Only three teams have won the Mountain West championship game in the six years since it was implemented — Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State twice each.
It might be time to mix it up.
San Diego State coach Rocky Long said last week that he sees the division favorites as Utah State in the Mountain — the Aggies boast Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Jordan Love at quarterback — and Hawaii in the West.
Those two rising programs — plus improving Nevada — set up what should be an intriguing 2019 in a conference where titles have been decided by tiny margins. The past four championship games have been decided by three points, including Fresno State’s 19-16 overtime win last year at Boise State.
“This league is special ... because the talent level is about equal from top to bottom,” Long said. “So every game is very competitive and, in my opinion, it’s momentum — whoever gets the momentum seems to continue to play well.
“You know who should be the No. 1-ranked team in the West (Division)? Hawaii ... because they have a good quarterback coming back and they have the most starters coming back. In my opinion, the best team in the league coming back is Utah State — they have more good players coming back and they have the best quarterback coming back.”
While Long predicted change at the top in 2019, the media members who cover the conference favored the status quo. Boise State and Fresno State, the two-time defending division champs, were the picks in the preseason poll.
Both, however, must replace successful quarterbacks.
Fresno State, which has just nine returning starters, will find out what kind of program builder third-year coach Jeff Tedford can be. Boise State, which also has a major hole to fill at running back, needed to beat two Top 25 teams in November just to win the Mountain Division last year — and expects another fight this year.
“It’s super competitive,” Boise State senior offensive lineman John Molchon said of the conference. “To win, you have to win out. There’s a lot on the line, and that’s why it’s a super fun division to be a part of.”
It’s easy to see why Long, and others, are high on Utah State. The Aggies promoted Love for the Heisman Trophy with candy hearts (“Vote Love”) at the media preview, and they have a loaded defense for new/old coach Gary Andersen, a defensive guru who returns after stints at Wisconsin and Oregon State. The offense will need to be rebuilt, however.
Andersen, who still has a Utah State tattoo that commemorated an Aggies bowl berth, jumped at the chance to return when his successor, Matt Wells, took the Texas Tech job.
Utah State’s facilities and resources have improved significantly since Andersen left. He began thinking about a return as the Aggies (11-2) piled up wins last season and Wells’ name got hotter in the coaching market, while Andersen was the defensive line coach at Utah.
“Who would have ever saw it coming?” Andersen said. “To be able to come back and be at the same place for a second time that you love. It’s happened, but it doesn’t happen often.”
Hawaii has the third-most returning starters in the country with 18, according to philsteele.com. That tally includes quarterback Cole McDonald (36 touchdown passes) and wide receiver Cedric Byrd II (79 catches, 970 yards and nine touchdowns). The Rainbow Warriors (8-6 last year) will open the season with three straight Pac-12 opponents and have road trips to Nevada and Boise State in the first half of the season, which could lead to a rough start.
“We still have a long way to go before we get just natural respect in the conference,” fourth-year Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich said, “like San Diego State has, like Fresno is beginning to develop, like Boise has had for a couple decades. But I think our arrow’s going in the right direction.”
Nevada, which improved from 3-9 to 8-5 in Jay Norvell’s second year, enters the season with wins in five of its past six games but returns just 10 starters. The Wolf Pack, Fresno State (nine) and Utah State (nine) are among the bottom 15 programs in returning starters for this season.
Nevada, like Hawaii, is trying to break through in a division that has been won by Fresno State (four times) or San Diego State (two) every year.
“Our goal is to be the best in the West,” Norvell said. “I’ll never forget, when I coached in the NFL, I coached two years with the Oakland Raiders, and all Al Davis wanted to do was win the AFC West every single year, and everything they did was to beat those teams. And we’re the same way.”
San Diego State, which uncharacteristically crumbled the second half of last year from 6-1 to 7-6, appears equipped for a bounce-back season against a soft schedule. The Aztecs play UCLA, Weber State, New Mexico State and BYU in nonconference action and miss Boise State this year.
The Aztecs plan to use more spread-offense concepts this year, but Long says the emphasis on a physical run game will remain.
“We’re going to say we’re gonna send two guys out there and two guys out there (wide receivers) and you’re gonna send four guys out there, too,” Long said, “and then our offensive lineman is going to know exactly who to block and he’s going to put him on his back and we’re going to hand it to the tailback and run.”
That leaves Air Force, coming off back-to-back losing seasons; Colorado State, where coach Mike Bobo is on the hot seat; New Mexico, with consecutive 3-9 campaigns; San Jose State, with a 3-22 record the past two years; Wyoming, which missed a bowl at 6-6 last year; and UNLV, which showed signs of life late last season (wins against San Diego State and Nevada), hoping to surprise.