2014 Mountain West Conference Preview

West Division

NEVADA – The Wolf Pack were a disappointing 4-8 in 2013 under first year head coach Brian Polian and will look for a big turnaround this year. The Wolf Pack return eight starters from an offense that averaged 26.9 PPG last season including star QB Cody Fajardo. Fajardo, a senior, was hobbled by a sprained knee throughout last season and was limited to just 10 starts.  In his Nevada career, Fajardo has thrown for 7,161 yards and 39 TDs while gaining 2,436 yards on the ground with 31 TDs and should put up excellent numbers this season. The Wolf Pack also return their top two RBs in Kendall Brock (812 yards and 10 TDs) and Don Jackson (332 yards and 4 TDs) who should make for a great 1-2 combo. The receivers are led by Richy Turner who went for 755 yards and 4 TDs last season, and 6’5” Hasaan Henderson who had 326 yards with a TD as a Frosh.  The Wolf Pack D struggled last year allowing 34.3 PPG, while giving up 258.5 rushing yards per game, good for 122nd in the nation. Expect the defense to be much improved this season as they return seven starters including DE Brock Hekking who has 17 sacks in two seasons for the Wolf Pack.

MY PREDICTION – The Wolf Pack open the season with home games against Southern Utah and Washington State, before traveling to Arizona and San Jose State the following weeks. Fajardo’s health may be a concern, but I predict the Wolf Pack to have an excellent season in 2014 going 8-4 with just one loss in conference play while making it to the Mountain West Championship Game as the West Division Champion.
FRESNO STATE – The Bulldogs had an amazing season in 2013 going 10-1 in the regular season and winning the Mountain West Championship game before getting blown out in the Las Vegas Bowl by USC.  Though the Bulldogs only return five starters from last season, they do have RBs Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller, who combined for 1,453 yards and 13 TDs last year, back to help take the pressure off of the passing game early in the season. The Bulldogs also return a great WR in Josh Harper who went for 1,011 yards and 13 TDs in the regular season before missing the last two games due to injury. The big loss was record breaking QB Derek Carr who graduated, leaving Brian Burrell, who saw some action as Carr’s back-up, and Duke transfer Brandon Connette to compete at quarterback.  Connette was a scoring machine at Duke, where he threw for 1,212 yards and 13 TDs while running for 337 yards and 14 TDs in three starts and special package plays in 2013. A two-QB system could potentially be used throughout the season. The Bulldogs return eight starters from a defense that allowed 30.3 PPG last season and struggled on pass defense allowing 282.6 YPG, ranking 117th nationally. The defense will need to improve from last season in order to take pressure off of an offense that will not put up as many points as they did last season.

MY PREDICTION – The Bulldogs open the season traveling to USC and Utah before hosting Nebraska in week three. I predict the Bulldogs begin the season 0-3 struggling to find offensive rhythm, before clicking in conference play and finishing the season strong to finish 7-5.
SAN DIEGO STATE – The Aztecs struggled early in 2013, starting the season 0-3, before winning seven of their last nine games to make it to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. In Boise, they took care of Buffalo with ease, finishing 8-5.  The Aztecs return only five starters from an offense that averaged 29.8 PPG, but do have Senior QB Quinn Kaehler back who threw for 3,007 yards and 19 TDs in his first season as a starter. Though the Aztecs lose stud RB Adam Muema, his replacement, D.J. Pumphrey showed plenty of potential last season as a backup. Pumphrey, a sophomore, ran for 752 yards and 8 TDs in his freshman campaign while also flashing some talent catching the ball, hauling in 22 passes for 234 yards. The Aztecs receiving corps loses three seniors from last season, but features one of the best WRs in the conference in Ezell Ruffin who had a breakout 2013 season with for 1,136 yards. On defense, the Aztecs return three starters, but that might not be a bad thing because the unit that ranked 92nd in the nation giving up 31.7 PPG. Though three starters doesn’t seem like much, the entire front seven all have playing experience and the Aztecs get USC transfer Christian Heyward, who could become one of the most feared pass rushers in the conference.

