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Beyond the Empire: Mountain West Connection talks...well, the Mountain West.

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Purdue and Minnesota head west to face Nevada and Fresno under the lights, while Northwestern faces UNLV at home. Can the Big Ten avoid upsets in this tricky trio of games? We talk with the guys at MWCC to find out.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Those of you who checked out Week 0 action are well aware of what late-night games across the far-flung Mountain West can do to a team.

This year, Purdue and Minnesota take that risk and go west, two of the three games between the Big Ten and Mountain West Conference in 2019.

This wouldn’t be Beyond the Empire, then, if we didn’t try to give you an idea of what to expect when you flip on CBS Sports Network late at night. To learn more about what our Midwestern programs might face as they head out to odd time zones and stretch their body clocks, we commissioned the help of our friends at Mountain West Connection, SBNation’s home for all things Mountain and West (presumably those are different somehow.

Three of them were kind enough to give us their time—our thanks to Mike Wittman, the MWCC site manager, along with Matt Robeson and Alex Wright! Give them a follow on Twitter: @MWCConnection, @Mike_SBN, @FSUBone1, and @a_dub1028.

Talking Mountain West Football

OTE: The Mountain West has been a late-night favorite of our weekly schedule-watching piece, with late-night Hawaii games topping the list but, really, anyone promising a 55-52 shootout an instant must-watch. Who, though, are some “players to watch” conference-wide or, for those degenerates among us, players with fantasy football pickup potential (or should we just pick up whoever’s playing San Jose State)?

Alex Wright: I feel a safe bet is San Diego State running back Juwan Washington. He will be the focal point of the Aztec offense this year, and it seems that every year, some San Diego State running back is breaking some rushing records.

Also, the Hawaii offense will be explosive this season. If it wasn’t for Jordan Love, Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald would be the best quarterback in the league. He will get to 4,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns this year. McDonald will be throwing to wide receivers Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward; both should be in store for 1,000-yard plus seasons as well.

OTE: The Mountain West has only managed to place Boise State in the New Year’s Six bowls to date, with more successful (and better-hyped!) clubs back East like UCF grabbing the national mid-major headlines. Heading into 2019, where would you rank the MWC relative to the rest of the G5 programs? If you were MWC Commissioner for a Day, what one change would you make to improve the conference—visibility, recognition, competitiveness, etc.—nationally?

AW: I think the American Athletic Conference is the best Group of 5 conference. The Mountain West is second, and then there is a decent sized gap to the other three Group of 5 conferences.

Aside from UCF, I don’t see another elite Group of 5 program that would challenge for a New Year’s Six spot.

If I was the commissioner for one day, I would probably change the TV deal. I would find a deal that gives the teams control over kickoff times. Boise State, because of the current TV deal, plays most of their games on a Friday night a 7 or 8 pm, just to get on TV. There needs to be a balance, teams need to get the most money possible from the deal, and gives teams power when to play the games so they can accommodate their fans.

OTE: Realignment is, these days, more of an East Coast phenomenon, as Interior West also-rans have either slipped into FCS like Idaho or chased a quixotic independent fantasy like New Mexico State. If and when the conference realignment wheel spins again, what changes might it bring for the MWC? Could the BYU Cougars make a reappearance, and could Boise be headed for any other pastures? Who would you trade out/in?

AW: Personally, I would love to see expansion of BYU and New Mexico State, simply because that means more Mountain West football. Also, selfishly, to get BYU back in the conference as full time members so we can renew the UNLV-BYU Basketball rivalry.

If Boise State were to leave, I’d like to think they would go try to get BYU (New Mexico State doesn’t bring much to the conference).

However, expansion might not be on the horizon for the conference. Commissioner Craig Thompson said in an interview with The Athletic that “contraction” is more probable than expansion. If the Mountain West decided to get rid of any members, it would probably be Hawaii and San Jose State. Hawaii because they are a football only member, and have their own separate TV deal, which means they do not get anything from the Mountain West TV deal. And poor San Jose State, they are last place in both of the major sports and bring nothing to the conference. If they got rid of those two teams, that would leave a 10 team Mountain West, an idea I am starting to like the sound of.

