Boise State Broncos 13-0 (8-0)
It’s hard to believe, but the Boise State Broncos have only fielded a Division-I football program since 1996. Over that stretch the Broncos have won 12 conference titles, including two out of the last four in the Mountain West Conference. And as Boise State head football coach Bryan Harsin is set to embark on his third season with the Broncos, he has a squad that is capable of winning the Mountain West, while also cracking the College Football Playoff.
Offensively Boise State will be led by sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, who last year as a freshman was the Mountain West Conference’s Freshman of the Year as he threw for 3,353 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rypien is the nephew of Super Bowl winning quarterback Mark Rypien, and like his uncle, the youngster has solid pocket awareness as he can lead the Broncos.
Like Rypien, junior running back Jeremy McNichols could become a household name as he has the potential to gain 1,500 yards on the ground this season, while he also doubles a solid receiver coming out of the backfield. And all that senior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck does is catch passes as his 88 receptions in 2015 were among the top receivers in the nation while he is a prime candidate to win the Biletnikoff Award.
Led by offensive tackle Mario Yakoo, Boise State has three senior starters on the offensive line which could pave the way for an offense that could be among the best in the nation.
Whereas the Broncos are spoiled with play makers on the offensive side of the football, the same cannot be said about their defense which will be a work in progress as the season goes along.
The Broncos should waltz through their regular season schedule until a November 25 road game against the Air Force Falcons which could determine who’ll represent the Mountain Division in the conference title game.
Air Force Falcons 11-1 (7-1)
As the head football coach of the Air Force Falcons, Troy Calhoun is fighting an uphill battle just like the other service academies due to student-athletes being required to give the United States Government a two-year military commitment following their graduation. But in Calhoun’s nine years at Air Force, he has only had two losing seasons, while he has taken the Falcons to eight bowl games. And after Air Force fell just four points short of winning the Mountain West Conference Title last season, Calhoun has a team that’ll once again be in contention here in 2016.
Offensively Air Force wears down opponents with its triple-option rushing attack that can frustrate opponents. Last year the Falcons produced the fourth-ranked rushing unit in the nation as they gained 4,468 yards on the ground. Calhoun will rely on senior running back Jacobi Owens as well as junior running back Timothy McVey as they’ll be protected by an offensive line that only has one senior starter in guard Colin Sandor.
It didn’t seem like it, but the Falcons were 32nd in total defense in the nation last year as their undersized unit relies on speed and discipline. And you can expect the Falcons to get leadership on defense from seniors such as defensive end Kellen Cleveland, outside linebacker D.J. Dunn Jr., and cornerback Roland Ladipo.
Air Force’s season will come down to their regular season finale against the Boise State Broncos which will more than likely determine the winner of the Mountain Division.
Colorado State Rams 7-5 (5-3)
2002 was the last time that the Colorado State Rams won the Mountain West Conference. From 2004-2012, the Rams had seven losing seasons while they’ve also had five different head coaches over that stretch. Mike Bobo is in his second year as the head football coach at Colorado State, and though he may not be there for the long haul as he’ll probably attempt to land a job at a bigger school in the near future, he will try to guide the Rams to their fourth consecutive bowl game.
The Rams do have a seasoned starting quarterback in junior Nick Stevens. Stevens made solid strides last year under Bobo who himself was a collegiate quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs. Stevens had solid pocket awareness which should keep him in the conversation as far as being a first-team Mountain West performer. I expect Colorado State to have a solid commitment to the ground game which means that junior running back Dalyn Dawkins should get 200-250 carries this year. Dawkins will be running behind an offensive line that features senior left tackle Nick Callender who is one of the best offensive linemen in the conference.
The strength of the Rams defense lies in their linebackers where senior linebackers Kevin Davis and Deonte Clyburn tackle everything that moves. I anticipate Davis and Clybrun each being on the Mountain West’s all-conference team, while they should also push each other in the running to be the conference’s defensive player of the year.
The Rams should be able to have their way in the non-conference schedule, but things will get tougher when the Mountain West slate begins as it includes road games against the Boise State Broncos, Air Force Falcons, and San Diego State Aztecs.
New Mexico Lobos 8-4 (4-4)
It took New Mexico Lobos head football coach Bob Davie four years to get his program to a bowl game along with having a winning record. And as Davie appears to have the Lobos going in the right direction, he is hopeful that his team is ready to compete for the Mountain West Conference Title.
Teams know that when they face the Lobos they are going to get a heavy dose of the running game. New Mexico was ninth in the nation last year in rushing offense as Davie employs an option attack. You can expect junior quarterback Lamar Jordan, and senior running back Teriyon Gipson to receive the bulk of the carries as they look to help the Lobos be one of the top teams in the Mountain West.
