Mountain West preview: Burning questions in Mountain division

Wyoming completed with its worst SP+ rating since 2015, San Diego State had its worst since 2013. At 59th, Boise State had its worst rating since 1998. At 126th and 128th, Colorado State and Hawaii had their worst since 1981 and 1976, respectively. Nevada hadn’t ranked worse than one hundred and twenty fifth since 1933. New Mexico had by no means ranked as little as a hundred and thirtieth. Solely two Mountain West groups noticed their rankings enhance in 2022 (San Jose State and UNLV … which fired its coach?), and 5 groups fell by not less than 30 spots. (Nevada fell by 74.)

It wasn’t an incredible 12 months for the Group of 5 convention out west, in different phrases. In its 18-year existence, the MWC had by no means completed with a median SP+ rating worse than 87.7, and it was 97.7 in 2022. The convention had 4 new head coaches (all of whom oversaw regression) and the worst returning manufacturing averages within the nation by far, and whereas its two division champions (Fresno State and Boise State) each flashed upside, additionally they each battled quarterback accidents and general inconsistency.

A rebound is not assured in 2023, however there are causes for hope. Within the Mountain Division, Boise State has its QB state of affairs found out and boasts one of many convention’s increased returning manufacturing averages. Wyoming went from close to the underside of the returning manufacturing record to close the highest. Air Force returns the bones of an excellent protection, the damage bug has nearly no alternative however to be kinder to Utah State, and each Colorado State and New Mexico have sufficient potential at quarterback to make them candidates for overachieving projections.

Final 12 months was a nadir. Let’s speak about what we would see this fall. Let’s preview the MWC Mountain!

Each week by means of the offseason, Invoice Connelly will preview one other division from the Group of 5 and Energy 5 solely for ESPN+, finally together with all 133 FBS groups. The previews will embrace 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for every group.

Earlier previews: Conference USA, part 1 | Conference USA, part 2 | MAC East | MAC West

2022 recap

Boise State had the nice sense to time its funk for earlier than convention play. That made the distinction in an uneventful Mountain race. After a dire 27-10 loss to UTEP in Week 4, second-year head coach Andy Avalos fired offensive coordinator Tim Plough and changed him with former BSU head coach and NFL offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier entered the switch portal, so Koetter known as performs for freshman Taylen Green as a substitute.

It labored. BSU went 8-0 in MWC play, profitable the division by three video games over Air Drive (which had suffered its personal funk at first of convention play), Wyoming (whose offense faltered terribly late within the 12 months) and Utah State (who went 4-0 in one-score video games to eke out bowl eligibility). Colorado State and New Mexico, in the meantime, went a mixed 5-19 general, 3-13 in convention.

2023 projections

Former BSU quarterback and Missouri assistant Bush Hamdan takes over as offensive coordinator in Boise, however Inexperienced returns, as do eight different offensive starters. The Broncos’ protection is coping with turnover, however with Air Drive beginning over offensively and everybody else enjoying catch-up, the Broncos begin out as a transparent favourite. That is smart contemplating, nicely, they’ve received 5 of the final six Mountain crowns. If there is a monkey wrench of their plan to make it six of seven, nonetheless, it could be the Air Drive protection.

Burning questions

Which of final 12 months’s three Boise States takes the sphere in 2023? For some groups, SP+ attracts a reasonably good bead on you from the beginning. For others, it is chasing a shifting goal all 12 months. Boise State match into the latter class.

Boise State vs. SP+ projections in 2022

First 4 video games: underachieved by 14.4 PPG (-8.3 on offense, -6.1 on protection)

Subsequent 4 video games: overachieved by 13.5 PPG (+9.0 on offense, +4.5 on protection)

Final six video games: underachieved by 3.7 PPG (-0.1 on offense, -3.6 on protection)

The Broncos have been projected thirty fifth to begin the season, however they received trounced at each Oregon State and UTEP and fell as little as 81st. The post-UTEP offensive adjustments took maintain properly, nonetheless, they usually beat 4 MWC opponents, together with Fresno State and San Diego State, by a median of 36-14 to climb again towards the highest 50. However down the stretch, the offense performed to projections whereas the protection slipped.

