No one can stay on top forever, and it appears that the time has come for a few Mountain West teams.
Either Boise State or San Diego State have appeared in every Mountain West championship game since its inception, with the exception of the inaugural one in 2013. The Broncos have led the way with six appearances, and the Aztecs have three (Fresno State is actually second in title games with five). Ironically, the two teams have never met in the MW championship, but they have become staples to appear in the title game.
Over the same amount of time, Boise State has reached double-digit wins six times, and San Diego State has done the same five years, tying with Air Force and Fresno State.
Whether looking at championship appearances, wins, or recruiting rankings over the past ten years, it is clear that Boise State and San Diego State are at or near the top of the conference time and time again. They are seen as two of the pillars of the Mountain West (with Fresno State having the case to be the third).
However, both of these storied programs have been struggling during the 2023 season. At the time of this writing, both the Broncos and the Aztecs sit at 3-4, with several disappointing games on this year’s resume.
It is clear the Mountain West has a changing of the guard in terms of their front runners.
Air Force, Wyoming, and even UNLV all have a claim to being among the best in the conference this year.
The Falcons are on their way to their fourth 10+ win season in the past five years (remember that 2020 was a shortened season), so while they haven’t come out of nowhere, they have taken things up a notch this season. They are receiving some national recognition, breaking into the top 20 in all of college football. Their defense is lethal, and their offense is confusing, and Air Force is primed to be the Group of 5 representative in the New Year’s Six Bowl this season.
The Cowboys have been a perennial bowl team under Craig Bohl’s tenure, displaying strong defenses balanced out by heavy doses of the run game, but they have always fallen short due to a lack of a passing game that results in not scoring enough points to win 10+ games. 2023 appears to be a change from that reputation, as their passing game has improved, not enough to be confused with an Air Raid team, but enough to be an offensive threat. Truthfully, that is all Wyoming needs as their defense has been as good as advertised. Their only blemishes on the year have been a loss to Texas that was much closer than the final score indicates and a tough, hard-fought battle against the Falcons. This looks to be Wyoming’s best team under Bohl at this point in the season.
Next is UNLV, which has mostly been a Mountain West doormat over the past two decades, striving for a bowl game or .500 record but falling short more often than not. This 2023 version under new coach Barry Odom could not be more opposite. They have already clinched a bowl berth by winning six of their first seven games, and their lone loss was to Michigan, and they didn’t play badly. The Rebel rushing attack has been legit no matter who has been under center, and the defense is tough and physical. While their schedule may be a bit back-loaded, they have won the games they were supposed to and have done so in mostly convincing fashion.
This doesn’t even include Fresno State, which has maintained its stature as one of the best teams in the conference year in and year out. After losing most of their core on both sides of the ball from last year’s championship season, the Bulldogs impressed many by reloading thanks to their transfer acquisitions, especially on offense. Out of the three traditional conference pillars, Fresno State is the only one without major structural damage.
Boise State, who has been an automatic bowl bet and a team that had conference championship aspirations this year, looks closer to a program on life support than one competing for anything worthwhile. They have a growing list of concerns, some of which have been self-inflicted, are currently doing less with more, and don’t look anything like the program that went to four straight conference championships just three years ago.
San Diego State, at worst a bowl team and usually good for 10+ wins every few years, looks to be a shell of itself the further they get from Rocky Long’s tenure. They are recruiting better under Brady Hoke but have little to show for it. A lot of focus has been put into improving the offense, but the gains have been minimal, and now the defense has quite a few chinks in the armor as well. The Aztecs won 12 games two seasons ago and now have been shut out by a previously winless Nevada squad.
It’s clear that neither team is going down the path to success. Major changes in one form or another are needed. Until that happens, the Broncos and Aztecs are no longer the flagship teams of the Moutain West. Instead, it’s still the Bulldogs, and they are now joined by the Falcons, Cowboys, and, at least for this year, the Rebels.
Of course, every year is different. Just like last year is different from this year, 2024 could definitely look different from 2023. But one thing is clear: two traditional Mountain West pillars, Boise State and San Diego State, no longer get the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t mean they can’t be good teams again, but it does mean no one should assume they will be based on the current state of their programs. There is a clear changing of the guard in the Mountain West Conference. However, given all the conference realignment uncertainty and the lack of MW teams in the NY6 hunt over the past decade, the conference and its fans should be thankful that there is something for which guards are needed at all, no matter which teams are the ones guarding it.