There’s plenty of Big Ten football on the way, but how to know if the Wyoming Cowboys are a good Mountain West team or just an also-ran that beats Illinois? If Washington State beats Wisconsin, should we point and laugh or nod and say “Well, the Coogs are supposed to be better this year”?
That’s where Beyond the Empire comes in.
We reached out to writers from other conferences around the country, previewing all their games against the Big Ten, asking where they stand in realignment, and giving us all the talking points for your Tuesday night MACtion and Wednesday night FUNBELT viewing.
This week, we welcome Mike Wittman, Willie Brazil, Lute Moss, Jeremy Rodrigues, and Matt Hanifan to help us preview the non-conference games between the Big Ten and Mountain West! Be sure to bookmark Mountain West Connection, one of the best sites in the SBN blogosphere, bringing you consistently good takes from across the Rockies.
Part I: The State of the Conference
OTE: Better than the AAC (at least by Sagarin’s metrics)? The real P6 conference? Many people are saying it…
The Mountain West was dynamic in 2021, with Fresno State, San Diego State, and Utah State all cracking the Top 25 at least once and Air Force and Nevada receiving votes at least half the season. Heading into 2022, what are the conference-wide narratives we’re looking at beyond the Rockies? It feels like we could see about half the conference plausibly in Las Vegas come December, and a few folks getting real national plaudits.
Mike Wittman: I think last year the conference was as deep as it’s ever been, with eight teams being selected to bowl games (they also went 5-1 in those bowl games, with two cancelled due to Covid). There were also four teams that won ten or more games. The conference is good. However, what they have lacked most years is a true top team. Sure someone wins the conference each year, but never in the same dominating form as the American Athletic Conference champ does. And I believe that is the reason the MWC is not seen as a strong conference.
For 2022, I expect more of the same. Fresno State, Air Force, San Diego State, and Boise State (in that order) all have a good shot to win the Mountain West. Utah State and San Jose State are dark horse candidates that at their worst, look like bowl teams. Then there are teams like Wyoming, Nevada, and Hawaii, who all got decimated by the transfer portal this past offseason (with the latter two due to coaching changes) and entere the year as complete unknowns due to such high roster turnover. I’d expect 2-3 teams to be ranked at sompoint this season. I think the MWC will continue to play well against the PAC-whatever during the non-conference schedule, and could win as many as 5 OOC games against P5 teams (look out Colorado, Oregon State, Arizona, and even Illinois).To really see the Mountain West for what it is, you’ll need to look at the boxscores of every team every week. Don’t just look at the one ranked team.
OTE: Realignment—I dunno if you guys just didn’t get the memo or what’s up, but this was the year to start doing a bunch of irrational nonsense. Why haven’t you extended an invitation to Western Kentucky or offered Army membership in the Mountain West?
…in more seriousness, do we have any reason to think ANY realignment is on the horizon for the MWC – could the PAC-12 try to poach anyone like San Diego State? If you at MWC headquarters did give someone a call, who would it be: FCS powers like EWU and Montana, or someone else?
Mike: Wait, there’s conference realignment going on? Much to the annoyance of fans, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson has repeated said he is content being reactive and letting realignment play out and then make decisions. Hopefully, discussions are at least being had behind the scenes. In all reality, if any of the 12 teams got an invite from a Power 5 conference, they would take it. Some of them almost left for the AAC conference.
If the Mountain West were to be poached, I think the most likely would be San Diego State, Boise State, and Fresno State in that order. The issue is, no one team checks off all the boxes, but these three check off more than others. If the Mountain West was in need of adding more teams, New Mexico State is probably a given. Then the next step may be evaluating teams from the group of Eastern Washington, North Dakota State, Montana, or Weber State.
You, a Big Ten fan, get to control Mountain West realignment. What do you do?
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Hold pat. MWC’s got it right here.
Snap up North Dakota State, do whatever with the rest.
Eh, New Mexico State and maybe a couple other small schools, but nothing urgent.
Something else, and I PROMISE I’ll tell you in the comments.
Part II: The Game Previews
Wyoming Cowboys at Illinois Fighting Illini
August 27 | 3pm CT | BTN | Illinois -10 | O/U 44
OTE: This is a colossal mistake by Illinois to schedule the MWC Non-Conference Random Number Generator in Ol’ Ground-and-Pound Craig Bohl, right? PLEASE tell me that’s true…
Willie Brazil: The Week 0 matchup between the Cowboys and the Illini is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing that college football has to offer, and honestly, for these two squads it’s kind of like looking into a mirror. Both finished 2021 in the bottom half of their respective conferences and both are looking at very light returning production on both sides of the ball for their football teams. However, those are just two examples of the various similarities that these two schools share. Both groups are also ground-and-pound, run-heavy offenses with plenty of star-power at tail back, immense turnover all over their defense, have difficulty defending the pass and a big fat question mark under center, that being the QB position.
