The progress of the Boise State program over the last ten years is such that now when the Broncos go 10-2, as they did last year, but fail to make a BCS game or win the conference championship outright (they shared a three-way crown), and just nip a power-conference team (Washington) in a bowl game, it’s treated with a certain amount of ho-hum.
Boise is the team to beat in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division, but it won’t be a runaway. Utah State is a new arrival in the conference and even though Aggie head coach Gary Anderson left for Wisconsin, he left his old program a ton of returning talent. Today’s college football coverage looks deeper at the Mountain West’s Mountain Division race.
BREAKING DOWN THE FAVORITES
Boise State: Joe Southwick comes into his senior year at quarterback and has been a solid game-manager at quarterback. He may need to step it up a little bit this year, because there are not a lot of returning starters on offense, but it’s a testament to Chris Petersen’s program that now upperclassmen step into starting jobs, instead of having to rebuild with younger players.
The back seven on the defensive side is also young, but at least the Broncos can rely on a quality front four, led by the conference’s sack leader in DeMarcus Lawrence.
What it adds up to is a Boise team that will be good, will compete for this league’s championship, but has no real shot at a major bowl bid. There was a time when that would have been considered a really good year, but expectations are high on the blue turf these days.
Utah State: Chuckie Keeton is an excellent all-around quarterback, capable of beating you with his arm or his legs, and his entire offensive front returns intact. This from a team that went 10-2 a year ago, won its bowl game and frankly had a credible argument for making it into a BCS bowl.
In fact, had Utah State not missed a chippie field goal to cost themselves a win at Wisconsin, the Aggies would likely have gotten the Orange Bowl bid that instead went to Northern Illinois. I suppose its cruel fate that Utah State first blew its BCS shot in Madison, then lost its coach to the same place.
The Aggies are going to be solid defensively, with seven seniors in a lineup filled with upperclassmen. The only problem this team will have is one that’s hard to measure right now—they’re stepping up in class, having left the dissolved WAC to join the Mountain West.
On a game-by-game basis, the competition is similar enough that I don’t worry about Utah State. But over the course of the year, the bad teams in the MWC are much better than the patsies in the old WAC. Will there be a depth problem for Utah State?
THE FOUR CHALLENGERS
Boise State and Utah State might be clear favorites, but neither is infallible. Air Force, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado State are the ones lurking and hoping to get a break.
Air Force: The Falcons have been a little bit of funk, lingering around the .500 mark for a couple years, even as they continue to make bowl games. This year might be the season it slips away. Troy Calhoun has to rebuild the entire offense and his defensive front seven. You never write off the kids from the Academy, especially on an expectation as basic as getting bowl-eligible, but this is going to be a tough hill for Calhoun to climb.
Wyoming: I was really disappointed with the Cowboys’ poor 4-8 showing a year ago, after a 2011 season where they made a bowl game and broke in a promising quarterback in Brett Smith. They still have Smith, now entering his junior season and he’s got his skill position supporting cast back. But the line is young, my confidence in Dave Christensen’s program is shaken, and even just making a bowl game would be a big deal.
New Mexico: Bob Davie arrived in the desert last year and did a nice job with a program that had been at the very bottom of the FBS. Davie won four games and produced a prolific running game behind 1,400-yard back Kasey Carrier.
With a veteran offensive front, Carrier back in the fold and the defensive front seven looking to be better, the Lobos have a real shot at a bowl game. They don’t throw the ball or defend the pass well enough to be a real challenger to the favorites, but football in New Mexico is again relevant.
Colorado State: Another program that looks to have better days ahead, with former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain in his second year. McElwain has his entire offensive line back, a good runner in Donnell Alexander and quarterback Garrett Grayson is healthy after a broken collarbone cost him half of last season. There’s a good mix of young returning starters, boding well for the future, along with seniors in this lineup.
New Mexico and Colorado State are going to pass Air Force and Wyoming in the division pecking order and at least be a threat to pull an upset on one of the favorites. The Lobos or Rams won’t win this division but they might decide who will. And to be the Mountain representative in the league title game, I’m going to lean Utah State. Their returning talent is better than Boise’s, and I’m going to bet that the conference transition will be manageable, given the similarity between the Mountain West and the old WAC.