Mountain West Conference 2023 college football preview

By VSiN Staff  ( 

August 5, 2023 05:25 PM

Mountain West Conference 2023 preview

The Mountain West Conference has an opportunity to shine early in front of the college football world. Three of the seven games in Week 0 will include a Mountain West team, including San Jose State visiting USC and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. On Labor Day weekend, Boise State will play at 3:30 p.m. ET against Washington on ABC. Later that night, Wyoming will host Texas Tech on CBS primetime. On Sunday, September 3, San Jose State will unveil the new renovations to its stadium as the Spartans host a good Oregon State team in a standalone game on CBS. In Week 2, San Diego State plays host to UCLA in primetime on CBS, Boise State welcomes UCF to the blue turf for a primetime game on FS1, and UNLV visits Michigan for a 3:30 pm kickoff on CBS. There will be plenty of eyes on the conference early this season, but will these teams make any noise?

Boise State (+175) enters the year as the favorite, but the Broncos have not won the Mountain West since 2019. Boise State went undefeated in conference play last year but lost to Fresno State in the conference championship. Fresno State (+380) needs to replace QB Jake Haener. Air Force (+400) lost a quarterback that started 31 games, as well as the conference player of the year at running back. San Diego State (+700) lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Wyoming (+1200) could have the best defense in the conference, but can the Cowboys score enough points to challenge for the title? San Jose State (+1400) brings back QB Chevan Cordeiro, who was named Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year, but lost its top wide receiver and multiple Mountain West Defensive Players of the Year off the defense (Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall). 

With the early challenges in the nonconference portion of the schedule, the Mountain West could be handed some lumps early. However, a conference that has been mostly dominated by Boise State, San Diego State, Fresno State, and Air Force feels a bit more open this year. Wyoming and Colorado State (+2800) are two teams that could make some noise. Boise State is the rightful favorite with the best backfield in the conference, but +175 is too short of a price for the Broncos before the season starts.

Air Force Falcons

Troy Calhoun returns for his 17th season at Air Force, and the Falcons have been a consistent winner under him. Over the last three full seasons (excluding 2020), Air Force has won nine or more games in the regular season. Last year, the Falcons were a favorite in every regular season game and finished 9-3 (6-6 ATS). 

Air Force, like the other service academies, cannot utilize the portal, so it will have to figure out a way to replace two of the best players in school history. Daniels finished with a 22-9 record as Air Force’s starting quarterback. Defensively, with eight returning starters, Air Force should be solid again. Also working in the Falcons’ favor is their schedule. Air Force is projected to face one of the easiest schedules in the nation. 


Mike Thiessen is back for his 14th season as the Air Force offensive coordinator. Thiessen is the longest-tenured OC in the country. The Falcons have led the nation in rushing the last three years, but this year they will not have Brad Roberts, who led the nation with 1,728 rushing yards, including 11 games over 100 yards and 17 total rushing touchdowns. 

They also lost QB Haaziq Daniels, the Falcons' third-leading rusher last year with 695 yards and eight touchdowns. Running back John Lee Eldridge will likely try to fill the void left by Roberts. Eldridge had 766 rushing yards and four touchdowns last year. The offensive line should be solid, but left tackle Everett Smalley was dismissed from the program in May. Smalley was Second Team All-Mountain West last year. Center Thor Paglialong was selected to the First Team All-Mountain West this preseason.


In addition to leading the nation in rushing yards, Air Force was tops in the nation in time of possession and yards allowed per game. The Falcons allowed just 254.4 yards per game last season and finished 10th in defensive efficiency, according to SP+. 

Eight starters return from last year’s defense, which is rare at a service academy. Leading tackler S Trey Taylor returns along with NT Payton Zdroik. Both were selected to the preseason All-Mountain West first team. Zdroik had 5.5 sacks last season and will look to build on that. Linebacker Vince Sanford will be a big loss from last year’s team. Sanford led the Falcons with 6.5 sacks. With the production that was lost on offense, the defense will be Air Force’s strength in 2023. 


Despite winning nine games last year, Air Force underachieved a bit. The Falcons lost three conference games, including two as a double-digit favorite. Air Force did sweep Army and Navy to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. The schedule is certainly an advantage this year when looking at the win total. According to Phil Steele’s projection, Air Force will play the sixth easiest schedule in the FBS this year. 

The Falcons avoid Fresno State in conference but finish the season at Boise State. An improved Colorado State squad will host Air Force in between the Falcons games against Navy and Army. If the Falcons sweep Navy and Army again this season, they should go over their win total. I expect Navy to be improved and Army will likely hover around .500. My prediction is that Air Force will head into the season finale at Boise State with eight wins. —Tim Murray

Pick: Under 8.5

Boise State Broncos

Being the most recognizable school in the Mountain West has not led to an embarrassment of championships lately. Despite going 8-0 in conference play last year, the Broncos fell to Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. Boise State’s last conference championship was in 2019. Last year, after a 2-2 start (including a loss as a 16-point favorite at UTEP), the Broncos brought in former Boise State head coach Dirk Koetter to be the offensive coordinator.

