton Bugg III.  The pressing item at hand though, is the loss of two All-Conference offensive lineman, especially when the triple option is your bread and butter. It’s hard pressed to think that the Air Force can repeat the magic from last season, though I’m ready to buy-in to the chance.  If Air Force gets the early season win over Boise State, the division, as well as the conference title, is theirs to lose. 

Prediction: 11-1 (Overall) 8-0 (Conference)

Utah State

Utah State

2019: 7-6 (Overall) / 6-2 (Conference)

Key Losses: QB Jordan Love, RB Gerold Bright, WR Siaosi Mariner, LB David Woodward

The majority of the focus for Utah State during the 2019 season was focused on then NFL prospect QB Jordan Love, and for good reason, considering he was chosen with the 26th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers.  Finding the heir for the starting role for a player of this magnitude is never easy, but the one thing that everyone needs to keep in mind is that you’re looking for your next starting QB, NOT the next Jordan Love.  Head coach Gary Andersen has been quoted as saying that Junior QB Jenry Colombi looks to be the favorite in taking the job. 

Regardless, a QB can only be as good as the supporting cast, and losing both your RB1 and WR1, along with your starting QB is a daunting challenge for any head coach.  Still, with All-American kick returner Savon Scarver returning, along with nearly the entire WR cast outside of Mariner, there’s optimism that the WRs can find production alongside their new starting QB.  Defense wise, the squad is led by S Troy Lefeged Jr., who led the team with 104 tackles, along with two sacks and six tackles for loss.  This is another bright spot that should be watched in the Mountain West, and one who I feel could be a member of the conference’s First Team Defense squad at year’s end.   

Truth be told, there are a lot of holes that need to be filled for the Aggies, and while Anderson and his staff are well aware of this, it’s hard to imagine this team from seeing much improvement from the previous season, given what needs to be done, and who will step up to take the new spotlights.  Their first four games are all against non-conference opponents, so they’ll have plenty of chances to work out some issues that arise prior to the start of conference play.

Prediction: 5-7 (Overall) 3-5 (Conference)

Hawai’i

Hawaii

2019: 10-5 (Overall) 5-3 (Conference)

Key Losses: QB Cole McDonald, WR Jojo Ward, WR Cedric Byrd II, LB Solomon Matautia

Recall the time when I mentioned how difficult it was going to be for Utah State to replace their starting offensive players.  Now examine Hawai’i.  A Conference First Team Offensive WR, a Second Team Offensive QB, and WR.  In total, that’s 4,135 passing yards, 33 passing touchdowns, 2,231 receiving yards, and 21 receiving touchdowns, that will need to be addressed.  Oh, and your reigning Mountain West Coach of the Year, Nick Rolovich, accept the same position at Washington State during the offseason.  Needless to say, new head coach Todd Graham, a former Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2013 for Arizona State, has a lot on his plate. 

Hawai’i found a strong start to last season by going 2-1 against the Pac-12 to kick off the season.  2020 sees a similar start, with a trip to Arizona, hosting UCLA and FCS Fordham the following weeks, and heading to Eugene, OR to take on the Oregon Ducks.  A strong start against the Pac-12 could prove to be the momentum starter, similar to last season.  That said, this could be asking a lot of a team who is taking on a new identify, both on the field, and on the sidelines.  I don’t expect a freefall from Hawai’i but mimicking their full success from last season could prove to be very difficult.

Prediction: 8-5 (Overall) 5-3 (Conference)

San Diego State

San diego State

2019: 10-3 (Overall) 5-3 (Conference)

Key Losses: C Keith Ismael, QB Ryan Agnew, LB Kyahva Tezino, DB Luq Barcoo

This upcoming season does have a bit of extra ‘spice’ for the Aztecs, with Brady Hoke returning as the head coach after his departure following the 2010 season to coach the Michigan Wolverines.  Rocky Long, both his heir and predecessor through this process, led the Aztecs with an 81-38 overall record after Hoke’s initial departure, three conference titles, and never saw a losing record in both overall and conference games.  Hoke, who served as the DL coach last season, did help to establish a dominant defense, who finished fifth in the nation in total yards allowed per game (288.7), and fourth in points allowed per game (12.8).

