It isn’t hyperbole to say that year one for Jeff Tedford at Fresno State went pretty much as good as it possibly could have. The Bulldogs went from a 1-11 record in 2016 to 10-4 in 2017, including a division title, a College Football Playoff Top 25 ranking, and a Hawaii Bowl victory over Houston. QB Marcus McMaryion is back after throwing for 2,726 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. His top receiver, KaeSean Johnson, is back as well after breaking 1,000 yards last year and snagging eight touchdowns. The only loss from this group is last year’s #2, Da’Mari Scott, and Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick will certainly be able to plug that hole. The run game should also improve this year, with the top four running backs returning from last year’s unit that averaged 155 ypg.
While the offense will take a step forward, I see the defense taking a small step back this year. The defensive line loses everybody and will have to start four new faces, meaning that group will take a massive step back this year. The other two units will take steps forward as all seven are back in the back seven including Jeffrey Allison (126 tackle) and an All-conference contender at cornerback in Anthoula “Tank” Kelly. This defense was #10 in the nation in opponent ppg last year, but because of the defensive line I see them falling down a little bit. However, this should still be the top defense in the conference. Fresno State wasn’t quite as good as their record indicated last year, so while I see the team improving, the record might not.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (6-2 MWC)
T1.San Diego State
With three straight ten-plus win seasons and three straight victories over power-five opponents (Cal, Arizona State, Stanford), San Diego State is one of the most consistent mid-major teams in the country. The tradition of a physical running style on offense has helped the Aztecs recruit, and their location in the recruiting hotbed that is California certainly doesn’t hurt either. In 2016, the star back was Donnel Pumphrey (2,113 yards), in 2017, it was Rashaad Penny (2,248 yards). This year, that guy will be junior Juwan Washington, who had 759 yards and seven touchdowns somehow behind an all-time rushing record holder. The guy is a practical lock to get first team all-conference, as he will run behind a line that returns four of five starters from a tremendous year in 2017.
The defense was #11 in the country in opponent ypg last season and #21 in the country in opponent ppg. Seven starters return from the group. The defensive line will be stout as always, the Aztecs return two starters out of three from last year’s unit that helped produce 23 sacks and allow just 136 rushing ypg despite playing two service academies. Seven of the top ten tacklers on the team are back, and this unit could improve even further this year as the offense potentially takes a step back. With Boise State and Fresno State on the road, a trip to the conference title game seems unlikely. Arizona State and Stanford should also both be improved this year after the Aztecs were able to knock them off in 2017.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (6-2 MWC)
The year before head coach Tony Sanchez’s arrival in Vegas, the Rebels won two games. In his first year, he won three games, in his second year, he won four, and in his third year, he won five. The next step? A bowl bid. Dual-threat quarterback Amari Rogers is back after winning Mountain West Freshman of the Year after 1,471 yards passing and 780 yards rushing in nine starts (missed time with a concussion). The top two backs from last year are back as well in Lexington Thomas and Xavier Campbell. Thomas rushed for 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns last year behind a tremendous offensive line group that should be good again, as the line returns three starters from a group that helped pave the way for 240.2 rushing ypg last year.
The defense was the problem last year (#93 in opponent ppg, #114 in opponent ypg). The team was 1-6 when the defense let up more points than it’s season average (28.8) and 4-1 when they were better than it. A new coordinator has been brought on to right the ship in former Florida LB coach Tim Skipper, who has a lot of experience returning with seven starters back. Overall, this team should improve and with UTEP and an FCS in the non-conference, the Rebels will just have to go .500 in conference to make a bowl this year. They should be able to get three of those at home, but beating Fresno State may be challenging so they would need to steal a road win.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 MWC)
Year one under Jay Norvell wasn’t all bad, as an 0-5 start with an average ppg differential of -17 (including an FCS!) turned into a second half of the year where the Wolfpack went 3-4 with an average ppg differential of +2. The offense should improve in 2018 as Nevada gets back starting QB Ty Gangi (2,746 yards, 25 touchdowns in ten starts last year) as well as top running back Kelton Moore (855 yards). In fact, the Wolfpack return every rusher with even a single yard from last season, as well as five of their top seven pass catchers. That receiver group is headlined by two returning starters in Brendan O’Leary-Orange and McLane Mannix, who combined for ten touchdowns and about 1,400 yards last season when both were underclassmen. I expect massive improvement on this side of the ball as Norvell attempts to set his Air Raid scheme in place.
The defense was not good last year (#106 in opponent ppg, #120 in opponent ypg), but they should be more experienced as they get back seven starters from last year’s D, including four of five in the secondary. The front six should be good too as former end now WLB Malik Reed will captain the defense after eight sacks off the edge last year. Five of the top seven tacklers are back and this defense should improve. I am calling for a big upset win in the nonconference to kick-start the year and a 3-5 record in conference, but a bowl bid is certainly not out of the question. The problem is that this team gets the four toughest conference opponents they will have to face this year all at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 MWC)
After a solid 7-7 record in year one and a big drop off to 3-9 in year two thanks to a boatload of injuries, head coach Nick Rolovich looks to hit the reset button here for the Rainbow Warriors as they return almost nobody from last year’s team starter wise. A staggering number of underclassmen in the two-deep means that any injuries in 2018 could spell the same fate thanks to a huge lack of depth. Dual-threat sophomore QB Cole McDonald will likely get the start. McDonald has just one career passing touchdown, but star wideout John Ursua should help him get situated. Ursua led the country in yards last season before going down with an injury halfway through the year. Somehow, he still led the team in yards despite missing half the year. Outside of Ursua, this receiving group returns pretty much nobody and with their top two rushers from last year gone as well and another sophomore needing to step into a starting role at running back in Freddie Holly III, I expect a step back this year.
The Rainbow Warriors gave up 33.9 points per game last year, and if they want to improve on that at all, it will be on the backs of a tremendous linebacking core led by Jahlani Matauita (124 tackles, 5.5 sacks last year). The problem is that this group returns just one starter on the defensive line, as well as just one in the secondary. Six of the top nine tacklers are gone as well, and while I see this team actually winning more games by virtue of an easier schedule and 13 chances to do so rather than 12, this may not actually be an improved team.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-8 (2-6 MWC)
T5.San Jose State
The Spartans haven’t had a winning season since 2012 (11-2), and new head coach Brent Brennan did not have the best of starts in year one of the rebuild, going 2-11 and winning just one game against an FBS opponent all year (a 20-17 win in the final week of the season over Wyoming). With a lot of underclassmen in starting roles still, I wouldn’t expect a massive step forward in year two, but Brennan has started to try and recruit at a level that will get the Spartans playing like it is 2012 again. This team will be embroiled in a quarterback battle, and I would expect last year’s backup, junior Josh Love, to actually win the job. Both Josh Love and Montel Aaron threw more interceptions than touchdowns last year, but will hopefully improve with experience. RB Tyler Nevens will step into a starting role after 670 yards as a freshman, and the receiver group is definitely the best part of the offense as the return all of the starters and backups from last year’s group. I expect some improvement from this offense.
Every starter is gone from a secondary that almost cracked the top half of the conference in opponent passing ypg last year, and while they do get six of the front seven back, that group will need massive improvement after ranking second to last in the nation in opponent rushing ypg last year, but I guess there really is nowhere to go but up. The schedule shapes up rather nicely with a lot of winnable home games, and this team *should* win more than one game against FBS opponents this year as Brennan solidifies his scheme.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-9 (2-6 MWC)