The schedule is rough for the Broncos. Boise State opens the season at Washington, then hosts UCF in Week 2. Two weeks later, the Broncos play at San Diego State on a Friday night and then head to Memphis on September 3. Boise State is once again the favorite to win the conference (+175 at DraftKings).


Nine starters return from last year’s team, including QB Taylen Green and a pair of dynamic running backs in George Holani and Ashton Jeanty. The trio of Green, Holani, Jeanty rushed for a combined 2,566 yards last year. Former Broncos quarterback Bush Hamdan will take over as the offensive coordinator. Hamdan was the quarterback’s coach at Missouri from 2020-22. Green completed 61% of his passes for 2,042 yards and 14 touchdowns. Holani and Jeanty could be the best running back duo in the country.

In all, nine starters return on offense. Three starters on the offensive line are back and the top four pass catchers are, too. But they need to replace First Team All-Conference left tackle John Ojukwu, who is now in training camp with the Tennessee Titans. The offense will be put to the test right away with a Week 1 road trip to Washington.


Andy Avalos is a defensive-minded head coach (defensive coordinator at Oregon 2019-20), and he will have his work cut out for him this year. The defense lost six starters and nine of the 18 players that played 250+ snaps. Safety JL Skinner and defensive lineman Scott Matlock were both selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. Skinner was First Team All-Mountain West last year. He had four interceptions and 65 tackles. DE George Tarlas is in camp with the Las Vegas Raiders. Tarlas had four sacks last year before being lost for the season with an injury. 

Linebacker Ezekial Noa was Second Team All-Mountain West last year and has also left. In addition to Skinner’s departure, cornerback Caleb Biggers and safety Tyreque Jones exited. Linebacker DJ Schramm led the Broncos with 107 tackles and returns for his senior season. Last year’s defense finished seventh nationally in yards allowed per game (292.5). Regression is likely for this year’s defense.


Boise State was selected by the media to win the Mountain West in 2023, receiving 28 of the 37 first-place votes. The Broncos’ offense should be improved and likely the top offense in the Mountain West. On the other side of the ball, there are a lot of holes to be filled from last year’s team. The start of the season is quite challenging. The Broncos open the season at Washington (-14.5). The Huskies could be a preseason Top 10 team. The following week, Boise State hosts UCF. After playing FCS North Dakota on September 16, the Broncos open Mountain West play at San Diego State on a Friday night, then visit Memphis on September 30. 

If Boise State escapes September with a winning record, the Broncos will have a big season. In conference, Boise State does not play the three teams that were voted to finish in the bottom three spots in the conference (Hawaii, Nevada, and New Mexico). With the defensive concerns, Boise State could struggle early in the season, and it seems unlikely the Broncos will run through conference play unblemished for a second straight year. However, the conference is a bit down this year, and Boise State could absolutely take down the Mountain West for the first time since 2019. —Tim Murray

Pick: Under 8.5

Colorado State Rams

After leading Nevada to four consecutive bowl appearances, Jay Norvell left Reno to replace Steve Addazio at Colorado State in 2022. The Rams finished 3-9 last season but could make a big jump in 2023. The Rams added over 20 players via the transfer portal, including a revamped offensive line. 


There was no offensive line worse in the FBS than Colorado State’s in 2022. The Rams allowed an FBS-worst 59 sacks during the season (4.92 sacks per game). Norvell used the transfer portal to tweak his offensive line. Center Jacob Gardner, who played tackle last year, is the only returning starter on the offensive line. The other four starters will likely be transfers. 

Quarterback Clay Millen completed 72% of his passes, but if they were not being thrown to Tory Horton, it was likely a short pass due to the lack of protection. Millen is a former four-star recruit (according to 247 Sports) that committed to Nevada. After redshirting in 2020, Millen followed Norvell to Colorado State. Millen’s father, Hugh, was a quarterback in the NFL for a decade, including being John Elway’s backup from 1996-97. Horton is a dynamic wide receiver and returns for his junior season despite some interest from SEC schools. Horton had 71 receptions for 1,131 and eight touchdowns last year. He accounted for 48% of the Rams’ passing yards in 2022. 

Justus Ross-Simmons, Colorado State’s second-leading receiver, returns and the Rams added SMU transfer Dylan Goffney in the portal. At running back, Kobe Johnson transferred in from North Dakota State as the Bison’s leading rusher. The status of the Rams’ leading rusher last year, Avery Morrow, is TBD due to an off-field incident. Running back Damian Henderson was the Rams’ top high school recruit and could be an impact player this fall. At tight end, Colorado State added Dallin Holker from BYU.


Colorado State returns eight starters from last year’s team, and DE Mohamed Kamara is the best of the bunch. Kamara had 8.5 sacks last year and was selected to the preseason First Team All-Mountain West team. The defensive line is likely Colorado State’s deepest and best position on the roster. 

