Mountain West Football: 12 most important 2017 non-conference games

The complete 2017 Mountain West football schedule has been released by the conference. Here is the most important non-conference game for each school.

In the race for the Group of Five bid into a New Year’s Six bowl game, playing in statement games against Power Five teams are everything. Even going back to the BCS era, we saw that principle hold true. And a team didn’t necessarily even have to win against a Power Five team, or even keep the game particularly close.

That was the case for Boise State when they went to the school’s third Fiesta Bowl in 2014. The Broncos lost their season opener 35-13 against Ole Miss in Atlanta. They also lost to Air Force to close out September at 3-2. But when they ended up winning the Mountain West title, the question came down to schedule quality. The debate over which Group of Five champion would play in a New Year’s Six bowl came down to two teams.

The first was an 11-2 Boise State team that had at least tested itself against an SEC opponent. The second was a 12-1 Marshall team that had won Conference USA, but who played three former MAC rivals and FCS Rhode Island out of conference. The Broncos won the debate, then went on to defeat Arizona for their third major bowl victory.

Thus the most important game for a team isn’t always its most winnable game, though that certainly factors into the equation. Teams are listed in their order of conference record in 2017. Click ahead to see which games we think will be most important for MWC teams in the upcoming season.

Nov 19, 2016; Fresno, CA, USA; Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Zach Kline (10) looks to throw a pass against the Hawaii Warriors in the first quarter at Bulldog Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports


Fresno State Bulldogs

at Alabama, Sept. 9

Fresno State made a name for itself in the 1990s and early 2000s under Pat Hill by being willing to take on anyone at anytime and anywhere. Of course, it also helped that the Bulldogs took advantage of those opportunities by beating top-tier competition. If the current squad is going to make any noise in 2017, they need to at least show up and be competitive.

That means the September 9 trip to Tuscaloosa probably won’t result in a win for Fresno State. Few teams manage to go to Bryant-Denny Stadium and knock off the Crimson Tide, after all. And Nick Saban is bound to have another strong roster at his disposal as Alabama strives to return to the College Football Playoff for a fourth straight year.

This game, however, will help determine where the Bulldogs stand in their development. Fresno State has fallen from 6-8 to 3-9 to 1-11 in the three seasons since Derek Carr was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. The Alabama is a referendum on whether the team will manage to be competitive in the Mountain West in new head coach Jeff Tedford’s first season at the helm.

Nov 19, 2016; Reno, NV, USA; Nevada Reno safety Jaden Sawyer (8) tackles Utah State running back Justen Hervey (34) during their NCAA football game at MacKay Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports


Utah State Aggies

at Wake Forest, Sept. 16

Utah State is in much the same boat as Fresno State. The main difference is that a new coaching staff is taking over in California, while Matt Wells and his crew enter their pivotal fifth season in Logan. Gary Andersen rebuilt the program over his four years, culminating in the WAC championship in 2012.

Wells took over when Andersen left for Wisconsin, and immediately guided Utah State to the MWC Mountain title and a spot in the championship game in the team’s first year in the conference. The team followed with a 10-4 season in 2014, finishing second in the division. But the last two years have raised concerns about whether Wells has staying power.

A win in the season opener at Wisconsin is probably too much to ask of the Aggies. But a trip to Wake Forest two weeks later provides a more reasonable chance at making a 2017 statement. Utah State will probably still be facing an uphill battle for bowl eligibility this season. If they can upset the Demon Deacons, though, the Aggies would have a legitimate shot at making waves in the Mountain West.

Nov 26, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UNLV Rebels wide receiver Mekhi Stevenson (2) runs with the ball against the Nevada Wolf Pack as running back Charles Williams (8) prepares to block during the second quarter at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports


UNLV Rebels

at Ohio State, Sept. 23

Under Tony Sanchez, formerly of high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman, the Rebels have made slow and steady progress toward MWC relevance. They will be moving into a new state-of-the-art facility in a few years thanks to the Raiders’ relocation from the Bay Area. Now, more than anything, they need to do something to put the program back into the national discussion.

Nothing would do that more thoroughly than giving Ohio State a scare when they go to Columbus on Sept. 23. No other team on their schedule comes close to providing a statement opportunity. And the beautiful thing for Sanchez is that UNLV doesn’t even have to defeat the Buckeyes on the road. If they could even keep the score within single digits, it would be enough of a statement both for the Rebels and more generally throughout college football.

The team has been trending upward, and in year three of Sanchez’s tenure with UNLV the time has come to make waves. If they get to bowl eligibility this season, the mere fact that they played Ohio State could work in their favor. If bowls see them more as a 7-5 level of program than a true 6-6, they could move up the MWC bowl pecking order.

