Last year proved the Mountain West can be more than just Boise State and everyone else when it comes to the conference title race, as evidenced by San Diego State winning its first outright conference crown.
On the national scene, it’s still the Broncos and everyone else as the 2016 season begins.
"I know what we look like on paper, but we have no idea until we go play," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
As usual, Boise State is expected to be the class of the Mountain West headed into the 2016 season, a position of prominence the Broncos have held for most of the past decade. But there is a shift occurring. In fact, San Diego State was the unanimous preseason favorite to win the West Division, while Boise State earned 27 of the 29 first-place votes for the Mountain Division.
So there are two clear favorites with the rest of the conference seemingly wide open and begging for an unexpected team — perhaps New Mexico or San Jose State — to rise up and challenge the Aztecs and Broncos.
"Everybody thinks that, through preseason hype, we’re going to be pretty good," San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. "I think we have a chance to be pretty good, too. It’s just a matter of us having the right attitude and staying away from injuries and playing well when we have to play well."
Mountain Division: Boise State is clearly the favorite of the Mountain Division thanks largely to an offense that features arguably the best quarterback in the conference (Brett Rypien), running back (Jeremy McNichols) and wide receiver (Thomas Sperbeck). But each of the past two years, Air Force has gotten the better of the Broncos. It’s likely the division champion won’t be decided until the Broncos visit Air Force in the regular-season finale.
West Division: San Diego State is the class of the West Division. While running back Donnel Pumphrey gives the Aztecs a standout ball carrier who will help alleviate quarterback questions, it’s San Diego State’s defense that’s the real star. The Aztecs allowed more than 17 points just once in the final 10 games of last season. If anyone challenges the Aztecs in the West Division, look to Nevada and its favorable schedule.
Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State. Was expected to redshirt but was forced to play as a freshman due to injuries. Became a star almost immediately, throwing for 3,353 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State. A running back few know about, despite running for 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State. The former wide receiver made the full-time transition to running back last year and rushed for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming. Little known because of Wyoming’s 2-10 season, Hill topped 1,600 yards rushing.
Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State. The Mountain West defensive player of the year in 2015. Kazee tied a school record with eight interceptions.
Nick Rolovich is the only newcomer to the coaching ranks in the Mountain West, taking over for Norm Chow at Hawaii.
His task is significant; the Warriors have gone 11-39 over the past four seasons and have seen the interest in the program dwindle significantly on the islands. And no team in the country faces more travel to start the season. Hawaii opens the season facing California in Australia before traveling to Michigan for the second game.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Fresno State went 11-2 in Tim DeRuyter’s second season in charge of the Bulldogs. Now entering his fifth season, the Bulldogs have gone 9-17 over the past two seasons and are picked to finished fourth in the West Division.
San Diego State should be in the championship game after winning the West Division. The schedule falls favorably for the Aztecs with no Boise State on the schedule and San Jose State at home. Here’s guessing that Boise State stumbles somewhere along the way on the road — either at New Mexico on a short week or at Air Force in the regular-season finale — but still manages to win the Mountain Division.
The championship game will be played in San Diego, but it will be the Broncos taking the conference title back to Boise.