Mountain West college football preview: Best bets

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The Favorite: Boise State

 

The Broncos are odds-on favorites (-200) at DraftKings to win the Mountain West, and rightly so. Boise State’s offense is loaded with talent and experience. Two quarterbacks with starting experience return in sophomore Hank Bachmeier and junior Chase Cord. Bachmeier is expected to open the season as the starter, and he has an embarrassment of riches around him. Boise State’s top three rushers from a season ago return, and the top three receivers who totaled 1,667 receiving yards are back. A major weakness could be the offensive line, which brings back just one starter. However, last year’s unit was subpar in pass protection. Bachmeier was sacked 10 times in the first three games, so a new unit probably cannot be much worse. The defense will be led by its linebackers. Kekaula Kaniho was a first-team All-Mountain West selection, and Riley Whimpey made the second team. They will be joined by NC State transfer Brock Miller, making this arguably the best unit in the conference. In all, Boise State has a returning quarterback, a deep stable of skill-position players and one of the best groups of linebackers in the country. One could argue that -200 is somewhat steep given the level of competition behind them, but there should be no argument with making Boise State the favorite to win the conference.

 

Live Dog: Wyoming

 

San Diego State is certainly live to win the conference at 4-1 odds at DraftKings, but the 12-1 price on Wyoming is too high to ignore. The Cowboys are rife with experience, talent and good coaching. Twelve starters return, including sophomore quarterback Sean Chambers, his entire offensive line and top three rushers from 2019. Chambers, a dual-threat quarterback, won six of his eight starts last season and will likely be even better in his sophomore year. The defense has only five starters back, but Craig Bohl has consistently coached up his defenses in Laramie. This season should be no different. The schedule is challenging, but the toughest opponents are forced to go to Laramie this year. Look out for the Cowboys.

 

Dead Money: New Mexico, San Jose State and UNLV

 

The usual suspects make up the bottom of the Mountain West. New Mexico and UNLV will be breaking in new coaching staffs, with Danny Gonzales (Arizona State DC) and Marcus Arroyo (Oregon OC) taking over the programs, respectively. San Jose State could be in the best position of the three bottom-feeders. Brent Brennan is in his fourth year as coach, and he has 13 starters returning. Brennan also landed a big transfer in former Arkansas quarterback Nick Starkel to offset the loss of Josh Love. Regardless, it won’t be enough to compete with the best teams in the conference.

 

Big Games on the Board

 

Boise State vs. BYU, Nov. 6

 

A litmus test for a Boise State team with Mountain West title aspirations. The Cougars look like an unstoppable force, but a Boise State win is not out of the question. The Broncos did go to Tallahassee last season and beat Florida State.

 

Hawaii at San Diego State, Nov. 14

 

The top two projected teams in the West Division will meet in SoCal in mid-November. The Mountain West has not made it clear how it will decide who meets in the conference title game, but if the division format is still used, this is a massive contest.

 

Boise State at Wyoming, Dec. 12

 

The favorite against the live dog! Boise State goes to Laramie for the final game of the regular season, and all sorts of title-game implications could be on the line. If the division winners are the championship-game representatives, this could be an eliminator. 

Air Force

 

The Falcons got a jump on the rest of the conference by starting their season with a rousing 40-7 victory over Navy on Oct. 3 in Colorado Springs. It was a quintessential Air Force performance, with lead back Timothy Jackson racking up 118 yards on the ground, part of a 369-yard effort for the Falcons. Bettors can always expect Air Force to be in the thick of the Mountain West race as long as Troy Calhoun is calling the shots. Calhoun has led the Falcons to 39 wins and two double-digit-win campaigns over the last five seasons. Air Force returns only nine starters but has depth in key spots. Three of the top four rushers from 2019 return, as does all-conference offensive lineman Nolan Laufenberg and six defenders with starting experience in their front seven. Much will fall at the feet of quarterback Haaziq Daniels, who started against Navy and looks to be the guy. Air Force (15-9-1 ATS last two years) will be a threat to win or cover almost every game.

 

Boise State

 

Bryan Harsin and Boise State have become regulars in the conference championship game, and it looks very likely they will continue that run. The defending Mountain West champs can win their third title in four seasons and make their fourth straight title-game appearance. Hank Bachmeier showed a lot of promise last season as a true freshman starting quarterback. In his first start in Tallahassee against Florida State, he led the Broncos to a 36-31 victory. It was the start to a season in which he threw for 1,879 yards and nine touchdowns. Bachmeier and the offense should be the best unit in the Mountain West, with a fully stocked backfield and some experience at wide receiver. But a conference title is not a given for the Broncos. Their defense may have a fantastic set of linebackers, but limited experience along the defensive line could bite them.