I determine we are able to assume good issues from the offense. The expertise ranges are huge, and for a freshman who wasn’t even purported to play, Inexperienced actually was excellent. He rushed for greater than 100 yards thrice and threw for greater than 200 yards six occasions, and BSU averaged 32.5 factors per sport when he began and 22 when he did not. The mixture of Inexperienced and 1,100-yard rusher George Holani provides the Broncos the most effective backfield within the MWC, and Inexperienced may have sure-handed slot man Latrell Caples and a seasoned receiving corps at his disposal too. The road should change three regulars, together with John Ojukwu, the most recent of many superior BSU left tackles, however it returns 4 gamers with stable beginning expertise. Proper sort out Cade Beresford is especially robust.

It is laborious to know what to make of the protection, although. The Broncos completed a lofty twenty eighth in defensive SP+ due to early-season prowess and dominance of dangerous offenses, however they suffered growing glitches late, then misplaced 9 of the 18 gamers who noticed 250-plus snaps, together with 4 of the highest 5 in an aggressive secondary.

Avalos is an excellent defensive coach — it has been some time since he was related to a nasty protection — and appears to work nicely with coordinator Spencer Danielson. They nonetheless have play-makers in linebacker DJ Schramm and edge rusher Demitri Washington, and sophomore linebacker Andrew Simpson may develop into a star quickly. However depth may very well be a problem in each the back and front except some transfers (three on the road, one four-year plus two JUCOs within the secondary) click on. If BSU nonetheless fields a top-40 protection, the Broncos might be far and away the division favourite. However attrition can catch as much as you at occasions.

Can Air Drive preserve this run of unimaginable protection going? At a faculty that may’t redshirt gamers (and, in latest occasions, hasn’t been capable of make the most of the NCAA giving everybody an additional 12 months of eligibility), Air Drive coach Troy Calhoun has been a bit restricted by expertise — typically his group has it, and typically it would not. From 2012 to 2019, Calhoun’s Falcons suffered 4 shedding seasons and received double-digit video games thrice, relying partly on the extent of turnover that they had suffered the 12 months earlier than. However beginning in 2019, this system started taking up a unique, nearly dependable look.

Air Drive’s common SP+ rankings

Calhoun’s first 12 years (2007-18): 67.9 general, 60.7 offense, 68.8 protection

Calhoun’s final 4 years (2019-22): 47.8 general, 90.3 offense, 16.8 protection

The Falcons have received not less than 10 video games in every of their final three full seasons, and their protection has been nearly the most effective within the Group of 5. They profit from the best way their offense slows video games down — it would not rating as many factors because it used to, however it uncovered the protection to the fewest variety of performs and drives per sport final season. However when the protection is on the sphere, it dominates. The Falcons have been ninth in dashing success fee allowed in 2022 regardless of measurement disadvantages up entrance, they rushed the passer nicely when opponents have been not on time, they usually performed sensible crimson zone protection, permitting only a 43% crimson zone landing fee (fourth in FBS).

After years of profitable video games by irritating the opposing protection with its choice assault, Air Drive now wins video games by irritating foes’ offense much more. And its defensive dominance continued after shedding coordinator John Rudzinski to Virginia final season. Veteran Brian Knorr, a former Air Drive quarterback, took the reins and saved the momentum going — and with a reasonably younger unit, in addition. Of the 13 defenders with 250-plus snaps, 9 return, together with 260-pound play-making tackles Peyton Zdroik and Jayden Thiergood up entrance and many of the secondary.

