Eric Purdy takes a look at the Mountain West Conference. (C+P) — The Mountain West didn’t make any changes in membership or realignment during the off season, but it was a steady period for the top programs in the Mountain West Conference. Coach and Player Magazine is going to take you for an in-depth look at what 2014 may have in store in the MWC. 2014 Mountain West Predictions Mountain Division 1. Utah State (No. 49) 2. Boise State (No. 46) 3. Colorado State (No. 74) 4. Wyoming (No. 94) 5. Air Force (No. 105) 6. New Mexico (No. 106) West Division 1. Fresno State (No. 62) 2. Nevada (No. 82) 3. San Diego State (No. 83) 4. UNLV (No. 101) 5. San Jose State (No. 103) 6. Hawaii (No. 118)
Boise State Boise State lost coach Chris Petersen to Washington, but former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin was hired away from Arkansas State to keep the program at the top of the conference. Harsin inherits a team that returns 12 starters, but there are concerns for the Broncos on the offensive and defensive lines. Youth and injuries hurt Boise State’s overall depth in 2013, and a challenging schedule is on hand early in the year, including a neutral site game against Ole Miss. The Broncos are ranked only No. 46 nationally to begin 2014.
Utah State Utah State is Coach and Player’s projected champion in the Mountain Division. The Mountain West isn’t as strong as it was in 2013, largely due to the personnel losses at Utah State and Fresno State. Senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back from a torn ACL suffered in early October. Keeton’s return is crucial for an offense that returns only three starters and must replace four key cogs on the line.
Even though Colorado State loses standout center Weston Richburg and running back Kapri Bibbs, the Rams were a clear No. 3 in Coach and Player’s predictions for the Mountain Division. Quarterback Garrett Grayson leads an improving passing attack, and third-year coach Jim McElwain has the program heading in the right direction.
Rounding out the rest of the Mountain Division is Wyoming, Air Force and New Mexico. New Wyoming coach Craig Bohl was one of the top hires by any program this offseason, and the Cowboys could push for a bowl in 2014 after over-achieving in 2013 and coming up one win short of a bowl. Air Force and New Mexico will also show improvement, but both programs have to find answers on defense to push for a postseason appearance possibly by 2016.
Mountain West Bowl Tie-Ins
Fresno State Fresno State is Coach and Player’s projected champion of the West Division, and the Bulldogs have a considerable edge over Nevada and San Diego State. Despite losing quarterback Derek Carr, Fresno State is still a Mountain West title contender, as receiver Josh Harper is one of the best in the conference, and eight starters return on an improving defense.
Looking Ahead It’s a mosh pit between Nevada and San Diego State for the No. 2 spot, but the Wolf Pack should be better in the second year under Brian Polian. Quarterback Cody Fajardo battled injuries last season, and new coordinator Scott Boone should help a defense that allowed over 500 yards per game in 2013. The Aztecs should be solid once again, but a tough road schedule could prevent this team from matching last year’s eight wins. UNLV made considerable progress under Bobby Hauck last year, but the Rebels are banned from postseason play. Hauck will have to fight motivation concerns all year, and standout guard Cameron Jefferson transferred to Arkansas this summer. San Jose State has to find a replacement for quarterback David Fales, and coach Ron Caragher hopes the addition of veteran coordinator Greg Robinson will improve a defense that allowed 35.1 points per game in 2013. Hawaii is picked to finish No. 6 in the West, as the Warriors have a handful of question marks on both sides of the ball. A full season from running back Joey Iosefa will help, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback, and the defense allowed nearly 40 points per game in 2013. The Rainbow Warriors showed some improvement in Norm Chow’s second year and need to take another step forward to escape the bottom of the West Division again in 2014.
Five Key Conference Games to Watch in 2014
San Diego State at Fresno State (Oct. 3)
*Aztecs lost by seven in overtime last year. Without Derek Carr and Davante Adams, can the Bulldogs hold off San Diego State once again?
Fresno State at Boise State (Oct. 17)
*Rematch of last year’s entertaining 41-40 shootout at Fresno, and this game could be an early preview of the Mountain West title game in December.
San Diego State at Boise State (Nov. 15)
*Aztecs have won two in a row over Boise State. Can San Diego State continue their success against the Broncos?
Fresno State at Nevada (Nov. 22)
*If the Wolf Pack want to challenge for the West Division title, beating the Bulldogs on Nov. 22 is a must.
Utah State at Boise State (Nov. 29)
*The Aggies have not won a game at Boise since 1996. A win over the Broncos on Nov. 29 could decide the Mountain Division in 2014.