2014 Mountain West Football Preview

Steven Jacobs and Emmett McCarthy

As Mountain West football teams prepare to face each other in conference play, Collegian Reporters Steven Jacobs and Emmett McCarthy preview where all of them will end up and which players will be key to their team’s success. (Teams are listed by ranking in league preseason coaches’ poll.)

MOUNTAIN

BoiseState 1. Boise State

 2013 Record: 8-5 (6-2 conference)

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 2014 Projected Record: 9-3

Key Losses: DE Demarcus Lawrence, OL Matt Paradis, OL Charles Leno

Key Additions: OL Sitini Kauvaka

Boise State enters the 2014 season as a favorite to win the conference despite coming off of a mediocre season (8-5). The Broncos are returning a good number of starters (15) and it will be head coach Bryan Harsin’s second year with the team that now has a few of his own recruits. Injuries have already hampered the Broncos’ outlook defensively, with senior defensive tackle Justin Taimatuia out for the season and defensive end Tyler Horn facing a potentially serious knee injury. Injuries aside, the Broncos still boast one of the most talented rosters in the Mountain West. Senior QB Grant Hedrick returns alongside his favorite target WR Matt Miller, who connected for 12 touchdowns and 1,140 yards in 13 games last season.

Player to Watch: RB Jay Ajayi

The 2014 season just began but if preseason award predictions mean anything than Ajayi should be in for an exciting season. The first-team All-Mountain West running back has been noted as a Walter Camp Player of the Year Candidate, Maxwell Award Candidate and Doak Walker Award Candidate as well as being named to the Touchdown Club of Columbus “Players To Watch” List. In a Week One loss against No. 15 Ole Miss, Ajayi played 82 of 85 snaps and generated 179 of the team’s 399 total yards and the team’s only touchdown.

Fun Fact:

The Boise State Broncos lost five games last season, which equals the total of their losses from the preceding five seasons (2008-2012).


Utah_State_Aggies_New01 2. Utah State

 2013 Record: 9-5 (7-1 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 9-4

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Key Losses: S Maurice Alexander, CB Nevin Lawson

Key Additions: LB Chase Christiansen, LB Ian Togiai, TE Landon Horne

Utah State was eight points away from winning the Mountain West conference championship against Fresno State in 2013. This season, expectations will be high for second-year head coach and 2013 MW Coach of the Year Matt Wells. The Aggies have made strides in recent years, and beat nationally-ranked Northern Illinois (24) in the Poinsetta Bowl last season. Utah State’s defense was scary good last season, too, ranking seventh in scoring defense (17.1 ppg), eighth in rushing defense (106.7 ypg), and 12th in total defense (330.9 ypg). The Aggies plan on having similar success this season as they return four All-Mountain West defensemen, including linebackers senior Zach Vigil and junior Kyler Fackrell

Player to Watch: QB Chuckie Keeton

Dual-threat senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton is returning to play for the Aggies after missing the final eight games of last season due to a knee injury. In the five games before his injury against BYU in week six, Keeton ranked second in the nation with 17 passing touchdowns. He also had 241 yards on 55 carries with two more touchdowns during those games, showing his ability as a dual-threat. Although Utah State had to work around his injury last season, the team still set school records on offense which bodes very well for Keeton as he returns to the lineup.

Fun Fact:

After beating Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl last season, the Aggies have won back-to-back bowl games and they’ve played in three consecutive bowls for the first time in school history.

ram_logo 3. Colorado State

 2013 Record: 8-6 (5-3 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 10-2

 Key Losses: RB Kapri Bibbs, LB Shaquil Barrett, C Weston Richburg, TE Crockett Gilmore

Key Additions: RB Dee Hart, RB Treyous Jarrells, KR Deionte Gaines

The Rams are coming off one of their most successful seasons in over a decade, but head coach Jim McElwain has his sights set even higher for 2014. Colorado State lost a slew of talent to the NFL in the offseason, with C Weston Richburg and TE Crockett Gilmore going in the first few rounds of the NFL draft and LB Shaq Barrett and RB Kapri Bibbs getting picked by the Denver Broncos as undrafted free agents. Although the team has lost some star power, key players are returning this season and a few new additions to the team can make the Rams a scary contender in the Mountain West. The Rams schedule will certainly be difficult, with a game against Boise State to open up conference play and back-to-back games against tough Nevada and Utah State squads midway through the season. If the offensive line can play at a high level throughout the season and block for running backs Dee Hart and Treyous Jarrells, then opponents will find it very difficult to play defense against this Rams team.