The Falcons ought to have one other excellent protection in 2023, however the offense has certainly slid backward a bit in recent times and now faces an overhaul. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels and 1,700-yard rusher Brad Roberts carried the ball a mixed 471 occasions (not together with sacks) final season, and each are gone. So are three of the subsequent 4 main rushers and each of the gamers who caught greater than three passes on this run-heavy assault. The road may very well be a saving grace — it returns all however one common, together with three all-conference contenders in tackles Everett Smalley and Kaleb Holcomb and guard Wesley Ndago. However fullback John Lee Eldridge III would be the solely acquainted face touching the ball in 2023, and this was already an offense that has seen diminishing returns in recent times. The protection can carry a ton of the burden, however it has to get not less than some assist.

Can Wyoming discipline a merely first rate offense sooner or later? Except for geography and elevation, Wyoming and Air Drive do not have so much in frequent — completely different recruiting goals, completely different budgets, completely different nearly every little thing. However they’ve been equally lopsided in recent times. Since 2017, Craig Bohl’s Wyoming program has gone .500 or higher in each (full) season due to an excellent protection that has averaged a 33.3 rating in defensive SP+. Bohl has superbly rebuilt the defensive tradition he established at North Dakota State, and the Cowboys have benefited from it.

They’ve but to win greater than eight video games in a season, nonetheless, as a result of in that very same span the offense has averaged a grotesque SP+ rating of 115.7. As with Air Drive, they chew up clock with a sluggish tempo, they usually run the ball successfully at occasions: The trio of Titus Swen, Dawaiian McNeely and D.Q. James averaged 24 carries per sport and 5.6 yards per carry final 12 months. However when the Cowboys fell not on time, the drive ended. They have been 118th in passing downs success fee. Quarterback Andrew Peasley accomplished simply 52% of his passes with a 10-to-9 TD-to-INT ratio and a No. 112 Complete QBR rating.

The protection slid a bit in 2022, partly due to inexperience. That would go from legal responsibility to asset this fall: Of the 16 gamers who noticed not less than 250 snaps, 13 return, and 10 have been both freshmen or sophomores final fall. 9 gamers made not less than 4 tackles for loss, and eight are again. The Cowboys nonetheless ranked a stable 66th in defensive SP+ and defended the cross superbly. The road was notably younger, nonetheless, and the run protection struggled; they ranked 94th in dashing success fee allowed and, shockingly for a Bohl protection, one hundred and twenty fifth in sort out success fee.

If inexperience was the principle concern (and it most likely was), the entrance seven ought to rebound, and this might simply be one other high-level protection. The query, then, is whether or not something will ever change on offense. Peasley returns, as do McNeely and James, and Northern Illinois switch Harrison Waylee ought to take Swen’s place fairly nicely. The offensive line is big: 5 returning regulars common 6-foot-5, 312 kilos. Bohl clearly needs conservatism and physicality over every little thing else on offense, and that is effective. However you continue to have to have the ability to throw the ball often, and Wyoming wasn’t even good at that when Josh Allen was behind heart.

It is a 10-win protection paired with a three-win offense. Annual bowl eligibility is a reasonably unimaginable factor on this job, however Bohl’s success has additionally revealed his program’s limitations. It is not too late for Wyoming to evolve — or for Bohl to perhaps climb aboard the fourth downs bandwagon (Wyoming went for it on solely 6% of fourth downs final season, lowest in FBS) — however it’s laborious to consider which may occur.

What does a steady Utah State appear to be? The one predictable factor a few latest Utah State soccer season has been that it is most likely going to be fully completely different than the one the 12 months earlier than.

2017: 6-7 report, 81st in SP+
2018: 11-2 report, sixteenth in SP+
2019: 7-6 report, 73rd in SP+
2020: 1-5 report, 121st in SP+
2021: 11-3 report, 62nd in SP+
2022: 6-7 report, 114th in SP+

That is 5 straight years with not less than a five-game change within the win whole and not less than a 48-spot shift within the SP+ rankings. The Aggies have averaged seven wins per 12 months on this span, with a rating within the 70s, however they’ve solely received seven video games or completed within the 70s as soon as.

The excellent news, because it have been, is that USU cannot sink one other 48 spots in SP+ this 12 months — I suppose which means the Aggies will rise once more regardless of poor SP+ projections.