Need more proof on how great this defense was?  The Aztecs had six players chosen for the conference first and second team defenses, with two honorable mentions.  Of the eight mentioned, four of them will return to the team this season, including stud DL Cameron Thomas, who was the only freshman named to the All-Conference defensive teams, and who could end up being a day one or two draft pick when he becomes eligible.  While there should be a decline in production for this Aztecs defense, I still expect them to be ranked in the top 14 by season’s end.  The main question will be the offense, who finished with the worst ranked offense in the conference, in both yards and points per game, which makes me believe that this team will still fully rely on their defense to get the wins each week against tougher teams.

Prediction: 9-3 (Overall) 7-1 (Conference)

Wyoming

Wyoming

2019: 8-5 (Overall) 4-4 (Conference)

Key Losses: S Alijah Halliburton, LB Logan Wilson

The Cowboys have been showing some life as of late, finishing the 2019 season with their fourth straight .500 record or better.  This might not sound like a big take, but it’s their longest streak without a losing overall season record over the past twenty years.  Even bigger; since 2000, they never had back-to-back seasons with an overall winning record.  With a win over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl, the Cowboys will be on the lookout to find more ways to improve, and even potentially reach nine wins or more in a season, which would be their first since the end of the 1996 season. 

That said, their defense, who finished 11th in the nation by allowing only 17.8 points per game, will probably see a drop off in production with the loss of both LB Logan Wilson, and DB Alijah Halliburton, both of whom were part of the conference’s first team defense.  Between them, that’s 235 total tackles, six interceptions on the season that the Cowboys will look to fill.  A win at Louisiana, and an upset over Utah could set up the Cowboys for a great run once they begin conference play.  I believe they’ll keep their streak of a .500 record or better going, though I can’t see them getting through either Boise St. or Air Force to make it to the conference title game. 

Prediction: 8-4 (Overall) 5-3 (Conference)

Colorado State

Colorado State

2019: 4-8 (Overall) 3-5 (Conference)

Key Losses: S Jamal Hicks, OT T.J. Storment, OG Nouredin Nouili

The old mantra of “defense wins championships” gets thrown around a bit in the football world, but for good measure.  For as great of an offense that Colorado State fields, led by future NFL draft pick, WR Warren Jackson, trying to win games by relying on only your offense will only get you so far.  Now, add in the fact that Rams lost two of their starting offensive lineman to transfers, and you have yet another gap that needs to be filled, to ensure that QB Patrick O’Brien will have the time to make the throws that are needed to his excellent WR core. 

The team has a young core, but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.  An upset win over rival Colorado could get this team rolling, but their schedule starting in November until the end of the season is brutal.  Look for a decline from the previous season,

Prediction: 3-9 (Overall) 2-6 (Conference)

New Mexico

New Mexico

2019: 2-10 (Overall) 0-8 (Conference)

Key Losses: RB Ahmari Davis, LB Alex Hart

The bottom feeder last year in the Mountain division, New Mexico is looking at yet another rough go for the 2020 season.  While they won’t be playing Notre Dame this season, they replace their non-conference games with trips to Mississippi State and USC, back-to-back.  It’s an easy argument to make for the case that the Lobos have the hardest start of the schedule in the conference, and this could prove problematic over the course of the season. 

New head coach Danny Gonzalez will be hoping to use the games against Mississippi State and USC as learning experiences for his young team, though his biggest challenge will be to teach his offense on how to finish off drives.  The Lobos averaged 400.3 total yards per game last season, but only averaged 22.3 points per game, which is the lowest total for any school who averaged more than 400 total yards a game, and four points less than the school above them.  It may not sound like much, but in a game of inches, every point counts.  Add in a defense that allowed 485.7 yards a game, which was second worst in the nation, and pending a stunning turn of events, I’d expect the Lobos to be at the bottom again this season.

Prediction: 2-11 (Overall) 0-8 (Conference)

Nevada

Nevada

2019: 7-6 (Overall) 4-4 (Conference)

Key Losses: OL Jake Nelson, LB Gabriel Sewell, DB Daniel Brown,

Inconsistency will kill any momentum a team can create, regardless of the sport that’s being played.  The Wolf Pack can attest to this quite well, considering you have 33 sacks spread out between three QBs, 13 interceptions among them against 14 passing TDs.  We do need to give a pass to redshirt freshman QB Carson Strong, in that while he did show performances that would be expected of a freshman in a starting role, he’d return them with glimpses of brilliance.  That said, Boise State transfer QB Kaiden Bennett should provide some competition going into training camps.  While his stature is much smaller than Strong’s, his dual threat ability could prove to be the difference maker.

