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Mountain West Football 2021 Predictions

Complete Mountain West preview for the 2021 season
Carson Strong, Nevada Wolf Pack Football

Carson Strong, Nevada Wolf Pack Football

The 2021 college football season should provide plenty of intrigue in the Mountain West. The conference doesn’t lack for contenders in the 2021 predictions, as Boise State, Nevada and San Jose State all deserve consideration for the top spot. The Broncos edged the Wolf Pack for the overall championship in Athlon’s projections, but don’t discount the Spartans from a repeat title.

Air Force and Wyoming headline the next tier of teams in Athlon’s predictions for the Mountain Division, followed by Colorado State, New Mexico and Utah State. Fresno State is an intriguing sleeper to watch after Nevada and San Jose State in the West Division. San Diego State and Hawaii should push for bowl games this fall, while UNLV hopes to improve in coach Marcus Arroyo's second year.

Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2021, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the Mountain West in '21:

Mountain West Football 2021 Predictions

Mountain Division

1. Boise State

Andy Avalos takes over at his alma mater following a stint at Oregon as the program’s defensive coordinator. While Avalos is a first-year coach, the expectations for Boise State in 2021 are still very high. The Broncos are Athlon’s pick to win the Mountain West, but a tough non-conference schedule – at UCF, Oklahoma State and at BYU - will be tough to navigate.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: New play-caller Tim Plough inherits a group that led the Mountain West in scoring (33.9) last season. The Broncos have two quarterbacks they can win with in Jack Sears and Hank Bachmeier, and the receiving corps is loaded with the return of Khalil Shakir, CT Thomas and Octavius Evans. A healthy George Holani should improve a ground attack that ranked last in the conference last fall. All five starters are back up front.

Concern: Although Boise State led the conference in scoring, the offense generated only 5.4 yards per play. While every starter returns up front, this unit struggled last season and contributed to the lackluster ground attack. How fast can the Broncos transition to Plough’s scheme?

Incoming Transfers: RB Cyrus Habibi-Likio; TE Kurt Rafdal

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Avalos’ background on defense is a big boost to a Boise State group that slipped on the stat sheet last year. The Broncos allowed 27.1 points a game in 2020 – the highest mark for the program since joining the Mountain West. The good news for Avalos: Nearly everyone from last year’s two-deep is back. Edge rusher Demetri Washington will boost the pass rush if he's back at full strength from a season-ending knee injury.

Concern: Even though the defense slipped a bit last year Avalos should be able to get this unit back on track. However, if there’s a concern, it’s in the secondary with both starting cornerbacks needing to be replaced. More turnovers are also needed after Boise State forced just three in seven games last fall.

Incoming Transfers: CB Caleb Biggers; LB Andrew Faoliu; S Jared Reed

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Wyoming

An injury to starting quarterback Sean Chambers and a sluggish offense dropped Wyoming to 2-4 last year. But the Cowboys won’t be down for long, as coach Craig Bohl’s team is poised to rebound in 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The strength of Wyoming’s offense is no secret. A backfield powered by Xazavian Valladay and Trey Smith is one of the best at the Group of 5 level. Also, an experienced offensive line should clear plenty of rushing lanes for the backs in 2021. New play-caller Tim Polasek needs to jumpstart the passing game, but Levi Williams and Chambers are two experienced quarterbacks to build around this fall.

Concern: The passing attack. Wyoming doesn’t need an elite passing attack to win the conference, but this team has ranked ninth or worse in the Mountain West in passing offense in each of the last four years. Three quarterbacks combined to complete 46.3 percent of their passes and just one touchdown for this offense last fall. More playmakers are needed at receiver.

Incoming Transfers: None

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This is one of the top defenses in the Mountain West. Wyoming brings back nine starters from a unit that held teams to 21 points a game and 4.9 yards per play. All three levels of this defense should rank among the best in the conference. The line will receive a boost with end Solomon Byrd (6.5 sacks in 2019) back in the mix after opting out of ’20.

Concern: Not a ton of concerns here for Bohl and coordinator Jay Sawvel. The Cowboys need to improve in pass efficiency defense (eighth last year) and could use a little more pass rush (17 sacks). However, this group is in great shape going into ’21.

