By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we look to the Mountain West Conference and the Mountain division where Boise State looks prepared to be in the conference title game once again.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Boise State Broncos
2) Air Force Falcons
3) Utah State Aggies
4) Colorado State Rams
5) New Mexico Lobos
6) Wyoming Cowboys
Boise State Broncos
The Broncos had a rare “off” season last year going just 8-4 (5-3 MWC) and made multiple quarterback changes before settling on freshman Brett Rypien. They dominated Northern Illinois in the bowl game 55-7 and now with most of the offense returning, look primed to jump back to the top of the Mountain West.
Rypien had a good freshman year throwing for 3,353 yards a 20-8 TD-to-INT ratio while completing nearly 64 percent of his passes. He will be protected by an offensive line that brings back three starters from last year’s group that helped the Broncos average 191 yards per game on the ground. The line also adds in Auburn transfer Will Adams, so this unit will be very talented. Top running back Jeremy McNichols is back for his junior season continuing the tradition of workhorse running backs that have been produced here at Boise State. Last year, he carried 240 times for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns and that was despite missing a game. Expect more of the same from him behind the veteran offensive line. Rypien will have his top two targets back in Thomas Sperbeck (1,412 yards 8 TD) and Chaz Anderson (578 yards 3 TD) making for a passing game that should be at the top of the conference.
On the other side of the ball, there’s a new coordinator in Andy Avalos and he will have to find some replacements for key players, in particular along the defensive line where all four starters from last year are gone. The good news is their three starting linebackers are back in seniors Ben Weaver and Tanner Vallejo and junior Joe Martarano. Those three combined for 178 tackles, including 13.5 for loss. The secondary loses safety Darian Thompson and corner Donte Deayon who combined for 36 career interceptions. They do return Dyland Sumner-Gardner at one of the safety spots, but the defense is definitely the weaker of the two units heading into the year.
The schedule is pretty kind with them avoiding the top two teams from the West division (San Jose State and Nevada) and they get Utah State, Washington State and BYU at home. The final game of the regular season against Air Force is key as they need to travel to Colorado Springs and that game could decide the division.
Toughest Games: vs. Washington State (9/10), vs. Utah State (10/1), vs. BYU (10/20), vs. San Jose State (11/4), @ Air Force (11/25)
Air Force Falcons
Troy Calhoun has had a sustained record of success at Air Force as he’s racked up a 67-50 record including a 10 win season in 2014. He now enters his 10th season at the helm and has an experienced defense that should be one of the best in the conference.
On offense, they do lose quarterback Karon Roberts, but they do get back Nate Romine from injury. Romine was the starter in the first two games last year but then tore his ACL and was out for the year. In his freshman year in 2013, Romine started five games, threw for 604 yards five touchdowns and ran for 207 yards. He played just one game his sophomore year as Kyle Pearson was the #1 guy. So, though it looks on paper as if the Falcons are replacing their starting QB, they do have an experienced guy ready to step in. Romine will benefit from the return from last year’s top two running backs in Jacobi Owens and Tim McVey in addition to fullback Shayne Davern. Those three combined for 1,856 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Combined with Romine’s running ability the Falcons should have another potent running attack though they do have to replace three starting offensive linemen. Top receiver Jalen Robinette is back after posting 26 catches for 641 yards (24.7 average) and five touchdowns. The offense averaged 34 points per game last season and should be right around the same this year as well.
As I mentioned above, the defense looks to be the real strength of this team heading into the season. The front seven has five of the seven starters back from a unit that allowed 142 yards rushing per game. With the returning experience that number should drop. The secondary returns all four starters including one of the best names in college football in safety Weston Steelhammer. The fight for the division could come down to that final week of the season when the Falcons host the Broncos.
Toughest Games: @ Utah State (9/24), vs. Navy (10/1), @ San Jose State (11/19), vs. Boise State (11/25)
Utah State Aggies
Despite what a 6-7 record may look like on paper, the Aggies were actually very competitive in the Mountain West last season going 5-3 in conference with two of those three losses coming by seven points or less. They faced a tough non-conference slate that featured Utah, Washington and BYU and lost all three of those games leading to that 6-6 record before falling to Akron in their bowl game. This season, the Aggies should hang around once again due to the strength of their offense.
It may seem strange to call the offense a strength when it averaged just 371 yards and 29 points per game last season, but the team brings back an experienced QB in Kent Myers and their top two running backs from last year in Devante Mays and LaJuan Hunt. Combined with an offensive line that brings back three starters including both tackles and the running game should improve on the 165 yards per game that they put up last season. Myers does lose both of his top receivers, but gets back the number three and four guys in Andrew Rodriguez and tight end Wyatt Houston. Myers did a nice job of protecting the football last season, throwing just three interceptions in 199 passing attempts. If he can continue to be that judicious with his decision making, this offense should be capable of being one of the better ones in the conference.
The big question mark for this team is the defense which sustained heavy losses after las year particularly to the linebackers and secondary. Three of the four linebackers are gone as are three of four starters in the secondary. Combine that with just one player back on the defensive line (DE Ricky Ali’ifua) and defensive coordinators Frank Maile and Kendrick Shaver are going to have to work some magic to keep this unit’s numbers similar to last year (27 ppg 333 ypg). On the bright side, nose guar Travis Seefeldt is back from injury after missing all of last season, so the defensive line will be boosted by his return. Still, the outlook is not good on paper here.
Their out of conference schedule is once again tough with games against BYU and USC. They also draw the expected West winner San Diego State, albeit at home. In order for the Aggies to seriously contend for a division title, a lot of things will have to go right.
