2021 Mountain West Conference Preview

The 2020 Mountain West season didn’t kick off until late October and teams struggled to complete their conference schedules. Not surprisingly, Boise State was once again was the team to beat in the Mountain division. San Jose State shocked many by coming out of the West. In fact, the Spartans completed an undefeated regular season and beat Boise in the MWC Championship.

The Mountain West sent three teams to bowl games and won two of the games. Unfortunately San Jose State was hit hard by COVID and had to sit over twenty players contributing to their first loss of the season to Ball State.

For 2021, the MWC is reloaded and a number of teams are looking to take the next big step like San Jose State did in 2020. Boise, Air Force, and Wyoming will battle it out in the Mountain division, while Nevada and San Jose State look to be the class of the west. With loads of returning super seniors, and an influx of talent from the transfer portal, the MWC is looking to reassert itself on the national scene in 2021.

G5 Gurus predictions for the 2021 MWC are provided below.

Mountain

Boise State (1)

What to know:

When you think Boise State, you think cream of the crop in the Group of Five.   Given that bar, 2020 would be a disappointment to Broncos fans.  While the Broncos won the Mountain division of the MWC, they were destroyed by rival BYU and fell by 14 in the MWC Championship.  Bryan Harsin was lured away by Auburn and former Bronco player and coach Andy Avalos was brought in from Oregon.  Broncos’ fans are hopeful Avalos can bring the fire needed to put Boise back near the top of the G5.    

3 things to watch:

  1. New coach.  Avalos served on the Broncos coaching staff for seven years (three as defensive coordinator) before moving to Oregon as defensive coordinator.  There is a lot of excitement surrounding his return.  Early road challenges with UCF and Oklahoma State should serve as gauges where the Broncos are heading into a tough MWC schedule. 
  2. Offensive consistency.   Hank Bachmeier went down with an injury in the first game and struggled to regain his rhythm when he returned in the fourth game of the season.   The running game was not great, with the 110 yards per game being the lowest for the Broncos since they transitioned to FBS. 
  3. Generate turnovers.  The Broncos only generated three turnovers (all interceptions) in seven games.  This is a defense that prides itself on generating turnovers (averaging over 23 generated 2017-2019).   With Avalos’ defensive prowess, you would expect to see this improve dramatically in 2021.   

Air Force (2)

What to know:

Combine the third ranking scoring defense with a ball control offense and you will generally be in most of your games.  That is the Air Force way, and it was no different in 2020.   The Falcons only attempted about 10 passes a game last season but led the nation in rushing offense.  The problem was translating the rushing proficiency into points.  The Falcons lost a lot to graduation and are reloading major parts of their attack for 2021.   However, the formula will remain the same, strong defense, ball-control offense, few turnovers. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Offensive line rebuild.  The Falcons will have a completely new line for 2020.  There is talent back at running back, but as the offensive line goes, so goes the running game.   The early schedule is manageable, giving this unit time to gel before running the MWC gauntlet. 
  2. Defense standouts returning.  Many of Air Force’s standout defenders from 2019 opted out in 2020 and return for 2021. These returning starters will provide stability and leadership for a strong recruiting class. 
  3. Get the wins early.   The early season schedule sets the Falcons up for wins.  A mid-season schedule run with Wyoming, Boise State, San Diego State, and Army will likely dictate the tone for the season. 

Wyoming (2)

What to know:

Wyoming had an up-and-down 2020, alternating wins with losses until dropping its last two to finish 2-4.  As with much of the MWC, COVID wreaked havoc on the schedule and player availability.   The ground game showed promise and the defense was stout leading to an air of optimism in Laramie heading into 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Who will be the QB?  There are at least four players vying for the starting role.  Sean Chambers was the starter in spring practice but has struggled the last two years with the injury bug.  Whoever plays needs to improve on the 46% completion percentage and 1 touchdown to five interception totals from last year. 
  2. Build on the defense.  The Cowboys only allowed 21 points and 328 yards of offense.  With almost all starters returning, this will be the strength of the team.  Coupled with a strong running game, look for the Cowboys to be in some low scoring duels in 2021. 
  3. Capitalize on the schedule.  The Cowboys could (and likely should) be 4-0 heading into their MWC opener with Air Force.  Missing Nevada and San Diego State in conference play also helps.  Wyoming has not exceeded 8 wins in the past two decades.  This could be the year. 

Colorado State (4)

What to know:

Colorado State struggled to get in games in 2020, finishing the year at 1-3 in Steve Assazio’s first season as coach.   The offense struggled and the defense was too porous to allow the Rams to compete.  A strong home win over Wyoming was followed with a blowout loss to Boise State and a 12-point loss to San Diego State.  Addazio’s Boston College teams were known for their hard-nose brand of football.  Ram fans are hoping to see more of this in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Offensive production.  The Rams averaged only 18 points a game in their three losses.  With a struggling defense, it simply wasn’t enough to translate into wins.  The QBs barely completed 50% of their throws and the ground game was not very good.  The offensive line brings back all the starters and this experience could help the Rams begin to build the type of grind-it-out attack that Assazio wants to build. 
  2. Pass Defense (interceptions).  The defense wasn’t awful, but despite a good pass rush, the Rams only had a single interception in 2020.  That will need to change, especially against some of the pass-oriented teams in the MWC. 
  3. QB production.  Todd Centeio looks to be the starter after Patrick O’Brien transferred to Washington.  Centeio was shaky (at best) in his 2020 appearances, completing only 39% of his throws.  Centeio is a dual threat QB, so look for the Rams to get him on the edge more in 2021 and open up the field for shortpto-mid range throws. 

