MWC Mountain college football preview

You can generally distill the Mountain West Conference Mountain division race down to “Boise State vs. somebody.” Since divisional play began out west in 2013, the Broncos have reached the conference title game five times (winning three), tied for first in the Mountain once and finished one game back three times.

The latter happened in 2021, as BSU beat Utah State and Fresno State by a combined score of 67-17, but finished a game back of USU because of a pair of home upsets and a late loss to San Diego State. Blake Anderson’s Utah State team was the happy beneficiary: After some tight early wins, the Aggies charged to 11-3, with five of their last six wins coming by at least 20 points.

USU looked so good late in the season that it’s fair to wonder if the division’s balance of power has at least temporarily shifted in the Aggies’ favor. We’ll see. They have a lot of stars to replace, and on paper, BSU’s general recruiting advantages (and the upside they showed in last season’s big wins) puts them back atop the preseason pile.

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: MWC West


2021 recap

In a division dominated by quality defense — the Mountain’s average defensive SP+ rating ranked sixth among all divisions, ahead of the ACC Coastal and both Pac-12 divisions, among others — Utah State won with offensive explosions. The Aggies ranked ninth in marginal explosiveness*, and their go-to trio of receivers (Deven Thompkins, Derek Wright and Brandon Bowling) averaged 14.7 catches per game and 16.2 yards per catch. The Aggies scored at least 35 points in five of their last seven games.

(* Marginal explosiveness is my measure of the magnitude of a team’s successful plays, adjusted for down, distance and field position.)

The increasingly prolific offense, combined with some tight wins early in the season, gave the Aggies the edge in the division. Boise State was maddeningly inconsistent, and an exciting Air Force squad fell just short of the crown after tight losses to Utah State and San Diego State. Wyoming brought title-level defense to the table, but scored 14 or fewer points in five conference games, Colorado State collapsed down the stretch (and fired head coach Steve Addazio) and, well, New Mexico was just bad.


2022 projections

With Thompkins, Wright and Bowling all departing, along with some particularly disruptive defensive stars, Utah State appears to be starting over from an explosiveness standpoint. That, combined with the fact that SP+ never trusted the Aggies last year (we’ll get to that), suggests that 2021’s runners-up, BSU and Air Force, might start out as the most trustworthy entities in the 2022 race. There’s more than enough room in the race, however, for USU, another defense-heavy Wyoming squad or a Colorado State team undergoing a massive facelift.


Burning questions

Why does SP+ hate Utah State so dang much? As a longtime, dedicated acolyte in the Church of Chuckie Keeton — Utah State’s beloved dual-threat quarterback from 2011-15 who might have been the single most enjoyable player to watch in college football before he was befallen by a series of injuries (and is now USU’s running backs coach) — it gave me no pleasure to watch the Aggies’ SP+ ratings stay dreadfully low all season.

Despite their lovely season and first MWC title, they finished just 80th in my predictive and opponent-adjusted measure, well behind not only Boise State and Air Force but also behind Wyoming. The Aggies won 11 games and beat four top-60 teams — how could they rank that poorly?

There were two major reasons:

1. The Aggies were very fortunate early in the season. My postgame win expectancy measure — which looks at the key, predictive stats from a given game, tosses them into the air and says “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X% of the time” — drops some pretty heavy hints. USU’s win expectancy was just 25% in its 26-23 victory over Washington State, 22% in a 49-45 win over Air Force and an incredible 3% in a 26-24 win over Colorado State that featured a last-second meltdown from the Rams.

The Aggies began the season 5-2, but with those close calls combined with blowout losses to Boise State and BYU, SP+ saw them as something much closer to 2-5. They were 103rd after the Colorado State game, and while their form was mostly brilliant down the stretch — amid a run of great wins, they also lost by 27 to Wyoming — SP+ is a full-season rating and still counted those earlier games.

