We begin each year in the MWC Mountain race with the same question: Who challenges Boise State? Some team usually does. The Broncos have won only four of seven division titles, after all. Utah State, Air Force and Wyoming have each claimed one, and at worst, both the Cowboys and Falcons could offer a challenge this season. (They each get BSU at home, too.)
But in a period of transition for the conference -- seven of 12 teams are employing first- or second-year coaches, and the MWC has less returning production than any other FBS conference -- the Mountain's sure thing is as sure as ever. Can Air Force, Wyoming or perhaps Colorado State under new management make a charge?
Head coach: Danny Gonzales (first year)
2019: 2-10 (0-8), 119th in SP+
2020 projection: 4-8 (2-6), 122nd
Five best returning players: QB Tevaka Tuioti, C Kyle Stapley, RUSH Jacobi Hearn, WR Jordan Kress, DE Trent Sellers
The New Mexico job is a fickle one; put together just the right mix of experience and chips on shoulders, lean into Albuquerque's treacherous altitude and occasional wind, and you can be an absolute nightmare to play. But when the formula is off -- when you've got a young squad, when the chips-to-shoulders ratio is off, when you just don't have enough raw talent -- things get really, really bad.
In the past 23 seasons, beginning with Dennis Franchione's last year in charge, UNM has won at least eight games four times and has reached eight bowls. The Lobos have executed some of the nastiest 3-3-5 the college football world has seen and briefly put together one of the more dizzying non-service-academy options of the 21st century.
They've also lost nine-plus games in a season nine times, including in each of Bob Davie's last three seasons in charge. He and UNM finally parted ways last fall, after he went 8-28 in his last three seasons.
The replacement hire was intriguing. A former Lobo safety in the Franchione days, Danny Gonzales served as a GA and position coach under Franchione replacement Rocky Long (progenitor of the aforementioned nasty 3-3-5). Gonzales followed Long to San Diego State in 2011, then spent two years as Herm Edwards' DC at Arizona State. He inherited a Sun Devil defense that ranked 99th in defensive SP+ the season before his arrival, and ASU ranked 41st by 2019.
Gonzales also brought in a ringer for a defensive coordinator: Long. After winning 49 games in his last five seasons in charge at SDSU, the 70-year-old Long elected to go back to being an assistant.
Now the bad news: There isn't much to work with at the moment. The Lobos averaged a 115th defensive SP+ ranking under Davie and sank to 123rd in 2019. End Joey Noble and outside linebacker Jacobi Hearn each have play-making potential, and sophomore Donte Martin could already be one of the best CBs in the MWC. The safety corps is loaded with seniors, too, and Long plays a bunch of safeties. But there are a lot more questions than answers.
New offensive coordinator Derek Warehime has a bit more to work with as he installs a more modern, up-tempo spread. The line is senior-heavy, and quarterbacks Tevaka Tuioti, Trae Hall and Brandt Hughes all played last season. There's a sliding scale between them: Hughes has the strongest arm but is the least mobile, Hall can run like crazy but is unproven throwing, and Tuioti is midway in between.
The skill corps is pretty all-or-nothing. Junior RB Bryson Carroll, WRs Jordan Kress, Elijah Lilly and Anselem Umeh, and TE Marcus Williams all have solid explosiveness numbers, but only Williams and maybe Umeh have proven to be even slightly efficient.
New Mexico probably won't be very good in 2020, but the schedule is friendly. Despite a No. 122 projection, SP+ gives the Lobos a 63% chance of winning at least four games. That'd be their most in four years.
Head coach: Gary Andersen (7-6, second year; 33-30, seventh year)
2019: 7-6 (6-2), 83rd in SP+
2020 projection: 5-7 (3-5), 99th
Five best returning players: S Troy Lefeged Jr., RB Jaylen Warren, DE Nick Heninger, RG Karter Shaw, DE Justus Te'i
The rehire hire is having a moment. It has been a rarity in college football's history: In the past 25 years, it has been saved for unique cases such as Bill Snyder returning to Kansas State, Mike Riley returning to Oregon State and Nevada athletic director Chris Ault rehiring Chris Ault a couple of times. But Louisville brought back Bobby Petrino in 2014, and the trend then exploded, with UConn rehiring Randy Edsall in 2017, Mack Brown (UNC) and Gary Andersen (Utah State) returning to their previous employers in 2019, and San Diego State rehiring Brady Hoke in 2020.
