Monday, August 11, 2014

College Football Preview 2014: Mountain West

If there is a central theme for the Mountain West Conference in 2014, it would be "Into the Unknown". There are big changes coming in 2014, and it all starts at Boise State, where Chris Petersen was finally lured away to greener grasses at Washington, where we finally get to see how he responds on a consistently bigger stage. There are major changes not only at Boise State, but also at Fresno State where Derek Carr moves on, at Wyoming where the FCS' best coach (Craig Bohl) tries his hand, San Jose State loses David Fales, and so on and so on. It's a wide open race in the Mountain West.

Projected Order of Finsh

1. Fresno State
2. Nevada
3. San Diego State
5. San Jose State
6. Hawaii

1. Boise State
2. Utah State
3. Colorado State
4. Wyoming
5. Air Force
6. New Mexico

Best Coach
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State

Worst Coach
Norm Chow, Hawaii

Most Underrated Team
Colorado State

Most Overrates Team
Boise State

Coaches on the Hot Seat
Bob Davie, New Mexico
Troy Calhoun, Air Force
Norm Chow, Hawaii
Bobby Hauck, UNLV

Boise State Broncos
Projected 2014 Record: 10-2
Head Coach: Bryan Harsin (1st season)
2014 will be a year of finding a new identity for the Broncos after the departure of Petersen and the entrance of the much unproven Bryan Harsin, who spent all of one season as the head man at Arkansas State before bolting for home.
The Broncos are also looking for a starter at QB, but Gran Hedrick looks to return to the job in the new system, even if new OC Mike Sanford didn't immediately hand over the reins to the new no huddle shotgun offense. Jay Ajayi will be a key in the new attack at RB after rushing for over 1400 yards last season, an output that had him named an All-Bilo RB of the Year finalist. Matt Miller and SHane Williams-Rhoades return at WR, and that should give the new offense a massive kick after they combined for over 1800 yards and 19 scores a season ago. The major questions will come on an unproven and rebuilding line where only two starters return, and at TE where a freshman is slated to start.
The defensive front is largely rebuilding as well, with only two players back in the front six in DT Armand Nance and LB Ben Weaver. The secondary, however, is loaded with the return of CB Donte Deayon and all three safeties in Corey Bell, Darian Thompson, and Jeremy Ioane.
Dan Goodale was as dependable as can be at PK last season, drilling 17 of 19 FGs. Sophomore Sean Wale will take over full time Punting duties this fall.
The schedule is largely friendly, so returning to 10 wins shouldn't be an issue, but if the chemistry doesn't take hold early with the changes, Boise could be ripe for picking by Utah State or even Colorado State. Nothing is set in stone.
Opening Game
8/28 Ole Miss at Atlanta

Utah State Aggies
Projected 2014 Record: 8-5
Head Coach: Matt Wells (9-5, 2nd season)
Consistency should be a key factor for the Aggies in 2014, as I see them finishing right about the same spot as they did a year ago.
Chuckie Keeton is back at QB, and that is great news for Aggie fans after they lost the talented senior for a huge chunk of last season. The major problem for USU is that there is very little returning starting experience coming back from last season on offense, as just three starters return. WR Jojo Nelson is one of those returnees, and will be used in a multitude of different spots on the field. The only other returning starter is LT Kevin Whimpey.
The defense has some serious holes to fill as well, as only four starters return. Three of those starters are up front in star DE BJ Larsen, LB Kyler Fackrell, and LB Zach Vigil. This group should be able to carry the front while the new guys mesh early. FS Brian Sulte is the lone returnee in the secondary.
Nick Diaz is back after hitting 17 of 23 FGs last fall, and the Aggies will be looking for more from him. Jaron Bentrude is back at Punter, but he was largely average last season, failing to average 40 yards.
There are many new holes on both sides of the ball, but there is talent at almost every spot, which is something that could never be said ten years ago in Logan. Gary Anderson, and now Matt Wells have placed this program in a position where returning the old days of major losing is no longer an option, and USU could surprise some people in 2014.
Opening Game
8/30 at Tennessee

