2021 Mountain West Football Preview: Mountain Division

Posted: July 25, 2021 in Uncategorized
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After the pandemic influenced 2020 season, I trust we will play the entire MWC schedule in 2021. My predictions are based on taking 2020 stats and expanding said numbers to reflect (always dangerous, but what the hell) a 12 game season for all Mountain West schools. Influencing my predicted finish will also include the specter of returning seniors, especially starting seniors, for senior season two. Here we go.

Boise State by quite a margin. As a sidelight, the Mountain division will be significantly weaker in 2021, thus Boise’s usual dominance becomes magnified. The Broncos rolled through opponents during the first half of last year’s games while giving back significant points in the second half, especially the fourth quarter. The offense generated a paltry 349 yds per game, but once inside the red zone, the Broncos offense scored.

Offense: Not one proven quarterback with talent, but two. Hank Bachmeier likely gets the 2021 starting nod over Jack Sears (senior year dos). Mr. Bachmeier should throw for more than 2,000 yards this year. An interesting note on Mr. Sears: He had only 4 incomplete passes in 27 attempts last year. Andrew Van Buren will again be the focal point of the rushing game. However, his tiny yards per rush (ypr) of 3.4 needs to improve. George Holani and Danny Smith will battle for the second back spot. Whomever quarterbacks will have two quality receivers waiting for the throw. Khalil Shakir (52 catches, almost 103 yards per game) and CT Thomas (better than 17 yards per catch) form a talented one-two tandem. Riley Smith is the next most likely receiver to enjoy an increase in catches.

Defense: The second lowest Mountain division return rate of top-20 tacklers gives pause for 2021. Only 15 of the 20 return including 7 of the top 10. Last year’s group gave up 373.3 yards per game which was more than the Boise offense generated. The Broncos’ defense abides by the “bend, but don’t break” dictum given their outstanding 27% of third downs allowed. Opponents once inside the red zone had a hard time scoring touchdowns (18 for 31).

Wyoming had the unbelievable bad luck of immediately losing quarterback Sean Chambers in 2020. The Cowboys four losses last year were by margins of 3, 10, 1 and 8. Perhaps the most competitive 2-4 team in the nation, but such praise is equivalent to a participation trophy. Last year’s grand total of 1 passing touchdown is the strangest Wyoming stat from 2020.

Offense: Mr. Chambers wins the starting qb competition over the returning Levi Williams who offered a dull 2020 result with a completion rate of 49.6%, the aforementioned 1 td and only 146.2 yards passed per game. With a healthy Mr. Chambers, Wyoming’s anemic 46% td rate in the red zone quickly improves. Xavier Valladay and Trey Smith return as starting running backs. Mr. Valladay averaged 110 ypg and 5.6 ypr while Mr. Smith averaged 81.3 ypg and 5.5 ypr. Not bad. Ayden Eberhardt was last year’s leading receiver, though I’m sure he blushes when the number 16 made him king of the catch in 2020. Isaiah Neyor will be Mr. Eberhardt’s partner in waiting for a well thrown ball.

Defense: The saving grace of 2020, and candidly ever since Craig Bohl arrived (by the way, the dumbest move by the university would be to fire Mr. Bohl. No other Mountain division coach does more with less than Mr. Bohl). Opponents averaged only 125 yards rushing per game against the Cowboy defense and 80 third down attempts succeeded only 29 times in 2020. Impressive and likely to improve with 19 of the top 20 tacklers returning. Final testament to the quality of Wyoming’s defense: Opponents attempted only 6 fourth down conversions in 2020 and failed each attempt.

Air Force offers the only threat to Wyoming for a second place finish (sad, sad, sad). Defense and running the football once again (yawn) will determine the academy’s 2021 success.

Offense: 305.7 yards rushing per game was the sole reason Air Force approached 400 yards total offense per game (389.3 was the actual number). 3 of the top 4 rushers return. Brad Roberts (7.2 ypr), Brandon Lewis, though listed as a receiver, but there is no such thing at the academy, (9.0 ypr) and Timothy Jackson (5.2 ypr) will lead the charge (yes, a military pun) in 2021 as the Cadets pound and ground to their collective delight. Much like Air Force wide receivers, Air Force quarterbacks do not exist. They are running backs who can throw 25 yards downfield a handful of attempts per game, i.e., they handoff and run . . . a lot.

