Mountain West preview: Burning questions in Mountain division
Wyoming finished with its worst SP+ ranking since 2015, San Diego State had its worst since 2013. At 59th, Boise State had its worst ranking since 1998. At 126th and 128th, Colorado State and Hawaii had their worst since 1981 and 1976, respectively. Nevada hadn’t ranked worse than 125th since 1933. New Mexico had never ranked as low as 130th. Only two Mountain West teams saw their rankings improve in 2022 (San Jose State and UNLV … which fired its coach?), and five teams fell by at least 30 spots. (Nevada fell by 74.)
It wasn’t a great year for the Group of Five conference out west, in other words. In its 18-year existence, the MWC had never finished with an average SP+ ranking worse than 87.7, and it was 97.7 in 2022. The conference had four new head coaches (all of whom oversaw regression) and the worst returning production averages in the country by far, and while its two division champions (Fresno State and Boise State) both flashed upside, they also both battled quarterback injuries and overall inconsistency.
A rebound isn’t guaranteed in 2023, but there are reasons for hope. In the Mountain Division, Boise State has its QB situation figured out and boasts one of the conference’s higher returning production averages. Wyoming went from near the bottom of the returning production list to near the top. Air Force returns the bones of an outstanding defense, the injury bug has almost no choice but to be kinder to Utah State, and both Colorado State and New Mexico have enough potential at quarterback to make them candidates for overachieving projections.
Last year was a nadir. Let’s talk about what we might see this fall.
The MWC ditched divisions and will send its top two finishers to the conference championship game this fall, but for the sake of this two-part preview we’ll break them into division-shaped batches. Let’s preview the MWC Mountain!
Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 133 FBS teams. The previews will include 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for each team.
Earlier previews: Conference USA, part 1 | Conference USA, part 2 | MAC East | MAC West
Boise State had the good sense to time its funk for before conference play. That made the difference in an uneventful Mountain race. After a dire 27-10 loss to UTEP in Week 4, second-year head coach Andy Avalos fired offensive coordinator Tim Plough and replaced him with former BSU head coach and NFL offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier entered the transfer portal, so Koetter called plays for freshman Taylen Green instead.
It worked. BSU went 8-0 in MWC play, winning the division by three games over Air Force (which had suffered its own funk at the beginning of conference play), Wyoming (whose offense faltered terribly late in the year) and Utah State (who went 4-0 in one-score games to eke out bowl eligibility). Colorado State and New Mexico, meanwhile, went a combined 5-19 overall, 3-13 in conference.
|TEAM||SP+ RK||OFF.||DEF.||AVG. W||CONF. W|
|Boise State||-1.2 (68)||25.2 (71)||26.5 (63)||7.5||5.8|
|Air Force||-5.7 (77)||15.9 (118)||21.5 (31)||8.3||5.4|
|Wyoming||-13.0 (101)||14.7 (123)||27.7 (68)||5.5||4.1|
|Colorado State||-18.8 (119)||10.7 (129)||29.5 (77)||4.5||2.9|
|Utah State||-18.4 (118)||15.5 (119)||33.9 (101)||4.3||2.8|
|New Mexico||-25.9 (132)||8.4 (132)||34.3 (103)||3.6||2.0|
Former BSU quarterback and Missouri assistant Bush Hamdan takes over as offensive coordinator in Boise, but Green returns, as do eight other offensive starters. The Broncos’ defense is dealing with turnover, but with Air Force starting over offensively and everyone else playing catch-up, the Broncos start out as a clear favorite. That makes sense considering, well, they’ve won five of the last six Mountain crowns. If there’s a monkey wrench in their plan to make it six of seven, however, it might be the Air Force defense.
Which of last year’s three Boise States takes the field in 2023? For some teams, SP+ draws a pretty good bead on you from the start. For others, it’s chasing a moving target all year. Boise State fit into the latter category.
Boise State vs. SP+ projections in 2022
First four games: underachieved by 14.4 PPG (-8.3 on offense, -6.1 on defense)
Next four games: overachieved by 13.5 PPG (+9.0 on offense, +4.5 on defense)
Last six games: underachieved by 3.7 PPG (-0.1 on offense, -3.6 on defense)
The Broncos were projected 35th to start the season, but they got trounced at both Oregon State and UTEP and fell as low as 81st. The post-UTEP offensive changes took hold nicely, however, and they beat four MWC opponents, including Fresno State and San Diego State, by an average of 36-14 to climb back toward the top 50. But down the stretch, the offense played to projections while the defense slipped.