MY PREDICTION – The Aztecs open the season hosting Northern Arizona before facing two tough opponents on the road in North Carolina and Oregon State. I predict the Aztecs to go 7-5 once again, with losses in conference play to Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State.
UNLV – The Rebels had a great season in 2013, going a surprising 7-5 in the regular season, and appearing in their first bowl game since 2000.  The Rebels return six starters from an offense that averaged 29.9 PPG in 13 and gain one of the best JUCO transfers in QB Blake Decker. Decker put up incredible number last season at Scottsdale Community College, throwing for 4,241 yards and 47 TDs.  Decker will have plenty of targets to throw to including the best WR in the Mountain West in Senior Devante Davis, who had 1,290 yards and 14 TDs.  Senior Marcus Sullivan, who had for 505 yards receiving with 5 TDs in just eight games last season, is also back.  The Rebels lost all-time leading rusher Tim Cornett to graduation, and the most likely option to replace him is speedster Shaquille Murray-Lawrence who averaged 8.9 YPC last season while rushing for 418 yards and 2 TDs. On defense, the Rebels return just five starters from a unit that allowed 31.8 PPG.  They’ll turn to three JUCO transfers to anchor the defensive line and start three sophomores at linebacker.

MY PREDICTION – The Rebels open the season traveling to Arizona, then host Northern Colorado and Northern Illinois the following weeks. I predict the Rebels to go 5-7 this year due to the tough non-conference schedule (Arizona, NIU and BYU) and because of the young, inexperienced defense.

 

SAN JOSE STATE – The Spartans had a disappointing season in 2013, finishing 6-6 after being picked as a favorite to win the Mountain West. The Spartans path to a winning season won’t be an easy one in 2014, as they only return five starters on offense.  They do get back a solid RB in Jarrod Lawson who ran for 788 yards and 4 TDs in his freshman campaign, and the receiving corps should be a good one with two play-makers in Tyler Winston (858 yards/5 TDs) and Jabari Carr (1,288 yards/8 TDs in SJSU career). Seven starters from a defense that allowed 35.1 PPG, which will need to show improvement in 2014 to take pressure off the offense.

MY PREDICTION – The Spartans open the season hosting North Dakota before two tough road games at Auburn and Minnesota. I predict the Spartans to struggle in 2014 going 3-9.
HAWAII – The Warriors haven’t posted a winning season since 2010.  They went 1-11 in 2013, which usually isn’t much to build on, but the Warriors did lose five games by seven points or fewer  . The offense began to show signs of life last season averaging 27.4 PPG, and seven starters return from that unit. Senior RB Joey Iosefa, who ran for 586 yards and 5 TDs in just four starts last season, returns after missing seven of the first eight games due to a foot injury. The Warriors receiving corp will be headlined by speedster Scott Harding who caught 56 passes for 631 yards last season and Keith Kirkwood and Marcus Kemp who combined for 23 catches, 360 yards and 4 TDs in limited action last year. Six starters return from a defense that struggled in 2013 allowing 38.8 PPG.  They’ll be led by Kevin Clune who comes over from Utah State where he was the LB coach for five seasons.

MY PREDICTION – The Warriors host Washington, Oregon State and Northern Iowa the first three weeks followed by road trips to Colorado and Rice before entering conference play. The Warriors should be better defense, but unless someone steps up at QB, I predict the Warriors to go 3-10.

 

Mountain Division

 

UTAH STATE –  Despite many injuries, the Aggies put together a very nice season in 2013, going 8-4 in the regular season, reaching the Mountain West Championship Game and defeating Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Aggies did this without star QB Chuckie Keeton tore his ACL in the fifth game of the season. Chuckie’s back, returning to lead an offense that returns just three other starters. Keeton’s return is huge for the Aggies, as he brings 5,961 career passing yards and 56 career passing TDs back, along with 1,153 yards and 14 scores on the ground.  Senior RB Joe Hill, who had 252 yards and a TD before missing the final nine games of the season due to a knee injury is healthy and back. The receiving corps features speedster JoJo Natson who had 384 yards receiving and seven all-purpose TDs. Also returning is Brandon Swindall who had 285 yards and 6 TDs, despite missing almost half of last season due to injury.  The Aggies defense was outstanding last year, allowing just 17.1 PPG good for No.7 in the nation.  The bad news is that only four starters are back

MY PREDICTION – The Aggies open the season with five non-conference games including road games against Tennessee, Arkansas State and BYU and home games against Idaho State and Wake Forest. I predict the Aggies to have a strong season behind Keeton going 11-2 with no losses in conference and make it to the Mountain West Championship Game.
BOISE STATE – The Broncos had another solid season in 2013 going 8-4 in the regular season before losing to Oregon State in the Hawaii Bowl. The problem facing the Broncos in 2014 is they are without eight-year Head Coach Chris Petersen who took the job at the University of Washington.  New head coach Bryan Harsin plans to run a similar offense as Petersen, and will turn to Senior QB Grant Hedrick to lead that offense. Hedrick started the final seven games of 2013 for the Broncos throwing for 1,711 yards and 15 TDs and running for 200 yards with 4 TDs while replacing injured Joe Southwick. Hedrick will hand off to the best RB in the Mountain West in Junior Jay Ajayi who ran for 1,425 yards and 18 TDs in his first season as a starter.  The offensive line has three new starters who will need to open up holes for him in order to repeat last year’s success. The Broncos receiving corps is one of the best 1-2 combos in the Mountain West, headlined by Matt Miller (1,140 yards /12 TDs) and Shane Williams-Rhodes (702 yards /6 TDs. The defense will be led by a secondary that returns three starters.  They’ll need to step it up in the pass defense, where they allowed 249.2 YPG last season.

