Team Previews

MWC Mountain Preview

Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Draft prospects and grades provided by Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline.

 

 

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MWC Mountain Division


Boise State (11-1; 8-0 in conference)
Colorado State (7-5; 5-3 in conference)
Utah State (8-4; 5-3 in conference)
Wyoming (6-6; 4-4 in conference)
Air Force (4-8; 2-6 in conference)
New Mexico (3-9; 1-7 in conference)

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Boise State Broncos

NFL Draft prospect to watch: DE Jabril Frazier (Day 3)

How should I think of this team? A legitimate contender to play in a New Year’s Bowl

The case for: Boise State has dominated the Mountain West Conference for over a decade. They were close to unbeatable under Chris Petersen, and while they haven’t been quite as lights out under Bryan Harsin (Petersen went 92-12 between 2006-13, Harsin has gone 42-12 since 2014), it’s remarkable how good -- and consistent -- the Broncos have been since joining the conference in 2010. While Harsin hasn’t quite duplicated Petersen’s success, he may, with arguably his most talented roster, be ready to turn a trick Petersen pulled off in 2006 and 2009: Reach a New Year’s Bowl (and win it).

 

Petersen’s Fiesta Bowl winning teams were both helmed by face-of-the-franchise quarterbacks (Jared Zabransky and Kellen Moore). Harsin has one of those in Brett Rypien. Last year, Rypien struggled with inconsistency and injury, which forced Harsin to deploy the since-departed Montell Cozart. But after throwing only two touchdowns in the team’s first six games, Rypien returned to his old form by tossing 14 over the final seven. Rypien is joined in the backfield by junior RB Alexander Mattison, who eked over 1,000 yards in his first year as starter despite a slow start and an injury in the Mountain West title game that kept him out for most of the bowl win over Oregon. Mattison, who showed the ability to make plays in the passing game with 28 catches, will likely be even more involved in the screen game this fall. Boise State’s offense line isn't dominant, but it’s strong enough and has some interesting prospects. Most notably redshirt sophomore LT Ezra Cleveland, who showed notable improvement down the stretch as the Boise State offense began to fire on all cylinders.

Boise State loses first-round pick LB Leighton Vander Esch to the NFL, but they still return one of the most talented defenses in the G5. Redshirt sophomore DE Curtis Weaver was an absolute monster for the Broncos in his debut campaign, registering 11 sacks and 13 TFL. Redshirt senior DE Jabril Frazier, who splits reps with Weaver at the STUD position, should be even better in 2018 now that he's a full year removed from three postseason surgeries (shoulder, knee and ankle) following the 2016 season. Corners Tyler Horton and Avery Williams, both former All-Mountain West first-team selections, give Boise State a lockdown duo in the secondary after combining for 19 pass breakups during the 2017 campaign. Boise State has Phil Steele's No. 1 MWC position groups at DL and DB. The only question with this defense will be the linebackers (No. 6 in Steele's rankings).

The case against: Outside of linebacker, the biggest question surrounding this team has to do with Rypien’s receiving targets. The Broncos have a group of interesting wideouts who can move the chains, but Cedrick Wilson and his 1,511 yards receiving and seven touchdowns are gone. They’re also out one Jake Roh at tight end, depriving Rypien of a reliable red-zone threat (and depriving BSU’s creative braintrust of a jumbo Wildcat QB near the end zone). It will be up to a combination of A.J. Richardson, Sean Modster and Octavius Evans to step up. All three acquit themselves as quality complimentary players -- Richardson the established vet, Evans the upside play out of Dallas and Modster the slot option -- but one is almost assuredly going to need to emerge as a star for Boise State to go undefeated in the regular season.

And as much as we like the defense down in the Boise Valley, we need to return to the linebacker group for a hot minute. Vander Esch was a dominant defender last year — one of the nation’s best, regardless of position — and there’s no obvious replacement on roster who can clean up messes against both the run and pass on a play-in, play-out basis. Junior Tyson Maeva is a strong middle linebacker and sophomore Kekaula Kaniho showed promise, and that's where we stand. With Troy and Oklahoma State waiting in September non-conference tilts, BSU doesn’t have much of a choice but to have its defense up to snuff early.

Bovada win total over/under: 10

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 11-1 (8-0 in Mountain West)

 

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Colorado State Rams

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Preston Williams (Round 3)

How should I think of this team? A combination of a rebuild and a reload -- rebload.

The case for: After Boise State, the Mountain side of the Mountain West Conference begins to slough off more toward a selection of good-but-not-great squads, CSU among them. Colorado State has a chance to take advantage of the relative parity below the king of the mountain. We’re encouraged by how they’re set up to handle losing several high-profile players to the NFL and graduation.

