The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 16, 2021

Mountain West Coast Conference Preview

Like every other conference in 2020, the Mountain West Conference was forced to make some eleventh hour changes, delaying the start of the season to late October.  One team, Colorado State, played just four games.  Several teams made it to six games.  A couple played seven times, and no team played double digit games.

Divisional play was cancelled last year, with the top two finishers facing off in the MWC Championship Game.  San Jose State finished first with a 6-0 league record, while Boise State finished a half-game back at 5-0.  In the MWC Championship Game, the Spartans bested the Broncos by two touchdowns.

Normalcy returns in 2021, as the teams return to divisional play.  At the preseason meetings the MWC Media voted their predicted order of finish for the season.  Here is how it turned out:

Mountain West Conference Preseason Media Poll
Mountain Division1st PlOverall
Boise St.23148
Air Force104
Colorado St.72
Utah St.47
New Mexico39
West Division1st PlOverall
San Jose St.5121
San Diego St.96
Fresno St.185

Here is the PiRate Ratings Preview for the MWC

Boise State breaks in a new head coach, after Bryan Harsin left for Auburn.  The Broncos return 16 starters including their starting quarterback and two excellent receivers.  New coach Andy Avalos needs to get more consistency out of the Boise State offense.  The defense is good enough to win games for the Broncos as long as the offense tops 30 points.

One of these years, Wyoming is going to put it all together and take the Mountain Division flag.  Coach Craig Bohl has what looks like his best team since he arrived in Laramie, and this could be the year the Cowboys challenge for the division title.  The Wyoming defense should challenge for the league lead in points allowed and total yards allowed.

AIr Force led the MWC in scoring defense last year, while the option offense was off and on.  When an option style team has a veteran quarterback, they usually perform a little better than the previous season.  However, even though quarterback Haaziq Daniels returns to start, he will play behind an offensive line that must replace all five starters.  The Falcon defense is going to need to come out with a lot of stalled opponent drives if AFA is going to compete for the division flag.

Colorado State has had a lot of turnover the last couple of seasons with three different head coaches.  Current coach and former Boston College head man Steve Addazio didn’t get much of a chance to coach in Fort Collins in his first year, going just 1-3.  He has an experienced squad returning, but the Rams have a tough schedule.  Competing for a winning record may be two seasons away at the least.

Utah State won just one time last year, a 14-point victory over New Mexico.  Once considered an offensive firepower, the Aggies are anything but that these days.  USU must break in a new quarterback, three new pass catchers, and a new running back, and the offense is going to struggle at times after averaging just 15.5 points per game last year.  The defense was mediocre in 2020, and it could be weaker this year, so the Aggies are not likely to enjoy a winning season.

New Mexico lost their first five games but was competitive in four of those games last year.  The Lobos ended the season with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State, and they return 14 starters.  They are a good quarterback away from contending for a bowl game this year.

In the West Division, the Nevada Wolf Pack clearly begins the season as the team to beat for the championship.  The Wolf Pack have the far and away best quarterback in the league and one of the top five in the nation in Carson Strong.  Give Strong a highly competent receiving corps, and Nevada should ride their version of the Air Raid offense to more than 35 points per game this year.  The good news for the Pack is their defense should be somewhat improved this year after surrendering just 23 points per game last year.  Keep an eye on this team; they have two road games against Power Five conference opponents, and they play Boise State on the road.  It would not be a shock if Nevada pulled off upsets in any or all of these games, assuming they count as upsets.

Nevada will have to compete with San Jose State and San Diego State for the West Division title, as both the Spartans and Aztecs are quite talented.  San Jose State went undefeated in the regular season and topped Boise State in the MWC title game, but they fell to a hot Ball State team in the Arizona Bowl.  The Spartans return their entire starting defense, while the offense returns the second best quarterback in the league in Nick Starkel, playing behind an offensive line that returns all five regulars.  Other than a game at USC in September, the Spartans have a chance to win the rest.  The November 6 game at Nevada might decide the division title.

San Diego State began to play defense in 2020 like the Aztecs were known for a decade ago, giving up 17.8 points per game and finishing third nationally in yards allowed at 283.5 per game.  SDSU doesn’t have the experienced quarterback like the other two contenders, but the Aztec defense should be even stronger in 2021.  

Fresno State had an off year at 3-3, and the Bulldogs concluded 2020 with a 49-39 loss to New Mexico.  Things weren’t as bad as they appeared to be for this team.  They suffered the most logistical nightmare of any team thanks to Covid.  The program totally shut down for more than six months, and after beating Utah State on November 14, they prepared to play for three weeks only to find out late each week that their game had been cancelled.  Additionally, after October’s home game win over Colorado State, they had to play their final four games on the road. Second year coach Kalen DeBoer welcomes back an experienced roster.  DeBoer went 67-3 in his previous stint as a head coach at NAIA power Sioux Falls.  Expect the Bulldogs to begin a trek back toward regular contention for the MWC championship.  Having to play at Oregon and at UCLA in September and then making a trip to Hawaii in early October could task the roster a tad too much, but FSU could easily sneak into contention .

Hawaii cannot be discounted as a dark horse in the West Division race.  Todd Graham guided the Rainbow Warriors to a 5-4 record that included a New Mexico Bowl win over Houston last year.  The UH offense was consistent, but the defense was not.  Expect a better defensive performance this year, and the offense should be strong once again.  UH will be handicapped a bit this year having to play seven road games, while their home games will be played in a retrofitted practice field on campus, while waiting for Aloha Stadium to be rebuilt.  The practice field will serve as the home field for the next three years.

UNLV wore the collar in 2020, going 0-6 in Coach Marcus Arroyo’s first season.  The Rebels will be interesting to watch this year, even if the total level of talent isn’t ready to compete in the MWC.  While 10 starters return to the weakest defense in the league, and a couple of  players that missed 2020 will be back to make the defense stronger, the focus will be on the offense, namely at quarterback.  

Tate Martell was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.  Martell took a circuitous route home after committing to multiple colleges and playing for both Ohio State and Miami of Florida.  He has one year to show NFL scouts that he is worthy of being drafted.  If he can live up to expectations, Martell could challenge Starkel as second best passer in the league.  If not, UNLV could struggle to win a conference game this year.

Here are the preseason PiRate Ratings for the MWC

Mountain West Conference
Mountain Division
Boise St.103.9103.3104.3103.9
Air Force96.496.396.996.5
Colorado St.88.888.889.389.0
Utah St.85.686.685.285.8
New Mexico85.886.285.285.7
West Division
San Jose St.100.8101.199.0100.3
San Diego St.100.699.9100.2100.2
Fresno St.93.795.796.795.3
U N L V85.884.384.684.9
MWC Averages94.494.594.594.5

The PiRate Ratings are designed only to predict the next game for each team and not to look forward past that game, but just for fun, here are our predictions for 2021.

MWC MountainConf.Overall
Boise St.7-18-5
Air Force4-47-5
New Mexico3-56-6
Colorado St.2-64-8
Utah St.1-73-9
MWC WestConf.Overall
San Jose St.6-210-3*
San Diego St.5-38-4
Fresno St.3-55-7
* San Jose St. wins MWC Championship Game

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