Mountain

1.  Boise State.  Nine offensive starters and eight defensive starters return.  Sure, they lose their starting quarterback and top two rushers, but Boise has been reloading for years (as opposed to rebuilding).  Shane Williams-Rhodes is the best offensive player in the MW.  Boise has the best offensive line in conference.  Why?  Because all five starters return.  Scott Huff, the offensive line coach, sleeps well.  If any improvement is needed, see the defense, but by no means is that side of the ball a true weakness.  Similar to finding a bit of dust on a clean car.

2.  Utah State.  If Chuckie Keeton stays healthy, a good year for the people of Logan, Utah.  If Chuckie is dinged, a long year for the people of Logan, Utah.  Losing Jo Jo Natson hurts.  With Mr. Natson, the Aggies would have made Boise a tad nervous regarding first place in the Mountain division.  Now, not so much.  LaJuan Hunt should see his 111 rushing attempts increase greatly in 2015.  So, too, will his average of 4.9 yards.  The same improvement will be seen from Hunter Sharp at the wide receiver spot.  A quality football player.  USU’s main challenge will be the defensive line.  Look for their talented linebackers to help in front and help often.

3.  Air Force.  The Cadets return four of their top five rushers.  Sure, they lose their starting quarterback, but this is Air Force on the ground.  Forget the irony.  Your head will explode.  Only four defensive starters return (one lineman, two linebackers and one defensive back).  Granted, brains go a long way, but the inexperience on the defensive side of the ball may be painful.  Air Force gave up 103 fourth quarter points last year.  That number will increase in 2015.  During close games, if Air Force has the ball in the final minute, be glad.  If not, cringe.

4.  University of New Mexico.  Two words:  Lamar Jordan.  This kid has the soul of Doug Flutie and the nerves of a sniper (probably inappropriate, but the best I could do.  The sniper reference, not Flutie).  Jhurell Pressley and Teriyon Gipson are the best one-two running back punch in the entire MWC.  The Lobos will score and score often in 2015.  The Lobos need to provide a much improved defensive effort in the third quarter (a stunning 133 points were allowed during those fifteen minutes in 2014.  Evidently, understanding defensive adjustments during halftime is optional).  This is a squad returning seven defensive starters that were part of a defense that allowed well over 6,000 total offensive yards last year.  The Lobos defense gave up 58 points twice and 60 points once last year.  Enough said.

5.  Colorado State:  Anytime a head coach of Jim McElwain’s ability leaves the field, so does my confidence.  Include the departure of Garrett Grayson, and the Rams have a significant challenge in 2015.  The return of Treyous Jarrells at running back is a place to begin.  Rashard Higgins (96 catches, 1,750 yards) and the almost as talented Joe Hansley and Xavier Williams hope to benefit from an occasional pass or two tossed their way.  Who will get the ball to that trio?  Nick Stevens?  Coleman Key?  Stay tuned.  Thankfully for the Fort Collins faithful, eight defensive starters return.  If Lamar Jordan wasn’t the UNM qb, I would place the Rams fourth in the Mountain division.  But, that’s not the case.

6.  Wyoming.  Wyoming, where the wind blows and so, too, does hope.  Only five offensive and four (ouch) defensive starters return (including the loss of six of their top ten tacklers).  Losing their starting quarterback and top two receivers adds to the challenge.  However, Brian Hill and Shaun Wick will see plenty of action from the offensive backfield.  Last year, they combined for 271 rushing attempts.  Look for 300+ in 2015.  If the Cowboys can repeat last year’s home record of 3-3, rejoice Laramie, rejoice.  On behalf of Coach Craig Bohl and staff (most of whom followed Mr. Bohl from North Dakota State University), this group of coaches provide the best chance for the Cowboys to return to the heady days of Joe Tiller.