I figure we can assume good things from the offense. The experience levels are massive, and for a freshman who wasn’t even supposed to play, Green really was outstanding. He rushed for more than 100 yards three times and threw for more than 200 yards six times, and BSU averaged 32.5 points per game when he started and 22 when he didn’t. The combination of Green and 1,100-yard rusher George Holani gives the Broncos the best backfield in the MWC, and Green will have sure-handed slot man Latrell Caples and a seasoned receiving corps at his disposal too. The line must replace three regulars, including John Ojukwu, the latest of many awesome BSU left tackles, but it returns four players with solid starting experience. Right tackle Cade Beresford is particularly strong.
It’s hard to know what to make of the defense, though. The Broncos finished a lofty 28th in defensive SP+ because of early-season prowess and dominance of bad offenses, but they suffered increasing glitches late, then lost nine of the 18 players who saw 250-plus snaps, including four of the top five in an aggressive secondary.
Avalos is an outstanding defensive coach — it’s been a while since he was associated with a bad defense — and seems to work well with coordinator Spencer Danielson. They still have play-makers in linebacker DJ Schramm and edge rusher Demitri Washington, and sophomore linebacker Andrew Simpson could become a star soon. But depth could be an issue in both the front and back unless some transfers (three on the line, one four-year plus two JUCOs in the secondary) click. If BSU still fields a top-40 defense, the Broncos will be far and away the division favorite. But attrition can catch up to you at times.
Can Air Force keep this run of incredible defense going? At a school that can’t redshirt players (and, in recent times, hasn’t been able to take advantage of the NCAA giving everyone an extra year of eligibility), Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has been a bit limited by experience — sometimes his team has it, and sometimes it doesn’t. From 2012 to 2019, Calhoun’s Falcons suffered four losing seasons and won double-digit games three times, depending in part on the level of turnover they had suffered the year before. But starting in 2019, the program began taking on a different, almost reliable look.
Air Force’s average SP+ rankings
Calhoun’s first 12 years (2007-18): 67.9 overall, 60.7 offense, 68.8 defense
Calhoun’s last four years (2019-22): 47.8 overall, 90.3 offense, 16.8 defense
The Falcons have won at least 10 games in each of their last three full seasons, and their defense has been just about the best in the Group of Five. They benefit from the way their offense slows games down — it doesn’t score as many points as it used to, but it exposed the defense to the fewest number of plays and drives per game last season. But when the defense is on the field, it dominates. The Falcons were ninth in rushing success rate allowed in 2022 despite size disadvantages up front, they rushed the passer well when opponents were behind schedule, and they played brilliant red zone defense, allowing just a 43% red zone touchdown rate (fourth in FBS).
After years of winning games by frustrating the opposing defense with its option attack, Air Force now wins games by frustrating foes’ offense even more. And its defensive dominance continued after losing coordinator John Rudzinski to Virginia last season. Veteran Brian Knorr, a former Air Force quarterback, took the reins and kept the momentum going — and with a pretty young unit, to boot. Of the 13 defenders with 250-plus snaps, nine return, including 260-pound play-making tackles Peyton Zdroik and Jayden Thiergood up front and most of the secondary.
The Falcons should have another outstanding defense in 2023, but the offense has indeed slid backward a bit in recent years and now faces an overhaul. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels and 1,700-yard rusher Brad Roberts carried the ball a combined 471 times (not including sacks) last season, and both are gone. So are three of the next four leading rushers and both of the players who caught more than three passes in this run-heavy attack. The line could be a saving grace — it returns all but one regular, including three all-conference contenders in tackles Everett Smalley and Kaleb Holcomb and guard Wesley Ndago. But fullback John Lee Eldridge III will be the only familiar face touching the ball in 2023, and this was already an offense that has seen diminishing returns in recent years. The defense can carry a ton of the burden, but it has to get at least some help.
Can Wyoming field a merely decent offense at some point? Aside from geography and elevation, Wyoming and Air Force don’t have a lot in common — different recruiting aims, different budgets, different just about everything. But they have been similarly lopsided in recent years. Since 2017, Craig Bohl’s Wyoming program has gone .500 or better in every (full) season because of a brilliant defense that has averaged a 33.3 ranking in defensive SP+. Bohl has beautifully rebuilt the defensive culture he established at North Dakota State, and the Cowboys have benefited from it.
They have yet to win more than eight games in a season, however, because in that same span the offense has averaged a grotesque SP+ ranking of 115.7. As with Air Force, they chew up clock with a slow tempo, and they run the ball effectively at times: The trio of Titus Swen, Dawaiian McNeely and D.Q. James averaged 24 carries per game and 5.6 yards per carry last year. But when the Cowboys fell behind schedule, the drive ended. They were 118th in passing downs success rate. Quarterback Andrew Peasley completed just 52% of his passes with a 10-to-9 TD-to-INT ratio and a No. 112 Total QBR ranking.
