2017 Mountain West Conference Football Preview: West Division

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Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

San Diego State has won the division, followed by a victory in the conference title game in each of the last two seasons. Coincidentally, both of those title game wins have come by the score of 27-24. This year, the Aztecs are once again the clear favorites to take the division.

Contenders

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Rashaad Penny #20 of the San Diego State Aztecs. Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

San Diego State Aztecs

The Aztecs have dominated with the same formula over the past several years: a punishing ground attack combined with a stingy defense. As they get ready for 2017, the formula stays the same and they look to be the clear favorites to emerge from the West division.

All-time leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey moves on to the NFL, but his backup Rashaad Penny has plenty of experience, running for over 1,000 yards last season. Penny will combine with Juwan Washington to give the Aztecs another punishing duo capably of lighting up opposing defenses throughout the season. Junior QB Matt Chapman returns for his third season under center, and though the passing game isn’t used as much (251 attempts, 144.5 YPG), two full years of experience in the offense could see his numbers improve. Leading receivers Micah Holder and TE David Wells are both back, but they return just one starter along the offensive line. That’s a question mark that leads me to believe they won’t be as prolific on offense this season.

The loss of MWC defensive player of the year Damontae Kazee hurts, as does the departure of top tackler Calvin Munson. That said, their number two and three tacklers, Ronley Lakalaka and Parker Baldwin, are back as is junior DE Noble Hall (26 tackles 3 sacks 3 TFL). The unit allowed just 20.2 PPG and 315.4 YPG last season. Yes, they lose some big-time all-conference performers but, there’s enough talent returning that with Coach Long’s track record, you believe there will be more of the same. The schedule is fairly kind with the toughest conference road games coming at Air Force and Hawai’i. They get Boise State at home. Out of conference games against Arizona State and Stanford early will provide an idea of whether they’ll challenge for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Over 9.5 wins.

One thing to note, SDSU is still trying to figure out where they’ll play after the 2019 season as the Chargers prepare to move to LA. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd did a great write-up on the situation this week.

Bowl Teams

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Kendall Johnson #26 of the Nevada Wolf Pack. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Nevada Wolfpack

The Wolfpack bring in a new coach after a 5-7 record in 2016 as Jay Norvell takes the helm after acting as the WR coach at Arizona State in 2016. He brings with him the “Air Raid” style of offense and there’s some pieces here to think that they could be in play for a bowl game.

Junior QB Tyler Gangi does return, but he’ll be pushed hard by Alabama transfer David Cornwell, who could end up being the starter. Either way, the Wolfpack have the leading returning running back in the conference in James Gilbert who carried 266 times for 1,336 yards last season and added 381 yards receiving. The top two receivers are also back, but they have just two starters along the offensive line. One of those starters is 1st team MWC LT Austin Corbett however. With a wide-open style of offense and solid weapons for their QB, the Wolfpack should improve on the 25.4 PPG they averaged last season.

The defense is more experienced, but, is also transitioning to a new scheme. They move to a 3-3-5 under coordinator Jeff Casteel, which actually helps the defensive line that loses a starter from last year. They do lose LB Alex Bertrando, who was their leading tackler in 2016, but two other LBs with starting experience and three guys in the secondary are back. All of that points towards a more solid defense and a potential drop in the numbers (29.0 PPG 456.2 YPG in 2016). Road games against CSU, Boise, SDSU and out of conference against Northwestern and Washington State are certainly tough. But, 3.5 wins is a low bar to clear and I think they get there while coming close to bowl eligibility. Over 3.5 wins.

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Dru Brown #19 of the Hawaii Rainbows. Credit: Kent Horner/Getty Images

Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors

The Rainbow Warriors were one of the few teams to play 13 games in the regular season last year and they put together a 6-7 record which was good enough to get them a Hawai’i Bowl appearance that they then won 52-35 over Middle Tennessee State. This year, they’re back to a 12-game regular season schedule and could be a bowl team once more.

Sophomore QB Dru Brown took over the reigns last season from Ikaika Woolsey after the first four games and never looked back as he put up a solid freshman campaign (62.4% 2,488 yards 19 TD 7 INT). Entering his second year under center, he’s got three veteran linemen in front of him, a senior tailback behind him (Diocemy Saint Juste) and two of his top three receivers back. The big loss is top receiver Marcus Kemp (73 rec 1,100 yards 8 TD), but Dylan Collie, Ammon Barker and John Ursua are capable of good production. The offense average 28.3 PPG last year and with a more experienced Brown, that number should tick upwards.