Poll

Should the Mountain West expand?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Yes, to add BYU and NMSU.
    (34 votes)
  • 1%
    Yes, to add someone else (tell us in the comments!)
    (1 vote)
  • 21%
    No, they’re good at 12.
    (15 votes)
  • 28%
    No, and they should contract Hawaii and San Jose State.
    (20 votes)
70 votes total Vote Now

Previews and Predictions

Purdue Boilermakers at Nevada Wolf Pack

Friday, August 30 | 8:30pm CT | CBSSN
Purdue -10.5 | O/U 58.5

OTE: Jay Norvell might really be putting it all together, huh? The Pack won 8 games in 2018, complete with a weird bowl win over Arkansas State, but also put together some solid showings against Oregon State, Air Force, and even in losses to Fresno and Boise. In the wake of Ty Gangi graduating, though, what’s next for the Nevada offense? RBs like Toa Taua and Devonte Lee flashed some promise, and Kaleb Fossum is a damn good wideout. But who steps up for the Wolf Pack on offense, and will DC Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense be able to keep the Boilermakers in check under the lights in Reno?

Mike Wittman: Norvell and the Wolf Pack took a solid step from 2017 to 2018. It wasn’t flashy but it got the job done.

Now the challenge is to keep it going. As you mentioned, Ty Gangi is gone and redshirt freshman Carson Strong is in the fold. Strong fits the Air Raid system well, but is short on game experience. It may be funny to say for a pass-heavy offense, but I expect them to lean on Taua and the run game early on to let the passing develop. The passing attack is not without weapons, though. Fossum will be the main target, but expect steady improvement from last year’s breakout receivers, Elijah Cooks (348 yards, 6 TDs) and Romeo Doubs (562 yards, 2 TDs). Also, Cole Turner didn’t play much last year, but he’s 6-6 and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him breakout this year on the outside. Nevada will have to put up a lot of points to stay in the game.

Defensively, the Wolf Pack have a tough task on defense. Dom Peterson was great as a freshman last year and will have big expectations on him in year two. 6th year senior LB Lucas Weber will is a force to the tune of 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He will need to shine for Nevada to stay in this game. Daniel Brown is the star in the secondary and PFF has him as the top returning CB in the entire conference. The rest of the starting defense is short on experience. While there’s a chance they take Purdue by surprise with the lack of game film, it’s much more likely their lack of experience gets exposed by the Boilermakers.

Poll

Who wins?

This poll is closed

  • 93%
    Purdue
    (110 votes)
  • 6%
    Nevada
    (8 votes)
118 votes total Vote Now

Minnesota Golden Gophers at Fresno State Bulldogs

September 7 | 9:30pm CT | CBSSN

OTE: The 2018 meeting between these two teams stands out as one of the weirder Big Ten non-conference results of the year (and that’s coming from a season in which my ‘Cats went 0-3 with a loss to Akron). Jeff Tedford and Fresno...seem like the real deal? Bizarre.

The Bulldogs have to replace Marcus McMaryion, though, along with a lot of wideout production and some offensive linemen. How should we expect the Bulldogs to bounce back in 2019, and can their defense—including great hybrid man Mykal Walker—keep the Gophers’ rush offense in check?

Matt Robeson: The 2018 game against the Gophers really became the big What-If game for Fresno State. They really tried to force a rushing offense that didn’t exist, and the defense got worn down by it. Even with that game, the Fresno State defense ended up as a truly elite unit, one that ranked 3rd in the country in scoring defense. 12 wins was the most that the Bulldogs had ever won in a season, and now the bar for success has really been raised after the first two years under Jeff Tedford. The big question—is it sustainable in 2019 and beyond? Especially as Minnesota will be coming to Fresno for this game.

I’d expect them to really lean on their defense early in the season. Yes, they’re replacing linebackers and 2 DBs, but they replaced their entire D-Line and DC after 2017 and got better, so anything could happen? Especially with all-conference Mykal Walker returning to his natural position at OLB; he was a monster at defensive end, and now he gets to range all over the field as the leader of the defense. The defensive line is going to be great at clogging up lanes with size and experience, and two of the best DBs return in Jaron Bryant and Juju Hughes.

The offense is where things are a bit shakier for right now. Ronnie Rivers returns after an MVP performance in the Vegas Bowl, but Jordan Mims, Romello Harris, and Peyton Dixon all seem to be battling injuries. Josh Hokit is still there as a senior, and expect more work for Saevion Johnson as the change-of-pace back. Syrus Tuitele and Netane Muti return on the line, but the other three spots have been up for grabs all off-season.

