By Pat Graham
Here’s the good news for the Mountain West Conference: Boise State stayed in the league.
And here’s the bad news for teams in the Mountain West: Boise State stayed in the league.
All set to bolt for the Big East before this season, the Broncos had a change of plans and opted to remain in the conference. That only boosts the conference’s profile, since the Broncos are a perennial top-25 team. That also means more headaches for everyone in the league, given that coach Chris Petersen’s squads are tough to contain. Petersen is 84-8 since taking over the Broncos in 2006, winning at least 10 games each season.
This season, the conference will break into two divisions and hold its inaugural title game on Dec. 7. Naturally, Boise State was selected to win the Mountain Division in a recent media poll. On the other side, Fresno State was picked to capture the West Division.
The Bulldogs boast the preseason offensive player of the year in quarterback Derek Carr and defensive player of the year in defensive back Derron Smith. They will host Boise State on Sept. 20, which just might be an early glimpse of the conference championship contest.
Carr is coming off a season in which he threw for a league-record 4,104 yards and 37 TD passes. Smith was just as proficient on defense, finishing the season with six interceptions as Fresno State earned a share of the league title with Boise State and San Diego State with all three finishing 7-1 in conference play.
“Our No. 1 goal every single year is to win a conference championship,” coach Tim DeRuyter said on the Bulldogs’ website. “To do that, you don’t just show up on the 29th (of August) and play, you’ve got to put the work in every single day and our guys realize that. I want them practicing like we’re the hunter and we’re going after that.
“Everybody in this league has a target on their chest and we’re coming after them.” This is far from a two-team race, though, especially with Utah State and San Jose State joining the league this season. Both teams went 11-2 last season in the Western Athletic Conference, won bowl games and finished in the final AP poll. Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton and San Jose State’s David Fales are among the top QBs in the country.
If it seems like just about every Mountain West quarterback is on some sort of watch list heading into the season, well, it’s because they are. This will definitely be a quarterback-driven league, with Chuckie Keeton of Utah State, David Fales of San Jose State, Derek Carr of Fresno State, Cody Fajardo of Nevada, Brett Smith of Wyoming and Joe Southwick of Boise State all being heralded in preseason publications. Carr, Fajardo, Fales and Keeton are also among the trendy picks to contend for the Heisman Trophy this season. There’s another QB in the conference that could be a wild card in Hawaii’s Taylor Graham, who sat out last season after transferring in from Ohio State. Graham was one of the top-rated prospects coming out of high school and could flourish in coach Norm Chow’s system.
Not to be overlooked
Although there are a lot of prolific passers in the conference, Air Force (316 yards per game) and New Mexico (301) each finished in the top five in the country on the ground. Once again, the Lobos will rely on running back Kasey Carrier, who rushed for a school-record 1,469 yards last season. That despite playing a portion of the season with hamstring issues. In addition, Adam Muema of San Diego State is coming off a season in which he gained 1,458 yards and scored 16 TDs.
A WAC-ky situation
Turns out, every Mountain West team currently in the league has at one time been a member of the WAC, which dropped football after last season. Utah State has the distinction of winning the last WAC title before jumping over to the MWC. New Mexico captured the first-ever WAC crown in 1962-63.
The Colorado State Rams will travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to face reigning national champ Alabama on Sept. 21. For head coach Jim McElwain, it’s a homecoming of sorts as he ventures back to the place where he helped the Crimson Tide win two BCS national championships (2009, ‘11) as offensive coordinator. The Rams aren’t the only team with tough opponents on the schedule with Wyoming at Nebraska (Aug. 31), Boise State at Washington (Aug. 31), San Diego State at Ohio State (Sept. 7), UNLV vs. Arizona (Sept. 7), San Jose State at Stanford (Sept. 7) and Air Force vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 26).
A familiar name
Brian Polian will take over for longtime Nevada head coach Chris Ault. Polian is the son of former NFL general manager Bill Polian, who built Super Bowl teams with Buffalo and Indianapolis. Brian Polian inherits a talent-laden team, led by QB Cody Fajardo. Running a similar style that made Colin Kaepernick so elusive when he was at Nevada, Fajardo threw for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, while rushing for 1,121 yards and 12 more TDs.