Mountain West

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#86 Nevada Wolf Pack

NATIONAL FORECAST

#86

MW West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Brian Polian , 18-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Cramsey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Boone

Entering his fourth season, Brian Polian is starting to get his legs under him at Nevada. The Wolf Pack has gone 7-6 in back-to-back seasons and should have enough experience on offense (nine returning starters) to reach the postseason again. If the defense can overcome just one returning starter in the front seven, Nevada could make a run at the Mountain West title game.

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Previewing Nevada’s Offense for 2016
 

New offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey appears ready to usher in a new era at Nevada, which has run the Pistol offense exclusively for more than a decade. Cramsey, whose offenses at Montana State were among the tops in FCS, will still run plenty of Pistol. But as part of the Chip Kelly coaching tree, Cramsey will likely introduce more spread principles, giving the Wolf Pack a new look for head coach Brian Polian.

Cramsey will have plenty of talent. Junior James Butler — who ran for 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns — will anchor the offense. Despite starting only one game in 2015, Butler emerged as the Wolf Pack’s top threat and appears poised to truly break out.

Senior quarterback Tyler Stewart’s 2015 campaign was steady, if unspectacular. He started all 13 games and threw for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. But he completed just 57 percent of his passes, and his consistency waned later in the season. Stewart’s job was tested in the offseason with the addition of junior college transfer Ty Gangi and sophomore backup Hunter Fralick, but the senior had a strong spring.

Senior Hasaan Henderson — a 6'5", all-conference-caliber receiver when healthy — leads an experienced group. But senior Jerico Richardson is a more consistent performer, and sophomore Ahki Muhammad, who converted from cornerback to slot, provides a new dynamic. Senior tight end Jarred Gipson offers a dependable option.

For the offense to truly jell, the experienced offensive line will have to take another step forward, particularly in pass protection. Junior left tackle Austin Corbett anchors the line, but all five projected starters are upperclassmen, a first in the Polian era.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Nevada’s Defense for 2016 
 

After making the jump from FCS and William & Mary, defensive coordinator Scott Boone has turned in an underrated effort at Nevada. He inherited a defensive unit that allowed 34.4 points per game in 2013, and each year that average has dropped, to 27.2 in 2014 to 26.8 last season. The job gets more difficult this year, however, as the Pack must replace six starters in the front seven. Ends Malik Reed (sophomore) and Patrick Choudja (junior) have flashed at times, but both must step up in starting roles. Salesa Faraimo returns at tackle, and coaches were pleased during the spring with redshirt freshman tackle Hausia Sekona.

The biggest concern is at linebacker, where all of three career starts are returning. Freshman Gabe Sewell redshirted last year, but he will likely start with seniors Alex Bertrando (one start) and L.J. Jackson (two) on either side.

Safeties Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber are among the best in the conference and head up a young, talented secondary. Rufus led the team in tackles, and Baber had six interceptions. Elijah Mitchell is the lone senior in the back and leads a foursome of corners with junior Kendall Johnson, sophomore Elijah Moody and freshman EJ Muhammad. 

Related: 

Previewing Nevada’s Specialists for 2016  
 

Special teams are a strength. Senior kicker Brent Zuzo was nearly automatic last year, hitting on all 17 of his field goal tries inside 50 yards. Senior punter Alex Boy (42-yard average) has been nearly as steady. Mitchell averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return and returned one for a touchdown. Sophomore punt returner Andrew Celis proved reliable.

Final Analysis
 

Nevada’s offense should improve over last year, which will help blunt the significant losses to its defensive front. Still, the Wolf Pack have too many holes to expect a serious run at a West Division title. Nevada has finished 7–6 in four of the last five seasons, and there is plenty of reason to believe that history will repeat itself.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#82 Utah State Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#82

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Matt Wells, 25-16 (3 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jovon Bouknight, Luke Wells | DEF. COORDINATOR: Frank Maile, Kendrick Shaver

Once an afterthought in the WAC, Sun Belt and Big West, Utah State has become one of the more consistent programs in a Mountain West that’s still trying to find its way. True, the Aggies’ 2015 was uneven due in part to injuries, but Utah State managed to reach a fifth consecutive bowl game, a feat that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. With the talented Kent Myers taking over the quarterback position full-time, Utah State should make its sixth consecutive postseason trip.

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Previewing Utah State’s Offense for 2016

The Chuckie Keeton era is officially over, but the Aggies still return plenty of experience on this side of the ball. Three offensive linemen who garnered all-league honors last season are back in Austin Albrecht, Austin Stephens and Jake Simonich. That group will be called on to set the tone for the offense.

