Having already checked in with our friends from the PAC-12 at Pacific Takes and MAC at Hustle Belt, Beyond the Empire continues to hit up the West Coast. Today: the Mountain West Conference.
Our good friends at Mountain West Connection kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us on the Big Ten-Mountain West matchups and the conference in general ahead of the 2016 season!
We’ll preview each game with the MWC Connection writers as they were available, then we’ll update you on the state of the conference as a whole. Check ‘em out!
September 3 (all times CT):
Michigan vs. Hawaii
Time/TV: 11am (6am HT), ESPN
OTE: It was a tough (but enjoyable to watch!) contest Down Under, but the 'Bows showed some signs of life: Ikaika Woosley chucked the ball around a bit, Diocemy Saint Juste ran all over the place (all four leading rushers averaged over 5.0 ypc?!), and ultimately it seemed like Hawaii just lacked the defense to stop Cal. What's the 2016 outlook for Hawaii's rebuild under UH grad Nick Rolovich, with some experience returning on both sides of the ball? Who should Michigan look out for, and what would you consider success in Ann Arbor? [Feel free to give a prediction for both score and record, and be as detailed as you want!]
Don’t Warrior Bout It: I expected a much better effort from the team against Cal. I predicted a 31-28 win for Hawaii against the Bears. I obviously got that wrong but I felt the team had enough talent to make it happen. Outside of the poor tackling and inconsistent pass attack this team looked good. The running game was superb, the offensive line kept Woolsey upright, the receivers made plays and the defense made enough stops to keep things within reach. I’m not sure people realize that this team isn’t as bad as their record has been suggesting. I think if things come together this team has a good chance to make a bowl game
I think Michigan should pay attention for our stable of running backs. I think it was pretty obvious against Cal that the offense will go only as far as the running backs can take them. Woolsey is a fine athlete but not a good quarterback. His inconsistency plagued the UH offense early on, where I thought it was critical to command the lead so they could "hide" their pass attack.
I don’t think this game will go well. I have been reading a lot of things that really scare me about Michigan. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want to be Ikaika Woolseyon Saturday. This defense that the Wolverines have looks like it is going to be crazy good. So good that I have doubts on whether the Rainbow Warriors will get into the end zone. Their best chance to put up some points will be from Rigoberto Sanchez. He will knock two field goals making the final score something like 56-6. I also think you can count the Wolverine defense to score a few points of their own.
As you can tell from my prediction that, I’m not expecting a whole lot. I am looking forward to see how this offensive line does and how the running game will do versus this defense. The Michigan defense will be the ultimate test and if this running game holds its own, I smell a BOWL GAME in the future for Hawaii!!!
[MNW: This has me hyped for a Hawaii bowl game now, too. Go ‘Bows!]
Nebraska vs. Fresno State
Time/TV: 7pm (5pm PT), BTN
OTE: Bill Connelly's already called Fresno the MWC's "biggest wild card," and as Tim DeRuyter's rebuild is still ongoing, the Bulldogs have to contend with losing three running backs and having...a mess at QB, from the looks of it. What will the Huskers have to watch out for from the Fresno offense? In fact, it looks like Fresno is replacing people all over the place on both sides of the ball. Can they gel in time to stop a potentially-potent Huskers rushing attack, or are you praying for a Tommy Armstrong meltdown? Feel free to give us your prediction for the game and for the Bulldogs' finish in 2016!
Matthew Kenerly: I suppose the first thing I should mention is that, unlike the first two years of the post-Derek Carr era, the quarterback situation has been resolved well ahead of kickoff: Redshirt freshman Chason Virgil will get the starting nod in Lincoln on Saturday night. It's the best decision DeRuyter could've made because I think Virgil gives the 'Dogs the best chance to win both this year and in the future. He showed flashes of his capabilities in his brief time on the field last year against Ole Miss and Utah: The mobility which could give Nebraska headaches, a willingness to take what's given rather than forcing the issue. There may be some growing pains, but I never anticipated 2016 as a win-now season. He'll get a chance to grow with the rest of DeRuyter's recruits.