Defensive end Tony Pierce will likely line up opposite Kamara. Pierce played in 52 games (38 starts) over four years at North Dakota State. Safety Jack Howell was First Team All-Mountain West last year and is back in 2023. Howell had a team-high 108 tackles and three interceptions last season. Oregon State transfer Ron Hardge should start opposite of returning starting CB Chigozie Anusiem. Anusiem had a team-high nine pass breakups last season.


The Rams have not reached a bowl game since 2017. From 1994-2017, Colorado State was a regular in the postseason, playing in 15 bowl games. Norvell took on a full-on rebuild in Fort Collins, but Colorado State is a team on the rise. After finding a way to three wins last year, the Rams should fight for bowl eligibility in 2023. 

The Rams open the season as a two-touchdown home underdog against Washington State and then get a bye week to prepare for Colorado. The Buffaloes have been the talk of college football this offseason with the hiring of Deion Sanders. Colorado opens the season with back-to-back appearances on Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff.” The Rams could be getting Colorado in a good spot. 

A road trip to Middle Tennessee could be a swing game for the win total in Week 3. The Rams avoid Fresno State and San Jose State but unfortunately miss out on the preseason last-place team, New Mexico. Boise State, Air Force, and San Diego State all come to Fort Collins for a chance to pull off an upset. Additionally, Air Force plays Colorado State the week after visiting Navy and the week before playing Army. With the added talent via the portal and the returning starters, Colorado State is one of my favorite win total plays of the year. —Tim Murray

Pick: Over 4.5 

Fresno State Bulldogs

After a sluggish start to the season and an injury to QB Jake Haener, Fresno State won nine straight games and the Mountain West. The team also wrapped up the season with a dominant 29-6 win over Washington State in the LA Bowl and finished No. 24 in the AP Poll. The Bulldogs enter 2023 with the third-longest winning streak in the FBS, but they will be without Haener, last year’s leading rusher Jordan Mims, and their top three leading receivers. The Bulldogs went to the portal to fill those voids. 

Offensive coordinator Kirby Moore departed for Missouri and head coach Jeff Tedford promoted WR coach Pat McCann to fill the role. Fortunately for Fresno State, the two Power Five teams on schedule this year have new head coaches (Purdue, Arizona State). The reigning conference champs were picked to finish third in the conference. 


How does a Group of Five team replace a quarterback selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft, a 1,300-yard rusher, and a 1,000-yard wide receiver? We are about to find out. Haener hurt his ankle last season in the third game of the season, missed four games, and when he returned, Fresno State could not be stopped. He was First Team All-Mountain West and threw 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions.  The Bulldogs will have a quarterback competition this fall between Logan Fife and UCF transfer Mikey Keene. Fife went 2-2 as the starter when Haener was injured. In his first start, Fresno State lost as a 23-point favorite at UConn. 

After rushing for 1,370 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, Jordan Mims was signed by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. Running back Malik Sherrod (428 rushing yards, two TDs) will take over for Mims. The Bulldogs also added RB Damien Moore from Cal via the portal. Moore had a solid 2021 in Berkeley, rushing for 518 yards. 

The top receiver returning is Erik Brooks, who had 37 receptions for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Fresno State added WR Mikel Barkley from Toledo, Jaelen Gill (#63 overall recruit in the Class of 2020) from Boston College, and a couple of JUCO wide receivers. In all, Fresno State lost six of its top seven pass catchers from a season ago. 

The offensive line returns four starters, but center Bula Schmidt departs. Schmidt was Second Team All-Mountain West last year. Right guard Mose Vavao was the only Bulldog voted to preseason All-Mountain West. It is difficult to see how this year’s offense will be in the same ballpark as last year’s. 


The Fresno State defense might have to carry the Bulldogs early this season. Believe it or not, according to SP+, the defense was better than the offense last season. Fresno State finished 36th nationally in defense in 2022 per SP+. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle must figure out a way to replace defensive end David Perales. Perales was First Team All-Mountain West last year and led Fresno State with 11.5 sacks. 

The defense does return seven starters and eight players that had over 400 snaps last year. Defensive end Devo Bridges was selected First Team All-Mountain West this preseason after having 6.5 tackles for losses last year. Linebacker Levelle Bailey is back after leading Fresno State in tackles last year. The Bulldogs lost some production in the secondary, including Evan Williams (Second Team All-Mountain West), but cornerback Cameron Lockridge returns. 


Tedford will have his hands full with his team this year, but if the quarterback position does not have a massive drop off, Fresno State could return to the Mountain West Championship. The Bulldogs are less than a touchdown underdog in their season opener at Purdue and will likely be less than a touchdown underdog at Arizona State as well. If Fresno State can go 3-1 in the nonconference portion of the schedule, the Bulldogs could be on track to go Over. 

