Mountain West Preview
This is what the Mountain West has been pushing for and trying to do for a long, long time.
It all starts with the high-profile talent, and for this year, it’s hard to find a better crop of quarterbacks than Fresno State’s Derek Carr, San Jose State’s David Fales, Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, Boise State’s Joe Southwick, Wyoming’s Brett Smith and Nevada’s Cody Fajardo in terms of name players who can be the spotlight guys at just the right time to showcase in a vastly improved league. Now they all have to shine when they get their chances, and the rest of the conference has to prove that it really is turning into something strong as the sixth-best league in college football.
Okay, so BYU and Utah might be long gone, but after the demise of WAC football, the Mountain West has been able to pick and choose who it wants – sorry, Idaho and New Mexico State – while retaining Boise State and San Diego State to position itself in a nice, solid niche.
The best part going forward is that the league might be expansion-proof. While there’s a trickle-down effect happening with the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Sun Belt, geography has been a huge help in potentially solidifying the Mountain West for the next several years. Yes, there’s a chance the Pac-12 might want to expand and someday swallow up San Diego State or Fresno State, and there’s always the rumor hovering about Boise State and the Big 12 possibly joining forces, but for the most part, the league is loaded with very good mid-level programs that fall just short of true BCS worthiness, for a variety of reasons.
With Utah State filling a little bit of a void left by the loss of Utah and BYU, and by getting a good TV market, at least on paper, by picking up San Jose State, while solidifying things with Nevada and Hawaii, all of a sudden, the conference has become a player, at least in terms of media markets and exposure. While Conference USA suffers from being smack-dab in the middle of ACC and SEC country, the Mountain West has its own identity geographically owning just about everything outside of Salt Lake City and Provo from Fresno to Boulder and Albuquerque to Canada.
And now, the league should explode with enough teams and enough talent to give all the BCS teams in non-conference play a hard time, while also coming up with what should be a wildly competitive season with the new Mountain and West division formats along with a championship game.
This is it. This is the year the league has to show that it deserves to be in the discussion for big things when the new playoff format kicks in next season, and it has to show that it’s ready for a lot more attention. That shouldn’t be a problem.
- The Mountain West will win at least five games against BCS conference teams.
- Really? It’s so commonplace now for Boise State to win double-digit games, it’s almost a given. The program has done something truly special for more than a decade, and while it might be the favorite to win the Mountain West in the new format, it’s going to be a dogfight.
- It’ll be mid-to-late November, and Fresno State will be in the “should Fresno State be in the BCS” discussion.
- Bulldog quarterback Derek Carr will play his way into a top 50 NFL draft pick.
- The biggest key to your 2013 Mountain West season? San Diego State offensive coordinator Bob Toledo. The Aztecs were good offensively, but a stronger downfield passing game will mean a ten-win campaign.
- Everyone will want to talk about San Jose State quarterback David Fales, but corner Bene Benwikere, defensive end Travis Raciti and linebacker Keith Smith could be the league’s three best players at their respective positions.
- UNLV’s Tim Cornett might not be the league’s leading rusher, but he might be the best running back.
- He might not be as flashy as the other top quarterbacks in the league, but Boise State’s Joe Southwick will be ultra-effective. He’ll put his own stamp on the season.
- Yeah, it really will matter that Chris Ault isn’t the Nevada head coach anymore.
- Center Tyler Larsen, and not quarterback Chuckie Keeton, might be Utah State’s most important player. Larsen is a brilliant technician for this offense.
- The Aggies won’t slip a bit offensively under new head coach Matt Wells.
- Air Force is going to be maddening. There will be times when the attack will be unstoppable, but the defensive front seven will have issues again against the run.
- Wyoming will have one of those Wyoming seasons. The team isn’t that talented, and there will be a few ugly losses, but overall the team will be effective enough offensively with quarterback Brett Smith to get to a bowl game.
- The toughest call in the conference? Colorado State. Coach Jim McElwain knows what he’s doing, and he seems to have a more physical team, but can it be consistent enough offensively? The defense has to start being more disruptive.
- The Hawaii offense will start to work. It has to. It’s Hawaii.
- If the Warriors can stay healthy – a big problem last season – they’ll quickly start to turn things around.
- After finishing second-to-last in the nation in passing, New Mexico simply has to be efficient to help out the ground attack. It’s fine to not throw the ball all that much, but the big plays have to be there to loosen up the secondary.
- The inaugural Mountain West championship will be one of the best games of the 2013 college football season.
Team That'll Surprise
UNLV – Fine, so we might not of given the Rebels a whole bunch of credit or love in our preseason predictions, but that’s sort of a guess. Head coach Bobby Hauck has upgraded the talent level just enough, and he has just enough veteran athletes in place, to vastly improve on the horrific 6-32 record – with three straight two-win seasons – to start to his era. All the pieces are there for the offense to be far better after years of building to this point, but the attack has to be far more consistent and more explosive. The defense needs more work, but just about everyone is back outside of linebacker John Lotulelei.
Team That'll Disappoint
San Jose State and Utah State – The two former WACers won’t fall off the map, and they might each get to six wins and be in the hunt for bowl games, but there will be a drop after each lost its head coach and with enough turnover in personnel to be a problem. The two longtime doormats rose up to go a combined 22-4 – with one of those losses the Aggie win over the Spartans – and while they’ll be fine, they won’t contend for the Mountain West title.
Game of the Year
Boise State at Fresno State, Sept. 20 – Call this the tone-setter as it might be a preview of the Mountain West title game. If Boise State can be Boise State and win at Washington in the season opener, all that should stand in its way for a perfect regular season is a trip to BYU in late October and this date in Fresno. The Bulldogs have 12-0 talent, but they have to get by Rutgers and Colorado while trying not to slip up later at San Diego State. If nothing else, the winner could be on the national map as a possible BCS buster.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
1. RB Kasey Carrier, Sr. New Mexico
2. QB Cody Fajardo, Jr. Nevada
3. QB Brett Smith, Jr. Wyoming
4. S Marrell Jackson, Soph. Hawaii
5. S Derron Smith, Jr. Fresno State
Coach on the Hot Seat
Norm Chow, Hawaii – Of course UNLV’s Bobby Hauck is the coach with the hottest seat to deal with going into the season, but Chow isn’t far off after a brutal 3-9 season for a Hawaii program that won six games or more in the previous six seasons and five more from 2001 to 2011. It was one thing for the record and season to be bad, but Chow is supposed to be an offensive guru and his Warriors finished 118th in the nation in yards and passing efficiency. However, Hawaii beat Hauck’s UNLV 48-10.
5 Games that Mountain West opponents had better take very, very seriously
1. Boise State at Washington, Aug. 31
2. Rutgers at Fresno State, Aug. 29
3. Utah State at USC, Sept. 21
4. San Diego State at Ohio State, Sept. 7
5. UNLV at Minnesota, Aug. 29
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. QB Derek Carr, Sr. Fresno State
2. DE Demarcus Lawrence, Jr. Boise State
3. QB David Fales, Sr. San Jose State
4. CB Bene Benwikere, Sr. San Jose State
5. OT Charles Leno, Sr. Boise State
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. Nevada RB Don Jackson for Stefphon Jefferson
2. Fresno State S Charles Washington for Phillip Thomas
3. Fresno State RB Josh Quezada or Marteze Waller for Robbie Rouse
4. UNLV LB Tau Lotulelei for John Lotulelei
5. San Diego State CB Marcus Andrews for Leon McFadden