Incoming Transfers: None

3. Air Force

The Falcons finished 3-3 in 2020 after an 11-2 mark the previous year. However, due to the limited schedule and redshirt seasons to a couple of key defensive players, the record probably wasn’t indicative of where this program is going into ’21. 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Falcons have question marks here, but coordinator Mike Thiessen should find the right answers. Haaziq Daniels returns after directing the offense under center last year, and the backfield is anchored by tailback Brad Roberts (461 yards). Tight end Kyle Patterson is one of the best in the Mountain West, while receiver Brandon Lewis is a versatile threat on the ground and through the air.

Concern: Can Daniels settle in at quarterback? Or will the Falcons look to another option to push the junior at quarterback? More backs need to emerge to help Roberts on the ground. All five starters must be replaced up front. However, line coach Steed Lobotzke should find a way to have this unit performing at a high level.

Incoming Transfers: None

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Air Force led the Mountain West in scoring defense and limited teams to 5.1 yards per play. Only one opponent (Boise State) managed to score more than 17 points against this group. With a handful of players – cornerback Tre Bugg, defensive linemen Christopher Herrera and Jordan Jackson and linebackers Demonte Meeks and Lakota Wills – returning after missing 2020, the Falcons will once again have one of the top defenses in the conference.

Concern: The Falcons need to tighten up in the secondary after finishing seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Also, this group ranked near the bottom of the Mountain West in third-down defense and finished last in sacks.

Incoming Transfers: None

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. Colorado State

Steve Addazio’s team is one of the hardest teams to figure out in the Mountain West going into the 2021 season. The Rams only played four games in Addazio’s debut, finishing 1-3 in the abbreviated year.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: New play-caller Jon Budmayr has plenty of experience to work with here. The Rams bring back all five starters along the offensive line and one of the top receiving corps in the Mountain West. Receiver Dante Wright and tight end Trey McBride are standouts in the passing game, while Boston College transfer David Bailey will add punch to a ground game that averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in 2020.

Concern: Colorado State averaged only 22.2 points a game and 4.8 yards per play last season. How much of a jump can this group make under a new coordinator and with a full offseason to work under the staff? Quarterback play is also a concern after Todd Centeio struggled in the limited 2020 run. Colorado State needs to generate more out of its running game and in producing big plays overall.

Incoming Transfers: RB David Bailey; OL Vince Picozzi; QB Jonah O’Brien

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Rams should have one of the top defensive fronts in the Mountain West. Ends Scott Patchan (5.5 sacks in 2020) and Toby McBride and tackle Manny Jones are back after leading a group that finished second in the conference against the run and generated 16 sacks in four games. Junior Dequan Jackson is back to anchor the linebacker unit. The small sample size is notable, but the Rams allowed only 4.82 yards per play last year.

Concern: The individual talent is there, but Colorado State gave up 35.8 points a game last season. The Rams also finished 10th in the conference in pass efficiency defense.

Incoming Transfers: DB Linwood Crump; DL Mike Ciaffoni; LB Anthony Koclanakis

5. New Mexico

The 2020 season was an unusual year, but the Lobos seemed to get better as the year progressed. New coach Danny Gonzales guided the program to a 2-5 finish, with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State to close out his debut. A favorable schedule could allow New Mexico to contend for a bowl this fall. 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Lobos picked up a proven quarterback (Terry Wilson) in the transfer portal. A solid foundation returns up front with four returning starters, while running back Bobby Cole (548 yards) should push for all-conference honors.  

Concern: Getting Wilson acclimated and up to speed is crucial to help New Mexico’s offense (23.9 ppg and 5.5 yards per play in 2020) take a step forward. The Lobos need a couple of playmakers to join Emmanuel Logan-Greene and Andrew Erickson at receiver.

Incoming Transfers: OL Jack Buford; QB Terry Wilson; WR CJay Boone

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Gonzales and coordinator Rocky Long are two of the top defensive minds in the Mountain West. The unusual nature of the 2020 season prevented both from a normal spring and fall practice to improve this group. With a full offseason to learn and develop under these two coaches, New Mexico’s defense should take a step forward in 2021. End Joey Noble and safety Jerrick Reed II are two proven standouts.

Concern: How much improvement can Long and Gonzales generate out of this group? New Mexico gave up 32.6 points a game, surrendered 6.8 yards per play, ranked eighth in the conference versus the run and last in the league in pass efficiency defense. There’s a long way to go here. The Lobos need to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and do a better job of limiting big plays.