Fresno State Bulldogs
Projected 2014 Record: 8-4
Head Coach: Tim DeRuyter (20-6, 3rd season)
What DeRuyter has done in Fresno in two short seasons is nothing short of amazing, but he'll have to move forward without his big gun in Derek Carr this season, and that will be a huge challenge for the Bulldogs to overcome.
Luckily for Fresno State, the West division is up for grabs, and they may still have enough talent to grab the ring.
Replacing Carr at QB will be Duke transfer Brandon Connette, and he may have a major breakthrough this season, if he remains healthy. Josh Quezeda starts at RB, but will likely share carries with Marteze Waller like they did a season ago. A major issue will be filling shoes in a depleted receiving corps that only returns Josh Harper this fall. RT Justin Northern, RG Cody Wichmann, and C Bo Bonnheim all return on the line, but the left side is under construction.
Only one starter returns on the D line in DE Tyeler Davison, but the LB corps is loaded, with every starter there returning in Ejiro Ederaine, Karl Mickelson, Kyrie Wilson, and Donavon Lewis. The secondary is deep and experienced as well, with three starters back in CB Curtis Riley, SS Charles Washington, and FS Derron Smith. Look for JC transfer Corey Ferguson to push hard for the open CB job.
Colin McGuire returns at PK, while Garrett Swanson returns as well at P to give the Bulldogs one of the better kicking games in the MWC.
While the Bulldogs are loaded with questions on offense, the defense should be good enough to carry the load until the offense finds their way, and that shouldn't take long. Fresno is one of three teams that could eventually win the West this season.
Opening Game
8/30 at USC

Nevada Wolfpack
Projected 2014 Record: 7-5
Head Coach: Brian Polian (4-8, 2nd season)
Looking for a surprise story to some out of the MWC? Try looking towards Reno, where the Pack could see as much as a three win improvement over a disappointing 2013, which could be good enough to go bowling once again.
Cody Fajardo worked through some rough times last fall to become a real leader of this football team at QB, and may be one of the best at the position in the conference this fall. Richy Turner will be his lone returning starting target at WR this fall, but he's a good one, and should have a big season. Look out for WR Hasaan Richardson, who is a huge target with skill. Kendall Brock is back at RB, and should break the 1000 yard mark thanks to a solid line that returns four starters this season.
The defense has some solid numbers coming back as well, starting on the line where three starters are back in DE Brock Hekking, DT Jordan Hanson, and DT Rykeem Yates. Two LBs return to starting roles as well in Jonathon McNeal and Jordan Dobrich, giving Nevada a shot at having one of the most improved defensive fronts in the league. Charles Garrett and Evan Favors are both back at CB, but both Safeties need replacing in camp.
Brent Zuzo did a solid job at PK last fall, hitting 14 of 17 FGs, and is back. Sophomore Alex Boy looks to be the new Punter at press time.
Nevada returns so much talent that got valuable experience from a hard knocks season in 2013, and that experience should pay dividends in Polian's second season as coach. Look for Nevada to be right in the thick of that wide open West race.
Opening Game
8/30 Southern Utah

San Diego State Aztecs
Projected 2014 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Rocky Long (25-14, 4th season)
SDSU has gotten some mixed expectations put on them heading into the season by the experts, but I pick them somewhere right in the middle of a wide open West. There are more questions than answers right now, and I'm not sure about overall depth at key spots.
Quinn Kaehler returns to start at QB, and he leads an offense that finished 38th nationally in passing. The issue I have is that only one starter returns in Ezell Ruffin at WR. Bob Toledo is high on his receivers, but it's all talk of potential, which is something that I find very little use for. It's all about game day, and they are unproven. There is some good news on the line, where three starters return in LT Terry Poole, C Jordan Smith, and RG Darrell Greene, and that'll be important as the Aztecs break in a new RB in DJ Humphrey, who should get the nod as the starter.
The defense was a mess against the pass last fall, ranking 98th, and the news gets worse as only CB JJ Whitakker returns in the five DB set. That could be a huge mess brewing. The news isn't any better up front either, as only DE Dontrell Onuoha and LB Cody Galae return. The Azecs hipe that Grossmont and USC transfer Christian Heyward can add some bulk up front, but again, there's that potential word.
The staff is hitting the reset button at PK, and are hoping that JC transfer Donny Hageman can get the job done after the kicking game nearly ruined the season last fall. Joel Alesi returns at Punter.
I've heard Long and Toledo talking about potential players for years dating back to their days together at UCLA. While having young potential is a good thing, these guys need to get onto the field and do the job. At best, I see the Aztecs as a middle of the road team that will either squeak into a bowl, or be home for the holidays based on a failure to live up to the talk.
Opening Game
8/30 Northern Arizona

