2017 Mountain West Conference Football Preview: Mountain Division

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, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

The Mountain division is the stronger of the two in the conference and last year it saw the rise of a surprise contender in Wyoming. The Cowboys, in the third year under former North Dakota State boss Craig Bohl, ran off a 6-2 conference record that catapulted them into the conference title game over the favored Boise State. This year, another program in the third year with its head coach looks to challenge the hierarchy of the division: Mike Bobo’s Colorado State Rams.

Contenders

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Quarterback Brett Rypien #4 of the Boise State Broncos. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Boise State Broncos

The Broncos have been perennial contenders/favorites in the Mountain West since joining the conference back in 2011. Bryan Harsin enters his fourth year with what may be his least experienced team yet, but there’s still plenty of talent to believe the Broncos will be in contention for the division crown.

Junior QB Brett Rypien is back after a good sophomore campaign (61.9% 3,646 yards 24 TD 8 INT) and the offense is going to rely heavily upon him as the top rusher (Jeremy McNichols), two of the top three receivers, and three offensive linemen are gone from last year’s unit. No. 2 receiver Cedrick Wilson (56 receptions 1,129 yards 11 TD) is back, which gives Rypien at least one weapon back from last year. The Rypien to Wilson combo is potent and as usual, the Broncos recruiting has been good so there is enough young talent to believe they are capable of at least matching last year’s numbers (33.8 PPG 472.8 YPG).

On defense, the biggest question mark is at linebacker, where all three of last year’s starters depart. They also lose 1st team MWC DE Sam McCaskill (50 tackles 7.5 TFL 6.5 sacks), and a 2nd team MWC corner (Jonathan Moxey) and safety (Chanceller James). Still, the return of guys like NT David Moa (30 tackles 8.5 sacks), corner Tyler Horton (9 PBU), and the return to health of LB Leighton Vander Esch (27 tackles 2.5 TFL 1 sack in 6 games) should give DC Andy Avalos enough talent to keep similar numbers (23.3 PPG 389.2 YPG). The biggest threat to Boise returning to the MWC title game is the schedule. They have to face both San Diego State and Colorado State on the road. Both of those games will be big for their conference record, and the CSU game (11/11) could determine the division. Over 8.5 wins

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Running back Izzy Matthews #35 of the Colorado State Rams. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Colorado State Rams

Mike Bobo has done a tremendous job coming in and keeping this team in postseason play in each of his first two years. It’s common to see a team struggle in the first years of a new coach’s system, but that hasn’t been the case here as the Rams have gone 7-6 in back-to-back seasons. This year, the Rams have plenty of returning talent with 14 starters back and they enter that often pivotal third year under coach Bobo.

The offense will be led by a trio of returning running backs in Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey (Kinsey tore his ACL in the bowl, hopes to be back) who combined for 2,199 yards and 24 TDs. They’re complemented by an efficient and effective senior QB in Nick Stevens who set the school record for completion percentage last year at 64.2 percent (1,936 yards 19 TD 5 INT). Stevens will have his top two targets back as well and if you had to pick one potential trouble spot, it would be on the offensive line where they lose three starters in addition to a pair of veteran tight ends. They may not hit that same 218 yards per game on the ground as they did last year with this more inexperienced line, but they should still provide plenty of fireworks.

On defense, they lose just three starters, but one (2nd team MWC LB Kevin Davis) is a fairly big loss. That said, three of four defensive linemen return, two of three linebackers, and three starters in the secondary are back. This unit was the weak point of last year’s team, allowing 30.4 PPG, and with the number of productive returning players they have, there should be no problem lowering that number. The schedule is favorable as they avoid SDSU in the crossover and get Boise State at home. Win that Boise State game and hold off the Cowboys on the road, and the division is likely theirs. However, if they slip up, they could easily fall short of this number due to an out of conference schedule featuring Oregon State, Colorado and Alabama. I expect them to hit the over, but I could easily see a path where they don’t. Over 7.5 wins

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Josh Allen #17 of the Wyoming Cowboys Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Wyoming Cowboys

The Cowboys were a pleasant surprise in 2016, jumping from 2-10 to 8-6 and making their first bowl appearance since 2011. This season, they won’t catch anyone off guard, and a lot of hype has been placed on their junior QB, with many expecting him to be the top guy in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Josh Allen has exploded onto the national scene with numerous people pegging him as the top QB in the 2018 Draft before the season even starts. A former three-star recruit, Allen threw for 3,203 yards with 28 TD and 15 INT while completing 56 percent of his passes and also ranking as the team’s 2nd last season. He’ll look to prove worthy of that hype by breaking in an all new set of receivers and without the program’s all-time leading rusher (Brian Hill). He does have a veteran offensive line protecting him and this will be his chance to impress a national audience that has now heard his name pop up in connection to the NFL.