Incoming Transfers: LB Jeffrey Blake

6. Utah State

Several factors contributed to Utah State’s 1-5 mark last season, but the 2021 campaign represents a fresh start for the program. New coach Blake Anderson is a strong hire and arrives in Logan with a track record of success from his last stint at Arkansas State. The Aggies weren’t as bad as last year’s record indicated. How far can they rebound?

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Anderson’s work in the transfer portal brought a couple of impact players to provide instant help for an offense that averaged only 15.5 points a game and 4.6 yards per play. Quarterback Logan Bonner and receiver Brandon Bowling should be significant additions after playing key roles at Arkansas State in 2020. The backfield has talent with transfer Calvin Tyler joining Devonta’e Henry-Cole in the mix. The line should be solid.

Concern: Fitting all of the new pieces and adapting to a new scheme may take some time. How long will it take Anderson and coordinator Anthony Tucker to get this unit on track? The Aggies need to reduce their turnovers lost (10 in six games).

Incoming Transfers: WR Jamie Nance; RB Calvin Tyler; OL Maisen Knight; WR Brandon Bowling; QB Logan Bonner; OL Quazzel White

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Similar to the offense, Utah State’s additions through the transfer portal will provide a lot of help right away. The line added bulk with three key transfers, including end Byron Vaughns to team with Nick Heninger on the edges. Linebacker Justin Rice should push for first-team All-Mountain West honors. Three returning starters will boost a secondary that finished 2020 ranked 11th in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense.

Concern: On paper, this group should be better than last year’s numbers (35.2 ppg and 6.6 per play). How big of a jump can new coordinator Ephraim Banda deliver in his first season?

Incoming Transfers: DE Patrick Joyner; LB Justin Rice; CB Kyle Mayberry; DL Byron Vaughns; DL Jahaziel Lee

West Division

1. Nevada

Jay Norvell has guided Nevada to three consecutive winning seasons and bowl appearances, but the 2021 squad should be the best of his tenure in Reno. The Wolf Pack won’t lack for firepower on offense behind quarterback Carson Strong and a deep group of receivers on the outside. A road trip to Boise State looms large in early October, but San Jose State visits Nevada in November.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Nevada has some serious firepower on this side of the ball. Quarterback Carson Strong (27 TDs in 2020) is among the top 25 signal-callers in the nation, and the junior won’t lack for receiving options thanks to the return of receivers Romeo Doubs, Elijah Cooks and Melquan Stovall and tight end Cole Turner. Running back Toa Taua is also back after running for 675 yards in 2020.

Concern: The Wolf Pack don’t have a ton of glaring issues on this side of the ball. However, the offensive line allowed 20 sacks last year and could stand to improve in pass protection and clearing lanes for runners.

Incoming Transfers: WR Marquis Spiker; WR Harry Ballard; TE James Sosinski; OL Jacob Nunez

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Coordinator Brian Ward brought improvement to this group last season, as Nevada limited teams to 23.3 points a game (down from 31.9) and offenses to 5.4 yards a snap (down from 6.1). A healthy Dom Peterson should make a difference up front, and the Wolf Pack are set at linebacker with the return of Lawson Hall in the middle. The transfer portal brought instant help to a secondary in need of improvement.

Concern: Last season was a step in the right direction, but Nevada needs more out of its defense to push for a finish in the top 25. Creating more takeaways (nine last year) is a must in 2021. The Wolf Pack also need to cut down on the big plays allowed (nine of 40-plus yards last season).

Incoming Transfers: S Chad Brown; S Bentlee Sanders; CB Isaiah Essissima; DB Miles Haynes

2. San Jose State

The Spartans had a breakout year in 2020, as coach Brent Brennan guided the program to a 7-1 record and a Mountain West title. A couple of key players departed, but San Jose State returns the necessary pieces to win the conference once again in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Super senior Nick Starkel is back at quarterback, the backfield is set with Tyler Nevens and Kairee Robinson in place, and the Spartans return all five starters from a standout line. Those aspects should maintain the offensive pace that helped San Jose State lead the Mountain West in yards per play (6.58) in 2020. Receiver Isaiah Hamilton and tight end Derrick Deese Jr. are poised to assume a larger role in the passing attack.

Concern: Receivers Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker leave big shoes to fill on the outside after combining for 86 catches and eight touchdown receptions last year. The Spartans ranked eighth in the Mountain West in red zone offense and third-down conversions.