Colorado State Rams
Projected 2014 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Jim McElwain (12-14, 3rd season)
The rams surprised a few people by making their way to the New Mexico Bowl last fall, where they shockingly held off Washington State. Can they possibly revive that magic this fall, and even improve on it?
The answer is up in the air, as there are many questions on offense. Garrett Grayson is back at QB, and everything rests on him on offense this fall after the loss of Kapri Bibbs at RB, along with his backup in the spring who left the program. Grayson is completely loaded with ability, and has a solid group of receivers to get the ball to in returning starters Joe Hansley and Rashard Higgins, as well as HB Kivon Cartwright. The Rams will likely have to dig deep to find a new RB, but will have to dig even deeper on the line, where only LT Ty Sambrallo returns.
The secondary is loaded on defense, where every starter returns. Bernard Blake and DeAndre Elliott are back at the corners, while Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis are back deep. Three starters return at LB in the 3-4 in Cory James, Max Morgan, and Aaron Davis. The glaring problem is on the line, where not a single starter returns this fall.
Jared Roberts is a lock at PK after hitting 21 of 24 tries a season ago. Hayden Hunt is also back at Punter after averaging just a hair short of 42 yards per punt last season.
The Rams are on a balancing beam this fall, and it could tilt either way. Grayson is good enough to lead this offense, but will inexperience on the line and in the run game let him down? Can the defense hold it together until the offense catches up? Those are huge questions.
Opening Game
8/29 Colorado at Denver

UNLV Rebels
Projected 2014 Record: 4-8
Head Coach: Bobby Hauck (13-38, 5th season)
The Rebels shocked observers by making it to their first bow since 1994 last fall, but a return trip may not be in the making in 2014, 20 years after that magical season. A bowl ban for a lacking APR score, however, was overturned, and so if a few chips fall in the right direction, the Rebels could squeeze into yet another minor bowl where they'll take a huge financial loss to participate in.
Gone is Caleb Herring at QB, and retread Nick Sherry will battle junior Blake Decker in camp. Also gone is the beast that was Tim Cornett at RB, and that loss may be even bigger. The good news is that talented WR Devante Davis returns, but how good will the new QB be about getting the ball out to him? Marcus Sullivan returns as well, and should have the advantage when most teams will be doubling up on Davis. The great news is the line returns four starters, which is a solid foundation.
The defensive front is loaded with holes, as only DEs Sonny Sanitoa and Jordan Sparkman return, leaving both DT jobs and all three LB jobs open. The secondary, which was solid a year ago, returns three starters in CBs Tajh Johnson and Kenneth Penny, as well as SS Peni Vea.
Nolan Kohoorst is gone at PK, leaving a huge hole that got even bigger when Connor Perkins bolted for a two year Mormon mission. Jonathon Leiva is the last man standing. Logan Ynuker was solid last fall, and should be a strength at Punter.
With Herring and Cornett gone on offense, and an unproven bunch waiting to take over, the issues on offense could be the undoing. Last time the Rebels went bowling, it took 20 years to get back. Will that be the case again?
Opening Game
8/29 at Arizona