West

1.  San Diego State:  Last year’s finish of 7-6/5-3 including a bowl game loss was disappointing . . . which is evidence of just how far Aztec football has come.  Donnel Pumphrey is the best running back in the MW, bar none.  The other top two SDSU rushers, Chase Price and Dakota Gordon, also return.  The receiving corps in 2104 was a massive disappointment.  Given a new offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, look for renewed spirit and result.  Eight defensive starters return from the best MW defensive squad in 2014.  Not a single defensive back from the 2014 team leaves.  Can an Aztec defense that allowed a paltry 192 passing yards per game yield even less in 2015?  Yep.

2.  San Jose State.  Call me crazy.  Call me nut job.  The Spartans have a fine coaching staff (though, I find suspect the hiring of Al Borges as offensive coordinator) in year two of a massive overhaul.  The under-the-radar-who-is-this-guy Joe Gray at the qb spot provides the Spartans with one of the better MWC quarterbacks.  Mr. Gray, in eleven games, threw for better than 2,300 yards and had a completion rate of 63.6%.  Fair warning on behalf of Spartan defensive foes, their top three receivers return.  Tyler Ervin (5.6 yards per rush) and Brandon Monroe (4.3 yards per rush) offer quality rushing options.  On the other side of the ball, San Jose State loses six of their top ten tacklers and return only six starters.  The 2015 Spartan defensive challenge is to rebuild their linebacking unit.  SJSU defensive backs had better fill gaps quickly and get to know the opposing running backs.

3.  Fresno State.  Along with Colorado State, the Bulldogs suffer the most notable slip in the MWC during 2015.  They lose both their number one and two quarterbacks from 2014, all significant rushers, less their number one back (Marteze Waller) as well as their top three receivers.  Only six offensive starters return along with a paltry five defensive starters including only five of their top ten tacklers from 2014.  Continuing with the defensive concerns, last year Fresno State gave up 32.4 points per game.  That number increases in 2015.  Granted, Boise reloads, but Fresno must rebuild.  Any significant defensive injury or prolonged struggle at the quarterback spot may lead to a finish of less than third in the West.

4.  Nevada.  Losing Cody Fajardo will have the same effect that Colorado State will experience with the loss of Mr. Grayson.  Mr. Fajardo was also the Wolfpack’s leading rusher.   A great deal of Nevada offense has left the field.  Granted, Don Jackson (4.4 yards per rush) and James Butler (4.5 yards per rush) will see their participation increase greatly during 2015.  If the ‘pack can find somebody to throw the ball to Jerico Richardson (56 catches) and Hasaan Henderson (45 catches), perhaps 2015 may not be bleak.  Speaking of bleak, on the other side of the ball, only five defensive starters return.   Not a single starting defensive back returns.  Opposing quarterbacks may have much to smile about during Nevada games.  If the Wolfpack defense allows less than 30 points per game, enjoy the surprise.

5.  Hawaii.  The only reason I choose a Norm Chow coached team not to finish last is because UNLV hired a high school coach as head coach.  True to Mr. Chow’s demeanor, he retains his starting quarterback, Ikaika Woolsey, then immediately curries favor to the USC transfer, Max Wittek.  The top two wide receivers return along with two of the top three rushers.  With eight offensive starters, including the shunned Mr. Woolsey, this is Hawaii’s best Chow version.  Unfortunately, seven of their top-ten tacklers leave.  Six defensive starters return.  Smart money says 2014’s 26.8 points per game (second best in the West division) increases to counter balance an improved offense because Hawaii seems to suffer from a lack of luck.

6.  UNLV.  As mentioned above, the Rebels hired Tony Sanchez, a high school coach, as head coach.  Mr. Sanchez, brave soul, has five returnees on each side of the ball.  Starting quarterback Blake Decker returns as do three of the top four rushers (including Mr. Decker).  Devonte Boyd (65 catches) and Kendal Keys (12.9 yards per reception) offer receiving experience.  Six of the top seven tacklers return (they will be busy, very busy) in 2015.  Last year, the Rebels defense allowed 513.5 yards per game.  Perhaps they can be south of 500 yards allowed per game in 2015.  Perhaps.  Final note, all but one of the UNLV coaching staff enter their respective first year as coach at UNLV.  Could be a long, hot football season on the Strip.

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