The running game might be problematic at the onset of non-conference play, but the guys who are healthy at the moment -- Dejonte O'Neal and Austin Harper, especially -- are fast dudes for whom Nebraska will have to account. I'm curious to see how much the running back screen factors into the game plan, since it was only two years ago that Fresno State RBs combined for 68 catches.
The wide receivers, too, are long on both promise and questions. Aaron Peck is the unquestioned #1 after missing all of last year, but he only caught 54% of his passes back in 2014. Jamire Jordan is a dynamic talent who's shown plenty of toughness. Da'Mari Scott and tight end Chad Olsen have had moments, too, but the offense as a whole hasn't fired on all cylinders in a while.
On defense, I think the goals are two-fold: To re-emerge as a unit that forces turnovers (just 20 in 2015) and re-establish a solid run defense. Regarding the former, fall practice has illustrated that the defensive backfield is crawling with playmakers: Tyquwan Glass returns, Jamal Ellis is solid. I'm a big fan of starting strong safety DeShawn Potts, and underclassmen Mike Bell and Juju Hughes, who should see time should the Huskers decide to spread the field, have shown they know how to jump a route and punish mistakes. The latter will benefit from size the Bulldogs didn't really have last year like junior college transfer Malik Forrester, who can occupy blockers in the middle and let the linebackers do their job.
As for my prediction, Nebraska is likely to win by about ten, but Fresno State will cover the 29.5-point spread -- let's say 35-24 -- and I have the Bulldogs pegged for a 5-7 finish.
Nebraska vs. Wyoming
Time/TV: 11am (10am MT), ESPN2
OTE: So...RB Brian Hill and a deep wide receiving corps are returning, which seems really nice, but Craig Bohl's rebuilding process continues by needing to find a new quarterback. With the Cowboys still struggling to live up to Bohl's reputation for defensively-oriented teams, can they put up enough points to stick with the Huskers? Will they actually be able to stop Tommy Armstrong and Nebraska, and who are the Cowboys on defense to watch out for? Feel free to give us a prediction.
Jeremy Mauss: Defense was real bad last year and most of it had to do with playing underclassmen at a lot of positions last year and that lack of experience and honestly talent that Wyoming brought in was not very good. Odds of them being worse are highly unlikely. Part of the hope is that a full under the belt for this defense will help them get better. One thing the Cowboys did do this offseason was bring in a new strength coach that did wonders in bulking up Wyoming, and that should help them be more physical late in games.
As for players to watch there is DJ May at linebacker who made Phil Steele's second-team all-conference. He is two years removed from playing running back and the coaches are seeing a lot of improvement and are expecting a breakout year from May. Last year, he had some success with 4.5 tackles for a loss plus a sack to go along with a modest 69 tackles; coaches feel he could come close to doubling those numbers.
While the secondary was just average last year but part of that was that the rush defense was so bad that teams didn't need to pass that much. The one great player in the secondary is Andrew Wingard who was a first-team freshman All-American and they have another sophomore in Marcus Epps who had a pair of picks.
Tommy Armstrong is should have his way more after than not and should do what he wants.
Rutgers vs. New Mexico
Time/TV: 11am (10am MT), ESPNews
Last night the Lobos handled the South Dakota Coyotes in a battle of wolf-derived mascots, and on the 17th the pack will travel across the country for an early one against the Scarlet Knights.
We weren’t able to get a hold of a New Mexico writer (sorry, RU fans) so check out Bill Connelly’s preview of the Lobos in 2016.
When New Mexico has the ball, it will really be strength-on-strength, as the Lobos rushing offense relies on an insane number of backs but isn’t afraid to go deep. They’ll give the Scarlet Knights all they can handle on that side of the ball, and if Rutgers doesn’t show life against Washington, this will be a popular upset pick.