The defense was, well, bad last season allowing 37.3 PPG and 462 YPG. They have six returning starters including 3rd team MWC DE Meffy Koloamatangi (38 tackles 3 sacks 2 TFL), sophomore LB Jahlani Tavai (leading tackler with 129 and 12.5 TFL, 7 sacks), and safety Trayvon Henderson. The secondary is a question mark despite that with the other three starters from last year departing. Overall, with some good starters back, this unit should be better than last year’s. CSU and SDSU have to come to the island while the Warriors have to travel to Wyoming and Nevada. The out of conference has opportunities for wins against UMass and FCS Western Carolina. They hit the number here. Over 4.5 wins.

Rebuilding

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Wide receiver Devonte Boyd #83 of the UNLV Rebels. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

UNLV Rebels

Tony Sanchez has made incremental improvements in his first two seasons going 3-9 and 4-8 the last two years. Entering that always important third year, he’s got his most experienced offense yet, with some big questions to answer on defense.

The Rebels bounced between a couple of QBs last season with Johnny Stanton, Kurt Palandech and Dalton Sneed all seeing time. Stanton and Palandech are back, but they’ll be challenged by 6’5″ 225 lb. redshirt freshman Armani Rogers who was fairly highly recruited coming out of high school. Outside of the unsettled QB situation, the rest of the offense is ready to roll with two returning running backs, top receiver Devonte Boyd, and four starters back on the offensive line. The Rebs averaged 31.7 PPG and 404 YPG last season, and with this much talent back, I’d expect an improvement on even those numbers.

On defense, the opposite is the case. Just two starters return, both on the defensive line in 3rd team MWC selection NT Mike Hughes (37 tackles 1.5 TFL 2 sacks) and DT Salanoa-Alo Wily (15 tackles 2.5 TFL). The rest of the starters are gone. They have some junior college transfers and they’ll have to hope they make an impact alongside some of the Sanchez recruits in order to see an improvement on the 36.8 PPG and 430 YPG given up last year. With SDSU, Utah State and Hawai’i at home, and drawing Air Force and New Mexico from the Mountain, the schedule allows the possibility for enough upsets to make a bowl. I don’t think they will, going with the under. Under 5.5 wins

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Wide receiver Rahshead Johnson #8 of the San Jose State Spartans. Credit: Loren Orr/Getty Images

San Jose State Spartans

These next two teams both went through coaching changes this offseason. The Spartans brought in Oregon State WR coach Brent Brennan to try and right the ship. The schedule doesn’t point to a quick turnaround and this could be another tough year.

Two-year starting QB Kenny Potter moves on, leaving a big question mark under center, particularly with a new coach coming in and evaluating the talent. Whoever wins the job will have a veteran offensive line (4 starters), two of the top three RBs back, and three of the top five receivers. The Spartans averaged just 24.4 PPG and 377.2 YPG last season; with the amount of production they have returning, they should top those numbers.

The defense is more stacked in terms of production returning, with eight starters including the entire secondary. 1st team MWC CB Andre Chachere and LB Frank Ginda anchor a unit that transitions to a 3-4 under new coordinator Derrick Odum in hopes of posting better numbers than the 34.7 PPG and 435.3 YPG they allowed last season. The schedule, as mentioned, isn’t kind. USF, Texas, Utah and BYU in the out of conference lines up as four likely losses before you even get to the conference slate. Under 3.5 wins.

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Quarterback Chason Virgil #5 of the Fresno State Bulldogs. Credit: Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Fresno State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs completed their three-year fall to rock bottom last year with a 1-11 record that got Tim Deruyter let go midseason. Now, Jeff Tedford takes over the helm, returning to his alma mater in hopes of being the savior to turn the program around.

The biggest thing Tedford has going for him is a ton of experience with 16 returning starters (10 offense, 6 defense). The 10 on offense includes starting QB Chason Virgil, running back Dontel James and a pair of 700+ yard receivers. The offensive line loses just one starter and overall this group should be much better than the 17.7 PPG and 329.3 YPG they averaged last season. Look for improved production, though there’s nowhere to go but up from last year.

The defense has a few more holes to fill as they lose their top two tacklers (S Stratton Brown and LB Jeff Camilli), both corners, and DE Nick Kristophers. The bigger problem is the fact that they have just eight scholarship defensive backs returning overall. The unit should improve with six guys back, but the back end is a big question mark that needs to be answered. Road games against SDSU, Hawai’i, Wyoming combine with Boise State at home makes for a difficult conference schedule. Out of conference? No rest for the weary with road dates against Alabama, Washington and a home date against BYU. Woo boy. Hard to see more than four wins even with a very experienced offense. Under 4 wins.

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