Most notable among those losses would be WR Michael Gallup -- a third-round pick by the Cowboys -- who ended his two-year CSU career having caught 176 passes for 2,690 yards and 21 touchdowns. Fortunately, the Rams have a knack for finding jewels in the rough. They have a pair ready to go in Gallup’s absence in Olabisi Johnson and Preston Williams. Johnson has shown the ability to make plays down the field (career yard-per-reception mark of 17.2), while the embattled Williams (Rivals’ No. 158 overall prospect in the 2015 class) matriculated his way to the western side of the country after a transfer from Tennessee prior to the 2017 season. Williams has had trouble with the law in the past, so keeping his nose clean is a must.

Joining Gallup out the door is RB Dalyn Dawkins, who posted over 1,700 yards from scrimmage while scoring nine touchdowns this past fall. Colorado State is probably even be better prepared to replace Dawkins than Gallup, as Izzy Matthews is an established back (618 yards and 4.7 ypc) and RB2 Rashaad Boddie has flashed in limited run (254 yards, 5.8 ypc). Matthees and Boddie form one of the better one-two punches in the MWC. Neither player can match what Dawkins offered as a receiver, sure, but they’re both in a position to sprint out of the gates with an offensive line that returns five starters.

The case against: Nick Stevens didn’t much consistency in his time with the Rams — he left a ton of yards on the field by missing Gallup over the past two years — but his graduation still leaves Colorado State with one of the more unsettled quarterback situations in the conference. Not a good place to be. The presumed starter was Collin Hill, but he tore his ACL playing basketball in the spring. HC Mike Bobo has intimated this summer that Hill should be able to return early in the season. We're not as confident. Either way, Washington grad transfer KJ Carta-Samuels -- who backed out on UCLA after he saw CSU's post-Hill-injury QB depth chart -- heads to Colorado State as the favorite to win the starting job. Carta-Samuels spent the past three years backing up Jake Browning. In limited action -- often in games that weren’t terribly close -- he showed decent accuracy. And he’s not bereft of speed. Still, Carta-Samuels is unproven, and how he plays will be a big determinant in how Colorado State finishes in the MWC.

With all that skill talent on hand, the Rams should be able to put up points. They’re going to have to score plenty to prop up a defense that has more questions than answers. The secondary underwhelmed this past season -- No. 109 S&P+ versus the pass -- and they face a fair bit of attrition on the back end with the losses of defensive backs Shun Johnson, Justin Sweet and Kevin Nutt Jr. And there’s turnover on the coaching staff, too. This offseason, Kentucky consultant John Jancek was hired as the program’s new defensive coordinator, replacing the retiring Marty English. It’s a role that he’s not unfamiliar with having previously served at that post with Tennessee (2013-15) and Cincinnati (2012). While Jancek has had success in the past, he no longer has SEC talent to work with. With only five starters back on defense, he has his work cut out for him in Fort Collins.

Bovada win total over/under: 5.5

Prediction: OVER

Projected record: 7-5 (5-3 in Mountain West)

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Utah State Aggies

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Ron’Quavion Tarver (Round 6)

How should I think of this team? A 2019 contender that just might surprise in 2018.

The case for: The young Utah State Aggies didn’t show much consistency in 2017. That youth showed in the form of three one-possession losses as they finished off an up-and-down campaign at 6-7 with a loss to New Mexico State in the bowl game. Gone is QB Kent Myers. We had higher hopes for Myers’ career, but inconsistency, as it did to his team last year, undermined him at every turn. Myers ceded way to Jordan Love midway through the 2017 campaign and it’ll be Love’s show going forward. A redshirt sophomore, Love didn’t put up huge offensive numbers in his test drive as starter (1,631 yards passing, 8/7 TD/INT ratio), but he did show improvement as the season progressed. We’re bullish on the youngster, if not a bit gun-shy after the Kent Myers Experience.

One of the reasons to expect improvement from Love is that he has several quality options to throw the ball to. Junior Ron’Quavion Tarver scored seven times in 2018, and the 6-foot-4 senior should see plenty of targets in the red zone in 2018. TE Dax Raymond offers a cool name and a slick game, with a 41-456-1 receiving line last season. Savon Scarver and Jordan Nathan look like quality secondary options, and the Aggies added USC grad transfer WR Jalen Greene. We’d be disappointed if the Aggies didn't have an effective passing game, but much of that will come down to whether or not Love has continued to improve since we last saw him.

And if it, if the team can effectively throw, the Aggies have the pieces in place to put a scare into some of the MWC’s heavyweights. They have arguably the conference’s best special teams units, and the defense is strong. The Aggies did a beautiful job last season in posting S&P+’s No. 19 defense against the pass. Of the team’s top-20 tacklers from last season, 18 return (84.2% of tackles return). With nine starters back, this unit will hope to return to its 2012-2014 form, when it allowed less than 20 ppg in three consecutive seasons.

