On paper, the MWC football league should play out the same way it has in recent years: with Boise State leading the way. The Broncos have won four consecutive titles and five of their last seven. SP+ sees its way forward.
But the change was enough to make you think. BSU is changing coaching staffs for the second time in 15 years, and the two teams predicting the next best candidate – Craig Bohl of Wyoming and Troy Calhoun of Air Force – have a lot more experience to offer than usual. Can the Pokes and the Falcons be champions? And can new coaches make early appearances in other parts of the league?
Throughout the summer, Bill Connelly will present a different Group 5 and Power 5 division each week exclusively for ESPN+, including all 130 FBS teams. Previews include predictions for 2020 and 2021, as well as a brief history of each team in a handy chart. So far, the series has covered Conference USA East and West and the MAC East and West.
Join the team: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Air Force, Wyoming, Boise State.
Danny Gonzalez, Rocky Long’s longtime assistant, brought a 3-3-5 defense back to Albuquerque – and brought Long back to lead it! – and after an 0-5 start, the Lobos won their last two games.
SP+ Grade: Location 124
Planned entry: 4-8 (2-6)
- He’ll probably win: Houston Baptist (86% win rate), NMSU (79%).
- Relative throws: at UTEP (55%), UNLV (55%), Utah (50%).
- Probable losses : Colorado State (28%), Air Force (26%), SDSU (13%), Fresno State (12%), Wyoming State (12%), Boise State (3%), Texas A&M (1%).
* Probability of winning are the games where SP+ predicts a probability of winning by more than seven points, or about 65%. The losses are probably reversed, and the relative draws are all intermediate games.
What we learned about UNM in 2020
The Lobos can still run. Offensive coordinator Derek Warehime inherited the bones of veteran Bob Davie and made the most of it. The line blocked well, and UNO ranks a solid 47th in rush success thanks to the work of Bobby Cole and a QB grab sack. Including sacks like pass attempts, Tre Hall, Tevaka Tuioti and Isaiah Chavez combined for 7.1 yards per carry….. But only 5.4 yards per pass attempt.
Hall, four starters on the line and all the QBs should be back, which is good, but can the passing game improve? Chavez and Tuioti (injured in the spring) were more effective than Hall, but the receiving corps only helped.
What we didn’t learn about UNM in 2020.
keeps the 3-3-5 this time. New Mexico has not finished higher than 99th in defensive JV+ since 2008, his final year as HC, and his return as defensive coordinator has not resulted in immediate improvement. They were 122nd in the league and were constantly occupied by big runs. Safeties Jerrick Reed II and Patrick Peake combined for three TFLs, five interceptions and seven pass interceptions, but it was all or nothing and the corners failed. A terrible pass rush – 10th in blitzes on attempts, but 102nd in pressures – didn’t help. Eight starters are back, but a talent upgrade is needed.
New Mexico history in a graph
- Future Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy took over the team in 1958, and after going 10-20 three years before his arrival, the Lobos went 7-3 twice and climbed to 13th in the SP+ rankings in 1959.
- Even if this program comes up from time to time, dark times are dark indeed. UNM was 3-27 from 1966-68, 9-50 from 1987-91, and 3-33 from 2009-2011.
- Brian Urlacher, the most unique player? As a 6-foot-3, 250-pound safety in 1999, he intercepted one pass, caught seven passes for six touchdowns and returned 10 punts for an average of 15.8 yards.
- Before Long’s arrival, UNM had been to five bowl games and then five times in six years from 2002-07.
- After a long drought under Mike Locksley, UNM has recovered somewhat under Davie. But Gonzalez and his teammates have a tough task ahead of them.
Logan sophomore Gary Andersen exploded as he missed three games in a 1-5 season. Former Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson is cleaning up.
SP+ Grade: 121st
Planned entry: 4-8 (2-6)
- He’ll probably win: North Dakota (80% chance of winning), at NMSU (75%).
- The relative scum: New Mexico (50%), UNLV (49%), Hawaii (39%).
- Probable losses : Colorado (33%), Wyoming (23%), Air Force (21%), SDSU (15%), BYU (12%), Boise State (8%), Washington State (5%).
The schedule features four opponents ranked lower than USA and three others ranked lower than 90. If the truck is hauling freight, you can expect a solid season.
What we learned about UCA in 2020
This is what the floor looks like. After 13 consecutive losing seasons, the Aggies broke through under Andersen in 2011, bowling eight of nine and finishing in the AP poll twice. They continued to win after Andersen left for Wisconsin, but when successor Matt Wells left after a stellar 2018, they brought Andersen back despite a shaky end at Wisconsin and Oregon State.
