Teams: Air Force (Mountain), Boise State (Mountain), Colorado State (Mountain), Fresno State (West), Hawaii (West), Nevada (West), New Mexico (Mountain), San Diego State (West), San Jose State (West), UNLV (West), Utah State (Mountain), and Wyoming (Mountain)
Best Team: Fresno State
Best Coach: Chris Petersen (Boise State)
Top Players: QB Derek Carr (Fresno State), QB David Fales (San Jose State), RB Kasey Carrier (New Mexico), RB Tim Cornett (UNLV), WR Davante Adams (Fresno State), DE Demarcus Lawrence (Boise State), LB Vince Buhagiar (San Jose State), S Derron Smith (Fresno State)
Top Storyline: Will Mountain West produce a BCS buster in the final year of the current format?
Due to conference realignment, the Mountain West conference is now an odd marriage between the WAC and teams that have been in this conference for years. However, Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State, and Utah State all could potentially contend for a BCS berth.
The most likely program to make a run at glory, however, is Fresno State. In the first year under Tim DeRuyter, the Bulldogs managed a 9-4 record and return 16 starters from 2012. The headliner, obviously, is senior quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of former #1 overall NFL Draft pick David Carr. As a junior, Carr threw for 4104 yards and 37 touchdown passes, and he figures to improve on those figures in 2013. His top target is sophomore sensation Davante Adams who hauled in 1312 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. On the ground, however, the Bulldogs have little returning talent and will rely heavily on a strong line led by senior tackle Austin Wentworth to lead the way. Defensively, the Bulldogs are led by a pair of junior defensive backs in safety Derron Smith (79 tackles and 6 interceptions) and cornerback Sean Alston (51 tackles and 5 interceptions).
Prediction: Fresno State has the look of a BCS buster, but it will not be easy. Power conference foes Rutgers and Colorado are beatable, but division games against San Diego State and San Jose State are both on the road. Additionally, Fresno State plays Boise State on September 20, which makes it possible that they could have to get through the Broncos twice. While this team could be favored in every game, it is hard to imagine them not tripping up once or twice. Still, a 10+ win season is the expectation for the program in 2013.
Much like their fellow Golden State school, the Spartans of San Jose State have plenty of offensive firepower behind the stellar arm of senior quarterback David Fales (4193 yards and 33 touchdowns) and his star senior receiver Noel Grigsby (1307 yards). Also like the Bulldogs, the Spartans may struggle early on in the ground game. However, their defense is bolstered by a pair of senior linebackers in Keith Smith (97 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and 1 interception) and Vince Buhagiar (89 tackles, 3 sacks, 6.5 TFLs). Like Carr, Fales has the ability to lead this team beyond its strong pool of talent.
Prediction: The Spartans are not quite as good as their rival nor as good as their 11-2 2012 team. They only return 12 starters for first year coach Ron Caragher. Moreover, an early season matchup against Stanford is unlikely to fall into the win column (although the Spartans only lost by 3 last year). The similarities in talent and personnel between the two programs, however, could make the November 29th contest very compelling. A rematch against Utah State, who trounced the Spartans 49-27 last year should also prove a tight contest. Nevertheless, San Jose State could match last season’s win total if the ball bounces their way. If they somehow shock Stanford and run the table, they will likely be in a BCS bowl.
No one is arguing that the 2013 rendition of Boise State is nearly as strong as previous years. Despite the fact that the Broncos return only 9 starters, however, one can never count them or coach Chris Petersen out. Senior quarterback Joe Southwick (2730 passing yards) is returning, but the headliner may be junior defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (48 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 4 TFLs). Junior safety Jeremy Ioane (70 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 3 interceptions) also stands out on a defense that is sure to be disciplined and well-coached. While there are a number of key losses, this is still an experienced roster used to winning and Petersen’s system. As a result, the Broncos are the favorite in the West.
Prediction: While Boise State recovers from significant losses on both sides of the ball, they face an unforgiving schedule with games on the road against Washington, Fresno State, Utah State, BYU, and San Diego State looking very difficult. Beyond those games, there are still a number of contests that could conceivably trip up Boise State. The Broncos were 11-2 in 2012, but an eight or nine win year would have to be considered a success.
If Boise State cannot win the West, it will likely be Utah State that halts the Broncos’ momentum. If the Aggies can overtake the perennial non-power conference force, it will likely be junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton leading the way. Keeton threw for 3373 yards and ran for another 619 as a sophomore. However, the team loses its leading rusher and Keeton’s top five targets from last year have moved on. On the other side of the ball are standout linebackers junior Zach Vigil (105 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 4 TFLs) and senior Jake Doughty (109 tackles, 1 sack, and 2.5 TFLs). Overall, Matt Wells has 14 starters returning from an 11-2 team and the Aggies could put yet another strong season together in 2013.
Prediction: The Aggies could have some growing pains early in the season, however, the toughest part of the season comes early. Games at Utah, USC, and San Jose State plus home games against BYU and Boise State will be tough. If the Aggies can win two or three of those matchups, they could be well positioned for a late season run. Matching last season’s record is unlikely, but eight to nine wins is a reasonable goal. The October 12 contest against Boise State will be critical.
San Diego State has quietly become one of the more underrated programs in the nation, and was an impressive 9-4 in 2012. Fifteen starters return from that team, and Rocky Long hopes to repeat last season’s success. For the Aztecs, victories will come via their defense in 2013. Their top four tacklers from last season returns including stellar pass rushing junior linebackers Jake Fely (90 tackles and 7 sacks) and Derek Largent (61 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions). On offense junior running back Adam Muema will lead the charge after rushing for 1458 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012.
