Arguably the most prestigious Group of 5 college football program in the country, Boise State hasn’t been king of the Mountain West since 2014. The Broncos are undefeated in the Mountain West this year, tied with Colorado State in first place in the Mountain Division, and picked up their third win of the season with a 24-7 victory over BYU last week. However, the odds of a New Year’s Six bowl are slim following early-season losses to Washington State and Virginia.
The San Diego State Aztecs have won back-to-back league titles since the Broncos last hoisted the trophy, and Rocky Long’s team has its sights set on a three-peat following a 6-0 start that included a pair of wins over Pac-12 teams. San Diego State is now 2-0 in conference play following last week’s 41-10 win over UNLV and sits atop the West Division. The Aztecs put their top 20 ranking on the line in a potential preview of the Mountain West Conference Championship Game.
Boise State at San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday Oct. 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Diego State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny
He plays on the West Coast and competes in a G5 conference, so San Diego State's star running back largely flies under the radar nationally. Nevertheless, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior ranks second in the country with 993 rushing yards through six games and ranks fourth with nine touchdowns on the ground, putting him in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy. He has also caught 16 passes for 127 yards and two TDs and has scored on a kick return.
Penny (above, right) has been remarkably consistent in his first season as a starter, gaining at least 100 rushing yards in each game, and has broken free for at least one gain of 25 yards or more in each contest — including a 95-yarder against Arizona State. Running with great speed, strength and explosiveness, Penny has averaged 6.94 yards per carry this season.
2. Boise State run defense
The Broncos will have their hands full with Penny and a San Diego State offensive line that has cleared the way for 220.8 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per rushing attempt this season. But based on its play thus far, the Boise State defense could be the best the Aztecs have faced.
Led by playmaking linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and exciting freshman Curtis Weaver, Boise State leads the Mountain West in run defense (105.8 rushing yards allowed per game) and has limited opponents to just 3.11 yards per carry. The Broncos have held three quality opponents — Troy, Washington State and BYU — under 100 rushing yards and fewer than 3.0 yards per attempt. Boise State also leads the league in fewest yards allowed per play (4.6) overall.
The first-team All-Mountain West quarterback in each of his first two seasons at Boise State, Brett Rypien will be the most well-known signal caller on the field Saturday. Unfortunately, Rypien, who has struggled with both injury and ineffectiveness, has been outplayed by both backup Montell Cozart and San Diego State starter Christian Chapman so far this season.
Rypien has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 646 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions in four games (he did not play against New Mexico). His 116.9 rating ranks ninth in the conference among qualified QBs. Cozart, a senior transfer from Kansas, has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 433 yards with six TDs and just one interception. His 153.6 rating would lead the league. Plus, Cozart is also a capable runner, having gained 207 rushing yards with two scores on the ground, and he leads the team with 5.2 yards per carry.
Chapman is the unquestioned starter under center for the Aztecs. The junior has completed 63.0 percent of his passes for 968 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception this year and is 19-3 as a starter at San Diego State.
Win or lose Saturday, both Boise State and San Diego State will still control their own destiny in the Mountain West, so the game itself isn’t a make-or-break contest for either team. Instead, the matchup could mark a changing of the guard in the league — and in the G5 conferences as a whole. The Aztecs have been the best team in the Mountain West in each of the last two seasons, and though they have yet to make a New Year’s Six bowl, this could be the year. The Aztecs boast a Heisman contender in the backfield, a solid QB and offensive line and the best total defense in the conference (311.5 yards allowed per game). They are deservedly favored to win Saturday.
The Broncos have struggled at times this season, but the Boise State brand still carries weight nationally. Boise State has a stingy defensive front seven with the potential to bottle up Penny and the San Diego State rushing attack. The Broncos also boast one of the top QB-receiver combos in the league with Rypien (when healthy) and Cedrick Wilson, who ranks third in the league with 528 receiving yards. If Rypien plays to his potential, Boise State is talented enough to win. But the Aztecs have the home field advantage and are the better team overall. Expect San Diego State to survive and stay undefeated.
Prediction: San Diego State 28, Boise State 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.