Business as usual looks to be the theme in the Mountain West Conference. At least that’s what the odds are saying. The reality is that there are a lot more questions than answers for just about every team in this conference this season. There is only one coaching change, which is a rarity with 27 new head coaches across college football for this season, but there are a ton of personnel changes in both divisions.
This may be a hard conference to handicap on a week-to-week basis, let alone a full-season basis. The three leaders in the confere – Boise State, Fresno State, and San Diego State – have all experienced big losses on both sides of the ball. The teams in the middle may be improving and closing the gap. The only thing that we can all agree on is that the bottom of the conference will continue to lose games against superior competition.
We’ll try to sort through it all in this MWC preview, with a look at all 12 teams and suggested bets on their respective season win total numbers.
Mountain West Conference Season Win Total Best Bet
New Mexico Under 4.5 (-130, BetOnline) – The Lobos aren’t a headline grabber in any other context other than to say that their season win total under is the best bet in the conference. My personal power ratings and projected spreads have the Lobos down for just 3.45 wins.
Why such a big gap between my numbers and the market? I’m not entirely sure. The schedule plays a role, as UNM does play teams like New Mexico State, Liberty, and Sam Houston State out of conference, but the Liberty game is all the way out in Virginia and Sam Houston State just missed the FCS playoffs for the first time in seven years. The most winnable conference game for the Lobos is on the road at San Jose State.
The Lobos have put together back-to-back 3-9 seasons that have included a suspension for head coach Bob Davie and questions about his conduct on multiple occasions. UNM goes into the season with what would appear to be a lame-duck head coach, barring some sort of 2015-16-esque performance and that seems highly unlikely. My win total even gives the Lobos the game against Sam Houston State and that won’t be a 20-point spread, so I’m even closer to 3, as UNM should be favored just twice this season.
This is a run-first team that averaged 3.6 yards per carry last season. Opponents had 6.3 yards per play and outscored the Lobos by nearly 10 points per game. Davie has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, so the players are learning new schemes that they will probably have to forget after the season anyway. This has potential to be an epic disaster most of the season. This is maybe my favorite win total in the entire country this season.
Hawaii Over 5.5 (-110, 5Dimes) – A bonus best bet here! In fact, a lot of my numbers are different from the market in this conference. The Rainbow Warriors have a lot to be excited about this season. Cole McDonald looks like a player at quarterback after a 36/10 TD/INT ratio last season while playing with blood in his scrotum most of the year. We knew the kid played with some balls, but not quite like that.
Lost in the McDonald hype is the fact that Hawaii went from 6.8 yards per play to 6.3 yards per play last season, so the defense showed some signs of improving in Nick Rolovich’s third year. Corey Batoon took over as the DC prior to last season and is back for another go-round. Hawaii returns 18 starters and a ton of production. John Ursua may be gone, but Hawaii has a lot of depth at wide receiver thanks to the JUCO route.
Hawaii also plays a 13-game schedule, which makes six wins even more reachable. My numbers have Hawaii down for 6.29 wins. They are clear favorites in five games, a pick ‘em in another, and a single-digit underdog twice. Hawaii’s 6-1 start followed by a 2-5 ending has given us a little bit of hidden value on the Rainbow Warriors, who are inching back to having a full home field advantage again.
Boise State Broncos Under 10 (-120, 5Dimes) – My numbers actually have Boise State down for 10.13 wins, so I’m looking to go against my numbers here, but this is the smallest of leans. The issue here is that Boise State needs to find a question. If highly-touted freshman Hank Bachmeier is the guy, then Bryan Harsin’s team won’t miss a beat. We just don’t know that yet.
The holdovers from last season have exactly seven career pass attempts. This is an offense that lost a 1,400-yard running back in Alex Mattison and also lost its top two receivers in Sean Modster and AJ Richardson. Boise State has been +24 in turnover margin over the last two years under the guidance of Brett Rypien. Rypien is gone now.
As far as recruiting goes, nobody in this conference can hold a candle to Boise State, so there is still a lot of talent in place. Unfortunately, the Broncos are likely to start 0-1 against Florida State, which is a pretty popular sharp pick so far, and then would have to run the table the rest of the way to go over. The schedule isn’t daunting and Boise will be favored in every game except the opener in all likelihood, but there are a lot of offensive question marks.
Fresno State Bulldogs Over 8 (+100, BetOnline/5Dimes) – This one is not a strong pick, despite what my numbers suggest. My projected spreads have Fresno State down for 8.76 wins, but the amount of roster turnover is scary here as well. Marcus McMaryion wound up being a great find for Jeff Tedford and Kalen DeBoer as a transfer from Oregon State. His eligibility has been exhausted, leaving Jorge Reyna and a couple of redshirt freshmen in Ben Wooldridge and Steven Comstock.
