1.Boise State (Ranked #22 Nationally)
The first team to be revealed in my national top 25 is the Boise State Broncos! After a two-year drought, Boise State returned to their winning ways last season, going 11-3 en route to a Mountain West Championship and a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Oregon. QB Brett Rypien is back for his senior year after 2,877 yards and 16 touchdowns passing in ten starts last season, and you can only expect those numbers to increase even further in 2018 assuming he avoids injury. Two of the top three are gone from the receiving core, the only returning starter is senior AJ Richardson (494 yards last year). Fellow senior Sean Modster will need to step into a bigger role after 335 yards last year, and Cartell “CT” Thomas & Octavius Evans flashed as freshmen and will compete for the third starting job.
The Broncos possess the conference’s best defense, and maybe the best defense in all of mid-major football as they return pretty much everyone from last year’s group that ranked 21st in opponent ypg. The brilliant end combo of Curtis Weaver and Jabril Frazier is back after combining for 17 sacks last season, and the defense as a whole returns all but one player that had 30 or more tackles in 2017 (Leighton Vander Esch is the departure). I see the offense and defense improving from last year, and games @ Oklahoma State, vs Fresno State, and @ Wyoming are probably the biggest roadblocks from an undefeated season.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2 (7-1 MWC)
With a 21-18 record in three years (including three trips to bowl games), Mike Bobo has done pretty well for himself in Fort Collins. A defense that was ranked 98th in the country in opponent ypg has been holding them back from breaking through, but Bobo has brought on a new coordinator on that side of the ball, former Tennessee DC John Jancek. The offense loses a lot from last year’s group that ranked 11th in the nation in ypg, including the QB. Grad transfer KJ Carta-Samuels (Washington) was signed to try and plug that hole, although I would expect some regression as a lot of the offense left with Nick Stevens. The top rusher is gone, along with half the offensive line and four of the top five receivers, chief among them Michael Gallup (1,413 yards last year). I would expect this offense to take a step back.
Jancek will switch the Rams back to a more natural 4-3 setup as opposed to his predecessor’s 3-4 scheme. I like the hire and the shift in scheme to more fit the Rams’ speedy personnel, but with most of the defense graduated, including five of the top nine tacklers, I don’t see much improvement in year one under Jancek. A tough out of conference schedule (Colorado, Arkansas, Florida) will be offset by a pretty favorable schedule in conference as the Rams get their two biggest competitors for the #2 spot, Wyoming and Utah State, both at home. This team will take a step back but should still make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (5-3 MWC)
With a 34-32 record in five years with the Aggies, Matt Wells has been pretty successful and has had just one year where his team was not bowl eligible. This year may be his best chance at a winning record in a while, the last time the Aggies achieved that was back in 2014. The offense, which was a little better than average last season, gets back quarterback Jordan Love, who started six games as a freshman (1,631 yards, eight touchdowns). The top three receivers are all back for Love. The group is led by a senior, Ron’quavion Tarver (569 yards, seven touchdowns), but a fellow sophomore, Jordan Nathan, showed sparks as a freshman that could lead to him being a favorite target in the future for Love. This group also adds a USC transfer, Jalen Greene and should be improved.
New coordinator Keith Patterson (Formerly DC at Arizona State) has a lot of pieces to work with on a defense that will return the majority of it’s two-deep from last season. Eight of the top nine tacklers are back, including top tackler Sili Tamaivena (111 tackles, three sacks) and NG Christopher ‘Unga, qho should improve after 4.5 TFL as a freshman. The schedule is pretty favorable, with two or three winnable games in the non-conference. However, the Aggies get Boise State, Colorado State, and Wyoming all on the road, so a division crown seems quite unlikely this year, but with an impressive group of young talent, that might not be the case in 2019 when they get all three at home.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 MWC)
Wyoming actually has the second-highest rating of any team in this division, but find themselves in 4th here due to a tough in-conference schedule, which I’ll mention later. The starting quarterback is gone, and losing a guy like Josh Allen would normally kill a mid-major’s offense, but the Cowboys were already ranked 126th in the country in ypg, so there aren’t many places to go but up! Freshman Tyler Vander Waal has very big shoes to fill, but pretty much every starter other than Allen returns from this offense including all five on the offensive line, the top seven receivers, and every running back with positive yardage from last season. That running back group is headlined by Trey Woods, who had 493 yards as a freshman. So, in conclusion, despite losing a top ten draft pick, I expect Wyoming’s offense to actually improve in 2018… imagine that.
The defense, which was 9th (!) in the nation in opponent ppg last year also gets a lot back, not quite as much as the offense, but still quite a lot including their top six tacklers from last year’s group that let up over 24 points just once (Oregon). With eight starters back from that team, and 10/11 projected starters for this year being upperclassmen, I expect the defense to remain one of the best in the conference. Now, about the schedule. Wyoming is the only team in the top four in the conference to draw Fresno State, and the Cowboys draw them on the road. While I see this team improving, they may not even finish in the top half of their own division, but a bowl bid is likely again.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 MWC)
In six years at New Mexico, Bob Davie has gone 30-45, including a 2017 embroiled in controversy with off-the-field scandals. According to an article by Sports Illustrated, Davie “physically assaulted players, obstructed a rape investigation and frequently engaged in racist comments,” for some reason, he was suspended over the summer but kept his job. Calvin Magee (formerly assistant head coach at Arizona under Rich Rodriguez) was brought in to the right the ship on offense after the Lobos were ranked 114th in ppg last year (20.7). A quarterback battle will ensue for Magee’s affection between former Tennessee player/JUCO transfer Sheriron Jones and last year’s top passer, Tevaka Tuioti (705 yards, four touchdowns, six interceptions). The running game returns last years #1, Tyrone Owens (770 yards, four touchdowns), and this offense should improve dramatically.
The defense adds plenty of JUCO transfers, but will lose four of their top six tacklers and I see the defense taking a step back in 2018. Whether Davie deserves to be fired for his off the field problems is an entirely different question, but if he doesn’t make a bowl this year, it may not matter. With a pretty easy out of conference schedule, this team will just have to win three games in conference to make that dream a reality. With Wyoming, Boise State, San Diego State, and Fresno State (their four toughest games) all at home, most of their winnable games in conference are on the road, making that quite a tough ask.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-6 MWC)
Air Force’s option attack was as stout as ever last year (#4 in the country in rushing ypg) but the defense gave up an abysmal 32.4 ppg and probably cost the team a bowl game as the Falcons finished 5-7. QB Arion Worthman is back after starting ten games last year (1,115 yards passing, 831 yards rushing), and the option style quarterback should improve on his 49.5% completion rate with his added experience. The top two running backs from last year are gone, and the top returner (FB Tavien Birdow) had just 395 yards last year. Also disappearing is most of the Falcons’ experienced offensive line, as just one starter is back, that would be left tackle Griffin Landrum, and I expect a similar year to last season on the offensive side of the ball as a stable quarterback situation will balance out losses elsewhere.
I cannot for the life of me find out who is taking over defensive coordinator duties for Steve Russ (now with the Carolina Panthers), but whoever that may be will have a lot to improve on as the Falcons’ defense gave up 32.4 ppg last year (#101 in the nation). The top three tacklers are gone as well, and I would say the best returning unit is the secondary, as the Falcons return two starters from a group that gave up just 171.1 passing ypg last season. I expect some mild improvement from this side of the ball, but the schedule looks pretty rough, with FAU in the non conference, a draw of @ San Diego State as a cross-divisional opponent, and potentially winnable games against Army and UNLV on the road. I do not expect a bowl this year.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 MWC)