Andersen's first season back was a mixed bag. The Aggies made their eighth bowl in nine years, winning at SDSU and Fresno State in the process, but they lost to LSU, Air Force, BYU and Boise State by an average of 31 points, and despite the presence of soon-to-be-first-round pick Jordan Love at QB, they fell from 21st to 83rd in SP+ overall. Now Andersen has to replace Love, a 900-yard rusher (Gerold Bright), a 900-yard receiver (Siaosi Mariner), his offensive coordinator (Mike Sanford Jr.), both starting cornerbacks, most of last season's depth chart on the DL and even a star kicker (Dominik Eberle).
Former EWU and North Texas OC Bodie Reeder takes the reins on offense. Reeder's offenses play with some tempo and throw the ball a lot. The presumptive starting QB is junior Henry Colombi, who completed 77% of his passes in two years of mop-up time. He has quick-strike options in seniors Jordan Nathan, Deven Thompkins and Savon Scarver, but there are almost no known playmakers here. Can a newcomer such as 6-foot-6 juco transfer Justin McGriff provide some pop? Can the line provide more stability? Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 43 of last season's 65 starts up front, and it showed.
Defense drove USU's rise during Andersen's first tenure in Logan, but it fell from 35th to 81st in defensive SP+ last season. The linebacking corps was an injury-laden mess, but it has experience this time around. The turnover was all on the line, where only three of last season's top nine return. Granted, that includes a potential star in senior end Nick Heninger, who had 9.5 TFLs and 11 run stuffs in 362 snaps in 2019. But depth is a potential issue, especially at tackle. In the secondary, though every safety returns (including potential stars in Troy Lefeged Jr. and Shaq Bond), the starting corners have both departed. Sophomore Cam Lampkin could be a star, but if not, the pass defense could struggle.
It's hard not to see another step backward taking place this season. USU not only has to replace most of last season's stars but also faces a schedule that includes trips to Washington, BYU and Boise State, plus visits from Washington State and SDSU, in the first half of the season. Even if the Aggies are better than projected, they could start 2-4. They could rally late if the offense comes together, but it's hard to confidently predict that.
Head coach: Craig Bohl (36-40, seventh year)
2019: 8-5 (4-4), 66th in SP+
2020 projection: 6-6 (4-4), 90th
Five best returning players: QB Sean Chambers, RG Logan Harris, DE Solomon Byrd, RB Xazavian Valladay, NICKEL Keyon Blankenbaker
There has been a bit of a run on small-school guys in recent years. Former NAIA national champion Kalen DeBoer just became Fresno State's head coach, Division III legend Lance Leipold is making noise at Buffalo, and another Div. III title winner, Vince Kehres, just signed on as Toledo's defensive coordinator.
Craig Bohl was the first in this line, though.
Bohl, 61, is more responsible than anyone else for turning North Dakota State into an FCS juggernaut. But after winning three national titles, he left in 2014 to take over a Wyoming program that had won between four and seven games in nine of the previous 11 seasons. Never terrible, rarely good.
After winning at least eight games just three times in 22 years, Wyoming has now done so in three of four. The defense has been one of the best in the Group of 5 for three straight years, and though the offense hasn't yet generated consistency, it has a solid, run-heavy identity.
Degree of difficulty made 2019 Bohl's most impressive performance yet. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers missed the last five games because of a knee injury. Only two offensive linemen started all 13 games. The defensive line lost four of its top six players from 2018, then lost a fifth (tackle Ravontae Holt) for the season in August.
A whopping 30 freshmen and sophomores took at least 100 snaps in 2019. Yet the Cowboys won eight games, fielded one of their best run defenses ever and produced their best overall SP+ ranking since 2006.
Wyoming averaged 29 points per game with Chambers behind center and 20 without. He was incredible with his feet, averaging 7.4 yards per (non-sack) carry with a 54% success rate, but he was intensely all-or-nothing in the passing game, completing 43% of his passes but at nearly 18 yards per completion.
With Chambers, Xazavian Valladay (1,265 rushing yards) and a line that returns basically everyone, the run game remains dangerous. But the offense will remain volatile until the passing game grows less so. That will be difficult, considering that no wideout with double-digit catches returns.
There's good news and bad news on defense. The Cowboys have to replace their two best playmakers in linebacker Logan Wilson and safety Alijah Halliburton, plus defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, who took the same job at Washington State. (Bohl replaced him with former Minnesota and Wake Forest DC Jay Sawvel.) But the line that was wrecked by attrition brings back eight players with 100-plus snaps in 2019 (plus Holt), and the secondary returns seven. Depth and experience are massive pluses.
