It's only fitting that the Boise State Broncos and San Jose State Spartans will be facing off for the MWC title this Saturday, especially since their earlier matchup on Nov. 28 never took place as it was called off less than five hours before kickoff due to COVID-19 concerns.
The Boise State win at Wyoming last week marked the Broncos' 19th straight over a Mountain West opponent, the second-longest streak in the conference's history. At 6-0, this is the first time since 1939 that San Jose State can boast a 6-0 mark.
This will be the fourth consecutive MWC title game for the Broncos, who are considered the bullies of the conference. Meanwhile, this will be the first title game ever for the Spartans, who are considered the bottom-feeders of this conference in most years. This also will be the second straight game the Spartans have played in Las Vegas because of a public health order in Santa Clara County prohibiting contact sports until at least Dec. 21.
And believe me, this one will DEFINITELY be a contact sport. In fact, expect a knock-down, drag-out, closely contested affair.
Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game: Boise State vs. No. 24 San Jose State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
Spread: Boise State -6.5
When Boise State Has the Ball
Get Bachmeier back in the groove. When kickoff comes around it will have been 28 days since Hank Bachmeier has played in a "normal" football game, considering that Wyoming game was played in the snow at 7,228-foot elevation. In that game Bachmeier threw for just 181 yards, well below his season average of 249. Against the Spartans, look for Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin and his staff to get Bachmeier some early confidence with some quick-hit, easy tosses and sure completions to get the wheels rollin'.
Find some new targets. You know San Jose State's stout defense (they allow a miserly 17.5 points per game, best in the MWC) is going to try to put the clamps on Bachmeier's top target Khalil Shakur, who has 46 catches this season. Beyond Shakur, CT Thomas (17 rec.) is the only other wideout with double-digit grabs (tight ends John Bates and Riley Smith have 12 and 11 catches respectively). If the Broncos don't diversify here, that salty Spartan defense can pin its ears back and go pell-mell at Bachmeier or look to make themselves at home in Boise State's backfield.
Halftime adjustments. One of the biggest differences in these two teams has been the third quarter. San Jose has stormed out of halftime and outscored its opponents 65-21 in the third quarter, while the Broncos have limped out of the locker room, apparently sad that they missed the marching bands at the half, and have been outscored 60-45 in that quarter. In fact, 110 of the 156 points Boise's opponents have scored all season have come in the second half. Now, the Spartans have shown a knack for second-half comebacks this season, so the Broncos mustn't let their guard down and play some ball after the break, otherwise this one could get messy if BSU isn't locked-in.
When San Jose State Has the Ball
Run with some vigor. Balance will be vital for the Spartan offense in this game. Quarterback Nick Starkel and his star receivers Bailey Gaither (36 rec., 627 yds.) and Tre Walker (31, 409) have proven they can catch-and-throw against just about anyone. But keep an eye on senior RB Tyler Nevens, who has 152 and 184 rushing yards (on just 28 total carries) in the last two games vs. Hawaii and Nevada. If he can get solid positive gains on the early downs and keep SJSU ahead of the sticks to create makeable down-and-distance situations, it will bode well for the Blue & Gold. By the way, while Boise State's pass defense ranks sixth nationally (169 ypg), the run defense is ranked 86th, allowing a hearty 184 rushing yards per game. Hmmmm.
Must be sound in the kicking game. Yes, to quote Rece Davis, you gotta be sound in the kicking game. In the return game San Jose State is fifth nationally, averaging 30 yards per kickoff return and Boise State's Avery Williams has returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns. Also, incredibly, Boise has blocked five field goals and three punts. And that's in just six freakin' games! The Spartans can't allow the Broncos to make special teams a difference-maker.
Win the turnover battle. One of the big reasons the Spartans enter this game unbeaten is due to the fact they lead the Mountain West in turnover margin (+4), gaining nine (six fumble recoveries, three interceptions) and giving up just five (all interceptions, zero lost fumbles). By contrast, Boise State tied for 10th in the same category with a minus-four differential. And get this, the Broncos have yet to recover a fumble this season (have three interceptions vs. seven giveaways).
Man, it's hard to argue against Brent Brennan for Mountain West Coach of the Year. This San Jose State program has never been a consistent winner, much less an unbeaten team playing in the conference title game. Keep in mind this team went 1-11 just two years ago. The Broncos are a perfect 14-0 vs. the Spartans since becoming conference mates. However it's easy to see that this one is certainly different for Spartan Nation, especially in the confidence department.
It was announced this week that the winner of this game will get the invite to the Arizona Bowl in Tucson on New Year's Eve.
I hope the Spartans like their tamales spicy.
Prediction: San Jose State 28, Boise State 24
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.