Wyoming Cowboys
Projected 2014 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Craig Bohl (1st season)
The addition of North Dakota State's Craig Bohl as head coach to replace the embattled Dave Christensen was pure brilliance from an administration that largely couldn't get out of their own way leading up to that point. Bohl dominated FCS football, and will largely increase the Cowboy footprint in the MWC beginning almost immediately.
Unfortunately, Brett Smith didn't stick around to play QB for another season, and made an ill decided jump to the NFL, where he is basically already jobless. Backup Jason Thompson transferred to Utah, so Bohl is largely starting from scratch at QB. Whomever wins the job should have talented targets in Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran to throw to. Claiborne had 75 receptions last fall. Shaun Wick returns at RB, and will start from day one in the West Coast offense, but the Cowboys will eventually need more depth here. It'll come. The right side of the line and center return, but the left side will be in rebuild mode.
The defense returns some nice parts this fall, and has three starters abck on the line in DE Eddie Yarbrough, DT Patrick Martens, and DE Sonny Puletasi. There is some depth and experience at LB as well with the return of Mark Nzeocha and Jordan Stanton, but both will be adjusting to the new defensive scheme, and could be a liability in pass coverage. Both corners return in Blair Burns and DeAndre Jones, while FS Darrenn White is back as well and is adjusting to the Tampa 2 scheme.
Stuart Williams is back at PK, and Punter Ethan Wood returns as well, and so the Cowboys should be ok here.
One thing about Bohl is how much he was able to achieve without obtaining super talented recruits. He takes what he gets and builds them into football players, and that's what is needed at Wyoming. Expect immediate returns, as I believe the Cowboys may skid into bowl contention at 6-6 this season.
Opening Game
8/30 Montana

San Jose State Spartans
Projected 2014 Record: 3-9
Head Coach: Ron Caragher (6-6, 2nd season)
The loss of David Fales to the NFL is almost too much weight to bear from a football that stumbled to a 6-6 finish in 2014. A fall is likely.
With Fales gone at QB, the job is likely Joe Gray's to lose, but he's no Fales in the end. In response to the upheaval at QB, RB Jarrod Lawson could get more carries this fall, and become a prime back for the Spartans to lean on. WR Tyler Winston will step up as a huge target for Gray in the passing game, and Billy Freeman will likely have a larger role at TE as well. The line is in rebuilding mode, with only two returning starters in LT Wes Schweitzer and C David Peterson.
The line is a strength on D, where three starters are back in DTs Travis Raciti and Nate Falo, as well as DE Sean Bacon. The secondary has some strength as well in returnees CBs Jimmy Pruitt and Dasheon Frierson, and FS Forrest Hightower. LB is not as fortunate as only Christian Tago returns.
PK Austin Lopez is back at PK, and is one of the best in the nation, hitting 39 of 44 career kicks. RS freshman Zach Steinberg is in line to win the Punting job.
With Fales gone, and questions holding at QB and the line, as well as at LB, the weight is almost too much. However, I am a believer in coach Ron Caragher, so anything is possible. Realistically, I only see three wins with this schedule and these issues.

Air Force Falcons
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Troy Calhoun (49-41, 8th season)
These are dark times for the Air Force program for more reasons than wins and losses, but we will get to that in a moment. The on-field product has largely been in a tailspin, hitting the side of the mountain nose first in 2013 when they finished just 2-10. 2014 doesn't figure to get any better than that.
There could be as many as three QBs in camp fighting for the starting job, but it looks to go to Nate Romine, as the sophomore was the last man standing last fall. If it is indeed Romine, he needs to get the rockets going early to step up the energy in the offense, as the Falcons finished 91st nationally in total offense, not a place we're used to seeing them. The HB position must be filled as well, giving the Falcons a whole lot of questions in the backfield. Broam Hart does figure in as the starting FB. If the Falcons find a QB who can actually pass, Sam Gagliano is back at WR, and is joined as a returning starter by TE Garrett Griffin. The line is in rebuild mode, however, with only LT Matt Rochell and C Michael Husar, Jr. coming back for more.
The defense was absolutely awful in 2013, but it can only improve this season as seven starters return. Both DEs are back in Nick Fitzgerald and Alex Hansen, but a new starter must be found at NG, with Troy Timmerman leading the pack to get the nod. Three of four LBs return in Joey Nichol, Spencer Proctor, and Dexter Walker, with senior Jared Jones leading the group hoping to grab the one open starting job. The secondary has two starters back in CB Gavin McHenry and FS Christian Spears. Whatever happens, Air Force cannot survive ranking 114th in total defense, 119th against the run, and 116th in scoring defense.
Will Conant returns at PK, and was one of the few bright spots of the squad last season after hitting 11 of 13 FGs. The Punter job is wide open up until the kickoff on the 30th.
This is a make or break season for Calhoun, as the 2-10 finish, topped by an independent review of the Academy athletic department for off-field issues of many terrible kinds will place a spotlight on some perceived ugliness around the entire department, and Calhoun is in the center of the storm. If he can't win, and beat back a review, then he may already be toast.
Opening Game
8/30 Nicholls State