Leading rushers Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims are back, but extra emphasis on the ground game may not be great for two smaller backs, especially Rivers, who is only 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds. KeeSean Johnson caught 95 balls, 40 more than any other receiver, before taking his talents to the NFL.
The biggest loss of all could very well be DeBoer, who took the OC job at Indiana. Bert Watts did a fine job keeping the Fresno State defense on track when Orlondo Steinhauer went back to the CFL, but only six starters are back on that side of the ball and the offense will take a step back. That usually affects the defense as well.
So, why the over with all of those concerns? Tedford has done an excellent job. The Bulldogs do have a non-conference coin flip with Minnesota at home, which could be a swing game, but the conference schedule isn’t too bad, including road favorite roles at Air Force, Hawaii, and San Jose State. The quarterbacks don’t have much experience, but Tedford is a QB whisperer and all of them have been in the program.
I’m less confident than my projected win total suggests, so this one isn’t a full-on play, but more of a strong lean.
San Diego State Over 8 (+120, 5Dimes) – This one got a bit cloudier since I finished my power ratings. As it turns out, Rocky Long is talking about changing up the San Diego State offense to go with more of a spread look. Per The Athletic ($), it will be the “same plays, but out of different formations”. So, there’s that.
Ryan Agnew isn’t a good thrower, so this will still be a run-first offense, but the thought process may be to use that running back room more efficiently, as Juwan Washington, Chase Jasmin, and Chance Bell all have different levels of explosiveness. Spreading the defense out a little bit more should keep teams from loading the box as much, though Agnew will still have to show that he can move the chains with his arm.
What we know for sure is that Long’s 3-3-5 defense will produce results. The Aztecs haven’t allowed more than 22.2 points in the last five years and haven’t allowed more than 5.1 yards per play. Will this offensive change open the game up a little bit more? Maybe.
My projections have the Aztecs for 8.57 wins, but this schematic change is something that all of us in the business will have to evaluate.
Air Force Under 7.5 (+102, Bookmaker) – The lines for Air Force are embarrassing in the marketplace. BetOnline has 6.5 with the over -240. 5Dimes has 8 with the under -180. It’s a debacle. My projected spreads give Air Force 7.37 expected wins for the 2019 season, so Bookmaker is the only place with a reasonable line worth considering.
When we consider that 10 cents of juice is roughly equal to .1 wins on a win total line, the BetOnline number of 6.5 with -240 on the under is more like 7.8, so, theoretically, the under 6.5 at +200 kind of makes some sense, but the most likely outcomes for Air Force are 7-5 and 8-4.
If Donald Hammond gets hurt, things look much different, but Isaiah Sanders also has experience. In any event, after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, things are looking up for Air Force in a lot of respects. On the other hand, the schedule is pretty tricky. My numbers have Air Force a favorite in six games with a pick ‘em and three under roles under a field goal. They play a lot of toss-up types of games looking ahead at the schedule. Fourteen starters return and a lot of people are drawing parallels to Troy Calhoun’s recent 10-win teams.
I’m tentatively optimistic about AFA, but the schedule is definitely tricky and the hype train may be getting a little off the tracks.
Utah State Over 6.5 (-125, BetOnline) – Why isn’t this a best bet? After all, my projected spreads and power ratings have this win total sitting at 7.34 games. The market is right to be down on the Aggies, who go from Matt Wells to Gary Andersen, which is a big downgrade in my estimation. Andersen will likely regress the gains made by Jordan Love and the offense with his boring, archaic style of football.
The Aggies have lost their top five pass catchers from last season, a 1,000-yard rusher, four offensive linemen, and their entire coaching staff. The defense does return seven starters, but the losses are fairly heavy there. The schedule isn’t too bad for the Aggies, with home games against Boise State and BYU, but road games against San Diego State and Fresno State. Non-conference road games at LSU and Wake Forest are a real challenge.
Utah State has the talent to have a high ceiling, but I’m very skeptical of Andersen and the five-win improvement from 2017 to 2018.
Nevada Under 6.5 (-140, BetOnline) – This is the weakest of all of the Mountain West Conference opinions. My numbers have Nevada down for 6.2 wins, which is right in line with all of the market numbers. A case can certainly be made for the under, though. Florida State recruit turned Last Chance U star (using that term loosely) Malik Henry is likely to be flying the plane for the modified Air Raid offense in Reno. If Henry can’t win the job, it will likely be Christian Solano, who barely completed half of his passes with a 0/4 TD/INT ratio.
