2016 Mountain West, West Division Preview: Aztecs The Team To Beat

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.

Now, we look to the Mountain West Conference and the West division where Donnel Pumphrey has San Diego State in position for another MWC title.

Preseason Media Poll

1) San Diego State Aztecs

2) Nevada Wolfpack

3) San Jose State Spartans

4) Fresno State Bulldogs

5) UNLV Rebels

6) Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors

Contenders

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San Diego State senior running back Donnel Pumphrey. Credit: Kent Horner/Getty Images

San Diego Aztecs

San Diego State stumbled out of the game last year going 1-3 before finishing the year on a 10-game winning streak including winning the MWC championship game and then pummeling Cincinnati in the Hawai’i bowl 42-7. This season, Long has a lot of the same guys back from that group and it looks like the Aztecs are once again the team to beat.

The Aztecs do lose last year’s starting QB Maxwell Smith, but Smith tore his ACL prior to the MWC title game and sophomore Christian Chapman was forced to step in. He acquitted himself well leading them to wins in both games, however he did attempt just 49 passes. This is a largely run based offense, and with Chapman stepping in full-time, Aztecs fans should be confident in there not being a big drop-off following the loss of a starting QB. The big reason why is that running back Donnel Pumphrey decided to forgo the NFL draft and returned for his senior season. He toted the ball 306 times for 1,653 yards and 17 TDs last season. Pumphrey will be behind an offensive line that returns three starters including 1st team All MWC guard Nico Siragusa, which means Pumphrey should put up similar numbers this year. Chapman will also have the top two receivers from last year back. Bottom line, this should be a potent offense once more.

On defense, the Aztecs 3-3-5 scheme has been tough for opponent’s to handle since Long took over. They do have some big losses along the defensive line in defensive end Jon Sanchez and tackle Christian Heyward. However, their top guy in 1st team All MWC defensive end Alex Barrett is back for his senior year along with the team’s leading tackler in linebacker Calvin Munson. Combined with an experienced secondary, this unit looks strong once again, but it will be tough to do better than last year when they held opponents to just 16.4 points per game.

The Aztecs’ schedule is a little easier this year with Penn State dropping off, but they do add perennial MAC contender Northern Illinois. In conference they have to travel to Utah State and Nevada, but avoid Boise and Air Force and get San Jose State at home. They’re my pick to not only win the division, but also win the conference.

Toughest Games: @ Northern Illinois (9/17), vs. San Jose State (10/21), @ Utah State (10/28), @ Nevada (11/5)

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Nevada head coach Brian Polian. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Nevada Wolfpack

Brian Polian (Bill’s son) has led the Wolfpack to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and heading into this season he has an extremely talented group on offense led by junior running back James Butler who will look to eclipse 1,000 yards once again.

Senior QB Tyler Stewart won the job in camp last year and proceeded to start all 13 games throwing for 2,139 yards 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was capable in his first year as a starter, but clearly a step down in production from previous QB Cody Fajardo. Heading into his second season Stewart should post better numbers in particular because his top four receivers are back and he had an offensive line in front of him that brings back all five starters. That’s before you even talk about the running back spot where the aforementioned Butler racked up 1,342 yards and 10 TD last season and this year they add Penn State transfer Akeel Lynch. Lynch should step in to fill the void left by last year’s other 1,000 yard rusher Don Jackson and the Wolfpack’s offense should be even more potent with almost everybody back.

On the defensive side, there a quite a few more questions about this team. The biggest ones come in the front seven where six of the seven starters from last year departed. This team gave up 191 yards per game on the ground last year and it’s hard to see that number dropping with inexperienced players stepping into key roles. They should be better against the pass this year with everybody back in the secondary including a pair of sophomores in Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber who proved to be stars in the making during their freshman seasons.

The Wolfpack’s big advantage is they get San Diego State at home and if they can pull the upset in that game they put themselves in great position to win the division and earn a spot in the MWC championship game. However, I just don’t see that happening with a less experienced defense this season. They should absolutely make another bowl game appearance extending their streak to three straight.

Toughest Games: @ Notre Dame (9/10), @ San Jose State (10/15), vs. San Diego State (11/12), vs. Utah State (11/19)

Sleeper(s)

There’s not really a sleeper team on this side of the conference. That’s not to say that SDSU and Nevada will be the only two bowl teams, but rather that they are the two teams that have a legitimate shot at winning this division. Now, let’s get to the rest.

