Complete Mountain West preview for the 2020 season
Boise State has won two out of the last three Mountain West titles, so it's no surprise coach Bryan Harsin's team leads the way in the 2020 predictions. The Broncos have to retool on both lines of scrimmage, but quarterback Hank Bachmeier is primed for a breakout year, and as usual, there's no shortage of talent to step up in Boise. Both Air Force and Wyoming are capable of pushing Boise State for the top spot in the Mountain Division. The Falcons host the Broncos early in the year, but this anticipated showdown took an unexpected turn this offseason after dynamic quarterback Donald Hammond III was announced to not be in good standing with the academy. The Cowboys also host Boise State and are led by a strong ground game and defense.
With four new coaches, the West Division is difficult to project. Athlon Sports considered four teams for the top spot in the conference, with Nevada edging San Diego State for the projected West Division champ. The Wolf Pack have stability with quarterback Carson Strong and coach Jay Norvell, along with a favorable slate in 2020. Fresno State and Hawaii are also in the mix to win the division title, followed by San Jose State and UNLV in the next tier.
Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2020, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty surrounds non-conference play and the exact start time for the upcoming season. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for Mountain West in 2020:
Mountain West 2020 Predictions
1. Boise State*
The Broncos have holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but coach Bryan Harsin’s squad is poised to rank once again among the top Group of 5 teams in college football. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier is a rising star, and there’s no shortage of targets at receiver to utilize, including Khalil Shakir (63 catches), CT Thomas and Octavius Evans. George Holani and Robert Mahone anchor a deep backfield, but big question marks remain up front with just one returning lineman. The question marks in the trenches extend to the defense. The line lost three key contributors, along with edge rusher Curtis Weaver. Tackle Scale Igiehon and Utah transfer Jackson Cravens are two players to watch up front. The linebacker unit is set with Ezekiel Noa back from an ACL injury, along with Riley Whimpey (83 tackles). The starting spots at safety are up for grabs, but cornerbacks Avery Williams and Jalen Walker, along with nickel back Kekoa Nawahine provide a strong foundation on the back end. Barring a schedule change, road trips to Wyoming and Air Force await Harsin’s team in 2020.
It’s a toss-up between Wyoming and Air Force for second in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division. The Cowboys get the nod in Athlon’s picks, as coach Craig Bohl’s squad brings back 11 starters from a team that won eight games and lost four others by five points or less. Bohl has two capable quarterbacks in Sean Chambers and Levi Williams, with Chambers likely holding an edge to start in 2020. The receiving corps is thin on proven options, but the strength of the offense rests with running back Xazavian Valladay and a line that brings back four starters. Wyoming has finished first or second in the Mountain West in scoring defense in each of the last three years. While a new play-caller (Jay Sawvel) is in place, don’t expect the standard to change. There are holes to fill at linebacker with Logan Wilson off to the NFL and safety Alijah Halliburton out of eligibility. However, the line is among the best in the Mountain West, and there’s a solid foundation in place among the back seven. With both Boise State and Air Force coming to Laramie, Bohl’s team has a chance to contend for the Mountain West title in 2020.
3. Air Force*
The Falcons won 11 games and finished No. 22 in the final Associated Press poll last fall, which marked the best season under coach Troy Calhoun. Quarterback Donald Hammond was expected to be one of the Mountain West's top signal-callers in 2020, but his status in the summer was cloudy after the program announced he was not in good standing. If Hammond is out for the year, Warren Bryan, Chance Stevenson, Zachary Larrier, Max Massingale and Haaziq Daniels will battle to start under center. The winner of the quarterback battle is supported by Kadin Remsberg (1,050 yards) and Timothy Jackson (745) on the ground game, and even though three starters must be replaced in the trenches, tackle Parker Ferguson and guard Nolan Laufenberg is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. Air Force won’t throw it often, but Calhoun has to replace the offense’s top three receiving targets from 2019. Replicating last year’s defensive performance (19.8 ppg allowed and 5.5 ypp) will be tough with just five starters back. Coordinator John Rudzinski has a good foundation in place thanks to the return of linebacker Demonte Meeks and end Jordan Jackson. But this group will miss lineman Mosese Fifita, linebacker Kyle Johnson and safety Jeremy Fejedelem. Although Air Force has to play Wyoming on the road, Boise State comes to Colorado Springs and the crossover slate currently doesn’t feature San Diego State or Nevada.
4. Utah State
Replacing first-round pick Jordan Love tops the list of fall priorities for coach Gary Andersen and new play-caller Bodie Reeder. Junior Henry Colombi was the early favorite to replace Love, but he decided to transfer in July. Sophomore Andrew Peasley and Utah transfer Jason Shelley will battle for the job this fall. The winner of the starting job inherits an offensive line that should be a strength with all five starters back, and the skill talent is headlined by running back Jaylen Warren (569 yards) and receivers Jordan Nathan (56 catches) and Deven Thompkins, along with tight end Carson Terrell. Utah State struggled to stop the run (allowed over 200 yards a game) and finished sixth in the Mountain West in points allowed (30.7), so there’s plenty of work ahead this fall. Andersen and coordinators Stacy Collins and Frank Maile are shifting to a 3-4 look, along with moving Nick Heninger from linebacker to end, and safety Troy Lefeged to linebacker/nickel. The addition of transfers C.J. Pollard (USC) and Marcus Moore (UCLA) also provide instant help. A schedule that features road trips to Boise State, Colorado State, Nevada and Wyoming won’t be easy.