Defensively the Lobos are returning seven senior starters on defense. But under second year defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, the Lobos must improve in all phases as they were 97th last year in total defense which included surrendering 30 points or more in six contests.
If New Mexico can get through their non-conference schedule unscathed, it could give them the momentum needed to tackle their early Mountain West schedule which features games against the Boise State Broncos, along with the Air Force Falcons. And those two contests should give us an idea of how 2016 will turn out for the Lobos.
Utah State Aggies 3-9 (1-7)
The Utah State Aggies football program is in the midst of its greatest run in school history as each of the last five years has ended with them making a bowl game. Utah State has been a member of the Mountain West Conference since 2013. But in that time the Aggies have one Mountain Division Title to their credit, while they have never finished worse than third in the division. But for Utah State head football coach Matt Wells, 2016 will provide him with his most difficult task since taking over.
Defensively the Aggies must replace their five leading tackles from last season which includes linebacker Nick Vigil who had 144. But any success that the Aggies intend to have this year will rest on the legs of senior running back Devante Mays who will be the heart and soul of the offense.
After the recent success that the Utah State program has enjoyed, a step backwards in 2016 will be a bitter pill for them to swallow.
Wyoming Cowboys 2-10 (0-8)
Unfortunately for the Wyoming Cowboys, they have been unable to be a consistent contender in the Mountain West Conference. The Cowboys are coming off of their first 10-loss season since 2002, while they have not been able to produce a winning campaign since 2011. And you have to go back to 1999 for the last time that the Cowboys were able to have consecutive winning seasons.
For Wyoming head football coach Craig Bohl, he must find a way to get his team to compete in 2016 as they lost seven games by 17 points or more last year. There are a few bright spots for the Cowboys which includes junior running back Brian Hill, along with senior linebackers D.J. May and Lucas Wacha. But it is going to take more than three players to get the fortunes of the Cowboys turned around.
This season for the Cowboys could be as brutal as the winters in that region of the United States.
Nevada Wolfpack 8-5 (6-2)
10 out of the last 11 years have seen the Nevada Wolf Pack make a bowl game which included winning the Western Athletic Conference in 2005 and 2010. But since Nevada joined the Mountain West Conference in 2012, they have not been able to be a title contender which could be changing the fall.
Brian Polian is entering his fourth year as the head football coach at Nevada and he has continued to employ the same “pistol offense” that was so successful under former Wolfpack head football coach Chris Ault in Reno.
Polian has a solid quarterback to rely on in senior Tyler Stewart who is one of the bigger signal callers in the conference. Nevada’s pistol offense is continuing to grow as Stewart has solid timing with senior wide receivers Jerico Richardson and Hasaan Henderson as each player could be a members of the Mountain West Conference’s All-First team. On the offensive line, Nevada has four starters returning who will look to provide protection for Stewart and junior running back James Butler who will be in the mix to the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.
Defensively, Nevada will have to replace senior leaders from last year’s team such as linebacker Jordan Dobrich, but after defensive back Dameon Baber led the team in interceptions with 5, and defensive back Asauni Rufus led the team in tackles with 105 last year as freshmen, it gives the unit hope to compete for the school’s first Mountain West Title.
The beginning of Nevada’s schedule is daunting as it includes a road game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. But as the season goes along, the Wolfpack should improve and be one of the better teams in the Mountain West.
San Diego State Aztecs 7-5 (6-2)
2015 was a banner year for the San Diego State Aztecs as their 11 wins tied the school record for wins which was set in 1969. The Aztecs would win their first undisputed Mountain West Conference Title in school history, and it will interesting to see how this group that is led by head football coach Rocky Long will be able to follow it up in 2016.
As of now the starting quarterback position appears to the job of redshirt sophomore Christian Chapman to lose. Chapman played sparingly last year for the Aztecs, and it will be interesting to see how much that he’ll be able to progress this season. In a surprising move, running back Donnel Pumphrey decided to spurn the National Football League in order to return to school for his senior season. And what Pumphrey gives the Aztecs is a play maker, a leader, and a guy that can put the offense on his back as he is the reigning Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
And whereas Pumphrey is one of the best offensive players in the Mountain West, San Diego State might have the best defensive player in the conference as well in senior linebacker Calvin Munson who led the team in tackles (98), and sacks last season (9.5). Senior cornerbacks Malik Smith and Damontae Kazee are as stingy as they come as the duo combined for 13 interceptions in 2015 and quarterbacks in the Mountain West will have to think twice about testing them.