Nov 26, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Nevada Wolf Pack running back James Butler (20) runs with the ball against the UNLV Rebels during the third quarter at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports


Nevada Wolf Pack

at Northwestern, Sept. 2

Now that Brian Polian is out in Reno and Jay Norvell is in, the Wolf Pack will have a stern enough test right out of the gate. Northwestern is hardly the definition of a powerhouse. What they are is a stable Big Ten school that has gone bowling each of the past two years. That said, they are susceptible to upsets, as evidenced by last year’s 22-21 loss to Western Michigan.

Nevada is nowhere near the class that the Broncos were last season as they romped to the MAC title and challenged Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. They were on the cusp of bowl contention last season, though, and cannot rely solely on MWC play to get to six wins. They also play Washington State in Pullman later in September, so wins out of conference are in short supply.

If nothing else, Nevada needs to keep the contest close in defeat. If they can at least look like a legitimate opponent for Northwestern, six wins aren’t entirely out of reach. But if the Wolf Pack come out of the gate listless and get run over in the opener, it could be a long rebuilding year for Norvell and the new staff in the Biggest Little City in the World.

Nov 19, 2016; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose State Spartans wide receiver Rahshead Johnson (8) runs the ball against the Air Force Falcons in the third quarter at Spartan Stadium. Air Force won 41-38. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports


San Jose State Spartans

at Utah, Sept. 16

Like their MWC West rivals Nevada, San Jose State is entering 2017 with a new football coach. Brent Brennan isn’t a stranger to the Spartans, having coached offense in various capacities for six seasons years under Dick Tomey and Mike McIntyre. After six years at Oregon State as a wide receivers coach, he returns to San Jose for his first head gig.

The Spartans have a tough opening test, with American front-runner South Florida visiting San Jose on August 26. They follow with FCS Cal Poly, then go to Austin to face Texas. But the toughest test might be one against a team whose departure from the Mountain West facilitated San Jose State’s move into the conference.

Utah will miss Joe Williams in the backfield, but the Utes should still be a solid challenger in the Pac-12 South this year. This game more than anything will set the tone for the early Brennan years. If he can somehow guide the Spartans to even keep it close against Utah in Salt Lake City, it could benefit recruiting vis-à-vis the other MWC schools.

Sep 17, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats wide receiver Nate Phillips (11) is tackled by Hawaii Warriors defensive back Trayvon Henderson (39) during the third quarter at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports


Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

at UCLA, Sept. 9

Usually there are several glamour programs on Hawaii’s schedule. They have faced three Power Five schools in each of the past three seasons. This year, for the first time since 2012, the Rainbow Warriors only have one Power Five team on their schedule. It could be a boon for a program that already has to travel more than any other program in Division I football.

Their trip to Pasadena coincides with what is likely Josh Rosen’s last year in a Bruins uniform. UCLA has aspirations of contending for the Pac-12 South agains their crosstown rival, and will view this Hawaii game as a walkover. The Rainbow Warriors didn’t come within 20 points of Cal, Michigan, or Arizona last season, so it isn’t an unreasonable expectation.

Hawaii doesn’t need to beat UCLA for Nick Rolovich to take them to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since June Jones had a three-year streak from 2006 to 2008. But if they can make the Bruins sweat on their home turf for 60 minutes, it will show they are ready to contend for bowl eligibility again.

Sep 24, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Colorado State Rams quarterback Collin Hill (15) looks on during pre game before a game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports


Colorado State Rams

vs. Colorado, Sept. 1

Colorado State is playing an ambitious out-of-conference schedule this year. They open the season at home against Oregon State, and they also face Alabama in Tuscaloosa on September 16. But the biggest game of the year outside of MWC play is always going to be the Rocky Mountain Showdown against state rival Colorado.

The Buffaloes have to replace some parts from last year’s Pac-12 South champion squad. They took down the Rams 44-7 last season, though, and will expect to do much the same against their Group of Five rival this year. But Colorado State has held their own against the Buffaloes in recent years, winning three of the past eight.

If Colorado State is really going to contend for a MWC title this year and challenge for a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, they need to make their statement out of conference. Oregon State is not a big enough statement, and Alabama might be too far out of reach. Given the anticipated regression for the Buffaloes, this is the right time for the Rams to get back on top in the series.

Nov 25, 2016; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; Air Force Falcons wide receiver Jalen Robinette (9) gets tripped up by Boise State Broncos linebacker Ben Weaver (51) in the first quarter at Falcon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports


Air Force Falcons

at Michigan, Sept. 16

For Air Force, there is nothing quite like the two battles against the other service academies. The Falcons have taken the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy two of the past three years. The games against Navy and Army, therefore, have their own significance. But that significance falls largely outside of what is more important for the Falcons on a national level.

Instead, the September 16 trip to Ann Arbor will have its own weight for Air Force. Both previous trips to the Big House ended in defeat for the Falcons. The first was a 17-point loss in 1964; the more recent was a two-touchdown defeat five years ago. None of the players were around for that contest, making this another clean slate for the two teams.