Incoming Transfers: WR Charles Ross; RB Kenyon Sims

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Spartans have made significant progress under coordinator Derrick Odum. After giving up 36.6 points a contest in 2018, this unit limited teams to 19.9 a game last fall. Also, the defense held offenses to 4.95 yards a snap – down from 5.8 in 2019. Ends Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall combined for 16 sacks last season and should create plenty of havoc once again in ’21. Overall, with 10 starters back, this unit could be better than the version from last year.

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Concern: Safety Tre Webb’s decision to transfer was a blow to a secondary projected to rank among the best in the conference this year. The list of concerns for this group is small.

Incoming Transfers: LB Matthew Tago; S Ryan Nixon; P Will Hart

3. Fresno State

Nevada and San Jose State appear to be the teams to beat in the Mountain West’s West Division, but don’t count out the Bulldogs from making a run. Coach Kalen DeBoer should have one of the league’s top offenses, and the defense looks poised to improve with nine starters back.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: This group is on the verge of a big-time breakout in 2021. After finishing second in the conference by averaging 32.8 points a game last year, a normal offseason should help DeBoer deploy his full offense this fall. Ronnie Rivers is one of the best all-around running backs in college football, and quarterback Jake Haener will push for all-conference honors. The receiving corps is deep with intriguing options.

Concern: The only thing that could hold Fresno State’s offense back is the play up front. The Bulldogs return three starters but allowed 24 sacks in six contests last year.

Incoming Transfers: RB Jordan Wilmore; WR Ty Jones

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Bulldogs gave up 30 points a game and 6.14 yards per play last season, but nine returning starters provide optimism for improvement. This unit ranked second in the Mountain West with 25 sacks last year, with the key contributors for the pass rush returning in 2021. Having a full offseason to work under coordinator William Inge should be a huge plus, and DeBoer’s work in the transfer portal adds some instant help.

Concern: Improvement on this side of the ball is a must if Fresno State wants to push Nevada or San Jose State at the top of the division. This unit struggled mightily versus the run (212.3 ypg) and allowed too many big plays in 2020. Also, the Bulldogs need to get more situational stops after finishing last in the Mountain West in third-down defense.

Incoming Transfers: DL Evan Bennett; DL Ryan Boehm; CB Daron Bland; DB Elijah Gates; LB Isaac Garcia; LB Tyson Maeva

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. San Diego State

Brady Hoke’s returned to the sidelines at San Diego State and guided the program to a 4-4 mark last year. The top of the Mountain West’s West Division is loaded, but a bowl trip should be within reach in 2021. However, the difference between just making a bowl and contending for the division crown is going to rest on how far the offense improves this fall.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: A strong ground game has been a staple of success for San Diego State in recent years. With Greg Bell, Chance Bell, Jordan Byrd and Kaegun Williams all returning, expect the Aztecs to rank among the best in rushing offense in the Mountain West once again. Despite losing two starters, the line should be in good shape, especially with Zachary Thomas anchoring the edge at left tackle. Daniel Bellinger is one of the top tight ends in the Mountain West.

Concern: San Diego State averaged only 24.6 points a game and 5.01 yards a snap last season. Improving the production out of this group is going to hinge on better quarterback play, which could come in the form of transfer Jalen Mayden.

Incoming Transfers: WR Tyrell Shavers; QB Jalen Mayden

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Aztecs should have one of the best defensive fronts in the Mountain West. End Cameron Thomas and linebacker Caden McDonald anchor a defense that limited teams to 17.8 points a game, ranked first in the conference in rush defense and held offenses to 4.4 yards per snap. While there are losses in the secondary, Hoke and coordinator Kurt Mattix can lean on cornerback Tayler Hawkins and safety Trenton Thompson to begin the rebuilding effort.

Concern: Replacing safeties Dwayne Johnson Jr. and Tariq Thompson and cornerback Darren Hall won’t be easy. All three players were key cogs in a secondary that finished 2020 ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense.

Incoming Transfers: None

5. Hawaii

The Rainbow Warriors capped coach Todd Graham’s first season with a win over Houston in the New Mexico Bowl to finish 5-4. A normal offseason should help Hawaii adapt to Graham’s scheme and coaching staff, but a challenging schedule won’t make for an easy path to bowl eligibility.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Chevan Cordeiro is one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks. All-purpose threat Calvin Turner is the main weapon for Cordeiro, but Jared Smart (36 catches) is also back on the outside. An experienced offensive line is also a big plus for Graham’s offense.

