2014 NCAA Football Preview: Mountain West Conference

August 25, 2014

Not that you guys care, but I started my first real job today. So let me give you an update about what may be happening with Around The Corn in the near future. Keep in mind that this is totally up in the air, so the blog may end up operating in the same way that it has since its inception.

I’d like to continue posting at a fairly regular rate (which for me is 1-2 times per week) but can no longer guarantee anything. Work is more important than school, so it could affect my ability to post articles. However, two things will stay the same: I will still finish this year’s college football previews before the season begins this Thursday, and I will still post my Weekend Preview posts that have been a staple of the blog for the past few college football seasons.

Expect to see the Pac-12 preview tomorrow and both the Independents and Final Thoughts articles on Wednesday. By this coming Saturday, a Weekend Preview for Week 1 will be posted. After that, with the exception of the Weekend Preview articles, nothing is a given.

But enough of that. Let’s take a look at the Mountain West Conference.


A lot of conferences, even the smaller ones, have benefited from the changes to the college football landscape that we have witnessed over the past several seasons. For mid-majors like Conference USA and the Sun Belt, conference expansion has increased the number of teams in the league and only marginally affected the overall quality of play. For major conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC, the benefits are obvious. Fourteen teams gives those leagues clout that will be vital when college football ends up expanding its playoff format to eight teams, which isn’t a question of “if” but rather “when” that will happen.

But for the Mountain West, things have been tough. Once a scrappy mid-major conference boasting giant killers such as TCU and Utah that played in major bowl games and shocked the world, it has been relegated to nothing more than an afterthought in most areas of the country. TCU and Utah bolted, opting for the greener pastures of the Big 12 and Pac-12. And despite some growing pains since joining those leagues, few would argue that it was a bad decision by either school. Depending on which circle you listen to, it is only a matter of time before the lone giant killer remaining, Boise State, builds enough of an academic reputation to join one of the Power Five conferences as well.

However, the previous paragraph could also be identified as the negative and only partially correct viewpoint of the Mountain West Conference. It isn’t as if all talent has been picked up and transported elsewhere. Teams such as Boise State, Fresno State and Utah State are still going to give ranked squads trouble this season. Players such as Boise State’s Jay Ajayi, Fresno State’s Derron Smith and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton are some of the best in the country at their respective positions. No mid-major conference has performed more consistently in the postseason than this one.

So don’t put a nail in the MWC’s coffin quite yet. There may be some tumbleweeds blowing across the desert where many of the schools are located, but the conference is anything but dead.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid


I had the opportunity to cover Boise State football as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report last season, so I have as solid a grasp on this conference as any in the country. And while I was impressed with Fresno State led by Derek Carr in 2013, I can tell you that no one else in the league had much of a chance of earning even a BCS bowl bid. Make no doubt about it, there are some solid teams in the MWC and you shouldn’t be surprised to see at least a couple of them upset Power Five schools this season, but a playoff bid isn’t in the cards.

Here’s how it works out: if Marshall goes undefeated, they’ll grab the one guaranteed access bowl bid saved for one of the non-Power Five schools. If the Thundering Herd slip up, chances are it’ll go to the AAC champion. And if the AAC champion finishes at 8-4 or worse, then maybe a MWC school would be in good shape to receive an access bowl bid. But only if its record is 10-2 or better. The Mountain West is a step above C-USA, the MAC and Sun Belt, but never quite leapfrogged the AAC (old Big East) from a reputation standpoint. Unless someone has a magical season in 2014, the MWC will have to settle for its normal bowl invitations.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


The Wolf Pack were a pretty predictable and consistent team under the tutelage of former head coach Chris Ault, the mastermind behind the pistol offense, but took a step back in 2013 with its first sub-.500 season since 2007. A new face wearing the headset may not have been the biggest problem, though. Nevada has been one of the worst in the country at stopping the run for quite some time and it finally caught up with the team last season. This year’s squad has the potential to redeem itself, with several starters on the defensive line and linebacker corps returning and a new co-defensive coordinator calling the shots. But as usual, the success of the Wolf Pack will primarily depend on the play of the offense.