The Rest

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San Jose State QB Kenny Potter. Credit: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

San Jose State Spartans

The Spartans were the beneficiaries of the ballooning number of bowl games last year as they got a bowl bid due to their APR despite being just 5-7. This year, they;re more experienced and finally seem to have the quarterback position settled. Another bowl berth looks like a serious possibility with a lot of talent back.

Kenny Potter began the season splitting time with Joe Gray before taking over for good in Week 6 and starting from there on out. He compiled some pretty solid stats despite the split in playing time throwing for 1,984 yards 15 TD and seven interceptions while completing 67.4 percent of his passes. Now being handed the starter duties from the jump, Potter should put up better numbers this year. He’ll need to as the Spartans lose RB/WR/PR/KR Tyler Ervin. Ervin had a combined 1935 yards and 15 TDs in the rushing and receiving game last year. Replacing him won’t be easy, especially considering that last year’s number two rusher by a large margin was Potter with 415 yards. Thomas Tucker was the next leading running back with 159 yards and 2 TD on 40 carries, but you have to wonder how he’ll do with a full workload. He’ll benefit from having a veteran offensive line with four starters back in front of him and maybe Potter and the passing game can make up for some lost production with three of the top four guys back from last year.

On defense the Spartans got steamrolled on the ground last season giving up 201 yards per game (5.1 per carry). The front four loses just one starter and the linebacker group is back intact with two stars in senior Christian Tago and sophomore Frank Ginda (205 tackles 11.5 TFL last year). With a more stout front seven, those rushing numbers should come down. The question mark this year comes on the back end where they lose both corners and a safety from a group that allowed opponents to complete just 55 percent of their passes last year. While the rushing numbers are likely to improve, the pass defense could go the other way.

The schedule is no help and along with the loss of Ervin, is a big reason why I see this team as fighting for a bowl rather than surprising teams with a potential division title run. They draw Boise State and Air Force out of the Mountain and have to travel to both SDSU and Boise. Games against Tulsa and Utah in the out of conference aren’t easy either. Doesn’t help that they have 10 games straight before their bye.

Toughest Games: @ Tulsa (9/3), vs. Utah (9/17), vs. Nevada (10/15), @ San Diego State (10/21), @ Boise State (11/4), vs. Air Force (11/19)

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UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez leads his team out of the tunnel. Credit: David Becker/Getty Images

UNLV Rebels

The Rebels made an outside-the-box hire by going straight to the high school ranks and plucking Tony Sanchez from Bishop Gorman right there in Vegas. Sanchez actually improved the team’s win total from two to three in Year 1. He looks to have the program on the right track, but this will likely be another rebuilding year.

The biggest question is who will play quarterback. Blake Decker is gone, leaving junior Kurt Palandech (49.3% 794 yards 9 TD 5 INT), red-shirt freshman Dalton Sneed and junior college transfer Johnny Stanton to battle for the job. As of the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday, the competition was still open, so it remains to be seen who will grab the reins. Whoever does will have one of the top receiver duos in the conference to throw to in juniors Devonte Boyd and Kendal Keys (97 catches 1,519 yards and 13 TDs last season). Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton will have his trio of running backs to work with once again and an offensive line that returns three starters. That combination of experience should help take some of the pressure off of the QB, but still the development of that position will be the difference between four or five wins and the six needed to get to bowl eligibility.

On defense, the Rebels bring back their top tackler in linebacker Ryan McAleenan (85 tackles) and both of their other starting LBs are back as well. The secondary loses a couple of starters and the defensive line loses top guy Sonny Sanitoa. However, the unit can only continue to improve with eight guys back, especially considering that this unit gave up 33.7 points and 457 yards per game. I don’t see them doing worse than those numbers.

They have three tough conference road games in SDSU, SJSU, and Boise State, but they do get rival Nevada at home to end the year. UCLA is once again on the out of conference slate, but this time they have to travel to Westwood.

Toughest Games: @ UCLA (9/10), @ San Diego State (10/8), @ San Jose State (10/29), @ Boise State (11/18), vs. Nevada (11/26)

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Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Fresno State Bulldogs

After going 11-2 in 2013, the Bulldogs have fallen off to 6-8 and 3-9 the last two seasons. After last year’s disappointing showing, head coach Tim DeRuyter made significant changes to his coaching staff bringing in new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. Those changes and a brutal schedule make this year look like another down year for the program.