2. Their recipe for success was difficult to replicate. The most sustainable and repeatable measure in the statistical toolbox tends to be success rate — how frequently an offense is gaining 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second and 100% on third or fourth. USU ranked a dreadful 105th in success rate on offense and 66th on defense. Big plays and fantastic red zone defense bailed them out (both of those things also count in the SP+ formula), but Utah State was very mediocre in what is generally a very predictive stat.

It wouldn’t be surprising if USU was better from an efficiency standpoint in 2022. Quarterback Logan Bonner returns, as do running back Calvin Tyler Jr. and most of last year’s offensive line. But when a team goes 4-0 in one-score games, its losses come by an average of 21.7 points and it loses the three best big-play weapons from its all-or-nothing offense, that’s generally a sign of forthcoming regression. Anderson brought in a couple of potentially big-time transfer receivers — Maryland’s Brian Cobbs and Alabama’s former blue-chipper Xavier Williams — so it’s possible last year’s late-season recipe holds. But it doesn’t usually work out like that.

Where did Boise State’s big plays go? Against the three best teams on its schedule, per SP+, Boise State went 2-1 with multi-score road wins over BYU (26-17) and Fresno State (40-14) and a narrow 21-20 loss to an Oklahoma State team that nearly made the College Football Playoff. The Broncos also walloped Utah State (27-3) and won four other games by an average of 36-11. The upside they showed in Andy Avalos’ first season as head coach was exactly what we expect to see from this team.

BSU randomly ran aground, however, and it was primarily due to the exact opposite issues USU faced. The Broncos tended to win efficiency battles in 2021, but they lost the big-play battle, ranking 118th in marginal explosiveness on offense and 88th on defense. In three conference losses, they averaged just 4.9 yards per play to opponents’ 5.6.

Leading rusher George Holani boasted a solid 44% success rate but averaged only 4.8 yards per carry. Outside of big-play slot man Khalil Shakir, BSU’s next six leading receivers averaged just 11.5 yards per catch. On defense, the Broncos ranked 28th in FBS in sack rate and 25th in completion rate allowed, but opponents averaged 13.3 yards per completion, quite a bit higher than one would hope for.

Quarterback Hank Bachmeier, Holani, high-efficiency receiver Stefan Cobbs and three potential all-conference linemen return on offense, and the defense is absolutely loaded with experience and upside, from dynamic tackles Scott Matlock and Jackson Cravens up front to disruptive safeties Tyreque Jones and JL Skinner at the back. But Shakir is gone, and BSU heads into 2022 without a known, scary big-play weapon. Big plays create easy points, and we don’t know if the Broncos will create any more than they did last year.

How important was John Rudzinski to Air Force’s success? For the fourth time in the last seven full seasons (omitting a six-game 2020), Air Force won double-digit games last fall. The consistency of execution coach Troy Calhoun has managed of late despite all the built-in limitations of service-academy football life — a limited recruiting pool, no redshirts, no benefit from the transfer portal — has been incredible.

With dynamic quarterback Haaziq Daniels, four offensive line starters and big-play weapons running back DeAndre Hughes and receiver Micah Davis all scheduled to return, the Falcons’ offense heads into 2022 incredibly proven and experienced. Plus, an aggressive and ultra-efficient defense that finished 33rd in defensive SP+ should return about seven starters. The Falcons were 94th in SP+ late in September but charged up to 54th, and they return most of the reasons for that improvement.

They don’t return their defensive coordinator, however. John Rudzinski is now filling the same role at Virginia after 12 seasons in Colorado Springs. He took over as coordinator in 2018 after the Falcons had collapsed to 124th in defensive SP+, and they improved constantly under his purview. Calhoun tends to promote from within and will probably do so here, but Rudzinski set an extremely high bar with last year’s unit.

Will Wyoming or New Mexico remember how to score? Wyoming’s defense ranked in the top 45 in defensive SP+ for the fifth consecutive season in 2021. New Mexico’s defense wasn’t as good, but it jumped from 122nd to 95th under legendary coordinator Rocky Long; it was the Lobos’ best defensive performance since 2008, Long’s final season as head coach.