The schedule presents a massive opportunity. Four of the Cowboys' five projected top-75 opponents have to visit Laramie. Plus, three of six road opponents are projected 107th or worse. If Wyoming is again a top-70 team or so, the Cowboys could top eight wins for the first time since 1996. But offensive inconsistency and a lower level of defensive playmaking could hold them back from that.
Head coach: Steve Addazio (first year)
2019: 4-8 (3-5), 78th in SP+
2020 projection: 7-5 (4-4), 79th
Five best returning players: WR Warren Jackson, QB Patrick O'Brien, DE Manny Jones, TE Trey McBride, DT Ellison Hubbard
In five years at Colorado State, Mike Bobo recruited pretty well, constantly produced dynamite receivers and generated an SP+ ranking of 78th or better in four of his five seasons in Fort Collins -- not amazing but top half of the MWC. Unfortunately, quarterbacks were frequently getting hurt, and his Rams had a tendency to lose games they shouldn't. They lost nearly two games per season to teams finishing with losing records, and they were 8-13 in one-score finishes.
After three 7-6 seasons, the Rams plummeted to 3-9 in 2018 after both losing a large portion of their depth chart and working through Bobo's early-season health scare. They improved in 2019 but not enough. A couple of tight home losses meant a 4-8 finish and Bobo's ouster.
Former BC head coach Steve Addazio takes over a roster that is chock-full of things he tends to like (big running backs, huge offensive linemen), plus some things he didn't always have at BC: a dynamite receiving corps and strong pass-rushing options, to name two.
Addazio's meaty, up-tempo BC offense had one of the strongest identities in college football (I wrote about it recently in the context of his former coordinator, Mike Bajakian). It probably isn't surprising that when CSU updated its spring roster, running back Marcus McElroy's listed weight had gone from 215 to 230. Most of the tight ends were about 20 pounds heavier, too. Addazio likes size.
Offensive coordinator Joey Lynch (formerly of Ball State) could also have some fun with a passing game quarterbacked by either Patrick O'Brien or Temple transfer Todd Centeio and a receiving corps featuring 1,100-yard receiver Warren Jackson, Dante Wright, Nate Craig-Myers and EJ Scott, all of whom averaged more than 14 yards per catch. McElroy wasn't incredibly efficient last season, and this entire offense blows up on the launchpad if the run game isn't staying on schedule, but the potential is immense.
The 2019 defense was Bobo's best, ranking 78th in defensive SP+. CSU couldn't defend the run very well but did great against the pass. End Manny Jones and Miami grad transfer Scott Patchan should do well for veteran defensive coordinator Chuck Heater (Addazio's DC at Temple long ago), and the secondary should still be solid, especially if a pair of future star corners -- sophomores Keevan Bailey and Brandon Crossley -- continue to develop. The run defense might not be any sturdier, but linebackers Dequan Jackson and Cam'ron Carter are decent, and hey, they'll be going up against a pretty steady run diet in practice.
Addazio won't have to wait long to do something Bobo couldn't: beat Colorado. SP+ projects the Rams to win about seven games, and if they start the year with a toss-up victory against the rival Buffs, then a big season could be in store. Either way, a two-year bowl drought should end. Addazio isn't the young up-and-comer we usually see in MWC coaching hires, but this could work out pretty well for CSU out of the gates.
Head coach: Troy Calhoun (98-69, 14th year)
2019: 11-2 (7-1), 25th in SP+
2020 projection: 7-5 (5-3), 66th
Five best returning players: QB Donald Hammond III, LG Nolan Laufenberg, LB Demonte Meeks, RB Kadin Remsberg, LT Parker Ferguson
Midway through the 2019 season, Air Force was at a comfortably Air Force level: 3-2 and 56th in SP+. The Falcons finished between 49th and 69th in seven of his previous 12 years, and this looked to be an eighth. But the Falcons proceeded to find a gear they'd maybe never found before. They won their final seven regular-season games by an average of 19 points, then capped their first 11-win season (and, at No. 25, their highest SP+ ranking) since 1998 by handling Washington State 31-21 in the Cheez-It Bowl.
In Air Force's 63 seasons of top-division football, the Falcons have won nine-plus games 14 times, and Calhoun has been responsible for five of those in 13 years. Granted, his past few seasons have been pretty volatile -- 2-10 in 2013, 10-3 in 2014 and 2016, 5-7 in 2017 and 2018, 11-2 in 2019 -- but that can happen when you cycle through so much personnel. (Among other liabilities, the service academies don't use redshirts.) But when he has a quarterback and the right mix of experience elsewhere, Calhoun wins.
Quarterback: check! Donald Hammond III returns to helm an offense that ranked fifth in success rate last season. He not only ran a flawless option (at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he can run the ball) but also showed the ability to help the offense catch up with his arm when it fell behind schedule.
