Teams vary from year to year. Most years, it seems like a team takes a big jump forward, either as a surprise to everyone except their fans, or a surprise to everyone. Recent examples have been 2017 Fresno State or Hawaii last season. This week, we will attempt to predict who that team will be. Who will be the most improved team this coming season?
Hmm this one is challenging but I’m going to go with Nevada. First of all, they are returning the strong incoming freshman QB, Carson Strong. He had a candid rookie season, tallying over 2,300 yards through the air. He also threw 11 touchdowns with a 63.4% completion rate. In addition, they are returning their rushing leader, Toa Taua. The sophomore last season had 807 rushing yards while averaging 4.1 yards per attempt. He also had 185 receiving yards on 30 receptions. Along with those two players returning the Wolfpack is also bringing back their leading receiver in Elijah Cooks. He hauled in 926 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. I’d expect him to put up even bigger numbers this upcoming season.
Defensively, their leading sack leader, Dom Peterson is coming back as well. The 295-pound defensive end is ready to rumble this season. In addition, Berdale Robins, the DB is coming back for his senior season. He was second on the team in interceptions. He is small for his position but has grit and very nice hands, which should make his final season successful.
So, the Nevada team is ready to make some noise this upcoming season. I’d expect 8 plus wins for them.
Nevada will get a lot of the preseason love and understandably so. But I think Fresno State will be the team that makes the biggest jump this year. The Bulldogs played a ton of young talent this last season and should have significant upgrades on the offensive side of the ball. Jake Haener will be an upgrade at the quarterback position and Fresno State will have one of the most talented receiver corps in the Mountain West.
The West will be an open race this year. San Diego State will have the most talented defense in the division, but they have plenty of questions on the other side of the ball. Hawaii has a new coaching staff and will be breaking in a new quarterback and have plenty of questions on defense. Ultimately, I like the Bulldogs chances and think they will be a solid bowl team that will compete for a division title.
I believe Nevada could surprise some fans and fight to be atop the West division next year. One of the most exciting aspects of the Wolf Pack roster in redshirt sophomore QB Carson Strong. He played well in his first season as starter and should only progress in his second. Returning running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee both averaged over four yards per carry while also proving willing and able to shed tackles. Both starting receivers Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs will be running it back with their QB, hoping to build off their rapport from last season. Nevada will also be returning ALL of their starting offensive lineman which is a massive leg up over the competition. With so much continuity on the offense, it is easy to get on board the Wolf Pack hype train entering 2020.
Also want to show the defense some love. Chris Geen and Dom Peterson will be getting most of the attention up front, and deservedly so, but watch out for Kameron Toomer who played well as in limited snaps last season and should earn a starting role heading into this year. Lawson Hall locked down the linebacker position, providing solid play in all phases of the defense. The secondary is a bit of a question mark in the back end but Berdale Robins and Jordan Lee flashed potential as rotational cornerback pieces and should slide into starting roles come 2020.
Oh, they also have a great kicker in Brandon Talton who nailed 21 of 25 field goals as well as 27 of 29 extra points which should not be slept on.
Nevada is definitely the trendy pick, but I’ll build off of what I said last week with coaching success and go with Colorado State as a good bet to see improvement.
They’ve recruited well for years and have a good amount of star power. They have the best tight end and the best wide receiver in the conference. Outside of Trey McBride and Warren Jackson, they have two other talented WRs in Dante Wright and Nate Craig-Myers, plus a QB who can spread the ball around in Patrick O’Brien. Defensively, there is a lot to like in the secondary with Rashad Ajayi, Quinn Brinnon, Logan Stewert, and Brandon Crossley. Plus, the leading returning tackler in LB Dequan Jackson and a veteran DL.
Looking at their schedule, there is a case for 6 wins and a bowl birth, which is what this group deserves to go out with.
I agree with Mike about Colorado State, for the same reasons. When you look at their schedule, most of their games are at least winnable. All three power five teams on the schedule have S&P+ ratings very close to the Rams, they get Air Force, Wyoming, Utah State and Fresno State at home, and New Mexico and UNLV are rebuilding from the ground up. The only two games that look out of reach are at San Diego State and at Boise State. I think they have the possibility of getting to 7 or even 8 wins if they cut down on the mistakes that have killed them the last few years.
I’m going with Fresno State. The Bulldogs’ plight in 2019 was quite unexpected, even if turnover heading into the season was obvious. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Bulldogs are immediately returning to 10+ win status right off the bat, but it’s hard to not feel like the events that led to Jeff Tedford’s early retirement didn’t play a large role in their 2019 tumble. Quarterback Jake Haener should provide a boost on offense and have the Bulldogs jumping back into what should be a West Division race littered with 8-4 type teams.
Fresno State. Tedford had the Bulldogs at 10-4 in 2017. In 2018, Fresno State went 12-2 while winning the MWC. The 2019 season proved to be a tough season. Over the first 2 weeks of the season, the Bulldogs competed with USC and Minnesota. However, those early losses signaled more to come. The 2019 Fresno State football team was not in the same class as the 2017 & 2018 squads. Still, they were a bit unlucky to finish 4-8. In one-score games (8 points or less), the 2019 Bulldogs were 1-5. If Fresno State had managed to be just 3-3, they would have finished bowl eligible at 6-6. Kalen DeBoer steps in as head coach after a season away from Fresno. DeBoer was a big part of the success of 2017 & 2018 for Fresno State and knows most of this roster already. I expect a pretty smooth transition. Beyond that, the 2020 schedule for Fresno State looks manageable. The path to 7 wins, or possibly more, is there.
I think the team that will see the most improvement is Fresno State, who finished 4-8 last year. It should have a high-powered offense under newly-hired head coach Kalen DeBoer, who was the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018. DeBoer has a history of producing efficient offenses that has often translated into team success. According to ESPN, Fresno State sported the second-least efficient offense in 2016. When DeBoer joined the Bulldogs in 2017, the offense dramatically improved. Nationally, they soared to No. 61 (in 2017) and No. 35 (in 2018) in offensive efficiency. Fresno State went a combined 22-6 (.786) in those years, including a Mountain West Championship in 2018. DeBoer departed to Indiana for the same position and the success translated. His offense was the 17th-most efficient offense — its highest-ranked offense since 2011 (the furthest year that ESPN’s database goes). The Hoosiers finished 8-5, their most successful season in 26 years. DeBoer also has previous collegiate head coaching experience. He was the head coach at Sioux Falls, his alma mater, compiling a 67-3 record with three national titles and earned three NAIA Coach of the Year awards in five seasons (2005-09).
Without DeBoer last year, Fresno State sported the 66th-best offense efficiency. A lack of personnel continuity — losing eight offensive starters from its 2018 team — injuries and a schematic change led to its sudden decline in offensive performance. While still ranking Top-5 in the Mountain West in scoring (30.0 ppg), the Bulldogs still won just four games and were 1-5 in games decided by one possession. Winning more of those close battles will be key to their success in 2020. They return All-Mountain West first team running back Ronnie Rivers and three of their four top pass catchers from last year heading into 2020. Defensively, Fresno State also loses All-Conference linebacker Mykal Walker (draft) and defensive back Juju Hughes (graduation), but return over half of its defensive starters — led by All-Conference defensive lineman Kevin Atkins and leading tackler Justin Hughes. Fresno State also possesses the fourth-easiest non-conference schedule in the Mountain West, highlighted by a road trip to Texas A&M. If they’re able to squeak out at least two non-conference wins with at least four non-conference wins — which is attainable — I believe they could be in good position for the most improved Mountain West team in comparison to the rest of the conference.