For the second half of the BCS’s existence, no conference put more pressure on the entrenched system of power-conference hegemony than the Mountain West. With teams like Utah, TCU, and Boise State all staking their claim for national recognition, the league forced a new discussion around the place of these mid-major schools in the upper echelons of the college game. Then the major conferences came calling, with the Pac-12 poaching Utah and the Big 12 taking in TCU. The simultaneous implosion of the WAC left the Mountain West to pick up the pieces and continue pushing against the system.
Two years ago, when the system shifted away from BCS Busters and toward the greater access of the College Football Playoff system, the Mountain West was able to retain its premier spot among mid-major conferences when Boise State won the first automatic Access Bowl bid and knocked off Arizona for the Broncos’ third Fiesta Bowl win in the past decade. But the rise of the American Athletic Conference has challenged the MWC’s place as the best of the rest in the FBS, and the disparity in talent between divisions only exacerbates the western league’s stature on a national level.
Now the MWC seems to sit in a position where it can either regroup and regain its foothold atop the mid-major mountain, or it can begin its slow burnout toward mediocrity and annual battles with the MAC and Conference USA for second-place status behind the AAC. Two clear contenders headline each division, and a title game rematch would probably be the best outcome for the league in 2016. But football isn’t played on paper, and several teams in both the MWC Mountain and MWC West could steal the show away from the favorites.
So let’s dive in and assess the Mountain West pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
6. Wyoming — Craig Bohl has come nowhere near the heights of his days at FCS North Dakota State during his first two seasons in Laramie, and the coach enters year three with what looks like another tough year ahead. The Cowboys boast 1600-yard rusher Brian Hill as well as Shaun Wick, a veteran returning on a medical redshirt who ran for nearly 1000 yards three years ago as a sophomore. A deep group of receivers will provide ample targets for whoever wins the starting quarterback job, and four of the starters from last year’s offensive line also return. The defense continues to lag behind the standards Bohl set in Fargo, and the loss of defensive end Eddie Yarbrough won’t help matters in 2015, but the unit is deeper after playing underclassmen the past few years and should keep games closer than they managed last season. Catching Northern Illinois in the season opener could be a boon for the Pokes, as any shot at bowl eligibility will depend on finishing September no worse than 3-1 — and a trip to Nebraska looms the following weekend.
5. Colorado State — Wyoming’s Border War rival returned to the postseason in 2015 despite the loss of head coach Jim McElwain to the Florida job, falling to 7-6 but still reaching a bowl game for the third straight season under new leader Mike Bobo. The Rams return little from their midlevel offense and defense, making this much more a rebuilding season for Bobo and crew than their first year was in Fort Collins. Nick Stevens is back for his junior season at quarterback, along with tailback Dalyn Dawkins, and the rest of the offense also skews younger. The defense lost seven starters and fully half of the tackles produced last year by the unit, making this a major unknown for the Rams. The Rocky Mountain Showdown against CU-Boulder and a trip to Minnesota could provide bellwether moments one way or another in September, and if CSU hasn’t reached bowl eligibility before mid-November they might not manage to do so at all for the first time since 2012.
4. Utah State — At first the Aggies didn’t miss a beat when Gary Anderson left Logan to take over at Wisconsin, as Matt Wells led the team to 19 wins in its next two seasons. Last year was supposed to provide more of the same, with Chuckie Keeton returning to finish his career on a high note. But Kent Myers proved to be the better quarterback in 2015, and the junior has no real challengers for the starting job this season. DeVante Mays was the USU’s breakout running back last year, and the JUCO transfer returns for a final season. All told the offense returns eight starters… while the defense brings back just three, and loses nearly three-quarters of the total defensive production from last year’s 6-7 squad including fumble recovery national leader Kyler Fackrell at linebacker. With trips to USC and BYU out of conference and road games and a tough league slate, Utah State needs its defense to make the difference if the Aggies hope to extend their bowl streak to a sixth straight appearance.
3. New Mexico — No team returns more total experience than the Lobos, who have 10 returning starters on what was an average defense last year but has the potential to become a serious disruption in the MWC. With 16 senior starters slated into their offense and defense, New Mexico has the potential to make another leap in improvement. Last year Bob Davie led the Lobos to the school’s first bowl game since 2007, and the school has the talent to push teams like Air Force and Boise State in 2016. They also have a winnable Power Five contest when the travel east to play Rutgers, which would put them on the national radar in mid-September if they can walk away victors, and the rest of their non-conference schedule is more detrimental for the hit it deals to schedule strength than any real threat of traps. When New Mexico lost in 2015 they lost badly, but if the 3-3-5 can begin to really swarm opponents and keep games close the Lobos could threaten the established favorites.
2. Air Force — Troy Calhoun’s Falcons teams have been a model of consistency, reaching bowl eligibility in eight of his nine seasons in charge in Colorado Springs. You know exactly what you’re getting from the service academy team every year –the future flyers of the armed forces stick to a disciplined ground-based option attack, taking few penalties along the way and always seeming to finish with six or more wins. The loss of Karson Roberts at quarterback might put a dent in the option attack, but Calhoun has several seniors he can call upon as well as two-star sophomore Ryan Brand if necessary, and the team’s top six running backs from 2015 all return as well. More importantly, the offensive line must replace three of its five starters. At least the defense returns nine starters, including senior linebacker D.J. Dunn after a season where he had 5.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, and three fumble recoveries. Their biggest non-conference test is a home game against Navy, and they get to play both Boise State and New Mexico at home.
