The roundtable keeps spinning and this week brings another question. Moving from 2020 into the 2021 season, which team will be the most improved from last season to this one? Likewise, which team is in store for a strong dose of regression this year?
Graham: So this is an interesting question as there were teams that regressed last year that could progress this year. San Diego State went 4-4 (4-2) in the shortened season and will be looking to play better this coming season. Hawaii, a year after playing for the Mountain West title, went 5-4 (4-4) and will be looking to be more competitive in the west division. There is even potential for a Colorado State team that went 1-3 to do better this coming season in addition to Air Force, who went 3-3 (2-2). Who is going to be the most improved team though? It seems reasonable that it could actually be Utah State. After falling to 1-5 last season, the Aggies bring in a new head coach, and with the new headman comes a new energy. Consistency at the quarterback position looks to be more stable with Andrew Peasley and Utah State has hit the transfer portal hard. Many of those players will make immediate impacts come next season, especially transfer Justin Rice, who should be a force for the defense. Utah State avoids San Diego State and gets Boise State, BYU, Hawaii, and Wyoming at home. The key to the Aggies improvement this season is going to be finding playmakers at the receiver's position and also at the running back position.
The team that could regress this season could quite possibly be San Jose State. Quarterback Nick Starkel and tight end Derrick Deese Jr. return as well as running back Tyler Nevens, who rushed for 515 yards and five touchdowns. Wide receiver Tre Walker declared for the NFL Draft. This isn’t to say that San Jose State is going to regress a lot this coming year, however doing better than a one-loss conference championship season will be difficult to do, especially since the one loss came in the bowl game. The Spartans must compete in an extremely competitive division that includes San Diego State, Fresno State and Hawaii, meaning they would have to win two of those games or maybe even all of them. Games against teams in the mountain division include Colorado State, Wyoming, and Utah State. Out-of-conference games against USC and Western Michigan will also present challenges. Another successful season and an invite to the L.A. Bowl would be a great accomplishment for the Spartans but there is not a lot of room to become the most improved team in the conference.
Zach: For me, the most improved team will be either Fresno State or Wyoming. I think Fresno State is a lock to be a bowl team this year and a darkhorse contender in the West. Jake Haener emerged into one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The Bulldogs are loaded with talent at the skill positions but will need to improve in the trenches. The Cowboys really struggled during the COVID shortened season, with an offense that couldn’t move the ball up the field. Will Sean Chambers be healthy enough to lead the Cowboys to the promised land? From a winning percentage standpoint, I think the Cowboys will make the biggest leap this year.
I’m probably going to get destroyed for this, but I have to go with the Spartans. It is really difficult to maintain a high level of success over a long period of time. Boise State is really the only team in this conference that has done so. Nick Starkell loses his two favorite targets in Tre Walker and Billy Gaither. But the Spartans should still easily be a bowl team. I see them finishing in the 7-5 range. Still respectable, but a fall off nonetheless.
NittanyFalcon: For most improved, I’ll go with Wyoming, with an honorable mention to Utah State. At 2-4 last year, they were a big underperformer, and you have to expect they will be hungry and more experienced. They also start with a pretty easy out-of-conference schedule at the beginning of the year, which will give them time to gel. Utah State has nowhere to go but up, and they were showing some improvement at the end of last year. It will be tough for them to get back to .500 though, the nonconference schedule looks challenging.
For the largest regression, I’ll agree with Zach and Graham and say San Jose State. I don’t think they will be bad by any means, but it will be hard to repeat a perfect regular season and they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year.
Lute: For the most improved team this year I’m going to be a homer and say the Colorado State. The first year under Steve Addazio was hectic for obvious reasons, but a full off-season under Addazio will do wonders for this Rams team. He’s brought a different mentality than the Bobo era, bringing toughness and discipline that will pay dividends this upcoming season. And while there are some holes on the roster (most notably QB), this team is finally being built the right way, front to back. CSU should have a stout O-Line this year, as well as a solid defensive front 7. I’m a believer in the direction of this team, what can I say.
As for the team that will have the biggest regression? The smart bet has to be San Jose State right? I hate to be that guy who dismisses an up-and-coming team’s accomplishments, but I’m gonna need one more year of solid play from the Spartans before putting them in the top tier of the Mountain West.
Alex: I’ll take the Wyoming Cowboys. I’m sure a lot of us were surprised to see them finish 2-4 last season, but I don’t expect that to happen this year. Their schedule sets up well for them, they could easily come out of the game 4-0. And they should rack up five to six conference wins, so don’t be surprised if they finish the season with nine or 10 victories. Also, they return a lot of key players on offense, like quarterback Sean Chambers and running back Xavier Valladay. They are very deep at running back and their ground game should carry them this season to compete for a Mountain division championship.
And for the team that might have the biggest regression, I’ll also go with the San Jose State Spartans. I don’t expect them to be bad, they return a lot of key players from last year’s team and they should compete in the West division. But, last year I think they caught a lot of people off guard. This year, everyone has a film of last year of what to expect from the Spartans. Also, the West division will be a challenge with Nevada, Fresno State, San Diego State and Hawaii, there will be no easy games against division opponents. They won’t go undefeated and winning the division will be an uphill battle, but the Spartans still should be an eight-win team this year, just not as dominant as last year.
Mike: I think there are a lot of teams that are good bets to be bounce-back candidates. San Diego State was better than a .500 team, Wyoming ran into some terrible luck with games getting canceled and of course their QB situation, Fresno State played better than their record in my opinion, and of course, Air Force had a lot of players miss time on both ends of the ball. I know many Twitter fans have been telling me Utah State is going to surprise this season and I hope they do but I’m not a believer at this point. Wyoming is a great bet but I’m in “believe it when I see it” mode with their offense until further notice. Count me down for the Bulldogs, who had a nice core last and brought in another injection of talent with a great recruiting class and in the transfer portal. It’s the wild west in that division, but FSU is as good of a bet as anyone to come out on top on that side of the conference.
On the other hand, last year’s “surprises” are the first teams I look at for potential regression, so Nevada and San Jose State are on my radar. I could see either of them slipping a bit, but I’ll go with the Spartans, mainly because they have a bit further to fall. And to be clear, by regression, I don’t mean riches to rags. I’ve been as high on SJSU as anyone the past few years as they have made slow and steady progress in the win column. For the 2021 season, I’m thinking they regress from conference champs to solid bowl team. Their wide receiver depth takes a bit of a hit, but they return practically everyone else. But with a non-conference schedule and the MWC now having more film and a better idea of what their schemes are, as well as not getting as many breaks, a bit of regression seems inevitable.