As spring football practice concludes across the Mountain West, and even the FCS championship is awarded to Sam Houston State (actual spring football!), college football fans invite the warmth of summer and look ahead to fall. This time last year, it was unclear if football would even happen in the fall. It of course didn’t (initially canceled), and then did (revived late fall with mixed results). Needless to say, looking forward to enjoying 2021 fall Mountain West football without wondering if games are going to be canceled.
(I will be forever triggered by any tweet coming from the official Mountain West Twitter account featuring a graphic with two large helmets)
It’s just about preseason magazine season, but I’m always a sucker for former SB Nation writer Bill Connelly’s preseason predictions. Bill has since moved to ESPN, where his content is paywalled, so I’ll keep the details with as little meat on the bone as possible. You should subscribe, I can attest, Bill’s work is one of many, many cool things on ESPN+.
Anyway, the rankings. Bill notes his methodology with the following passage:
”The preseason SP+ projections are a simple mix of three factors: recent history, returning production, and recruiting. To come up with 130-team projections for all of FBS, I create projected ratings based on each factor.”
A surprise to nobody, Connelly notes that the ridiculousness of the 2020 season occurring during a global pandemic throws off some of these predictive approaches, but we guess all the same because college football is supposed to be fun. It’s still better than raw returning starters numbers.
2021 Preseason Projected SP+ Rankings (national ranking in parenthesis)
1. Boise State (39)
2. Nevada (74)
3. Fresno State (78)
4. Wyoming (80)
5. San Jose State (81)
6. San Diego State (84)
7. Air Force (93)
8. Colorado State (96)
9. Hawaii (105)
10. Utah State (121)
11. UNLV (123)
12. New Mexico (124)
Some things that stand out for the 2021 Mountain West:
- Considering Bill’s formula weighs recent history, it should come as no surprise that his rankings do not project Boise State to fall off a cliff. Last December, Bryan Harsin left for Auburn, seemingly out-of-nowhere. He’s been replaced by Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who of course also coached previously at Boise State. Avalos could very well be a solid coach, but the unknown factor automatically casts doubt. Boise State at 39 shows a balance of respecting Boise State’s past (Mountain Division champs every year since 2017), but enough reservation to keep them 14 spots off their usual Top 25 projection. Connelly’s formula projects Boise State to finish 9-3 (7-1), and considering the daunting schedule, I think Broncos fans would be more than content with that for year #1 under Avalos. Personally, I do not think Boise State is a solid 35+ spots better than the plethora of Mountain West teams ranked 74th through even 96th, but what do I know? Boise State’s record the last 20 years is unparalleled at the Group of 5 level, but as with any new coaching change, rent is due.
- Let’s address the madness projected here: Connelly’s MWC West article projects FOUR Mountain West teams to finish 7-5 (5-3). That will not happen, but for just a second let’s pretend. Imagine that? Sunday before the Mountain West championship game is announced, some computer or MWC officials deciding how to break a four-way tie. That would be crazy.
- The four teams are San Diego State, San Jose State, Fresno State, and Nevada. Fresno State and San Diego State are aiming for better than 7-5, but I don’t think either fan base will be furious, demanding massive change as a result of 7-5. Nor would either fan base be totally surprised. Fresno won 4 games in 2019, went 3-3 last season. Aztecs lost 4 games in a shortened season last fall. 7-5: not the goal, hope is for better, but not a shock.
- Now, San Jose State and Nevada, that’s a different case considering where momentum is for both those programs. San Jose State shockingly won the Mountain West last season, finishing 7-1. In a full season, could have easily gone 9-3, 10-2, or even 11-1. The Spartans lose two star wide receivers, but the team (and more importantly, head coach) largely return for 2021. This isn’t a program with the history to enable high demands, but I think 7-5 would be a mild disappointment.
- This goes for Nevada as well. Returning star quarterback Carson Strong is receiving top 2022 NFL Draft pick hype, and the 2021 team will be explosive and experienced. I’ve even seen some of their local media dare to toss the word “undefeated” around. It’s time to strike the iron while it’s hot: 7-5 would be an air out of the balloon result for Nevada and San Jose State. With huge attrition on the horizon, the time to win big is now.
- Connelly is personally very, very high on Wyoming. Despite being ranked behind Nevada and San Jose State, the projections have the Cowboys finishing 8-4, “SP+ loves Wyoming’s chances for a big season against a light schedule. If a new coordinator can perk up the offense, a division title run is in play.” To be fair, I feel like we’ve heard the “breakout season” talk for Wyoming before, but with an experienced, dominant defense and new life on offense, is this the year the Pokes finally breakout for a double-digit win season?
- Air Force is the lone bowl-eligible projection I haven’t noted. At 7-5 (4-4), there might not be a tougher team to gauge in the entire conference. Let’s not forget: the Falcons went 11-2, beat two Power 5 programs, and finished in the Top 25. Their 2020 season stunk, but it was hugely influenced by opt-outs. 7-5 feels like a safe projection, but I’m not going to be blown away if the Falcons burst back onto the scene this season.
- As for the rest, clearly the power of the conference is in the West Division. 5th place projected Hawaii is still forecasted to finish 6-7, which is by no means doormat status. UNLV projects at 3-9. Don’t shoot me, Rebels fans. Blame the math. The West figures to be a gauntlet this fall, and while Nevada and San Jose State are the early favorites, just about anyone #1 through #5 can win this division.
- Both New Mexico and Utah State get slapped with the 4-8 projection, Colorado State not much better at 5-7. Three programs with fairly new coaches (brand new in USU’s case). What can I say? There is excitement brewing in all three programs, all three with head coaches who have proven they can win at one time or another. Feel free to say these projections will be wrong, they 100% are guaranteed to. Someone in the Mountain West always comes out of nowhere (Fresno 2017, Hawaii 2019, San Jose 2020). My rebuttal: someone has to lose, not everyone can win. Maybe one of these mentioned teams will be the surprise contender, but again, not everyone can win 8+ games.
- FWIW, if I had to pick a team from each division to surprise and best their projection, I’m going with Hawaii and Air Force. My apologies to those fan bases for thoroughly jinxing their favorite team.
What are your thoughts and expectations? Do Bill’s ranking projections make you more or less optimistic about your 2021 team? Neither? Don’t care and just glad we’re talking football? Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.