When Boise State joined the Mountain West Conference in 2011 — the same year BYU and Utah exited, and one year prior to TCU’s departure — consensus dictated the Broncos would run roughshod over the league.
It’s been a half-decade, and Boise State has just one, outright conference championship. Meanwhile, once-sleeping giant San Diego State seems to have arising from its slumber, entering the 2017 season with back-to-back Mountain West championships en tow.
Boasting 22 wins to go with those two league crowns, San Diego State’s become the Mountain West’s standard bearer. But will it last with stars like Donnel Pumprhey and Damontae Kazee gone from Montezuma Mesa? Parity has defined the Mountain West throughout this current era, with three programs boasting championships and half the league having appeared in the conference championship game.
Perhaps a new turn in this trend is ready to unfold?
Team to Beat: San Diego State
One of college football’s sleeping giants spent more than a decade in slumber, enduring a bowl drought that lasted from 1998 to 2010. But since Brady Hoke’s abbreviated tenure laid a foundation, Rocky Long’s started to wake up the potential of Aztecs football.
San Diego State enters 2017 the Mountain West’s two-time defending champion. The Aztecs won 11 games each of those seasons and rolled in their bowl games. Last season’s Las Vegas Bowl blowout of Houston was especially impressive, signaling to the nation that perhaps San Diego State is ready to make the ascent to top-tier Group of Five program.
While the biggest star on both offense (Pumphrey) and defense (Kazee) is gone, Long returns more than enough for San Diego State to again carry the Mountain West’s banner. Running back Rashaad Penny has the tools to join Marshall Faulk, Ronnie Hillman and Pumphrey in the program’s rapidly growing lineage at the position. Even amid turnover, the defense is never a concern; guru Long overseeing the show ensures the Aztecs should remain one of the stingiest bunches in all of college football, say nothing of the Mountain West.
Team Most Likely to Surprise: New Mexico
Let’s give it up for Bob Davie, folks. After his abortive tenure as Notre Dame head coach, Davie spent 10 years on the sideline as a commentator. For a coach to successfully transition back into action after that much time away is impressive all on its own; that Davie did so at a downright moribund New Mexico program stands as one of the greatest college football accomplishments in recent memory.
New Mexico’s reached bowl games the last two seasons and notched impressive Mountain West victories along the way. The first indicator of the turning tide at UNM came with a 2015 defeat of Boise State at Albertsons Stadium. Last year, the Lobos won nine games for the first time since 2007, and just the third in program history. All the more impressive, they beat Wyoming to cap the regular season for No. 8, then won their bowl game for No. 9.
New Mexico faces considerable roster turnover, particularly on the defensive side with eight starters gone from the 2016 roster. That’s enough to sleep on the Lobos heading into the season, but the experience returning to the offense is more than enough to expect UNM to surprise.
Richard McQuarley, Lamar Jordan and Tyrone Owens accounted for more than 2,400 yards and scored 28 rushing touchdowns, powering the nation’s No. 1-ranked ground attack. With innovative mind Bob DeBesse overseeing it, New Mexico’s offense will be plenty potent enough to keep the Lobos in any game.
Team Most Likely to Disappoint: Colorado State
While Boise State maintains a slight edge, earning the media’s collective vote to win the Mountain division this season, hype for Colorado State is gaining steam. Rams head coach Mike Bobo enters Year 3 with his most veteran roster to date, retaining 15 starters from the 2016 season.
Among the returning Rams is quarterback Nick Stevens, who showed signs of being the next great Bobo-coached quarterback. He threw 19 touchdowns in 10 games last season, against just five interceptions. With breakout star Michael Gallup returning to lead the wide-receiving corps, the Colorado State passing attack could be potent.
However, as hype builds, Colorado State is tasked with enduring a difficult schedule. The Rams open Week 0 to christen their new home stadium, welcoming an Oregon State team I like to be a breakthrough squad of 2017. 2016 breakout team Colorado gets the Rams the following week. There’s a very realistic chance CSU opens 0-2, and that’s before having to endure the physical toll that comes with playing Alabama in Week 3.
The Rams will have been through the wringer once Mountain West play arrives.
Offensive Player to Watch: Wyoming QB Josh Allen
Allen’s no longer a well-kept secret. He’s a potential No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL draft. Whether he lives up to the hype or if he falls short of swelling expectations, he’s the clear offensive player to watch most closely in the Mountain West this season.
However, The Open Man would be remiss if it didn’t give a shout out to San Diego State’s Penny and Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien, two candidates to usurp the spotlight.
Defensive Player to Watch: Boise State DE David Moa
David Moa was an absolute revelation in 2016. Limited as a freshman, Moa moved to nose tackle before his sophomore campaign and made an instant impact. He finished the season with 8.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss — two staggering outputs for a player at his position.
Moa’s built and moves more like a defensive end at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, but it works. He sets the tone for an aggressive, blitzing style that routinely ranks among the nation’s best for sacks created.