Having touched on the PAC-12 series, the Notre Dame matchups, and the MACrifice games, we turn our attention west to the Mountain West Conference, of course! Jeremy Mauss from Mountain West Connection drops by to preview three Midwest-meets-West matchups, update us on the rocky landscape of a post-Derek Carr conference, and talk a little autonomy.
1. The Conference.
Fresno State captured the headlines in the Mountain West in 2013, with Derek Carr making a name for himself and the Bulldogs turning in an impressive season capped with an ugly loss to USC in Las Vegas. With Carr gone, though, how has the power shifted in the Mountain West? Will the Mountain Division, with Utah State and Boise State, bounce back? Any other compelling storylines we missed this offseason (I assume Craig Bohl goes here)?
Jeremy Mauss: The Mountain Division is by far the toughest and the regular season finale between Utah State and Boise State should determine the Mountain representative in the Mountain West title game, and that game is shaping up to be the marquee game each and every year. That is assuming Utah State doesn't have a huge drop off once Chuckie Keetons leaves, or once head coach Matt Wells takes on a bigger job down the road. Sticking with Utah State and Boise State, Aggies quarterback Keeton seems to be fully recovered from his torn ACL and even if there are any setbacks, which seem unlikely. Darell Garretson proved himself last year to be a very good quarterback. The Broncos bring back Bryan Harsin to be their head coach after he spent a few seasons as Texas' offensive coordinator and then head coach for Arkansas State. Perhaps this is being naive but having Harsin as the Broncos head coach does not concern myself too much since he has a track record of being a very good coach.
As for Fresno State, they are losing a ton of talent in addition to Derek Carr off to the NFL. The Bulldogs lost nearly 70 percent of their total offense with wide receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse off to the NFL, tight end Marcel Jensen and center Austin Wentworth. The quarterback situation is still unclear as a decision not likely to be made until game week between Brian Burrell and Duke transfer Brandon Connette, so there are a lot of unknowns for Fresno State, and opening against USC will not make things any easier.
The hiring of Craig Bohl at Wyoming has a lot of fans excited since Bohl had great success at North Dakota State, and not only because of the three straight FCS national titles but also because he brought the Bison up from Division II to FCS and made quick work to get to the playoffs. However, Wyoming lost their top two quarterbacks in Brett Smith to the NFL and Jason Thompson followed former Cowboys head coach to Utah, so this first year under Bohl will be tough. Look for Bohl to run a tough and well disciplined team this year and also using a more pro-style offense, and just maybe get to a bowl game since the schedule sets up nicely.
2. September 13 preview.
Nebraska travels to Fresno State for a night-time showdown with the Bulldogs. Will Fresno State's offense be able to score at will on a Nebraska defense way outside its time zone? And what's the deal with West Coast teams making us poor Midwesterners play night games?
JM: As for the late night games that is all up to the powers that be at ESPN who insist on 10 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET kicks for the Mountain and Pacific time zones, so take it up with those guys. As for if Fresno State can move the ball well against Nebraska's defense, unfortunately it is hard to tell since no quarterback has been named as the starter and two wide receivers and a tight end are on NFL rosters from last year. The offense should still be pass heavy but the running game will be used more than last year with Josh Quezada being the lead back. A lot more will be known after Fresno State plays USC and Utah -- both on the road -- before they host Nebraska. That answer is a cop out but one thing for sure is that the 2014 offense will take a large step back compared to the 2013 Mountain West title team due to the amount of talent that is gone.
3. September 20 preview.
San Jose State comes to Minnesota to take on a balanced Gophers squad which broke out in Jerry Kill's third season in Minneapolis. Do the Spartans have the defense to halt Minnesota's running game or the offense to make a dent in a steady defense? Who should Gophers fans be on the lookout for?
JM: If anyone remembers the San Jose State rush defense from last year that answer would be a resounding no. The Spartans allowed 215 yards per game and over five yards per carry, and then against Minnesota it was worse with San Jose State allowing the Gophers 353 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The defense does have some talent in defensive tackle Travis Raciti, linebackers Vince Buhagiar and Christian Tago. It will be hard pressed for this rush defense to be any worse than last year.
On offense, San Jose State lost prolific quarterback David Fales and as of now the starting job is down to Blake Jurich or Joe Gray, and so far in fall camp neither has taken the starting job. The duo has been battling out since spring and the way things are shaping up the starter may not be announced until who the fans see take the field in the season opener. [JM: You will want to amend the SJSU starting quarterback section. Blake Jurich was just named the starter (on 8/18), well if they played tomorrow.]
There is talent at the skills position in sophomore running back Jarrod Lawson and wide receiver Tyler Winston. As freshman last year, Lawson had 768 yards and four touchdowns; while Winston hauled in 58 receptions for 858 yards and five touchdowns. Quarterback play will have a lot to do with both players success in 2014, but that duo has the chance to make some noise against Minnesota because by that point in the season whoever the Spartans have under center will have a few games under their belt.
4. September 27 preview.
The team with the best fight song in CFB travels to East Lansing to try and put the scare in another B1G team. Does Wyoming under new HC Craig Bohl have the offense returning to challenge Sparty? On defense, will the Cowboys be able to test a still-suspect Michigan State offense?