If quarterback Cody Fajardo, who rivals Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton as the best dual-threat quarterback in the conference, can stay healthy then Nevada will be in business offensively. Fajardo adds an entirely separate ripple to opposing defensive coordinators’ gameplan to stop the Wolf Pack, and without him Nevada is painfully one dimensional. If he can stay healthy (he missed two games last season due to injury) and the defensive improves a bit, the Wolf Pack can contend for the West Division title. Nevada faces Boise State, Colorado State and Fresno State at home and doesn’t have to face Utah State. If the team doesn’t at least go bowling, the school might have to rethink its head coaching hire.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Chuckie Keeton (Sr.), Utah State quarterback

Perhaps the best quarterback west of the Mississippi River plays for a team outside of the Power Five conferences. Chuckie Keeton entered the 2013 campaign as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, but tore his ACL in the sixth game of the season. As crazy as it may seem, the senior now has to deal with somewhat of a mini quarterback competition due to his backup, sophomore Darell Garretson, playing so well in Keeton’s absence. But assuming that the upperclassman wins the job, Keeton has the ability to take his team to back-to-back appearances in the Mountain West Championship game.

Keeton has been fortunate enough to have a very solid team around him during his three previous seasons at Utah State, but this season the Aggies will relying on him more than ever. Only two other starters from 2013 return to the offense, so Keeton will be playing with a largely untested bunch. If he can recapture the magic that we saw from him in 2012, which ultimately resulted in his name being included on the early 2013 Heisman watch list, it will be difficult to deny his skill and leadership. Utah State’s rise in recent years has coincided with Keeton’s time at the school, so it would only be fitting that he was able to experience a conference championship were the team to get there.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

Mississippi vs. Boise State (August 28th)

Last time the Broncos opened the season in Atlanta, in 2011, Kellen Moore and the most prolific offense in Boise State history downed the Georgia Bulldogs 35-21 on national television. But without Moore & Co. leading the offense and head coach Chris Petersen on the sideline, things will be much tougher against Ole Miss this year. The Broncos are coming off a disappointing 8-5 campaign but are now led by former Bronco offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who has made it known that he intends to continue the tradition of high flying offense that has been the trademark of Boise State football since the late 1990s. However, Hugh Freeze has put together an intriguing Rebels squad that may have the talent to contend for an SEC title and would like to stifle the Boise State party in the Georgia Dome.

There are two matchups to keep an eye on in this one. The first is Mississippi’s defensive line against the powerful run game of Boise State, which essentially kept the Broncos in the Mountain West race last season despite injury troubles at quarterback. The absence of Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche could prove to be huge. The second is Boise State’s secondary, which was particularly bad last year, against Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace. The senior is the most experienced quarterback in the SEC and will expose any weaknesses that have stuck around in the Broncos’ secondary. Expect a lot of points in this one.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Utah State vs. Colorado State (October 18th)

This one has the potential to be interesting because each team loses something that the opposition can take full advantage of based on its personnel. For Colorado State, quarterback Garrett Grayson gives the Rams one of the more potent passing attacks and tight end Kivon Cartwright will be a load for anyone on Utah State’s defense to defend. However, the Rams don’t have an established run game due to the departure of both Kapri Bibbs and Donnell Alexander and risk being one dimensional offensively. Utah State will also be strong through the air thanks to Chuckie Keeton, but the defensive secondary is a question mark heading into the season and could get torched by Grayson.

Both Colorado State and Utah State should contend for the Mountain Division title along with Boise State. But the winner of this game could very likely knock the other out of title contention. There is little room for error for either team as each have to travel to the blue turf to face the Broncos and coming away with a win will be difficult. This game won’t be an easy one to find on television, but it’s well worth the searching if you take a particular interest in games with title implications.

Conference Predictions

Mountain Division

1. Boise State (9-3, [7-1])

2. Utah State (11-2, [7-1])

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

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

5. Air Force (3-9, [1-7])

6. New Mexico (3-9, [1-7])

West Division

1. Nevada (8-4, [7-1])

2. Fresno State (7-5, [6-2])

3. San Diego State (7-5, [5-3])

4. UNLV (4-8, [3-5])

5. San Jose State (3-9, [2-6])

6. Hawaii (2-11, [1-7])

Championship Game (Boise State vs. Nevada)

Winner: Boise State

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the Mountain West or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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