The Bulldogs had a tough time keeping quarterbacks healthy last season. Zach Greenlee was the leading passer and he’s now gone, but Kilton Anderson, Chason Virgil and Ford Childress all saw time last year. Virgil took over from Greenlee after two games and looked like he was set to grab hold of the spot before being injured and missing the rest of the season. He comes into this year as the presumptive starter, though freshman James Quentin-Davis has been seeing time in camp. The top two rushers from last year are gone, but the team added junior college transfer Dontel James who should make an impact along with freshman Saevion Johnson. James had minor knee surgery recently and Johnson took a hit to the knee in the scrimmage but both should be able to contribute Week 1. They will work behind an offensive line returning just two starters from last year, but after averaging just 137 yards per game on the ground last year it’s hard to see them putting up worse numbers. The top three receivers are back which should help the young QBs, but there’s still a lot for new coordinator Eric Kiesau to work on.

New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward comes in from South Carolina looking to fix a unit that gave up 38 points and 446 yards per game last season. Ward will have to find replacements for four starters in the front seven (two linemen, two linebackers) and the secondary loses a pair of starters as well. The unit is much less experienced. Ward has his work cut out for him to try and ensure that the numbers don’t get worse this season.

The Bulldogs add Nebraska, Toledo and Tulsa to the non-conference and have to face Utah State and Air Force out of the Mountain division. The four week stretch from the second week of October to the end of the month is rough. I don’t think they’ll make a bowl this season as they’re adjusting to multiple new coordinators and have some big holes to fill.

Toughest Games: @ Nebraska (9/3), @ Toledo (9/17), vs. Tulsa (9/24), @ Nevada (10/8), vs. San Diego State (10/14), @ Utah State (10/22), vs. Air Force (10/28), vs. San Jose State (11/26)

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Hawai’i senior running back Paul Harris. Credit: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors

The Hawai’i program has been struggling since the departure of June Jones after the 2007 season. They’ve had just one winning season since and are now on their third head coach since then as Nick Rolovich replaces Norm Chow. Rolovich played QB here and was also a grad assistant and offensive coordinator here previously. He’s got a good foundation to work with on offense but a tough schedule combined with his first year as a head coach points to another bottom of the division finish.

Ikaika Woolsey split time with USC transfer Max Wittek last season, but now that Wittek is gone, Woolsey will compete with red-shirt freshman Aaron Zwahlen, and Dru Brown for the starting job. As of this writing, the QB has not been named so it’s still a tight battle. Rolovich has the top three running backs back including senior Paul Harris who led the team with 1,132 yards and six touchdowns last season. That group will work with a veteran offensive line that returns four starters to try and improve on the 124 yards per game they gained on the ground last season. The team averaged just 17.6 points per game last season and with an experienced line, deep running backs and receivers groups that number should improve.

On defense, Kevin Lempa returns as the coordinator (previously here from 2000-02) after spending time at Boston College the last three seasons. He will have a deep defensive line that has multiple guys who started games last season, although defensive end Kennedy Tulimasealii was dismissed from the team following an arrest this offseason. He’s trying to return to the team however after a deal was made for the charges to be dropped if he avoids legal trouble for the next four years. Keep an eye on that situation. The linebackers group has two starters back in Jahlani Tavai and Jerrol Garcia-Williams who combined for 145 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. The secondary however is a big question mark following the departure of three starters from a group that had just three interceptions last season. It would be near impossible for that number to go down, so they should improve against the pass despite the losses.

The schedule is rough as Hawai’i opens the season by having to travel to Australia to take on California on August 27th. They follow that up by flying to Ann Arbor the following week, have a date with Arizona in Week 4 and then get into the conference schedule. Rolovich will hopefully get the team on the right track, but it’s looking like another down year.

Toughest Games: @ Michigan (9/3), @ Arizona (9/17), vs. Nevada (10/1), @ San Jose State (10/8), @ Air Force (10/22), @ San Diego State (11/5), vs. Boise State (11/12)

Division Winner- San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State looks like the class of this division and really, the conference. The return of Donnel Pumphrey was huge. The Aztecs enter the season on a 10 game winning streak and they have an experienced group on the offensive line that should allow them to continue to put up good numbers in the running game. With a quarterback in Chapman who got experience in two pressure packed games (conference title and bowl game), the Aztecs have a potent offense combined with an experienced defense that will likely be stingy once again. They’re my pick to not only win this division, but to beat Boise State in the MWC championship game as well.

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