On the defensive side the Lobos bring familiar face Kevin Cosgrove—formerly DC at Minnesota for 2009-10, Nebraska from 2004-07, and Wisconsin from 1995-2003—to try and anchor an athletic but porous defense. Stopping the run will be job #1 for both teams in this one, and I could see it either being a low-scoring, grind-it-out game, or a modest-scoring but big play-heavy free-for-all.
Minnesota vs. Colorado State
So...a new stadium, potentially a new conference, and a winning record in two consecutive years. Exciting time to be a Rams fan, huh? Coming off a tough loss to Minnesota in 2015, what's the feeling around Fort Collins for the return trip to Minneapolis? With Nick Stevens and two experienced RBs returning, can the Rams make up for a loss of depth in the receiving corps and crack a stout Gophers defense? How will a rebuilt D-line and secondary stop the Minnesota rushing attack, and who's the player to look out for? Feel free to give us your prediction for the game and the Rams' 2016 outlook.
Terrance Dickens: It's a very exciting time to be a Rams fan. The team is coming off three consecutive winning seasons and bowl appearances. When I first started at CSU they were in the midst of the dark times. Three consecutive 3-9 seasons, fan support was low and athletic revenue was the lowest in the conference. Jack Graham comes in and turns things around quickly his vision for an on campus stadium excited the fan base. Now we are one year away from that reality coming true!
As far as the loss last year, the feeling around here was that was the game we let get away. The game the next week against Colorado was the tougher one because we dominated that game and CU had five big plays that won the game for them. Minnesota was a game we turned the ball over 4 times. You're not going to win a game if you turn the ball over that much. People are excited about the return game this season. I wish these two teams will schedule more meetings in the future. The fan base there in Minneapolis are some of the nicest fans I've met and I wish I was able to make it to the game up there this season.
It should be a good game but tough Stevens will be on a bit of a short leash this season. He needs to cut down on the turnovers and the running backs should help take a bit of the load off him. This receiving corps is deep but young. The Gophers defense will be stout again and the Rams will need balance in order to pull off a win. The rebuilt defense will be interesting because the amount of JC transfers should help in the experience aspect. However the good thing is that its the fourth week of the season so they will have some games under their belt.
I think this will be another close affair even another overtime game. I however predict the Gophers to win 27-24 due to their defense making the key stop.
Purdue vs. Nevada
Time, TV: TBA
OTE: There's just going to be no defense played in West Lafayette on the 24th, right? Explain to our Boilermaker faithful who Tyler Stewart, James Butler, and these Wolf Pack wideouts are and why they'll go cruising right by the black and gold.
With an almost completely new defense, will Nevada hold off Purdue, and who should the Boilermakers look out for on that side of the ball? Feel free to give us a prediction for that game and how Nevada will finish in 2016.
Daniel Connolly: Nevada's offense is centered around the running game. James Butler returns off a great finish to last season, and will definitely be the primary back. For some reason, Nevada refuses to dump the Pistol Offense. I know Nevada legend Chris Ault invented it, but that was over a decade ago, and offense coordinator Nick Rolovich, who ran the Pistol with Ault, is now coaching at Hawaii. Anyways, the Wolf Pack have two really good receivers in Hasaan Henderson and Jerico Richardson, but the depth behind them is thin. Last year, those two caught 65% of the team's passes, with only slot wideout Wyatt Demps and tight end Jarred Gipson catching more than 10 passes. They don't have the strongest passing game, as Tyler Stewart is pretty much a game manager. He won't put the team on his back to win, but he probably won't make any killer mistakes either.
The defense lost almost the entire front seven, but retained a good number of players in the secondary. They had two true freshman start at safety in Asuani Rufus and Dameon Baber, and both shined. Opposing teams won't want to throw near Baber, who had six interceptions, and the fourth-highest interception-per-game ratio at .60. He didn't start until week four, so those numbers could go up this year.
As for a prediction, I'm not as high as most on this Nevada team. Some feel the ceiling for them is 10-2, but I honestly think they stay around 6-6 or maybe 7-5. With Brian Polian, it usually feels like when the offense gets strong, the defense takes a step back and vice versa. I think Purdue will take this game, but it's definitely going to be close.