In 2021, Blake Anderson led the Aggies to a Mountain West title in his first season in cost. They have been probably the most lucky groups within the nation — they have been solely 62nd in SP+, and the mixture of shut wins (4-0 in one-score video games) and blowout losses made them a serious 2022 regression candidate regardless that they appeared actually good late that season.

Positive sufficient, they received worse. After which accidents took a serious toll. Solely three defenders began all 13 video games, and the offense, steady by comparability, nonetheless misplaced quarterback Logan Bonner early within the season and needed to begin redshirting freshman Bishop Davenport for one sport as nicely. That the Aggies solely fell from fifty fifth to 78th in offensive SP+ was encouraging, although they’re going to be making an attempt a rebound with 4 new offensive line starters and with out 1,100-yard rusher Calvin Tyler Jr. or 900-yard receiver Brian Cobbs. Main passer Cooper Legas and Davenport each return, however the remainder of the offense is combating huge turnover.

The protection ought to profit from a kinder damage bug and boasts some stable veteran play-makers in linebackers AJ Vongphachanh and MJ Tafisi, sort out Hale Motu’apuaka and nook Michael Anyanwu. However three of final 12 months’s high 4 linemen are gone, as are three of the highest 5 defensive backs. That Anderson signed 5 JUCO DLs and 4 JUCO DBs tells you he was fairly involved about these models. And he most likely ought to have been: Even with accidents, the truth that they fell from fifty fifth to 123rd in defensive SP+ was alarming. Anderson introduced in veteran coordinator Joe Cauthen to assist stem the tide. If he desires one other large surge ahead, these adjustments have to take root rapidly.

Who digs out of this rut first, Colorado State or New Mexico? It simply feels like Colorado State needs to be good at soccer. The Rams took an enormous step ahead through the Sonny Lubick period within the Nineteen Nineties and 2000s (they have been ranked for a part of each season from 1997 to 2003 and bowled 15 occasions between 1994 and 2017), their new stadium (Canvas Stadium) is attractive, they have been vaguely related to Huge 12 and Pac-12 enlargement rumors by means of the years, and we have watched them beat power-conference rival Colorado early within the season loads of occasions — seven occasions from 1999 to 2014, in actual fact.

Something optimistic you’ll be able to say concerning the Rams program, nonetheless, has an expiration date connected. CSU has been downright dangerous for half a decade now. Since 2018, it has gone 14-36 with a median SP+ rating of 110.8. That is higher than border rival New Mexico (12-43 with a median rating of 118.2), however not by a lot. That stunning new stadium in Fort Collins? The Rams are 12-21 in it. That features a 2-3 report towards FCS groups, the final two of which have crushed them by a mixed 83-33. Not less than New Mexico has the excuse of a decrease finances and a state with far fewer FBS recruits!

Final 12 months, Colorado State changed Steve Addazio (4-12 in two seasons) with Nevada’s Jay Norvell. He loaded up on transfers — together with many from Nevada — in an try to hit the bottom operating. As a substitute, CSU’s offense disintegrated, and the Rams started the season with 4 losses by a median of 41-11. The protection was principally stable in convention play, and CSU someway managed to go 3-5 within the MWC regardless of by no means scoring greater than 17 factors.

With the protection returning eight starters, the Rams may very well be set as much as solidify final 12 months’s beneficial properties. Sophomore quarterback Clay Millen returns as nicely after finishing 72% of his passes final season. Sadly, if he wasn’t finishing a deep ball to Tory Horton, the offense was carrying out completely nothing.

Horton wants extra ability corps assist, and Millen has to hope {that a} fully turned-over offensive line — seven of final 12 months’s high 9 are gone, changed by three small-school transfers and three JUCOs — someway solidifies. It would not normally work that approach, however not less than final 12 months’s line was actually dangerous, so the bar is not very excessive.