Andersen showed us that this program has an awfully high ceiling, but we learned last year that the bottom is still very low. In 2018, the Aggies ranked 22nd in offensive SP+ and 35th defensively. In 2020: 111th and 115th respectively. USU always attacked the passer well, especially linebacker A.J. Wongfachan, but rarely got the better of the opponents. There is talent in the construction corps and the secondary, but there is room for newcomers at two levels.
What we have not learned about UCA in 2020.
Well, we certainly didn’t learn much about the 2021 depth chart. Arkansas State’s Logan Bonner (quarterback), Brandon Bowling (slot receiver) and Justin Rice (linebacker) could all start on day one. Anderson also had six transfers out of the Power Conference.
Anderson has done everything he can to raise the talent level immediately, and there could be enough talent left – RB Devonta’e Henry-Cole, center Demytrick Ali’ifua, linebackers Vongphachanh and Nick Heninger, safety Shaq Bond, cornerback Cam Lampkin – to make a much better team. But it will be a long road in 2018.
Utah history in a graph
- Merlin Olsen Field is named for its best player, a lightning-fast 270-pound lineman — the equivalent of about 325 pounds today! — who helped the Aggies finish in the top 10 before coming in the top three in the NFL and AFL.
- Merlin’s brother Phil: also great. He was an All-American himself and was picked fourth in the draft.
- This long and slow decline reached its nadir in the 2000s: The Aggies have won just 15 games since 2003-08.
- Gary Andersen’s crowning achievement: a team that went 11-2 in 2012 behind quarterback Chuckie Keeton (3,373 passing yards) and a rock-solid defense. (Anderson recently hired Keaton as his assistant).
- Andersen’s last American team was the worst since 2008, the year before Andersen arrived. Experience is not the focus for the entire cycle.
Steve Addazio’s first season at CSU consisted of three double-digit defeats and a win over Wyoming. Here’s a bigger sample. 2021 Forecast
SP+ Grade: 96.
Planned entry: 5-7 (4-4)
- Probable victories*: New Mexico (72% win rate), Vanderbilt (68%), Utah (67%).
- Relative draws : South Dakota State (59%), Air Force (54%), Hawaii (51%), SDSU (44%), Nevada (42%).
- Likely losses: in Toledo (33%), Wyoming (33%), Boise (21%), Iowa (5%).
CSKA plays against five opponents ranked 105 or lower in the SC+ rankings, so there is potential for a good year. But that requires pass protection and a level of offensive consistency.
What we learned about the CSU in 2020
Inherited personnel do not meet intentions. Addazio’s offense is built on a unique combination of speed and physicality. CSU had the first, but ranked just 123rd in terms of rushing success. All the points are likely due to occasional passing plays – tight end Trey McBride averaged 15 yards per catch, slot man Dante Wright 15.8.
Top pass rusher Patrick O’Brien has transferred, likely leaving the job to Todd Sentayo or Judge McCoy. McBride and Wright are back with all the support staff, but that does not guarantee continuity of operations. Wisconsin’s new offensive coordinator and former assistant John Budmire will likely try to double down on the physical play. Let’s see if it fits.
Scott Patchan and Manny Jones are excellent. Chuck Heather’s defense ranked 15th in yards on the ground and second in sacks. The main reasons for this success are as follows: Patchan, Jones and linebacker Dean Jackson are all back. Patchan has forced 5.5 sacks and eight incompletions since his transfer from Miami (in four games!), and Jones has 12 TFLs in his last seven games and returns in 2019.
What we didn’t learn about the CSU in 2020
Will they be able to defend and pass? CSU was 76th in pass success, which they allowed despite a great pass rush. The Heizers asked corners Rashad Ajayi and Marshawn Cameron to play a lot of man-to-man coverage, and it was a wash. They are back and Temple transfer Linwood Crump makes his entrance. Is the balance between aggression and consistency better this year?
Colorado history in a graph
- After an 8-2 record, quarterback/linebacker/kicker Gary Glick was selected first overall in the 1956 NFL Draft.
- When CSU hired Miami defensive coordinator Sonny Lubick in 1993, the story wasn’t really a story. In 1994-2003. The Rams will average 34th in SP+ rankings.
- In 1997, Lubic experienced his moment of glory: The Rams went 11-2, are 11th in the SP+ and have won their last nine games by an average of 30 points.