 

Colorado State

 

Colorado State is one of six Mountain West programs with new coaches. Steve Addazio comes in after being fired by Boston College, and he inherits a roster with 15 returning starters. His regime got off on the wrong foot when a report alleged Addazio’s program was willingly violating coronavirus protocol, and abusive and racist behavior was alleged. Regardless, on paper the Rams have a formidable team. Inexperienced senior Patrick O’Brien is expected to start at quarterback, but he gets plenty of toys to play with. The top seven receivers are back, including first-team all-conference targets in wide receiver Warren Jackson and tight end Trey McBride. Colorado State’s defense has eight starters back — and great depth to go with them. The front seven brings back five starters, including middle linebacker Dequan Jackson. The schedule presents some challenges with Wyoming, Boise State and San Diego State on it, the latter two on the road. However, the Rams get New Mexico and UNLV, and this team should be a tough out for every team it faces.

 

Fresno State

 

For the second straight year, the Bulldogs will have to replace their starting quarterback, and they will do it with a new coach. Jeff Tedford stepped down to focus on his health, so in comes Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who held that role with Fresno State in 2017-18. The quarterback battle between junior Jake Haener and sophomore Ben Wooldridge has yet to be settled. Whoever wins the job will line up with senior running back Ronnie Rivers (899 yards, 5.1 ypc). The left side of the offensive line is gone, but eight guys with starting experience are back, so the running game should be something to lean on. The defense should be above average in this league, and paired with a manageable schedule, DeBoer’s first season could be successful. The Bulldogs draw San Diego State at home and Nevada on the road but avoid Wyoming and Boise State. If the quarterback play is average, a successful season is likely.

 

Hawaii

 

Another intriguing team loaded with offensive talent, the first year of the Todd Graham era has the potential to be a surprising success. Six starters are back on offense, and the key position of quarterback is in good hands. Sophomore Chevan Cordeiro appeared in 12 games last season, throwing for 907 yards and eight touchdowns. Miles Reed ran for just over 900 yards last season, made third-team all-conference and leads a talented stable of running backs. The biggest hole is at wide receiver, where Hawaii lost four of five and three 1,000-yard receivers. The defensive line has some quality, and it returns two starters. However, the linebacking corps could be the defense’s best unit. Six guys have starting experience, and while Hawaii is breaking in a new system, this should be its backbone. The Rainbow Warriors will have to navigate a perilous schedule to get to the conference title game. They must take trips to Wyoming and San Diego State while hosting Boise State and Nevada. Even ending the season with rival UNLV is no easy task.

 

Nevada

 

If the Mountain West title game has a surprise entrant, it could very well be Nevada. Jay Norvell could have the best offense in the conference with 10 starters back on that side of the ball. After throwing for over 2,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, Carson Strong will line up behind an offensive line that returns intact. The Wolf Pack are loaded at the skill positions as well. Toa Taua and Devonte Lee combined for 1,109 yards on the ground, and with an offense of this caliber, they should be able to improve their production. On the other side of the ball, seven starters return, giving Nevada 17 total starters back. The entire defensive line is back, and the team suffers only one loss in the secondary. With this much returning experience and a coach in his fourth season, the Wolf Pack are primed to be a pest in the Mountain West. They host Wyoming and San Diego State, but the rest of their schedule is perfectly manageable, giving them a potential path to a conference title.

 

New Mexico

 

After eight wretched seasons under Bob Davie that resulted in just 35 victories, the Lobos cleaned house and hired Arizona State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. The former Lobo inherits a program that was at its worst, but with eight returning starters on offense, New Mexico could quickly put the Davie era in the past. Tevaka Tuioti started seven games at QB last season and has won the starting job. Bryson Carroll ran for 536 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2019, and former UCLA commit Nathaniel Jones fills out a talented stable of runners lining up with Tuioti. The defense could have quite a few growing pains as Gonzales tries to essentially rebuild the entire unit. The linebacking corps has just one starter back and seven freshmen on the roster. The defensive line is littered with walk-ons who will play significant roles. New Mexico has eight of 10 coming back in the defensive backfield, so that will be the clear strength of the defense. The Lobos could surprise some opponents offensively, but with Hawaii, Nevada and Wyoming on the schedule, the record might not reflect progress.

