Which teams appear to have the strongest position groups heading into the 2018 football season? After this past season that produced three first round draft picks – one in the top ten and one of which was a top five Heisman finisher – there are some major roles to fill at the top of the Mountain West. Let’s take a closer look at each unit to see who will be the big names at each position this year.
Despite a minor setback last season, Brett Rypien has been the best quarterback in the Mountain West since his arrival in Boise in 2015. A sluggish start, worsened by injury issues, slowed Rypien and the Broncos at the beginning of 2017. By the end of October however, he was back to playing at full potential. Over the last 7 games, Rypien averaged just under 300 yards per game with a QB Rating of 164. His performance late in the season should be a good indicator of what to expect in his swan song on the blue turf this season. Rypien loses his primary target, Cedrick Wilson, but Boise State’s offense still has plenty of weapons.
Nevada: Ty Gangi and Nevada might have the most fun offense in the Mountain West in 2018.
Colorado State: presumed starter Colin Hill went down with an ACL injury, but CSU has added two former 4-star recruit transfers in K.J. Carta-Samuels and Patrick O’Brien. O’Brien won’t be eligible to play until the 2019 season.
How foolish would it be to choose any team other than San Diego State? A San Diego State running back has led the conference in rushing every season dating back to 2014. During that span they’ve had running backs rush for 2000 yards twice and 1000 yards four additional times. But nobody named Donnel Pumphrey or Rashad Penny is on SDSU’s roster this year. Juwan Washington played well in relief of Penny last year. His 6.1 yards per rush average suggests he could have a breakout year with a larger workload, but I have a hard time going with SDSU when Washington hasn’t started a single game.
Charles Williams was set to start for UNLV last season after an exciting freshman campaign in 2016. After Williams was injured in the season opener, Lexington Thomas took over the lead role and rushed for over 1300 yards and 17 touchdowns. They both return this season, and it’s unsure how carries will be split between the two. Regardless of the workload distribution, the two combine with quarterback Armani Rogers, the conference’s reigning freshman of the year, to form the Mountain West’s best rushing attack.
San Diego State
Boise State: Alexander Mattison was a 1000-yard rusher a year ago and will be running behind one of the best lines in the Mountain West.
Nevada returns two of its three starting receivers and over 70% of its receiving production from last season. Leading returner McLane Mannix should be just as productive in the slot this season, but watch for Brendan O’Leary-Orange to break out this fall after averaging over 90 yards per game in the final six games of 2017. At 6’4” 210 lbs, O’Leary-Orange has the size to be a star. A number of former 3-star recruits including Trevion Armstrong and Tyson Williams could also step in and play major roles in Nevada’s exciting offense this season.
Fresno State: KeeSean Johnson is the conference’s leading returner in receiving yards.
Colorado State: Former top 100 recruit Preston Williams will be eligible to play this year after transferring from Tennessee. Between Williams and senior Olabisi Johnson, the Rams’ receiving corps might have the most potential in the conference.
Utah State’s Dax Raymond led all Mountain West tight ends in receiving yards last year, and he returns for his junior season in 2018. Pro Football Focus rates him as the third best returning tight end in all Group of 5 conferences this season. If redshirt sophomore quarterback Jordan Love continues to progress, expect Raymond to have another successful season.
San Diego State: former walk-on Kahale Warring looks to build on his 250 yards and 3 touchdowns last season.
San Diego State had to break in a young line at the beginning of last season, and they still managed to produce a 2000-yard rusher. Two freshmen members of the line, Keith Ismael and Tyler Roemer, earned 2nd team all-conference honors for their efforts. The majority of that line returns this season with a year of experience under their belts. We’ve already discussed the likelihood of Juwan Washington having a productive season, and his blockers will be a major reason for this.
Boise State: It’s Boise State – they recruit better than any other Group of 5 school and consistently have an offensive line among the best outside the Power 5.
Fresno State was very efficient at limiting scoring opportunities through the air in 2017. They held opponents to just 14 passing touchdowns on the season good enough to rank 12th in the nation in that category. All four starting defensive backs from last year’s stingy defense return. Three of the four returning starters ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in passes defended, while safeties Mike Bell and Juju Hughes combined for ten tackles for loss. Cornerback Jaron Bryant led the unit with four interceptions, including two that he turned into pick sixes. While they benefitted from an excellent defensive line that continuously put pressure on the opposing quarterback, Fresno State’s defensive backs should improve upon last year’s already impressive unit with the emergence of some depth players.
Boise State: Avery Williams and Tyler Horton both return after combining for 19 pass breakups, 4 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles last season.
San Diego State: cornerback Ron Smith led the conference in pass breakups, and safety Tariq Thompson tied for the lead in interceptions in 2017.
Fresno State returns plenty of experience in its linebacking corps. All three starters are back with a combined 18 tackles for loss and six interceptions. Middle linebacker Jeffrey Allison was among the top tacklers in the Mountain West last year, and he should be one of best defensive players in the conference this year. If the Bulldogs can replace some key losses on the line, their defense will be very good.
Wyoming: Logan Wilson received all-conference honors last year and returns alongside Cassh Maluia as part of Wyoming’s formidable front seven.
Boise State returns their seven leading tacklers on the line. Four of those returning received all-conference honors last season. They are loaded at defensive end with Jabril Frazier and Durrant Miles combining for 13 tackles for loss and eight sacks last season, while Curtis Weaver recorded 11 sacks as a freshman. Tackle David Moa led the team in sacks with 8.5 in 2016, but opposing lines keyed in on him in 2017 – effectively opening opportunities for others to make plays. With the multitude of known weapons on Boise’s defensive line this year, opponents won’t be able to focus on a single player without getting burnt.
Wyoming: Carl Granderson and Youhanna Ghaifan combined for 32 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. That duo alone would put Wyoming at the top most years.
Your turn: Which spots do you agree with and what would you change? Discuss it in the comments below.