Nevada’s defense was slightly better than the nation’s average last year, though it did show signs of improvement going into the end of the season.  Safety Tyson Williams returns, and will look to be the de facto leader of this defense going forward and could find himself being listed on the all-conference team’s list by seasons end.  This Nevada squad is young and are blessed with one of the easiest schedules in the conference.  I expect them to get the “underdog” wins against Arkansas and South Florida, with their biggest challenge coming late in September, when they host San Diego State, then follow it with a trip to Hawai’i.  A win against either team could open the door to a spot in the conference title game. 

Prediction: 10-2 (Overall) 6-2 (Conference)

Fresno State

Fresno State

2019: 4-8 (Overall) 2-6 (Conference)

Key Losses: QB Jorge Reyna, LB Mykal Walker, OL Netane Muti

After what could be considered their greatest season in program history in 2018, the Bulldogs took a major step back, especially on defense, which saw their then second ranked in the nation squad in points allowed per game (13.7) drop down to 84th by the end of the 2019 season.  That said, injuries were a major thorn in the side of the Bulldogs, especially on the offensive line, which saw 11 different players get at least one start through the season. 

If there is a right person for the job though, its new head coach Kalen DeBoer.  DeBoer was the QB coach and Offensive Coordinator for the Bulldogs in 2018, in which their offense ranked 26th at season’s end in points per game (34.6).  Last season, he took the same job out at Indiana, and helped to boost their offense to be the fifth best in the Big Ten.  This may not sound like much, but it’s a good leap from their 10th finish in the conference in 2018, especially when recruiting against the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan, to name a few.  There’s work to be done, but DeBoer should be able to get some improvement with the Bulldogs this season, though it’s still a season or two early to expect a conference title game appearance in my eyes.

Prediction: 5-7 (Overall) 4-4 (Conference)

UNLV

UNLV

2019: 4-8 (Overall) 2-6 (Conference)

Key Losses: OL Justin Polu, DB Jericho Flowers, LB Rayshad Jackson, LB Javin White

New stadium, new coach, potentially new schemes, UNLV has everything ready for this upcoming season.  Well, ready in the sense that they’re ready to build and mold this program into what it should be.  With RB Charles Williams leading the way, (and who should end up on the All-Conference team at the end of the season), and the return of WR Brandon Presley from his ACL tear prior to the 2019 season, it’s possible that this offense could end up being very productive throughout the season, that is, if they can find a way to keep healthy. 

The Achilles heel to this team though is the defense.  As the second worst defense in terms of points allowed per game last season in the Mountain West, one could find little hope in seeing any improvement this season, especially when you lose your top three defensive players from last season, and have little to no experience behind the starts who will return this season.  Don’t expect big things from UNLV this season, but they will be a team to keep an eye on over the next few years.

Prediction: 2-10 (Overall) 1-7 (Conference)

San Jose State

San Jose State

2019: 5-7 (Overall) 2-6 (Conference)

Key Losses: QB Josh Love, LB Ethan Aguayo, OL Troy Kowalski

I’ll be the first to admit that, even to this day, I have a tendency to confuse Josh Love and Jordan Love.  I mean, both played at schools with “State” in their name, and they share the same last name, along with the same first initial in their first name.  Interestingly enough, Jordan Love went in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, while reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, Josh Love, signed with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent.  Funny how things tend to play out, isn’t it?

Similar to Utah State, the name of the game for San Jose State is fining your replacement at QB, but not putting the pressure on them at being the “next Josh Love.”  This shouldn’t be too much of an issue, considering the word “offense” is synonymous with San Jose State.  Defense has always been the deciding factor when trying to attain greatness for this program (ranked 105th in yards allowed per game after last season), and there’s little reason to believe that this season will be any different.  Expect high scoring affairs, and an average season from the Spartans.

Prediction: 6-6 (Overall) 3-5 (Conference)

Thoughts? Comments? Be sure to reach out to me on Twitter: @ThatBankaiLife