SQ Mountain West Conference Preview
The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. And just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. We last covered Conference USA, and today we’ll take a look at the Mountain West.
What Happened in 2014:
Conference Champion: Boise State 12-2 (7-1); defeated Fresno State in MWC Championship game, 28-14
Coach of the Year: Jim McElwain, Colorado State
In his third season in Fort Collins, Jim McElwain turned Colorado State into a 10-win team. The Rams finished the season with a 10-2 mark, their best record since 2002 when Sonny Lubick led the team to a 10-4 finish. McElwain, known for his offensive expertise, had the second-best scoring offense in the conference, averaging 33.9 ppg. Last season was also the first time the Rams had been ranked since 2003; they climbed all the way up to 21st in both the Coaches Poll and AP Poll. McElwain's success paid off, as he is now the head coach of the University of Florida.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Garrett Grayson, Colorado State
It's no surprise that Grayson won the Offensive Player of the Year award for the MWC given that his mentor was McElwain, who also mentored A.J. McCarron and Greg McElroy during his time as the OC at Alabama. Grayson led the Mountain West in multiple passing categories, including passing yards (4,006), touchdowns (32), passing yards per game (308.2) and passer efficiency (166.22). He became the fourth Colorado State player to win the award and the first to win it since 2003. Grayson was a third round draft choice by the New Orleans Saints in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Defensive Player of the Year: LB Zach Vigil, Utah State
Vigil was, hands down, one of the best linebackers in the country last season. He finished second in the nation in total tackles with 154, the third-most in a single season in the Mountain West. Vigil teamed up with his younger brother Nick to create a deadly pass rushing duo, and the brothers totaled 16 total sacks; Zach was responsible for nine of those. The elder Vigil also finished 11th in the nation, with 19.5 tackles for loss. He became the fourth player from Utah State to win the honor.
Three Memorable Games:
1. Air Force 28 vs. Boise State 14, Sept. 27th - This was a memorable game because Boise State literally gave the game away. The Broncos turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions and two fumbles). Heck, Boise State was almost shut out in this game, failing to score until the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter. Boise State QB Grant Hedrick was responsible for four interceptions and left the game with a QBR of 17.7. Needless to say, this game served as the wake-up call that the Broncos needed to eventually win the conference title.
2. Air Force 45 vs. Nevada 38, Nov. 15th - After a slow start and a 7-0 lead by Air Force at the end of the first quarter, this game became a true back-and-forth affair. Each team traded blows from the second quarter on, and for a few minutes, it looked as though Air Force might be the victors. However, Nevada's kicker, Brent Zuzo, nailed a 22-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game at 38. After Shayne Davern ran into the endzone to put Air Force up 45-38, the Falcons defense stopped Nevada on the ensuing possession to end the game.
3. Colorado State 16 vs. Utah State 13, Oct. 18th - There may not have been a lot of scoring in this contest, but the final two scores were the most important of the game. In the final two minutes, Colorado State kicker Jared Roberts became the MVP of the match, kicking a pair of 46-yard field goals to seal the deal. The first of the 46-yarders came with 1:50 left in the final quarter of play. Then, after getting the ball back with just under a minute left, QB Garrett Grayson threw a 46-yard pass to Rashard Higgins that put Roberts in position to put the game on ice.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Conference Favorite: Boise State
Heading into 2015, Boise State will be looking to win its second straight Mountain West title. Although the Broncos have endured losses at two key offensive positions, quarterback and running back, there's reason to believe that they can still run the table this season.
Ryan Finley was considered the front-runner for the starting QB job at the end of spring, but he will be pushed by Thomas Stuart and incoming 4-star recruit Brett Rypien. Finley finished 2014 with just 161 yards passing and two touchdowns after not seeing much action behind starter Grant Hedrick. Replacing Jay Ajayi might be a littl e easier; a host of candidates are set to take reps at running back this fall. Sophomore Jeremy McNichols is expected to start, but brothers Kelsey (a Stanford transfer) and Cory Young are each expected to push for carries as well.
Defensively, the Broncos are stacked and should have one of the better units in the conference. Boise State returns lineman Kamalei Correa, who led the conference in sacks (12), as well as safety Darian Thompson, the Mountain West interception leader (7). The Achilles heel to Boise State's defense was giving up the big play; the Broncos gave up 50+ yards on 13 plays in 2014. With the amount of experience the defense has returning, that number should go down.
Conference Dark Horse: Utah State
Utah State has done a good job staying under the radar despite winning at least 10 games in two of the last three seasons. Head coach Matt Wells has done a great job carrying the torch from Gary Andersen, winning 19 games in his first two seasons with the Aggies. And while Boise State remains the perennial favorite to win the conference, Utah State could be the team to overthrow the Broncos.
The Aggies are deep on the offensive side of the ball, returning a triad of viable options under center. After seeing two straight seasons being cut short by injury, former Heisman candidate Chuckie Keeton returns as the front-runner to lead Utah State under center. Behind him will be last year's New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP, Kent Myers, and Oregon transfer Damion Hobbs. An experienced offensive line returns to provide plenty of protection to whoever may start at quarterback.
