(This is the fourth in a series previewing the Group of 5 conferences based on their O/U win totals, as provided by Draftkings. For the AAC Preview, click here. For the Conference USA Preview, click here. For the MAC Preview, click here.)
We know and love this conference as the Mountain West. But let’s call it what it is.
The AAA version of the Pac-12.
I don’t say that in any way to be disparaging. But it feels like a few of these teams – namely Fresno St., San Diego St. and Boise St. – are just waiting to get the call to the Big Show that is the Pac-12 (such at it is). What becomes of the Mountain West then? Who knows, but for now let’s all appreciate the reality of the situation.
The Mountain West is really good.
Obviously, schools like Fresno St., SDSU and Boise St. must have something to offer larger conferences on the field, but the reality is, none of those 3 school won the conference last year. That distinction went to Utah St., who seemingly came out of nowhere behind first-year coach Blake Anderson and quarterback Logan Bonner – both arriving from Arkansas State to take the Aggies to the next level.
So what will the 2022 season bring? Another surprise at the top of the conference or a sense of normalcy? Let’s examine. (Based on the numbers provided by DraftKings as of 7/22.)
Boise St. (O/U 9) – The Broncos seem to be the lightning rod in the conference. Last season, they finished 7-5 due in part to a traditionally challenging non-conference schedule. But in fact, had they beat San Diego St. in the season finale they would have played in the conference championship game. A lot of teams would take that season. However, given the standard set in Boise over the current millennium, that’s a let down. Do they bounce back?
I’m not convinced.
A lot of people expect a bounce back from senior Hank Bachmeier, whose crowning achievement was beating a Florida St. team that was in shambles his first start as a freshman. Maybe he’s just what he is at this point….good but not great. Then there is second year coach Andy Avalos. Maybe he isn’t Bryan Harsin (for better or worse) or Chris Peterson. And maybe, just maybe, the Mountain West is not “Boise St. and the rest”. Maybe teams have caught up to the Broncos. and the novelty of the blue turf.
The Broncos do have a lot going for them however. Nine starters return from a defense that is nasty, ranking 12th in the nation last year in scoring defense (that’s better than the vaunted San Diego St. finished by the way). When you have that, you have a chance against just about anybody. The schedule is also more manageable this year. They play BYU again, but the game is at home. Also, instead of hosting Oklahoma St. and going to the Bounce House to play UCF, they go to Corvallis to play a less daunting team that wears orange and black in Oregon St. (Did they just straight up confuse OSUs?) and host UT-Martin. They also get San Diego St, Fresno St. and Utah St. all at home. Road trips to New Mexico, UTEP, Air Force, Nevada and Wyoming are scenic but not overly daunting.
The line is set at 9, implying that they are the favorite in the conference, and I just don’t see it. The MWC has more depth than ever before and BYU and Oregon St. are difficult games anywhere you play them. Having said that, the conference schedule breaks right for them. 9-3 feel right. Stay Away.
Air Force (O/U 8.5) – So if you have been keeping track, you’ve noticed that in every conference preview I have a team that I love for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
*Climbs on the roof of my 17-story apartment building*
*Yells to the entire world*
I LOVE THE 2022 AIR FORCE FALCONS!!
When it comes to football, the service academies can be a well-oiled machine on offense, or downright hard to watch. And chances are, a team that returns eight starters on offense, including their all-conference candidates at QB (Haaziq Daniels) and RB (Brad Roberts) from a 10-win team will likely be the former. The defense was every bit as effective, finishing fourth in the nation in yards per game.
Looking at their schedule, it sets up real nice to get off to a hot start. Actually you know what, let’s be real….there are only two defenses well-equipped to slow down the Falcon offense: Boise St. and San Diego St., and neither are world-beaters on offense, so the Falcon D can win grind-it-out games against either team. You want a shootout? Utah St. is far and away the best offense they will face. And the Aggies won a 49-45 shootout last year. That game can go either way. Beyond that, a non-con against the other Service Academies, Colorado and Northern Iowa are favorable. Air Force is getting at least 9 wins. At least. Take the Over.
Fresno St. (O/U 8.5) – This team is widely considered the most talented in the conference. Jake Haener is widely considered the best quarterback in all of the Group of 5, especially with him paired with Fresno St. favorite son Jeff Tedford. I tend to disagree but could make an argument for most valuable. Regardless, the Bulldogs have him, a stud receiver in Jalen Cropper, a solid running back in Jordan Mims and four of five starters returning on the offensive line. In a nutshell, the offense will be excellent.