Fresno State avoids Air Force in conference play and hosts preseason favorite Boise State. Road trips to Wyoming, San Jose State, and San Diego State will be a challenge. This is not a win total I have played, but based on Jeff Tedford’s track record and playing two weaker Power Five programs, I think it is more likely the Bulldogs win nine games than seven in 2023. —Tim Murray

Pick: Over 8

San Diego State Aztecs

As of now, San Diego State remains a member of the Mountain West Conference despite consistent discussion about the Aztecs joining the Pac-12. Brady Hoke, in his second stint at San Diego State, is entering Year 4, and their schedule does them no favors. The Aztecs open the season playing host to Ohio in Week 0. The Bobcats are the second favorite to win the MAC this year. 

After playing FCS Idaho State in Week 1, San Diego State faces UCLA, Oregon State, Boise State, and Air Force in consecutive weeks. Emerging with a .500 record after those six weeks would be deemed a victory. While defense and special teams have been the calling cards of the Aztecs, the defensive front lost a lot of talent from a year ago. Special teams is always a strength for San Diego State, as K/P Jack Browning was named Mountain West preseason Special Teams Player of the Year after going 20 for 25 on field goals. The Aztecs will need to replace star returner Jordan Byrd, who was a First Team All-Mountain West Conference punt returner and kick returner. 


Quarterback Jalen Mayden began 2022 in the Aztecs’ secondary before being thrust into quarterback duties in October. Mayden’s first practice back at QB was October 3, and he started against Hawaii five days later. Mayden threw for 2,030 yards with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Additionally, he rushed for 231 yards and three touchdowns. San Diego State legend Ryan Lindley is the new offensive coordinator. Lindley working with Mayden all offseason should lead to improvements. 

Running back Jordan Byrd led San Diego State with 390 rushing yards but has moved on to the NFL (UDFA with Pittsburgh). Byrd will be more difficult to replace in the return game than in the backfield. After spring practices, the Aztecs took a big hit when right tackle Josh Simmons transferred to Ohio State. Center Alama Uluave was signed by the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. Guard Cade Bennett was Second Team All-Mountain West last year and he returns. 

Tight end Mark Redman was a First Team All-Mountain West selection this preseason. Redman had 21 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns last year. Wideout Raphael Williams transferred in from FCS Western Carolina. In two seasons, Williams had 1,617 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. With a full offseason focused on quarterback, if Mayden takes a leap, the Aztecs' offense should be improved.


Hoke earned his reputation by coaching defensive lines to an elite level. Hoke was the defensive line coach at Michigan from 1995-2002 before being hired as the head coach at Ball State. Hoke and defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix will have to work some magic this season after losing three starters off last year’s defensive line, including First Team All-Mountain West defensive lineman Jonah Tavai. Tavai had 10.5 sacks last year. Three-time First Team All-Mountain West linebacker Caden McDonald graduated as well. 

In all, the Aztecs lost six starters on defense, including three First Team All-Mountain West and a Second Team selection. San Diego State added New Mexico linebacker Cody Moon. Moon led the Lobos with 104 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year and was a preseason All-Mountain West selection. 


The first six games of the season is a gauntlet for San Diego State. The Aztecs play Ohio in Week 0. The Bobcats are a four-point underdog and have the second-shortest odds to win the MAC. After playing FCS Idaho State in Week 1, San Diego State hosts UCLA, visits Oregon State, hosts Boise State on a Friday night, then goes to Air Force. The Aztecs could be an underdog in all four of those games. 

The best-case scenario out of those six games could be 3-3 for San Diego State. Depending on how the offense comes together and how the defense fills the holes from last year’s departures, the Aztecs could be a favorite in their final six games. The final three games will not be easy: at Colorado State, at San Jose State, and home to Fresno State. With a very difficult schedule and question marks on defense, the Aztecs seem more likely to finish with six wins than eight in 2023. —Tim Murray

Pick: Under 7

San Jose State Spartans

In 2020, San Jose State stunned the Mountain West by going undefeated and winning the conference for the first time in school history. The Spartans dropped off in 2021, missing a bowl game. But they reached a bowl in 2022, losing to Eastern Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. 

San Jose State’s schedule is quite challenging in 2023. The Spartans visit USC (-30.5) in Week 0 and host Oregon State (-16.5) in Week 1. San Jose State wraps up nonconference play with a trip to Toledo. The Rockets are the favorites to win the MAC at DraftKings Sportsbook. Additionally, San Jose State plays the top four favorites in the Mountain West as well. 

The Spartans do return QB Chevan Cordeiro, who was named Mountain West preseason Offensive Player of the Year. However, San Jose State must replace a ton of talent lost on the defensive side of the ball, including reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Viliami Fehoko. 


Cordeiro, who enters his sixth season of college football this fall, started his career at Hawaii, and he was named the Mountain West preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Cordeiro threw for 3,251 yards, 23 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, while also rushing for nine touchdowns. San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan joined VSiN Primetime and said that Cordeiro has “attacked” this offseason. 

