MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE
All signs pointing up in Reno where the Wolfpack qualifies as BOTH a “TOP 20 Blast Off Offense” and a “TOP 20 Defensive Dandy”. QB Strong returns for 4th year HC Norvell. He will play behind the #6 ranked OL who has 72 combined starts. Last year, they averaged 31 PPG, 441 YPG, and now return 99% of their offensive production. On the stop side, this 7-2 SU team from last year, allowed just 23 PPG, 378 YPG, and now returns 93% of their tackles. Other than the most probably inflated price tag, following a 6-3 ATS campaign, what is not to like about this pack of Wolves
San Diego State Aztecs
In the first season of the return of Brady Hoke as the Head man in San Diego (previously HC in 2009-10), the Aztecs upheld their defensive excellence of recent seasons. Playing a 4-4 SU season, they allowed just 18/284, including 98/3.1 overland. Now he must work on retooling an offense that averaged just 151 YPG through the airways. Must doubt whether any of the signal callers on the roster, that includes G Tech transfer Lucas Johnson or Miss State transfer Jaylen Madden, are the answer. And it is not guaranteed that a running game, behind an OL that has just 65 career starts, can maintain their 202/4.6 average of last season. It boils down to a “show me “ season for Hoke and the Aztecs.
San Jose State Spartans
From the depths of their despair, the Spartans have emerged from combined 3-22 SU seasons of 2017-18, to 5 wins in 2019, and a 7-1 SU, ATS season of last. Full credit goes to 5th year HC Brennan who improved the defense from 42 to 20 PPG and 499 to 348 YPG in the last 4 seasons. This year, they qualify as a “Defensive Dandy” with 91% of their tackles returning. A victory over Boise State for the MWC Crown led to a downer in their Bowl game. Nonetheless, with 20 RS including virtually the entire defense, look for the Spartans to be among the best in the MWC again. Note Brennan’s propensity for success against MWC foes with a 16-6 ATS record L3Y. Super Senior QB Starkel, a Texas A&M transfer, enjoyed swimming in the smaller pond of the MWC and returns for his Super Senior season. Aside from Brennan’s success in conference play, note that he is 10-3 ATS as road dog the last 3 years.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
A strong 3-1 SU finish to 2020, including a 28-14 Bowl win vs. Houston propels the Rainbows, under 2nd year HC Graham, into 2021 with positive momentum. With a pair of DL Power 5 transfers and DB Ford returning from last year’s leg injury, the defense could be the strength of this team. QB Cordero now has 9 starts in his career with the 28/11 ratio and balances it with the ability to run. With 111 OL career starts, this looks like an improved unit over the 26/385 offense of 2020. Unfortunately, Hawaii has a schedule that alternates road games to the mainland with home games meaning no fewer than 7 games on the mainland, with 6 of them immediately after a home contest. At least they will be racking up the frequent flyer miles.
Fresno State Bulldogs
It may not seem like much but, after the Bulldogs went a combined 22-6 SU in 2017-18, they slipped to 4-8 SU in 2019 in the final year under former HC Tedford. It was a pleasant surprise when 1st year HC DeBoer, who was the OC here in 2017-18, went 3-3 SU, ATS. They have a PAC 12 transfer signal caller in QB Haener who, in 6 starts in 2020, had a 65% C with a 14/5 ratio. Returning 8 OL with starting experience and 9 returning offensive starters, I look for a bump upward from the 33/480 under the offensive minded DeBoer. The Bulldogs had a “200 Club” defense last season allowing 30/432 and 5.3 YPR. But with their notable improvement in recruiting, and 14 players using their extra year of eligibility, the numbers should improve on the defensive side of the ball where 10 starters return. In the ultra-competitive MWC-West, even with a tough schedule, Fresno will pull some upsets and possibly challenge for Divisional superiority.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
On the heels of a 22-51 SU record the previous 6 years, the last 5 under Tony Sanchez, things went from bad to worse for the Rebels last year. Then 1st year HC Arroyo did not have the benefit of spring practice eventually playing with just 8 returning starters. The 0-6 SU season in which they were outscored 38-17 and outgained 483-381, could have been easily expected. No one should want a winless team that has 17 returning starters. To Arroyo’s credit, the recruiting numbers soared for the Rebels as he garnered (4) Power 5 transfers and (18) 3-star recruits. That was a carryover from Arroyo’s previous success in which he was the OC at Oregon. This year however, the schedule looks to be again unkind. Although the 1-5 ATS record may improve, there is virtually no chance the Rebels make it to the winning side of the ledger where they have not resided since 2013.
Watching the Cowboys under HC Bohl for the previous 7 years has rarely been a thing of beauty. It is reminiscent of watching Ohio State under Woody Hayes. Nonetheless, Bohl had turned in 4 consecutive winning seasons entering 2020 ‘til the drop to 2-4 last year. That was as phony as it gets considering they outscored the opposition 25-21, outgained them 368-312, and outrushed them 196/4.4 to 103/3,0. That last set of numbers is typical for a Bohl coached team, as he loves to control the football on the ground. This year, with a whopping 21 starters returning, and dual signal callers in Williams and Chambers, the Cowboys will easily return to the winning side of the ledger. Note the success of Wyoming, under Bohl, at the 7,000’ altitude of Laramie where the winds whip down I 80 making it tough on visiting teams in War Memorial Stadium. Under Bohl, the Cowboys are 24-16 ATS at War Memorial Stadium including 12-4 ATS as home chalk L5Y. That all but assures victories in all 6 of their home games. And with Northern Illinois and U. Conn. on their traveling docket, it is a virtually guaranteed 8 win season as the Cowboys BOUNCE BACK BIG. They will be aided by their qualifications as one of our “Defensive Dandies”. Last year, they allowed just 21 PPG , 312 YPG. And with 98% of their tackles returning, success is expected for the Cowboys this season.