- In 1997, defender Joey Porter moved to linebacker. Good choice. He recorded 22 sacks in two seasons before becoming a full-time member of an NFL team at his new position in the 2000s.
- Forensic averages over 10 years are largely back to pre-Sonny levels. The beautiful Canvas Stadium (home of Sonny Lubick Field) opened in 2017, but CSU has gone just 15-26 since then.
The Air Force lost even more production than usual due to bribery (basically the military’s version of bribes). But she went 3-3 and almost won the Commander-in-Chief’s Cup anyway.
SP+ Grade: 93.
Planned entry: 7-5 (4-4)
- He’ll probably win: Lafayette (97% chance to win), UNLV (82%), Utah State (79%), New Mexico (74%).
- Relative pulses : FAU (60%), Navy (51%), SDSU (48%), Colorado (46%), Wyoming (46%), versus Army (37%).
- Probable losses: Nevada (33%), Boise (15%).
The Falcons have been favored in each of their first five games, but only once after that. But if you rearrange the offensive line, almost no play is undesirable.
What we learned about the Air Force in 2020
Yield production does not mean everything. Coach Troy Calhoun, who does not have a wild card, is used to dealing with turnovers. The turnover rate last year was excellent. The Falcons lost all of their most experienced QBs, their most experienced body players, two offensive players in the conference, as well as their top two defensive linemen, three linebackers and seven defensive backs.
Still, they rank fifth in the FBS in offensive success, with just 1.7 gains of 20+ yards per game (first). They did very well at typical Air Force affairs and got better as the year went on. With a full 12-game schedule, they’d probably be well above 80th in SP+.
Quarterback Haasik Daniels returns in 2021 with his top two backs and explosive tight end Kyle Patterson (17.1 yards per catch). The defense returns five starters for 2020, plus four starters for 2019 who had seasons of turnarounds, including dynamic linebacker Demonte Mix.
There is only one entity involved with a lot of turnover, but it is a big business.
What we didn’t learn about the Air Force in 2020.
Can the offensive line match last year’s level. Last year, Air Force runners were stopped just 9 percent of the time at or behind the line, the lowest percentage in the FBS. All five starters received at least one Pro Football Focus award and were selected to the All-Conference third team. Two of them were the first.
The six liners with more than 101 images are gone. The replacements seemed good, but with a small sample size. The Air Force constantly struggles with line breaks, but last year the unit set the bar especially high.
Air Force history in a graph
- Dangerous from the start: The Falcons went 9-0-2 and won a top-10 AP title in their fourth year of football.
- When Ken Hatfield left for Arkansas in 1984, the school took advantage of his opportunities and hired Fisher DeBerry. In their sophomore year, they were 12-1 with wins over Texas and Notre Dame.
- Those teams of the late 1980s had plenty of talent – running back Chad Henning registered 24 sacks in 1987 and quarterback Dee Dowis was named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1989.
- After a slow decline, DeBerry resigned and was replaced by former AFA quarterback Troy Calhoun. They are the only two men who have coached the team in the last 37 years.
- Calhoun put in his 13th. Year’s his best team yet. The Falcons went 11-2 in 2019 and are in first place since 1998.
Craig Bohl’s last four Wyoming teams ranked 41st or better in defensive SP+ and 95th or better in offensive SP+. The short campaign of 2-4 in 2020 continued this trend.
SP+ Grade: 80.
Planned entry: 8-4 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: New Mexico (88% chance of winning), UConn (85%), Utah (77%), Montana (75%), Hawaii (73%), NIU (70%), Colorado (67%).
- Relative pulses : Fresno State (56%), Air Force (54%), Ball State (52%), SGU (45%).
- Probable loss: from Boise State (21%).
SP+ is happy with Wyoming’s chances of a great season against an easy schedule. If the new coordinator can master the offense, the division title is on the line.
What we learned about UHT in 2020
Can a crime be promoted? Wyoming lost quarterback Sean Chambers to injury for the third straight season, but averaged 34 points in the first four games before junior Levi Williams suffered a shoulder injury. In his last two games, he completed just seven of 25 passes and Wyoming lost 17-16 and 17-9.
With a healthy QB and new offensive coordinator Tim Polasek, it’s not hard to predict improvement. Backs Xazavian Valladay and Trey Smith are solid and the line is full of experience. The receiving corps desperately needs consistency, but it has explosive options with wideouts Aiden Eberhardt and Isaiah Neighbor (500 yards, 20.8 per catch).