Expect the defense to be solid as well, returning seven starters from a unit that was not quite to the level of Boise or San Diego St., but still very good.
The front half of the schedule is by far the trickier to navigate. After a warm-up game against Cal Poly, they host Oregon St., then head to the road for three games against USC, UConn and Boise St. While picking the Bulldogs to upset USC is trendy, I don’t see it. The good news is after Boise St. the schedule eases up considerably. There is no Utah St., and San Diego St. comes to Fresno. With nine wins hitting the Over, and USC and Boise St. looking the like the toughest games, this should be a no-brainer. Take the Over and lock it in.
San Diego St. (O/U 7.5) – The Aztecs may be the best half-team in the nation.
Their defense was one of the best outside of Athens, Georgia and should be again. They are littered with preseason all-conference talent. Offensively, they were a struggle to watch, but hopefully Virginia Tech transfer Braxton Burmeister can infuse some life. A more effective offense means they won’t punt as much, offsetting the fact that Punt God Matt Araiza will no longer be in uniform. (He will still be in San Diego though, as Punt God is everywhere. But technically Araiza will be in Buffalo.)
The line is set at 7.5 for a team that is christening a new stadium with winnable game against Arizona, Idaho St., Toledo, Hawaii, UNLV, San Jose St. and Air Force. If the win those seven and a game at New Mexico, then road games at Utah, Boise St., Nevada and Fresno St. won’t matter. Even a slip up against Air Force can be neutralized with a win at Nevada. Either way, eight wins seems more than doable. Take the Over.
Utah St. (O/U 7) – The DIS-RESPECT!
At best, most experts look at the Aggies as a notch below Fresno St. and Boise St., and maybe even behind teams like Air Force and San Diego St. Heck, even when mentioning games that I wanted to go to in my G5 Road Trip column, I never mentioned the DEFENDING CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS. My bad.
Utah St. should be very good again. They bring back quarterback Logan Bonner, top rusher Calvin Tyler and possibly the top offensive line in the conference. They should be solid on that side of the ball, if not as explosive as teams like Fresno St. and Air Force. Defensively, they return plenty of talent , so they should be solid on that side of the ball, if not as dominant as teams like San Diego St. and Boise St.
So what’s the issue?
How about a schedule that includes road games at Alabama, BYU and Boise St. That makes 9-3 a seemingly best case scenario. But just because they can go 9-3 doesn’t mean they will, and to hit the Over, they can only afford one other trip up. As much as I love Air Force, USU may have their number. And home games against Weber St., UNLV, New Mexico and San Jose St. are all but gimmies. I think they find a way to get to 8 wins. Take the Over.
San Jose St. (O/U 6.5) – I’m not saying there is a correlation, but until the pandemic season of 2020, San Jose St. was pretty terrible for a long time. Then one weird season, and all of a sudden, people have expectations for San Jose St. Simmer down people.
Last year, they regressed back to the norm with a 5-7 season. The team said goodbye (finally) to quarterback Nick Starkel. In comes Hawaii transfer Chevan Cordeiro, who was fine but I wouldn’t call him a world beater. The defense may have to carry the load early on, as they return nine starters from a unit that was solid in 2021. There is talent with 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Cade Hall and seniors and juniors everywhere.
Outside of a likely win against Portland St. and likely losses at Auburn, at Fresno St. and at San Diego St., there are a ton of swing games throughout the rest of the schedule. But they would have to win 6 of those 8 games to hit the Over. I don’t see it. Take the Under
Colorado St. (O/U 5.5) – Finkel is Einhorn. Colorado St. is Nevada.
Former Wolfpack coach Jay Norvell must’ve seen the writing on the wall, as his team was seeing quarterback Carson Strong and future Green Bay Packer star Romeo Doubs leave the Nevada offense. So he took the Colorado St. job AND BROUGHT THE REST OF HIS OFFENSE WITH HIM!
While that may be a slight exaggeration, Norvell did bring likely starting quarterback Clay Millen, two receivers, a running back, three offensive linemen, offensive coordinator Matt Mumme and a partridge in a pear tree all to Fort Collins with him. Considering there is not a lot retuning from the Steve Addazio Era, the transition may not be all that difficult.