Additionally, there are some similarities between the coaching staffs as well. Wyoming Head Coach Craig Bohl and Illinois Head Coach Bret Bielema were assistants for two B1G teams in 1999, Coach Bohl at Nebraska and Bielema at Iowa, so it won’t be the first time the two coaches are opposite each other’s sideline. Current Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller was also formerly the OL coach for Wyoming back in 2019 and in 2020.
So, with all that being said, let’s get to the game that will be on the field this upcoming Saturday and beg the question that’s on all of our minds: What exactly will we see in this rare week 0 matchup between these two teams? For me, I would predict a dog fight. Both teams would clearly like to get off to a good start and put their woes from a season ago in the rearview.
And to finally answer your question, yes, I think it could be a mistake to schedule Wyoming because this matchup does have plenty of upset potential with a Wyoming win very much being in the cards given the pedigree Coach Bohl and his staff possess.
I think this game will come down to which team can control the tempo and force the most turnovers on defense, because I think there will be a lot of opportunities for both teams. The consistency of the run game, the QB execution and defensive pass rush are a few big things to watch for on both sides as well. My prediction for Wyoming includes Titus Swen wreaking havoc by rushing for over 100 yards and at least 1 TD, and Ole Miss transfer Jakorey Hawkins recording an interception. Illinois will have home field advantage right out of the gate, but I think Wyoming will hold on to steal this one late with Peasley leading the way. Give me the upset, because why not.
This poll is closed
Illinois wins and covers
Illinois wins by single digits
ROOTIN’ TOOTIN’ COWBOY JOE
Colorado State Rams at Michigan Wolverines
September 3 | 11am CT | ABC | Mich -27.5 | O/U 57.5
Lute Moss: CSU is entering their first year post-Steve Addazio. You might remember Addazio in his Boston College days for his now famous quote, “Just guys being dudes.” For Colorado State fans, he’s simply referred to as the worst coach in school history.
Fortunately, the Rams have moved on to greener pastures, hiring the energetic Jay Norvell away from Nevada. Even before a single snap in his coaching tenure at CSU, Coach Norvell has been a breath of fresh air in Fort Collins. He’s rejuvenated a program that has dreams of playing big boy college football, but has unfortunately struggled with questionable hires as of late. Ask any Ram fan and they’ll tell you the same thing: There is utmost confidence in Jay Norvell to turn our under-performing program around.
As for the first game of the year in Ann Arbor, playing Michigan in the Big House, I fully expect Colorado State to shock the world, claiming the biggest upset in college football since Appalachian State did the same thing on the same field…
Ahhh man I hope so, as I’ll actually be in Ann Arbor for the game, taking in what I’m sure will be an incredible atmosphere.
Of course I’m only kidding. Not about going to the game, I’ll be there, but about CSU having any hope of winning this game. I’m highly certain Michigan will come out and do what they’re supposed to do: Whip up on a Mountain West team that went 3-9 last year.
Despite the obvious disadvantages working against the Rams against Michigan, this year’s team WILL field a more competitive squad than in years past. While Jay Norvell brought hope to Fort Collins with his Air Raid offense and proven recruiting chops, he left a Nevada program in shambles. Norvell not only took his coaching staff with him, but with the new transfer rules, he was able to pluck nearly a dozen immediately eligible veteran players off a Nevada team that went 8-5 in 2021. A considerable accomplishment for the Wolf Pack considering the lack of resources provided for that University’s football program.
The ability to immediately play transfers will ease the transition for the first year head coach. With that being said, the leftover players from last year’s CSU team will have to adjust to a completely new system. Fortunately, we have some solid athletes at the skill positions on offense.
Senior Dante Wright has been misused his entire career thus far as a Ram, but he has stuck with CSU through 3 head coaches now and I think he’ll be rewarded for it. Wright is a speedy “Tyreek Hill-like” receiver who, if used the right way, can be a decoy or a deep threat. If Michigan gets caught sleeping at all in the secondary, Wright can run past anyone in the country.
Another couple of guys to watch on offense would be Justice Ross-Simmons and Mekhi Fox. Both are highly recruited freshmen who have been opening eyes during fall camp.