Neither San Diego State nor Boise State cracked the pre-season Top 25, despite 11- and 9-win seasons and thumping Cincy and Northern Illinois in their bowl games, respectively. What moving forward, if anything, can the MWC do to regain a little of the auto-respect that Boise State commanded for so many years? Where do you see the Mountain West among the G5 conferences?
DC: I think the Mountain West is pretty firmly the #2 G5 conference behind the American. But, both those conferences are on a tier above the other three non-powers. For the Mountain West to get more respect, somebody other than Boise State needs to start making some national noise on a consistent basis.
MK: What can you really say besides win? Both BSU and SDSU were in the Also Receiving Votes category and both are likely to have chances to seize the national spotlight (especially if Houston lays an egg against Oklahoma in week one). It's especially critical for San Diego State, since they flopped in non-conference play a year ago, then dominated in conference play and, overall, have fans who've come into the season feeling slighted by the lack of recognition. The Aztecs have an excellent chance to repeat as MWC champions with as friendly a schedule as you could draw up, but avenging 2015's losses to Cal and South Alabama, as well as beating a team that's been where they want to be in Northern Illinois, is the only way to silence the critics.
As a whole, I think the Mountain West is, at worst, the second-best Group of Five conference. Air Force could very well win ten games again, and New Mexico has the potential to finally combine its explosive offense with an above-average, veteran-laden defense. Utah State and San Jose State are led by underrated quarterbacks Kent Myers and Kenny Potter, respectively. Nevada and Colorado State should feature efficient running attacks and get adequate production at quarterback, as well. Depending on how things break, all of these teams could feasibly challenge the Aztecs and Broncos for conference supremacy.
TD: I published a bold predictions article yesterday that stated that Boise and SDSU will both win at least 11 games. San Diego State finishing the season at 12-0. Both teams return a ton of talent and are not getting any respect from the voters. Both of these teams will be really good and I think the conference will be much improved from last season.
The 2014 season was a great season for the conference because there were quite a few experienced teams. I believe with the much improved teams like UNLV, Nevada, and San Jose State should help bring the conference back to the prominence it had a few years back. The usual suspects will be good if not better than last year, and unpredictable teams like Air Force and New Mexico will give teams issues throughout the season.
I believe the Mountain West champion will represent the Group of 5 in the New Years 6. The strength of the conference will help that champion because how much improved it will be this season.
DWBI: Amongst fans, the popular opinion seems to be to remove schools that are not contributing to the validity of the conference. The addition by subtraction would help associate the conference with their tops teams rather than their bottom. It’s not much but after that there will be no more excuses. The team would have to work and win to get that type of respect back.
I think I’d go with the AAC, MWC, Sun Belt, MAC and then CSA.
JM: That is life from the non-power leagues. San Diego State has won 10 straight games returns nearly two-thirds of its defense and returns the leagues offensive, defensive and special teams player of the year; yet not ranked.
Win, win big and beat big name power five teams. The last one will be tough this year as SDSU has one shot against Cal and while they thumped Hawaii, they might struggle to get to a bowl game. Boise State plays Washington State and Oregon State and while those aren't great teams Boise State must win to get respect for the league.
The lower teams need to do better, no more teams with fewer than three wins. That is slowly changing with new coaches at places like Wyoming, UNLV and Hawaii. Also, having an undefeated team is ideal because a few years ago in 2014 there were four teams with 10 wins and very little respect overall.
The Sun Belt announced that it would not be retaining the doormat services of Idaho and New Mexico State after the 2017 season. If you could kick any one team out of the Mountain West, who would it be and why?
DC: This is an intriguing question, because there's no real outlier in the conference like NMSU and Idaho were in the Sun Belt. If we're strictly talking football, Hawai'i probably makes the most sense, considering they're 2,000 miles away from the closest school and bad at football. But at the same time, teams get a free trip to Hawai'i, soooooo....