Toughest Games: @ USC (9/10), vs. Air Force (9/24), @ Boise State (10/1), vs. San Diego State (10/29), @ Nevada (11/19), @ BYU (11/26)
New Mexico Lobos
Bob Davie picked up his first winning season as head coach of the Lobos last year as the team was able to win seven games including going 5-3 in conference. This season, Davie will hope to keep that arrow pointing upwards with an experienced defense, but there’s some question about who will win the quarterback job after a couple of guys split time last season.
Last year, the Lobos split time a the QB spot between Lamar Jordan and Austin Apodaca. Each had their moments. Jordan is more of a run threat (807 yards 9 TD rushing) and probably will be the starter despite a poor 5-8 touchdown to interception ratio last season. However, Apodaca is back and will challenge for the job as well as sophomore JaJuan Lawson who could see some time if either of the other two slip up. Whoever is at QB when the season starts will have the top two receivers from last year to throw to as Dameon Gamblin and Delane Hart-Johnson both return. The top running back, Alex Pressley is gone, but there’s a ready-made replacement in house with Teriyon Gipson (146 car 848 yards 6 TD last season). The offensive line should be solid with three starters returning which makes for an offense that could be potent, if they figure out the QB spot.
On defense the only starter lost is corner Cranston Jones. Everyone else is back from a unit that allowed opponents 28 points per game and got gashed on the ground to the tune of allowing 193 yards per game there. The amount of experience returning should help to cut down on those numbers particularly with veteran linebacker Dakota Cox and Kimmie Carlson back (162 tackles 8.5 sacks 10.5 TFL). Kevin Cosgrove has plenty to work with and should produce a solid unit this year.
Three of the toughest conference games on the Lobos schedule (San Jose State, Boise State, Air Force) will be played at home/neutral site, which means if they are able to pull a couple of upsets they could certainly be right in the conversation for the division come year end.
Toughest Games: vs. San Jose State (10/1), vs. Boise State (10/8), vs. Air Force (10/15 Dallas), vs. Nevada (11/5), @ Utah State (11/12)
Colorado State Rams
The first year under head coach Mike Bobo was a success because despite losing career passing leader Garrett Grayson, they were still able to win seven games in the regular season and earn a bowl berth. This year, they return their starting QB in junior Nick Stevens, but have some big holes to fill at wide receiver and along the defensive line and secondary.
Stevens threw for 2,679 yards 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his first year as the starter last season. He is expected to start, though the program did add Georgia grad transfer Faton Bauta who could make things interesting with a strong camp. Stevens will be protected by a veteran offensive line that brings back four starters from last season and he has his top rusher in junior Dalyn Dawkins back. The big question is who will he throw to? The top four receivers including school career leader Rashard Higgins are now gone. The guys who are back had just four combined touchdowns and 72 catches last season. Replacing Higgins’ production in particular will be difficult and I would expect the passing game to take a step back as a result.
On defense, there are a host of issues not the least of which is the team will be breaking in seven new starters in along the defensive line and in the secondary. This from a group that allowed opponents to score 27 points per game last year. That’s not good news. Their number one tackler, linebacker Kevin Davis, returns as does mate Deonte Clyburn, but as a whole I would expect this unit to step back as well. The new coordinator is Marty English, though new is a relative term as he was the coordinator from 2012-2014 before switching to linebackers coach last year.
The schedule isn’t kind with the Rams having to face Boise State, Air Force, San Diego State and Minnesota on the road. Overall, the Rams could fight for a bowl berth but, due to the lack of experience they likely won’t top last year’s seven wins.
Toughest Games: @ Minnesota (9/24), vs. Utah State (10/8), @ Boise State (10/15), @ Air Force (11/12), @ San Diego State (11/26)
Craig Bohl has had a rough start to his tenure as a FBS head coach going from 4-8 in his first year in 2014 to 2-10 last season. This season he has his most experienced group yet, but the schedule is not exactly kind. It looks like another rough year for the Cowboys.
Let’s start with the good news for Bohl and offensive coordinator Brent Vigen. They have their top running back Brian Hill (281 car 1,681 yards 6 TD) back along with four of five starters along the offensive line. In addition, the top six wide receivers are back from last year. Now, the bad news. The top returning quarterback, sophomore Nick Smith, attempted just 60 passes last season. He completed just 27 of those for 245 yards. Needless to say, there’s big time inexperience at the most important position on the field. While it helps to have the kind of talent around him, how quickly Smith is able to develop will determine Wyoming’s season and things don’t start off easy.
On the defensive side, the line loses three starters but, that shouldn’t hurt as much considering they weren’t an overly productive pass rushing group as the team had just 10 sacks all of last season. The starting linebacker group from last year returns intact and the secondary looks solid as multiple freshmen saw serious playing time last year and should be better in year two. They also benefit from the addition of UCLA transfer Jalen Ortiz which should only help the depth. They gave up 34 points per game last year and it would seem with the amount of experience they have back that they are primed to lower that number.
I mentioned the schedule in the beginning because they start off with Northern Illinois and Nebraska, not exactly easy games to break in a new starting quarterback. They do have all of their toughest conference games (San Diego State, Boise State, Utah State, San Diego State) at home, but can they pull the upsets? I’m not sure they can, hence why they are at the bottom of this division.
Toughest Games: vs. Northern Illinois (9/3), @ Nebraska (9/10), vs. Air Force (10/8), @ Nevada (10/22), vs. Boise State (10/29), vs. Utah State (11/5), vs. San Diego State (11/19)
Division Winner- Boise State
With a second year starter at the helm and a talented running back in Jeremy McNichols I think the Broncos are going to have the top offense on this side of the conference. Considering they get Utah State, San Jose State and Colorado State at home and don’t have to face Air Force until the last game of the season, the schedule looks to be in their favor as well. In the end, it comes down to that final week of the season between Air Force and Boise and I’ll take the Broncos in that match-up.