Spring Homework: Mountain West Conference

The Spring homework series is an off-season series that I am doing to start to re-familiarize myself with each conference/team and organize my thoughts. I will spend a couple paragraphs on each team and get an idea of things like returning production, schedule breakdown, and SP+ rankings. I get the majority of this information from Bill Connelly at ESPN+. I’m hoping to get all of the FBS conferences done but will place a priority on the conferences I typically bet the most.

2020 Mountain West Review

MW Standings

It was a weird year for the Mountain West Conference (this is pretty much a theme for every conference in 2020). After canceling their Fall season, they finally wised up when the Big Ten changed it’s course and decided to play in the Fall. They played a conference only season that didn’t start until October 24th. With Covid-19 cancellations, some teams played as few as 4 games (Colorado State) while others played as many as 9 (Nevada, counting their Bowl Game). The majority of teams played around 6-7 games.

The hurdles didn’t stop there as due to local Covid guidelines, some teams like San Jose State or New Mexico had to practice or play games away from home. It was a very challenging year for this conference and I think we should keep that in mind as we turn toward handicapping the 2021 season.

San Jose State was the surprise of the year, running the table and beating Boise State 34-20 in the Conference Championship game before losing 34-13 to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl.

2021 MWC Mountain Division

Boise State Broncos
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 39
SP+ Projected Record: 9-3 (7-1)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 59% (Rank: 102)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 75% (Rank: 49)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 42% (Rank: 122)

HC Bryan Harsin left the team this offseason to take the job at Auburn, opening the door for former DC Andy Avalos.

The firepower is back on offense, highlighted by highly-touted QB Hank Bachmeier. Bachmeier has mostly put up strong numbers in his first two seasons in Boise when healthy, but the biggest question mark with him appears to be if he can stay healthy for a full season. Nobody else in the conference appears to have an offense close to as strong as Boise State. In today’s college football good offense > good defense and nobody else recruits like Boise in the MWC, so you have to think Boise is still the favorite in the Mountain division even with the new coach.

Wyoming Cowboys
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 80
SP+ Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 79% (Rank: 29)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 79% (Rank: 40)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 79% (Rank: 31)

Under Craig Bohl Wyoming always seems to play good defense but the offense seems to struggle. Things continued in this direction during Wyoming’s 2-4 2020 season. It didn’t help the offense that they lost QB Sean Chambers to a season ending injury in their first game of the season. This was the 3rd year in a row that Chambers suffered a season ending injury. Talk about unlucky… here’s hoping he can stay healthy this year. Levi Williams did a good job with the QB position at the start of the season, but the offense really faded the last two weeks with Williams playing through a reported shoulder injury. Both these guys are back and healthy this year, so I like Wyoming’s chances at improved QB play.

The offense is also bringing in a new offensive coordinator in Tim Polasek. With the new coach, a returning offensive line, and hopefully better luck at the QB position it is not hard to imagine Wyoming’s offensive output to be improved this season.

On paper it looks like we will be able to count on this Wyoming defense. After a tough opener against Carson Strong and Nevada, they really got it together with their final stats looking good in almost every category. They had 4 key opt-outs on the defensive line in 2020, but now all 11 starters are back.

The schedule seems to look great for Wyoming as well. SP+ lists only one likely loss (Boise State) to go along with seven likely wins and four tossups. It always seems like Laramie is a tough place to play with the weather and elevation that the visiting team isn’t always used to. Let’s keep an eye on this season long win total.

Potential Lean: Wyoming Season Win Total Over

Air Force Falcons
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 93
SP+ Projected Record: 7-5 (4-4)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 54% (Rank: 115)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 59% (Rank: 91)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 49% (Rank: 116)

2020 was a weird year for Air Force. This is a common theme in this conference (and much of the sport for that matter). They lost a lot of production last year when the University allowed a “turnback” option for their athletes (basically an opt-out opportunity). Many players elected to do this, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, but the Falcons still ended up with a solid 3-3 record. I don’t believe these returning “turnback” players factor into Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings since they weren’t on the roster in 2020. That will be something to monitor going forward as that can make a big difference that the computers aren’t accounting for.