Utah State (5)

What to know:

2020 was a season to forget for the Aggies.  An anemic offense and struggling defense led to the firing of coach Gary Anderson after 3 games.  The Aggies closed 1-2 to finish 1-5.   Aside from the 41 points scored against New Mexico, the Aggies averaged about 8 points a game in their five losses.  Blake Anderson arrived from Arkansas State to architect a major rebuild. 

3 things to watch:

  1. New coach and new attitude.  Blake Anderson built one of the top programs in the Sunbelt at Arkansas State.  He guided the Redwolves to six consecutive bowl games before dropping to 4-7 in 2020.  He was immensely popular with his players and should bring a new attitude to the Aggies. 
  2. Finding a QB.  Blake Anderson places a high value on the downfield passing game.  Finding a QB to work in his system will be a top priority.  Logan Bonner followed Anderson from Arkansas State, but an injury will potentially delay his debut.    
  3. Up tempo defense.  Aggie fans will notice a much more up-tempo, attacking style on their defense in 2021.  Building on 9 returning starters and a decent pass rush, look for the Aggies defense to improve from the 35 points a game surrendered in 2020.   

New Mexico (6)

What to know:

2020 was spiraling towards winless when the Lobos came to life and won their final two games to finish 2-5.  COVID was tough on the Lobos as they started their season on October 31 and was compounded by a difficult trip to Hawaii.  The defense was porous, allowing almost 450 yards per game (283 passing, 165 rushing), but showed some positive signs in the final two games.  There is hope among Aggie fans that the real Lobos team was the one that showed up the final two games of last year. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Offense production.  The offense that struggled for points in some games came to life with 49 against Fresno State.  This was the outlier as the Lobos averaged only 19 points a game prior. 
  2. Quarterback battle.  Tevaka Tuioti, Trae Hall, and Isaiah Chavez all started games at QB in 2020 and all return from the 2021 season.  They will be joined by incoming Kentucky transfer Terry Wilson.  It is anyone’s guess who will be under center for the season opener against Houston Baptist. 
  3. Getting defensive stops.  The Lobos struggled to stop anyone in 2020.  Their best performance was holding Wyoming to 315 yards and 16 points in their first win.   They were greatly aided by 3 Cowboy turnovers.  The Lobos need similar games in 2021 if they want to escape the bottom of the Mountain division. 

MWC West

Nevada (1)

What to know:

The WolfPack enjoyed a strong year in 2020 as Carson Strong developed into a true star.  Strong threw for 27 TDs against only 4 picks, leading the Wolfpack to a 7-2 record and a bowl win over Tulane.  With the majority of the starters back on both sides of the ball, there are major expectations in Reno for 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Balanced attack.  The Wolfpack offense thrives when it has a nice mix of run and pass.  Granted the pass will generally be the larger contributor, but the run game is important as well.  Top rushers Toa Taua and Devonte Lee return along with the offensive line.  There is too much talent here to put all of the burden on Strong to win games. 
  2. Opportunistic defense.  The Wolfpack defense was better in 2020.  After surrendering 27 and 32 points a game respectfully in 2018, 2019, the defense limited opponents to 23 a game last year.  Any improvement or even a repeat performance should be enough with the Wolfpack’s offense. 
  3. Get out of the gate.  The Wolfpack’s open with tough road games to Cal and Kansas State and begins MWC West play with a trip to Boise State.  A 1-3 start is a real possibility.  Anything better than that and the Wolfpack could make some real noise in the MWC and national stage.   

San Jose State (2)

What to know:

After being picked in the middle-to-lower half of the MWC West, the Spartans put together a complete season under coach Brent Brennan winning the West title and easily handling Boise State to win the MWC Championship.  COVID ravaged the Spartan’s lineup for the Arizona bowl, leading to a 20-point loss to Ball State.  With most of the key pieces are back on both sides of the ball and a repeat of last season’s success isn’t unreasonable. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Continued defensive improvement.  Under Brennan, the Wolfpack defense has shown consistent improvement.  It began with surrendering 42 points a game in 2017, improved to 36 in 2018, and down to 32 in 2019.  In 2020, the defense only surrendered 20 points a game (19.9).  With 10 starters back, can they continue this downward trend?  If so, the Spartans will be one tough out in 2021. 
  2. Retooling receivers.  Nick Starkel returns as QB after a strong 2020 season.    However, the top two receivers, who combined for nearly 60% of the receiving yards in 2020 are gone.   Reliable targets will need to emerge from the returning receivers. 
  3. Generate some interceptions.  Despite an average of 33 passes a game thrown against them, the Spartans only managed to pick off 3 passes in 2020.  With some pass-heavy teams on the schedule, this could spell the difference in tight games. 