Player to Watch: RB Dee Hart

After graduating from the University of Alabama, everyone was surprised to hear that Hart was going to be playing football for Colorado State, at least everyone except head coach Jim McElwain. Hart and McElwain were both present at Alabama when running phenoms like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were both vying for Heisman contention. Now, the two reunite in Fort Collins and bring that same hard-hitting running game with them. In his first game in a Rams uniform, Hart had 22 carries for 139 yards and two touchdowns to go with 35 receiving yards on three receptions, showing his explosive potential as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.

Fun Fact:

Running backs Dee Hart and Treyous Jarrells are new additions to the Rams’ squad, but they aren’t new additions to each other. Both players are from central Florida and faced each other in high school.

WyomingCowboysLogo 4. Wyoming

 2013 Record: 5-7 (3-5 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 5-7

Key Losses: CB Marqueston Huff, WR Robert Herron

Key Additions: OL Richard Bettencourt, LB Alex Bush, DE Connor Cain

Wyoming started off strong last season but finished terribly, losing five of their last six games. Now the Cowboys turn to first-year head coach Craig Bohl to turn the team around. Bohl spent 11 season with North Dakota State, an FCS team that’s gone 42-3 in the last three seasons and won three consecutive FCS championships. But the Mountain West is not the FCS, and coach Bohl realized that when he took a look at the Cowboys schedule. With games against No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Michigan State to go along with conference play, this Wyoming team would be happy to match their win-total from last season (5). Although the outlook seems grim for the Cowboys, there is a silver-lining. The team returns an impressive 17 starters including many weapons on offense like last year’s leading receiver Dominic Rufran and last year’s leading rusher Shaun Wick, and playing against nationally-ranked teams can benefit the Cowboys with experience.

Player to Watch: DE Eddie Yarbrough

As a sophomore last season, Yarbrough made an effort to make his name known. He had the most tackles-for-loss last season (12) on the Cowboys roster, to go with 6.5 sacks. He also led all defensive lineman in the Mountain West with 7.8 tackles per game. His career-high single-game tackling effort (13 tackles) came against a tough Big-10 team in Nebraska last season. Yarbrough enters the 2014 season as a junior and at the top of the depth chart for all Cowboys defensive ends.

Fun Fact:

When deciding to be head coach for the Cowboys in 2014, Craig Bohl recalled a conversation he had nearly twenty years earlier that impacted his decision. While an assistant coach for Nebraska, he spoke with University of Nebraska Athletic Director and former Wyoming head coach Bob Devaney. Devaney’s fond memory of coaching for Wyoming left a lasting impression on Bohl, who will be coaching the Cowboys this year.

 

New Mexico Logo 5. New Mexico

 2013 Record: 3-9 (1-7 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 4-8

Key Losses: RB Kasey Carrier, LB Dallas Bollema, C Dillon Farrell

Key Additions: OLB Camrron Bean, DB Daniel Henry, LB Chris Lee

Head coach Bob Davie enters his third season with the Lobos riding a 7-18 record with the team. Last season the Lobos only conference win came over a poor Air Force team, and they allowed three different teams, New Mexico St., Colorado St., and Fresno St., to score over 60 points on them. In 2014, the outlook for the Lobos is not much brighter than that of last season. Having already lost a game to UTEP, New Mexico enters a tough section of their schedule where they must host #17 Arizona State, travel to in-state rival New Mexico State, and then host a tough Fresno State team. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team starts the season 0-4. There is some star-power on this team, especially in dual-threat quarterback Cole Gautsche, but there aren’t enough playmakers on this team to contend with the upper-echelon of the Mountain West.

Player to Watch: QB Cole Gautsche

Gautsche is a running back with a quarterback’s arm. He has seven career 100-yard rushing games, which puts him third among all-time quarterbacks in Mountain West history. Against UTEP in Week One, Gautsche ran for an incredible 184 yards on 14 carries (13.1 avg) to go along with two rushing touchdowns which came on sprints of 68 and 51 yards. Clearly, Gautsche is limited as a quarterback for he only threw for 36 yards in the same game. After attending a passing camp in Florida during the offseason, the Lobos are confident that Gautsche is developed enough as a passer to be a real dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 season.