On offense the Falcons return QB Hazziq Daniels (5.4 yards per carry in 2020 running the triple option), their top 2 RB’s, and TE Kyle Patterson (17.1 yards per reception). On defense they return five 2020 starters and four more 2019 “turnback” starters.

The one inexperienced area appears to be the offensive line. This unit graded very well in 2020 but the top 6 Offensive linemen in terms of total snaps are all gone. We will have to wait and see how the new unit performs in 2021 as offensive line is a critical unit for all offenses, but especially those that run the triple option.

Colorado State Rams
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 96
SP+ Projected Record: 5-7 (4-4)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 62% (Rank: 88)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 60% (Rank: 86)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 64% (Rank: 83)

It’s tough to really draw too many conclusions from Colorado State’s 2020 campaign seeing as they only played four games. All I seem to remember is that I faded them in their lone win of the season, 34-24 vs Wyoming. Their other 3 games were all double digit losses in HC Steve Addazio’s first season.

2020 leading passer Patrick O’Brien has transferred and Todd Centeio has been named the 2021 starter. I’m not sure which one came first. They have TE Trey McBride and slot WR Dante Wright back, both of whom showed big play potential in 2020.

There is reason for optimism on defense. Last year’s defense was stout against the run and got heat on the QB and key defenders Scott Patchan (5.5 sacks in 4 games), Manny Jones (12 TFL in last 7 games) and Dequan Jackson all return.

I don’t really have much of a feel for Colorado State right now. They had such a short season in 2020 that I’ll be taking a wait and see approach. The schedule isn’t bad with 3 likely wins and 5 tossups according to Connelly as they play five team projected 105 or worse according to SP+.

Utah State Aggies
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 121
SP+ Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 64% (Rank: 81)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 67% (Rank: 75)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 61% (Rank: 93)

Utah State is a team that had plenty of drama in 2020. Gary Andersen’s second stint in Logan went a lot worse than his first one did and he ended up bailing on his team 3 games in to their 2020 season (which ended up with a 1-5 record). The drama didn’t end there… transfer QB Jason Shelley ended up being dismissed from the team in November which led to 2 games of Andrew Peasley starting (including their only win of the season, Thanksgiving night against New Mexico). To cap things off, the players opted to boycott their final game of the season in response to comments made by the Athletic Director that the players interrupted as not giving the interim coach a fair shot at the Head Coaching job.

Enter former Arkansas State Head Coach Blake Anderson. I like this hire for Utah State. Andersen seems like a good man that can bring stability to this program and can get the offense going again. He endured some personal tragedy (to put it lightly) recently and I think the change of scenery will be good for him and he can bring some enthusiasm to this program.

Anderson is bringing three players with him from Arkansas State, including QB Logan Bonner who put up solid numbers in the Sun Belt last year: 156-for-262 (59.5%) for 1,863 yards and 18 TD vs 6 INT and slot receiver Brandon Bowling (39 receptions 507 yards and 7 TD in 2020). In addition, Anderson is also bringing in six power conference transfers as well to go along with the inherited returning talent that he has.

Bill Connelly has a projected 4-8 record with likely wins against North Dakota and New Mexico State and toss-ups against New Mexico, UNLV, and Hawaii. This is one team I might look to play a season win total over on if the line ends up around where Connelly has it. I think the transfer talent combined with the enthusiasm I believe Anderson will bring could lead to surpassing expectations and a shot at bowl eligibility. We’ll wait and see what the line is.

Potential Lean: Utah State Season Win Total Over

New Mexico Lobos
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 124
SP+ Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 49% (Rank: 122)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 56% (Rank: 95)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 42% (Rank: 123)

New Mexico started 0-5 in 2020 before finishing the year strongly with impressive wins vs Wyoming and vs. Fresno State. The covid chaos hurt everyone, but I think New Mexico falls into the category of teams that we’re hurt by it a little extra as they were operating under a first-year head coach in Danny Gonzales who brought back former Head Coach Rocky Long to serve as Defensive Coordinator and run his 3-3-5 defense. Teams with new coaches and new systems had to have been hurt a little more by no having no spring football and limited training camp. You can only do so much on Zoom.

