It’s summer, therefore college sports have more or less disappeared from our lives until football gets underway in a few weeks. With that being said, schedules have been made nearly concrete and the predictions are starting to hit the press yet again. Predictions are fun, pretty useless, but fun nonetheless. Instead of giving a standard Mountain West Conference outlook, lets run down how the top MWC teams fare in their respective chances to grab the Group of 5’s ultimate prize, a trip to the New Year’s Six bowl game. The following jumbled half-prediction will not follow any particular order or criteria, but it’s a mere look at how these programs will fare on the field on top of what they can offer the college football world on a national stage.
The 2018 Mountain West football season was a pretty middle-of-the-road season for the conference has a whole, with Utah State and Fresno State putting together nice years coupled with the usual competitiveness of the Boise State Broncos. Hawaii was a pleasant surprise, Nevada exceeded expectations as well and San Diego State was probably the biggest disappointment, posting a terrible record in the second half of their season. Focusing on these programs in 2019, I can’t say I feel overly strong that any team will run the table, but expect these teams to all be fighting for another MWC championship again.
I think the most fun team of the 2018 season was Hawaii, given their irrelevance the few previous years it was nice to see them get back to competitive form. In 2019, Hawaii invites 25% of the PAC-12 to their schedule, with games against Arizona, Oregon State and Washington. In terms of scheduling, if they were to pull off these first three games of the season you can automatically add them to the New Year’s 6 watchlist, although that could be rather unlikely. Hawaii does have a future NFL quarterback in Cole McDonald, and he engineers one of the most entertaining offenses in the conference. Regardless of the record they post they will be a team that no one really wants to play because they tend to be such a wild-card week to week. Hawaii has no pro sports so seeing this team make a run would probably be a fun story for college football and for the state of Hawaii.
Going from most exciting to most disappointing in 2018, the San Diego State Aztecs actually look to be a much better team in 2019. This team actually played really well early in the season despite losing both their starting quarterback and running back early in the season. Coming back healthy, Juwan Washington could easily make a case for the best offensive player in the conference and his offensive line should be pretty sturdy. The Aztecs always schedule and play a funky way early in the season, normally beating a team they shouldn’t a losing to a team they shouldn’t. A cool nugget about their schedule this year is they do play UCLA at the Rose Bowl in early September, a school that surprisingly they do recruit against semi-often. In 2012, the Aztecs men’s basketball team played UCLA at the Honda Center in Anaheim (UCLA territory) and the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-SDSU, which shocked both sides. Expect this game to have a heavy dose of red and black, something that might slightly impact recruiting and make the program look good in an intriguing way. If the Aztecs play well early, their mid-November home game against Fresno State could actually have big NY6 implications for both sides. San Diego’s proximity to the Fiesta Bowl and big city affect with a large, local alumni base also can score them a few points if they find themselves ranked in December.
Boise State can honestly be ranked any season and it will never surprise anyone. They are essentially the mid-major school that laid the groundwork for other successful mid-majors. The talent is there yet again as always, with a defensive front-seven that can hang with most teams in the country. Last year the offense was inconsistently good, but their strong finish capped off what was still a pretty decent year for the Broncos. Boise is no stranger to scheduling tough, and their first game against Florida State in Jacksonville will put them on the national radar right away. You can always pencil in the Broncos as a New Year’s 6 candidate, and this year they play a pretty soft road schedule that should project some (should be) easy victories. Utah State will probably be right on their heels, and a mid-season game against Hawaii on The Blue might sneakily be the toughest home game of the season. Playing the Aztecs or Bulldogs in the conference championship could be another added roadblock to a NY6 type of season.
It’s a little hard to hype up Nevada too much because it’s hard to imagine them making a lot of noise nationally, but they could give the West division a lot of trouble again in 2019. It’s beginning to seem like head coach Jay Norvell is really starting to get some of his own guys into the program, and similar to the basketball team at Nevada the football program boasts some great size and a lot of stellar athletes. For the majority of last season, the ‘Pack could put up points against virtually every team, except a few clunkers against Fresno State and Vanderbilt. Outside of those 2 games, Nevada showed it probably has the ability to keep up with some of the faster paced offenses in the conference. You can always pencil in Fresno State as a high point-scoring team, the Aztecs vowed to open it up more this year, and Hawaii can move the ball faster than anyone in the conference when effective. That could make for a fun West division scramble, but it’s hard to imagine the Wolfpack winning enough to put themselves on the national map this year. They do play Purdue and Oregon early, so even beating one of those teams might at least cause a bit of a positive stir in Reno.
I think all Mountain West fans would agree that Utah State was a fun surprise last year. Generally speaking, Utah State always figured to give the conference more of a boost on the hardcourt, but it’s actually been the gridiron where we have seen them succeed most. Speaking of basketball, looking at the Aggies scores in 2018 they scored about as much as a basketball team would in most games. The team could flat out score and they even had one of the better scoring defenses in the country, which just made the point totals look more gaudy. The problem is is that this team lost quite a bit offensively, and also lost head coach Matt Wells. It was pretty cool to see the Aggies thrash North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl just weeks after Wells announced that he was leaving. Former head coach Gary Anderson is returning, and will likely need to rely more upon his defense this year to see a similar result to last season’s 11-win campaign. It’s difficult to see Utah State replicating last years production with so many missing pieces on offense, but it would certainly be fun seeing a NY6-type season in Logan. I think the Aggies are really easy for the casual fan to support because as far as mid-major support goes in smaller towns Logan really treats the Aggies as the “it” team in town despite two other universities in the state that are usually much more successful. Not sure you can pencil the Aggies in as a contender for the New Years’ 6 bowl game, but with an early season tilt against Wake Forest they could at the very least generate some hype early in September and try and compete for the MWC crown.
Fresno State is coming off arguably the best season in program history in 2018, but similar to Utah State they head into 2019 needing many new faces to step up. Offensively, the Bulldogs will have new faces at virtually every skill position. Defensively, they will ask Mykal Walker to lead the unit while making a switch from the edge to middle linebacker, a position change that both he and the staff feel will help the team this year and in the future. Jeff Tedford has done an unbelievable job at completely changing the Fresno State program, and winning the West division and beating Boise State in the MWC championship game last year certainly ignited the fire once again for Bulldog football in the Central Valley. When successful, the city of Fresno and the surrounding areas really get behind the program and seeing them make a run at the NY6 bowl game would be a really good look for both the program and the conference, given that they can be one of the more dedicated fan bases. To get into the conversation, they would probably need to beat USC in LA to put themselves on the map. If they do lose but play respectably, they get another chance at a Power 5 opponent the following week at home when Minnesota visits. It’s a little tougher to imagine the Bulldogs running the table in the Mountain West with so many new faces, but Tedford has proven that he can use his talent to compete every single week. Their showdown in San Diego in November against the Aztecs could have major implications on both teams, and you’d have to imagine the winner of that game will have a huge leg up in the West division. Fresno State has the schedule to be in the conversation for a New Years’ bowl, but it certainly will be a tall task for Tedford’s crew.