Overall, it’s going to be a tough matchup for CSU against Michigan (obviously). Besides having a first year head coach, the Rams have a young football team (including their Redshirt Freshman QB who will be making his first ever college start). It will be a good test and a learning opportunity. To get punched in the mouth right away by a team widely considered one of the top 5 college football teams entering the year will be valuable moving forward for the Rams.
I think the biggest discrepancy we’ll see between the two teams is up front. The sheer size and strength of the athletes Michigan has at the line of scrimmage is going to be overwhelming against a team like Colorado State. Considering one of CSU’s biggest question marks coming into the year is their offensive line, this game could get ugly fast with the monsters Michigan has coming after the quarterback.
Don’t be surprised however if this game isn’t all roses and daisy’s for the Wolverines. Even with a 3-9 team last year, CSU held their own and played a very competitive game against Iowa early in the season. If a couple more calls went their way, CSU legitimately had a chance to win that game in Iowa City. Armed with better players and a better scheme in 2022, don’t be shocked if this one is somewhat competitive. (But also, don’t hold your breath).
Colorado State 24
(Also, any bar recs in Ann Arbor would be much appreciated!)
[OTE: I have a feeling we have a few people who could help you out with that.]
Reason for optimism?
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Nah. Michigan rolls.
Norvell’s turning it around, and the Rams beat the spread.
Norvell’s turned it ALL the way around!
Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors at Michigan Wolverines
September 10 | 7pm CT | BTN | Line, O/U TBD
Jeremy Rodrigues: Hawaii enters the 2022 season a complete enigma. Timmy Chang takes over the program—yes that Timmy Chang—after Todd Graham flamed out back in January when his antics behind-the-scenes essentially led to every great player on the team transferring. Seriously, there are now former Warriors playing for UCLA, Oklahoma, Arizona State, among others. Welcome to the transfer portal era, a living hell for Group of 5 programs.
Chang was the wide receivers coach at Nevada, and briefly at Colorado State before taking the Hawaii job. Yeah, it’s not everyday you see someone jump from Group of 5 position coach to Group of 5 head coach, but Hawaii desperately needed someone with ties to the islands and the program, and options were limited.
A young head coach jumping the ranks quickly takes over a squad decimated by the transfer portal (Hawaii has an astounding 53 incoming players for fall) and plays in a makeshift stadium. It’s truly Timmy Chang against the world.
There are some returning veterans. Running back Dedrick Parson will touch the ball a ton, and defensive tackle Blessman Ta’ala has been a consistent force for the defensive line for years. Not everyone left.
The transfer portal gives and takes. Keep an eye on edge rusher Wynden Ho’ohuli, a former 4-star recruit and the top recruit from the state of Hawaii in 2021. He briefly played for Nebraska, didn’t like it, moved back to Hawaii.
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. Most Hawaii teams wouldn’t be able to handle a Jim Harbaugh Michigan team. This particular UH team, facing all the adversity of the recent year? The real goal is emerging from the game healthy. Past score lines suggest Harbaugh isn’t the “call off the dogs” type. Wolverines win 42-3.
We’ll call it a spread of 34.5, just because we can.
This poll is closed
Michigan still covers.
Timmy Chang, working a little magic, keeps it under 35.
Nevada Wolf Pack at Iowa Hawkeyes
September 17 | 6:30pm CT | BTN | Line, O/U TBD
Matt Hanifan: Even before the 2021 season ended, Nevada’s program swiftly entered a tumultuous state with the departure of head coach Jay Norvell to Colorado State, who he and the Wolf Pack beat by 42 points nine days prior. His exit was soon followed by plucking the majority of the offensive coaching staff and north of a dozen transfers plus recruits. Nevada also dealt with the departures of the conference’s top quarterback in Carson Strong, and top pass-catchers Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner to the NFL.
All in all, it hired Ken Wilson — who has 30 years of coaching experience and spent over two decades at Nevada as a coach and administrator — for his first head coaching job, plus returning six starters from a year ago. Though two of those starters — defensive back JoJuan Claiborne and offensive tackle Aaron Frost — suffered major injuries (undisclosed) in practice and are expected to miss plenty of time.
With less than 30 percent of the returning production back, there’s plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball. With Wilson’s experience coaching linebackers and the defensive front, I expect Nevada to be better against the rushing attack. It’s going to be hard to evaluate how good it really is with its first three before Iowa, but there should be progress in that area. Offensively, Nevada doesn’t match up well with Iowa. While we have yet to see what it really looks like, against one of the best defenses in the nation, an offense filled with inexperience might have a tough time moving the ball in its first (and biggest) road test of the season.