QB has been decided since Spring Ball, when Jorge Reyna was given the lead. He was Jeff Tedford’s first recruit, and was supposedly the starting QB in 2017 before he broke his hand, and Marcus McMaryion took control of the team. He’s definitely more of a gunslinger, but Derrion Grim is the only one back with true experience. Keric Wheatfall comes in from JuCo, Jalen Cropper was a fringe 4* recruit, and a talented batch of freshmen and sophomores are chomping at the bit to get on the field. I just think it will take a few games for the offense to really gel, so the defense may be carrying the load for the first two weeks.

Poll

Rematch: Pick-em.

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Minnesota
    (55 votes)
  • 50%
    Fresno State
    (57 votes)
112 votes total Vote Now

UNLV Rebels at Northwestern Wildcats

September 14 | 2:30pm CT | BTN

OTE: Is Tony Sanchez really the guy the Rebels will want to open their new digs in 2020? UNLV’s been slowly climbing, and QB Armani Rogers had his flashes—including single-handedly pasting the Pack and retaking the Fremont Cannon—but can the Rebels move the ball in the air at all against a Northwestern team that boasts a strong linebacking corps and a dedication to stopping the run? How will UNLV’s defense hold up against a surely-vanilla Northwestern ground-and-pound afternoon behind Isaiah Bowser?

Alex Wright: Tony Sanchez has been questioned by many people regarding his ability to be a college coach ever since he was hired. The progress for UNLV has been slow, and it was halted slightly last year when Armani Rogers went down. Sanchez has done more off the field than any other UNLV coach. However, there has not been a correlation to the off-field success, to their on-field record. This is his prove it year for Sanchez, Athletic Direction Desiree Reed-Francois said she cannot wait for “winning and bowl eligibility” this year. I personally feel Sanchez has a lot more in the tank as UNLV’s coach, as I wrote here, but it all depends if the program has momentum entering their new stadium in the 2020 season.

Armani Rogers is the key to the UNLV offense, if he goes, the whole offense goes. One issue has been his consistency as a passer. He has had issues in the past with his mechanics, Sanchez has said Rogers has worked through those issues. UNLV’s success this year could depend upon how well Rogers throws the ball this year. UNLV was dealt a difficult blow to the receiver position when Brandon Pressley went down for the season in the spring, and when Jordan McCrae decommitted from UNLV. But, UNLV has a lot of raw and unproven talent at the receiver position. UNLV doesn’t have “a guy” they count on; it will be a collective effort by the Rebel receivers to help make the UNLV offense more dynamic. If Rogers can develop a connection with his new receivers and if the receivers play to their full potential, UNLV might have a solid passing day against Northwestern.

Many UNLV fans are probably ready to chalk this one up as a loss for the Rebels. One reason is their underperforming defense that gave up 37 points per game last year. However, the Rebel front seven should be solid this year. They have a nice mix of veterans and incoming transfers that, on paper, give UNLV its best front seven under Sanchez. UNLV should be able to keep the Wildcat running game in check. The real problem is the secondary. If Northwestern can find success throwing the ball, then UNLV could be in for a long day.

Poll

‘Cats or Rebels?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Northwestern
    (84 votes)
  • 19%
    UNLV
    (20 votes)
104 votes total Vote Now

OTE: Give us (A) your pick for the MWC championship game in 2019, and (B) tell us the overall MWC record against the Big Ten in 2019.

AW: My pick for the conference title is the San Diego State Aztecs. After having three seasons of 10 or more wins, they went 7-6 last year—they will bounce back this year. I see many good teams in the league, but no elite teams. The Aztec running game and defense will be the difference, and will be what wins them the conference title.

As for part two, I see the Mountain West going 1-2 against the Big Ten. There is no way Reno beats Purdue. The one win will come from either UNLV or Fresno State The UNLV-Northwestern game is closer than most people think, but I think the Wildcats take the win. Don’t be too surprised if UNLV pulls off an upset. Fresno State has the best chance in their game—I feel they should win.


Thanks to Alex, Matt, and Mike for taking the time to talk Mountain West football! When you’re up late, be sure not just to watch some Hawaii-Wyoming Paniolo Trophy action, but follow along with our friends on Twitter @MWCConnection!

Poll

Against the Mountain West, the Big Ten goes...

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    3-0
    (30 votes)
  • 43%
    2-1
    (41 votes)
  • 17%
    1-2
    (16 votes)
  • 7%
    0-3
    (7 votes)
94 votes total Vote Now