Looking at the schedule, Utah State has a couple of PAC-12 games scheduled in back-to-back weeks—the Aggies will face Utah and Washington—that could prove to be very interesting. Fortunately for the Aggies, they'll get the majority of their toughest conference foes at home, with Colorado State, Boise State and Nevada all scheduled to visit Logan, Utah in 2015. The toughest road tests will come at San Diego State and Air Force.
Although Washington, Utah, Boise State and BYU present tough roadblocks, Utah State could realistically come away with at least two wins in that gambit, which could push the Aggies to their second straight 10-win season.
Most Improved Team: San Diego State
San Diego State enters the season as the front-runner to win the West Division of the MWC and the chosen team to go up against Boise State in the conference title bout at the end of the season. Last season, the Aztecs finished just 7-6, which could be considered a step backwards after having won at least eight games every season since 2010.
Looking forward to this season, San Diego State should get the boost in its passing game that it didn't have in 2014. Maxwell Smith, a transfer from Kentucky, is the clear favorite to take the starting quarterback role. Smith, who hasn't seen game action since 2013, gives the Aztecs a true passing game after throwing for 3,070 yards and 21 touchdowns during his time in Lexington.
San Diego State ranked 108th in passing offense a season ago, but there's hope that Smith can excel after facing SEC defenses. Running back Donnel Pumphrey returns to help take the pressure off Smith after rushing for the fourth highest total (1,873 yards) in the nation last season.
With a strong defense that allowed just 19.8 ppg last season, the Aztecs will hold their own on that side of the ball. How far the Aztecs go depends on Smith and whether or not he can avoid the injuries that plagued him at Kentucky. If Smith can stay healthy, the Aztecs have a legitimate shot a capturing the Mountain West title.
Freshmen to Watch:
1. Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State - By graduating high school early and enrolling at Boise State in the spring, Rypien jumped right into the quarterback battle. The 4-star recruit is one of the highest rated prospects to join the Broncos and could pay early dividends. Rypien was a stud in high school, setting a Washington state record for career passing yards (13,044), and he threw at least 50 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons. He's got a great arm, and he can also run a little bit, rushing for 400 yards last season.
2. Cory Young, RB, Boise State - A redshirt freshman, Young is expected to compete for first team reps against his brother Kelsey and sophomore Jeremy McNichols. Young benefited from a lot of reps in the spring while McNichols and Jack Fields were recovering from injuries. A 3-star recruit out of California, Young rushed for 2,450 yards and 22 touchdowns in his senior campaign.
3. Kyahva Tezino, LB, San Diego State - San Diego State had one of the top defenses in the nation last season, and it got stronger with the addition of 4-star recruit Kyahva Tezino. With Tezino, the Aztecs add depth to a position in which they lost a few players. He should get a shot to help out early in the "Mike" position for the defense. Tezino tallied over 100 tackles in each of his last three high school seasons, recording 10 tackles for loss and four interceptions his junior season.
Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
Entering his junior season, Pumphrey has high expectations resting on his shoulders. Thanks to lackluster performance at the quarterback position, Pumphrey had to take over the offense, and was one of the best players to watch in 2014. Pumphrey, the conference's leading ru
sher, scampered into the endzone for 20 touchdowns while averaging 6.76 yards per carry.
He's one of the guys that defenses still can't stop, even when they key in on him. Even as a receiving threat out of the backfield, Pumphrey has done well, nabbing 23 passes for 160 yards last season. Look for 2015 to be another big year for the back, as he'll be helping take the pressure off the new San Diego State QB.
Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Nick Vigil, LB, Utah State
Following in his brother Zack's footsteps, Nick Vigil could very well win the MWC Defensive Player of the Year Award. Last season, he finished second in the conference behind his brother, with 123 tackles of his own. The younger Vigil also added seven sacks and 17 tackles for loss (fourth in the MWC). Vigil is just a player that has a knack for making plays, forcing five fumbles in 2014, even coming up with an interception. With the type of stats this guy puts up, there's no question he'll be near the top of several defensive categories in 2015.
Three Games to Watch:
1. Colorado State vs. Boise State, Oct. 10th - Jim McElwain is out, and Mike Bobo is in at Colorado State. The former left for the head job at Florida, while the latter left his OC post at Georgia to take over the Rams. Bobo gets his first conference test when Boise State comes to Fort Collins. Both the Broncos and Rams will have new quarterbacks under center, and each should have their feet wet before facing off. So far, the Rams are 0-4 in their short-lived feud against the Broncos, being outscored 184-81 in the process.
2. Utah State vs. Boise State, Oct. 17th - This game alone could decide the Mountain Division. Utah State is the underdog in this one, even though they're playing this one at home. Although the Broncos are the popular choice, don't bet against the Aggies, especially if Chuckie Keeton is healthy. He can be a real game-changer and will be the x-factor in this game. Also keep an eye out for Defensive Player of the Year candidate Nick Vigil, as he had 13 tackles and one sack against the Broncos last season.
3. San Diego State vs. Fresno State, Oct. 3rd - Although Fresno State and San Diego State match up early this season, it could have implications for later on in the season. Fresno State is the two-time defending West Division champ and has won three straight games against San Diego State. The Bulldogs may have finished with a record below .500 last season, but that won't be on their mind when they face the Aztecs. Look for San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey to break out in this game, as he only rushed for 94 yards against Fresno State last season, so he'll be looking to do much more damage in 2015.