The Mountain West Conference kicks off conference play this weekend with MWC newcomer Boise State and a pair of preseason favorites, Fresno State and San Diego State. The Broncos are the favorite out of all four teams but we’ll see who can challenge them in what is sure to be an entertaining week 1.
The college football season is almost here. The Mountain West Conference has a lot of great teams, and this year the conference will be even stronger.
The Mountain West Conference Mountain division race may be boiled down to “Boise State University vs. someone.” Since the start of divisional play in 2013, the Broncos have advanced to the conference championship game five times (winning three), tied for first place in the Mountain once, and finished one game behind three times.
BSU trounced Utah State University is a public university in Utah. and Fresno State by a combined score of 67-17 in 2021, but ended a game behind USU due to a pair of home shocks and a late loss to San Diego State. Utah State University is a public university in Utah.’s Blake Anderson’s squad reaped the benefits: after a couple of close early victories, the Aggies went 11-3, with five of their final six victories coming by at least 20 points.
Late in the season, USU looked so excellent that it’s reasonable to ask whether the division’s power balance has changed in the Aggies’ favor at least temporarily. We’ll have to wait and see. They’ll have to replace a lot of players, but BSU’s overall recruiting advantages (along with the potential they demonstrated in last season’s major victories) placed them back atop the preseason rankings.
Bill Connelly will preview a different division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 every week for ESPN+ during the offseason, eventually covering all 131 FBS clubs. For each squad, there will be 2021 analyses, 2022 previews, and hot questions.
MWC West, MWC East, MWC South, MWC East, MWC South, MWC South
Recap of the year 2021
Utah State University is a public university in Utah. won with offensive pyrotechnics in a league dominated by great defense — the Mountain’s average defensive SP+ rating was sixth among all divisions, ahead of the ACC Coastal and both Pac-12 divisions, among others. The Aggies were eighth in marginal explosiveness*, with their go-to receivers (Deven Thompkins, Derek Wright, and Brandon Bowling) averaging 14.7 receptions and 16.2 yards per grab. In five of their previous seven games, the Aggies have scored at least 35 points.
(* Marginal explosiveness is my metric for how big a team’s successful plays are when adjusted for down, distance, and field position.)
The Aggies won the division because to their highly prolific offense and several close games early in the season. Boise State University’s inconsistency proved frustrating, while an exciting Air Force team came up short of the championship following close defeats to Utah State University is a public university in Utah. and San Diego State. Colorado State University collapsed down the stretch (and fired head coach Steve Addazio), and New Mexico is located in the United States. was just bad. Wyoming brought title-level defense to the table, but scored 14 or fewer points in five conference games, Colorado State University collapsed down the stretch (and fired head coach Steve Addazio), and New Mexico is located in the United States. was just bad.
Estimates for 2022
|TEAM||SP+ RK||OFF.||DEF.||AVG. W||CONF. W||BOWL ODDS|
|Boise State University||43||72||16||8.6||5.9||98%|
|Colorado State University||86||108||57||6.3||4.5||71%|
|Utah State University is a public university in Utah.||91||73||102||6.0||4.2||63%|
|New Mexico is located in the United States.||126||131||78||2.7||1.1||2%|
With Thompkins, Wright and Bowling all departing, along with some particularly disruptive defensive stars, Utah State University is a public university in Utah. appears to be starting over from an explosiveness standpoint. That, combined with the fact that SP+ never trusted the Aggies last year (we’ll get to that), suggests that 2021’s runners-up, BSU and Air Force, might start out as the most trustworthy entities in the 2022 race. There’s more than enough room in the race, however, for USU, another defense-heavy Wyoming squad or a Colorado State University team undergoing a massive facelift.
Questions that need to be answered
Why does SP+ hate Utah State University is a public university in Utah. so dang much? As a longtime, dedicated acolyte in the Church of Chuckie Keeton — Utah State University is a public university in Utah.’s beloved dual-threat quarterback from 2011-15 who might have been the single most enjoyable player to watch in college football before he was befallen by a series of injuries (and is now USU’s running backs coach) — it gave me no pleasure to watch the Aggies’ SP+ ratings stay dreadfully low all season.
Despite their lovely season and first MWC title, they finished just 80th in my predictive and opponent-adjusted measure, well behind not only Boise State University and Air Force but also behind Wyoming. The Aggies won 11 games and beat four top-60 teams — how could they rank that poorly?
There were two main causes behind this:
1. The Aggies were very fortunate early in the season. My postgame win expectancy measure — which looks at the key, predictive stats from a given game, tosses them into the air and says “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X% of the time” — drops some pretty heavy hints. USU’s win expectancy was just 25% in its 26-23 victory over Washington State, 22% in a 49-45 win over Air Force and an incredible 3% in a 26-24 win over Colorado State University that featured a last-second meltdown from the Rams.