The Rams finished 3-9 last year. The Wolfpack went 8-5, so Vegas seems to think that Colorado St. will improve, which is rare for a team that is essentially starting over. They also do have quite a bit of experience returning on the defensive side. They do start the season at Michigan, which seems like a pretty terrible way to test out your new offensive system. After a home game against Middle Tennessee, they go to Pullman to see how the Air Raid is really done against Washington St. After a home game against Sacramento St., they start their conference schedule…by going to Nevada. This team feels like the biggest unknown in the conference by far. It’s not pieces trying to fit into a new program as much as it is a hostile takeover. Eventually they will gel and could be pretty solid, but how soon that happens is anyone’s guess. Stay Away.
Nevada (O/U 5) – On the other side of the “Norvell to Colorado St.” situation sits Nevada. They lost all those pieces that went to Fort Collins. What’s left?
Less returning production than anyone else in FBS, that’s what.
There are pieces to work with. Running back Toa Taua is going to be the centerpiece of the offense. Also, while Carson Strong is gone at quarterback, the Wolfpack brought in Shane Illingsworth from Oklahoma St. He saw some action over the past two years in Stillwater and is 3-0 as a starter. That’s definitely not nothing on offense.
Defensively, they have four starters returning from a team that actually led the nation in turnover margin. But that is not a sustainable model from year to year. The deficiencies those turnovers covered up – namely a porous rush defense – should improve since their new head coach Ken Wilson, was co-defensive coordinator at Oregon prior to taking the job.
The O/U win total is set at 5, and a non-conference schedule that starts off going to New Mexico St. and hosting Texas St. and Incarnate Word offers them the opportunity to get off to a good start while the pieces gel. Games at Iowa and Air Force are likely losses before the above mentioned game at home against Colorado St. Home games against San Diego St., Boise St. and Fresno St. in the back half of the schedule won’t be fun. The pieces could come together by then, and those are home games, but how many of those three are realistic for them to win? Probably one. And there are too many swing games throughout the rest of the schedule for a team that is essentially starting over. Take the Under.
Wyoming (O/U 5) – What is it with the Mountain West having so many players transfer in-conference?
Along with all the upheaval at Nevada and Colorado St. and Cordeiro going from Hawaii to San Jose St., Wyoming lost quarterback Levi Williams after he transferred to Utah St. So what do the Cowboys do? Bring in quarterback Andrew Peasley from…Utah St. The idea is that Peasley will bring more consistency than Williams and last year’s other quarterback Sean Chambers provided.
Peasley has one of the more underrated backs west of the Mississippi in Titus Swen to hand the ball off too. Swen split time with Xazavian Valladay, who transferred to Arizona St. Swen will continue to split carries in a run-heavy offense, but he will be The Guy and a possible all-conference back.
A more consistent offense will help out a defense that had to do a lot of heavy lifting during a four-game losing streak last year where the offense scored a grand total of 38 points. They only return three starters on that side of the ball.
A 4-0 start seems unlikely to duplicate thanks to a schedule that begins with a trip to Champaign to take on Illinois. They also have road games against BYU, Hawaii, Colorado St. and Fresno St. that will absolutely test their defense. They need to take care of business at home against teams like Tulsa, Northern Colorado and San Jose St. and get a win at New Mexico. I think they are better than those four teams. Can they get two more wins and cover the Over? Absolutely, but it will take some work. Stay Away.
UNLV (O/U 4.5) – Two years ago, San Jose St. came out of nowhere. Last year, it was Utah St. Could UNLV win be the next team to come from seemingly out of nowhere to win the conference?
That may be asking a bit much (though if you are feeling dangerous, DraftKings has them at +10000 to do so) but this team could be drastically better than they have been in recent years.
Sure, they finished 2-10, but a closer look at last year shows they were right there in several games. Six of their losses were by eight points or fewer, and a talent infusion this year may change the fortunes of close games in the future. Their quarterback last year, Cameron Friel, was named conference Freshman of the Year, but may not even start. That’s because former Tennessee Volunteer Harrison Bailey has transferred in. The Rebels also brought in Bailey’s HS teammate Ricky White, a former Michigan St. Spartan, at receiver. He pairs with returning starter Kyle Williams. Together, that passing attack could be very dangerous.