Prediction: The Aztecs will be a force to be reckoned with in the West division, and they could conceivably win the conference title. However, they do have to go through Fresno State and San Jose State and also draw Boise State from the Mountain division. Out of conference games against Ohio State and Oregon State are also tough matchups. Eight wins would be a reasonable targets for the Aztecs, but they could be a team to watch in 2014.
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has a quarterback controversy on his hands as sophomore Conner Smith, junior Garrett Grayson, and freshman Nick Stevens are still competing for the starting spot at Colorado State. It is a coin flip for the job, but Nick Stevens may be the most talented of the bunch. Trying to make life easier on the new quarterback will be running backs Chris Nwoke (570 yards) and Donnell Alexander (587 yards). Most significant contributors return for the Rams on defense including leading tackler junior linebacker Aaron Davis (84 tackles and 5 TFLs).
Prediction: McElwain should do well at Colorado State and has 17 returning starters, but it may be a tough year given the schedule which includes an away game against Alabama. Still, I would peg this team for improvement on their 4-8 season with six or seven wins in 2013.
Nevada has had no problem scoring points in recent years, and that is unlikely to change with junior quarterback Cody Fajardo (2786 passing yards, 1121 rushing yards, and 32 total touchdowns) at the helm once again after a stellar 2012. Leading receivers Brandon Wimberly (845 yards) and Richy Turner (752 yards) also return and should assist the Wolfpack in putting up a lot of points. Defensively, first year coach Brian Polian may have some holes to fill.
Prediction: The Wolfpack only return 11 starters from a 7-6 2012 season, and have away games at UCLA, Florida State, Boise State, Fresno State, and Colorado State. They may also be underdogs at home against San Jose State and BYU. A .500 type season will be about as strong as can be expected.
Norm Chow has always been a respected offensive guru, but Hawaii was anything but consistent offensively in his first season in 2012. Chow will look to Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham to bolster that offense. Alongside Graham, there is little else that inspires confidence, and, defensively Tavita Woodard (38 tackles and 5.5 sacks) is perhaps the best player returning from an equally bad unit.
Prediction: This is where the Mountain West gets rough. The Warriors are not the worst team in the conference, but their 3-9 record last season is unlikely to improve in 2013.
It has been a rough stretch for UNLV and fourth year coach Bobby Hauck. If they are going to make a move, however, it will be this year. Nick Sherry, the sophomore quarterback, returns after throwing for 2544 yards in 2012, yet he threw for more interceptions than touchdowns. However, he is not the headliner that running back Tim Cornett (1232 yards) is for the Rebels. Moreover, UNLV returns its top six receivers and four of six of its top tacklers.
Prediciton: UNLV should beat Western Illinois and should be competitive with Central Michigan, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Air Force. Surpassing its 2 win total from 2012 should be possible, but, if they do, it will not be by much. The matchup against the Warriors is particularly compelling, but I give Hawaii the edge due to Chow.
Junior quarterback Brett Smith is the only star returning from the 4-8 Wyoming Cowboys. After throwing for 2837 yards and scoring a total of 33 touchdowns as a sophomore, Smith will be leaned on heavily in 2013. Outside of Smith, however, fifth year coach Dave Christensen has little to hang his hat on despite 14 starters returning. If this team is going to improve, it could be due to the development of sophomore running back D.J. May who ran the ball well in limited opportunities in 2012 and showed some electricity as a return man.
Prediction: Somehow, Wyoming managed to defeat Colorado State, New Mexico, and UNLV en route to a 3-5 conference record. While I see Wyoming as a team that could match their 4-8 overall record with out of conference games including Idaho, Northern Colorado, and Texas State plus a win or two in conference, they will slide back a little within the Mountain West.
If there is a team that can emerge from the back of the pack in the Mountain West, it could be New Mexico. Head coach Bob Davie may be remembered more for his work as a TV analyst and failure as a coach at Notre Dame, but he is a solid coach for the Mountain West. Moreover, he returns one of the conference’s best players in senior running back Kasey Carrier (1469 yards rushing). With a player of his caliber, the Lobos could pull some surprises, particularly if running quarterback sophomore Cole Gautsche (222 passing yards and 760 rushing yards) can develop into a more well rounded option at the position. Defensively, New Mexico returns only four starters, but star linebacker Dallas Bollema does return (89 tackles, 1 sack, 5.5 TFL, and 3 interceptions).
Prediction: Outside of Carrier, there is little else to get excited about for the Lobos, and, with only ten returning starters, last year’s 4-9 record may be difficult to repeat. However, a star like Carrier can take over games so do not be surprised if the Lobos win one or two that they are not supposed to. Still, a three win season is the most realistic expectation at this point.
It is a little odd placing Air Force, a program that has been consistently solid for a long time, in the back of the back, but it is hard to make a case for them to be much higher in Troy Calhoun’s seventh year. Senior wide receiver Ty McArthur (467 rushing yards and 411 receiving yards) is the top offensive returner, and junior safety Christian Spears (91 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and 1 interception) leads a defensive backfield that should be solid. Still, the Falcons return only ten starters and many of their losses were impact players.
Prediction: Air Force has been a winning program so it would not surprise me if they are able to play above their talent game and defeat some of the lower end competition in the Mountain West. They should win early against Colgate, and they should be competitive against Wyoming, Army, New Mexico, and Colorado State, but I am not sure they will be favored in any of those games. A mid-season game against Navy should prove that the Midshipmen are the class of the military programs this year.