The case against: While Utah State was effective stopping the pass in 2017, running backs were gleefully pushing the ball down their gullet. The Aggies ranked No. 84 in Rushing S&P+ (and No. 90 in FBS fun defense). The good news is that Utah State returns almost everyone in their front seven. The bad news is that front wasn’t good last year. It’ll need to turn around to make good on the promise mentioned above.

USU also has question marks in the run game. Gone is Lajuan Hunt, easily the leading rusher for the program last year with 828 yards and 11 scores. Gerold Bright was impressive in a minuscule 29-carry sample size with 8.6 ypc average in 2017. A name to file away is Darwin Thompson, a JUCO transfer from Oklahoma A&M who ranked No. 30 on Bruce Feldman’s “freak list” this summer. He has big speed -- timed at 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- but, at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, he may not have the size to handle the bulk of the carries. Fee-fi-fo-fum, we smell a RBBC.

Bovada win total over/under: 7.5

 

Prediction: OVER


Projected record: 8-4 (5-3 in Mountain West)

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Wyoming Cowboys

NFL Draft prospect to watch: DL Carl Granderson (Round 4)

How should I think of this team?: The defense was already the face of the program, and that will become all the more apparent with Josh Allen not around to hog the spotlight anymore.

The case for: Craig Bohl is one of the most underrated coaches in college football, and he has one of the Group of 5’s best defenses to work with. The Cowboys will certainly make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks again. Last year, DT Youhanna Ghaifan and DE Carl Granderson combined for 15 sacks. Those two front Phil Steele’s No. 2 MWC DL.

The Cowboys also return a lethal secondary (also Steele’s No. 2 MWC unit). That unit is led by arguably the most talented player on the roster, senior S Andrew Wingard. Wingard is a legit NFL prospect who has gone off for at least 110 tackles in each of his first three years on campus. The defense only allowed 17.5 ppg last year, and it very well may be a little better in 2018. That’s scary.

Last spring, in the lead-up to the NFL Draft, much was made of Josh Allen’s supposed lack of offensive weapons. That storyline might have been a tad overstated. WR Austin Conway is a solid option who hauled in 61 passes in 2017, and he should improve on his 549 yards receiving as the go-to option. C.J. Johnson was an inconsistent big-play receiver who scored seven times and averaged 17.7 yards-per-catch (on only 30 catches), and James Price showed flashes in his junior year as well. The top seven pass-catchers return, so continuity isn’t going to be an issue.

The case against: For all the beating Josh Allen took in the lead-up to the NFL Draft, his value to Wyoming was incontrovertible. Nick Smith or Tyler Vander Waal will take over for Allen. Smith was awful when Allen went down last year, presiding over a suddenly punchless offense (Wyoming lost 13-7 to Fresno State and 20-17 to lowly San Jose State in the two games Allen missed; they likely would have won both had Allen played). Smith showed neither accuracy nor efficiency nor a big-play element to his game. When he was under center, Wyoming’s offense was lost. That showing opened the door for Vander Waal, a three-star recruit from the 2017 class. No matter your personal feelings about Allen, you must acknowledge that this is a precipitous drop in quarterback quality -- perhaps the biggest in all of the FBS this fall.

And as questionable as the passing game was and is, the run game might be in even worse shape. Wyoming averaged just 108.77 rushing yards per game as a team, No. 118 in the FBS. Matters didn’t particularly improve in the spring, with shoulder issues sidelining both Kellen Overstreet and Trey Woods. It’s probably going to be Overstreet’s job to lose if he’s healthy in preseason camp, but he rushed for just 471 yards (4.3 ypc) last fall and doesn’t make for a particularly exciting option. The defense is going to keep the Cowboys in every game. The offense may compromise its ability to win a handful of those games.

Bovada win total over/under: 6.5

Prediction: UNDER

Projected record: 6-6 (4-4 in Mountain West)

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Air Force Falcons

NFL Draft prospect to watch: QB Arion Worthman (UDFA)

How should I think of this team? Now clearly No. 3 in the football pecking order of the three military schools.

The case for: Troy Calhoun is entering his 12th year as the coach of the Falcons, and despite having severe recruiting restrictions, he’s been able to make the most of the talent he’s had at the academy. Prior to stumbling to 5-7 last season, he had posted a combined record of 28-12 from 2014-16. 