A couple players to watch are running back Toa Taua and defensive lineman Dom Peterson. If Nevada does move the ball, it’ll have to have a good ground game. It’s going to prioritize it more this year than in year’s past, and Taua will be that X-Factor against a sturdy Hawkeye front. Peterson, however, is a monster in the middle — despite being just 6-foot — capable of eating up blocks that allow its other players in the front to open lanes. It’ll be much harder to penetrate the backfield against Iowa, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Peterson makes a play or two to help shift the momentum.
My too-early final score: Iowa 38, Nevada 10
What do we think of Matt’s prediction?
This poll is closed
Hawkeyes by more
Hawkeyes by less
WOLF PACK STRAIGHT UP, BABY
Part III: What MWC Football Means to Me
OTE: Is there a quintessential experience at your school–or, more broadly, in the Mountain West–that you think even fans of a Big Ten team would get on board with? What’s one tradition, one rivalry (hello, Border War!), one team, one event that we ought to know more about?
Mike: The Mountain West has a number of strong rivalries, some that span decades and others that are new. For instance, anytime Boise State and San Diego State square off, it’s an evenly matched game against two top G5 teams. The Border War between Colorado State and Wyoming was first played in 1899 and has had 113 games in total, with the Rams ahead in the series 59-49-5. Also, arguably the best trophy in all of college football is the Fremont Cannon between in-state rivals Nevada (or UNR) and UNLV. The winning team has the cannon painted in their color (red or blue) and Nevada leads 29-18 in their 47 games thus far. It is also part of a larger battle called the Silver State Series, where the two schools compete in all sports and crown a champion at the end of the year.
In my mind, the quintessential Mountain West experience is that there isn’t one. It’s great football because it’s so diverse. Depending on the matchup, you can see a game that features an offensive style of power I-formation with a fullback (have you heard of them?), spread concepts, shifts and motions, triple-option, or the air-raid. On defense, there is a big mix as well, including the 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, and 4-2-5. The MWC has a little bit of everything it makes for some very fun games.
Bonus: DiD yOu KnOw BoIsE sTaTe HaS a BlUe TuRf? That’s pretty unique too.
Our weekly Peak Perspective column offers insight and thoughts on the conference and has featured some interesting topics the past few months.
During the season, look at our weekly Good/Bad/Ugly feature, as well as posts on recruiting, bowl projections, statistics, and betting (for research purposes). For our perspective on the games against the Big Ten, our site will have game previews and recaps as well.
Part IV: Season Predictions
OTE: We’re all about poaching your coaches and/or transfers…so any teams or players we should expect to make noise on a national level? Who’s a Mountain West coach the Big Ten should have its eyes on?
Mike: Happy we can be a feeder conference for you. Also, maybe we can talk about how you need a conference like the MWC to develop good coaches and players?...
But back to the point. I’ve always felt Craig Bohl’s style of play fits the Big Ten perfectly (solid OL, emphasis on the ground game, exception defenses), but at 64, he probably isn’t looking to make a jump. Troy Calhoun from Air Force is one of the most underrated coaches in the country and his style of play would translate well to your conference. Utah State coach Blake Anderson has had success at Arkansas State and now USU and the B1G has taken an Aggie coach before. Avalos of Boise State, Norvell of Colorado State, and Brennen of San Jose State would all seem to fit better in the West. Ken Wilson of Nevada is a first-time head coach and a complete unknown, so maybe keep an eye on his progression.
On the player side, last year we had the nation’s top Tight End and best Punter. QB Jake Haener is a big name but he will be going in the draft following this season. Some of the other top players in the conference this year like Jalen Cropper, JL Skinner, or Patrick McMorris are also seniors. As far as younger players who could break out this year, I like DE Brennon Scott of UNLV, DBs Noah Avinger and CJ Baskerville of SDSU, and Ashton Jeanty of Boise State.
OTE: How does the Mountain West shake out in 2022, and specifically against the Big Ten? Who makes the conference championship game, and who wins?
Mike: I don’t want to speak for the whole site, but I guess I’m going to.
- The MWC 2022 looks similar to 2021 with a lot of good teams but no true dominant one.
- There will be 7 bowl teams (Air Force, Boise State, Fresno State, SDSU, SJSU, Utah State, and Wyoming)
- Fresno State will beat Air Force in a close game for the conference championship
- The conference will fair well in the OOC portion of their schedule, They will win 5 games against Power 5 teams...
- ...although they will go 1-3 against the B1G, with the lone victory being Wyoming over Illinois.
Who wins the Mountain West in 2022?
This poll is closed
San Diego State
Against the Big Ten, the Mountain West goes...
This poll is closed
2-2 or better
Up next: One of the latest P5 realignments...