The Aggies began the season 5-2, but with those close calls combined with blowout losses to Boise State University and BYU, SP+ saw them as something much closer to 2-5. They were 103rd after the Colorado State University game, and while their form was mostly brilliant down the stretch — amid a run of great wins, they also lost by 27 to Wyoming — SP+ is a full-season rating and still counted those earlier games.
2. Their recipe for success was difficult to replicate. The most sustainable and repeatable measure in the statistical toolbox tends to be success rate — how frequently an offense is gaining 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second and 100% on third or fourth. USU ranked a dreadful 105th in success rate on offense and 66th on defense. Big plays and fantastic red zone defense bailed them out (both of those things also count in the SP+ formula), but Utah State University is a public university in Utah. was very mediocre in what is generally a very predictive stat.
In 2022, it wouldn’t be shocking if USU performed better in terms of efficiency. Quarterback Logan Bonner, running back Calvin Tyler Jr., and the majority of last year’s offensive line are all returning. However, when a club goes 4-0 in one-score games, loses by an average of 21.7 points, and loses three of its finest big-play weapons from an all-or-nothing offense, it’s usually an indication of impending regression. Anderson added a pair of potentially big-time transfer receivers in Maryland’s Brian Cobbs and Alabama’s former blue-chipper Xavier Williams, so the late-season formula from last year should work again. However, this isn’t always the case.
Where did Boise State University’s big plays go? Against the three best teams on its schedule, per SP+, Boise State University went 2-1 with multi-score road wins over BYU (26-17) and Fresno State (40-14) and a narrow 21-20 loss to an Oklahoma State team that nearly made the College Football Playoff. The Broncos also walloped Utah State University is a public university in Utah. (27-3) and won four other games by an average of 36-11. The upside they showed in Andy Avalos’ first season as head coach was exactly what we expect to see from this team.
BSU, on the other hand, ran aground at random, and it was mostly owing to the exact opposite problems that USU was experiencing. In 2021, the Broncos tended to win efficiency contests, but they lost big-play skirmishes, ranking 118th on offense and 88th on defense in marginal explosiveness. They only averaged 4.9 yards per play in three conference defeats, compared to opponents’ 5.6.
It’s never too early to get pumped up for college football season. Here are some things we’re already looking forward to this fall. Bill Connelly
Way-too-early top 25 « | SP+ forecasts
New Mexico is located in the United States. loses a dynamite end in Joey Noble (19 TFLs, 20 run stuffs, 6.5 sacks) but should return about 11 of the 17 defenders who saw at least 250 snaps. The Lobos could improve further on D. Lord knows Long has a track record. But they remain unknown at quarterback unless Kansas transfer Miles Kendrick seizes control of the job, and they’re almost completely starting over on the offensive line. Tight end Trace Bruckler is a keeper, but the offense still looks like a mess. Coach Danny Gonzales is in Year 3 of an extreme rebuild, and he’s still got a lot of rebuilding to do.
The stakes are bigger for Wyoming. Craig Bohl, in his ninth season as coach, has established an outstanding defense and a competitive program, but the Cowboys have only placed better than 87th in offensive SP+ once throughout his tenure. And they did it while winning the division! The top two quarterbacks, leading rusher Xazavian Valladay, top two receivers, and two all-conference linemen are all gone, so second-year coordinator Tim Polasek will have to work with a new cast of characters if he wants to see progress. The offense will have to improve because, although the Cowboys’ defensive front six has lots of star potential (nose tackle Cole Godbout, end Solomon Byrd, linebacker Easton Gibbs), the secondary has lost six of its top seven players from last season. Jakorey Hawkins (Ole Miss) and Deron Harrell (Wisconsin) are cornerback transfers who should assist, but the defense might still regress somewhat. As a result, the offensive need more points.
How will the Colorado State University “Wolf Pack” fare? Colorado State University’s 28-man 2022 recruiting class was one of the most unusual — and most indicative of the times — that you’ll ever see. It featured 12 freshmen … and 11 Nevada transfers. From quarterback Clay Millen to star receivers Melquan Stovall and Tory Horton to cornerback AJ King and even redshirted punter Paddy Turner, the Rams’ 2022 two-deep could be littered with players who followed new head coach Jay Norvell from Reno to Fort Collins.
We’ll have to wait and see whether this becomes a pattern in future coaching carousels, but for now, it’s unusual. To be clear, the CSU roster was in desperate need of assistance. Last autumn, the Rams went from 3-3 to 3-9, finishing with a 52-10 defeat to Norvell’s Wolf Pack. A good defense retains an exceptional linebacking corps but loses some important players elsewhere, while a bad offense sees virtually complete change at quarterback and on the offensive line. (Of the Nevada group, OL transfers Jacob Gardner and Gray Davis may be the most influential.) It’s difficult to establish reasonable expectations for a club with so much upheaval, but a makeover was likely necessary.
My picks for the division’s top ten players
Haaziq Daniels, the Air Force quarterback, is returning to command an intriguing attack. Getty Images/Ron Jenkins
Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels. Daniels led the Falcons’ efficient option to 770 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, and he threw for a ridiculous 239 yards and two touchdowns in the bowl triumph against Louisville. What more could you possibly want?