New Mexico did a solid job running the football in 2020 finishing the season ranked 47th in that category. The passing game will need to improve but they are bringing in Kentucky transfer QB Terry Wilson and return 4 starting Offensive Lineman. Can they make improvements in the passing game? You would think so given the addition of Wilson. While not a great SEC QB he does bring tons of experience and some success in what is the best college football conference in the county.

The schedule doesn’t look great for New Mexico. They have seven games that Bill Connelly rates as “likely losses” all of which have a win percentage of 28% or less. They only have 2 conference games, UNLV (55%) and Utah State (50%), graded as tossups or better.

2021 MWC West Division

Nevada Wolfpack
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 74
SP+ Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 73% (Rank: 52)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 82% (Rank: 33)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 64% (Rank: 84)

This division looks like a jumbled mess at the top – so that should be a lot of fun! Despite the fact that San Jose State ran the table in the MWC last year, Nevada comes in with a higher projected SP+ ranking right now. They had an early lead in their game against San Jose State in 2020, but ended up losing that one late.

Nevada was one of my favorite teams to bet on last year and they return stud QB Carson Strong: 249-for-355, 2,858 yards and 27 TD with only 4 INT. Fifth year OC Matt Mumme has a lot of his toys back in Reno this season, including explosive WR Romeo Doubs, so expect the air raid to continue. This should be a fun team to watch!

It looks like they caught some back luck with the schedule though as they catch six of their seven hardest opponents on the road in 2021.

Fresno State Bulldogs
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 78
SP+ Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 76% (Rank: 45)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 74% (Rank: 56)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 78% (Rank: 39)

Fresno State was another fun team last season that really got the offense going at times in Kalen DeBoer’s first season. I’m excited to see what they can do following his first “normal” offseason. They return more total production then every team in the conference except Wyoming.

The offense returns tons of firepower. QB Jake Haener is back (150-for-232, 2021 yards, and 14 TD vs 5 INT) as well as his three explosive WR Cropper, Kelly, and Wheatfall. RB Ronnie Rivers has announced that he will be coming back in 2021 as well. The 5th year senior has had a great career and 2020 was no exception as he contributed in a big way on the ground and through the air.

The question will be on the side of the defensive side of the ball. New DC William Inge’s defense last year was boom or bust with a whole lot of bust. While they ranked high in sack and havoc rate they also got crushed in marginal explosiveness allowed. They have a lot coming back on defense so we will see if they make progress this year. On paper, it appears to be another season of shoot-out type games for Fresno State.

San Jose State Spartans
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 81
SP+ Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 67% (Rank: 76)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 59% (Rank: 92)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 74% (Rank: 52)

Expectations should be pretty high for San Jose State heading in to the 2021 season. They rattled off a 6-0 regular season last year and then beat Boise State 34-20 in the Conference Championship game. In doing this they also overcame difficult Covid-19 local regulations which forced them to play their must-win game against Nevada and their conference championship game against Boise State in Las Vegas rather than their California home. They return QB Nick Starkel, stud tackle Jack Snyder and big time defensive ends Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko.

San Jose State was a team I kept waiting for to lose in 2020 and they never did (until their Bowl Game… but bowl games are kind of random). They proved me wrong last year and they may have to do it again in 2021 as I can’t help but wonder if they are in store for some regression. Teams that make a big leap (the way San Jose State did from 2019 to 2020) often have a hard time staying at that level for a second year in a row. They are in a very competitive division and they are losing their two big pass receivers from last year, Walker and Gaither, who combined for 86 catches and 1,352 yards.

As Bill Connelly points out in his preview article, they really benefitted from big plays in 2020 ranking 27th in big plays and 7th in big plays allowed. This is an area that I find myself wondering if they might regress.

SP+ has their projected record at 7-5 but I think the Vegas line will be closer to 8 or 8.5. If that’s the case, I will take a hard look at the under. They only have four “likely” wins on the schedule and a whole bunch of toss-ups that could go either way.

