2016 NCAA Football Preview: Mountain West Conference

August 25, 2016
By K. Becks

Thanks to Hawaii travelling to Sydney, Australia for its home opener this Saturday, the next league that I’ll cover is the Mountain West Conference.

It seems odd to me that a team already in a destination spot would travel to another destination spot for a football game. Especially one that has had such trouble financially as of late.

Overview

Unfortunately the Mountain West Conference, once a beacon of hope among the non-Power 5 conferences to bust through and break the stranglehold that the big boys have on major college football, has not made waves over the past five seasons on the national level at quite the frequency it once did. The addition of Boise State in 2011 helped offset the losses of BYU, TCU and Utah, but not entirely. The Broncos can only do so much on their own, and Chris Petersen moving on to Washington may have had more of an impact on the program than fans in Boise would like to believe.

At the same time, a new hope seems to be emerging in the West division of the conference. San Diego State had a terrific 2015 campaign and brings back nearly the entire nucleus of that squad. San Jose State returns the bulk of its starters as well after winning its first bowl game since 2012. The Mountain Division will run through Boise State, but Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo, on a collision course with a major program coaching job if this writer is making bets, should give the Broncos a run. The always difficult to prepare for Falcons of Air Force should be improved this year as well with lots of experience back.

While the days of multiple Top 10 squads are gone, this is definitely a strong league in the second tier of FBS where more than two tiers exist. Close, exciting football is played on a weekly basis during the conference slate and during bowl season the eligible teams typically put on a good showing. And with a few bounces in the right direction, one or two of the teams in the Mountain West truly do have the ability to be this year’s Houston.

College Football Playoff Contenders

None

It was extremely tempting to put San Diego State on the list, as the Aztecs play 12 winnable games this season and bring back the majority of talent from a team that won 11 games in 2015. But when the clock strikes midnight, teams like Rocky Long’s will turn back into a pumpkin if they stick around the ball. Everything is there for the Aztecs – potent offense, stifling defense, high-profile players to attract national attention. At the end of the day, though, the four teams that make the playoff are still chosen by a panel of humans. And those humans don’t watch enough of the Mountain West Conference to elevate a team like San Diego State above the Alabamas, Clemsons and Ohio States of the world.

Rocky Long isn’t the type of coach to get into a chest thumping match with other coaches around the country. San Diego State is good, and will be able to demolish some of the weaker teams in its conference, but Long doesn’t play that game. His stars will come out of the game when the team has an insurmountable lead and they will leave opposing stadiums with a win as well as their dignity. This isn’t to say that it is Long’s fault that San Diego State won’t make the Playoff. As TCU found out a couple of seasons ago, 70 point outings don’t necessarily mean you’re guaranteed a spot. But as things stand today, the Aztecs probably won’t get in even if they achieve the difficult goal of going unbeaten in the regular season.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Colorado State

The Rams aren’t a sexy pick by any means, even by measures of the relatively tame Mountain West Conference. A decent offense is coupled with what could be a rebuilding year defensively, but in all honesty head coach Mike Bobo is an offensive mind and will leave the defense to his assistants either way. What makes Colorado State interesting is the presence of Nick Stevens, a junior quarterback who essentially came out of nowhere to be named second-team All-Mountain West. The 6’3″, 205 pound Stevens led the conference in passing touchdowns and will be the main reason the offense won’t struggle mightily despite replacing nearly the entire receiving corps.

Bobo’s team wasn’t particularly defensively sound in 2015, but still managed to finish the second half of the season 5-1 and qualify for a bowl game. This year’s schedule is not as unbalanced as last year’s, so the team will need to find its rhythm a bit earlier in order to surprise anyone in the conference. However, Bobo isn’t at Colorado State to be a lifer. Expect a lot of energy from this team as a result of their head coach and don’t be surprised if he can make them a contender in the Mountain Division with what he’s got at his expense. This is the kind of team that could propel Bobo to his next job.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State senior running back

It isn’t common or a preference of this writer to name a player to this list more than once, but in the case of Donnel Pumphrey it’s impossible not to do so. The senior is without a doubt the most talented player in the conference, a combination of speed, moves and instinct that only comes around once every 20 years or so at a school like San Diego State. In fact, Pumphrey is about to break multiple school records held currently by a guy named Marshall Faulk. Pumphrey is also the nation’s active career rushing leader, all-purpose yards leader and points leader among non-kickers.

While the Aztecs work to break in a new quarterback early in the year, expect Pumphrey to assume a heavy workload. But even as Christian Chapman gets more comfortable taking snaps, don’t expect the undersized running back’s productivity to waver. He happens to be the leading returning receiver as well, so Chapman will have his as an option in the open field, too. Is there anything this guy can’t do, you ask? Watch him in action and decide for yourself.

