Mountain West


#71 Colorado State Rams



MW Mountain Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Mike Bobo, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Will Friend | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Summers

Colorado State is coming off its best season since 2002, a 10-3 season that saw the Rams challenge for a Mountain West title and propel coach Jim McElwain to the Florida job. After four seasons of improving its win total, Colorado State enters uncertain territory with new coach Mike Bobo, the former offensive coordinator at Georgia.

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Previewing Colorado State’s Offense for 2015  

Quarterback Garrett Grayson, who rewrote Colorado State’s passing record book, is gone, as is last year’s leading rusher, Dee Hart. There’s a new coach in Mike Bobo and a new offense he brought with him from Georgia to learn. But three starters on the offensive line are back, as is receiver Rashard Higgins. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s outstanding receiver last year, Higgins led the nation in receiving yards (1,750) and touchdown catches (17).

Sophomore quarterback Nick Stevens, last year’s backup, picked up the new offense quickly during spring practices and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of what he’ll be expected to do this fall. The quarterbacks in Bobo’s pro-style offense have to make a number of reads at the line of scrimmage to get the offense into the right play based on what the defense is showing.

Fullbacks have returned to the CSU offense in an effort to build a powerful ground game that will wear opponents down. Sophomore Dalyn Dawkins, a transfer from Purdue, impressed coaches with his toughness this spring and could emerge as the primary running back over returnees Treyous Jarrells (87 carries for 450 yards and six touchdowns in 2014) and Jasen Oden (46 carries, 276 yards, two touchdowns), both seniors.

The Rams have two of the top tight ends in the Mountain West in seniors Steven Walker, a returning all-conference performer, and Kivon Cartwright.

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Previewing Colorado State’s Defense for 2015 

The Rams are moving from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 under new coordinator Tyson Summers, who directed one of the nation’s top defensive units last year at UCF. The biggest change, players say, is that defensive linemen are being asked to make plays themselves instead of filling gaps so the linebackers can come in and make the tackles.

The Rams return four starters in the secondary, where senior safeties Kevin Pierre-Louis (85 tackles) and Trent Matthews (54 tackles) and junior nickel back Preston Hodges (69 tackles) are the top returning tacklers on the defense. Junior cornerback Tyree Simmons had a strong spring.

The strength of the defense, though, is likely to be the linebackers, Bobo says. Juniors Kevin Davis and Deionte Clyburn played a lot as backups last fall, and sophomore Kiel Robinson was a top performer in spring drills. Senior Cory James returns on the outside, where he has 21 sacks over the past three seasons, including a team-leading 6.5 in 2014. 
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Colorado State’s Specialists for 2015  

Junior punter Hayden Hunt returns after averaging 43.8 yards a kick last season. But the Rams have to replace kicker Jared Roberts, who scored 270 points over the past four seasons and set a Mountain West record by making 111 consecutive PATs. Deointe Gaines is back to return kicks after averaging 24.9 yards as a true freshman, and senior Joe Hansley averaged 9.7 yards on six punt returns last season. Bobo retained three of former coach Jim McElwain’s assistants, including special teams coordinator Jeff Hammerschmidt. So the Rams won’t be making the kind of wholesale changes in the kicking game that they’re making on offense and defense.

Final Analysis

It will be hard to match the success the Rams had last season, when they won nine games in a row and posted only the fifth 10-win season in school history. There’s bound to be a drop-off as they learn new schemes and replace key players. McElwain left the program in good shape, though, with solid depth at most positions and some talented players who are ready to step into starring roles. A third consecutive bowl appearance is well within reach.


#68 San Diego State Aztecs





HEAD COACH: Rocky Long, 32-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Horton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rocky Long

Under Brady Hoke and Rocky Long, San Diego State has become a regular winner, reaching five consecutive bowl games. The bar has been raised enough to where last season’s 7-6 season qualifies as a disappointment. The Aztecs should continue to contend in the Mountain West, but their ceiling may depend on the health of a transfer quarterback from Kentucky.

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Previewing San Diego State’s Offense for 2015

Transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith distanced himself from second-stringer Christian Chapman and Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues in spring drills and gives San Diego State an experienced leader. Smith is a former starter at Kentucky and is battled-tested after facing sturdy SEC defenses. He could excel in the Mountain West.

Running back Donnel Pumphrey rushed for a school-record 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore, and he is on pace to join Marshall Faulk (4,589), Larry Ned (3,562) and Ronnie Hillman (3,243) as the only rushers in school history to reach 3,000 career yards. The 5'9", 170-pound Pumphrey has proven he can carry a huge workload, and San Diego State plans to rely heavily on him again this season. 