“We have guys that have played multiple years, especially on the offensive line,” coach Matt Wells says. “We are looking for them to provide leadership, as well as others.”

It’s no secret the Aggies want to establish the run in 2016. A good part of spring scrimmages showcased the running game, led by Devante Mays, LaJuan Hunt, Tonny Lindsey and Justen Hervey. Mays emerged as a powerful weapon as the 2015 season progressed. Wells believes his big back should easily top 1,000 yards this fall, if he stays healthy.

“I want a 1,000-yard back,” Wells says. “I want to be able to say we are going to be a run-first football team. I want that mentality.”

Wells, who was the offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach three seasons ago, will call the plays this fall.

Kent Myers eventually took over at quarterback for USU when Keeton was injured in 2015. The junior signal caller has plenty of experience running the offense, having also played significant snaps in 2014.

The biggest question is at receiver. Tight ends Wyatt Houston and Dax Raymond are back, as are receivers Andrew Rodriguez and Braelon Roberts. Finding a deep threat is a priority. Running back Kennedy Williams has moved to receiver, and a number of newcomers will get a shot.

Previewing Utah State’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Led by one of the best linebacker corps around, the Aggies have been solid on this side of the ball for several years. Graduation and an early entry to the NFL Draft — Nick Vigil — have left a big hole in the heart of the defense.

“When you lose four guys to the NFL — we will never replace them,” Wells says of his four departed starters at linebacker. “I do believe we have guys in the program and coming in that are good players that need to mature and develop quickly for us to have an elite defense.”

Nose guard Travis Seefeldt returns after a life-threatening automobile accident just before the season started a year ago. He will provide leadership along with end Ricky Ali’ifua.

There is also experience returning in the secondary with cornerbacks Jalen Davis and Daniel Gray, along with safeties Devin Centers and Jontrell Rocquemore. Dallin Leavitt was a two-year starter at BYU before transferring to USU and will figure into the mix. “We will rely on our back end and our D-linemen to make plays,” Wells says.


Related:


Previewing Utah State’s Specialists for 2016
 

As a freshman, punter Aaron Dalton got better as the season progressed. He has continued to improve and will be an important weapon. Three placekickers — Jake Thompson, Brock Warren and Dominik Eberle — are vying for time. Rodriguez is the top returning punt returner in the Mountain West. Holder DJ Nelson is also back.

Final Analysis 
 

A year ago was a roller coaster ride. The Aggies dominated then-No. 21 Boise State and took control of their destiny in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West. However, close road losses at New Mexico and Air Force derailed chances of returning to the league’s championship game for the first time since 2013. Still, the Aggies rallied to become bowl eligible and made their fifth straight postseason appearance. The defense suffered a blow with Vigil leaving, and once again Wells had to deal with losing coordinators and assistants to better-paying jobs. USU has six new coaches. This team will have to rely a lot on offense this season. The Aggies should still win seven games and make it six straight bowl games.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#89 Colorado State Rams

NATIONAL FORECAST

#89

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Mike Bobo, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Will Friend | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marty English

The Mike Bobo era got off to a good enough start with a 7-6 season with a third consecutive bowl game. The Rams were close in three losses, losing in overtime to Minnesota and Colorado in September and then losing by 5 to Mountain West foe Nevada in a bowl game. Bobo will have his challenges in Year 2, losing standout receiver Rashard Higgins to the NFL Draft and defensive coordinator Tyson Summers to Georgia Southern.

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Previewing Colorado State’s Offense for 2016  
 

Record-breaking receiver Rashard Higgins skipped his senior season to jump to the NFL, and all-conference tight end Kivon Cartwright graduated. But the quarterback who delivered the ball last season returns in junior Nick Stevens. And Stevens, who threw for 2,679 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago, should be far more effective in his second season running coach Mike Bobo’s offense than he was in his first. If not, the Rams can turn to Faton Bauta, a graduate transfer who spent three years learning Bobo’s offense as a backup at Georgia.

The Rams also have four starters back on the offensive line along with last year’s leading rusher, junior Dalyn Dawkins, who ran for 867 yards while sharing carries. Sophomore Izzy Matthews, who came on late in the year and averaged 6.1 yards a carry, also returns.

Colorado State showed the kind of physical ground game Bobo was hoping for late last season en route winning its final four regular-season games — with a 100-yard rusher in each — to become bowl-eligible. But Bobo is a big believer in offensive balance and says the Rams need to run and pass effectively to keep defenses off balance.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Colorado State’s Defense for 2016 
 

To say the Rams are rebuilding their defense would be an understatement. They not only lost coordinator Tyson Summers, now the head coach at Georgia Southern, but they also lost their entire defensive line and some key pieces in the secondary.

New coordinator Marty English, who coached the Rams’ linebackers last season, is bringing back the 3-4 defense he helped run as the co-coordinator under former coach Jim McElwain from 2012-14. That should serve the Rams well, given their strength at the linebacker spots, where they return leading tackler Kevin Davis (101 in 2015), a senior, and hard-hitting senior Deonte Clyburn. They’ll have to be solid to bolster an inexperienced front line.

CSU is counting on help in the secondary from converted receiver Jordon Vaden, a senior, as well as junior college transfers A’Keitheon Whitner, Houston Haynes and Devron Davis. Whitner and Haynes were both with the team for spring practices.

Related: 

Previewing Colorado State’s Specialists for 2016  
 

Senior Hayden Hunt was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter in 2015 when he averaged 46.0 yards per kick. Twenty-four of his punts forced opponents to start drives inside their own 20-yard line. The Rams have some proven returners back, as well, in Vaden and Kevin Nutt, who both averaged better than 30 yards on a combined 13 kickoff returns last season, and Preston Hodges, who returned three punts. Sophomore kicker Wyatt Bryan missed three field goals in an overtime loss to Colorado last year but made 12 of his last 15 and 16-of-22 for the year. Braxton Davis, also a sophomore, will likely handle kickoff duties again this season.

Final Analysis
 

Knocking off Boise State for the Mountain West’s Mountain Division title is probably too tall an order for the Rams this season, but a fourth straight bowl appearance is well within reach.

The Rams should be much better offensively in their second year under Bobo, who serves as his own play-caller. Despite the losses of some talented receivers, CSU is deep there and still has plenty of targets for Stevens in the passing game. And a stronger running game to start the year should ease the pressure the quarterback felt early last year, when his arm often was the only offense.

The defense, though, is basically starting over with a new scheme, new coordinator and at least eight new starters. How quickly it comes together will either make or break the season.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#108 Fresno State Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#108

Mountain West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Tim DeRuyter , 29-23 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Kiesau | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lorenzo Ward

 stumbled to a 3-9 finish last season, the worst in head coach Tim DeRuyter's four seasons. The offense ranked near the bottom of the nation in every major category, while the defense wasn't much better. The Bulldogs hope for better things, but significant coaching turnover and a relatively inexperienced roster could lead to even more growing pains in 2016.

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Previewing Fresno State’s Offense for 2016  
 

Coming off a season in which Fresno State ranked 122nd in the country in total offense and 107th in scoring, a housecleaning was in order. Coach Tim DeRuyter swept in a new coordinator (Eric Kiesau) and four new position coaches. All that change also brought a new philosophy. Instead of being an up-tempo spread team that picks run or pass based on how the defense lines up, the Bulldogs want to impose their will in certain situations. “If it’s third-and-1 and we decide to run, I don’t care if they put 11 guys in the box,” DeRuyter says. “We’re going to find a way to get it done.”

After starting four quarterbacks a year ago for all the usual reasons (injuries, ineffectiveness, suspension), Fresno State is desperate for some stability behind center. Chason Virgil, who sustained a broken clavicle in his first career start against Utah, will enter fall camp as the frontrunner. Still, the coaches want to see more from a couple new arrivals, including freshman Quentin Davis and Cal graduate transfer Zach Kline.

Receiver is the deepest and most established position group with Jamire Jordan, KeeSean Johnson and Da’Mari Scott all back. There’s also the added hope that Aaron Peck can finally put everything together after missing last season with a foot injury. With seven career TD catches, tight end Chad Olsen needs to be utilized more outside the red zone.

Kiesau wants to run more, but the jury’s out on who’ll be doing the running — 220-pound Dontel James got most of the spring carries — or whether a revamped line with three new starters and not a ton of size will be up to the task.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Fresno State’s Defense for 2016


The Bulldogs finished 118th in points allowed and 102nd in total defense. But instead of making wholesale changes, DeRuyter brought in SEC veteran Lorenzo Ward to run his beloved 3-4, demoted longtime colleague Nick Toth to inside linebackers coach and kept everything else pretty much the same. Fresno State didn’t have to pay much to get Ward, who is still owed $750,000 by his former employer (South Carolina).

After years as a glaring weakness, cornerback is suddenly a strength. Tyquwan Glass recorded the most tackles of any Bulldogs corner in five years (62) to go with a team-high four interceptions. Glass and Daquawn Brown, a Washington State transfer who impressed at practice while sitting out, could emerge as one of the MW’s better duos. There’s also good depth with experience, both at corner and safety.

Things aren’t as rosy up front. Fresno State got blown off the ball by multiple MW opponents a year ago, a reason the coaches recruited two 310-pound junior college nose tackles (Malik Forrester and Patrick Belony). Their arrival also allows Nate Madsen to slide back to his more natural position of defensive end. With Jeff Camilli and Nela Otukolo, the Bulldogs are solid at inside linebacker. The graduation of leading tackler/sacker/personality Ejiro Ederaine leaves a big hole, though James Bailey, a hybrid outside backer/safety, looks like a budding star.

Related: 

Previewing Fresno State’s Specialists for 2016


After four years of the same punter and long-snapper, first-year players will handle both roles. That’ll make first-year special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer a little nervous. Kody Kroening and Jimmy Camacho, who split the placekicking and kickoff roles, provide more stability.

Final Analysis


After a 20–6 record with two MW titles in Years 1 and 2, DeRuyter’s 9–17 combined record in Years 3 and 4 represents a significant decline. The revamped coaching staff is reason enough for Fresno State not to go 3–9 again. At the same time, the lack of talent and experience at QB sets 6–6 as a likely ceiling. The overriding question: Will that be good enough for DeRuyter to get Year 6?




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#114 Wyoming Cowboys

NATIONAL FORECAST

#114

MW Mountain PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Craig Bohl, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Vigen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Stanard

 took a step backwards in Craig Bohl's second year, winning just two games. The Cowboys have plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball. Bohl oversaw the start of North Dakota State's dynasty (five straight FCS national titles), but he appears to be just getting started on turning around Wyoming.

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Previewing Wyoming’s Offense for 2016


Wyoming will have a different starting quarterback for the third time in Craig Bohl’s three seasons and the fourth in four years overall. Sophomore Josh Allen looked good in 13 plays in Week 2 last year before he broke his right collarbone in seven different places and missed the rest of the season. Allen, a former junior college transfer, will head into preseason camp as the favorite to start over sophomore Nick Smith.

The Cowboys return one of the most productive running backs in the nation in junior Brian Hill, who led the Mountain West and ranked eighth nationally with 135.9 yards per game in 2015. Hill’s 1,631 yards set a single-season Wyoming record, and he enters this season as the fifth-leading rusher in school history (2,427). Hill is joined in the backfield by senior Shaun Wick, who missed the final eight games last season due to a concussion. Wick is Wyoming’s ninth-leading career rusher with 2,179 yards.

Wyoming returns one of the best wide receiver duos in the MW in seniors Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt, who combined for 94 catches for 1,331 yards and 12 TDs last season. Senior tight end Jacob Hollister also is a reliable target. He caught 26 passes for 355 yards in 2015.

The Cowboys return five offensive linemen who started at least one game last season. The anchor is senior guard Chase Roullier, a second-team All-MW pick in 2015. Wyoming made a move with its two starting tackles, flipping junior Ryan Cummings to the right side and sophomore Zach Wallace to left tackle. Wallace started the last 10 games at right tackle last season as a 265-pound true freshman. He is now up to 295.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Wyoming’s Defense for 2016


Six starters return from a unit that allowed 34.0 points and 422.1 yards per game last season.

The secondary is the most experienced group, led by free safety Andrew Wingard. As a true freshman in 2015, Wingard earned second-team All-MW honors after leading the league with 6.9 solo tackles per game. Walk-on strong safety Marcus Epps led the team with two interceptions as a redshirt freshman. Junior Jalen Ortiz, a transfer from UCLA, is expected to push for playing time as a safety or a nickel back. Four cornerbacks who started games last season return. Junior Robert Priester is the most experienced of that group. 

Senior middle linebacker Lucas Wacha, a captain last season, recorded 96 tackles. Senior outside linebacker D.J. May had a productive 2015 after moving from running back. He had 69 tackles and broke up a team-best 10 passes.

Wyoming will be young and on the small side along the defensive line. This group’s progression is critical to the defense’s overall improvement. So is generating more turnovers — Wyoming forced only 10 last season.

Related: 

Previewing Wyoming’s Specialists for 2016


Ethan Wood returns for his fourth year as the Cowboys’ punter. He averaged a respectable 41.8 yards per punt as a junior. Wood also is expected to handle kickoffs. True freshman Cooper Rothe is expected to step in and handle field goal duties. The Cowboys’ coverage units were strong last season, finishing first in the league in opponent kickoff returns (21.3-yard average) and second in punt returns (4.6).

Final Analysis

Wyoming went from four wins in Bohl’s first season to just two last season — the fewest for the program since 2002. This team should be improved, especially on defense, but the Cowboys need to keep Allen healthy and establish some continuity at the quarterback position.

Bohl has described Wyoming as a developmental program. Sometime soon, he will need to find a way to develop some more wins.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#121 Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

NATIONAL FORECAST

#121

MW West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Nick Rolovich, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Smith, Craig Stutzmann | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Lempa

Norm Chow didn't win more than four games in any of his four seasons at , so the Rainbow Warriors have turned to one of their own to hopefully lead the program back to contention in the Mountain West. Nick Rolovich broke numerous school records when he was the Rainbow Warriors' quarterback in 2000-01, and one of his biggest tasks in his first season at head coach will to get more out of an offense that was among the nation's worst in 2015.

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Previewing Hawaii’s Offense for 2016


After cycling through six offensive coordinators and three head coaches (including an interim) in the past five seasons, Hawaii has turned to former Rainbow Warrior quarterback Nick Rolovich to resurrect the program’s fortunes.

Fifth-year senior Ikaika Woolsey, who has started 19 games over three seasons, is the only quarterback on the roster who has thrown a Division-I pass. But he will have to beat out redshirt freshman Aaron Zwahlen, who was a highly rated high school recruit out of California before going on a church mission. Sophomore Beau Reilly, another former missionary, is also in the mix.

There is no suspense at running back, where senior Paul Harris, the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher in five seasons, returns. Steven Lakalaka, who has started 14 games over three seasons, and Melvin Davis, a 6'2", 235-pounder, provide battering ram power. If Diocemy Saint Juste can stay healthy, he will offer a potent outside running threat.

Four offensive line starters are back, but there may be some shifting of positions in the wake of the departure of left tackle Ben Clarke, the top performer the last three years. Honorable mention All-Mountain West pick Dejon Allen moves from right guard to left tackle, and Asotui Eli shifts to right guard from center. RJ Hollis remains a fixture at right tackle, and John Wa’a takes over at center.

Nine of the top 10 receivers, including Marcus Kemp, who led the team in catches (36), return. Devan Stubblefield (30 catches), Dylan Collie (29) and Isaiah Bernard (21) are also back. Metuisela Unga and Dakota Torres might be the best tight end tandem Hawaii has had in years.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Hawaii’s Defense for 2016


Kevin Lempa, who directed one of the most opportunistic defenses of the June Jones era, returns to Hawaii after a 13-year absence as the defensive coordinator. Lempa, who last season coached defensive backs at Boston College, is bringing back a 4-3 defense and hopes to revitalize a unit that forced just 11 turnovers in 2015.

All-MWC defensive tackle Kennedy Tulimasealii was the Rainbow Warriors’ biggest weapon after recording 18.5 tackles for a loss in 2015. However, he was dismissed from the team in late June due to an off-field incident. If tackles Kory Rasmussen and Samiuela Akoteu rebound from offseason knee and foot injuries, respectively, the front four could be formidable. Jeremy Castro, Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea, David Manoa and Manly Williams make for a strong combination at the ends.

Jahlani Tavai’s move from end to middle linebacker has drawn raves and helps shore up a unit that also counts on Jerrol Garcia-Williams, Dany Mulanga and Rashaan Falemalu.

The return of Trayvon Henderson, a two-year starter who sat out last season due to injury, would be a big plus to a thin secondary. Damien Packer, Daniel Lewis and Dejaun Butler join him as the safeties. 

Related: 

Previewing Hawaii’s Specialists for 2016


Rigoberto Sanchez was one of five players in the nation who handled field goals, punts, extra points and kickoff chores. John Ursua, Keelan Ewaliko and Collie figure to divide up the return work.

Final Analysis
 

The Rainbow Warriors’ schedule is as travel-intensive as it is ambitious. In the first month, Hawaii will travel nearly 25,000 miles with three of the first four games in Australia (vs. California), Ann Arbor, Mich. (Michigan) and Tucson, Ariz. (Arizona). Overall, in its 13-game regular season, Hawaii will travel approximately 40,000 miles, double most NFL teams. With that kind of challenge, avoiding what would be a school-record sixth consecutive losing season may be too much to ask in Rolovich’s inaugural campaign.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#51 Air Force Falcons

NATIONAL FORECAST

#51

MW Mountain PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Troy Calhoun, 67-50 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Thiessen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Russ

Expectations are high in Colorado Springs after Air Force claimed the Mountain West's Mountain Division title in 2015. The Falcons’ return eight out of 11 starters on defense, while the offense brings back playmakers Jalen Robinette and Jacobi Owens are back for another season. The two combined for 1,733 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall. Coach Troy Calhoun will enter his 10th year at the helm and it has the potential to be his best year to date.

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Previewing Air Force’s Offense

Jalen Robinette seems out of place in an Air Force football uniform. He’s an immensely talented receiver at a school that historically has shown little use for passing. This could be his season to dominate. He averaged nearly 25 yards per catch last season, but departed quarterback Karson Roberts struggled to find him. That should change in 2016. Nate Romine is the rare Falcon quarterback who throws better than he runs, and he returns after suffering a severe injury to his right knee. Expect Romine and Robinette to surpass for 50 connections and more than 1,000 yards, rare accomplishments at Air Force.

The Falcons, as usual, feature a deep, talented collection of ball carriers. Fullbacks D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern are brutishly effective, and tailbacks Jacobi Owens and Timothy McVey are elusive. McVey began last season at fourth string. He ended it as a surprise star, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. The running quartet, if healthy, could push the Falcons to a national rushing title. This is a big if — Johnson has struggled with his hamstring, and Davern’s shoulders are brittle.

Watch for junior tight end Ryan Reffitt, who will burn defenses that place too much emphasis on the run. Reffitt boasts speed and sure hands. He could become a breakout star in his first season as a starter.

Line coach Clay Hendrix is an expert at replacing departed parts. Colin Sandor and Alex Norton will anchor an undersized but athletic unit.

Previewing Air Force’s Defense
 

End Alex Hansen will be missed; the question is, how much? Hansen often delivered a ferocious one-man pass rush, and Troy Calhoun called him the best defensive player he has coached at Air Force. End Ryan Watson has collected 6.5 career sacks as Hansen’s sidekick. Watson is quick, but at 230 pounds he is undersized even by Air Force standards. He could struggle to escape double teams.

Strong safety Weston Steelhammer offers a rare combination: He’s aggressive on inside runs, often resembling a linebacker, and superlative in coverage. His early, and questionable, bowl game ejection against Cal revealed his value. The defense collapsed after Steelhammer’s departure. Coaches are searching for another corner to play alongside Roland Lapido.

A promising season crashed at the end of 2015, largely because the defense surrendered 159 points in the final four games. Strong performances are needed from linebackers Jacob Onyechi and D.J. Dunn. Coordinator Steve Russ works with one of the smallest defenses in the college game. He needs his undersized defenders to remain healthy for the Falcons to thrive.

Previewing Air Force’s Specialists
 

Luke Strebel has locked up the placekicking job. He hit 10-of-11 field goals last season, including a crucial kick in the win over Boise State. Steve Brosy will struggle to retain the punting job. He’s facing a strong challenge from Cecil Moskowitz, who has the more powerful leg.

Final Analysis

Air Force averaged 33.8 points per game last season while coping with an inconsistent passing game and injuries to fullbacks Johnson and Davern. With a healthy quartet of running backs and Romine at quarterback, the Falcons could flirt with 40 points per game. Owens and McVey could rank as the top tailback combination in the conference, and Robinette is prepared to burn any defense that concentrates too much on the run. Slowing the Falcon offense will offer a troubling challenge to any opposing defensive coordinator. The question, as usual, will be the performance of the undersized defense. If the Falcons produce a pass rush — always a challenge — this team should win 10 games, and maybe more.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#96 San Jose State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#96

MW West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Ron Caragher, 15-22 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Al Borges | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ron English

Despite going 5-7 in the regular season, received a bowl invitation last season. The Spartans made the most of that opportunity, beating Georgia State in the Cure Bowl, and now Ron Caragher's team returns 15 starters looking to make it back-to-back postseason trips.

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Previewing San Jose’s Offense for 2016


The Spartans return eight starters to one of the most balanced attacks in the nation, albeit one that ranked just 69th in points per game. Quarterback Kenny Potter took control of the position as a junior-college transfer a year ago and returns for his senior season with a majority of his weapons back. Potter completed 67 percent of his passes to lead the Mountain West, tossing 15 TDs and seven INTs in 10 starts. Potter is a passer first who can run when necessary, as evidenced by his five rushes of 30 or more yards. 

Potter’s favorite target is back in tight end Billy Freeman, a first-team All-MWC performer. Two of the three starting wide receivers also return in Tyler Winston and Tim Crawley, and Justin Holmes replaced Winston as a starter late in the year after an injury. Crawley is an effective slot receiver, while Holmes may be the most talented of the group and is poised for a breakout year.

Four starters return on the offensive line, with junior Nate Velichko moving from right tackle to left tackle. Velichko and left guard Jeremiah Kolone are all-league candidates who are solid in both the run and pass game. 

Running back is the biggest question on offense, as San Jose State’s career all-purpose yardage leader Tyler Ervin has graduated. Thomas Tucker is the leading candidate to replace him, but Malik Roberson, Jarrod Lawson and Zamore Zigler will all be given a shot in what could develop as a committee situation.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing San Jose’s Defense for 2016


Like the offense, San Jose State returns a lot of experience on the defensive side of the ball, which enjoyed modest improvement in 2015. New defensive coordinator Ron English has an entirely new staff, and its goal will be to shore up a run defense that has ranked 102nd and 119th the last two seasons. 

The unit’s strength is at linebacker, where second-team All-MWC Christian Tago and Frank Ginda both return. Tago led the Spartans in tackles by a wide margin and will be critical to the Spartans’ goal of continued improvement. Ginda was also a big playmaker in 2015 as a true freshman. Andre Chachere, who started 10 games in a hybrid linebacker/safety role, has been moved to cornerback and will play with new starter Dakari Monroe. Dominic Barnes, an undersized but aggressive player, should fill the role vacated by Chachere. Safety Maurice McKnight, the team’s most solid tackler, will anchor a secondary that ranked 39th in the nation in opposing passer rating. 

The defensive line returns three starters, with Bryson Bridges moving from a reserve role at defensive tackle into the starting spot after a nice freshman season.

Related: 

Previewing San Jose’s Specialists for 2016


Punter Michael Carrizosa enjoyed an outstanding season for the Spartans and has a shot at All-America honors. Placekicking was inconsistent last season as the team finished 11-of-19 on field goals with three missed extra points. Bryce Crawford will take over this year after going 1-of-2 on field goals and 6-of-7 on extra points in spot duty when Austin Lopez struggled. Ervin must be replaced as the punt and kick returner, where he excelled. 

Final Analysis


San Jose State improved from 3–9 to 6–7 last season, and another slight improvement should be on the way.  If a running back emerges behind a strong offensive line, the offense will put up enough points to be in almost every game. Defensively, stopping the run and getting some pressure on the quarterback will be keys for the new staff on that side of the ball. If those two things happen, look for the Spartans to enjoy back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since 1986-87.

 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#93 New Mexico Lobos

NATIONAL FORECAST

#93

MW Mountain PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Bob Davie, 18-32 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bob DeBesse | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Cosgrove

Bob Davie's fourth season at produced seven wins and the Lobos' first bowl appearance since 2007. The defense returns nine starters, but can't afford to take a step back while the offense will need to improve for New Mexico to make it back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2006-07.

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Previewing New Mexico’s Offense for 2016


Despite New Mexico’s rise to prominence last season, coach Bob Davie felt his Pistol option offense took a step backward. The Lobos’ 252.2 rushing yards per game marked the lowest season average in the Davie era by nearly 50 yards. The passing game averaged a four-year high (136.0 ypg), but its 14 interceptions more than doubled the previous high in the Davie regime. UNM had 22 runs of 30 yards or more and three passes of 80 yards or more to rank second and first nationally, respectively, last season. Those were offset, though, by a significant increase in minimal-yardage plays.

Davie believes the surprise element of his Pistol option has faded. He shook up his offensive staff in hopes that some new voices at new positions would help invigorate this unit. Offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse goes from quarterbacks to wide receivers; WRs coach Scott Baumgartner moves to running backs; and RBs coach Apollo Wright, a former college quarterback, will coach QBs.

UNM will still employ a two-QB system with junior Lamar Jordan and senior Austin Apodaca. Though Jordan threw for more yards last season, Apodaca is considered the better passer. Jordan’s 807 rushing yards were third on the 2015 team, and senior tailback Teriyon Gipson returns from an 850-yard campaign that ranked second.

Leading wide receiver Dameon Gamblin is a senior this year. Delane Hart-Johnson, who averaged 29.7 yards per catch last year as a sophomore junior college transfer, returns and is more in-tune with the offense.

The intriguing story heading into the season will be the transition of Cole Gautsche, the team’s quarterback in 2012 and 2013, to tight end. Davie is hoping he can become the chain-moving tight end UNM needs.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing New Mexico’s Defense for 2016


Third-year coordinator Kevin Cosgrove’s defense looks to build on last season’s vast improvement. His defense returns nine starters from a unit that allowed 81.4 yards per game fewer than in 2014, had 15 more takeaways than in 2013 — the year before Cosgrove was promoted — and recorded 30 sacks.

UNM’s entire starting front six in its 3-3-5 scheme returns and arguably has one of the Mountain West’s best linebacking corps in Dakota Cox, Kimmie Carson and Donnie White, with Maurice Daniels coming off the bench. Cox is two years removed from a torn ACL that interrupted a sophomore season with a 12.9 tackles-per-game average.

The Lobos’ rotation on the line allows them to keep fresh bodies in the lineup, creating more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Senior end Nik D’Avanzo recorded 44 of his 54 tackles in the team’s last eight games last season.

UNM has question marks in the secondary because of key losses, including safety Markel Byrd, who died in a car accident immediately after the 2015 season. Safety Daniel Henry and nickel back Lee Crosby, the most productive players on the back end, return for their senior seasons.

Related: 

Previewing New Mexico’s Specialists for 2016


How well the Lobos can replace key specialists, including record-breaking kick returner Carlos Wiggins (27.9-yard kick-return average with five career TDs), will help determine the team’s success. Junior Jason Sanders will take over kicking chores, and left-footed recruit Corey Bojorquez will compete to become punter.

Final Analysis
 
After flying under the radar in Davie’s first four seasons, the Lobos will command more attention in 2016. Their rise coincided with their vast defensive improvement in 2015. That defense remains, but the offense must cut down on its mistakes, and the Lobos have to maintain their strong special teams play to reach a second consecutive bowl game.



COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#106 UNLV Rebels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#106

MW West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Tony Sanchez, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Barney Cotton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kent Baer

While only won three games in former Las Vegas prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez' first season, it's possible that these Rebels take a major step forward in Year 2. The head coach and his players both have a year of experience working together and the roster has been bolstered thanks to one of the strongest recruiting classes in program history. But will the pieces all come together in a way that results in the Rebels winning enough games to become bowl eligible?

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Previewing UNLV’s Offense for 2016 
 

Sanchez has plenty of talented options to replace Blake Decker, who started the majority of the past two seasons at quarterback. Junior Kurt Palandech returns after passing for nine touchdowns and running for 293 yards and four more scores as Decker’s backup. He will enter the fall in a stiff battle with Johnny Stanton, a first-team junior-college All-American who began his career at Nebraska, where he played for Rebel offensive coordinator Barney Cotton. And Sanchez says he will also give four-star recruit Armani Rogers, who switched to UNLV after initially committing to Cal prior to his senior year, a strong look in fall camp as well.

Whoever earns the starting nod at quarterback will have a solid group of skill players with which to work led by explosive sophomore running back Lexington Thomas. A deep group of wide receivers is led by juniors Devonte Boyd and 6'4" Kendal Keys, one of the stars of spring practice, along with redshirt freshman Darren Woods Jr. and sophomore Brandon Presley. And tight end, once a glaring weakness, now is a potential strength thanks to the development of senior Andrew Price and the addition of two junior-college standouts.

The offensive line, which allowed 33 sacks, returns three starters and is led by senior center Will Kreitler and junior left tackle Kyle Saxelid, who has added 25 much-needed pounds to his wiry 6'7" frame.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing UNLV’s Defense for 2016  
 

The line, led by senior end Jeremiah Valoaga and junior tackle Mike Hughes, appeared to be much-improved in spring practice but still must be considered a major question mark for the base 4-3 defense. Sanchez is hoping another year in the weight room combined with a solid recruiting class will improve a unit that was simply overpowered at times, allowing an astonishing 800 yards after first contact and an average of 5.7 yards per carry.

All three linebackers return, including seniors Tau Lotulelei and Ryan McAleenan, both of whom sparkled at times last season. And Sanchez expects Illinois transfer LaKeith Walls, a fifth-year senior who had 16 tackles in 11 games last season, and junior college transfer Brian Keyes to both become impact players.

The secondary has the potential to be the strength of the defense. Starting corners Torry McTyer and Tim Hough both return and will be joined by highly touted junior college transfer Robert Jackson. The Rebels must replace four-year starter Peni Vea at safety, but seniors Kenny Keys and Troy Hawthorne provide experience.

Related: 

Previewing UNLV’s Specialists for 2016  
 

Senior Nicolai Bornand, who has twice earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week honors in his career and kicked a school-record-tying 54-yarder, returns to handle placekicking duties. The Rebels must replace steady three-year starter Logan Yunker at punter. Sophomore Evan Pantels averaged 39.3 yards last season at Georgia Military Academy. The former Georgia State signee will focus on punting duties in the fall and but can also handle placekicking and kickoff duties if needed.

Final Analysis
 

Sanchez brought some much-needed enthusiasm and discipline to the program in his first year after directing nearby Bishop Gorman High School to its first mythical national prep championship. A 3–9 finish might not seem like much to get excited about, but it marked just the fourth time in 12 seasons that UNLV topped the two-win mark in a season. Sanchez is hopeful that one of the top-ranked recruiting classes in school history, which included seven midyear juco signees and a program-record 10 recruits rated three stars or better, will be enough to get the team over the hump and back to a bowl game for just the second time since 2000. 




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