The one FBS offense that graded out worse than CSU’s? New Mexico’s. The Lobos have ranked lifeless final in offensive SP+ for 2 straight years; fourth-year head coach Danny Gonzales inherited a reasonably dire state of affairs from Bob Davie in 2020, however his solely upgrades have come on protection the place his former mentor, Rocky Lengthy, coordinated a stable unit for every of the final two seasons. Lengthy is off to Syracuse, nonetheless, and of the 15 defenders who noticed not less than 250 snaps in 2022, solely 5 return. New coordinator Troy Reffett has his work minimize out for him.

If Gonzales is to create fourth-year enchancment, a very reworked offense must enhance considerably. The offensive teaching employees, now led by coordinator Bryant Vincent (previously of UAB), is sort of fully new, and if there’s hope it comes from the truth that Vincent introduced former UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins with him. Hopkins is not wonderful, however he has ranked fifty fifth and seventieth in Complete QBR during the last two seasons; UNM hasn’t had a quarterback rank increased than 118th within the Gonzales period. The offensive line is loaded with expertise, if nothing else, and the ability corps may get a lift from an inflow of transfers.

Neither Colorado State nor New Mexico have ranked increased than 84th in offensive SP+ since 2017. Each groups have intriguing quarterbacks, however each even have depth charts that took large hits in key areas. The potential for defensive collapse is excessive sufficient at UNM that I suppose I belief CSU to carry out higher this season. However “higher” is relative.

My 10 favourite gamers

QB Taylen Inexperienced, Boise State. With the proper play-calling and first rate accidents luck, Inexperienced has 3,000/1,000 (passing and dashing yards) potential. He’ll have a splendidly skilled ability corps round him this fall too.

RB Nathaniel Jones, New Mexico. Contemplating the diploma of issue (that is a well mannered approach of claiming he received little assist), the truth that Jones gained 10-plus yards on 14% of his carries and averaged 2.7 yards per carry after contact suggests he may do massive issues with a greater supporting solid.

WR Tory Horton, Colorado State. Like Jones, Horton produced intriguing numbers with minimal assist. He posted 5 video games with greater than 125 receiving yards and averaged 15.9 yards per catch regardless that opponents knew he was the one man they wanted to cease.

RT Everett Smalley, Air Drive. Even in school, you’ll find loads of mammoth offensive tackles, 6-foot-6 or taller and 315 kilos or heavier. The most effective sort out within the MWC, nonetheless, could be Smalley. At 6-foot-3, 260. He is the most effective run-blocking sort out, anyway.

C Nofoafia Tulafono, Wyoming. The 325-pound junior from Victorville, California, earned second-team all-conference honors from PFF final season after producing a blown block fee of simply 0.7%. He allowed zero cross pressures.

DE Mohamed Kamara, Colorado State. The CSU protection needed to be excellent for the Rams to win video games final 12 months, and whereas Kamara was good all season (17 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, 12 run stops), he was even higher of their victories. As helpful a defender as you will discover.

DE Braden Siders, Wyoming. As a redshirt freshman on a line determined for brand spanking new playmakers, Siders stepped up, compiling 13 TFLs, 7 sacks and 11 run stops. He even appeared good dropping into protection. Simply think about what he would possibly do with expertise!

DT Hale Motu’apuaka, Utah State. In two years as a serious participant in Logan, Motu’apuaka has improved because the season has progressed – 9.5 of his 16 TFLs have come after Nov. 1. Is that this the 12 months he hits the bottom operating?

LB Bo Richter, Air Drive. With final 12 months’s high two OLBs gone, extra might be requested of the senior from Naperville, Illinois. Contemplating he had 7.5 TFLs in simply 326 snaps final 12 months, a starter’s load would possibly lead to huge manufacturing.

S Rodney Robinson, Boise State. One of many smallest safeties you will see (5-foot-8, 185 kilos) can be the most effective. He picked off three passes, made a pair of run stops and lined up all over the place from cornerback to inside linebacker.