Defensively they need to show some improvement, finishing last in the conference by giving up 32.8 points per game. If they are able to trim five points per game off that total, not impossible given they return six starters on that side of the ball, that would really give the offense a fighting chance.
The talent is definitely there to win at least five games, but the schedule is pretty difficult. After at season opener they should win against Idaho St., they go to California and host North Texas in the non-con before a conference opener at conference champ Utah St. They also travel to South Bend in mid-October to face Notre Dame. That game is in a middle of a stretch that look like this: home against Air Force, at Notre Dame, at San Diego St., home against Fresno St. Yikes. The Rebels better win the swing games such as at San Jose St., at Hawaii and at home against Nevada (not to mention the North Texas and New Mexico games).
I really, really like this team (and their sick celebration Slot Machine). And even though a 3-win increase with that schedule is hard to envision, would you rather be a year too early or a year too late on the UNLV hype train? YOLO. Take the Over.
Hawaii (O/U 4.5, 13 Games) – Hawaii is starting over, but wow is it likely to be fun to watch the construction.
Despite actually qualifying for bowls the past two season, the Todd Graham Era was an unmitigated disaster. So the Warriors are wisely going in a completely different direction, hiring the guy probably best associated with the school – former quarterback Timmy Chang.
Chang was quarterback of the team from 2000-04, putting up video game numbers back when there actually was a video game. Now that Air Raid is en vogue, expect the team to go back to the format of throwing the ball all over the field. Whether they have the weapons to do so now remains to be seen, as they only return both tackles and a seldom-used tight end on offense, but they will get there.
Defensively they have just as many questions, as they lost nine starters to either graduation or the transfer portal. Due to all these changes, it’s really hard to tell what kind of start the Warriors will get off to. They begin the season Week Zero hosting Vanderbilt in a game that could be far more interesting than it has any right to be. They follow that up by hosting Western Kentucky in a game that might set a record for Points O/U. After a game at Michigan, they host Duquesne in a game that has to feel wild for the Duquesne football team. Since they play 13 games, they get a fifth non-con game, at New Mexico State. If everything breaks right, Hawaii could get off to a 4-1 start. And if they are good enough to do that, then they will likely fly past the 4.5 win total, as home games against Nevada, Wyoming and UNLV are definitely winnable. The road slate, which is never easy when you are Hawaii, is especially brutal when you consider they play at San Diego St. and at Fresno St.
They schedule is wild and the team will probably have some growing pains early on. If you are the type of person who enjoys thrill rides, bet on Hawaii. Otherwise, Stay Away.
New Mexico (O/U 2.5) – Looking at the other teams projected to finish at the bottom, at least there is some optimism. UNLV seems to be showing steady improvement to the point where a bowl bid is not impossible. Hawaii has one of their favorite sons back to get them back to where they were when he was quarterbacking.
What’s going on Lobos?
Seriously, it doesn’t seem like there is a lot for New Mexico and their fans to hang their hat on. Offensively, they only return two starters from a unit that finished 130th in the nation last year. So I suppose change is probably a good thing in that regard, but they are turning to a Kansas transfer (Miles Kendrick) to lead the team at quarterback so….
Luckily the defense is not nearly as inept, as they finished 44th overall in the nation on that side of the ball and return seven starters. So there is something there for Lobos funs (such as they are) to hang their hats on.
The DraftKings line is set at 2.5, and a season opening start at home against Maine is likely to get the Lobos off to a good start. The problem is, all the 50-50 games are on the road. They go to Las Cruces to face rival New Mexico St. and go to UNLV, but they play in arguably the tougher division and therefore don’t get teams like Hawaii, Nevada or San Jose St. on their schedule. I just don’t see two more wins. New Mexico St. can and probably should be beaten but otherwise…. Take the Under.
Overs – Air Force, Fresno St. (Lock), Utah St., San Diego St., UNLV
Unders – Boise St., Colorado St., Nevada
Stay Aways – San Jose St., Wyoming, Hawaii, New Mexico
1. Air Force
2. Boise St.
3. Utah St.
4. Colorado St.
6. New Mexico
1. Fresno St.
2. San Diego St.
5. San Jose St.
So there is my (exhausting) deep dive into the Mountain West Conference. There is a lot of change from last year to this year within the conference, but a lot of depth as well. If you use any of my recommendations, feel free to tweet me what your bet is (@justincripe). And if you are the parlaying type, we will probably become best friends.