After scoring 61 combined points against Houston Baptist and New Mexico State to open the season, however, New Mexico scored a total of 85 points in its final 10 games and crashed to 130th, dead last, in offensive SP+. Wyoming wasn’t that bad but topped 24 points just three times in its last 10 games. The Cowboys were unbeaten when they scored more than 21 points but did so in fewer than half their games.

Lumping these teams together is tricky, since Wyoming went 7-6 and UNM was 3-9. But in both cases, offensive ineptitude hampered upside.

New Mexico loses a dynamite end in Joey Noble (19 TFLs, 20 run stuffs, 6.5 sacks) but should return about 11 of the 17 defenders who saw at least 250 snaps. The Lobos could improve further on D. Lord knows Long has a track record. But they remain unknown at quarterback unless Kansas transfer Miles Kendrick seizes control of the job, and they’re almost completely starting over on the offensive line. Tight end Trace Bruckler is a keeper, but the offense still looks like a mess. Coach Danny Gonzales is in Year 3 of an extreme rebuild, and he’s still got a lot of rebuilding to do.

For Wyoming, the stakes are higher. Ninth-year coach Craig Bohl has built an awesome defense and a competitive program, but the Cowboys have ranked higher than 87th in offensive SP+ only once under his watch. And they won the division when they did it! Last year’s top two quarterbacks, leading rusher Xazavian Valladay, the top two receivers and two all-conference linemen are all gone, so if second-year coordinator Tim Polasek is to engineer improvement, it will be with a new cast of characters. The offense will need to improve, though, because while the Cowboys’ defensive front six has plenty of potential star power — nose tackle Cole Godbout, end Solomon Byrd, linebacker Easton Gibbs — the secondary loses six of last year’s top seven players. Cornerback transfers Jakorey Hawkins (Ole Miss) and Deron Harrell (Wisconsin) should help, but the defense could still regress a hair. So the offense needs more points.

How will the Colorado State “Wolf Pack” fare? Colorado State’s 28-man 2022 recruiting class was one of the most unusual — and most indicative of the times — that you’ll ever see. It featured 12 freshmen … and 11 Nevada transfers. From quarterback Clay Millen to star receivers Melquan Stovall and Tory Horton to cornerback AJ King and even redshirted punter Paddy Turner, the Rams’ 2022 two-deep could be littered with players who followed new head coach Jay Norvell from Reno to Fort Collins.

We’ll see if this becomes a trend in future coaching carousels, but it’s unique for now. And to be sure, the CSU roster needed help. The Rams collapsed from 3-3 to 3-9 last fall, finishing the season with a 52-10 loss to Norvell’s Wolf Pack. A decent defense returns an excellent linebacking corps but loses some key pieces elsewhere, and a dismal offense sees almost total turnover at quarterback and on the offensive line. (To that end, OL transfers Jacob Gardner and Gray Davis could be the most important of the Nevada bunch.) It’s hard to set any realistic expectations for a team with this much turnover, but a facelift was probably needed.


My 10 favorite players in the division

QB Haaziq Daniels, Air Force. Daniels rushed for 770 yards and 11 touchdowns while piloting the Falcons’ efficient option, and he threw for a downright unfair 239 yards and two scores in the bowl win over Louisville. What more could you ask for?

OLB Vince Sanford, Air Force. College players with at least 9.5 sacks and 13 run stuffs among 20 tackles for loss in 2021: Alabama’s Will Anderson, SDSU’s Cameron Thomas and Sanford. That’s absurdly good company right there.

NT Cole Godbout, Wyoming. Wyoming’s defensive front is small but nasty, and the 274-pound Godbout is the face of the line. He combined 14 run stuffs with five sacks last season and will create a feisty duo with 275-pounder Jordan Bertagnole.

QB Logan Bonner, Utah State. Bonner played in parts of four seasons for Arkansas State and will return for a second year in Logan. He throws a pretty deep ball and will have a couple of big-time transfers at his disposal.