In 1958, 65 years in the past, Air Drive completed sixth within the polls … in its second season. In 1955, the Air Drive fielded its first official soccer group, one which misplaced to the Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma freshman groups by a mixed 113-12. Three years later, the Falcons beat the Colorado varsity group, 20-14. In simply their second 12 months on the main school degree, they went an unimaginable 9-0-2, beating a pair of Huge 8 groups (CU and Oklahoma State), tying each No. 8 Iowa early within the season and No. 10 TCU within the Cotton Bowl and ending sixth within the AP ballot. It was Ben Martin‘s first season in cost, and he would lead the group to a different main bowl look and ranked end in 1970.

In 1993, 30 years in the past, Colorado State employed Sonny Lubick. I can say no matter I would like about Colorado State’s potential, however the Rams had proven little or no of it earlier than Lubick’s arrival.

Lubick’s profession had already been ridiculously distinctive — he spent many of the Nineteen Sixties at the highschool degree in Montana and, within the Nineteen Eighties, had served as each an offensive coordinator (at Colorado State) and nationwide title-winning defensive coordinator (at Miami) — and he fully remodeled the CSU program. The Rams had bowled simply twice ever, however he had them within the Vacation Bowl by his second season, and his tenure completed with 9 bowl appearances, six convention titles, three ranked finishes and, finally, his identify on Colorado State’s Sonny Lubick Subject.

In 1998, 25 years in the past, New Mexico changed Dennis Franchione with Rocky Lengthy. Franchione had been the varsity’s greatest rent in many years, finally lifting the Lobos to a nine-win season and their first bowl look in 36 years in 1997. He left for TCU, however Lengthy, UCLA’s irascible and progressive defensive coordinator, took this system even additional. After a brief adjustment interval, Lengthy’s Lobos went to 5 bowls in six years (2002-07) as he perfected his 3-3-5 protection, beating Texas Tech, Missouri, Baylor and Arizona (and shutting out Colin Kaepernick and Nevada) within the course of. He left after a 4-8 stumble in 2008, and UNM has bowled solely twice within the 14 years since.

In 2008, 15 years in the past, Kellen Moore took over behind heart for Boise State. The Boise State story was already one for the historical past books earlier than Moore arrived from the small city of Prosser, Washington. After rising from the FCS ranks within the Nineteen Nineties, the Broncos had already loved three straight ranked seasons from 2002 to ’04, they usually had already pulled off the good unbeaten season of 2006, full with a win in one of the best bowls of all time.

The Moore period was the golden period, nonetheless. From 2008 to ’11, he threw for 14,667 yards with a 70% completion fee and 142 touchdowns, and the Broncos beat Oregon (twice), Georgia, TCU, Virginia Tech, Oregon State and Arizona State on their method to a mixed 50-3 report with ballot finishes of eleventh, fourth, ninth and eighth. If a 12-team CFP would have been in existence in these years, the Broncos would have been a real title menace. They have been unimaginable. So was Moore.

In 2013, 10 years in the past, Utah State started Mountain West life in effective type. It is vital to play good soccer. It is much more vital to play nicely on the proper time. After a prolonged run of poor type — the Aggies averaged simply 3.2 wins per season from 1998 to 2008 whereas bouncing among the many Huge West, Solar Belt and WAC – Utah State started to enhance quickly below Gary Andersen. In 2011, they loved their greatest season in 18 years (a 7-6 marketing campaign) … simply in time to leap to the MWC with San Jose State because the WAC fell aside. Different WAC applications weren’t so fortunate: New Mexico State and Idaho, which had simply gone a mixed 6-19 in 2011 (and would go 2-22 in 2012), ended up with out a convention, and Idaho ended up dropping to FCS.

Utah State saved enjoying nicely too. The Aggies went 11-2 and completed sixteenth within the AP ballot in 2012, then went a mixed 19-9 with a MWC championship sport look below Matt Wells (Andersen had left for Wisconsin) of their first two seasons of their new convention. Regardless of 2022’s stumble, they’ve loved three ranked finishes and 10 bowls of their final 12 seasons after recording simply one of many former and 4 of the latter of their complete pre-2011 historical past.

In 2018, 5 years in the past, Wyoming gave Josh Allen to the NFL. It is labored out fairly nicely for everybody concerned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *