Mountain West

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#83 San Diego State Aztecs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#83

MW West Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Rocky Long, 25-14 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bob Toledo | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rocky Long

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 83 San Diego State.

Previewing San Diego State’s Offense for 2014: 

Quarterback Quinn Kaehler underwent offseason elbow surgery on his throwing arm but is expected to be fully recovered well before fall camp. That’s a huge plus since he is San Diego State’s only proven commodity at quarterback and all but saved the squad’s 2013 season after replacing ineffective Adam Dingwell early in the campaign. Kaehler passed for 3,007 yards and 19 touchdowns, and his efficient nature led to only nine interceptions in 389 attempts.

Kaehler has a big-time target to throw to in Ezell Ruffin, who emerged as a go-to receiver last season with 68 receptions for 1,136 yards. Eric Judge, who caught 13 passes in 2013, has the potential to develop into a solid receiving complement to Ruffin.

Two-time 1,000-yard running back Adam Muema surprisingly bypassed his senior campaign in favor of chasing an NFL roster spot, leaving scatback Donnel Pumphrey (10 total touchdowns as a freshman) as the most accomplished runner. But the 5'9", 170-pounder isn’t suited for heavy pounding, so the Aztecs will be hoping someone such as Chase Price or Dwayne Garrett can emerge as a between-the-tackles rusher.

Left tackle Terry Poole is the top offensive lineman.

Previewing San Diego State’s Defense for 2014: 

San Diego State will be searching for reinforcements up front and in the back end but is well stocked at linebacker. Middle linebacker Jake Fely is one of the top defensive players in the Mountain West and is fully recovered from a foot injury that ended his 2013 season in late September. Josh Gavert played well in Fely’s place, but having the fiery leader back to team with outside linebacker Derek Largent gives the Aztecs a sturdy group in the center of the defense.

The toughest chore is replacing standout safeties Nat Berhe and Eric Pinkins — the squad’s top two tacklers last season. Most of that will be hashed out in fall camp as Brandon Porter was the only player to secure a starting spot in the three-safety alignment during spring drills.

The defensive line will be deep, as tackle Sam Meredith and end Dontrell Onuoha are expected to be fully healthy after missing the spring, and former USC defensive tackle Christian Heyward figures to push for a role. J.J. Whittaker, who had three of the Aztecs’ eight interceptions in 2013, and Damontae Kazee are the starting cornerbacks.

Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists for 2014: 

The placekicking was a disaster last season as departed Wes Feer and Seamus McMorrow combined to go 8-of-16 on field goals and missed six extra points. Coach Rocky Long moved to fix the issue by recruiting junior college kicker Donald Hageman and freshman John Baron II. The two kickers will compete for the job during fall camp with the more experienced Hageman holding an edge after going 19-of-20 at the junior college level last fall. Joel Alesi placed 17 punts inside the 20-yard line last season, and only 13 of his 53 punts were returned. He holds an edge over McMorrow for the job.

Final Analysis 

San Diego State is in a bit of a transition after losing 12 starters, but there is enough remaining talent to finish in the top half of the conference’s West Division. The Aztecs have gone to four consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and have proven to be a gritty squad under Long’s leadership. San Diego State didn’t collapse after an 0–3 start last season and ended up playing in four overtime games while rebounding to record at least eight victories for the fourth straight year.

That type of consistency — along with defeating conference power Boise State in back-to-back seasons — provides hope that the Aztecs will again win eight or more games and contend for the division crown.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#74 Colorado State Rams

NATIONAL FORECAST

#74

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, 12-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Baldwin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marty English, Al Simmons

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 74 Colorado State.

Previewing Colorado State’s Offense for 2014:

With running back Kapri Bibbs leaving early for the NFL after setting school records with his 1,741 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns last season, the Rams are likely to air it out a bit more this season. Quarterback Garrett Grayson, now a senior, threw for a school-record 3,696 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2013 while directing the most productive offense in CSU history. The Rams averaged 470.8 yards per game.

Coach Jim McElwain likes his receiving corps. Sophomore Rashard Higgins, last year’s leader with 68 catches for 837 yards and six TDs, is back, as are four others who caught 20 or more passes. Senior Kivon Cartwright, who had 27 catches for 462 yards and six TDs as the second tight end, should become one of Grayson’s favorite targets.

Converted safety Jasen Oden and redshirt freshman Bryce Peters battled for the starting job at running back during spring drills and will get some added competition from true freshmen Deron Thompson and Johnathan Lewis. Donnell Alexander, the leading rusher two years ago, chose to transfer with two years of eligibility remaining.

Rebuilding the offensive line will be a challenge, given that star center Weston Richburg and three of the other four starters last year were seniors. But McElwain and his staff like the players who were backing them up last year and don’t believe there will be much of a drop-off.

Previewing Colorado State’s Defense for 2014:

Although outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, is gone, seven defensive starters return, including leading tacklers Max Morgan and Aaron Davis, both inside linebackers. Morgan was in on 134 tackles, including 71 solo stops, last year, while Davis was in on 120 with 63 solo stops.

Four players who started 10 or more games return in the secondary, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for a CSU team that gave up an average of 275.7 passing yards per game and more passing touchdowns (33) than 123 other FBS teams. McElwain and his staff hope a year of seasoning and increased competition from a recruiting class that included seven defensive backs will spur improvement.

All three of last year’s starters on the defensive line were seniors, but the three players behind them all were part of the regular playing rotation, and one, junior Terry Jackson, had 29 tackles — more than all but one of the starters up front.

Specialists 

All-MW kicker Jared Roberts, who has made 30-of-34 field goals the past two seasons, returns. The Rams are also in good shape in the punting department; Hayden Hunt, who averaged 41.9 yards a kick with 14 inside the 20-yard line and only four touchbacks, is back for his sophomore season. Colorado State ranked second in the league in both kickoff and punt returns last season.

Final Analysis

The Rams lost some significant star power with Bibbs’ decision to forego his final two seasons to turn pro and the graduations of Richburg, Barrett and All-MW tight end Crockett Gillmore. But they’ve still got a lot to work with in Grayson and a talented corps of receivers, including three who redshirted last fall. They’ll have to develop enough of a running threat to keep defenses honest but should be able to move the ball effectively through the air. The secondary has to improve for the Rams to be a factor in the pass-happy MW.

A favorable schedule that does not include MW West Division powers Fresno State and San Diego State gives the Rams a legitimate chance to make back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2002-03, when Sonny Lubick was the coach.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#62 Fresno State Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#62

Mountain West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Tim DeRuyter , 20-6 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Schramm | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Toth

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 62 Fresno State.

Previewing Fresno State's Offense:

Josh HarperFor the first time since 2010, Derek Carr won’t have the keys to the offense. The two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year is gone, and so are favorite targets Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse. Fresno State will stick with the no-huddle spread, though no one’s expecting a repeat of 43.4 points per game.

The battle to succeed Carr took an interesting twist in late April with the arrival of graduate transfer Brandon Connette. Connette was a major part of Duke’s offense last fall, both as a passer and goal-line specialist. Brian Burrell had the best spring of three returning quarterbacks, but doesn’t have anywhere near Connette’s resume. Coach Tim DeRuyter doesn’t plan to name a starter until two weeks before the opener.

The Bulldogs had three 1,000-yard receivers a year ago. One returns, Josh Harper, but he sat out all spring as the coaches took a cautious approach with a late-season knee injury. Exacerbating things, three promising young wideouts (Da’Mari Scott, Darrell Fuery, Delvon Hardaway) missed large chunks of spring as well. Aaron Peck was healthy, and he looked like an emerging star.

Tailbacks Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller split carries last fall with each averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. That sounds good, but most of the damage came against defenses geared to stop the pass. This year, the ground game could become the primary option. DeRuyter wants to get a good look at promising redshirt freshman Dontel James, who like Quezada sat out the spring. Three starters return on a line anchored by right guard Cody Wichmann and right tackle Justin Northern. Pass protection has been the unit’s forte. Clearing holes in short yardage? Not so much.

Previewing Fresno State's Defense:

This will be of little solace to Bulldogs fans still smarting over the 62–52 loss at San Jose State, but the defense will be much improved. Eight starters return, including All-MWC free safety Derron Smith and second-teamers Tyeler Davison and Ejiro Ederaine. There’s even depth at cornerback, a glaring weakness last year.

Smith enters his senior year with 14 career interceptions, more than any active FBS player. He’s a pure ball-hawk, so quarterbacks beware. Strong safety Charles Washington is such a good athlete that the coaches moved him to corner for a few games. But with a healthy Jamal Ellis, expected improvement from Curtis Riley and more depth coming in, Washington is back stuffing the run.

Davison is the linchpin up front, but the MWC’s best nose tackle may play much of his senior season at end. Defensive coordinator Nick Toth experimented with that alignment as a way to get his three best linemen on the field. Maurice Poyadue is one of them, and he’s a pure nose. Even at 304 pounds, Davison showed the versatility to play both positions.

All four starters return at linebacker. Ederaine surprised everyone by finishing third in the MWC in both sacks (10) and tackles for a loss (1.27 per game). Not bad for a first-year starter. Donavon Lewis, who plays on the opposite side, is just as big a handful.

Previewing Fresno State's Specialists:

Kicker Colin McGuire, punter Garrett Swanson and return man Dillon Root are solid. The kickoff coverage was poor in 2013, ranking dead last in the conference. Things got so bad that DeRuyter stopped kicking the ball deep.

Final Analysis

DeRuyter has enjoyed a pretty good run: two seasons and two MWC titles. But the job’s about to get a lot tougher, breaking in a new quarterback against a brutal early schedule.

After tangling with USC, Utah and Nebraska, it’s possible Fresno State will be 1–3 for the conference opener. Yet there’s enough talent to hang another championship banner. It may depend on whether the Bulldogs are steeled by those early games — or battered by them.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#49 Utah State Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#49

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Matt Wells, 9-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin McGiven, Luke Wells | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Orlando

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 49 Utah State.

Previewing Utah State’s Offense for 2014:

Two of Utah State’s top players on offense happen to play the same position — quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Darell Garretson. Keeton, a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate a year ago, went down with a knee injury in the sixth game last fall. Garretson, a true freshman in 2013, went 6–1 as a starter. Those two combined to lead the offense to five single-season school records. Keeton missed spring drills but is on track to return to full speed in time for camp.

Protecting the signal-caller will be the biggest challenge, as five seniors graduated from the offensive line, including four starters. Left tackle Kevin Whimpey has started 26 straight games and will provide leadership. “I’ve been pleasantly pleased with the offensive line,” Utah State coach Matt Wells says. “Our guys are talented. They are just youthful and inexperienced.”

Like the quarterback, the starting running back is coming back from a knee injury. Joe Hill missed the last nine games and spring. He will be pushed by Rashad Hall and Kennedy Williams, the little brother of Kerwynn Williams, a former Aggie who is now with the San Diego Chargers.

Two key receivers return in Bruce “JoJo” Natson and Brandon Swindall. Several new players shined in the spring, and the coach is excited about the guys who will be catching passes.

“Potentially, this could be one of our more talented groups at wideout here in a long time,” Wells says.

Previewing Utah State’s Defense for 2014:

Wells has preached that defense wins championships, and this side of the ball certainly had a big part in the Aggies winning the Mountain Division title in 2013. Utah State’s defense ranked seventh nationally in scoring (17.1 ppg), eighth in rushing (106.7 ypg), 12th in total defense (330.9 ypg) and 15th in passing efficiency defense (113.2).
The linebacker corps will lead the way again as two all-league players return in Kyler Fackrell and Zach Vigil, whose younger brother Nick became a starter toward the end of last year.

“We’ve been really good on defense the last two years, and I don’t see any reason why we won’t be again this year,” Wells says. “I think we have one of the best, if not the best linebacking corps in the Mountain West.”

Up front, only one starter is back in B.J. Larsen, but a number of players saw action. The coach likes the depth and believes the line will be solid. The secondary took a hit from graduation as four key players are gone. Safety Brian Suite will be counted on to provide leadership. Wells says that the key to the defense being an “elite” group will be the progress of the secondary.

Previewing Utah State’s Specialists for 2014:

Nick Diaz, who made 17-of-23 field-goal attempts, returns. Punter Jaron Bentrude is back as well. He averaged 39.8 yards per kick. The Aggies ranked in the top half of the league in both kickoff and punt returns.