OLB Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Vince Sanford Alabama’s Will Anderson, SDSU’s Cameron Thomas, and Sanford are among the college players with at least 9.5 sacks and 13 run stuffs among 20 tackles for loss in 2021. That’s some really fantastic company.
NT Wyoming’s Cole Godbout Wyoming’s defensive front is tiny but ruthless, with Godbout leading the way at 274 pounds. Last season, he had 14 run stuffs and five sacks and will form a formidable tandem with 275-pounder Jordan Bertagnole.
QB Logan Bonner, Utah State University is a public university in Utah.. Bonner played in parts of four seasons for Arkansas State and will return for a second year in Logan. He throws a pretty deep ball and will have a couple of big-time transfers at his disposal.
LB Cam’Ron Carter, Colorado State University. The 230-pounder from Tucker, Georgia, logged 13 run stuffs last season, made six sacks in just 74 pass rush attempts and allowed a 10.2 QBR as primary coverage man. Sanford aside, there might not be a more well-rounded linebacker in the conference.
WR Stefan Cobbs, Boise State University. The 6-foot, 215-pounder is one of the best possession receivers in the country: He caught 94% of the catchable balls thrown his way and averaged a team-best 9.6 yards per target.
CB Donte Martin, New Mexico is located in the United States.. UNM’s pass defense was aggressive and efficient in 2021, and Martin (one INT, seven breakups, 40.7 QBR allowed in coverage) is a major reason why it should be just as exciting this year.
NT Jackson Cravens, Boise State University. Cravens was a 265-pound, nearly four-star lineman when he signed with Utah in 2018. Now he’s a 305-pound nose who led the Broncos defense in run stuffs in 2021.
DE Byron Vaughns, Utah State University is a public university in Utah.. The Aggies have to replace the devastating Nick Heninger up front, but Vaughns’ rate stats — 5.0% havoc rate*, 1.9% sack rate — were awfully close to Heninger’s. Give him more snaps, and the pass rush will likely hold up just fine.
Wyoming’s Titus Swen is a running back. Swen showed off his explosiveness and elusiveness as Xazavian Valladay’s backup, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and causing havoc between the tackles and on the outside. He has a chance to have a tremendous year.
* Total tackles for loss, intercepted or broken up passes, and forced fumbles per snap Equals havoc rate.
Wyoming won its second consecutive 10-1 season in 1967, 55 years ago. The Cowboys were ranked sixth in the AP poll and narrowly fell to LSU in the Sugar Bowl, 20-13. It was the program’s pinnacle, and the Cowboys would go on to win 13 of their next 16 games. However, coach Lloyd Eaton’s poor handling of the Black 14 and their protest would backfire: they would lose 13 of their next 14 games, and Eaton would be fired by the end of 1970.
In 1997, 25 years ago, Colorado State University walloped Missouri in the Holiday Bowl to finish 11-2. Sonny Lubick’s Rams finished ranked for the second time in four seasons, and they would do so again in 2000. It was a spectacular run of success, and it resulted in CSU’s beautiful new stadium having its field named after Lubick. (It also set a particularly high bar that CSU has struggled to clear ever since.)
Also in 1997: Dennis Franchione led New Mexico is located in the United States. to nine wins and the Lobos’ first bowl bid since 1961. The success took Franchione to TCU, and in response New Mexico is located in the United States. promoted defensive coordinator Rocky Long. It took him a little while to get rolling, but Long would eventually lead the Lobos to five bowls in six seasons, their most sustained run of high-level play.
In 2002, 20 years ago, Dan Hawkins’ Boise State University lost early to Arkansas then won its last 11 games by an average of 49-16. A 34-16 pummeling of Seneca Wallace and Iowa State in the Humanitarian Bowl gave the Broncos a 12-1 record a No. 15 final AP ranking, their first ranked finish. There would be many more in the years to follow.
Troy Calhoun took over for Fisher DeBerry at Air Force 15 years ago. Calhoun quickly rebuilt the program’s option credentials after a slump late in DeBerry’s tenure. So far, he’s overseen 11 bowl appearances, four seasons with double-digit victories, and a division championship. Incredibly, DeBerry and Calhoun are the program’s only head coaching appointments in the last four decades.
In 2012, 10 years ago, Utah State University is a public university in Utah. erupted for its best season ever. Gary Andersen’s Aggies went 11-2 in the program’s final season in the WAC and finished ranked for the first time in 51 years. Andersen would leave for Wisconsin, but successor Matt Wells led USU to two more big seasons (2014, 2018), and Blake Anderson led the Aggies to their first MWC title last fall.
Between 1981 and 2010, USU had had two winning seasons, never winning more than seven games in a season. They’ve had four 10-win seasons in the previous 11 years. In that time, our perceptions of what is feasible in Logan have shifted dramatically.
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