For Troy Calhoun’s squad, this game comes at a time when Michigan could regress from last year’s 10-win results. A lot of the veteran roster from 2016 is now gone from the Wolverines, and Air Force could catch them at the right time. At the very least, they have a real opportunity to at least keep it within a single score.

Sep 10, 2016; Lincoln, NE, USA; Wyoming Cowboys linebacker D.J. May (7) tackles Nebraska Cornhuskers player De’Mornay Pierson-El (15) in the second half at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska won 52-17. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports


Wyoming Cowboys

vs. Oregon, Sept. 16

Wyoming surprised everyone else in the MWC Mountain to take the division last season. They have Josh Allen back, and the quarterback is getting early talk for the 2018 NFL Draft. But the Cowboys also lose Brian Hill from the backfield after several highly productive seasons. Craig Bohl needs to have his team humming out of the gate if they hope to remain in bowl contention, much less the Mountain West fight.

The year begins with a trip to Iowa to face the Hawkeyes. Normally, this would be the biggest game of the year for a team like Wyoming. But while Iowa presents its own challenge, and victory there would be quite the boon for Wyoming, it is not their most important game of the year. That’s because a Power Five school is coming to Laramie.

We’ll get to see how the speed of the Oregon Ducks is impacted by the altitude. In their first season under Willie Taggart, the Ducks will hope to rebound from a 4-8 season. That means they won’t be overlooking the Pokes. If Allen can take advantage of the Oregon secondary, Wyoming could win its first game against a Power Five school at home since taking down Virginia in the 2007 opener.

Dec 17, 2016; Albuquerque, NM, USA; New Mexico Lobos running back Richard McQuarley (3) celebrates after scoring the winning touchdown against the UTSA Roadrunners at University Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports


New Mexico Lobos

at Texas A&M, Nov. 11

New Mexico somehow managed to lose to Rutgers last season. They up the degree of difficulty in their Power Five contest on this year’s schedule. What is also different this year is that we will know precisely where the Lobos sit in both the MWC and Group of Five races by the time they finally get around to their statement game.

Admittedly, the Lobos will have to play at American contender Tulsa in September out-of-conference play. But they also take on FCS Abilene Christian and state rival New Mexico State, both of which will do little to inspire College Football Playoff selectors. But it is their November 11 trip to Kyle Field that looms large on the schedule.

By that time, New Mexico will have six of its eight MWC games out of the way. We will also know whether Kevin Sumlin is sitting on the hot seat at that point of the year. If the Lobos could upset the Aggies, it could spell the end of Sumlin’s time at A&M after such a promising start. More importantly for New Mexico, though, it would put them in key position for a major bowl invite if they are also in the Mountain West hunt.

Dec 27, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Boise State Broncos running back Jeremy McNichols (13) against the Baylor Bears in the first quarter during the Cactus Bowl at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


Boise State Broncos

at Washington State, Sept. 9

Somehow, Boise State has been shut out of three of the first four MWC championship games. In 2013, Utah State took the Mountain Division despite a head-to-head loss against the Broncos. In 2015, a loss at home against Air Force put the Falcons into the title game. Last year, it was Wyoming that swooped in for the MWC Mountain title.

The one time Boise State did win the division, they took the Group of Five automatic bid into a New Year’s Six bowl. Thus conference play remains the primary focus, but several games against Power Five teams also loom on the schedule. The Broncos will be favored against Virginia at home on September 22, but that limits the impact of the statement.

Instead, the game against Washington State two weeks earlier in Pullman will be Boise State’s most important this year. The Broncos have never beaten the Cougars, having played only four times historically despite their proximity. Both teams will view this game as a make-or-break contest as they each harbor their own dreams of reaching a major bowl game.

Dec 17, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; San Diego State Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey (19) is presented the award for MVP after defeating the Houston Cougars at Sam Boyd Stadium. San Diego State won 34-10 Mandatory Credit: Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports


San Diego State Aztecs

vs. Stanford, Sept. 16

Donnel Pumphrey may be gone. Expectations nevertheless remain high for San Diego State as they look for a third straight MWC title in 2017. The Aztecs enter the year with plenty of question marks throughout their roster. But they also have several opportunities to make a Power Five statement. Their trip to Arizona State might be the more winnable of the two tests against Pac-12 opponents.

That doesn’t make it the most important for San Diego State.That is because the Aztecs host Stanford on September 16. The Cardinal lose their own feature back in Christian McCaffrey, but David Shaw’s team still looks like a contender in the Pac-12 North.  Bryce Love looks like the right guy to step in for McCaffrey, and the defense should be formidable. For San Diego State, this game could take one of two directions.

Either they beat Arizona State in Tempe, and they are playing with house money in their own house. Even keeping things close against the Cardinal would be enough to keep them in contention for the Group of Five’s spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Or, should they lose to the Sun Devils, this becomes a desperation ploy to stay in the race. At the very least, a loss would give zero margin for error in MWC play.

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