Note: We were merrily rolling along with our season preview series when both the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced that they would only play in-conference schedules. That, of course, impacted the Group of Five in turn, wiping out multiple would-be non-conference games. Because schedules are so, so up in the air at this point, our Mountain West preview will eschew the normal record predictions, though the ordering of teams remains based on how we see the conference unfolding.
Boise State Broncos
2019 record: 12-2
NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Khalil Shakir
The case for: The Broncos will be a favorite for the Mountain West crown this fall. That’s simply inevitable barring key injuries or, you know, a pandemic. The real question is whether this BSU team has it in them to crash the Playoff ceiling, which would be a first-ever for the Group of Five. And granted, this is a tall milkshake of a task. Boise State’s team upside, as with every G5 program, is artificially capped by the poll masters. But dream with us for a moment.
For Boise State to shoot the moon and make the Playoff, it will require a Herculean season from former four-star QB Hank Bachmeier. Bachmeier’s 2019 freshman campaign could best be described as incomplete due to injury. But when he hit, he flashed quite nicely. Think his 407-yard performance against FSU in his first ever collegiate game, or his 299-yard, two-touchdown performance against UNLV.
Should Bachmeier take a sophomore leap, he’ll be doing so with Boise State’s usual bevy of skill-position talent. That goes for the receiving corps, with vets like CT Thomas and Octavius Evans coupled with do-everything jitterbug Khalil Shakir, and it also goes for a running game headlined by - but not limited to - George Holani.
What makes this Boise State offense oh so dangerous if Bachmeier can find himself is that it’s versatile and it’s deep. That’s a potent combination. If only Bachmeier can find himself, if only Bachmeier can find himself. We've seen Boise State rack up double-digit-win campaigns with under-armed signal-callers like Brett Rypien and Kellen Moore. Which is what makes Bachmeier's ceiling that enticing. What does BSU look like if it has an arm that Power Five teams were scrambling after? We'll see if he can start to scratch some of his potential in earnest this fall.
The case against: Well let’s dive a little deeper into Mr. Bachmeier, shall we? The signal-caller did start out his career with a boom against Florida State, no doubt. A pair of injuries limited him significantly from the end of September onward, though, with controversy ensuing late after Bachmeier’s mom took to social media to criticize the apparent healthy benching of her son in the MWC title game.
For all his talent, Bachmeier wasn’t irreplaceable last season. BSU won with Chase Cord and with Jaylon Henderson, too, and they won with Bachmeier unavailable for half the campaign give or take. His final numbers -- 62.6 percent completions, a 9/6 TD/INT ratio, a PFF passing grade of 69.3 -- were shrug-worthy fine. In short, he largely played like a true freshman. A talented true freshman, yes, but a true freshman all the same.
None of this is to discount the possibility of a big season from the quarterback. Again, all kinds of talent, here. What is questionable is Bachmeier's development. In a short offseason it’s not a guarantee. And part of the frustrating part about making player projections, at all, is that everything this offseason has been torched by the pandemic. Boise State has losses to make up for -- they must replace T Ezra Cleveland and EDGE Curtis Weaver -- but Bachmeier’s ascendency would make a lot of problems easier to deal with. We just gotta see.
Air Force Falcons
2019 record: 11-2
NFL Draft prospect to watch: N/A
The case for: Low-key one of the most fun FBS teams in the country. Unlike a triple-option team such as Army, which thrives on choking the life out of the clock like a boa constrictor, the Falcons are more than happy to tango in scoreboard-scorching affairs. They scored at least 40 points in five games last season.
What differentiates Air Force from an Army-type is that QB Donald Hammond III (who, we’ll note, is not currently in good standing with the university) will actually throw the ball on occasion. He won’t be confused with Joe Burrow any time soon, but Hammond posted a nice little 13/6 TD/INT ratio completing half his passes while averaging north of 11 YPA last season. And that’ll do for an offense like this, that’ll do. Pop them occasionally through the air -- say to blisteringly-fast WR Brandon Lewis, who sat due to a rules violation in 2019 but returns for 2020
And trample them on the ground. Hammond (maybe?), Kadin Remsberg and Timothy Jackson work as the primary ball-carriers in an offense which ranked second-only in average rushing output to Navy in the FBS last season. And the line brings back upperclassman experience across the board.
Traditional conference king Boise State might have slightly more upside on offense should soph QB Hank Bachmeier begin to consistently play with the flash he did in an injury-shortened 2019 campaign, but Bachmeier remains a projection. Air Force’s offense, counter to that, is as set as a well-chilled dessert.
