Boise State begins its season as a road underdog at the Bounce House against UCF. The market drove down that number from Central Florida -10 to -4, but a Knights team with 17 returning starters will be a challenge. After hosting UTEP the next Friday, the Broncos have eight days to prepare for a home game against Oklahoma State, in which they are catching four points in the South Point’s Game of the Year lines. The nonconference schedule will conclude three weeks later with a game at BYU that will likely be a coin-flip spot with a spread inside a field goal. The Broncos get no breaks in their conference schedule, either, as they face Nevada and Wyoming, but both will be making the trek to the Smurf Turf. The intriguing challenge will come when Boise State opens Mountain West play with a road game against a Utah State program with 19 returning starters, a quality transfer quarterback in Logan Bonner and a new coach in Blake Anderson. The Broncos have a quality team this season as 17 starters return, many at key positions. Hank Bachmeier and Jack Sears got time under center last year and will compete for the starting job, and the offensive line returns four starters, including two all-conference players. First-year coach Andy Avalos was the defensive coordinator for Oregon the last two seasons, and he gets a defense that has seven linemen who started a game in 2020 and every starter back at linebacker, so this unit should be better than last season, when it gave up 27.1 points per game and 5.3 yards per play. However, given the unknown nature of Avalos as a head coach and a rugged schedule, this team is unlikely to surpass nine wins. Four opponents have win totals of 7.5 or higher, and while three will play the Broncos in Boise, an implied probability of 58.2% (-139) that this team wins fewer than nine games is accurate.
Pick: Under 9
Of all the teams in the Mountain West, Wyoming returns the most starters from last season. Craig Bohl will not only have 21 players back, but he has depth at quarterback that gives the Cowboys an opportunity to push Boise State for the top spot in the Mountain Division. Wyoming will likely get off to a solid start because of a nonconference schedule that includes Montana State, Northern Illinois and Connecticut. NIU and UConn have win totals of 3.5 and 2.5, respectively, at DraftKings and figure to be poorly power-rated, making the Cowboys probable favorites in all their nonconference games. Ball State will provide an early challenge when it visits Laramie, as the Cardinals return 20 starters and have a win total of eight at DraftKings. Wyoming has the potential to enter conference play Oct. 9 with three or four wins, and the Cowboys will likely be favored in at least five conference games. They get a week to prepare for their opener against Air Force before returning home to host Fresno State and New Mexico. The schedule tightens up after that, with a brutal sandwich spot Nov. 6 at home against Colorado State. The Cowboys will be in San Jose the previous weekend, and then they have one fewer day to prepare for a game Friday night in Boise. Once Wyoming is done navigating that three-week stretch, a tough road game awaits at Utah State. Asking for nine wins from Wyoming may seem like a lot, but given the depth on defense, the schedule and the returning personnel, it is hard to bet Under eight wins.
Pick: Over 8
Over the last three seasons, Jay Norvell has led Nevada to 22 wins. With 20 returning starters this season and a quarterback some believe could be a first-round draft pick, the Wolf Pack are primed to continue that winning trend. Last season, Carson Strong won the Offensive Player of the Year Award in the Mountain West after throwing for 27 touchdowns and completing 70% of his passes. This season he gets all five receivers back and an offensive line that is missing just one starter from the 2020 unit. No question this team will be a legitimate threat in the conference, but a demanding schedule brings into question its ability to surpass 7.5 wins. The first five weeks will be an absolute slog. The Wolf Pack are catching 3.5 points in Berkeley against Cal in the season opener, and after a home game against Idaho State, they are certain to be underdogs in Manhattan against Kansas State. Nevada will then have an open week before having to trek to Boise for a massive conference battle with the Broncos. So, in the first five weeks, the Wolf Pack has road games against Cal, Kansas State and Boise State, all of which they will be more likely to lose than win. The schedule lightens up considerably over the next several weeks as Nevada faces Hawaii, Fresno State and UNLV, certain to be favored in two of those. However, Strong & Co. must buckle down yet again to close the season as they face San Jose State and San Diego State among the final four games. In summation, Nevada gets two road games against Power 5 foes and draws Boise State, San Jose State and San Diego State in conference play. Given those challenges, even with the strength of this roster, there is no case to be made for laying a price on Over 7.5 wins.