1. Boise State — With all that said about Air Force, last season still really felt like a fluke as the Broncos dropped to a tie for second in the division and missed out on the conference championship game. The Hail Mary at BYU did nothing to hurt Boise State in terms of MWC standing, but losing quarterback Ryan Finley to injury the following week forced the Broncos to begin operating on the fly and deviating from the plan with which they entered the season. Brett Rypien was thrown into the fire and improved as the season advanced, and he enters his sophomore season as the undisputed starter now that Finley has transferred to NC State. Jeremy McNichols is dangerous both rushing and passing, but the offensive line lost its two best players. The defense was as stout as ever, a top-20 unit nationally, but loses several key starters at every level. The non-conference schedule features UL-Lafayette and Washington State at home, a trip to Corvallis to face Boise State, and an October visit from BYU. Air Force and New Mexico, who both beat Boise late last season, get to play the Broncos at home this year. Nothing will be easy, but Boise has the talent to return to prominence.
6. Hawaii — There are always going to be institutional barriers at a program like Hawaii in terms of travel and recruiting. But success is possible on the island, as June Jones demonstrated during his time in Honolulu, and perhaps an alumnus with past position-coaching experience at the school can rekindle those glory days. Those days, though, are probably not going to be rediscovered in 2016. The Warriors return the bulk of their starters, albeit from a team that fielded the worst offense and second-worst defense in the MWC. Experienced depth, however, is lacking throughout the roster, and it will be interesting to see what type of offense new coach Nick Rolovich plans to install. Hawaii plays one of the hardest schedules of any mid-major, opening with a home game against Cal before traveling to Ann Arbor to face Michigan. They’ll also play Arizona in Tucson before the month of September is complete. Given they play 13 games, getting to seven wins and bowl eligibility is probably too much to ask in Rolovich’s first year leading the program.
5. UNLV — The Rebels seem to have the resources — position in a metropolitan area that has plenty of money, geographic proximity to the recruiting hotbed of southern California, a conference that has enough history to garner respect — to be much better than they have historically performed. They might have found just the guy to capitalize on those resources, with promising early returns from the first season of unorthodox hire Tony Sanchez. The former high school coach only won three games in his rookie college season, but reverse their record in one-score games and they would have been bowl eligible. That might be a tall task this year, with a trip to UCLA in week two and their three toughest conference tests (San Jose State, San Diego State, Boise State) all coming on the road as well. Reaching its first bowl game since 2013 might be too much to ask, but Sanchez has recruited well so far and should have this team competitive all throughout the year once again.
4. Fresno State — Was 2015 a blip on the radar, or was Tim DeRuyter’s early success at Fresno State as much the product of Pat Hill recruits as DeRuyter’s genius? The head coach took over from the longtime Bulldog coach and promptly won two straight conference titles and played in a third championship game before falling off the map last year, and with even barer cupboards in 2016 it is hard to see a quick return to prominence for Fresno. Marteze Waller, the one highlight of last year’s offense, has graduated, and DeRuyter and his staff have to sift through four different quarterback prospects after getting abysmal production from the position last season — in a year where three longtime starters must also be replaced on the offensive line, no less. The play-anyone mentality lives on in Fresno, which will open the season at Nebraska and also plays at Toledo in a mid-major showdown. A second straight losing season could be in the cards.
3. Nevada — In his first three seasons in Reno, Brian Polian has returned the Wolf Pack to a baseline level of respectability. After a four-win first season, Nevada has gone 7-6 each of the past two years under Polian. With former offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich now at the helm of Hawaii, the offense could begin to become more pass-focused under new coordinator Tim Cramsey. The question is whether the incumbent starter at quarterback, Tyler Stewart, is the right person to execute a new-look Pistol scheme. The defense is where most of the team’s depth was lost, with six starters and half of the team’s total tackles from 2015 now gone from Reno. The schedule isn’t a complete hindrance — two games in Indiana against Notre Dame and Purdue will limit the margin for error in conference play, though Nevada also has home dates with Buffalo and FCS Cal Poly and also benefitted by avoiding Boise State and Air Force on its schedule. Another 6-6 or 7-5 regular season is probably the ceiling, but it would mean a third straight bowl appearance.
2. San Jose State — Though the Spartans did not manage to finish the year with a winning record, they still managed to go bowling in Rod Caragher’s third season at the helm and are trending upward in the Mountain West. Big-play running back/return man Tyler Ervin is gone from the South Bay as is second-team all-MWC left tackle Wes Schweitzer, but Caragher still has senior quarterback Kenny Potter and a solid group of veteran receivers along with everyone else from last year’s offensive line to build around. The defense will need to retool a secondary that ranked second nationally in passing yards allowed, which will put even more pressure on their weak run defense. San Jose State faces a good warm-up test with a trip to Tulsa in its opener, and it hosts Utah and travels to Iowa State before the end of September. If it can win two of these three cross-conference matchups and nab at least one Power Five statement win, the Spartans could push San Diego State for the division title.
1. San Diego State — In 2015 the Aztecs finally put everything together after coming close to winning the West Division the year before, overcoming a 1-3 start to the season by romping undefeated through conference play and outlasting Air Force in the MWC Championship Game. The team that will try to defend the conference title benefits from the return of stud senior tailback Donnel Pumphrey, who matured into a rushing/receiving threat out of the backfield last season and piled up 2067 yards and 20 touchdowns along the way. The defense, one of the best in the nation last year (seventh in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed, second in takeaways), lost five starters but returns a fair amount of depth and experience. San Diego State will get a shot at redeeming itself at home against Cal in the second weekend of the season and at South Alabama on October 1. If the Aztecs can reach conference play without stumbling out of the gate, they could be a threat not just for another MWC title but also the Access Bowl berth.