 

San Diego State

 

Brady Hoke starts his second tenure at San Diego State with a team loaded with defensive talent. The Aztecs bring back eight starters on defense and have arguably the best defensive line in the conference. Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks are all-conference players in a position group that loses just one player from last season. The biggest loss is Kyahva Tezino, last year’s defensive player of the year. San Diego State will need this defense to be everything it looks like it could be because the offense looks like it could be pretty poor. Sophomore Carson Baker was named the starting quarterback for the season opener against UNLV. Baker appeared in one game last season, a 13-3 home victory over BYU. He will lead an offense with six returning starters, including running back Jordan Byrd (355 yards, 4.6 ypc). Three starters return along the offensive line, giving the Aztecs a steady core on offense but with a seemingly low ceiling. Their chances at a conference title are buoyed by a schedule that is devoid of real challenges. San Diego State avoids Boise State and Wyoming but will have to go to Reno to meet Nevada. The Aztecs should be able to post a winning record, but competing for a conference championship will depend on their defense.

 

San Jose State

 

The league is seemingly deeper than years past, and San Jose State is an example. The Spartans are 100-1 long shots to win the league, but they are in their fourth year under Brent Brennan, bring in a Power 5 transfer quarterback and have 13 starters back. Nick Starkel is the big-time transfer from Arkansas, and he replaces Josh Love, who leaves as the program’s third-all-time leading passer. This offensive line should be a big positive. Its three returning starters include left tackle Jack Snyder, who played all 12 games at the position last year. Four starters among the front seven are back, and quality depth at linebacker and defensive line is abundant. San Jose State’s hopes seemingly rest on Starkel and what he can do with the talent around him. Trips to Boise State and San Diego State are on the schedule, as are home games against Air Force and Nevada. There are winnable games against New Mexico and UNLV. Will the Spartans be able to take advantage and get to .500?

 

UNLV

 

After five years and just 20 victories, UNLV moved on from Tony Sanchez and put the program in the hands of former Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo. There is plenty to like about the direction of the Rebels’ program, but most of it is off the field in the form of a new stadium and football facility. The few things to like on the field reside on the offensive side, where eight starters return. Arroyo will inherit a deep backfield, led by senior Charles Williams, who ran for 1,257 yards while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. The running game figures to be UNLV’s biggest strength, and an offensive line with three returning starters along with USC transfer Clayton Bradley should be more than capable of paving the way for Williams and company. The only question is at quarterback. Kenyon Oblad started eight games a season ago and threw 18 touchdown passes. He will compete with TCU transfer Justin Rogers, senior Max Gilliam and freshman Doug Brumfield. The Rebels will still have massive weaknesses, regardless of who wins the starting QB gig. In every season under Sanchez, the defense allowed at least 430 yards per game. With only four starters back on that side of the ball, that trend will likely continue, as will the trend of losing seasons.

 

Utah State

 

Utah State hopes the second year of Gary Andersen’s second stint will go better than the first. Yes, he won seven games in 2019, but he took one of the nation’s best offenses and cut its scoring average from 47.5 points per game to 29.2. Jordan Love is now the heir-apparent to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, so Andersen needs to find a quarterback. Also gone are their all-conference receivers from last season, Siaosi Mariner and Caleb Repp. It’s not all bad news, though, as the Aggies have a wealth of talent at running back and on the offensive line. Jaylen Warren, their projected starting running back, ran for over 500 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. Andersen had to start eight different combinations on the offensive line last year, and all those players are back. It is pretty clear the Aggies should have a steady ground game. Only five guys are back on defense, though, and this schedule is no joke. Utah State has road games against Boise State, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado State to go with home dates against San Diego State and Air Force. 

 

Wyoming

 

There is no question Craig Bohl is near the top of the list of Mountain West coaches. Entering his seventh season at Wyoming, the Cowboys have not had a losing record since his second season with the program (30-22 SU, 29-22-1 ATS). This season he could have one of the best offenses he’s ever had. Sean Chambers returns to lead an offense with six more returning starters. Leading rusher Xazavian Valladay (1,265 YDS, 5.1 ypa, 6 TDs), his top two backups and an offensive line intact from last season are back as well. The Cowboys managed just 25.4 points and 351 yards per game last season but should be able to average at least 30 points with this core. The defense will be the biggest worry, as only five starters return, but it is not the worst situation. The Cowboys’ best two linebackers from 2019 are in the NFL now, but they do have a pair of starters back in the secondary and plenty of depth along the defensive line. Bohl knows how to get the most out of his teams, so do not be surprised if Wyoming finds its way to the Mountain West title game for the second time in five seasons.

 

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