Two questions dominate the Mountain West landscape heading into the 2014 football season.
1. With the one bone tossed from the power conferences being an entry to a major bowl game for the top-rated team from the “lesser” leagues, will the Mountain West have anyone unscathed enough to get there? Will parity and geography annually conspire against this competitive league way out West?
2. Will Boise State maintain its national relevance?
The second question is clearly tied to the first. The Broncos fell to 8-5 last year, and the little team that could actually lost all of its marquee matchups. The thinking out this way was that the clock struck midnight on the Broncos near the end of the 2012 season — and that was one in which they won 11 games. But in compiling such a fine record, they didn’t look like the Boise State we’ve come to know and adore. And then came 2013, in which the Broncos failed to qualify for the Mountain West championship game.
With the non-Power 5 conference entrant being chosen on the basis of higher rankings, then you’re going to need some initial stature. Boise is a team that, should it start quickly, can move into and up the polls faster than, say, Colorado State. Losing coach Chris Petersen is big, but they replaced him with a longtime Bronco, so they should be able to make up for the loss. The team has pretty good talent all around, but a question at quarterback. Grant Hedrick is talented but maybe not of the star quality of some of his predecessors.
Whichever team makes a move in the Mountain West, it will face some tough outside competition for that shot at major bowl glory. Many have Marshall projected to take the big bowl slot out of Conference USA, thanks to a dynamic quarterback and soft schedule. Cincinnati might have the best team, and program, outside the power leagues now, and Central Florida isn’t far behind even without QB Blake Bortles.
So in a league in which teams are good enough to beat each other up, it looks like the contenders won’t be able to afford more than one loss. Boise State, opening at Mississippi, won’t have any room for error.
Boise State and Utah State will again fight it out for the crown, meeting in the finale in Idaho. The Aggies get back onetime Heisman Trophy candidate Chuckie Keeton at QB, but who knows what he’ll have left in the tank following last year’s season-ending knee injury. The defense was terrific last year and the front seven is pretty intact.
Colorado State looks to be on an upswing overall, but the Rams lost their top running back and most of their starters in the trenches — on both sides of the ball. Plus they have to play at Boise State in September before everyone jells. Their final record might mask their improvement. New Mexico has a pretty nice quarterback named Cole Gautsche coming back to lead a strong ground game. If he can complete some passes and the defense can stiffen a bit, the Lobos might have a bowl game in its near-future.
It’s hard to imagine Air Force being as bad as they were last year. Wyoming has a new coaching staff and a road schedule that includes likely blowout losses at Oregon and Michigan State, which could send the Pokes reeling.
By the end of November, everyone is going to look at San Diego State and wonder why they didn’t give the Aztecs more respect before the season. The Aztecs are solid everywhere but safety and placekicker, and those issues could be resolved by mid-season. Indeed, barring injury, SDSU has the best and deepest roster in the conference. Making it work is another story, but this could be the school’s first 10-win season since that magical run in 1977 chronicled in A COACH AT HEART.
The team that will fall off the table this year will be Fresno State, which lost some great players — including QB David Carr to the Raiders — but return only a good receiver and excellent safety. Everyone else is unproven. So, while this might sound crazy, there’s a real chance that the Bulldogs start the season 1-7. Yes, after an 11-2 record in 2013. Look at the schedule, with early roadies to USC, Utah and Boise. It’s possible.
Looking to capitalize will be Nevada and San Jose State. The Wolfpack was very close to being great the last two years without actually getting there. Injury-prone QB Cody Fajardo is a delight to watch, unless he’s playing against your team, and DE Brock Hekking is a stud. The Spartans barely missed on a repeat bowl trip last year on the heels of a dream 2012 season and now lose star passer David Fales. But they’re well-coached and have recruited well recently.
Hawaii and UNLV both have some good individual players and could be tough on a game-by-game basis, but the schedules don’t break to well for them this year. The Rainbows are boosted by the return of its offensive line and get back RB Joey Iosefa from injury. The Rebels also have solid blockers and the best pass-catcher in the league, Devante Davis.
If you really want to delve deep into the conference, here’s a preview from College Football News.