The Spartans return nine starters this year, including running back Kairee Robinson. Robinson rushed for 752 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. However, Cordeiro’s top target from last year, Elijah Cooks, was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent. Cooks had a team-high 69 catches for 1,076 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2022. Wide receiver Justin Lockhart returns and was named First Team All-Mountain West this preseason. Lockhart had 36 catches for 578 yards and one touchdown last year. The offensive line should be solid with a ton of starters back.   


Defensive coordinator Derrick Odum enters his seventh season at San Jose State and will have quite the challenge this year trying to replace a ton of production that exited the program. Fehoko had nine sacks last year and was a three-time First Team All-Mountain West selection before being drafted in the fourth round by the Dallas Cowboys. He was the first player drafted out of San Jose State since 2019. 

Linebacker Kyle Harmon, who led the Spartans in tackles, is also gone. Like Fehoko, Harmon was also a three-time First Team All-Mountain West selection. Defensive lineman Cade Hall had 7.5 sacks last year and was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. Safety Tre Jenkins will be the leader of the defense this year. Facing USC QB Caleb Williams is less than ideal for any defense but especially one looking to replace the talent that San Jose State lost. 


When looking to play season win totals, the schedule can make the decision for you. San Jose State will be an underdog in five of its first six games of the season. After wrapping up the nonconference portion of the schedule with a night game at Toledo, San Jose State will host Air Force on a Friday night. The Spartans will be on short rest, while Air Force will have played the previous Friday evening. After a Week 5 bye, San Jose State visits the conference favorite, Boise State. The season concludes with Fresno State, San Diego State, and a trip to UNLV. The offense this year, led by Chevan Cordeiro, should be improved, but the defense loses too much talent to replace in one offseason. —Tim Murray

Pick: Under 5.5

UNLV Rebels

Following a 5-7 season, UNLV dismissed head coach Marcus Arroyo and hired Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom to replace him. Prior to his three seasons with Arkansas, Odom was the head coach of Missouri. Odom compiled a 25-25 record in four seasons at Missouri with a 13-19 SEC record. 

“When I look at Vegas, there is one in the world,” Odom said on VSiN Primetime. “This place should have a successful football program, and I want to be the person that consistently gets that done.” 

UNLV has not been to a bowl game since 2013 and has reached just one bowl in the last 20 years. But with great football facilities and Allegiant Stadium as its home stadium, UNLV should be on the rise as a program. The question is: will it happen in 2023? 


Odom initially hired veteran (and controversial) coach Bobby Petrino to be UNLV’s offensive coordinator. Only 21 days after Petrino was hired, he left to take the same position at Texas A&M. Odom then hired 35-year-old Brennan Marion as offensive coordinator. Marion is a “riser” in the coaching world, as he was the wide receiver coach at Texas in 2022 and Pittsburgh in 2021. Pitt’s Jordan Addison won the Biletnikoff Award, the award given to the nation’s top wide receiver, in 2021. 

Marion has a unique tie to UNLV. He was the offensive coordinator for Howard in 2017 when the Bison upset the Rebels as 45-point underdogs. Marion runs a unique offense called the “Go-Go” offense. It uses two running backs and vertical threats. It will also go at a fast pace. Quarterback Doug Brumfield is back this season. Brumfield completed 64.6% of his passes last year and rushed for 261 yards and six touchdowns, but durability can be an issue. 

The Rebels lost its leading rusher, Aidan Robbins, to BYU. Robbins rushed for 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns. UNLV’s top wide receiver, Ricky White (51 receptions, 619 yards), returns. UNLV did lose wide receiver Kyle Williams (40 receptions, 541 yards, team-high five touchdowns) to Washington State. Additionally, Nick Williams and Jeffrey Weimer, UNLV’s third and fourth leading receivers, are gone as well. JUCO transfer Jacob De Jesus had a big spring and should contribute this fall. 

Pittsburgh transfer RB Vincent Davis will have a big role in the “Go-Go” two-back set. Davis has over 1,800 career rushing yards. But the offensive line could be an issue. The line lost three starters. Tackle Daviyon McDaniel is playing in the CFL, center Leif Fautanu transferred to Arizona State and Preston Nichols transferred to Purdue. UNLV did add guard Jalen St. John from Arkansas via the portal.


At just 29 years old, Mike Scherer will be the defensive coordinator under Odom. Scherer played linebacker at Missouri when Odom was the head coach, and he coached under him the last three years at Arkansas. Scherer was the linebackers coach for the last two seasons.

The Rebels’ defense returns seven starters this year. On the defensive line, UNLV loses Second Team All-Mountain West performer, Adam Plant. Plant, who signed with the Las Vegas Raiders as an undrafted free agent, had a team-high eight sacks in 2022. Linebacker Austin Ajiake, the UNLV player to make First Team All-Mountain West, signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. 