And one last secret edge for the Falcons. They actually held spring practice. Mostly. When the coronavirus shut down sports in mid-March, Air Force had already completed 13-of-15 practices. That’s huge. The irony is that this program really didn’t need it like some others. Again, set as a chilled pudding cup. Now consider that this squad, with experience to the hilt and a depth chart which won’t require much tinkering in August camp, will face Boise State on Sept. 12 at home. That’s spectacular timing and placement given where Air Force is in their season prep.
The case against: Honestly, it’s difficult to craft one. Or it was, at least, it was difficult to craft one until Hammond’s status went up in the air in July. We really, really liked this squad before then. Just searching for potential cracks, the offense looked close to Teflon. But that’s all with Hammond. The equation changes -- and potentially changes considerably -- should he prove unable to play.
We’ll take that aforementioned game against Boise State as a potential pressure point, because while Air Force’s defensive front seven (especially in the linebacker corps) is a strong unit, one which should continue to bolster the Mountain West’s reputation as a conference of sick rushing defenses. The secondary, though, is less set. And that’s where BSU could conquer when the teams meet in mid-September. Air Force must break in three new starters in the secondary, giving just a little wiggle room for water to seep into the ship if Bachmeier does open up clearly showing he’s ready for the leap year.
2019 record: 8-5
NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB Xazavian Valladay
The case for: The Cowboys are a Jekyll and Hyde team, of sorts, putting on a charming smile whenever Xazavian Valladay totes the rock before getting all angsty whenever the ball is thrown. Like real angsty. No returning Wyoming receiver caught more than eight passes last season. That’s not great. And we don't necessarily expect a quantum leap forward as a passing team this fall.
We’ll throw a caveat on there, though. Wyoming’s 2019 season was considerably complicated after QB Sean Chambers went down with a knee injury. Not that Chambers is a great passer, far from it (foreshadowing for the section below). But Chambers was aces as a runner, on track for a 1,000-yard rushing season when fate betrayed his body versus Nevada. And knock his passing all you want -- and we will, just you wait -- but Chambers is an absolute headache when he takes off on a sprint.
Chambers and Valladay will put opponents into next-day ice baths once they get rolling. They could act, collectively, as the top rushing unit in the entire conference. We wouldn't put that past them. The Cowboys will host Boise State for the division crown in the second-to-last game of the campaign. We imagine HC Craig Bohl has been thinking that matchup over all offseason.
The case against: So our sunnier side would prefer not to consider it, but here’s reality -- Chambers is an awful passer. Not like Josh Allen was an awful passer. Way worse than that. For reference’s sake, in Allen’s final year with the Cowboys, he completed 56 percent of his passes. That’s not good, but Allen also has all-time arm strength and it’s worked out alright-ish at the NFL level. So 56 percent is bad. What do we even say about 43 percent? That was Sean Chambers in 2019. Chambers may do work on the ground, but Wyoming’s aerial game is close to nonexistent, if not actively detrimental to the team.
Then there’s the defensive side, where Wyoming has really scored dividends. Led by LB Logan Wilson, the Cowboys boasted one of the strongest defenses in the Group of Five last season. Wilson’s gone, now. So is his former partner-in-crime LB Cassh Maluia. Also S Alijah Halliburton.
Bohl isn’t going to fall flat on his face even working in new talent, but if Wyoming doesn’t quite rise to the top of the division it’s going to because not everything’s quite set.
Utah State Aggies
2019 record: 7-6
NFL Draft prospect to watch: S Shaq Bond
The case for: December 10 proved a fateful day for Utah State’s 2020 season. That was the day that QB Jordan Love declared for the draft. Also the day that South Carolina QB Jake Bentley transferred to Utah. Which in turn caused Utes QB Jason Shelley to transfer to Utah State. And Aggies QB Henri Columbi to enter the transfer destination for points unknown. There’s always somebody who gets left out in a game of musical chairs.
Shelley was largely stuck behind Tyler Huntley with the Utes, but we did see him starting for the injured Huntley in a five-game stint back in 2018. The results in that space -- a 5/5 TD/INT ratio, three games south of 225 yards passing (though he did put up 302 against Northwestern in New Year’s Eve bowl action) -- were exactly inspirational, but Columbi’s marks in backup action didn’t scream diamond in the wings. And that Columbi chose to transfer after Shelley’s entrance might say something.
The good thing for Shelley is that for as talented as Love was, it’s not like he left the Utah State bar at a super-high level. As a team, the Aggies were erratically OK but not much better than that. With an uber-experienced offensive line set to return, plus Jalen Warren and Devonta’e Henry-Cole (also coming over from Utah) leading the way on the ground, there’s a nucleus of offensive talent here which could balance the scales of Love’s exit. Especially if Shelley hits.