Brett Rypien, Boise State sophomore quarterback

Rypien came out of nowhere (really – he was supposed to redshirt last season) to become first-team All-Mountain West and lead the conference in passing yards per game by more than 80 yards. The sophomore was a bit hotter in the first half of the season than the second, but assuming that eight other returning offensive starters for the Broncos should help with that, Rypien will be a handful for opposing defenses. He has scrambling ability and is the right type of quarterback to play in Bryan Harsin’s up-tempo, pass happy offense that sees plenty of receivers streaking across the middle of the field.

Being a former quarterback himself, Bryan Harsin should have made the right tweaks to his future star in the offseason. Now that Harsin is helping call the plays on offense, expect Rypien to take more chances downfield, something that was a relative weakness for him in 2015. If he can figure out how to connect with his receivers on the ball ball, Boise State will have the most potent offense in the Mountain West hands down and perhaps be fighting for that title nationally.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

California at San Diego State (September 10)

San Diego State’s quest for a perfect season gets difficult pretty quickly as Pac-12 opponent Cal visits in weekend number two. The Golden Bears, who will be trying to replace the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, may not be as potent offensively as they have been in prior years, which is good news for the defensively gifted Aztecs. But Sonny Dykes has a knack for getting the most out of his offensive players and to assume Cal won’t be able to move the football is a mistake.

The best thing that San Diego State can do is keep the ball in Donnel Pumphrey’s hands. Dykes’s teams have been notoriously poor against the run and Pumphrey is difficult to bring down even for teams full of sure tacklers. Giving the ball to your star running back does two things: keeps the clock moving and allows Christian Chapman to make things happen off the play-action. Easy dumps to tight ends could be the most popular redzone play for the Aztecs in this one.

Washington State at Boise State (September 10)

It isn’t quite Washington versus Boise State, but the battle between offensive gurus Mike Leach and Bryan Harsin is still pretty darn good. Both teams have very good quarterbacks, with Washington State being led by Luke Falk and Boise State the aforementioned Brett Rypien. Both will make a lot of throw in this game, but the difference may be in who takes fewer hits. Falk took a beating in several games last year, which makes you wonder how fragile Washington State’s offense really is. Rypien is a decent scrambler but has to remember that staying in the pocket gives him an equally, if not better, chance of finding his receivers with room to run.

Defense may as well be optional in this one, because a lot of points are going to be scored and it could very well come down to which team has the ball last. Playing on the blue turf is always an advantage for the home team, but Leach is the type of coach that will probably do something like paint his own practice field blue the week leading up to the game for preparation. In other words, the only thing to expect here is that it will be good TV thanks to the offensive fireworks. This one could go either way.

In-Conference Games to Watch

San Jose State at San Diego State (October 21)

The Spartans haven’t won a conference title since they won the Big West in 1991, but 2016 is a year with some expectations in that camp. A good way to earn a shot at playing in the Mountain West title game would be to go on the road and beat rival San Diego State, the obvious favorite to win the West Division. The Spartans bring a lot of pieces back offensively, but to upset the Aztecs the defensive front will need to be better than in 2015. Donnel Pumphrey averaged 7.6 yards per carry against the Spartans last season and you can be sure that San Diego State will try to exploit that weakness again if it exists.

Another area where San Jose State will need to be better is quarterback protection. No team in the Mountain West had more sacks in 2015 than San Diego State and no team allowed more than the Spartans. Kenny Potter is efficient and can navigate even the best defenses, but not if he’s constantly being planted into the ground. If the Aztecs can get their hands on Potter consistently, it will be difficult for San Jose State to take one from its rival.

Boise State at Air Force (November 25)

The Falcons upset Boise State on the blue turf last season, which was surprising because the Broncos had the defense (No. 5 nationally in rushing yards allowed) to slow down Air Force’s rush heavy attack. While Air Force will be back with the same type of offense, Boise State may need to rely more on its own offense in order to avoid another loss to the service academy. In other words, expect a lot of points to be scored in this matchup.

Defensively the Falcons are as experienced as any in the Mountain West, returning nine starters to a unit that was pretty good. On the road, the Broncos will need to play smart offensively to avoid losing their season finale. The battle could end up being particularly important to the division race just as it was last season. Air Force, not Boise State, was the Mountain Division champion in 2015. It would not be surprising if this game decided who was headed to the Mountain West Championship Game once again.

Predictions

Mountain Division

1. Boise State (8-4, [7-1])

2. Air Force (9-3, [6-2])

3. Colorado State (8-4, [5-3])

4. Wyoming (5-7, [3-5])

5. Utah State (4-8, [2-6])

6. New Mexico (4-8, [1-7])

West Division

1. San Diego State (11-1, [8-0])

2. San Jose State (6-6, [5-3])

3. Nevada (7-5, [5-3])

4. UNLV (5-7, [3-5])

5. Fresno State (2-10, [1-7])

6. Hawaii (2-10, [0-8])

Championship Game (Boise State vs. San Diego State)

Winner: San Diego State

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