The back end of the secondary should be solid for the Rebels in 2023, with safeties Jonathan Baldwin and Jordyn Morgan returning. The Rebels lost CB Nohl Williams to Cal in the portal. Williams was rated as the 16th-best cornerback and 83rd overall prospect in the portal, according to 247 Sports. UNLV also added three Power Five transfers that should be contributors on the defense: LB Zavier Carter (LSU), LB Jackson Woodard (Arkansas), and S Jaxen Turner (Arizona). 


It has been said before, but the future is high in Vegas regarding the Rebels moving forward. However, this season might not be the year to put all in your chips in the middle of the table. UNLV does avoid San Diego State and Boise State in conference play but visits Fresno State and Air Force. 

The nonconference schedule is interesting. After opening with FCS Bryant, UNLV visits Michigan. The Wolverines are viewed as College Football Playoff contenders. In Week 3, Vanderbilt comes to Vegas. The Commodores should be improved, and that is likely a swing game for UNLV’s win total. 

Lastly, the Rebels visit UTEP on September 23. The Miners are a veteran team and one of my favorite win totals of the year (Over 5.5). If UNLV goes 1-3 in the nonconference part of the schedule, seven wins will be a challenge. Colorado State, Wyoming, and San Jose State all visit Las Vegas, but all three games are considered toss-ups. With a new system on offense and some of the top players, including three starting offensive linemen, exiting, UNLV is more likely to win five games than seven in 2023. —Tim Murray

Pick: Under 6

Utah State Aggies

In 2021, Blake Anderson’s first year in Logan, Utah State won 11 games, won the Mountain West Championship, and defeated Oregon State in the LA Bowl. Last year, the Aggies took a step back, winning just six games and losing by four touchdowns in the First Responder Bowl. Entering 2023, Utah State returns just nine starters after a handful of the Aggies’ top players departed via the transfer portal. The schedule will be quite challenging as they are the only team in the conference to play all five of the preseason top-five teams. Additionally, some regression could be on the way after Utah State won four games by less than a touchdown last year and lost zero by less than a touchdown. 


Quarterback Logan Bonner was lost for the season in late September, and Cooper Legas was thrust into action. Legas completed 61% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Legas returns in 2023, but backup Bishop Davenport transferred to South Alabama. 

Running back Calvin Tyler led the Aggies with 1,122 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. The Second Team All-Mountain West was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent. RB Robert Briggs will assume the starting duties. Briggs rushed for 353 yards and a touchdown last year. Legas can also utilize his legs. 

WR Brian Cobbs had 76 receptions for 923 yards and five touchdowns last year en route to earning Second Team All-Mountain West. Cobbs signed as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. Terrell Vaughn is the Aggies’ top returning receiver. Vaughn had 56 catches for 624 yards and five touchdowns. Stanford transfer Colby Bowman will start at wide receiver.

The offensive line will be a major concern. Utah State lost four starters from last year’s unit. Left tackle Alfred Edwards, who set the Aggies record for career starts, exhausted his eligibility. Edwards was the only Aggie to make First Team All-Mountain West in 2022. Additionally, right guard Weylin Lapuaho, who started all 13 games last year, transferred to BYU. Right tackle Jacob South and center Chandler Dolphin are both gone as well. Arizona State transfer Ralph Frias is expected to start at left tackle. 


Similar to Utah State’s offense, the defense lost a lot of production from last year’s team. Leading tackler, linebacker AJ Vongphachanh, transferred to BYU. Defensive end Daniel Grzesiak, who led the Aggies with 8.5 sacks, transferred to Cincinnati. Defensive ends Byron Vaughns (Baylor) and Patrick Joyner (Kansas) both transferred. 

In the secondary, cornerbacks Ajani Carter (Baylor) and Dominic Tatum (Washington State) are gone as well. Safety Hunter Reynolds, who finished last year with 93 tackles, seven pass breakups, and three interceptions, graduated. Safety Ike Larsen is the top returner on defense. Larsen had a team-high four interceptions last season and was the lone Utah State player named First Team All-Mountain West this preseason. 


Following a 6-6 season with four close victories (seven points or less) and just nine returning starters, Utah State should be in for some regression in 2023. The Aggies open the season at Iowa and are a 23-point underdog. While Iowa is the lone Power Five team on Utah State’s schedule, the Aggies host James Madison on September 23 and visit UConn on September 30. James Madison was selected to finish first in the Sun Belt East. UConn should be slightly improved from last year’s six-win team. 

The Aggies are the only team in the Mountain West scheduled to play the top-five teams in the preseason poll (Boise State, Air Force., Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State). Utah State avoids Wyoming, Hawaii, and UNLV in conference play in 2023. With the loss of talent, a tough schedule, and regression from close games a year ago, it would be surprising if Utah State reached bowl eligibility this season. —Tim Murray

Pick: Under 5.5 

Nevada Wolf Pack

Expectations in Reno aren’t always the highest and that was especially true of the 2022 season, as Nevada went from a pass-happy attack to a run-first mindset. As you would expect with a lot of round holes and square pegs, it was a long season for the Wolf Pack, who went 2-10 and had their worst season since 2000. That was their first year in the WAC and their first year in FBS. At least things look better for Year 2.


