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Mountain West Football 2022 Predictions

Jake Haener, Fresno State Bulldogs Football

The Mountain West has a clear group of contenders going into the 2022 college football season, with Boise State, Air Force, Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State topping the list of favorites. Both divisions have a tough call at the top for 2022 predictions, but a slight edge goes to the Broncos over the Falcons and Aggies in the Mountain Division, while the Bulldogs get the nod over the Aztecs in Athlon's Mountain West predictions.

The Mountain West also has a solid second tier of teams in '22, including San Jose State, Colorado State and Wyoming. New coaches at Nevada (Ken Wilson) and Hawaii (Timmy Chang) add intrigue to the bottom of the league, while UNLV hopes the third season under coach Marcus Arroyo is enough to push for a winning mark. New Mexico is a long way from contending in the Mountain Division, but there should be improvement from coach Danny Gonzales' squad this fall.

How does Athlon Sports project the Mountain West Conference for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the MWC for this fall:

Mountain West Football 2022 Predictions

Mountain Division

1. Boise State
It’s a close call between Boise State, Utah State and Air Force for the No. 1 spot in the Mountain in ’22. The Broncos aren't the lock at No. 1 they have been in previous seasons, but the guess here is second-year coach Andy Avalos gets the program on track after a 7-5 finish last fall. Jump-starting an offense that averaged only 29.2 points a game and 5.3 yards per play is the top priority this summer. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier returns, but top receiver Khalil Shakir is off to the NFL. Stefan Cobbs (34 catches) is the next star wideout in Boise. Although Bachmeier has room to improve, Boise State's biggest concern remains the trenches (3.1 yards per carry and 27 sacks allowed). A healthy season from running back George Holani (limited to nine games) would boost the ground attack. The unquestioned strength of Avalos' second squad is a defense that returns eight starters. This unit allowed only 19 points a game and 5.5 yards per play last fall and limited teams to just 12 touchdowns through the air. The secondary should be a shutdown group once again, and the front is anchored by the return of FCS Weber State transfer George Tarlas, along with Jackson Cravens, Scott Matlock and Demitri Washington. The Broncos need better play out of the linebackers to help this unit reach its full potential. Road treks to Oregon State and Air Force are tough. However, key games versus San Diego State, BYU, Fresno State and Utah State come on the blue turf.

Related: Mountain West 2022 All-Conference Team

2. Air Force
The Falcons are 21-5 over the last two full seasons (2019 and ’21). With 15 starters back, coach Troy Calhoun’s team has the pieces in place to make a run at the Mountain West title. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels and fullback Brad Roberts return to anchor an offense that led the nation in rushing (327.7 yards a game) last year. Three starters are back to anchor one of the Mountain West’s top offensive lines. Receiver Brandon Lewis is gone, but the Falcons return David Cormier, Micah Davis and tight end Kyle Patterson to give Daniels (eight completions of 40-plus yards in ’21) plenty of weapons on the outside. Air Force ranked second in the Mountain West in scoring defense (19.8 points a game) and third in yards per play (5.24) allowed. Although a couple of key cogs – linebacker Demonte Meeks, cornerback Tre Bugg III, safety Corvan Taylor and end Jordan Jackson – have departed this unit should be stingy once again under the direction of new coordinator Brian Knorr. Road trips to Wyoming, Utah State and San Diego State are tough. However, Boise State comes to Colorado Springs on Oct. 22 for a matchup that could decide the winner of the Mountain Division.

3. Utah State
The Aggies are projected to finish third in the Mountain Division, but the gap between coach Blake Anderson’s team and the top two (Boise State and Air Force) is small. Quarterback Logan Bonner (36 TDs) is back to power an offense that averaged 32.6 points a game and 5.9 yards per snap. The senior is among the top returning quarterbacks at the Group of 5 level, but Utah State is breaking in new receivers after Deven Thompkins, Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright departed. Transfers Brian Cobbs (Maryland) and Xavier Williams (Alabama) are two names to watch. Leading rusher Calvin Tyler Jr. (884 yards) and four starters are back along the offensive line. After allowing 35.2 points a game in '20, the Aggies allowed only 24.4 last fall and held five of their last six opponents under 20 points. This unit still has room to improve (eighth in MW against the run and ninth in pass efficiency defense), but five starters and a handful of experienced contributors are back to provide a good foundation. A tricky road schedule – Alabama, BYU, Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State – will be tough to navigate. 

Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022

4. Colorado State
A major transition is underway in Fort Collins. New coach Jay Norvell made the rare intraconference move from Nevada to Colorado State and inherits a team that went 3-9 last fall and returns only eight starters. However, the Rams might be in for a quick rebound in '22. Norvell brought aboard several transfers, including a couple from Reno in quarterback Clay Millen and receiver Tory Horton to bolster an offense that averaged just 23.7 points a game in '21. Horton's arrival adds to a receiving corps that figures to rank among the best in the Mountain West with Dante Wright and Ty McCullouch already in place, although tight end Trey McBride will be missed. A couple of transfers were brought in to improve an offensive line that had issues clearing the way on the ground (3.8 yards per carry) and allowed 28 sacks last fall. Colorado State's defense finished ninth in the Mountain West in points allowed (28.9 points a game), struggled against the run (ninth in the MW), and finished near the bottom (11th) in pass efficiency defense. Similar to the offense, Norvell added a couple of transfers to help right away, but there are holes to fill in the trenches with Scott Patchan (10.5 sacks) and Toby McBride (7.0 TFL) departing.

5. Wyoming
The Cowboys have won at least six games in each of the last five full years under coach Craig Bohl but getting back to that level in '22 isn't going to be easy. Wyoming averaged only 17.5 points in Mountain West play last fall and lost quarterbacks Sean Chambers and Levi Williams to transfer. Utah State transfer Andrew Peasley and junior college product Evan Svoboda will battle into the fall for the starting job, while the receiving corps needs a new No. 1 target to emerge after Isaiah Neyor transferred to Texas. Provided an offensive line with just one returning starter is solidified, the ground game should be a strength behind running back Titus Swen. Defense is usually a strength in Laramie, and Bohl's group should be stingy again despite some turnover. Easton Gibbs looks like the next star linebacker with Chad Muma off to the NFL, and a couple of transfers (Jakorey Hawkins and Deron Harrell) were added to solidify the secondary. Improvement against the run (11th in the Mountain West in '21) is needed.

6. New Mexico
The Lobos are in rebuild mode under third-year coach Danny Gonzales, but there’s optimism for improvement in ’22. The defense limited teams to 5.34 yards per play – down from 6.8 in ’20 – and returns seven starters this fall. Of that group, end Jake Saltonstall leads the way up front, and the linebacker and secondary units should continue to improve as both return largely intact. New Mexico needs to lean on its defense with the offense still looking to find the right pieces after averaging only 12.2 points a game last fall. Additionally, this group averaged 3.9 yards per snap and connected on seven plays of 40-plus yards. Kansas transfer Miles Kendrick is the front-runner at quarterback, and Nathaniel Jones is back at running back after missing ’21 with a redshirt year. The offensive line allowed 34 sacks last season and returns only one starter. A bowl is likely out of reach, but New Mexico should show some improvement and be a tougher out in the Mountain West in ’22.

West Division

1. Fresno State
Jeff Tedford returns to the sidelines in Fresno with a team capable of winning the conference and making a run at finishing in the top 25. The Bulldogs went 10-3 behind Kalen DeBoer (left to be the coach at Washington) and a high-powered offense that averaged 33.4 points per game last fall. Quarterback Jake Haener (4,096 yards and 33 TDs) is among the top signal-callers in the nation, with Jalen Cropper (85 catches) leading a deep group of receivers. Ronnie Rivers will be missed at running back, but Jordan Mims (710 yards) should keep the ground game performing at a high level. The overall concerns about transition on offense are eased with Haener's return and Tedford's familiarity with the personnel. However, if there's a concern, it's up front where three starters are back on a unit that allowed 25 sacks last fall. Although the defense isn't as dominant as the other side of the ball, this unit held teams to 20.5 points a game and 5.2 yards per play in '21. Additionally, the Bulldogs ranked second in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense and finished third against the run. With seven starters back, coordinator Kevin Coyle has plenty of pieces returning to keep this unit near the top of the conference.

Related: Mountain West 2022 All-Conference Team

2. San Diego State
Repeating last year's 12-2 season and division title will be tough, but the Aztecs should be in the thick of the race to win the West Division once again. A timely offense (27.4 points a game and 5.1 yards per play) brings back only three starters. However, one of those players is standout receiver Jesse Matthews (57 catches) and linemen Alama Uluave and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson. At quarterback, Virginia Tech transfer Braxton Burmeister is favored over promising redshirt freshman Will Haskell to start. A backfield-by-committee approach is likely after the departure of Greg Bell at running back. Defense remains the strength of coach Brady Hoke's team in '22. This unit limited teams to 19.8 points a game, ranked first in fewest yards play (4.7), and led the Mountain West in rush and pass efficiency defense. Hoke and coordinator Kurt Mattix have a few holes to fill, but this group should be dominant once again. Replicating last year's success (6-0) in one-score games won't be easy – especially with punter Matt Araiza and his field-flipping ability off to the NFL. The Aztecs have a new stadium (Snapdragon Stadium) to call home, but the team's toughest games – Utah, Fresno State and Boise State – take place away from San Diego.