Concern: Last season, this offense ranked sixth in the conference in scoring and averaged 5.4 yards per play – a steep drop from the 6.7 mark in 2019. Will a normal offseason help this unit be more prolific on the stat sheet? Hawaii has options, but playmakers need to emerge around Turner and Smart at receiver. The line allowed 28 sacks last year.

Incoming Transfers: TE Kolby Wyatt; OL Austin Hopp; TE Caleb Phillips; RB Dedrick Parson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The 2020 season was the first time Hawaii limited teams under 30 points a game since ’14. Also, after allowing 6.3 yards per snap in ’19, holding teams to 5.7 was a step in the right direction. The Rainbow Warriors should have one of the better pass defenses in the Mountain West. Linebacker Darius Muasau is one of the top returning defenders in the conference.

Concern: More improvement is needed overall, and Hawaii has to get tougher versus the run (211.7 ypg in 2020). This defense needs to get better in key situations (third downs and red zones). Additionally, generating more of a pass rush (19 sacks) and limiting big plays allowed would help the Rainbow Warriors improve on this side of the ball.

Incoming Transfers: DB Arnold Azunna; DL Pita Tonga; LB Solomon Turner; DL Zacchaeus McKinney; DB Colby Burton; DB Hugh Nelson

6. UNLV

UNLV is recruiting well under coach Marcus Arroyo, but the on-field product is going to take a couple of years to catch up. The Rebels finished 0-6 in Arroyo’s debut last season and was outscored by a combined mark of 228-104.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Charles Williams is one of the Mountain West’s top running backs and could be joined by Oregon transfer Jayvaun Wilson to form a standout duo in 2021. Receiver Kyle Williams had a strong freshman season in ‘20 by catching 35 passes in six games.

Concern: UNLV used four different quarterbacks last season and completed 58.7 percent of throws as a team in 2020. More consistency is desperately needed here, with Justin Rogers, Doug Brumfield and freshman Cameron Friel vying to start. The struggles under center were a big reason why the Rebels managed only 17.3 points a game last fall. The has to improve in pass protection (29 sacks allowed). More playmakers have to step up at receiver.

Incoming Transfers: RB Jayvaun Wilson; WR Jordan Jakes; OL Daviyon McDaniel

Previewing the Defense

Strength: UNLV has a good bit of experience in the mix, as 10 starters are slated to return for 2021. Also, Arroyo added a couple of instant contributors in former Arizona linebacker Kylan Wilborn and USC lineman Connor Murphy through the transfer portal. Linebacker Jacoby Windmon (five sacks in ’20) is promising.

Concern: The 2007 season was the last time UNLV gave up less than 30 points a contest. The Rebels gave up 38 points a contest and 7.2 yards per snap last year – this is a heavy rebuilding effort for coordinator Peter Hansen.

Incoming Transfers: LB Kylan Wilborn; DL Connor Murphy

Mountain West Championship: Boise State over Nevada

Mountain West 2021 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS

Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

Pick by Mark Ross: Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Cade Hall, DE, San Jose State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Cade Hall, DE, San Jose State

Pick by Mark Ross: Cade Hall, DE, San Jose State

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jay Norvell, Nevada

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kalen DeBoer, Fresno State

Pick by Mark Ross: Jay Norvell, Nevada

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Justin Rice, LB, Utah State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Bentlee Johnson, DB, Nevada

Pick by Mark Ross: Logan Bonner, QB, Utah State

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: Fresno State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Fresno State

Pick by Mark Ross: Fresno State

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: Boise State OL

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Wyoming QBs

Pick by Mark Ross: Boise State QBs

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Tim Plough, OC, Boise State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Tim Polasek, OC, Wyoming

Pick by Mark Ross: Tim Polasek, OC, Wyoming 

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: Colorado State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: New Mexico

Pick by Mark Ross: Utah State

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Brent Brennan, HC, San Jose State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Andy Avalos, HC, Boise State

Pick by Mark Ross: Jay Norvell, HC, Nevada

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Nevada at Boise State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Boise State at UCF

Pick by Mark Ross: San Jose State at Nevada

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jake Haener, QB, Fresno State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Chevan Cordeiro, QB, Hawaii

Pick by Mark Ross: Tyler Nevens, RB, San Jose State

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Elijah Cooks, WR, Nevada

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Demetri Washington, LB, Boise State

Pick by Mark Ross: Elijah Cooks, WR, Nevada

Podcast: Mountain West Preview and Predictions

(Carson Strong photo by John Byrne, courtesy of nevadawolfpack.com)