Few teams in college football made as big of a transition as Nevada last season. The Wolf Pack saw Jay Norvell take his Air Raid offense to Colorado State and subsequently hired Ken Wilson, who ran the ball more than he threw it in the midst of a 2-10 season. Personnel recruited to run an Air Raid had trouble with the new offense, as the team managed just 18.8 points per game and 4.4 yards per play.

The Wolf Pack only had two returning starters last season and are light on experience again, but attacked the transfer portal to get a new QB in Brendon Lewis from Colorado and some help on the offensive line. Nevada ran the ball 427 times for just 3.3 yards per carry and only had 398 pass attempts with seven TD passes against eight interceptions. It would be hard to imagine this group being as bad as last season, but explosive plays will still be hard to find.


The Nevada defense largely held its own with minimal help from the offense. With just three returning starters, they allowed over 30 points per game and 5.8 yards per play, but they managed a positive turnover margin and were 34th in TD% against in the red zone. The Nevada offense ranked 103rd in third-down conversion rate, so the defense was out there a lot and had issues getting off the field with the 102nd-ranked third-down conversion rate against.

Eight starters are back this time, though the three leading tacklers are all gone. Top corners Jaden Dedman and Isaiah Essissima are both back after combining for 17 pass breakups and a couple of interceptions. Co-DC Kwame Agyeman coached up the defensive backs at Oregon for two years, so that group could certainly see improvement, and some transfers to the front seven may help as well.


Even though Nevada plays a really weak schedule, I’m not buying into the Ken Wilson regime. They do have several lines under a touchdown, including five in underdog roles and one as a favorite, so this season will hinge on how those projected close games go. I have 3.96 wins as a projection, and with a win total of 4, that seems pretty accurate. For the sake of giving a pick, I’d lean Under because I have them a dog in each of their last three games. —Adam Burke

Pick: Under 4

New Mexico Lobos

The only thing high in Albuquerque is the elevation. Hopes, dreams, expectations, however you want to phrase it, they are not high for the Lobos this season. New Mexico has gone 7-24 under fourth-year head coach Danny Gonzales and went 8-28 in the final three seasons under Bob Davie. This team hasn’t won more than three games since 2016, and now the pressure is mounting because in-state rival New Mexico State went bowling under Jerry Kill last year. The seat is hot for Gonzales in another season where wins look hard to find.


It turns out that scoring about 13 points per game isn’t going to get it done. Over the last two seasons, the Lobos have scored 12.2 and 13.1 points per game. Defensively, they’ve been better, which makes sense since Gonzales has been a defensive coordinator at San Diego State and Arizona State. Offensively, though, this has been one of the worst teams in the nation.

Things could be looking up a little this season. Former UAB offensive coordinator and head coach Bryant Vincent comes in after not being picked as the Blazers’ head coach, and he brought veteran QB Dylan Hopkins with him. He will be the best QB for the team in several years and could find a friend in 6-5 JUCO transfer DJ Washington. After averaging 3.9 and 4.0 yards per play the last two seasons, anybody capable of throwing a forward pass raises the ceiling here.


Defensive coordinator Rocky Long took his patented 3-3-5 to Syracuse. There are only two returning starters to fill out the 3-3-5 under new DC Troy Reffett, who will keep it in place, but this may very well be the last year of it for New Mexico if a regime change does happen. Reffett has been a DC at four different stops, including one season under Long in 2008, so the 3-3-5 is also his preferred scheme.

In the two years with Long, the Lobos allowed 5.3 and 5.5 yards per play. Given that the offense converted 22% of third-down attempts, it’s amazing that this defense was able to survive without wearing down late in games. The offense did move at a really slow pace, so even though the Lobos only mustered 157 points for the season, the defense only faced 780 plays against by being 30th in third-down conversion rate against a 34.13%. Any kind of offensive efficiency will help.


It is kind of hard to know what to expect from New Mexico. If the defense doesn’t fall off much (or at all) and the offense is able to take a few steps towards respectability, then it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Lobos can win four or five games. They are favored twice for me and have a few other games where they are a short underdog. On the other hand, Gonzales is likely to be fired, and maybe the Hopkins/Vincent tandem doesn’t work with a lack of skill-position talent. My projection is for 3.31 wins, and the line is 3.5, so I lean Under, but at least there’s some hope on offense. —Adam Burke

Pick: Under 3.5

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Hawaii needed two upset wins just to go 3-10 last season, as the Rainbow Warriors beat Duquesne as an eight-point favorite and weren’t favored in any other game. It was going to be a tough season with some transfers and a first-time head coach that was a program legend, but not exactly proven on the sidelines. Close calls at San Diego State and Colorado State, plus covers against Wyoming, Utah State, and San Jose State may have served as building blocks for 2023.


