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Mountain West Championship Game Preview and Prediction: Air Force vs. San Diego State

Donnel Pumphrey

Donnel Pumphrey

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Nobody who follows Mountain West football expected to see this matchup between Air Force and San Diego State in the conference championship game. San Diego State, sure, as the Aztecs were a preseason favorite in one of the weakest divisions in college football, the MW West. But Air Force? The Falcons were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain division, well behind odds-on favorite Boise State.

Air Force defeated Boise State two weeks ago on the blue turf to clinch its spot in the MW Championship Game. San Diego State on the other hand has been rolling at a record pace. The Aztecs are undefeated in league play this season, and have defeated all their conference foes by double digits. If the Aztecs defeat Air Force on Saturday night by 10 or more, SDSU will become only the sixth team in the last 20 years to run through their conference undefeated and defeat everyone by at least 10 points in the process.

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Air Force at San Diego State

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPN2

Spread: San Diego State -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Two programs looking end long conference championship droughts

Air Force and San Diego State aren’t two programs known for their championship pedigrees over the years. It has been a long time since either one of these schools won an outright conference championship. The last time Air Force won an outright conference title was in 1998, their last season in the now-defunct Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

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On Montezuma Mesa, the wait has been even longer. The last time San Diego State came away with an outright conference championship was when Todd Santos was setting NCAA records through the air back in 1986.

Both programs are looking to cap off special seasons with that coveted conference championship.

2. Fantastic rushing attacks

You’ve grown to expect Air Force that always produces a prolific ground attack with its difficult-to-defend triple option attack. So it’s no surprise that the Falcons are third in the country in rushing yards per game with 323.2. But don’t sleep on San Diego State’s rushing attack that ranks 15th in the country (235.5 ypg) led by junior Donnel Pumphrey.

It’s a cliché term in the world of college football, but Pumphrey is one of the best players you probably haven’t watched play live this season.

Pumphrey has run for 1,464 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, in a year where he was trying to follow up 2014’s 1,867-yard campaign. If you haven’t seen Pumphrey yet, you’re in for a treat.

3. Turnover margin
In championship games, winning the turnover battle is critical. San Diego State is tops in the country at 1.67 takeaways a game, which has been a big reason the Aztecs are currently on an eight-game winning streak. The Aztec defense’s unique 3-3-5 alignment is built to create confusion for opposing offenses and short fields for their own offense.

Air Force is currently on the other side of the turnover ratio (-0.33 per game) and surprisingly, a lot of Air Force’s giveaways this season have come through the air. The last two games Falcons QB Karson Roberts has thrown six interceptions, but head coach Troy Calhoun still trusts his passing attack more than he has since taking over the reigns at the Academy in 2007. Roberts has the ability to keep defenses on their heels, which will be critical against the Aztecs’ physical front.

Final Analysis

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Air Force really surprised me when it went to Boise State and came away with a win in a game on the blue turf in which the Falcons lost the turnover battle (-4). Like most teams that come through Air Force, these Falcons are a gritty group. But some of the goodwill that was built from the Boise win was lost in a lackluster effort against New Mexico to cap off the regular season.

San Diego State is excited to host this game for a chance to take home its first conference championship in 29 years. The Aztecs have better athletes on the edges, and the best overall player on the field in Donnel Pumphrey. Expect the Aztecs to wear down the cadets in the second half.

Prediction: San Diego State 31, Air Force 21

— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.