 

Beyond Calhoun -- who we trust as a coach -- we’re still tentatively intrigued by Arion Worthman as the triple-option triggerman. We say tentatively, because Worthman struggled through major consistency issues last year. While he did rush for 821 yards and 13 scores, Worthman was a bit station-to-station, finishing the year averaging a paltry 3.8 ypc. We think there’s potential left to tap there. If further development from Worthman adds an explosive element back to the offense, Air Force could start to more closely resemble the 10-win outfits it fielded in 2014 and 2016. 

Odd to say for a team of this ilk, but we actually like the receiver’s room at Air Force. Take Ronald Cleveland, a do-everything player who flashed in limited touches, averaging an impressive 9.5 ypc on 44 carries while posting a 23.8 ypr mark on 11 catches. Senior WR Marcus Bennett likewise proved adept at taking the top off the defense in the sporadic instances his number was called, logging a 19-398-3 receiving line on a 20.9 ypr average. 

The case against: The defense was terrible last year. The Falcons ranked No. 101 out of 130 in points allowed, coughing up 32.4 on average. And while it can’t get much worse for Air Force in that regard, it’s tough to see them getting much better. They’re undersized up front — which allows teams to run the football with ease — and the secondary isn’t talented enough to stop the pass.

In order to score enough points to make up for that defense, Air Force is going to have to run the football effectively. More effectively than they did last year, certainly. One obvious question is who is going to get the bulk of the carries on Worthman pitches? Cleveland is the returning leader in rush yardage outside of Worthman now that Tim McVey is no longer on roster. But Cleveland is gadget player on the outside. Somebody from the group of Nolan Eriksen, Malik Miller, Parker Wilson and Taven Birdow is going to have to step up in a big, big way. If they don’t, an unexciting offense coupled with a sub-mediocre MWC defense  could lead to another long year. We trust Calhoun, but he may not have the horses to compete this fall.


Bovada win total over/under: 4.5

Prediction: UNDER

Projected record: 4-8 (2-6 in Mountain West)

 

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New Mexico Lobos

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Delane Hart-Johnson (UDFA)

How should I think of this team? The end of the Bob Davie Era.

The case for: New Mexico should be able to run the football in 2018, thanks in large part to Tyrone Owens. After exploding for a nifty 1,097 yards (8.0) YPC in 2016, his junior season saw him drop off to a more modest 770 yards on the ground. One thousand yards is certainly in play for the upcoming year, but even if Owens can’t quite return to his former glory, he’d be doing strong work if he managed to split the difference between that big sophomore year and the slightly diminished junior one. Fortunately New Mexico’s offensive line is solid. Whatever Owens produces behind it, he’ll be doing so in a new system.

 

The embattled Davie reached for a lifeboat and an offensive redesign in hiring former Arizona OC Calvin Magee. As at Arizona, Magee is installing a spread offense that prioritizes the run. In Albuquerque, his Khalil Tate, as it were, could be redshirt sophomore QB Tevaka Tuioti. Tuioti will need to fend off Coltin Gerhart (which shouldn’t be an issue) and JUCO QB Sheriron Jones, a former Tennessee Volunteer. If somebody is to unseat the favored Tuioti, it will likely be Jones.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Lobos bring back a strong starting CB duo Jalin Burrell and D’Angelo Ross. The duo combined to knock down 21 passes last year, and they allowed less than 60 percent of their targets to be completed. It’s always nice to return players in the secondary, it’s even better when those players have shown the competency Burrell and Ross have. 

The case against: The Lobos were flat bad on offense last year, No. 115 in points per game. And with all due respect to Owens and Tuoiti/Jones, matters are tracking that way again for the coming campaign. Between an unsettled QB position, a hollowed-out WR corps and a major scheme change, cohesion may not be possible in 2018. More often than not, schematic payoffs aren’t made until a year or two after initially implemented. Expect to see lots of eight-men fronts against the Lobos in 2018. Tuoiti simply isn’t an effective enough passer to take advantage of that -- he hit on under 50% of his passes last season and posted a 4/6 TD/INT ratio when pressed into action.

 

The defense isn’t much better, in spite of the aforementioned Burrell and Ross. The Lobos’ undersized defensive line was gashed against the run. And just as bad, that unit wasn’t effective at getting to the quarterback. No player had more than 2.5 sacks for New Mexico last year, and it’s tough to identify a player or two on the roster who could emerge as a legitimate pass rusher this fall. This is the worst roster in the Mountain division. The downturn of the program comes at a really bad time for Davie, who was suspended for a month in the spring after several investigations into the athletic department revealed an unhealthy culture within the program. Expect more details to emerge on that front after Davis is shown the door this fall. That he’s still at the helm tells you all you need to know about the current state of New Mexico’s athletic department.

 

Bovada win total over/under: 4

Prediction: UNDER

 

Projected record: 3-9 (1-7 in Mountain West)


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