Fresno State (3)

What to know:

The Bulldogs were an entertaining team in 2020, though not always consistent to finish at 3-3.  The offense was explosive under quarterback Jake Haener, but the defense struggled in the three losses.  With most everyone back the Bulldogs are looking to go bowling in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Defense contributions.  In the three losses of 2020, the defense gave up an average of 40 points and 488 yards.  In the three wins, the averages were 20 and 372.  Keep the opposition under 30 a game, and the Bulldogs will be a threat to win most games. 
  2. Pass protection.  24 sacks in 2020 were just too many.  With most of the offensive linemen returning in 2021, this should improve.  Giving Haener some time to throw will be a top priority for the Bulldogs. 
  3. Pull a surprise or two.  The Bulldogs will be dangerous but will likely be underdogs in 3 of their first 6 games.  Coming out of those games with four wins (or more) could catapult them into contention in the West and (at the very least) position them for a bowl run. 

San Diego State (4)

What to know:

2020 can be chalked up as “what could have been” for the Aztecs.  They were dominant in their four wins, winning by an average of almost 24 points.  They were competitive in their four losses, losing by an average margin of 10 points.  They were essentially even with PAC-12 Colorado and nationally ranked BYU in the second half of both games.  This

3 things to watch:

  1. Finding a QB.  With top passer Carson Baker departing, there will likely be a three-way battle between Lucas Johnson, Jordan Brookshire, and incoming Mississippi State transfer Jalen Mayden. 
  2. Offensive production.  24 points a game isn’t bad, but it likely won’t get the job done in the MWC.  It begins with the QB and generating a passing game that can give more than 150 yards a game.  And it continues to build on a strong running game that churns out 200 plus yards a game.      
  3. Playing away from home.  The Aztecs are building a new facility on campus, and it won’t be ready until 2022.  For 2021, all home games will be played almost 100 miles away in Carson, CA.  It definitively won’t be much of a home field advantage. 

Hawaii (5)

What to know:

The Rainbow Warriors had an up and down season that ended on a high note with a bowl win over Houston in the New Mexico Bowl.   The normally explosive offense generated 26 points a game, the lowest output since 2017.  The defense gave up 27 points per game, its best performance since 2016.   Beginning the second year under Todd Graham, the Rainbow Warriors return 19 starters.  This could be a surprise team in the MWC West. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Jekyll and Hyde.  In their five wins the Rainbow Warriors scored 32 points a game and surrendered an average of 22.  In their four losses they scored only 18 points a game and gave up 35.  Finding some consistency in performances will be a key for fueling bigger things in 2021.
  2. Take advantage of the schedule.  Boise State and Air Force are not on the 2021 season.  Key west rivals San Diego State and San Jose State come to Hawaii.  Getting some key wins could set up a very interesting season-ending showdown with Wyoming. 
  3. Home field transition.  Similar to San Diego State, Hawaii will be playing its home games at a new facility after Aloha Stadium was abruptly closed.  The Rainbow Warriors scrambled and have retrofitted the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex to be able to seat roughly 9,000 fans for games. 

Nevada-Las Vegas (6)

What to know:

A wildly inconsistent offense and a consistently bad defense led to a 0-6 2020 campaign for the Rebels.  The Rebels were seldom competitive, being outscored by 21 points per game.  Fortunately, help is arriving via the transfer portal, a good recruiting class, and 18 returning starters for head coach Marcus Arroyo. 

3 things to watch:

  1. New QB.  Max Gilliam graduated leaving incumbents Justin Rogers and Doug Brumfield to battle with former five-star Ohio State and Miami QB Tate Martell.  Whoever is in the role needs to find ways to make plays.  The passing game simply needs to provide support to prevent teams from crowding the box to stop the Rebels strong running game. 
  2. Defense HAS to improve.  The rebels allowed 34 points or more in every game.  The opposing offenses averaged 6.4 yards per carry.    Every opponent had at least two rushing TDs against the Rebel defense.  All eleven starters return and will supported by incoming freshmen and transfers.  2020 was a big regression for the defense and the slide needs to stop for the Rebels to be competitive in 2021.    
  3. Running back stable.  Charles Williams and Courtney Reese return and will be joined by Oregon transfer Jayvaun Wilson.  Williams led the Rebels in rushing and TDs in 2020.   Reese is a change of pace back who averaged 5.7 yards a carry and should see more action in 2021.  Wilson, a 6-2, 210 redshirt freshman should add depth and power to the attack. 

2 Comments

  1. The NFL hype for Strong really seems to growing going into this year. Interested to see how he responds being in the spotlight.

    • The top five QBs in the G5 last year were (arguably) Wilson (BYU), Elerby (WMU), Strong (Nevada), McCall (Coastal), and Gabriel (UCF). I think Strong and Gabriel are definitely on the NFL’s radar. Need to see another season of McCall and Elerby, but season 1 for both was pretty imporessive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*