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The defense slid a bit in 2022, in part because of inexperience. That could go from liability to asset this fall: Of the 16 players who saw at least 250 snaps, 13 return, and 10 were either freshmen or sophomores last fall. Nine players made at least four tackles for loss, and eight are back. The Cowboys still ranked a solid 66th in defensive SP+ and defended the pass beautifully. The line was particularly young, however, and the run defense struggled; they ranked 94th in rushing success rate allowed and, shockingly for a Bohl defense, 125th in tackle success rate.
If inexperience was the main issue (and it probably was), the front seven should rebound, and this could easily be another high-level defense. The question, then, is whether anything will ever change on offense. Peasley returns, as do McNeely and James, and Northern Illinois transfer Harrison Waylee should take Swen’s place pretty well. The offensive line is huge: Five returning regulars average 6-foot-5, 312 pounds. Bohl clearly desires conservatism and physicality over everything else on offense, and that’s fine. But you still have to be able to throw the ball occasionally, and Wyoming wasn’t even good at that when Josh Allen was behind center.
This is a 10-win defense paired with a three-win offense. Annual bowl eligibility is a pretty incredible thing in this job, but Bohl’s success has also revealed his program’s limitations. It’s not too late for Wyoming to evolve — or for Bohl to maybe climb aboard the fourth downs bandwagon (Wyoming went for it on only 6% of fourth downs last season, lowest in FBS) — but it’s hard to believe that might happen.
What does a stable Utah State look like? The only predictable thing about a recent Utah State football season has been that it’s probably going to be completely different than the one the year before.
2017: 6-7 record, 81st in SP+
2018: 11-2 record, 16th in SP+
2019: 7-6 record, 73rd in SP+
2020: 1-5 record, 121st in SP+
2021: 11-3 record, 62nd in SP+
2022: 6-7 record, 114th in SP+
That’s five straight years with at least a five-game change in the win total and at least a 48-spot shift in the SP+ rankings. The Aggies have averaged seven wins per year in this span, with a ranking in the 70s, but they’ve only won seven games or finished in the 70s once.
The good news, as it were, is that USU can’t sink another 48 spots in SP+ this year — I guess that means the Aggies will rise again despite poor SP+ projections.
In 2021, Blake Anderson led the Aggies to a Mountain West title in his first season in charge. They were one of the most fortunate teams in the country — they were only 62nd in SP+, and the combination of close wins (4-0 in one-score games) and blowout losses made them a major 2022 regression candidate even though they looked really good late that season.
Sure enough, they got worse. And then injuries took a major toll. Only three defenders started all 13 games, and the offense, stable by comparison, still lost quarterback Logan Bonner early in the season and had to start redshirting freshman Bishop Davenport for one game as well. That the Aggies only fell from 55th to 78th in offensive SP+ was encouraging, though they’ll be attempting a rebound with four new offensive line starters and without 1,100-yard rusher Calvin Tyler Jr. or 900-yard receiver Brian Cobbs. Leading passer Cooper Legas and Davenport both return, but the rest of the offense is fighting massive turnover.
The defense should benefit from a kinder injury bug and boasts some solid veteran play-makers in linebackers AJ Vongphachanh and MJ Tafisi, tackle Hale Motu’apuaka and corner Michael Anyanwu. But three of last year’s top four linemen are gone, as are three of the top five defensive backs. That Anderson signed five JUCO DLs and four JUCO DBs tells you he was pretty concerned about those units. And he probably should have been: Even with injuries, the fact that they fell from 55th to 123rd in defensive SP+ was alarming. Anderson brought in veteran coordinator Joe Cauthen to help stem the tide. If he wants another huge surge forward, these changes need to take root quickly.
Who digs out of this rut first, Colorado State or New Mexico? It just feels like Colorado State should be good at football. The Rams took a massive step forward during the Sonny Lubick era in the 1990s and 2000s (they were ranked for part of every season from 1997 to 2003 and bowled 15 times between 1994 and 2017), their new stadium (Canvas Stadium) is gorgeous, they’ve been vaguely associated with Big 12 and Pac-12 expansion rumors through the years, and we’ve watched them beat power-conference rival Colorado early in the season plenty of times — seven times from 1999 to 2014, in fact.