There were clear growing pains for the offense, but the running game really got going in Mountain West play with 4.8 yards per carry and the passing game had over 200 yards in each of the last five games, including over 300 against Utah State. While 200 passing yards isn’t a big number, especially in a run-and-shoot offense like Hawaii’s, the Rainbow Warriors got more efficient as the season went along. The top three pass-catchers from the previous season had also moved on, so Hawaii had very little returning production there.

Brayden Schager only had 13 TD against 10 INT, and he’ll need to be better than that, but two of the top four receivers return this season, and there is a little more experience at the position. Still, Hawaii should go as the running game goes, as sophomore Tylan Hines averaged 7.6 yards per carry last season while mostly playing behind Dedrick Parson.


Anytime the offense struggles, the defense is going to have a hard time. Hawaii was crushed by graduation and the transfer portal last season with only two returning starters. This group has nine, as defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro was forced to play a lot of redshirt freshmen and sophomores in 2023. The Hawaii defense allowed 6.6 yards per play, so massive improvement is required, but the Rainbow Warriors were 67th in red zone TD% against. They were tied for the sixth-most red zone attempts against, though.

It is worth pointing out that Hawaii gave up over 600 yards to Vanderbilt and just under 600 yards to Michigan, so those two games did skew a lot of their numbers. Only Fresno State really put it on them in Mountain West play. The defense does bring back four of the top five tacklers and would benefit from more takeaways. Hawaii only recovered two fumbles but also only forced four. Going for the ball should be more of an emphasis.


As usual, Hawaii plays 13 games, so remember that when thinking about their win total. The nonconference schedule doesn’t have Michigan, but it does have Oregon, so that’s another road paycheck game. Despite playing in Week 0, Hawaii only has one bye, but it is well-timed to break the season into six games and seven games. I think this year’s team is pretty clearly better than last year’s, and head coach Timmy Chang has actually had more time to recruit and get involved in the portal after being hired in January 2022. My projection is for 4.36 wins, as the conference is weaker and Hawaii is improved. —Adam Burke

Pick: Over 3.5

Wyoming Cowboys

College football is inherently unpredictable, but it sure feels like we can pencil Wyoming in for 6-8 wins every season. Since 2016, the Cowboys have won eight games three times, seven games twice, and six games once, with the exception of a 2-4 COVID year in 2020. This team never has the best talent but almost always has a good defense and a high floor. It is hard to believe that this is already Craig Bohl’s 10th season in Laramie, and it looks like another bowl berth is in the works.


Wyoming doesn’t pull any punches on offense. The Cowboys are going to run the ball, be physical, and play to the elevation. Laramie is upwards of 7,100 feet above sea level, so it makes sense to try and tire out the other team. It doesn’t always make for the sexiest or most exciting profile. The Cowboys have been running the ball at a steady rate since 2018, averaging 4.8 to 5.1 yards per carry. They haven’t eclipsed 200 passing yards per game since 2016, when some guy named Josh Allen was on the roster.

I can’t imagine Andrew Peasley will lead that sort of offense, but Peasley’s job is to keep defenses honest and run around a bit. Overall, the Cowboys only had an 11/12 TD/INT ratio, so it will be about running the rock. Dawaiian McNeely had 5.7 yards per carry last season, and Harrison Waylee transferred in from Northern Illinois with nearly 2,000 yards to his name. As long as both guys stay healthy, Wyoming will have a physical back in McNeely and a quicker back in Waylee as a nice tandem.


Wyoming’s defensive numbers have been solid basically since 2016, allowing 4.7 to 5.4 yards per play with 17.5 to 23.9 points per game. The last two seasons, the Wyoming defense has had more issues, but the top six tacklers are all back, including tackle machine Easton Gibbs, who had 121 stops last season. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel has 10 starters back, including several sophomores, so this was a young defense last year.

The Cowboys did face 900 plays last season, and the offense only ran 783, so a little more balance would help those guys get a breather every now and then. Most of Wyoming’s 37 sacks return, and that was the most for the team in at least 15 years, so that could give the secondary more than just six interceptions. As usual, the defense provides a high floor, and the offense will determine the ceiling.


Wyoming does play Boise State and Air Force on the road, but the rest of the conference schedule isn’t bad at all. We’ll find out a lot about the Cowboys with a Week 1 visit from Texas Tech, which is all kinds of interesting at War Memorial Stadium to open the season. Appalachian State also makes the trek from Boone. While App State is the highest in elevation east of the Mississippi, 7,100 and 3,300 are not the same number. My projection for Wyoming is 6.6 wins, and the market line is 6.5. Imagine that. I’d lean slightly to the Over if forced to pick. —Adam Burke

Pick: Over 6.5

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