After having its existence threatened by the successive departures of Utah, BYU and TCU in recent years, the Mountain West Conference is not only surviving — it’s thriving.
Adding Utah State and San Jose State to what was a 10-school roster has allowed the league to split into two six-team divsions — Mountain and West, of course — and stage a nationally televised conference championship game on CBS in December. And with a number of top-notch playmakers in the league this year, the contenders should not disappoint.
The Mountain West boasts five quarterbacks who finished among the top 20 in the nation in total offense, and several other standouts at different positions are in the mix for national honors.
Defending champion Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State, are all in the mix to win the conference. But new members San Jose State and Utah State, both coming off 11-2 seasons, should challenge that established order. A preview, in predicted order of finish:
1. Boise State • The standard-bearer of the league — if not all mid-major football — is once again primed for a strong season. Joe Southwick leads a highly capable offense, and Demarcus Lawrence is one of the Broncos’ big sack artists on defense.
2. Utah State • Quarterback Chuckie Keeton will ensure that the Aggies are a factor during their first year in the conference. Utah State’s division title hopes, though, will depend entirely on how well it adapts to the grind of better competition.
3. Air Force • Coming off a 6-7 year, the Falcons are looking to improve offensively, with quarterback Kale Pearson leading the offense. Where the cadets really shine is in the run game, and coach Troy Calhoun is sure to have his program churning again into bowl contention.
4. Wyoming • Brett Smith is sometimes lost in the shuffle among the conference’s best quarterbacks, but he’s one of the top dual threats in the nation. Coach Dave Christensen is looking for him to lead the Cowboys back from a four-win season last year.
5. Colorado State • Coach Jim McElwain’s rebuilding process continues, and a healthy group of linebackers should highlight what many are expecting to be a solid defense. The question for the Rams is on offense, where they will be challenged by a tough schedule that includes Alabama.
6. New Mexico • Kasey Carrier can carry the rock, but he hopes to carry his team to bowl eligibility this year. No one was more snake-bitten in the fourth quarter than the Lobos last year, and they hope to reverse that trend as Bob Davie continues to rebuild.
1. Fresno State • Boasting some of the best playmakers in the conference, including quarterback Derek Carr and safety Derron Smith, the Bulldogs are the favorite to romp in the West division. Still, the team has some pride to recover after a less-than-stellar finish last year.
2. San Jose State • Another 11-2 team in 2012 that has a new coach, the Spartans are expected to keep up with last year’s success. A lot of that will depend on senior quarterback David Fales, lately a darling of NFL scouts, but there are some individual standouts on the defense as well, such as lineman Travis Raciti.
3. San Diego State • Rocky Long lost some talent, but the Aztecs should still be a contender, even in a retooled conference. Jake Fely is one of the Mountain West’s top linebackers, and running back Adam Muema is looking to follow up his 1,458-yard season last year.
4. Nevada • Brian Polian is taking over another high-profile job in the conference, and he has a great player to lead him to rookie success in quarterback Cody Fajardo. But he’ll have to improve a defense that was leaky last year and turn around a team that was 1-5 in the final stretch of the season.
5. UNLV • The hottest seat in the conference this year belongs to Bobby Hauck, but it could be his best season yet with the Rebels. UNLV returns most of its starters on both sides of the ball. Sonny Sanitoa is a hard-pressuring defensive end, and Tim Cornett gives the team a reliable runner.
6. Hawaii • It could be another long year for Norm Chow and the Warriors. They face a rough travel schedule, and they’ll be plugging in a first-year quarterback in Taylor Graham. Graham has the tools, but he’ll need to prove he can bring consistency to the struggling program.
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