Fun Fact:

In Week One, Lobos quarterback Cole Gautsche ran for 14 yards less than Georgia running back Todd Gurley ran for, not including Gurley’s kickoff return. Todd Gurley is currently tabbed as the leader in the national Heisman race, while Gautsche, just 14 yards away, isn’t even near the list.

 

Air-Force-logo 6. Air Force

 2013 Record: 2-10 (0-8 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 3-9

 Key Losses: WR Ty MacArthur, TB Anthony LaCoste

 Key Additions: QB Dominique Allen, OT Davis Beard, TE Ethan Brown

The Air Force Falcons are coming off a dismal 2013 season in which their two wins came against Colgate and rival Army. The team does return 16 starters, which gives the Falcons some confidence that they can build and improve off of last season. Quarterback Kale Pearson is back under center for Air Force after being hurt in last season’s opener, giving the Falcons some experience at that position. Also, the run game seems to be a powerful part of the Falcons offense early on the season, behind running backs Jacobi Owens and Devin Rushing. If Air Force can figure out how to compete and win games against conference opponents, then this team will quickly rise through the ranks of the Mountain West. But teams like Boise St., Colorado St. and Utah State aim to keep the Falcons from pulling off any upsets in 2014.

Player to Watch: RB Jacobi Owens

Is a great performance in one game enough to put a player on the watch list? In Owens’ case, absolutely. In his very first game with the Falcons, Owens ran for 233 yards on 23 carries (10.1 avg) against the Nicholls State Colonels. Granted, the Colonels aren’t the steepest competition that Air Force will be facing this season, but there is something to be said about a team being ranked first in the nation in total rushing yards. With help from Devin Rushing and basically whoever else felt like playing running back, the Falcons stacked up a whopping 539 rushing yards against the Colonels. Owens won’t be expected to have the same success against Mountain West conference teams, but Week One gave an early indication that yes, indeed, Air Force can run the ball.

Fun Fact:

Since 2000, Air Force has been above the Mountain West average in attendance. Last season, Air Force had an average of 32,652 in attendance at their games, compared to 26,096 average attendance of the rest of the conference.


WEST

8983_fresno_state_bulldogs-alternate-1992 1. Fresno State 

 2013 Record: 11-2 (7-1 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 8-4

 Key Losses: QB Derek Carr, WR Davonte Adams, LT Austin Wentworth

Key Additions: QB Brandon Connette

Fresno State won the Mountain West championship outright last year but lost five 2013 all-conference selections (three on the first team). Even without the services of quarterback Derek Carr, the 2013 Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, and Davante Adams, who led the FBS in receptions last year (131), the Bulldogs are favored to remain one of the elite teams in the conference. A quarterback battle is still ongoing between Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette, neither of whom impressed in a 52-13 loss at USC to open the season. Now the Bulldogs face back-to-back games at Utah and against No. 19 Nebraska. Eight starters return from a defense that led the conference in sacks (40) but allowed more passing yards per game than any other team (282.6). Pressure will be on a strong trio of linebackers featuring Ejiro Ederaine to keep Fresno State atop the Mountain West.

Player to Watch: WR Josh Harper

Harper has caught 22 career touchdown passes in 27 games played. The 6 feet 1 inch, 185-pound receiver caught 79 balls for 1,011 yards last season. His 13 touchdown receptions were the second most on the team. Derek Carr won’t be throwing him the ball this year, but Harper is versatile enough to make some plays on his own.

Fun Fact: Fresno State has won two conference titles in just as many years under head coach Tim DeRuyter. The Bulldogs finished as co-champions in 2012 and won the conference outright in 2013. Prior to that, the school had not won a conference title since 1999. They had not won back-to-back championships since 1992-93.