The case against: Love might not always be consistent with that big ol’ arm, but at least he’s a raw quarterback talent. Shelley is just raw, to the point that he spoke openly about being able to stick at the position with Utah State, but open to a position change if that’s the direction the team chose to go. In that larger sample 2018 season, Shelley completed just 58.3 percent of his passes at a 6.9 YPA clip. That will be problematic for a full campaign. Especially given that Shelley no longer has Utah’s talent supporting him.
That goes especially for the defensive side of the ball, where essentially the entirety of last season’s regular starting unit must be replaced upcoming. All this without any real sort of an offseason. A lot is riding on Shelley. We’re not sure if he’s capable of taking that weight.
Colorado State Rams
2019 record: 4-8
NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Warren Jackson
The case for: While CSU fired HC Mike Bobo in December, replacing him with Steve Addazio, the Rams shouldn’t be viewed as a guaranteed loser for 2020. Say what you will about Bobo’s inability to rise above merely OK -- never topping seven wins with the program -- Colorado State consistently operated as this odd vortex for skill-position talent under his eye, churning Rashard Higgins, Olabisi Johnson, Preston Williams, Michael Gallup out to the NFL.
Next up to the plate, WR Warren Jackson. Jackson erupted for a 1,000-yard showing in 2019 and we would be surprised if he’s not right there in the 1000-1300-yard arena when all is said and done this coming season. Now if only Jackson’s quarterback could rise to meet him at the offensive summit.
O’Brien managed just a 13/7 TD/INT ratio with 61.8 percent completions in 2019. And he simply has to be better than that, because the defense -- while bringing back starting experience -- just isn’t stable enough to hold games with the quarterback turning it over either on downs or on subpar decisions. If O’Brien can just be a little bit better, it would go a ways toward improving CSU’s outlook.
The case against: Steve Addazio was fired by Boston College all of 10 days before he landed on his feet with Colorado State. To which we would say, as gently as possible, you could have done better, Rams. Addazio, like Bobo at CSU, never won more than seven games in a season while with the Eagles. Just to throw out one preferred name that was rumored to be in the mix, here, Butch Jones could have turned Jim McElwain West, following the same P5-burnout-to-G5-winner turnaround that McElwain pulled off at Central Michigan.
Steve Addazio is basically Mike Bobo East. Swell. It’s not just that Addazio’s stint at Boston College was forgettable. It was. And it’s not just that we struggle to see this as an upgrade. We do. The real issue, in our eyes, is that Addazio is a square peg being crammed into a round hole in terms of offensive philosophy. Addazio is the guy who recruited AJ Dillon and envisioned the big man as the focal point of his team.
CSU doesn’t have an AJ Dillon on roster, or anything close to it. CSU is very much focused on aerial fireworks. And maybe Addazio adjusts. But we struggle to see it. He didn’t at Boston College, after all.
New Mexico Lobos
2019 record: 2-10
NFL Draft prospect to watch: N/A
The case for: The new head coach, here, might be Danny Gonzales, former ASU DC, but the real star power in our minds comes with defensive coordinator Rocky Long. The Lobos really shouldn’t have been in play for Long at all. But the longtime SDSU leader stepped down from the program this offseason, only to resurface with the poor, hapless Lobos. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. And that could end up a program-turning hire.
Calling Long’s defenses at SDSU suffocating against the run underplays it. They were consistently among the top teams not just in the G5, but also the P5, in stopping opposing ground games. It’s going to take work to install that kind of defense, to erase the poor habits that were essentially hardwired into the program at a certain point under former HC Bob Davie (they lost nine straight to end the 2019 season, so yeah).
It’s not fair to expect Long and Gonzales to immediately reform a defensive which gave up nearly 40 points a game last season. Incremental improvements. Baby steps.
The case against: Everything other than Rocky Long, more or less. As much as we respect the veteran coach, he has almost no tools to work with. And just as problematic as a lack of defensive playmakers, this was an offense which struggled to crack 21 points last season. And that’s probably not immediately getting better, either.
Compounding matters, if the schedule remains as currently constructed in-conference, New Mexico faces an outright gauntlet down the stretch, with their November consisting of Hawaii (road, for now), Boise State (home), Air Force (road) and Wyoming (home). Air Force and Boise State are probably the two best teams in the conference, and the ping-ponging back-and-forth between road and home games, at the end of a long (already stressful) 2020 does them no favors.
Can’t sugarcoat this one. New Mexico just doesn’t have the talent on roster for more than three or four wins, at best.