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Anything positive you can say about the Rams program, however, has an expiration date attached. CSU has been downright bad for half a decade now. Since 2018, it has gone 14-36 with an average SP+ ranking of 110.8. That’s better than border rival New Mexico (12-43 with an average ranking of 118.2), but not by much. That beautiful new stadium in Fort Collins? The Rams are 12-21 in it. That includes a 2-3 record against FCS teams, the last two of which have beaten them by a combined 83-33. At least New Mexico has the excuse of a lower budget and a state with far fewer FBS recruits!
Last year, Colorado State replaced Steve Addazio (4-12 in two seasons) with Nevada’s Jay Norvell. He loaded up on transfers — including many from Nevada — in an attempt to hit the ground running. Instead, CSU’s offense disintegrated, and the Rams began the season with four losses by an average of 41-11. The defense was mostly solid in conference play, and CSU somehow managed to go 3-5 in the MWC despite never scoring more than 17 points.
With the defense returning eight starters, the Rams could be set up to solidify last year’s gains. Sophomore quarterback Clay Millen returns as well after completing 72% of his passes last season. Unfortunately, if he wasn’t completing a deep ball to Tory Horton, the offense was accomplishing absolutely nothing.
Horton needs more skill corps support, and Millen has to hope that a completely turned-over offensive line — seven of last year’s top nine are gone, replaced by three small-school transfers and three JUCOs — somehow solidifies. It doesn’t usually work that way, but at least last year’s line was really bad, so the bar isn’t very high.
The only FBS offense that graded out worse than CSU’s? New Mexico’s. The Lobos have ranked dead last in offensive SP+ for two straight years; fourth-year head coach Danny Gonzales inherited a pretty dire situation from Bob Davie in 2020, but his only upgrades have come on defense where his former mentor, Rocky Long, coordinated a solid unit for each of the last two seasons. Long is off to Syracuse, however, and of the 15 defenders who saw at least 250 snaps in 2022, only five return. New coordinator Troy Reffett has his work cut out for him.
If Gonzales is to create fourth-year improvement, a completely remodeled offense will have to improve significantly. The offensive coaching staff, now led by coordinator Bryant Vincent (formerly of UAB), is almost completely new, and if there’s hope it comes from the fact that Vincent brought former UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins with him. Hopkins isn’t amazing, but he has ranked 55th and 70th in Total QBR over the last two seasons; UNM hasn’t had a quarterback rank higher than 118th in the Gonzales era. The offensive line is loaded with experience, if nothing else, and the skill corps could get a boost from an influx of transfers.
Neither Colorado State nor New Mexico have ranked higher than 84th in offensive SP+ since 2017. Both teams have intriguing quarterbacks, but both also have depth charts that took huge hits in key areas. The potential for defensive collapse is high enough at UNM that I guess I trust CSU to perform better this season. But “better” is relative.
My 10 favorite players
Running back Nathaniel Jones made the best of a tough situation at New Mexico. AP Photo/John Locher
QB Taylen Green, Boise State. With the right play-calling and decent injuries luck, Green has 3,000/1,000 (passing and rushing yards) potential. He’ll have a wonderfully experienced skill corps around him this fall too.
RB Nathaniel Jones, New Mexico. Considering the degree of difficulty (that’s a polite way of saying he got little help), the fact that Jones gained 10-plus yards on 14% of his carries and averaged 2.7 yards per carry after contact suggests he could do big things with a better supporting cast.
WR Tory Horton, Colorado State. Like Jones, Horton produced intriguing numbers with minimal help. He posted five games with more than 125 receiving yards and averaged 15.9 yards per catch even though opponents knew he was the only guy they needed to stop.
RT Everett Smalley, Air Force. Even in college, you can find plenty of mammoth offensive tackles, 6-foot-6 or taller and 315 pounds or heavier. The best tackle in the MWC, however, might be Smalley. At 6-foot-3, 260. He’s the best run-blocking tackle, anyway.
C Nofoafia Tulafono, Wyoming. The 325-pound junior from Victorville, California, earned second-team all-conference honors from PFF last season after producing a blown block rate of just 0.7%. He allowed zero pass pressures.
DE Mohamed Kamara, Colorado State. The CSU defense had to be perfect for the Rams to win games last year, and while Kamara was good all season (17 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, 12 run stops), he was even better in their victories. As valuable a defender as you’ll find.
DE Braden Siders, Wyoming. As a redshirt freshman on a line desperate for new playmakers, Siders stepped up, compiling 13 TFLs, 7 sacks and 11 run stops. He even looked good dropping into coverage. Just imagine what he might do with experience!
DT Hale Motu’apuaka, Utah State. In two years as a major player in Logan, Motu’apuaka has improved as the season has progressed – 9.5 of his 16 TFLs have come after Nov. 1. Is this the year he hits the ground running?