JM: Craig Bohl and Wyoming will want to play like the stereotypical Big Ten team which is to fight on the lines and run more often than they pass. The real issue for Wyoming is that they lost Brett Smith to the NFL and had he been around for this game the Cowboys would have a shot to pull off the upset against Michigan State. Wyoming also lost backup Jason Thompson, so the Cowboys are down to Colby Kirkegaard who has very little FBS experience. Going for the Wyoming offense is wide receivers Brandon Miller and Dominic Rufran then the duo at running back in D.J. May and Shaun Wick. With the slower pace that Bohl will utilize this game could be close just due to Wyoming wanting to lessen the amount of plays in this game. However, going off his coaching past it would be smart for Michigan State to stack the line and stop the run.
Wyoming's defense was one of the worst in the Mountain West and they even had NFL talent in the secondary. The Cowboys still have former freshman All-American in defensive back Blair Burns, but he is now a junior. Defensive end Eddie Yarbrough likely will head to the NFL and there are others who could contend for all-Mountain West selections in lnebackers Jordan Stanton or Mark Nzeocha.
How many of these matchups does the Mountain West win? Which ones? We have short memories around here; if you want to give a score, we promise not to hold you to it. (Our fingers may or may not be crossed behind our backs.) Is there any general opinion among Mountain West schools on playing the Big Ten?
JM: I'll go with the latter part of your question first. I think anytime a Mountain West team can play a team from the Big Ten it is a big deal due to conference affiliation; even if playing Illinois or Purdue. Beating a Big Ten team would mean a lot to these schools but I don't know how much of an emphasis there is to schedule Big Ten schools.
Out of these matchups I'd say that San Jose State over Minnesota is the most likely of upsets. Mainly due to the Gophers not being in the upper half of the Big Ten and no recent history of being a great Big Ten football team. For the Spartans to win they must have solid quarterback play, much, much, much more efficient in the red zone and slow down the running attack from Minnesota.
If Fresno State did not open with games at USC and at Utah they could be in the mix, but add the schedule with there being too many unknowns makes an upset not likely to happen.
There have been a lot of head-nods and "well, yeah"s over in our neck of the woods on the Power 5 conferences' plan for increased autonomy within the NCAA, but we've been told we're a little biased. What is the concern, if any, out in the MWC's footprint over remaining competitive and being able to keep up with the Joneses in the Power 5?
JM: For starters, full cost of attendance could be an issue for some Mountain West teams. For example, Fresno State was one of the top teams in revenue from the Mountain West last year and they would really struggle to offer upwards of $5,000 per student-athlete per year. It depends on if it is per school or per conference on some of these issues. If it is per school then there would be a divide amongst the Mountain West teams for those who could afford like Boise State, or the schools who would be creative in fundraising to get the extra money to cover the full cost of attendance.
The gap was already wide but to kids coming out of high school $300 to $600 per month extra could sway some to go to a lower level Power Five league team instead of to one of the better Mountain West team just over what really comes down to it is not a ton of money, but for a high school kid that is equivalent to a new XBox One or PlayStation 4 and a few games per month.
There will always be a divide as there has been ever since conferences have been able to control their own television rights decades ago. So, giving a few extra hundred dollars per month is not a game changer, but what will likely be is if athletes can sell their likeness. Now, not many players, even nationally, could make a lot of money like Johnny Manziel would have commanded during his time at Texas A&M, but local deals giving the starting quarterback a new car from a dealer or even the backup wide receiver an extra $1,000 a month because they are just on the team. That kind of stuff is where teams like New Mexico, Utah State, Boise State and others likely will lose out and can't keep up. I am probably being extreme with those statements but just think of how crazy fans can be at Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State can be. We all remember not too long ago the tattoo issue with Ohio State, so we know fans of teams will go to great lengths to think they are doing something to help the team win.
I do think it is being overblown a little bit because everyone knew for a while that autonomy and full cost of scholarships were coming and those in the smaller leagues did not seem to think the world was ending, but once it was official apparently the world was coming to an end.
Again, there have always been advantages for teams in power conferences compared to the non-power leagues, and this is just another example of that. For the Mountain West, it just depends how much they really want to compete with these other leagues, and commissioner Craig Thompson wants to have his league play at the highest level, but it is up to the schools to find a way to come up with money to keep up.
MNW: I'd sent this off to Jeremy, received his answers, and only hours later read this article about Hawaii potentially dropping football due to the increased costs of the modern CFB system. Dennis Dodd, in that article, distinctly blames autonomy, and it's hard not to agree. While travel makes it tough on Hawaii as it is, a department operating in the red 11 of the last 13 seasons would only be further damaged by the rising arms races of autonomous football. If this comes to pass, we'll lose our late-night bender watches. I know I'll miss Hawaii football, even if it hasn't been the same since TIMMY CHANG left.
Thanks so much for answering these questions, Jeremy! OTE folk, go follow Jeremy Mauss on Twitter. While you're at it, might we recommend @MWCConnection? Hell, go follow their whole masthead! Be sure to check out MWCConnection and help them save Hawaii football (tongue-in-cheek, of course).