I feel like everyone instantly will point to San Jose State because they're weak in most sports, but they give the conference a foothold in the Bay Area market.
I'm going to have to go with Wyoming. They don't have any market, their teams aren't really that notable, and that yellow and brown color scheme is absolutely awful. If they got kicked out I'm not sure anybody would notice.
MK: Oof, that's a tough question. The tough answer, though, is Hawaii because the Warriors are members of the conference in football only and, much to my chagrin, the product since their jump to the MWC hasn't lived up to what they've accomplished on the islands in the past.
TD: I would honestly make Hawaii either be a full time member or send them packing. I understand travel is an issue with the olympic sports but the unbalance with the basketball schedules drive me insane!
Hawaii coming in on a full membership would improve the conference because a good basketball team and their volleyball program would add some competition for Colorado State who has dominated the Mountain West for nearly the past 20 years. I would like for the conference to get back into Texas if possible but only not out of desperation like the AAC did with adding Tulane a few years ago.
JM: Oh man, this is tough. I guess Hawaii as they are not only so far away but they have been just terrible since they lost June Junes and have not been competitive since joining the league, but on the other side they have had a ton of success historically. It is a a pain to travel and play the Warriors in Hawaii is not easy even with them being a bad program.
[Well, this is awkward, but now let’s ask our Hawaii contributor!]
DWBI: To be honest, I think there is a consensus around the conference that if there would be one team to kick out it would be Hawaii. It costs each team an arm and a leg to travel to Hawaii and we have not brought much to the conference since joining.
If I had to choose I think it’d be between Wyoming and New Mexico. The problem is that both have been better than UH the past few years. If a good school were to suddenly want in on the MWC and the conference voted off a member, I unfortunately believe it’d be Hawaii.
How many games does the Mountain West win against the Big Ten in 2016?
DC: I think the Mountain West wins two of those games, but could win up to three. I have New Mexico beating Rutgers, Colorado State beating Minnesota and Nevada could beat Purdue. Rutgers is losing though.
MK: Two: Nevada will beat Purdue, and New Mexico will beat Rutgers. Colorado State/Minnesota should be a hotly contested tilt, too, and both Fresno State and Wyoming should hang with the Cornhuskers for at least a little while. Hawaii faces the most unenviable task, and though they've shown some big play capability (despite some issues with offensive efficiency), I can't help but think the unparalleled amount of travel is going to hinder their chances to keep it close.
TD: I'm going to say that three games are winnable, New Mexico @ Rutgers, Nevada @ Purdue, and Colorado State @ Minnesota but I think that only two of those games will be wins. New Mexico @ Rutgers and Nevada @ Purdue. All three games will be competitive but CSU is playing a very good defense that will cause problems throughout the game.
As I mentioned earlier, it will be a great games potentially overtime but the Gophers defense will prevail. The lobos will give Rutgers fits and make that game a shootout which isn't good for Rutgers, and Purdue is improving but Nevada should be pretty good this season. The pistol offense is always a tough offense to prepare for, especially the different variations Nevada does with it.
DWBI: I think that Nevada has a good chance to win. New Mexico and Colorado State probably have the next highest chance but Fresno, Wyoming and Hawaii will have some issues with their opponents. So, I’ll say that the MWC gets two wins against the Big Ten.
JM: The Mountain West can go 3-3 against the Big Ten with New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado State being victorious. I am least confident right now with Colorado State winning as they have had a quarterback race when there really shouldn't be one. New Mexico is vastly underrated with their very unique rushing attack which uses a handful of backs and break off big plays, and for those who have never watched this offense go ahead and check them out because it is an entertaining style of play.
Thanks again to Jeremy Mauss, Don’t Warrior Bout It, Terrance Dickens, Daniel Connolly, and Matt Kenerly for answering our questions! Be sure to click their names to follow them on Twitter, and give MWC Connection a follow, too!
Let us know your answers to these Mountain West dilemmas and your picks and predictions in the comments!