LB Bo Richter, Air Force. With last year’s top two OLBs gone, more will be asked of the senior from Naperville, Illinois. Considering he had 7.5 TFLs in just 326 snaps last year, a starter’s load might result in massive production.
S Rodney Robinson, Boise State. One of the smallest safeties you’ll see (5-foot-8, 185 pounds) is also one of the best. He picked off three passes, made a pair of run stops and lined up everywhere from cornerback to inside linebacker.
In 1958, 65 years ago, Air Force finished sixth in the polls … in its second season. In 1955, the Air Force fielded its first official football team, one that lost to the Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma freshman teams by a combined 113-12. Three years later, the Falcons beat the Colorado varsity team, 20-14. In just their second year at the major college level, they went an incredible 9-0-2, beating a pair of Big 8 teams (CU and Oklahoma State), tying both No. 8 Iowa early in the season and No. 10 TCU in the Cotton Bowl and finishing sixth in the AP poll. It was Ben Martin’s first season in charge, and he would lead the team to another major bowl appearance and ranked finish in 1970.
In 1993, 30 years ago, Colorado State hired Sonny Lubick. I can say whatever I want about Colorado State’s potential, but the Rams had shown very little of it before Lubick’s arrival.
Lubick’s career had already been ridiculously unique — he spent most of the 1960s at the high school level in Montana and, in the 1980s, had served as both an offensive coordinator (at Colorado State) and national title-winning defensive coordinator (at Miami) — and he completely transformed the CSU program. The Rams had bowled just twice ever, but he had them in the Holiday Bowl by his second season, and his tenure finished with nine bowl appearances, six conference titles, three ranked finishes and, eventually, his name on Colorado State’s Sonny Lubick Field.
In 1998, 25 years ago, New Mexico replaced Dennis Franchione with Rocky Long. Franchione had been the school’s best hire in decades, eventually lifting the Lobos to a nine-win season and their first bowl appearance in 36 years in 1997. He left for TCU, but Long, UCLA’s irascible and innovative defensive coordinator, took the program even further. After a short adjustment period, Long’s Lobos went to five bowls in six years (2002-07) as he perfected his 3-3-5 defense, beating Texas Tech, Missouri, Baylor and Arizona (and shutting out Colin Kaepernick and Nevada) in the process. He left after a 4-8 stumble in 2008, and UNM has bowled only twice in the 14 years since.
In 2008, 15 years ago, Kellen Moore took over behind center for Boise State. The Boise State story was already one for the history books before Moore arrived from the small town of Prosser, Washington. After rising from the FCS ranks in the 1990s, the Broncos had already enjoyed three straight ranked seasons from 2002 to ’04, and they had already pulled off the great unbeaten season of 2006, complete with a win in one of the best bowls of all time.
The Moore era was the golden era, however. From 2008 to ’11, he threw for 14,667 yards with a 70% completion rate and 142 touchdowns, and the Broncos beat Oregon (twice), Georgia, TCU, Virginia Tech, Oregon State and Arizona State on their way to a combined 50-3 record with poll finishes of 11th, fourth, ninth and eighth. If a 12-team CFP would have been in existence in these years, the Broncos would have been a genuine title threat. They were incredible. So was Moore.
In 2013, 10 years ago, Utah State began Mountain West life in fine form. It’s important to play good football. It’s even more important to play well at the right time. After a lengthy run of poor form — the Aggies averaged just 3.2 wins per season from 1998 to 2008 while bouncing among the Big West, Sun Belt and WAC – Utah State began to improve rapidly under Gary Andersen. In 2011, they enjoyed their best season in 18 years (a 7-6 campaign) … just in time to jump to the MWC with San Jose State as the WAC fell apart. Other WAC programs weren’t so lucky: New Mexico State and Idaho, which had just gone a combined 6-19 in 2011 (and would go 2-22 in 2012), ended up without a conference, and Idaho ended up dropping to FCS.
Utah State kept playing well too. The Aggies went 11-2 and finished 16th in the AP poll in 2012, then went a combined 19-9 with a MWC championship game appearance under Matt Wells (Andersen had left for Wisconsin) in their first two seasons in their new conference. Despite 2022’s stumble, they’ve enjoyed three ranked finishes and 10 bowls in their last 12 seasons after recording just one of the former and four of the latter in their entire pre-2011 history.
In 2018, five years ago, Wyoming gave Josh Allen to the NFL. It’s worked out pretty well for everyone involved.
What’s your favorite @JoshAllenQB play from 2021? pic.twitter.com/vPKPUbAJYU
— NFL (@NFL) February 23, 2022