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2. San Diego State 

 2013 Record: 8-5 (6-2 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 7-5

 Key Losses: RB Adam Muema, LW Bryce Quigley, WR Colin Lockett, DB Nat Berhe

Key Additions: RB Chase Price

San Diego State comes into the 2014 season ready to challenge Fresno State for the top spot  in the West division. In 2013, the Aztecs got off to a rough 0-3 start before reeling off eight wins in their next ten games, including a win over Buffalo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The offense is still in good shape despite losing leading-rusher Adam Muema (1,244 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns). Sophomore Donnel Pumphrey should ensure that there will not be too much drop-off at running back. As a freshman, Pumphrey ran for 752 yards and eight touchdowns while also establishing himself as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Signal caller Quinn Kaehler, who passed for over 3,000 yards last year before undergoing offseason surgery, will have his leading receiver Ezell Ruffin to throw to again. An already shaky defense loses first-team selection Nat Berhe who led the team in tackles (99) and Nick Tenhaeff who led the team in sacks (6). Opposing quarterbacks threw for a total of 3,312 yards and 31 touchdowns against SDSU last season. Head coach Rocky Long will need to rely on the high-powered offense to make sure this team contends for the conference title.

Player to watch: WR Ezell Ruffin

Ruffin considered entering the 2014 NFL Draft but chose to return for his senior season. His 1,136 receiving yards last year is top-ten amongst all returning FBS players. The Long Beach, California native is a big-play threat at all times. He is the only SDSU player in the Mountain West era (since 1999) to have 1,000 yards receiving in a season as a non-senior. His 16.7 receiving yards per game was fourth most amongst all FBS players with at least 63 receptions.

Fun Fact: Last season, SDSU’s defense went up against three quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft; second-rounders Derek Carr (Fresno State) and Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), and sixth-rounder David Fales (San Jose State).


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 3. Nevada 

 2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 6-7

Key Losses: LT Joe Bitonio, WR Brandon Wimberly, CB Markus Smith

Key Additions: RB James Butler

Nevada enters the season following a disappointing 2013 campaign. Voters expect the Wolfpack to fare better in their second season under head coach Brian Polian. Cody Fajardo is one of the better quarterbacks in the Mountain West but he will be without receiver Brandon Wimberly, who was targeted on just over one-third of Nevada’s passing plays last year. The team also loses its most experienced offensive lineman in first-team all-conference left tackle Joel Bitonio (38 starts). The defense, which returns nine starters, needs to do a better job in the pass rush (93rd in sacks) and against the run (103rd in tackles for loss). They held only one Mountain West team below double-digits (Hawai’i). While the Wolfpack should improve upon their record from last year, a first-place finish in the conference seems like a reach.

Player to watch: QB Cody Fajardo

Fajardo is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference as evidenced by a summer that saw him attend the Manning Passing Academy and be named to the Davey O’Brien preseason watch list. Despite missing two games in 2013, he threw for 2,633 yards with 13 passing touchdowns and only three interceptions. Fajardo is also more than capable with his legs. He ran for eight touchdowns last season and broke the 100-yard rushing mark on multiple occasions.

Fun Fact: Fajardo has now attended the Manning Passing Academy three consecutive years. His predecessor, Colin Kaepernick, only attended once (2010).

UNLV_Rebels2 4. UNLV

 2013 Record: 7-6 (5-3 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 6-7

 Key Losses: QB Caleb Herring, RB Tim Cornett, DT Tyler Gaston, LB Tani Maka

 Key Additions: CB Mike Grant, CB Courtney Bridget

UNLV pieced together a solid 2013 season and were selected for a bowl game for the first time since 2000. However, many don’t expect the program to build upon or even replicate that success this year following the departure of quarterback Caleb Herring who completed 63.2 percent of his passes last year and was only intercepted five times in 405 passing attempts. The Rebels are also without running back Tim Cornett who became the school’s all-time rushing leader last season (3,733 career rushing yards). It’s too soon to write off the Rebels just yet, though. Bobby Hauck’s team played very efficiently in 2013, finishing with the third-best turnover margin in the Mountain West (+5). In addition to bringing back star receiver Devante Davis, the Rebels also return the majority of a secondary that ranked second in the Mountain West in pass defense (217.7 yards per game). With a solid number of players leaving holes at certain positions, including the departures of linebackers Tani Maka and Tim Hasson (181 combined tackles last season), it’s easy to see how UNLV could regress in 2014.