Final Analysis 

Expectations just keep growing for the Aggies. In their first year in the Mountain West, they made it to the inaugural league championship game after capturing the Mountain Division. The largest crowd to attend a spring game turned out in April, and the second-year coach received a contract extension through 2018. USU has been to three straight bowls — something never before accomplished at the school — winning the last two.

Wells lost two assistants on the defensive side, but the transition with the new coaches went smoothly in the spring. There are some challenges with the schedule: The Aggies travel to Tennessee, Arkansas State and BYU in non-conference action and end the season with a trip to Boise State. Another bowl berth and 10 wins are reasonable goals in 2014.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#46 Boise State Broncos

NATIONAL FORECAST

#46

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Bryan Harsin, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Sanford | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marcel Yates

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 46 Boise State.

Previewing Boise State’s Offense for 2014:

New coach Bryan Harsin, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 2006-10, and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, a former Boise State quarterback and Stanford assistant, hope to revive an offense that was one of college football’s signature units for a decade. The Broncos tumbled to 54th in the nation in scoring (30.2 ppg) in 2012, when they failed to score an offensive touchdown twice, and improved to 19th (37.5 ppg) in 2013, when they still struggled mightily against quality defenses.

Senior quarterback Grant Hedrick is the starter after taking the vast majority of snaps in the last seven games last season. He produced 22 total touchdowns but also nine turnovers.

He is surrounded by three dynamic playmakers who need some help to emerge in fall camp. Junior tailback Jay Ajayi rushed for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns last season; senior wide receiver Matt Miller is on pace to break the school record for career receptions and finished last season on a crazy roll (636 yards, 10 TDs in five games); and junior wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes is a slippery 5'6" dynamo. Harsin and Sanford expect to bring the tight end back to its former glory in the Broncos’ offense, and their leading candidate is redshirt freshman Jake Roh, a spring standout.

The offensive line is a major question mark. Two starters return but have changed positions — junior Marcus Henry from guard to center and junior Rees Odhiambo from right tackle to left tackle. The other three starters likely will come from the freshman and sophomore classes.

Previewing Boise State’s Defense for 2014:

The Broncos’ usually dominant defense also fell on hard times last year, particularly on the road. They allowed at least 30 points in five of six road games.

The pass defense, which ranked in the top five nationally in efficiency in three of the previous five seasons, plummeted to 88th. Marcel Yates, the defensive backs coach from 2006-11, arrives as the coordinator after two years as the co-coordinator at Texas A&M.
Six starters on the back end return. Linebackers Ben Weaver and Tanner Vallejo combined for 140 tackles last season as freshmen despite not playing full seasons. Junior cornerback Donte Deayon, who intercepted six passes, and senior safety Jeremy Ioane, who made 59 tackles, were All-Mountain West second-teamers. Corey Bell could be the X-factor — he was the second-leading tackler as a linebacker last year but moves to a safety-like nickel role this year.

The defensive line has quality front-line talent — sophomore ends Gabe Perez and Kamalei Correa and junior tackle Armand Nance are up-and-comers — but lacks depth. Junior college transfers Antoine Turner and Rondell McNair and true freshman Dereck Boles need to contribute.

Previewing Boise State’s Specialists for 2014:

Kicker Dan Goodale missed only two field-goal attempts last season, but one was a potential game-winner at the end of regulation before the Broncos lost in overtime at San Diego State. That loss cost them a spot in the Mountain West title game. Punter Sean Wale needs to level his play. Kickoff returner Bryan Douglas and punt returner Williams-Rhodes are weapons.

Final Analysis 

Coming off an 8–5 season — the Broncos’ worst since 1998 — there is hope for a quick turnaround with an experienced roster and a new energy created by the coaching change. The schedule sets up well with Fresno State, San Diego State and = Utah State set to visit Boise, but the Broncos will count largely on the same players who failed to win the Mountain West Mountain Division last year. They need Hedrick and the veteran defenders to make noticeable leaps and that young offensive line to jell quickly — particularly if they hope to impress a national audience in the made-for-TV opener against Ole Miss in Atlanta.




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