Right mix of experience elsewhere: check, possibly! Kadin Remsberg rushed for 1,050 yards last season, and the left side of the offensive line, guard Nolan Laufenberg and tackle Parker Ferguson, might be as good at what they do as any pair in college football. Defensively, the front seven that frustrated the heck out of opposing run games and ranked 10th in rushing success rate allowed (despite no one weighing more than 275 pounds), returns five of seven starters -- including playmakers such as linebacker Demonte Meeks -- and nearly every backup.
There are still quite a few questions. Although lost receiving production isn't usually noteworthy for a team that throws fewer than nine passes per game, Geraud Sanders and Benjamin Waters were particularly good (52 catches, 27 yards per catch) and accounted for nearly 80% of AFA's receptions. They're both gone. Even more worrisome: Turnover in the secondary is strongly correlated with defensive regression, and five of last season's top six in the secondary are also gone, including safeties Jeremy Fejedelem and Garrett Kauppila and ball-hawking corner Zane Lewis. Calhoun is used to handling turnover, but it's ganging up on two units.
The secondary is probably the most pivotal unit for this team. Air Force will have the run game and run defense to beat just about anyone on the schedule -- the Falcons play just three teams projected better than 75th (Boise State, Purdue, Navy), and two have to visit Colorado Springs -- but if the pass defense struggles as much as projected, this might be a seven-win season or so. Something much greater is once again on the table, though.
Head coach: Bryan Harsin (64-17, seventh year)
2019: 12-2 (8-0), 37th in SP+
2020 projection: 9-3 (6-2), 38th
Five best returning players: NICKEL Kekaula Kaniho, QB Hank Bachmeier, CB Jalen Walker, WR Khalil Shakir, LB Riley Whimpey
If this were a more just and merit-based sport, Boise State would have spent the past decade or so in the Pac-12 or Big 12, having earned promotion to the sport's top level for its incredible late-2000s run of form.
Alas, Boise State didn't have the right friends 90 years ago, when everybody was breaking into conferences. The Broncos weren't part of the in-crowd then and still aren't. But in a way, that makes their unbelievable steadiness more impressive. Although they haven't played at a top-10 level since quarterback Kellen Moore graduated, they've continued to create a beautiful existence for themselves. They moved up to the MWC in 2011 and have won four conference titles, posted double-digit wins seven times and finished ranked six times. They haven't finished a season outside of the SP+ top 40 since 2005. And there's no reason to think Bryan Harsin's seventh Broncos squad will be anything other than a conference title favorite once more.
After all, the Broncos managed to go unbeaten in the MWC and win the title last season, despite a) starting true freshmen at both QB and RB (Hank Bachmeier and George Holani), b) losing Bachmeier to a couple of injuries and having three guys each attempt 100-plus passes and c) losing ace defensive coordinator Andy Avalos to Oregon and fielding their lowest-ranked defense in five years. Despite these obstacles, the Broncos were a three-point loss at BYU -- right after Bachmeier's first injury -- away from an unbeaten record and a likely New Year's Six bowl bid.
The Broncos have some major rebuilding to do in the trenches: four of last season's top five defensive linemen and four starting offensive linemen are gone. Former left tackle Ezra Cleveland and ace pass-rusher Curtis Weaver will likely both hear their names called soon in the NFL draft.
Still, Boise is the surest thing in a conference full of retooling programs. Bachmeier won at Florida State in his first collegiate game and produced a passer rating of more than 150 in four of his last five regular-season games. His two most efficient receiving options, slot men Khalil Shakir and CT Thomas, are back, and Holani is an "always fall forward and keep you on schedule" type of back. Bachmeier could use a new big-play threat to offset the loss of John Hightower -- Stefan Cobbs, another recent star recruit like Bachmeier and Holani, could fill that role -- but after ranking 38th in offensive SP+ despite obstacles, this looks like a top-30 offense.
If the line holds up, the defense will almost certainly rebound. Senior linebackers Riley Whimpey and Benton Wickersham will be joined by NC State grad transfer Brock Miller, nickelback Kekaula Kaniho is used in really fun ways (11 TFLs, eight passes defensed), and corner Jalen Walker might be the best in the conference.
SP+ projects BSU as at least a touchdown's favorite in 11 of 12 games and as only the slightest of underdog when hosting Florida State in Week 3. The Broncos win the conference only half the time and haven't snared the Game of 5's New Year's Six bowl bid since 2014, but it's only a matter of time. They're loaded once again, and they'll be loaded in 2021 as well.