Boise State Broncos
The Broncos enter 2021 having played in 4 consecutive MWC Title games. It was quite an accomplishment last year considering they only had 10 returning starters, posted their worst offensive numbers this millennium, and their worst defense in 5 years. After 7 successful seasons under Bryan Harsin (to Auburn), the Broncos look to improve those stats under 1st year HC Andy Avalos. Avalos returns to his alma mater where he was a linebacker from 2001-04, and a defensive coach from 2012-18, prior to becoming the DC at Oregon the previous 2 seasons. There is little doubt that Avalos knows defense. With 8 returning to that side of the ball, he will look to improve on numbers that slipped to 27/373 LY. Offense may be another question. Although the Broncos averaged 34 PPG, they could only rush the ball for 110/3.4. Much of the success will be a function of QB Bachmeir whose health (missed 8/21 games L2Y) is always a question. New OC, Tim Plough, has no DI coaching experience. After a down year for the OL, the Broncos return 4 OL with 66 career starts. That much improved unit will greatly improve the ground game providing much needed balance with a healthy Bachmeir at the controls. Boise will again, even with a new coach, be among the cream of the crop in the Mountain West Division.
Air Force Falcons
With implications of the pandemic front and center, Air Force opted to use the season to employ a tactic called “turnbacks” where they, in effect, red-shirted a plethora of their players. In fact, they had just 1 returning starter on defense. That made it all the more remarkable that in their 3-3 SU, ATS season (11-2 SU in 2019), they allowed just 15/305. The run game was awesome as always in the 14th year under HC Calhoun. Expect a continuation of that excellence with QB Daniels and his best two ball carriers returning. Though the OL must be virtually rebuilt, that is not unusual for a military school. Never wise to underestimate the Fly Boys under Calhoun. Do so at your own peril this season with the reservation they will enter Annapolis on September 11th to face a Navy team who will be out for blood after being bludgeoned by Air Force 40-7 in early September of last year.
Utah State Aggies
You can refer to both my article on “New Coaches” and “Transfer QBs” to read more about this year’s Aggies. It has been a precipitous slide from the 11-2 SU, 9-3 ATS, 18 RS of 2018 led by HC Wells and QB Love. Since that time victories slipped from 7 to 1, the offense slipped from 47 to 16 points, and the defense declined from 22 to 35 PPG. Yardage numbers slipped commensurately. Battling both injuries and COVID, it was simply too much for former HC Gary Andersen to overcome. Enter Blake Anderson (Ark. State) and his transfer signal caller Logan Bonner. Former UCF OC Anthony Tucker brings his uptempo offense to a unit that has 10 returning starters. For what it is worth, the Top 9 tacklers return from the Matador defense of last season. Nonetheless, Anderson steps into a “nowhere to go but up” scenario. Expect improvement across the board with the offense in good hands and a stop unit being led by 1st year DC Banda, who spent the previous 5 seasons on the Miami, FL staff. After a rigorous 5 game opening slate featuring games at Wash. State and Air Force followed by home against Boise State and BYU, there could be plenty of value when the Aggies reach mid-October.
Colorado State Rams
Looking at his numbers from his last three seasons at his former affiliation, Boston College, it is obvious that 2nd year HC Addazio wants to run the football. In 2019, his final season at Chestnut Hill, his Eagles averaged 254/5.1 overland. Thus it was a major disappointment to the coach when his team could muster just 126/3.3 overland and averaged just 22 PPG in the pandemic plagued season of 2020 when the Rams went 1-3 SU, ATS. This extended their decline to 8-20 SU the previous 3 years. Such was not the case on the defensive side of the ball where the D line allowed just 110/2.5. Recruiting however, went well and, with new OC Budmayer, a former Wisconsin Assistant (think run first), that ground game figures to improve. With the OL returning intact and now having 91 career starts, this looks like a turnaround season for Addazio and the Rams.
New Mexico Lobos
Hope springs eternal. There were ample expectations when 2020 1st year HC Gonzales stepped in as Head Coach. He was a player here in the ‘90s and spent 7 years in the earlier part of this millennium in Albuquerque. He brought back DC Rocky Long, HC from 1998-2008, who mentored Gonzales in his final season with the Lobos. Then the pandemic struck precluding the Lobos from practicing or playing any games in New Mexico. An 0-5 SU start, in which they allowed 35 PPG, appeared to augur a continuation of the Lobo decline that featured a record of 8-28 SU the previous 3 seasons. But the Lobos never gave up, beating Wyoming and Fresno in the last two games of the season to close in style. In fact, they nearly authored a “200 Club” offensive season in which they averaged 196 RYPG and 198 PYPG. That offense will get a major boost when former Kentucky signal caller QB Wilson begins to swim in the much smaller pond of the MWC. Now, as a “Super Senior”, he comes from a highly competitive SEC where he started 25 games for Kentucky in 3 seasons with a 17-8 TRGS. With 14 “Super Seniors” on the roster, they are now up to 84 scholarship players making them a potential “Hidden Gem”. With 3/4 winnable games in September, the Lobos could enter October with confidence and momentum.