Ten wins during the season is usually a pretty good barometer for what constitutes a strong season. There were four such teams last season, and three the three years prior (2016-18). This week, the question is how many such teams will there be in 2020?
Let’s get the easy choices out of the way. Air Force and Boise State are returning a majority of their key players, including both their star quarterbacks. Due to their consistency across the board, both teams will hit the 10 win mark relatively easily in 2020. On to some tougher choices. San Diego State will likely regress a bit with a change at QB and the loss of Luq Barcoo and Kayhva Tezino on the defense and the same goes for Hawaii who is losing Cole McDonald.
This opens the West wide open and I believe Nevada will come in and take the mantle with exactly 10 wins next season. Much like BSU and AF, the Wolf Pack is returning nearly every impactful player, namely Dom Peterson on the defense. Carson Strong is entering just his second season as the team’s signal-caller and should only improve with more playing time.
Another team that could garner north of 10 victories in 2020 is Wyoming. It is a bit more of a stretch as they struggled offensively last year and are losing core defensive players to the NFL, but I think they can improve on their 8-5 record from a season ago. They have young talent on the defense that will see far more snaps and if QB Sean Chambers can stay healthy or Levi Williams is given full reigns from the start of the season, the Cowboys could see themselves as the third team in the Mountain division to earn 10+ wins in 2020.
The west will once again be the strongest division. Boise State and Air Force both have the schedule and the returning talent to win double digit games. Wyoming is the other team to keep a close eye on. They should be able to go 3-1 in non conference play and most of their toughest games are at home. As we learned with Utah State in 2018, sometimes a soft schedule can hide a lot of deficiencies.
For that reason, I also think that San Diego State has a good chance of getting to ten wins. Their out of conference schedule consists of winnable games against Toledo, BYU, and UCLA and they avoid Air Force and Boise State. I think three teams will finish with ten wins when it is all said and done.
Ten wins are pretty hard to come by. Four ten win teams is fairly unusual, and requires there to be a wide disparity between upper tier and lower tier teams in the conference. The lower tier teams from last year- New Mexico, San Jose State, Colorado State, UNLV, and Fresno State really struggled and provided an opportunity for the upper tier teams to pad their wins. Renewed enthusiasm at those schools with the arrival of new coaches or improvements made last year could provide a larger hurdle to obtain those ten wins. Boise seems to be a lock for 10 wins, they are one of the most consistent teams in the country. The turnover in the secondary at Air Force makes a ten win season very questionable. With Hawaii losing Cole McDonald and their coach, I would expect some drop off there as well. San Diego State again will have a strong defense and playing in the weaker division (and not having to play Boise and Air Force) will likely enable them to win ten games again. I suppose the other candidates for 10 wins are Wyoming and Nevada. Nevada has an easier out of conference schedule than Wyoming, and the meeting between Wyoming and Nevada is in Reno, so they would be more likely to reach 10 wins. But neither of those teams were all that impressive last year, and I will predict only for two teams to attain 10 wins, Boise and San Diego State.
Going with the consensus here and I see Boise State, Air Force, and San Diego State all reaching that ten-win plateau, in that order.
Wyoming and Nevada are my “close but no cigar” candidates. Similar to 2019, I think the Cowboys will be better than their overall record, but having to play the Broncos and the Falcons, I think that keeps them from double-digit wins. On the opposite side of things, Nevada may end up having a better record than they should, being in the easier division and have a pretty lax schedule (all things considered). Seeing either of these teams in the 7-9 win range would not surprise me.
Boise State has a big enough track record that they should be penciled in for 10 wins until proven otherwise. After last year, Air Force has earned the same distinction. They both return a large amount of talent and look primed for another strong season. The Aztecs are trickier to me. Like the Wolf Pack, they are in the West division and someone has to win those games. SDSU is a good bet with their ability to reload more often than not in key positions and maybe a new coach can inject a passing game one of these years.
I’d say just 2 this season. I think the coaching turnover in the conference will manifest itself with more parity in 2020 among most of the West Division. I just can’t predict any team in that division winning that many games. I agree with James that Nevada is the most likely West Division team to hit the mark since the Wolf Pack have a fairly easy schedule and coaching staff continuity. As for the Mountain, it is likely Air Force and Boise State. That said, I don’t think it is a given that both win 10 games. The last time Air Force won 10 games in a season (2016) the Falcons followed that up by going 5-7 in 2017 and 5-7 in 2018. I think the 2020 Air Force squad will be much better than the 2017 & 2018 teams. Still, I don’t think you can count on 10 wins from them like it is automatic. This team could still be a good team this fall and go 8-4 against their schedule.
Of course, the number of teams that get to 10 wins could become zero if enough games end up being canceled this fall because of COVID-19.