The Aztecs are hoping that Eric Judge (24 receptions last season) will step up as a go-to receiver, and Lloyd Mills (22) should be the other starter after the dismissal of Larry Clark. The offensive line suffered a blow when starting center Lenicio Noble and backup guard Paul Rodriguez were booted from the squad, but the unit returns starting guards Nico Siragusa and Darrell Greene.

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Previewing San Diego State’s Defense for 2015

The Aztecs allowed just 19.8 points per game last season and received good news when cornerback J.J. Whittaker and middle linebacker Jake Fely were awarded an extra season of eligibility. Both players missed large parts or all of multiple seasons due to injuries, and the welcome development makes San Diego State’s defense even sturdier. 

Big-play outside linebacker Calvin Munson is the star of the unit after leading the team with four interceptions and with 10.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-high four sacks. Fely has started 30 career games but was healthy for just three contests last season. 

The return of Whittaker (two interceptions) means that all five secondary starters in the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 alignment are returning. Cornerback Damontae Kazee broke up 13 passes last season, and safeties Malik Smith (three interceptions), Na’im McGee and Trey Lomax all had solid campaigns in 2014 and should be even better this fall. 

Defensive end Alex Barrett had nine tackles for a loss before having his season cut short by a foot injury, and nose tackle Christian Heyward has the potential to mix it up in the interior.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists for 2015

Donny Hageman was an improvement over San Diego State’s 2013 kicking fiascos, but his 20-of-25 field-goal campaign didn’t come without a glitch. Hageman had a chance to be a hero in the Poinsettia Bowl but missed a 34-yarder with 20 seconds left to allow Navy to post a 17–16 victory. He has a solid leg on kickoffs, which often helps with field position. Junior college transfer Tanner Blain likely will be the punter to replace departed Joel Alesi. Mills is a solid punt returner who took one back for a score in 2014.

Final Analysis

San Diego State has gone to five consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and has been steady but not spectacular in four seasons under coach Rocky Long’s leadership. The seven victories in 2014 were the Aztecs’ fewest since 2009 (under Brady Hoke), and there is now an expectation of a winning season and bowl game appearance every year. 

If Smith can avoid the injuries that hindered him at Kentucky and can provide the downfield passing attack San Diego State lacked last season, the Aztecs will be a solid threat to reach the Mountain West title game. The defense is strong enough for San Diego State to win the division crown, and there is enough overall talent for the Aztecs to set winning the conference championship as a legitimate goal.

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#51 Utah State Aggies



MW Mountain Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Matt Wells, 19-9 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Josh Heupel, Luke Wells | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Clune

Matt Wells has done a terrific job following Gary Andersen at Utah State. He’s won 19 games in two years and gave Aggies fans their third consecutive bowl victory by beating UTEP last December. The Mountain West contender sustained multitudes of injuries last season and should be healthier this fall. If Wells can break in new coordinators this offseason, the Aggies could push for a league championship.

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Previewing Utah State’s Offense for 2015

Once again the Aggies return a wealth of experience on offense, especially at quarterback. While one signal-caller who had started 11 games over the past two seasons left the team during spring drills, two more are back who have won bowl games — Chuckie Keeton and Kent Myers. Add to the mix Oregon transfer Damion Hobbs, and that position looks loaded. “We are strong at quarterback,” Utah State head coach Matt Wells says. “We’ve got game-day experience. We’ve got guys that have won games. Our team believes in all those guys. It is a position of strength.”

Myers, who was the New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP in 2014 as a true freshman, spent half of spring at wide receiver. When Darrell Garretson left the team, Myers moved back to quarterback and into the battle to back up Keeton, a Heisman Trophy candidate two years ago.

Four linemen are back, and several key recruits were added to strengthen the position. Protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running game should be a strength.

As for who will be carrying the ball, it could turn into a committee. LaJuan Hunt led the team as a freshman a year ago.

Two of the top four wide receivers from 2014 are back in Devonte Robinson and Hunter Sharp, along with tight end Wyatt Houston. JoJo Natson was expected to be a key target for Keeton, but the senior was dismissed from the team in late June.

“You expect a lot out of guys that have started,” Wells says. “I expect them to play at a very high level pretty early in the season.”

Previewing Utah State’s Defense for 2015

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Despite resting a handful of players who have started during spring to heal from surgeries or lingering injuries, this side of the ball showed its depth in scrimmages. It would seem the defense, which finished last season among the national leaders in many statistical categories, could be even better in 2015.

Like the quarterbacks, the Aggies had a number of linebackers go down with injuries but just kept reloading. Now there is a group that will be fighting for playing time. Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell have earned all-league honors, while LT Filiaga and Torrey Green were able to step in and play significant time last year.

“I think we are talented at linebacker,” Wells says. “Linebacker should be the strength of our defense.”

