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Mountain West season preview: Boise State’s the pick, but watch for SDSU, Wyoming and Air Force

Mountain West season preview: Boise State’s the pick, but watch for SDSU, Wyoming and Air Force

Welcome to the Hotline’s inaugural Mountain West season preview, which begins with the origin story.

Last season, we published a weekly ‘Best of the West’ football power ranking that considered not only Pac-12 teams but those in the Mountain West and Brigham Young. It created a means of expanding the scope of our coverage and lending context to the Pac-12’s performance relative to its neighbors.

The ‘Best of the West’ content was so popular — as was a basketball version that included the West Coast Conference — that we decided to add a Mountain West-specific column to our array of content offerings this season.

Also, half the teams in the Mountain West are located in the coverage zones of the Hotline’s syndication partners across the western third of the country. (The latest outlet to include our content: The San Diego Union-Tribune.)

Once the season begins, we will produce Mountain West power ratings each Monday morning, alongside the Pac-12 version. And the ‘Best of the West’ rankings will return for the basketball season.

Now, to the Mountain West outlook for 2023 …

1. Boise State: The Broncos meandered through the opening weeks of 2022 before a coaching staff change (offensive coordinator) helped fuel a two-month surge. The offense looks loaded with quarterback Taylen Green and proven playmakers in the backfield and at receiver. The defense must be retooled during a difficult September, and the road schedule is rugged throughout. But no team enters the season with fewer questions.

2. San Diego State: The Aztecs were picked fourth in the preseason media poll. We expect more from the fourth year of Brady Hoke’s second stint, for several reasons: A lack of faith in Air Force to meet lofty expectations and Fresno State to adequately replace Jake Haener; the best collection of defensive backs in the conference; the presumptive maturation of junior quarterback Jalen Mayden; and a schedule that brings both Boise State and Fresno State to Snapdragon Stadium.

3. Wyoming: Few coaches anywhere do more with less than Craig Bohl, who has produced .500 or better records for six consecutive seasons (excluding the COVID year). Look for more of the same in Laramie, with a veteran defense leading the way. (The front, in particular, should be superb.) If the offense, with quarterback Andrew Peasley at the helm, merely avoids major mistakes and assists with field position, the Cowboys should win plenty of games with scores in the 20-13 range.

4. Air Force: As noted above, expectations have soared in Colorado Springs after the Falcons’ third consecutive 10-win season (excluding 2020). An experienced defense and coach Troy Calhoun’s deeply ingrained system are the foundation for a run at what would be the school’s first appearance in the conference championship since 2015. But are the Falcons equipped to deal with the spotlight, with being a favorite more often than an underdog? We’re a tad skeptical.

5. Fresno State: Year One A.H. (After Haener) will be challenging for the Bulldogs — even for an offensive master like coach Jeff Tedford. The eyes of the Valley will be on the array of potential replacements, including Mikey Keene and Logan Fife. But we spot issues elsewhere, including the loss of tailback Jordan Mims (1,400 yards last season), an overhauled receiving corps and a remade secondary. So FSU’s fate in 2023 is about much more than replacing its heart and soul.

6. Colorado State: There is scant visible evidence to suggest the Rams are on the brink of a breakthrough season after winning just three games last year and dropping four of their final five. But dig down, and a glimmer of hope exists: In coach Jay Norvell’s previous stint, at Nevada, he won three games in his first season, then eight in his second. Now at CSU, could he orchestrate another Year Two turnaround? Consider us intrigued.

7. San Jose State: Will we see the good Spartans (2020, 2022) or the fair-to-middlin’ Spartans (2019, 2021)? The answers will come fast and furious as SJSU opens the season Saturday at USC. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro leads an experienced offense that features returning starters across the line. But is the revamped defense up to the task? The rugged league schedule includes Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State and Air Force.

8. Utah State: The  Aggies’ 11-win season in 2021 is looking more like a fluke than a new standard for coach Blake Anderson’s program. The lack of consistency at quarterback has undermined progress, and we don’t see a defense capable of containing the conference’s top teams this fall. The Aggies allowed nearly 200 yards per game on the ground last season and don’t have the personnel to significantly fortify the front seven.

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9. UNLV: The ill-fated Marcus Arroyo tenure has given way to the Barry Odom era, and that alone is reason for the Rebels to carry a morsel of optimism into 2023. Odom posted winning records in two of his four seasons in the SEC (at Missouri) and brings a level of wisdom and savvy the program has lacked for years. Add a returning quarterback (Doug Brumfield) and UNLV just might settle into the conference’s middle tier.

10. Hawaii: The Rainbow Warriors have performed better across the sweep of the past five years than the current state of affairs would suggest, for coach Timmy Chang’s initial season (2022) was rocky. The prospects for an upturn in Year Two are modest, which is better than microscopic. Quarterback Brayden Schager returns to operate the run-and-shoot, and the defense is stocked with veterans. Also, Hawaii missed both Boise State and Fresno State.

11. Nevada: The Wolf Pack never recovered from Norvell’s abrupt departure (to Colorado State) in December 2021. Under an inexperienced replacement, Ken Wilson, Nevada went winless in conference play last season and dropped its final 10 games. The arrivals of quarterback Brendon Lewis from Colorado and tailback Sean Dollars from Oregon add athleticism to the positions but little proven playmaking.

12. New Mexico: The Lobos were as easy to slot in last place as Boise State was to peg for first place as the program flounders under fourth-year coach Danny Gonzales. So gloomy is the outlook in Albuquerque that we cannot dismiss the potential for Gonzales’ fragile job security to impact the on-field product. If the losses mount early, it could cascade into a total collapse.

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