New Mexico Lobos
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Bob Davie (7-18, 3rd season)
The Lobos got off to a horrid start in 2013, and when all is said and done, they lost six of their final seven games with only a win over Air Force to show. Bob Davie needs to start showing improvement this season, or else the writing could be on the wall for him in 2015. He should get the full season to show a case for sticking around.
Of course, when you have no QB or RB of any real experience, then you have more problems than you can count already, and that's the case with the Lobos. Whomever wins the QB job will at least have experience to go to through the air, as both WR Jeric Magnant and WR Marquis Bundy return for another go this fall. UNM was awful when it came to moving the ball in the air, ranking 120th nationally with just 113 yards per game. The run game, on the other hand, ranked 4th nationally with a total of 308.8 yards per game rushing. The Line should help, as three starters return in LG Jamal Price, C LaMar Burton, and RT Johnny Viscaino.
The defense was all around terrible last fall, as the best stat to be found was a ranking of 101st against the pass, and that was the absolute best ranking on defense. DE Brett Bowers is the only member of the line to return as a starter this fall, while half of the LB corps comes back in Javarle Johnson and Dakota Cox. Half of the secondary comes back as well, with CB Cranston Jones joining SS David Guthrie as returning starters.
Both kickers must be replaced heading into the season, and that coud bode badly with a freshman taking over PK duties in Jason Sanders, while the front runner for the punting job is likely to be Guthrie, who also plays SS. This bodes badly.
With so many issues, and lacking talent and experienced depth across the board, UNM will find themselves fighting with Air Force for the division cellar.
Opening Game
8/30 UTEP

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
Projected 2014 Record: 1-11
Head Coach: Norm Chow (4-20, 3rd season)
Honestly, I am shocked that Chow earned a third try at this football team, but obviously, the administration has to be blind at this point to have kept him around. The Chow era will go down as one of the darkest in the history of this program.
The offense, at times, wasn't horrible, and managed to rank 19th in the country in passing yards (301.4) per game. The bad news was that the run game was absolutely anemic, averaging 114.6 per game (113th nationally). There is a three man battle for QB going on in camp, and there is very little at the position to be excited about. Joey Iosefa should be a primary attack point in the offense, but teams may stack up against him. Keith Kirkwood and Scott Harding both return at WR, but the real talent could be in the slot, where Marcus Kemp will share time with Utah transfer Quinton Pedroza. The line may very well be a mess, with only two starters returning in Ben Clark, who moves from C to LT, and Kody Afusia, who shifts over to C. As many as two freshmen could find starting jobs on the line, and with inexperience at QB, that could be really awful news.
There was nothing good about the way that this defense played football in 2013. 113th ranked scoring defense, 104th ranked rush D, 116th ranked pass D, and 115th ranked in total defense. This Hawaii team also couldn't provide takeaways on any regular basis, and UH finished -10 there (T112th).
Beau Yap returns at DE, and will be joined by NT Moses Samia on the line. Both are seniors. The LB corps is thin and rather weak, with only Jerrol Garcia-Williams returning to start. He may be flanked by Jeremy Castro, a UCLA transfer. The secondary could show improvement if CBs Ne'Quan Phillips and Dee Maggitt can join up with FS Marrell Jackson can create some opportunities. Sophomore Trayvon Henderson led the team with three picks last fall, and likely starts at SS.
Tyler Hadden was just a mess as everyone else on this team at PK, hitting just 7 of 13 FGs last fall. WR Scott Harding handles Punting duties as well, and also returns kicks as an all-purpose guy.
I'm no fan of Norm Chow, and the game hasn't been his playground in over ten years. UH made a desperate hire hear, and it's biting them squarely on the ass. Surf is definitely not up here.
Opening Game
8/30 Washington

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