Pick: Under 7.5
SAN JOSE STATE
It was a slow burn for Brent Brennan in his first three years as San Jose State, but the flame finally reached the end of the fuse in 2020 with a Mountain West title. Now, with 20 returning starters and an extremely favorable schedule, the Spartans have all the pieces to repeat as conference champions. Their season opens at home against Southern Utah, but the real challenge is Sept. 4 when San Jose State must face USC as a 16-point underdog on the road. After a week off, the Spartans load up on frequent-flyer miles with back-to-back trips to Hawaii and Western Michigan. Those games figure to be coin-flip spots, but San Jose State will be a sizable favorite at home Oct. 2 against New Mexico State before getting heavily into its conference schedule. The Spartans’ most daunting road game for the rest of the season is Nov. 6 at Nevada, which could go a long way toward deciding the West representative in the conference title game. They get Wyoming and San Diego State at home, which is a favorable situation against the division rivals that could block their road to another title. In addition, San Jose State figures to be a decent favorite in its other conference matchups with UNLV, Utah State and Fresno State. It is easy to see a path to at least six wins, and to surpass 7.5, the Spartans must take two from among USC, Western Michigan, San Diego State, Wyoming and Nevada. That is certainly achievable, and bettors should expect San Jose State to win eight or more games this season.
Pick: Over 7.5
Experience is usually one of the most important factors when evaluating college football teams. Due to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, many programs are loaded with returning talent. But that is not the case with Air Force. Only 13 starters return, and just four are on offense. QB Haaziq Daniels is back to run the offense for coach Troy Calhoun, but he returns with only two of his top five rushers and an offensive line that does not have a single player from last season’s team. Generally, service academies can overcome losses on the offensive line, but with so little back on that side of the ball and a brutal schedule, it is fair to wonder what the Falcons will look like this season. They open against Lafayette before a challenging road game in Annapolis against Navy, a team they beat 40-7 last year and will likely have revenge on its mind. The Falcons’ first conference game will be at home against Utah State in what is sure to be a coin-flip spot before they host Conference USA favorite Florida Atlantic. Air Force might have three losses by the time it heads to Albuquerque to face New Mexico. Then the schedule ratchets up. Air Force must face Wyoming, Boise State and San Diego State the next three weeks. The Falcons figure to be underdogs in each of those games, and the test against Boise State will be on the road. After a week off, the Falcons have a neutral-site game against Army in Arlington, Texas, before back-to-back games at Colorado State and Nevada. Air Force draws three of the four conference teams with the highest win totals, along with San Diego State and rivalry games against the other two service academies. Given the lack of returning talent, it is nearly impossible to see how this program can win seven games.
Pick: Under 6.5
SAN DIEGO STATE
Four of the previous six seasons have ended with San Diego State winning 10 or more games, but 2020 looked much different for the perennial powerhouse. The Aztecs managed just four wins against UNLV, Utah State, Hawaii and Colorado State last season, and three of those teams wound up winning one or zero games. San Diego State finished behind Nevada and San Jose State in the West Division. However, an offense brimming with talent and a defense with depth in the front seven could push the Aztecs back toward the top of their division. In total, 17 players return from the 2020 season for coach Brady Hoke, but what makes this roster special are returnees further down the depth chart. SDSU returns its top four running backs, top eight wide receivers, three starters along the defensive line and the entirety of its linebacker room. Those pieces will be needed to push for seven wins and to navigate one of the toughest schedules in the Mountain West. The Aztecs have two Pac-12 opponents on their nonconference slate this year, Arizona and Utah. They must face the Wildcats in Tucson before hosting the Utes, with SDSU a likely underdog. The other two nonconference games, against New Mexico State and Towson, should be winnable, but the conference schedule offers no reprieve. Of the Aztecs’ eight Mountain West opponents, four have win totals equal to or higher than their own. San Diego State must face the top two teams in its division, Nevada and San Jose State, as well as the favorite to win the Mountain Division, Boise State. The meeting with the Spartans is the only one on the road, but those combined with two Power 5 opponents make for an insane schedule. It is why, despite all the returning talent, we see a win total so low shaded to the Under.
