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Peak Perspective: Fresno State headlines spring Mountain West SP+ rankings

The Mountain West figures to be wide open in the final year of the division format

Fresno State v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

As spring football practices conclude across the Mountain West, summer nears and with it our attention turns to the 2022 college football season. Last week, the Mountain West announced they’ll be doing away with divisions, but not until 2023. The rest of the off-season was filled with the joys and frustrations of the transfer portal. With all that change bound to shake things up, ESPN’s Bill Connelly decided to refresh his 2022 SP+ rankings. Bill’s 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+.

College football preseason SP+ projections

MWC West college football offseason preview

MWC Mountain college football offseason preview

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.”

I’ll reiterate at some point in this post, but I’ll get this disclaimer out of the way: these rankings are fun to analyze for fans, don’t take them too seriously. Yes, Aggies fans, we know. Utah State won the Mountain West in 2021 despite the advanced stats largely hating them. If your team appears low on this list, don’t become too discouraged. There’s a reason we play the games.

2022 Preseason Projected SP+ Rankings (national ranking in parenthesis)

1. Fresno State (37)

2. Boise State (43)

3. Air Force (64)

4. San Diego State (68)

5. San Jose State (83)

6. Colorado State (87)

7. Utah State (92)

8. Wyoming (104)

9. UNLV (110)

10. Nevada (117)

11. Hawaii (121)

12. New Mexico (124)

2022 returning production

Some things that stand out for the 2022 Mountain West:

  • This past December, Fresno State saw its coaching staff raided by Washington. Not terribly surprising, the Bulldogs put together a desirable product in 2021. So why is Fresno State emerging as a consensus favorite for the MWC title? Largely because the Bulldogs rank 16th in returning production for 2022, including superstar quarterback Jake Haener. You can thank new (and former) head coach Jeff Tedford for smoothing this process out. SP+ has the Bulldogs poised to average 34 points per game. The experience and explosiveness of this team has them ranked 1st among Mountain West teams and 37th overall, the early favorite to win the conference.
  • Boise State is ranked 43rd overall, 2nd in the Mountain West in these rankings. The Broncos’ offense is projected to regress to 27 points per game, good (bad?) for 72nd nationally. Well off the standard the Broncos are used to. Then why do the Broncos come in at 43rd overall? The defense is projected to dominate. This is just my opinion, but I think the offensive projection is slightly too harsh, and the defensive projection too optimistic. On one hand, I can see fans reading these rankings and thinking to themselves, “43rd feels optimistic for a team that clearly underwhelmed in 2021.” A valid take, but to me, this preseason projection does illustrate the tumble Boise State took last fall. Most years, if Boise State entered summer projected to return an experienced senior quarterback, playing behind four returning starters on the offensive line and a veteran defense expected to be good, maybe great...well frankly that Boise State team is probably entering the season with a Top 25, maybe even Top 20 projection. Not these Broncos. The 2022 Broncos enter the discussion with a nod to the past, but also an acknowledgment that Andy Avalos’ debut season was not encouraging. Big season ahead for Boise State’s present image.
  • Air Force and San Diego State are the next crop of contenders, 20+ rankings off the Bulldogs and Broncos. In terms of returning production, the Falcons rank averagely whereas San Diego State loses a ton of talent, including punt god Matt Ariaza. Yes, attrition adds a few more question marks to the Falcons and Aztecs than it does the Bulldogs and Broncos this off-season, but expect the teams in Colorado Springs and San Diego to very much contend for their division crowns. The Aztecs' defense is projected to be one of the nation’s best again, and the Falcons' offense should terrorize the opposition.
  • San Jose State (?!) and Colorado State (also ?!) come in ranked 5th and 6th in these preseason projections. I’ll get to them, I promise, but first it’s time to talk about the notable omission to this point: reigning Mountain West champions Utah State. You’ve likely read the social media clashes about this several times. Advanced stats didn’t like the 2021 Aggies. Utah State did not play Fresno State, San Diego State, or Nevada in the regular season, leading to a soft-ish conference slate. Boise State and Wyoming both won convincingly in Logan, but otherwise the Aggies swept their conference slate, albeit with close calls against Colorado State and UNLV. Scroll down to “Burning Questions” and Connelly will tell you precisely why his metrics dislike the Aggies. The 2022 preseason SP+ projections rank them 92nd, 7th in the Mountain West. Not where you expect the reigning champs to be. Bottom line: the dominoes fell the way they did, and the Aggies smoked San Diego State in the championship game. They are the 2021 champions, now and always. The 2022 conference schedule is going to be on the soft side again (no Fresno, SDSU), but time will tell if Utah State is legit, or a 2020 San Jose State-like flash in the pan. That’s why we play the games.
  • Oh, right. San Jose State and Colorado State. The Spartans are a surprise among the mid-tier conference contenders, likely aided by the addition of Hawaii transfer Chevan Cordeiro. Although, SP+ is projecting both the Spartans and Rams to be led by their defenses. Colorado State notably raided Nevada’s coaching staff, and a lot of their players too. Can Jay Norvell and co. hit the ground running? These rankings seem to suggest the answer is yes.
  • The non-contenders ranked in the 100s: Wyoming, UNLV, Nevada, Hawaii, New Mexico. The most surprising name of that bunch is probably Wyoming. Yes, Craig Bohl’s Cowboys annually frustrate, because it seems like they’re always this close to breaking out and finally putting together a 10+ win season, but ultimately fail to do so. The Pokes were gouged by the transfer portal this off-season, likely playing a role in this ranking. I’d bet a healthy sum the Cowboys' defense will be way better than the projection of 78th nationally.
  • Other surprise names: Nevada and Hawaii. Both teams were obliterated by the transfer portal. Nobody came out worse for the wear this off-season than these two teams. Ken Wilson and Timmy Chang likely have rebuilding projects on their hands.
  • UNLV ranks 18th in returning production. This appears to be a potential down year for the West Division. Rebels, if not now, when? The time for a surprise bowl berth is now for Marcus Arroyo’s men.
  • New Mexico’s defense under Rocky Long was quietly pretty good last season, and more progression is expected this fall. That’s a tough job in Albuquerque, but they’re trying hard out there. In a season or two, they might have a defense worthy of pushing this team up the rankings.
  • Utah State ranked 121st in these SP+ projections last summer and won the conference. That could be an aberration of sorts, but it goes to show that nobody should be writing off their team this time of year. Again, that’s why we play the games.

What are your thoughts and expectations? Do Bill’s ranking projections make you more or less optimistic about your 2022 team? Neither? Don’t care and just glad we’re talking football? Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.