Player to Watch: WR Devante Davis

Davis hauled in 14 touchdowns last year, a UNLV season record and the most among returning FBS receivers. His 87 receptions and 1,290 receiving yards were both just shy of school records. At 6 feet 3 inches, 210 lbs., the former track star has the size, speed and talent to make a run at All-American honors even without Herring there to get him the ball anymore.

Fun Fact: Hauck’s breakthrough season last year was almost tainted by a low Academic Progress Rate. UNLV was in jeopardy of receiving a post-season ban from the NCAA back in May for not meeting APR eligibility regulations. The school worked to correct the issue and the ban was lifted in June.

ffb1ucj7ud0h0io3lle8ozwnq 5. San Jose State

 2013 Record: 6-6 (5-3 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 6-6

 Key Losses: QB David Fales, WR Chandler Jones, LB Keith Smith, RG Nicholas Kaspar

 Key Additions: WR Justin Holmes, DE Victor Vernon

San Jose State handed eventual Mountain West champion Fresno State their only conference loss last season but were given very little respect in the 2014 preseason poll. Voters expect the Trojans to take a step back this year due to the loss of star quarterback David Fales, whose 4,189 passing yards were the fifth-most in the nation. Equally damaging is the loss of four offensive linemen who had a combined 107 career starts between them; However, the Trojans were far from full strength last year as well. Injuries kept wide receiver Noel Grigsby out of all but two games, running back Tyler Ervin out of all but one, and linebacker Vince Buhagiar out for the entire season. Tyler Winston, who caught 10 passes for 164 yards in the win over Fresno State, proved to be a reliable receiver in Grigsby’s absence. He will be relied upon heavily again without last season’s leading receiver Chandler Jones. San Jose State had no problem putting up points but neither did their opponents. Excluding their shutout of Sacramento State in the season opener, the Trojans allowed 38.3 points per game in 2013. Despite losing leading tackler Keith Smith (159), the defense has a chance to improve under new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who won two super bowls as the Broncos defensive coordinator from 1995-2000. San Jose State showed flashes of greatness last season but without Fales, those flashes will be fewer and further in between.

Player to Watch: RB Jarrod Lawson

The former walk-on solidified his spot on the team by running for 788 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman. The 5-feet-8-inch, 190-pound running back also racked up 223 receiving yards.

Fun Fact: San Jose State’s upset of Fresno State late in the season marked the school’s first win against a nationally-ranked opponent in 13 years. The win snapped a streak of 21 consecutive losses against top-25 teams for the Trojans.

HawaiiWarriors 6. Hawaii

 2013 Record: 1-11 (0-8 conference)

 2014 Projected Record: 1-12

 Key Losses: QB Sean Schroeder, WR Chris Grant, TE Clark Evans, DT Saisau Matagiese, LB Brenden Daley

 Key Additions: WR Ammon Barker

Hawaii is expected to finish last in the conference again this year. The Rainbow Warriors were the only Mountain West team to not win a single conference game in 2013. Their record was embarrassing but the margins they lost by were usually not. The team lost five games last year by seven points of less and continued that trend by losing their 2014 season opener to No. 25 Washington by just a point. Head coach Norm Chow is now 4-20 in his two seasons at the school and surely must be feeling pressure to get some wins in some of those games in order to keep his job. On offense, Hawaii is without starting quarterback Sean Schroeder (28 passing touchdowns) and leading receiver Chris Grant (973 receiving yards). The defense loses a pair of linebackers who combined for 167 tackles and a pair of defensive backs who combined for ten pass breakups. No matter how close they can keep their games, it looks like another tough season is in store for Hawaii.

Player to Watch: RB Joey Iosefa

The senior running back missed seven games last year with a foot injury. In the five games he played in 2013, Iosefa rushed for 590 yards and five touchdowns. In the season opener, the 6-feet, 245-pound bruiser found the endzone against No. 25 Washington. When he is healthy, Iosefa is one of the team’s most consistent offensive threat.

Fun Fact: Aloha Stadium also plays is also home to the NFL Pro Bowl. The highest seat in the stadium is about equivalent to sitting atop a ten story building.

Collegian Sports Reporters Emmett McCarthy and Steven Jacobs can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @steven_jacobs_ and @EmmettCollegian.