3. San Jose State
The Spartans took a step back after winning the Mountain West in 2020, finishing with a 5-7 record and a losing mark (3-5) in league play. However, coach Brent Brennan’s squad has the pieces to get back on track this fall. An offense that averaged only 20 points a game and 5.4 yards per play should receive a boost from transfer additions in quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (Hawaii) and receivers Justin Lockhart (Nevada) and Elijah Cooks (Nevada). There is major retooling needed along an offensive line that allowed only 22 sacks last fall but returns just one starter (Jaime Navarro). The outlook is positive on defense, where San Jose State brings back eight starters from a unit that ranked second in the Mountain West in fewest yards per play allowed (5.13) in league play last fall. Ends Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko form a standout pair off the edge after combining for 11 sacks in '21, while linebackers Kyle Harmon and Alii Matau are poised to push for all-conference honors. The secondary has room to improve after finishing 11th in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense. However, the cupboard isn't bare here with cornerback Nehemiah Shelton and safety Tre Jenkins back in the mix. Missing Boise State and Air Force in crossover play is huge for San Jose State's hopes of a bowl trip in '22. Also, small improvement (minus-12) in turnover margin could result in a win or two in close games.

Related: 100 Things to Know for the 2022 College Football Season

A 2-10 finish represented a small step forward after UNLV went 0-6 in coach Marcus Arroyo’s debut in ’20. Also, the Rebels lost six of those games – including conference matchups to Utah State, San Jose State, and Fresno State – by one score. Replacing running back Charles Williams (1,261 yards) won’t be easy, but there’s reason for optimism in Las Vegas. Two transfers – quarterback Harrison Bailey and receiver Ricky White – are huge pickups for Arroyo’s hopes of jump-starting an offense that averaged only 20.8 points a game and 5.2 yards per play last fall. Kyle Williams (42 receptions) is another weapon on the outside for whichever QB – Bailey, Cameron Friel or Doug Brumfield – takes the first snap in ’22. Four starters are back up front but improvement is needed after giving up 41 sacks. Bigger concerns surround the defense under new signal-caller Keith Heyward. This unit gave up 32.8 points a game, 6.2 yards per play, ranked 10th in the MW in rush defense and last in pass efficiency defense. Also, the unit’s best player – linebacker Jacoby Windman – departed as a transfer.

5. Nevada
After a 15-7 record over the last two seasons, Nevada is starting over in ’22. The Wolf Pack return just six starters from last year and are under the direction of a new staff after Jay Norvell left for Colorado State. New coach Ken Wilson previously worked under Chris Ault in Reno and also spent time as an assistant at Washington State (2013-19) and Oregon (2020-21). The list of departures for Wilson to replace on Nevada’s high-powered offense (35.7 points a game in ’21) is significant. Quarterback Carson Strong, receivers Romeo Doubs, Tory Horton, Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart, along with tight end Cole Turner are all gone. Running back Toa Taua should be the focal point of the offense until the quarterback battle between Nate Cox and Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth is settled. Additionally, just one starter (Aaron Frost) is back along an offensive line that surrendered 45 sacks last season. A defense that allowed 5.6 yards per play and 26.5 points a contest and ranked last in the Mountain West against the run last fall is also under construction. Tackle Dom Peterson (10 TFL) is one of the top returning defenders in the Mountain West, and there is some experience returning in the secondary.

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2022

6. Hawaii
Timmy Chang is a great fit and hire at his alma mater, but the former record-setting quarterback may need a few years to rebuild this program. The Rainbow Warriors return only five starters and are navigating scheme changes on both sides of the ball. New offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker returns four starters, including three along the line of scrimmage. A quarterback battle between Brayden Schager and a couple of transfers Joey Yellen (Pitt) and Cammon Cooper (Washington State) will continue throughout the summer and into fall camp. Running back Dedrick Parson should be one of the top playmakers for Shoemaker, but overall, Hawaii will be breaking in a revamped receiving corps. The Rainbow Warriors surrendered 31.4 points a game and 5.8 yards per play on defense last season. This unit brings back just one starter – linebacker Penei Pavihi – and features a handful of transfers likely to see significant time. The ’22 season is clearly a rebuilding year in Honolulu. 

Mountain West Championship: Boise State over Fresno State

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