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Mountain West Conference Championship Game Preview and Prediction: San Diego State vs. Wyoming

Brian Hill

Brian Hill

Neither Mountain Division champion Wyoming nor West Division champion San Diego State are exactly streaking into the 2016 Mountain West Championship Game.

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With a combined record of 2-4 since Nov. 12 — including regular-season finale losses of a combined 53 points — the Cowboys-Aztecs rematch in Laramie, Wyoming, loses some of its luster.

Nevertheless, San Diego State can reach 10 wins for a second straight season and claim back-to-back Mountain West championships. Prior to last season, the Aztecs had never won an MW title.

Saturday marks Wyoming's opportunity to claim its first Mountain West championship, and the program's first league title of any kind since the 1988 Western Athletic Conference crown. A title would put a nice exclamation point on head coach Craig Bohl's remarkably quick turnaround of Cowboy football.

San Diego State at Wyoming 

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN 
Spread: San Diego State -6.5 

Three Things to Watch

1. Battle of the Running Backs

First-Team All-Mountain West running backs Brian Hill (Wyoming) and Donnel Pumphrey (San Diego State) power each offense into Saturday's showdown. Hill carried the mantle of outstanding ball carriers to pull for Bohl, dating back to the coach's days at North Dakota State, when Pat Paschall, D.J. McNorton and Sam Ojuri were some of the Football Championship Subdivision's best rushers.

This year, Hill established himself as one of the best in the FBS with 1,674 yards and 21 touchdowns. Few could stake claim to numbers close to that of Hill, but San Diego State's Pumphrey can.

The two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year wrote his name all over college football record books this year, setting numerous career records. Pumphrey went for 1,908 rushing yards, second nationally only to Texas' D'Onta Foreman, and added another 205 receiving yards to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark from scrimmage.

Saturday's formula for victory is pretty simple: The team that establishes its workhorse running back dictates the tone. Wyoming limited Pumphrey on the ground in the Cowboys' 34-33 win in Laramie two weeks ago, while Hill carried for 131 yards on the typically stingy San Diego State defense. A repeat of that effort should put Wyoming in control.

2. High Altitude, High Score?

War Memorial Stadium sits at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, making for one of college football's more unique home-field advantages. The thin air can leave opponents gasping — and that bodes well for a Wyoming team that has had to rely on high scores for victory.

Behind defensive-minded head coach Rocky Long, San Diego State's long staked its identity to physically imposing play off the ball. The Aztecs used the nation's No. 6-ranked scoring defense a season ago to run the table in Mountain West play. It's no coincidence this season that yielding more points led to SDSU's first conference losses since 2014.

In season-ending losses to Wyoming and Colorado State, and the Aztecs allowed a staggering 97 points. Even with the dynamic Pumphrey in the backfield, San Diego State's ill-equipped to keep pace in a track meet like that.

3. Ball Control

In order to keep its defense fresh — and keep the score low, which San Diego State prefers — the Aztecs need long, time-consuming drives. Limiting turnovers is crucial, and something San Diego State's been exceedingly good at for much of the year with just 12 giveaways. A quarter of those came in the last two weeks, however.

Wyoming's been slightly more turnover-prone with 19 coughed up on the campaign. Giveaways are a recurring theme of Cowboy losses, with six coming Week 2 at Nebraska; three on the road in a Friday night loss at Eastern Michigan; and four in an utterly confounding Week 11 loss at UNLV.

Compare that to big wins over Boise State and Air Force, both of which Wyoming won the turnover battle. Maintaining possession should be critical to Saturday's outcome.

Final Analysis

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A strange and unpredictable season in the Mountain West Conference ends fittingly, with a Wyoming team routinely pegged for the divisional cellar hosting the defending league champion in the title game.

Credit Cowboys head coach Craig Bohl for expediting the rebuilding process in Laramie. Wyoming has the pieces to compete for years to come, much in the same way San Diego State has sustained success since Rocky Long succeeded former Aztec head coach Brady Hoke.

Though Wyoming beat San Diego State just two weeks, in this very same venue, repeating the magic necessary to end San Diego State's 16-game MW winning streak might be too tall of an order. The Aztecs sputtered the last two weeks badly, but don't expect another defensive meltdown or turnover-plagued game like their Week 13 debacle against Colorado State.

Days after winning back-to-back MW Offensive Player of the Year honors, look for Donnel Pumphrey to lead San Diego State to back-to-back conference titles.

Prediction: San Diego State 28, Wyoming 20 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.