MY PREDICTION – The Broncos opened the season against Ole Miss in Atlanta, before hosting Colorado State in week two followed by a trip UCONN in week three and hosting Louisiana-Lafayette in week four.  Though they lost Petersen, I predict the Broncos to have a strong season, going 8-4 while making it to their 13th straight bowl game!
COLORADO STATE – The Rams had a good season in 2013 going 7-6 in the regular season, and winning the New Mexico Bowl in comeback fashion against Washington State. The Rams return five starters from an explosive offense that averaged 36.2 PPG in 13, good for 22nd in the nation.  They lose RB Kapri Bibbs (1,741 yards / 31 TDs) to the NFL and will have to find a way to replace him. Senior QB Garrett Grayson is an excellent starting place for the Rams, as he threw for 3,696 yards and 23 TDs in his first season as a full-time starter. The Rams will certainly have plenty of option in the receiving game as they return their top WRs from last season in Rashard Higgins, Joe Hansley and Charles Lovett who combined 1,846 yards and 9 TDs last season. They also return TE Kivon Cartwright who had for 462 yards with 6 TDs, as a back-up. The defense for the Rams returns seven starters including the entire secondary. They’ll need to get better, they allowed 275.7 YPG where they ranked 114th in the nation.

MY PREDICTION – The Rams early schedule sees them face Colorado at a neutral site, travel to Boise State and Boston College, and host UC Davis and Tulsa. I predict the Rams to have a very nice season finishing 8-4 and making it to a second straight bowl game.
AIR FORCE ACADEMY – The Falcons didn’t fly very high in 2013, going 2-10 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2006. The triple option offense of Air Force returns five starters from last season from a unit that averaged 24.7 PPG.  They need to find a QB in 2014 after playing four different starters last season.  On defense, seven starters return to a unit that struggled, allowing 40 PPG, good for 116th in the nation.

MY PREDICTION – The Falcons open the season hosting Nicholls State, followed by trips to Wyoming and Georgia State and will face off in the traditional games against Navy. I predict the Falcons to have a better season in 2014 going 5-7 with steady QB play and improved defense.
WYOMING – The Cowboys had a The Cowboys have a new head coach at the helm in Craig Bohl, who won three straight FCS Championships at North Dakota State.  They’re coming off a lackluster 2013, finishing 5-7 after beginning the season with a 4-2 record. Bohl inherits a team that returns 14 total starters, including six from an offense that averaged 31.3 PPG last season.  The Cowboys return eight starters to a defense that struggled in 2013, giving up 36.7 PPG.  They’ll switch their scheme, and go from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

MY PREDICTION – The Cowboys first five games see them host Montana, Air Force and FAU, while traveling to Oregon and Michigan State. Though the Cowboys return 14 starters, I predict them to go 4-8 due to the question mark around QB and the fact that the defense is still unproven.  As they become more familiar with Bohl’s schemes, this team could get better as the season goes on.
NEW MEXICO – Last year, the Lobos finished fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging more than 300 yards rushing per game.  This year, the Lobos will be led by dual-threat QB Cole Gautsche.  Gautsche played in only nine games due to injury last season, but still threw for 7 TDs, and had 8 TDs on the ground. Gautsche’s running abilities make him one of the best dual-threat QB’s in the Mountain West, but staying healthy will be a key factor in his success this season. With the loss of one of their all-time leading rushers, the Lobos will turn to Crusoe Gongbay and Jhurell Presley who combined for 12 TDs last year. The receiving corps doesn’t see a ton of action due to the heavy running game. It features one of the best playmakers in the Mountain West in Carlos Wiggins, who had 1,703 all-purpose yards with 7 TDs. The defense for the Lobos led to them losing a lot of games in ’13 as they allowed 42.8 PPG.  Just five starters are back, but there is some depth there, as most of the starters have collegiate playing experience.

MY PREDICTION – The Lobos open the season hosting UTEP and Arizona State, before traveling to New Mexico State. I predict the Lobos struggles to continue, going 2-10 due to a defense that could struggle throughout the year and question marks around the offense.

 

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