The defense has the chance to be much better this year after allowing opponents 34.1 PPG while getting gashed on the ground (203.6 YPG). That led to a lot of shootouts, which, thanks to their own potent offense, the Cowboys won. This season, they’ve got returning talent on all three levels (8 starters return in all), with big play makers like 1st team MWC safety Andrew Wingard (131 tackles 5.5 TFL 2 INT) and MLB Logan Wilson (94 tackles 4.5 TFL 3 sacks 3 INT). The schedule isn’t helpful as they have to play both Boise State and Air Force on the road, but they should still be in contention in the division.

Bowl Teams

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Timothy McVey #33 of the Air Force Falcons. Credit: Kent Horner/Getty Images

Air Force Falcons

Troy Calhoun led the Falcons to a 10-win season for the second time in the last three years and a win in the Arizona Bowl over South Alabama. As with all of the service academies, they rely on a triple-option attack that oftentimes can wear more talented teams down due to the discipline it takes in defending it. There’s going to be a lot of new faces (again, common with service academies), but expect another bowl berth this season.

The biggest wins for the Falcons come on offense, where they actually do have six starters back including junior QB Arion Worthman and senior Nate Romine. Worthman took over after Romine was injured against Fresno State and may have seized the job for himself. He’s a better runner than Romine, which is key in the triple-option attack. Whoever gets the start will have senior tailback Tim McVey (83 carries 708 yards 10 TDs 8.1 YPC!) behind them in the backfield, but they do lose three of their top four rushers outside of him. The loss of Jalen Robinette at receiver hurts too, as that’s an NFL-caliber talent removed from the offense. There are three starters back on the offensive line and overall the unit is capable of matching last year’s numbers (35.2 PPG 452.9 YPG).

Defensively, just one starter, LB Grant Ross, returns. That many new faces would lead me to expect that there will be a bit of a drop-off from last season’s 26.2 PPG and 366 YPG allowed. They draw SDSU out of the West (at home), and have to face both Boise State and Colorado State on the road. That takes them out of contention in the division for me, but they should be good enough to scrape more than five wins. Over 5 wins.

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Lamar Jordan #13 o fthe New Mexico Lobos. Credit: Elsa/Getty Images

New Mexico Lobos

Bob Davie has shown his ability to turn around this program in the last two years with 7-6 and 9-4 finishes respectively after going 11-26 his first three seasons. Now, he’s got a solid offense with a QB perfectly suited to his system, but the defense may take a step back.

Senior Lamar Jordan is the type of QB you need for a triple option offense as he’s most effective when running the football (114 carries 739 yards 3 TD), but he can also chuck it a bit when given the opportunity (53.3% 681 yards 6 TD 4 INT). The Lobos lose top rusher Teriyon Gibson, but return their three other top backs from last season, so that group should be able to match his production. Four starting offensive linemen are back, and those factors lead me to believe that the 36.7 PPG and 456.8 YPG they averaged last year is once again possible.

The defense wasn’t exactly strong last year as they allowed opponents 31.5 PPG and 394.8 YPG last season. This year, they’ve got just three starters back, led by LB Kimmie Carson (58 tackles 6.5 TFL). The low number returning starters doesn’t bode well for a unit that didn’t perform well last year. They have to travel to Boise, Tulsa, Wyoming, Texas A&M, and SDSU. That’s five potential losses off the bat, which means they have just seven games to get six wins and beat this number. I have them falling just short, with five wins but, they could certainly pull an upset or two and be in a bowl which is why they’re in this tier. Under 5.5 wins.

Rebuilding

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Kent Myers #2 of the Utah State Aggies. Credit: Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Utah State Aggies

The Aggies have fallen off the past two seasons after posting a 30-11 record from 2012-2014 with a 6-7 record in 2015 and a 3-9 record last year. This season, Matt Wells has an experienced QB back and could pull a few upsets, but likely will fall short of a bowl berth.

Senior QB Kent Myers returns (58.4% 2,389 yards 10 TD 8 INT, 449 rush yards 6 TD) and he has last year’s top rusher, senior Tonny Lindsey (148 carries 763 yards 6 TDs), and receiver (Ron’quavion Tarver) back with him. The question marks come along the offensive line where they have just one starter back from last year’s team. They should average more than 23.9 PPG, but that line will determine the level of success.

Defensively, they lose four of their top five defensive linemen, which could hurt a run defense that was already allowing 203 YPG last season. They also lose their top two tacklers from the LB group but, both of those guys missed time last year, so the new starters did get playing time last year. In the secondary, six of their top eight defensive backs return which should help them be solid against the pass. Like the offense, my questions lie in the trenches and how effective they’ll be there. They get CSU, Wyoming and Boise all at home, which in theory is great, but they’ll likely be an underdog in each of those games. Overall, I think they fall just short of the 4.5 wins with four on the year. Under 4.5 wins

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