5. Colorado State
Steve Addazio was a surprise hire at Colorado State, but the former Boston College coach has plenty to work with. The Rams ranked third in the Mountain West in yards per play (6.24) last fall, so the potential for an explosive offense is in place. Quarterback Patrick O’Brien (2,803 yards and 13 TDs) is back, along with All-America candidate and receiver Warren Jackson (77 catches for 1,119 yards). Fellow receiver Dante Wright and tight end Trey McBride form a strong trio of targets, but the offense needs more out of the line (27 sacks allowed) and ground game (4.02 ypc). Defensively, the Rams are shifting to a 4-3 alignment after utilizing the 3-4 last year, and this unit has to get tougher against the run after finishing ninth in the league. While there are holes to fill, Addazio’s defense returns a good foundation, including linebacker Dequan Jackson, linemen Ellison Hubbard and Manny Jones and cornerback Rashad Ajayi.
6. New Mexico
The Lobos get high marks for the hire of Danny Gonzales, but the first-year coach is stepping into a major rebuilding effort. Gonzales – a former New Mexico player and assistant – inherits a program that’s won only eight games over the last three seasons. The Lobos finished 10th in the Mountain West in scoring (22.3 ppg) and last in points allowed (37.2) in 2019. Addressing the offense starts with a healthy season out of quarterback Tevaka Tuioti. The offensive line returns only two starters (but both are All-Mountain West candidates) – center Kyle Stapley and tackle Teton Saltes – along with the top three statistical receiving options from last fall. Freshman Nathaniel Jones is worth watching at running back, but Bryson Carroll (536 yards) and Micah Gray likely have the inside track for carries. Gonzales’ ability to lure Rocky Long back to Albuquerque was one of the top coordinator hires of the offseason. Considering the defensive acumen of Long and Gonzales, the Lobos should be better on this side of the ball despite returning only four starters in 2020.
Picking Nevada may come as a surprise to some. However, with four new coaches in the West Division, the Wolf Pack’s continuity at head coach (Jay Norvell) and quarterback (Carson Strong) could be the difference in a tight division. Strong threw for 2,335 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last fall and should be able to put up better numbers in 2020 with receivers Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks back, along with four starters up front. Running back Toa Taua (807 yards) anchors the ground game. New defensive signal-caller Brian Ward inherits a group that has a ways to go after giving up over six yards a play last fall. The good news: End Dom Peterson is one of the top defenders at the Group of 5 level, and three starters are back in the secondary. Uncertainty surrounds the schedule, but Nevada is slated to host San Diego State, Fresno State and Wyoming and won’t have to play Boise State in crossover play.
2. San Diego State*
Brady Hoke is back for his second stint as San Diego State’s head coach. From 2009-10, Hoke went 13-12 and guided the program to a Poinsettia Bowl berth before becoming the head coach at Michigan in 2011. Unlike last time, Hoke isn’t inheriting a rebuilding project. The Aztecs won at least 10 games in four out of the last five years and bring back 13 starters off a team that went 10-3. Defense is the unquestioned strength of Hoke’s 2020 squad. San Diego State led the Mountain West in scoring defense (12.7 ppg) and held teams to 4.7 yards a play. Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks anchor a strong defensive line, with three starters returning from a secondary that allowed just 10 touchdown passes in 2019. Thanks to a standout defense, San Diego State’s offense won’t have to score 30 points to win every week. However, this unit has a new full-time quarterback (Carson Baker) and didn’t have its usual standout ground game last fall. Receivers Kobe Smith and Jesse Matthews and tight end Daniel Bellinger are back as the top targets for Baker, and the Aztecs should have one of the top lines in the Mountain West. The road trip to Nevada could decide the division title.
The Rainbow Warriors are the reigning division champs, but face a couple of obstacles to a repeat in 2020. New coach Todd Graham has been successful at tough jobs – Tulsa and Rice – and should find a way to win at Hawaii. However, the transition to a new staff or scheme in a limited offseason isn’t easy, and both sides of the ball have question marks to address. New quarterback Chevan Cordeiro played well behind Cole McDonald over the last two years and is a breakout candidate as the full-time starter. Three of the team’s top four receivers are gone from 2019, but the cupboard isn’t empty. Jared Smart (87 catches) is back, and the addition of transfer Rico Bussey (North Texas) and Aaron Cephus (Rice) provide instant help. Miles Reed (908 yards) will be running behind one of the Mountain West’s top offensive lines. The question marks for Graham are greater on defense. The Rainbow Warriors gave up 31.9 points and 202.8 rushing yards a game last season. Additionally, the defense generated only 17 sacks and allowed 41 plays of 30 yards or more. Five of the team’s top 10 tacklers from last fall are gone, including cornerback Rojesterman Farris II, linebacker Solomon Matautia and end Kaimana Padello. Hawaii’s Mountain West schedule features games against Boise State and Air Force in crossover play, along with road tests at Fresno State and San Diego State.