LB Cam’Ron Carter, Colorado State. The 230-pounder from Tucker, Georgia, logged 13 run stuffs last season, made six sacks in just 74 pass rush attempts and allowed a 10.2 QBR as primary coverage man. Sanford aside, there might not be a more well-rounded linebacker in the conference.

WR Stefan Cobbs, Boise State. The 6-foot, 215-pounder is one of the best possession receivers in the country: He caught 94% of the catchable balls thrown his way and averaged a team-best 9.6 yards per target.

CB Donte Martin, New Mexico. UNM’s pass defense was aggressive and efficient in 2021, and Martin (one INT, seven breakups, 40.7 QBR allowed in coverage) is a major reason why it should be just as exciting this year.

NT Jackson Cravens, Boise State. Cravens was a 265-pound, nearly four-star lineman when he signed with Utah in 2018. Now he’s a 305-pound nose who led the Broncos defense in run stuffs in 2021.

DE Byron Vaughns, Utah State. The Aggies have to replace the devastating Nick Heninger up front, but Vaughns’ rate stats — 5.0% havoc rate*, 1.9% sack rate — were awfully close to Heninger’s. Give him more snaps, and the pass rush will likely hold up just fine.

RB Titus Swen, Wyoming. As Xazavian Valladay’s backup, Swen flashed major explosiveness and elusiveness, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and doing damage both between the tackles and on the outside. He could have a huge year.

* Havoc rate = total tackles for loss, passes defensed (intercepted or broken up) and forced fumbles per snap.


Anniversaries

In 1967, 55 years ago, Wyoming enjoyed its second straight 10-1 season. The Cowboys finished sixth in the AP poll and lost only to LSU, 20-13, in the Sugar Bowl. It was a high-water mark for the program, and the Cowboys would win 13 of their next 16 games as well. But coach Lloyd Eaton’s dismal handling of the Black 14 and their protest would have a disastrous impact: They would lose 13 of 14 games, and Eaton was out of a job by the end of 1970.

In 1997, 25 years ago, Colorado State walloped Missouri in the Holiday Bowl to finish 11-2. Sonny Lubick’s Rams finished ranked for the second time in four seasons, and they would do so again in 2000. It was a spectacular run of success, and it resulted in CSU’s beautiful new stadium having its field named after Lubick. (It also set a particularly high bar that CSU has struggled to clear ever since.)

Also in 1997: Dennis Franchione led New Mexico to nine wins and the Lobos’ first bowl bid since 1961. The success took Franchione to TCU, and in response New Mexico promoted defensive coordinator Rocky Long. It took him a little while to get rolling, but Long would eventually lead the Lobos to five bowls in six seasons, their most sustained run of high-level play.

In 2002, 20 years ago, Dan Hawkins’ Boise State lost early to Arkansas then won its last 11 games by an average of 49-16. A 34-16 pummeling of Seneca Wallace and Iowa State in the Humanitarian Bowl gave the Broncos a 12-1 record a No. 15 final AP ranking, their first ranked finish. There would be many more in the years to follow.

In 2007, 15 years ago, Troy Calhoun took over for Fisher DeBerry at Air Force. After a downturn late in DeBerry’s tenure, Calhoun immediately reestablished the program’s option bona fides. He has engineered 11 bowl trips, four seasons with double-digit wins and a division title thus far. Incredibly, DeBerry and Calhoun are the only head coaching hires the program has had to make in four decades.

In 2012, 10 years ago, Utah State erupted for its best season ever. Gary Andersen’s Aggies went 11-2 in the program’s final season in the WAC and finished ranked for the first time in 51 years. Andersen would leave for Wisconsin, but successor Matt Wells led USU to two more big seasons (2014, 2018), and Blake Anderson led the Aggies to their first MWC title last fall.

From 1981 to 2010, USU enjoyed just two winning records and never won more than seven games in a season. Over the last 11 years, they’ve enjoyed four 10-win seasons. Our perception of what is possible in Logan has changed massively in that span.

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