The secondary lost two safeties to graduation but returns a group of athletes who saw lots of time in nickel and dime packages. Cornerbacks Jalen Davis and Daniel Gray, along with safety Devin Centers, give the team experience.

Jordan Nielsen is the most experienced player in the defensive trenches.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Utah State’s Specialists for 2015

The punter and kicker who handled most of the field goals are gone. Jake Thompson has kicked off and been used to attempt longer field goals. Long snapper Salanoa Galea’i is also back.

Final Analysis 

Not even a plethora of key injuries derailed the Aggies from going to their fourth straight bowl game and emerging victorious for the third consecutive year. One has to wonder how good they could have been had they stayed healthy. Most of those athletes are back, and a strong recruiting class has been added.

With the success Utah State has enjoyed, several key assistants left for bigger schools. The Aggies will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Josh Heupel (offense) and Kevin Clune (defense), who was a position coach at USU several years ago. Wells believes the new coordinators have added to the program and brought a new and different enthusiasm.

Extending the school record streak of bowl appearances is nearly a given.


#25 Boise State Broncos



MW Mountain Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Bryan Harsin, 12-2 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eliah Drinkwitz | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marcel Yates

Boise State’s first season under coach Bryan Harsin was a success. The Broncos won 12 games, including a 38-30 victory over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Boise State is back among the nation’s top 25 teams in 2015 with 17 returning starters. Replacements must be found for quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi, but the Broncos are loaded for another run at a double-digit win season.

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Previewing Boise State’s Offense for 2015:

The Broncos return nine offensive starters but still will look dramatically different this year. The two lost starters — quarterback Grant Hedrick and tailback Jay Ajayi — accounted for 89.1 percent of the team’s yards and 92.4 percent of the offensive touchdowns. The program also changed offensive coordinators again. Tight ends coach Eliah Drinkwitz was promoted to become the fifth man in six years to orchestrate the Broncos’ offense. He replaces Mike Sanford, who left after one successful season at his alma mater to become the coordinator at Notre Dame. Drinkwitz previously called plays for coach Bryan Harsin in 2013 at Arkansas State.

The quarterback and tailback holes won’t be filled until August. Sophomore Ryan Finley, the backup last year, is the favorite to replace Hedrick. He tossed two touchdown passes in relief last year against Air Force. Sophomore Jeremy McNichols, who played a receiver/tailback combo role as a true freshman, is the front-runner for Ajayi’s job, but coaches expect to utilize a committee this season rather than the one-back approach of 2014.

The two new starters will be surrounded by talent, including standout offensive linemen Marcus Henry (center) and Rees Odhiambo (left tackle); emerging pass catchers Thomas Sperbeck, Chaz Anderson and Jake Roh (tight end); and veteran receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes.

Previewing Boise State’s Defense for 2015:

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The Broncos return all but one defensive lineman, two outstanding linebackers and two all-conference defensive backs from a defense that lacked consistency but showed flashes of dominance last season.

The goal is to regain the conference’s top spot in defense, a perch the Broncos have occupied frequently during their run of 10 top-25 seasons in 13 years. They turned stingy for a four-and-a-half-game stretch from halftime of the San Diego State game to the end of the season. The biggest flaw last year was giving up the big play, an area that should improve with this group’s experience and the return of the nickel back. The Broncos were forced by injuries to move linebacker Tanner Vallejo to nickel, which limited their coverage options. Vallejo, who was the Defensive MVP of the Mountain West Championship Game and Fiesta Bowl, returns to middle linebacker after recording 16.5 tackles for a loss.

Other defensive standouts include Mountain West sack leader Kamalei Correa (12.0), MW interception leader Darian Thompson (seven, with one TD) and cornerback Donte Deayon (six interceptions, two TDs).

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Boise State’s Specialists for 2015:

Junior Tyler Rausa replaces solid kicker Dan Goodale, while Sean Wale returns as the punter, coming off a career-best performance in the Fiesta Bowl. Long snapper Kevin Keane and holder Wale return, too. Williams-Rhodes and Deayon provide dynamic options as kick returners, though the Broncos did rank last in the league in kickoff returns in 2014 (18.8-yard average).

Final Analysis 

The Broncos’ 12–2 record and Fiesta Bowl championship were a surprise in 2014. This team is much better equipped for that type of season with its experience, depth and stable coaching staff. The Broncos might be unanimous favorites in the Mountain West and should start in the top 25. The key will be a loaded September schedule: The opener is against Washington and former coach Chris Petersen in Boise, and trips to BYU and Virginia follow. A 4–0 September would rekindle the buzz that surrounded the program’s Kellen Moore era as an outsider trying to crash the national championship party. But even with a difficult start, the schedule strength will allow the Broncos to contend for another New Year’s Six berth.