Pick: Under 6.5
In Todd Graham’s first season in Honolulu, the Rainbow Warriors did some good things. They handed an undefeated Nevada team its first loss of the season in November and they pushed Boise State in a one-possession game as 13-point underdogs. This season Graham has 18 starters back, including dynamic quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and senior running back Calvin Turner. The Rainbows must work through a difficult schedule to reach seven wins, but the talent is there to do so. Hawaii has two Pac-12 opponents on the road in the first three weeks of the season, and it figures to be a decent underdog in both. The market has already moved UCLA up to -16.5 in their game at the Rose Bowl, and Oregon State is a quality program with 19 starters back. Those two are part of a five-game nonconference schedule that stretches into October with an interesting wrinkle: two games against the same opponent. Hawaii will play New Mexico State twice this season, once on the road and once at home. The Aggies are due for a rough season with only three starters back and a win total of 1.5, so those two games give the Rainbow Warriors an opportunity to pad their win total. But the conference schedule is a bear. Not only must Hawaii face division rivals San Jose State, San Diego State and Nevada, it also draws Wyoming from the Mountain Division. The Rainbow Warriors do face Utah State and UNLV, the teams with the lowest win totals in the conference, and they host Fresno State and Colorado State in winnable games. All in all, Hawaii has games against Portland State, New Mexico State twice and UNLV, making four games in which they should be favored and win. From there, it is about taking care of business against the other opponents for three more wins, something easier said than done. If this were a regularly priced win total, it would be a play Over the wins. But an implied probability of 58.2% that this team will surpass six wins is too high a price to pay given the rest of the schedule.
Pick: Under 6
After consecutive appearances in the Mountain West title game, one of which resulted in a conference championship, Fresno State has fallen back to the pack the last two seasons. The Bulldogs have mustered just seven wins the last two seasons, going 3-3 in 2020, and Kalen DeBoer must find a way to regain some of the magic this program once had. Given the state of the roster, he might be able to do it. DeBoer has 19 starters back, the most important being quarterback Jake Haener, who started in all six games last season. The Washington transfer improved as the season went along, throwing nine touchdown passes to two interceptions over the final three games while completing 65.7% of his passes. Haener will have back his top eight receivers, top three rushers and eight offensive linemen with starting experience, giving Fresno State an insanely high ceiling on offense. Pair that with a defense that brings back 10 starters and this team might have enough to navigate a tricky schedule. Fresno State is laying 27.5 points in its season opener with Connecticut, so it is likely the Bulldogs will be 1-0 when they head to Eugene to meet Oregon. The Ducks are one of two Pac-12 opponents for the Bulldogs this season, the other being UCLA, and both will be road games. Their conference schedule presents some challenges, but none that are insurmountable. Fresno State must face Boise State, Wyoming, Nevada, San Jose State and San Diego State, and three of those games will come on the road. The Bulldogs will get Nevada and Boise State at home and should be slight favorites. Pair that with games against UNLV and New Mexico, as well as winnable games against Hawaii and Cal Poly, and this team has a very realistic path to at least six wins. Since there is no juiced price to lay, it is worth looking at this team to surpass its win total.
Pick: Over 6
Steve Addazio’s time as Colorado State’s coach got off to a rocky start when a student abuse scandal rocked the program before the 2020 season. The product on the field did not fare much better as the Rams suffered three double-digit losses in four games before the season was cut short due to COVID-19. This season Addazio brings back 19 starters and a bevy of transfers in hopes of turning it around in his second year. There is plenty to like about this roster, especially on defense. Ten starters return, but the depth is key. Five defensive linemen have starting experience, the top eight linebackers are back and the only loss comes in the secondary. This front seven was one of the best in the Mountain West last season, allowing just 109 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry. Bettors should expect that to continue in 2021. The real questions come on offense, specifically at quarterback. Todd Centeio, who started one game last season, will probably start, but the roster has no depth behind him. Much like Addazio teams of the past, this team will rely on a workhorse running back, and that will be Boston College transfer David Bailey. Inexperience at quarterback will likely hold this team back, especially once the schedule is factored in. The Rams will host Vanderbilt and have road games against Toledo and Iowa as part of the nonconference schedule. In Mountain West play, Colorado State must face San Jose State, Boise State, Wyoming and Nevada. Three of those games are at home, but the Rams figure to be underdogs in all of them. UNLV is not on the schedule, so the worst conference team by win total on the schedule will be New Mexico, and that game will be on the road. The defense might be a strength, but with questions at quarterback and a challenging schedule, laying a price for this team to surpass 4.5 wins is not a winning wager.