It could be a redshirt freshman. This isn’t a true Air Raid, in that the Wolf Pack ran the ball 436 times and threw it 493 times last season, but the QB is vital. Ty Gangi was decent with it last season, though he threw a few too many interceptions. Top receiver McLane Mannix transferred to Texas Tech, which could put more emphasis on the run. Nevada had 4.5 yards per carry last season, the most since 2015.
Defensively, Nevada returns just five starters for DC Jeff Casteel. One of the top five tacklers is back. The Wolf Pack have a lot of questions on both sides of the ball. Purdue and Oregon in non-conference play are a really tough way to start the year. Nevada does play Weber State and UTEP afterwards and avoids Boise State, which is why bowl eligibility is certainly possible.
I just don’t have any lean one way or another.
Wyoming Under 5.5 (-110, BetOnline) – This is another one that looks to be pretty close to my numbers. Wyoming is down for 5.8, so the slight lean here is to the over, but the Cowboys have a lot of question marks. The defense will have to overcome the loss of DC Scottie Hazelton, who joined Chris Klieman’s staff at Kansas State. Safeties coach Jake Dickert was promoted to DC, so there shouldn’t be any drastic changes, but Hazelton was a terrific DC.
Sean Chambers was a bit better than Tyler Van Der Waal, but the real position of concern is running back, where Nico Evans leaves big shoes to fill off of a 1,300-yard season. Big losses on defense also stand out, with Carl Granderson, Andrew Wingard, and Marcus Epps gone. Wingard had over 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons before registering only 87 last year. Still, this is an aggressive defense from the back end that allowed just 3.7 yards per carry and just 4.8 yards per play last season. Some regression is coming this year.
For those reasons, I lean against my numbers a little bit. Wyoming has two winnable road games in the non-conference, but slip-ups there will make it extremely challenging to get to six wins. The Cowboys are favored by more than a touchdown three times in conference play, so they’ll definitely need those non-conference games.
UNLV Over 4 (-115, BetOnline) – The lines across the market are 4 with varying juice on the over. The Rebels went from two wins in 2014 to three in 2015 to four in 2016 to five in 2017 and then fell backwards to four in 2018. Tony Sanchez’s job security is on life support and he’ll likely be fired if he doesn’t get to a bowl game this season.
It seems unlikely, but the Rebels offense has some hope. Max Gilliam is the passer and Armani Rogers is the dual-threat guy. Both guys will be needed with star running back Lexington Thomas gone.
It wasn’t the offense that was the problem, though. It was a defense that allowed over 37 points per game and 6.5 yards per play. This is Tim Skipper’s second year as DC, so the numbers could improve, but UNLV’s defense hasn’t been good for a long time.
My numbers have UNLV at 4.04 wins, but I’m not interested in betting the over or the under here. The schedule features winnable home games against Southern Utah, Arkansas State, Hawaii, and San Jose State, but it looks like a long shot for UNLV to beat Boise or SDSU at home and none of the road games look like great propositions.
Colorado State Under 3.5 (-105, Bookmaker/5D) – Colorado State will be a big underdog in three of four non-conference games and misses out on playing San Jose State this season. As a result, it is hard to find wins for Mike Bobo’s team. Hopefully Bobo will have better fortunes on the health side leading up to the season, as that threw his team for a loop in the month of August last year.
There is just a talent deficiency in Fort Collins. The players from Jim McElwain’s years are gone and last season was the fourth year for Bobo. Everything fell apart, namely on defense, where the Rams gave up nearly 37 points per game. Two 100+ tacklers are gone and Colorado State only had 15 sacks last season.
The offense should be better after just 3.2 yards per carry, but the teams that play defense in the Mountain West win games because just about every offense can move the ball to some degree. My numbers have Colorado State down for 3.06 wins.
San Jose State Under 2.5 (+165, 5Dimes) – It looks like another painfully long season for Brian Brennan and San Jose State. The Spartans have one of the lowest win totals in college football and will only be favored twice this season. My numbers actually have 2.56 wins for the Spartans, but it’s tough to see a third win on the schedule unless they can start 1-0 with a win over Tulsa. They are a 15+ point underdog eight times by my numbers and could be in that role a ninth time if UNLV is decent.
Both sides of the ball did improve in Year 2 for Brennan, but the team went from 2-11 to 1-11. San Jose State lost to UC Davis last season by six and lost in five overtimes to Hawaii. The loss to San Diego State was the only other loss by single digits. This team has a long way to go to even be competitive most weeks. It’s better to err on the side of caution with those teams.