Under Long, the Aztecs don’t face cupcakes in their non-conference schedule as they’ll host the California Golden Bears of the Pac-12 Conference on September 10, while they’ll travel to face the always tough Northern Illinois Huskies of the Mid-American Conference in the following week. But San Diego State’s chances of getting back to the Mountain West Conference Championship Game will come down to the latter part of their schedule which will see them travel to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack on November 12, while finishing the regular season at home against the Colorado State Rams.
UNLV Rebels 6-6 (4-4)
2015 marked another difficult college football season for the UNLV Rebels. The Rebels went 3-9 en route to their 28th losing season in the 38-year history of the program, but they were close to breaking through. And as UNLV head football coach Tony Sanchez is set to begin his second year in Las Vegas, he is hopeful that he can get the Rebels to their first bowl game since 2013.
Last year as sophomore, quarterback Kurt Palandech did see some time as a starter, but now it will be his job to lose. Luckily for Palandech he’ll be able to rely on pair of veteran wide receivers in junior Devonte Boyd, along with junior Kendal Keys in passing situations, and the speed of senior running back Keith Whitely.
Defensively the Rebels were ranked 110th last year in total defense, but they have several impact players in senior linebacker Ryan McAleenan and sophomore defensive back Tim Hough who could be difference makers.
Sanchez is attempting to breath some new life into UNLV’s football program, and some early wins in the season could be a huge confidence booster as they look to become bowl-eligible.
Fresno State Bulldogs 3-9 (2-6)
After joining the Mountain West Conference in 2012, the Fresno State Bulldogs were shot out of a cannon as they won 20 games in their first two years and it appeared to be business as usual. But in the past two years it hasn’t been as easy for Fresno State as they’ve lost 17 games en route to consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1996.
For Fresno State head football coach Tim DeRuyter, the talent level has dipped for his program and the elephant in the room is whether or not that his early success with the Bulldogs was attributed to the fact that he inherited solid players from former Fresno State head football coach Pat Hill. And with another long season on the horizon in the Silicon Valley, the hot seat for DeRuyter is warming up.
San Jose State Spartans 4-8 (2-6)
After making a bowl game for the first time as a member of the Mountain West Conference in 2015, the San Jose Spartans are looking to take the next step. But for Spartans head football coach Ron Caragher, he has to find enough play makers on both sides of the football to turn that dream into a reality.
In his first year as San Jose’s starting quarterback, Kenny Potter threw 15 touchdowns, but he will need to have a much bigger impact in this his senior campaign. Defensively the Spartans do return their top three tacklers from last season in senior linebacker Christian Tago, junior defensive back Maurice McKnight, and sophomore linebacker Frank Ginda. The unit was ranked 34th in the nation in total defense and they’ll once again look to be stingy in the Mountain West.
The Spartans will definitely compete, but I am not sure if they will have enough to win games in the Mountain West.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors 2-11 (0-8)
Ever since making the jump from the now defunct Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West Conference in 2012, things have not been good for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. In 2010, Hawaii won 10 games. But in four years in the Mountain West, the Rainbow Warriors have only managed to win 11 games. Hawaii has become a whipping boy as in 2015 alone, they were shut out three times, while losing seven games by 19 points or more.
Nick Rolovich will have his work cut out for him as he has taken over as the new head football coach at Hawaii. Rolovich previously played and worked at Hawaii. From 2000-2001, Rolovich saw time as Hawaii’s starting quarterback under then head football coach June Jones. Rolovich was also an assistant coach for Hawaii from 2008-2011, and now he gets his chance to be the main decision maker.
Hawaii’s recent struggles begin with the quarterback position as last year their signal callers managed to throw just 12 touchdown passes while also accounting for 21 interceptions. There will be an open competition to be the Rainbow Warriors quarterback this year. Senior quarterback Ikaika Woolsey and sophomore Beau Reilly will compete for the starting job, but I am not sure who will get the nod to be Hawaii’s starter.
Hawaii will lean on senior running back Paul Harris who is one of the better running backs in the conference to be a spark for their offense, while the Rainbow Warriors need to find some play makers on a defense that was ranked 105th last year in the nation in total defense.
With not that many soft spots in their schedule which includes non-conference tilts with the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference and Arizona Wildcats of the Pac-12 Conference, this will be another difficult year at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.
Mountain West Championship Game: Nevada vs. Boise State
Conference Champion: Boise State
Coach of the Year: Bryan Harsin-Boise State
Offensive Player of the Year: Brett Rypien-Quarterback-Boise State
Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Davis-Middle Linebacker-Colorado State
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com