Pick: Under 4.5
No program turned in a more impressive performance in 2020 than New Mexico. In Danny Gonzales’ first year as coach, the Lobos won just twice, but they covered four of their seven games and were one of the most competitive teams in the Mountain West despite not playing a single game at home. This season Gonzales gets a traditional home schedule and 17 returning starters, meaning New Mexico can really build on an impressive start to the Gonzales era. The Lobos bring back eight starters on offense, most of them at key positions. Every quarterback who played a snap in 2020 returns, and they add former Kentucky QB Terry Wilson. Leading rusher Bobby Cole is back, and he lines up behind an offensive line that returns four starters. On defense, New Mexico has nine starters back with a ton of depth on the line and at defensive back. The Lobos open at home against Houston Baptist and New Mexico State. Those are two perfectly winnable games, so New Mexico should be undefeated before being fed to Texas A&M on Sept. 18 at College Station. The next week the Lobos travel to El Paso in a coin-flip spot against a UTEP team returning as much talent as the Lobos. New Mexico’s conference schedule does provide some hurdles, playing division powers Boise State and Wyoming on the road and drawing San Diego State from the West. However, the Lobos also get UNLV and Fresno State from the other division, avoiding Nevada and San Jose State. New Mexico’s home schedule is very favorable, and if it is to surpass 4.5 wins, it will do so by taking advantage. Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV and Utah State will visit Albuquerque. Those four programs have the lowest win totals in the conference, opening the door for the Lobos to win five or more games for the first time since 2016.
Pick: Over 4.5
Besides New Mexico, Utah State is the most intriguing team in the conference. Blake Anderson comes from Arkansas State to take over a program that hit rock bottom last season. Anderson went 51-37 in seven seasons with the Red Wolves and made it to six bowl games. He brings with him quarterback Logan Bonner, who completed 59.5% of his passes for 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions over his final two seasons at Arkansas State. Anderson and Bonner join a team bringing back 19 starters, mostly on offense, and Utah State could be formidable by season’s end. The Aggies open the season as 16.5-point underdogs at Washington State. They come back home to host North Dakota before beginning their conference slate at Air Force. The Aggies have two more nonconference opponents, one of which is BYU on a Friday night in Logan, the other a trip to New Mexico State. Utah State has some real obstacles with its conference schedule, but the toughest games will come at home. The Aggies must face Boise State, San Jose State and Wyoming, with the Broncos and Cowboys making appearances at Logan. The tough stretch for Utah State comes in November. After the game at New Mexico State, the Aggies make a trip to San Jose. Then they return home to host Wyoming before ending the season at New Mexico. With North Dakota, UNLV and New Mexico State on the schedule, it will be no surprise to see the Aggies with at least three wins. If you pair that with coin-flip spots against Air Force, Colorado State, Hawaii and New Mexico, four wins seem attainable in Anderson’s first season.
Pick: Over 3
Not often will bettors see a win total of 1.5 shaded to the Under, but the Rebels have no big positives. Marcus Arroyo’s first season as coach went as poorly as possible, with zero wins and one cover for a team that seemed to get worse as the season went along. UNLV lost every game by double digits and brings back 18 starters from that team. Couple that with a brutal schedule and another winless season is not out of the question. The quarterback’s job will likely come down to Doug Brumfield or Justin Rogers. Both appeared in two games last season and combined to throw for 312 yards and one touchdown. Whoever gets the job will have some quality talent to work with, at the very least. At wide receiver, Mountain West freshman of the year Kyle Williams is back, and senior running back Charles Williams is a fantastic runner who averaged over 5 yards per carry in his first four seasons. The defense is making a transition to a 3-4 scheme, which means key pass rushers Adam Plant and Jacoby Windmon are making the change to outside linebacker. The roster is not devoid of talent, but with another massive hole at quarterback and a scheme change on defense, it is hard to see this team being very competitive. The schedule will do the Rebels no favors either. They open against a quality Eastern Washington team before games against Arizona State and Iowa State. In conference play, the Rebels must face San Jose State, Nevada and San Diego State — and will be substantial underdogs every time. In fact, UNLV will be an underdog in every game this season, and for good reason.
Pick: Under 1.5