What we didn’t learn about the UW in 2020.
Everything we want to protect. After the opener against Nevada, the Pokes are in better shape, scoring 16 points per game and 4.6 yards per play. They have not allowed efficiency (sixth in three-down percentage) or explosiveness (27th in explosive play) and have dominated in the red zone (eighth in goal-to-go TD rate).
The Cowboys accomplished that despite losing four linemen, including an ace, due to the loss of pass rusher Solomon Byrd. Now all 11 starters return, including four linebackers with chaotic heavy linebacker Chad Mumu and a great cornerback tandem in Azizi Hearn and C.J. Caldon. Good luck, MWC offensive coordinator.
History of Wyoming on one map
- Before making Nebraska a national powerhouse, Bob Devaney accomplished nearly the same thing in Laramie when he arrived in 1957 and had a 23-4-2 run from 1958-60.
- Lloyd Eaton went 10-1 twice with an AP #6 ranking in 1967. But the fallout from his treatment of the Black 14 has turned the fate of the program on its head.
- In 1984, Dallas Cowboys great Jay Novacek caught 33 passes for 745 yards while earning All-American honors as a decathlete.
- Before taking Purdue to the Rose Bowl with a non-Big 10 team, Joe Tiller perfected it at UW. He went from 4-6-1 his freshman year to 10-2 in 1996.
- After NDSU became an FCS powerhouse, Bohr took on a new challenge. Wyoming has only played in the bowl three times in 22 years, then three of four.
Boise State was basically Boise State in 2020, but a couple of big problems (pro and con) cost the Broncos a 5-2 campaign. Then head coach Brian Harsin went to Auburn.
SP+ Grade: 39.
Planned entry: 9-3 (7-1)
- He’ll probably win: UTEP (98% chance to win), New Mexico (97%), Utah (92%), Air Force (85%), Colorado (79%), Wyoming (79%), Nevada (77%), FSU (72%), Fresno (70%).
- Relative deduction: at BYU (53%), Oklahoma State (45%), UCF (43%).
- Probable losses: none
Former BSU defensive coordinator (and linebacker) Andy Avalos replaces Harsin, and there are no guaranteed defeats on the schedule.
What we have learned about BSU in 2020
The parts are largely intact. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier had 94.2 QBR against man coverage last year and did what he promised when healthy. Receiver Khalil Shakir averaged 3.3 yards per carry, which ranks ninth among FBS players with at least 200 carries. Linebacker Riley Whimsical had nine TFLs and 11 runs in seven games. Kekaula Kanijo combined for nine openings with 30% pressure from the nickel position.
Star power is high for the best recruiting team in the MWC, by far. SP+ predicts the Broncos will outscore everyone else in this division by more than 40 points. And while the coach change is a chance to shake up the approach or culture, it’s just two changes – Avalos was Harsin’s defensive coordinator until 2019 and knows the BSU program almost as well as anyone on the planet. He also built his own record at both BSU and Oregon.
What we haven’t learned about BSU in 2020
If Bachmaier can stay healthy all season. It’s not fair, but he’s missed eight of 21 games in two seasons, which has stunted his development a bit.
Why the big games suddenly went against BSU. Despite the threat of Shakir and slot man Thomas, the Broncos averaged just 3.3 gains of 20+ yards per game (113th in FBS), while the defense allowed 5 (74th). The Broncos won most of the efficiency battle, but the Big Plays battle on the other end. Can a flawed team fix its mistakes, especially without top cornerback Jalen Walker?
What Avalos can change. He hired assistant Spencer Danielson to lead the defense, but brought in Tim Plow from UC Davis to lead the offense. Plow preaches speed and aggression, but can he attract more big men without sacrificing efficiency?
Boise State’s history in a chart
- After living 6-17 in the FBS, BSU recruited Dirk Koetter in 1998, who made his mark as a sophomore.
- From 2002 under Dan Hawkins to 2012 under Chris Petersen, BSU hosted one of the greatest mid-major competitions: 11.7 wins on the year, nine finishes, six in the top 12.
- Kellen Moore: 14,667 yards, 142 touchdowns and an obscene 50-3 career record.
- The highs of the 2000s may have been unsustainable, but after Petersen’s departure following the 2013 season, Harsin still managed four Final Fours and three conference titles.
- Major problems led to BSU’s worst SP+ result since 2005. Will Avalos be able to remain effective while diving into the past?
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