Possible Lean: San Jose State Season Win Total Under

San Diego State Aztecs
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 94
SP+ Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 52% (Rank: 118)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 61% (Rank: 84)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 42% (Rank: 121)

Brady Hoke (best known for sucking at Michigan and never wearing a headset during the games) returned to San Diego State last season for his second stint as the Aztecs head coach. San Diego State underperformed a little bit relative to expectations losing four games in 2020 but all to solid opponents: vs San Jose State, @ Nevada, @ Colorado, and @ BYU.

The defense was very good, like defenses usually are at San Diego State, finishing first in 3 and out percentage and eleventh in scoring defense. Despite the coaching change they continued to operate out of the 3-3-5 defense that we also see in New Mexico now.

The offense wasn’t great. QB Carson Baker lost his job halfway through the season and has since transferred out leaving several QB’s competing for the spot in 2021. The 2021 schedule has six “tossup” games according to Connelly so figuring things out at the QB position will be critical as the Aztecs figure to be in several close games this season. The defense will keep them in it, but can the offense give them enough to turn close losses into close wins?

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 105
SP+ Projected Record: 6-7 (3-5)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 66% (Rank: 79)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 55% (Rank: 100)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 77% (Rank: 43)

I rarely bet on Hawaii because I have a hard time handicapping how focused teams will be when they get to travel to Hawaii for a game. You never know when there will be a big let down on the Island. Similarly, I also have a hard time knowing how much the weather will play a part when a team from Hawaii has to travel to Laramie, WY or Logan, UT or Colorado Springs, CO for a game. The Mountain West has such a contrast in weather and elements from city to city and that makes it a lot of fun.

I don’t have a great feel for Hawaii heading into this year. They have a veteran HC in Todd Graham. How motivated is he? Maybe extremely… maybe he just wants to mail it in and live in Hawaii now? I’m not sure yet.

They finished a year strong with a 28-14 bowl win against Houston. Houston had a bunch of players out but it was still a nice win for the Rainbow Warriors. It was also a nice coming out party for Calvin Turner as he had a 75-yard catch and a 92-yard kick return in that game. In his last four games he had 45 touches for 413 yards and is back this year. I think that Hawaii will be able to run the ball this year but I’m not sure if they will be able to pass. They were 97th in passing last year and lost 3 of their top 5 targets.

The defense was great against the pass last year but not great against the run which could explain how they were able to beat pass-heavy Nevada last year. They bring a ton back on defense so we will see if they can make improvements against the run.

The schedule is weird in that they play New Mexico State twice this year (the same New Mexico State that got crushed by FCS opponent Tarleton State without it’s starting QB this Spring… so there is two wins right there). They have six “tossup” games this year which makes sense given how close these teams in the West division seem to be. It should make for several fun, tight games this Fall!

UNLV Rebels
SP+ Projected 2021 Rank: 123
SP+ Projected Record: 3-9 (2-6)

SP+ Overall Returning Production: 62% (Rank: 89)
SP+ Offense Returning Production: 46% (Rank: 121)
SP+ Defense Returning Production: 79% (Rank: 36)

2020 was a tough debut season for HC Marcus Arroyo as the Rebels went 0-6 and didn’t come within 13 points of beating everyone. They have a lot of work to do in 2021 and are a clear #6 team in an incredibly competitive division.

They have a talented running game with two dual-threat QBs an accomplished veteran RB in Charles Williams and a transfer from Oregon Jayvaun Wilson. You have to wonder though if they fall behind early in games (which seems likely) will they have to abandon the running game and resort to an unproven passing game.

The UNLV defense has been bad for awhile now and on paper it doesn’t look like it will be any better this year. I don’t see many wins on this schedule. SP+ has them at 3-9. If I see a season win total at 3.5 I think I’ll be all over the Under. I think every Western division team will beat them and I don’t like their chances in the crossover games against Utah State and Air Force. Maybe they can beat New Mexico but with the addition of Terry Wilson I think the Lobos are better than the Rebels. In the non-con games they won’t beat Arizona State or Iowa State. That only leaves Eastern Washington and UTSA. Even if they get both of those (and neither are gimmies) we would still have an under.

Potential Lean: UNLV Season Win Total Under

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