Defense: The Cadets will not benefit as much as other MWC teams regarding returning seniors because these guys have the actual Air Force waiting for them upon graduation. However, Air Force fans fear not. Last year’s often dominating defensive performance repeats in 2021. Only one team scored more than 17 points against Air Force in 2020. Perhaps something difficult to repeat, but that fact sets the tone for opponents’ offense this year. A total of 10 tds were scored against last year’s Air Force defense. Stingy and then some.

Note: Regarding the final three spots in the Mountain division, please close your eyes and spin a wheel featuring the names Colorado State, University of New Mexico and Utah State to determine fourth, fifth and sixth place. Yes, these three schools will fare poorly in 2021.

New Mexico head coach Danny Gonzales had a mess to clean up upon his arrival. A mess, a car wreck and a train wreck. Establishing a culture of player responsibility takes time. 2021 is year two for Mr. Gonzales, so I choose the Lobos for third place in the hope that they present much more of a team as opposed to individuals.

Offense: All quarterbacks who had significant to enough-to-notice playing time in 2020 return. Trae Hall, Tevaka Tuioti, Isaiah Chavez and Connor Genal create battle galore during August practice to determine the starter. Unfortunately, UNM runs quarterbacks far too often. Mr. Tuioti (#3 rusher), Mr. Chavez (#4 rusher) and Mr. Hall (#6 rusher) need to spend more time in the pocket and less time bolting downfield were potential injury awaits. Speaking of rushers, 2020’s #1 rusher, an actual running back, returns in the form of Bobby Cole (5.6 ypr). The top 2 receivers return for 2021. Mannie Logan-Greene (30 catches) and Andrew Erickson (18 catches) hope to increase last year’s 7 game total.

Defense: I admit the ultimate reason I choose UNM over CSU and USU is because of Rocky Long. Rocky’s defensive coaching results in quick improvement (if you doubt me, please reference San Diego State defensive stats prior to Rocky’s arrival and the years that followed). Only 14 of 20 top tacklers return, which usually negatively influences my prediction, but not so much with Mr. Long as Lobo defensive coordinator. The 2020 Lobo defense was absolutely awful during the second and third quarters giving away far too many points usually field goals since the Lobo defense allowed a paltry 8/19 red zone touchdowns. Nonetheless, points are points. The 2021 defensive backfield needs to dramatically reduce last year’s 18 passing tds by opponents.

Colorado State has a simple problem: Their athletic director must fire his hire, Steve Addazio. Improvement is that simple. Watching a Rams game with nary a soul in that impressive stadium is pure sad.

Offense: As the 2020 “season” (CSU played 4 games) progressed, Patrick O’Brien lost the starting qb job to Todd Centeio. Why? Because Mr. Addazio is the head coach. Mr. O’Brien finished the year with a completion rate of 56% while Mr. Centeio offered an anemic 38.9%. As a result, guess which quarterback transferred? Not Mr. Centeio. Ironically, another O’Brien, Jonah O’Brien, will provide August competition for the starting spot. The Rams return the two running backs who had the most rushing attempts in 2020: A’Jon Vivens and Marcus McElroy. However, neither impressed. The top two receivers return and these guys do impress. Trey McBride (15.0 ypc) and Dante Wright (15.8 ypc) offer worthy downfield targets. Getting the ball to them will be a challenge.

Defense: 2020 featured 35.8 points allowed per game. Ick. The first half of all 4 games highlighted a CSU defense that was unprepared, distracted, lousy and/or careless. Please choose 3 of the 4. This same defense gave up 67% of fourth down conversions as well. A thin ray of sunshine was found: 2.5 ypr and only 108.5 yards rushing per game for CSU opponents. 18 of 20 top tacklers return. Hopefully so does their ability play an entire football game.

Utah State was ugly in 2020. I mean a dog walking backwards ugly. Gary Andersen did everything wrong. His replacement, Blake Anderson is looking at a long season in 2021. So much to fix and not a lot to work with.

Offense: Starting quarterback Jason Shelley hit the road when Mr. Andersen was fired. Andrew Peasley performed admirably as his replacement, but by no means is guaranteed to win the 2021 starting job. Devonta’e Henry-Cole offers the beginning of a running game (4.4 ypr), but would be better served as the #2 running back. The top 3 receivers return. Deven Thompkins (20 catches), Justin McGriff (15 catches) and Derek Wright (11 catches). Not much else to say.

Defense: Last year’s Aggie defense allowed 6.6 yards per play which resulted in 485 yards total offense per game. Yuck. 28 tds by opponents was evenly split between rushing and passing tds. How kind of the USU defense. Parity is important. The 2021 translation is get-better-now or USU will wish they only play 6 games (2020) instead of 12. They tie UNM with the least amount of returning op 20 tacklers: 14.


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