4. Fresno State*
If a surprise contender emerges out of the West Division, Fresno State could be the pick. The Bulldogs hit a home run with the hire of Kalen DeBoer as head coach, and the former play-caller under Jeff Tedford inherits a team that lost seven of its eight games in 2019 by 10 points or less. Washington transfer Jake Haener has the inside track at quarterback, with running back Ronnie Rivers set to lead the way on the ground once again. Tight end Jared Rice will be missed, but Zane Pope (47 catches), Keric Wheatfall (18.1 ypc), and Jalen Cropper form a promising trio of weapons on the outside. The offensive line was hit hard by injuries last fall, but that experience should translate into a solid group with four starters back. After holding teams to 4.7 yards a snap in 2018, Fresno State’s defense surrendered 5.73 in 2019. New play-caller William Inge has to find a way to spark the pass rush (just 19 sacks last year), eliminate some of the big plays allowed, and get off the field on third downs (ninth in Mountain West). Linebacker Justin Rice headlines a defense with five returning starters and plenty of upside to show improvement in 2020. Fresno State’s schedule currently doesn't include Wyoming or Boise State in crossover play, with San Diego State and Hawaii coming to Bulldog Stadium.
5. San Jose State
The Spartans just missed a bowl in coach Brent Brennan’s third year at the helm, finishing 5-7 overall with five losses coming by 10 points or less. A run to six wins in 2020 isn’t out of the question, but Brennan has to replace quarterback Josh Love (3,923 yards and 22 TDs) and continue to improve a defense that allowed 31.9 points a game in 2019. Former Texas A&M and Arkansas signal-caller Nick Starkel is likely to replace Love under center, and he figures to have one of the Mountain West’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Tre Walker (79 catches) is one of the nation’s most underrated players, while two other players return that caught over 40 passes last season. Leading rusher DeJon Packer departed, and there’s a need to spark the ground game overall after averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. The Spartans have made progress on defense over the last three years but more is needed in 2020. With eight starters back, there’s optimism coordinator Derrick Odum can guide this group to another step forward on the stat sheet.
New is the best word to describe UNLV’s 2020 season. There’s a first-year coach (Marcus Arroyo), and thanks to the Raiders moving to Las Vegas, the Rebels will play in a new stadium (Allegiant Stadium). While Arroyo’s arrival and the facility upgrade are both long-term boosts to the program, UNLV is likely headed for a transition year in 2020. The transfer of Armani Rogers leaves Kenyon Oblad and TCU transfer Justin Rogers (if granted a waiver) to battle for the starting job. Running back Charles Williams (1,257 yards) is underrated nationally, and the winner of the quarterback battle has five of the team’s top six receivers – including Randal Grimes (44 catches) – to utilize this fall. Three starters are back up front, including standout guard Julio Garcia and both tackles. UNLV’s defense has not finished higher than seventh in the conference in points allowed since 2014. Last year’s group surrendered 33 points a contest and 6.3 yards a play. With just four starters back, this unit enters the fall with question marks at every level.
Mountain West Championship
Boise State over Nevada
*Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
MW 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
MOUNTAIN WEST 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Hank Bachmeier, QB, Boise State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Hank Bachmeier, QB, Boise State
Pick by Mark Ross: Xazavian Valladay, RB, Wyoming
Pick by Steven Lassan: Dom Peterson, DL, Nevada
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Demonte Meeks, LB, Air Force
Pick by Mark Ross: Justin Rice, LB, Fresno State
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jay Norvell, Nevada
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Pick by Mark Ross: Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Pick by Steven Lassan: Shamar Garrett, RB, San Jose State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Ben Dooley, OL, Boise State
Pick by Mark Ross: Isaac Jernigan, WR, Nevada
Pick by Steven Lassan: Rico Bussey, WR, Hawaii
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Justin McGriff, WR, Utah State
Pick by Mark Ross: Jake Haener, QB, Fresno State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Fresno State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Hawaii
Pick by Mark Ross: Wyoming
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Boise State OL
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Wyoming LB
Pick by Mark Ross: Boise State OL
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Rocky Long, DC, New Mexico
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Rocky Long, DC, New Mexico
Pick by Mark Ross: Rocky Long, DC, New Mexico
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: San Diego State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: San Diego State
Pick by Mark Ross: Colorado State
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kalen DeBoer, HC, Fresno State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Brent Brennan, HC, San Jose State
Pick by Mark Ross: Jay Norvell, HC, Nevada
Pick by Steven Lassan: Boise State at Wyoming
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Florida State at Boise State
Pick by Mark Ross: Boise State at Wyoming
Pick by Steven Lassan: Demitri Washington, LB, Boise State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Toa Taua, RB, Nevada
Pick by Mark Ross: Hank Bachmeier, QB, Boise State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Ezekiel Noa, LB, Boise State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Ravontae Holt, DL, Wyoming
Pick by Mark Ross: Ezekiel Noa, LB, Boise State