Last year, only four Mountain West defenses gave up less than 25 points per game, with the rest allowing over 30. With head coaching changes, players graduating and being drafted, it is safe to assume there will be changes among the teams that will lockdown others and those that will struggle to do so. The conference owns a plethora of talented defenses, but let’s take a look at the top five it has to offer.
San Diego State
The best scoring defense a year ago, SDSU allowed just 12.7 points per game which was not only the lowest in the conference but the second lowest among all 130 FBS teams. They also led the Mountain West in interceptions with 18 and that was with quite a few being dropped over the course of the season. They also brought the pressure, sacking opposing QBs 31 times which was tied for the second most with Wyoming. With playmakers all over the field, no offense wanted to face San Diego State’s stingy defense last season.
The team is returning defensive stars Tariq Thompson, Dwayne Johnson Jr., and Cameron Thomas as well as various other productive players such as Keshawn Banks and Darren Hall. The loss of cornerback Luq Barcoo and linebacker Kyahva Tezino are significant but the Aztecs have the capacity to maintain their first-class play in 2020.
A football team that has not had a losing record since its first two years of FBS existence (1996-1997), Boise State has produced their fair share of dominant defenses over the years. Last season, the Broncos led the conference in sacks with 40 and their 10 interceptions ranked eighth but much like San Diego State, they left far more dropped on the gridiron. They forced pass breakups at one of the highest rates among MW defenses and were able to add 11 forced fumbles to their resume. Curtis Weaver was responsible for most of the roster’s pass-rushing success, but there are a few players who have the ability do more than just pick up where he left off.
Boise State will be bringing back defensive linemen Scale Igiehon and Demitri Washington who will both be looking to improve with an increase in playing time next season. They have depth at linebacker and standout corner Kekaula Kaniho which should lead to a strong coverage unit. BSU’s defense was one of the best in 2019 and with so much young talent returning with more experience under their belt, they can be even better in 2020.
Wyoming allowed 25 touchdowns last season, the 2nd fewest right after SDSU’s 19. Unlike the school’s before them, the Cowboys rely less on turnovers and more on picking up three and outs consistently. With that said, they were still able to intercept 12 passes, fourth most, and returning 2 for touchdowns. UW also generated 31 sacks and pressured rival quarterbacks at an elite rate. On top of their success rushing the passer, they were stout against the run. The team was among the best when it comes to tackling as they hardly missed any in their 13 games played.
The Cowboys are returning all their defensive line starters from a year ago which should correlate to yet another solid performance from the unit next year. They are losing both starting linebackers as well as a cornerback and safety which can be concerning but I am confident in the coaching staff to fill these holes with worthy athletes. Wyoming’s defense is a perennial powerhouse and 2020 will be no different.
The last school to allow less than 20 points per game, Air Force’s defense did not receive as much recognition as they deserved in 2019. Although the academy is known for their unique rushing offense, they have pieced together top-notch defenses over recent years. They only intercepted 7 throws but were able to return 3 for touchdowns. The Falcons also brought the heat with 26 sacks, good for fifth-most, and forcing rivaling QBs out of the pocket with ease. Their run defense was tremendous and smothered running backs at will, while also boasting an above-average secondary. In addition, they were the least penalized defense and missed the fewest amount of tackles among all MW schools.
The Falcons will need to fill six starting spots next season, with four coming in the defensive backfield. Corner Zane Lewis, safety Jeremy Fejedelem, and defensive tackle Mosese Fifita were all key contributors a year ago and it will not be easy to replace them. They are, however, returning CB Milton Buggs III, LB Demonte Meeks, and defensive ends Jordan Jackson and Lakota Wills, who were all impressive of the defensive side of the ball last season. Head Coach Troy Calhoun is no rookie when it comes to coaching up reliable and disciplined defenses and his 2020 Air Force squad is fit to continue the trend.
One of the more underrated defenses entering the 2020 season, Fresno State allowed the fifth fewest points per game, although that figure was not pretty at 30.1. The Bulldogs had no problems giving their offense extra possessions as they intercepted 11 passes (T-5th) and 12 forced fumbles which were both top five marks in the conference. Their pass-rush was not as dominant as they were only able to produce 19 sacks and pressured the quarterback at a below-average rate. They are losing both starting cornerbacks in Juju Hughes and Jaron Bryant, as well as hybrid linebacker Mykal Walker. Although these subtractions from the roster are rather large, Fresno State still has some major skill at their disposal.
Justin Rice was stellar at the linebacker position and is one of my players to watch next season. He made plays all over the field, notching 4 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a hand full of pass breakups. He will also have Arron Mosby alongside him, who also had a standout performance in 2019. Their defensive line leaves much to be desired but with an outstanding linebacking corps and rising talent in the defensive backfield, FSU is set to remain a top five defense in 2020.
Honorable Mentions: Utah State and Nevada
Limiting a list to five of 12 teams is not easy and there were some strong candidates left off. Returning athletes played a large role in the decisions for me as it eliminates the unknown on the football field. Which teams should have made it? Which ones should not have? Leave me your reactions in the comments below!