Aztecs, Broncos top Mountain West picks
Special to The R-C
The Boise State Broncos and San Diego State Aztecs are expected to dominate Mountain West football this fall.
The Broncos and Aztecs are the overwhelming favorites to capture their respective divisions in the Mountain West and meet in the conference’s title game, according to the league’s media and national publications. The Broncos and Aztecs could also both be undefeated heading into the title game on Dec. 3 since the two teams don’t play in the regular season.
“It would be huge for the conference,” Boise State wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck said. “But that’s easier said than done. It’s big that we don’t look ahead and that we ignore the hype.”
The hype surrounding the Aztecs and Broncos, however, has been hard to ignore this summer. Sports Illustrated has both teams ranked in its Top 25 in its Aug. 15 issue, both teams received votes in the pre-season coaches poll and CBSsports.com has both in its Top 40.
“It would be big for us,” Aztecs’ running back Donnel Pumphrey said of a possible battle of unbeatens in the Mountain West title game between San Diego State and Boise State. “We haven’t played them since (2014). We started out (with a 20-0 lead) and they came back to beat us. That left a nasty taste in our mouths and that’s the game I want to play.”
The other 10 teams in the Mountain West have other ideas when it comes to the conference title game. Air Force, which won the Mountain Division over Boise a year ago, is picked to finish second this year. Nevada is picked to finish second behind San Diego State in the West Division.
“Our expectations are to win the division every year,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “But it doesn’t mean we’ll do it. That is just always our expectation.”
“Those expectations don’t mean a thing because we haven’t done anything yet,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Boise State is led by sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, junior running back Jeremy McNichols and Sperbeck, a senior. Rypien passed for 3,353 yards and 20 touchdowns last year and was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Rypien was also a First Team All-Mountain West selection last year and this summer he is on the Manning Award watch list.
“We microwaved him last year because we had to get him out there,” Harsin said. “We would have liked to marinate him a little more. But we had to throw him out there fast.”
Rypien, the nephew of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, seems to be head and shoulders above the rest of the Mountain West quarterbacks. “I think he has an unlimited, no-ceiling kind of future,” New Mexico coach Bob Davie said. “He’s a star.”
Harsin believes Rypien is only going to get better this year.
“You just look at him,” Harsin said. “He looks different. He’s bigger, faster, stronger and his knowledge has grown as well.”
McNichols rushed for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns last year and Sperbeck caught 88 passes for 1,412 yards and eight scores as the Broncos led with Mountain West with 39 points a game.
Boise State, though, finished just 9-4 overall last year and just 5-3 in conference. The Broncos also lost to Air Force and New Mexico at home before ending the year on a high note by whipping Northern Illinois 55-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“I want to win every single game,” said Harsin, who has a 21-6 record in two seasons as Boise’s head coach. “There’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t shy away from saying we want to win. But we have to actually do it. It all looks good on paper and I hope everything you guys (the media) say happens. Now let’s go do it.”
Harsin, however, is 0-2 against Air Force since taking over the Broncos. Air Force won at Boise last year 37-30 and went to the conference title game and lost to San Diego State 27-24. That win over Boise State, though, was the last victory of the season for the Falcons, which closed the year with losses to New Mexico, San Diego State and California in the Armed Forces Bowl, 55-36.
Air Force, which finished 8-6, 6-2 (6-0 at home) last year, returns running back Jacobi Owens, who rushed for 1,096 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Running back Timothy McVey (441 yards, nine TDs) and wide receiver Jalen Robinette (26 catches) are also back.
Air Force, which has gone 18-9 the last two years and is 67-50 in nine seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, just pounds the opposition with a relentless ground attack. It is on defense, though, where the Falcons struggle. They allowed 27 or more points eight times a year ago.
Utah State, Colorado State, New Mexico and Wyoming are picked to finish, in order, behind Boise State and Air Force in the Mountain Division.
Utah State (6-7, 5-3 last year) is experienced on offense with returning quarterback Kent Myers (1,593 yards, 16 touchdowns in 2015), wide receiver Braelon Roberts (17 catches) and running backs Devante Mays (966 yards, nine scores) and LaJuan Hunt (338 yards). But the Aggies lost standout linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil off last year’s team as well as wide receivers Hunter Sharp (72 catches, 839 yards, nine touchdowns) and Devonte Robinson (20 catches) and quarterback Chuckie Keeton (1,001 yards).
Utah State lost to Akron in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last year and lost four of its last five games.
Colorado State, which lost to the Wolf Pack 28-23 in the Arizona Bowl last year to finish 7-6 in coach Mike Bobo’s first year, returns quarterback Nick Stevens and running backs Dalyn Dawkins and Izzy Matthews. Stevens passed for 2,679 yards and 21 touchdowns last year while Dawkins ran for 867 yards and Matthews picked up 590. Standout offensive lineman Fred Zerblis is also back.
The Aggies, though, lost their most explosive player in wide receiver Rashard Higgins (75 catches, 1,062 yards, eight touchdowns) as well as running back Jasen Oden (746 yards).
New Mexico, 7-6, 5-3 last year and Wyoming (2-10, 2-6) are expected to be at the bottom of the Mountain Division. New Mexico, 18-32 under Davie after four seasons, do return 10 starters on defense, namely linebackers Kimmie Carson and Dakota Cox (97 tackles, five sacks last year). Quarterback Lamar Jordan also returns after passing for 1,045 yards and rushing for 807 as does running back Teriyon Gipson (850 yards, six touchdowns). But the Aggies did lose running back Jhurrel Pressley (907 yards 11 touchdowns).
Wyoming, which could call itself the champions of the state of Nevada last year after beating the Wolf Pack and UNLV for its only two wins, returns running back Brian Hill. Hill led the Mountain West in rushing last year with 1,631 yards.
“To tell you the truth, we kind of earned last place last year,” Hill said. “Our motivation is to prove that we’re better than last year. ”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hill earned respect around the league last year as the Wyoming’s only threat.
“Hill’s a one-man team.” San Diego State’s Pumphrey said. “It’s just amazing watching him run and watching him run against our defense by himself.”
Hill is more concerned with team goals this year. Wyoming was the only team in the Mountain Division last year with a losing record (2-6) in conference games.
“Last year I did lead the league in rushing but I was still on a 2-10 team,” he said. “It all comes back to the team record. We come here to win. We don’t come here to lose and get stats.”
The Aztecs are the clear favorite in the West Division again.
“If we want to play for a championship, we have to go through San Diego State,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “They are the bully in this league right now.”
The West Division title could come down to a Nov. 12 meeting at Mackay Stadium between the Aztecs and Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack will see a familiar Aztecs team led by Pumphrey, who rushed for 1,653 yard and 17 touchdowns last year. Pumphrey, named the Pre-season Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, also led the Aztecs in receptions with 28. Nico Siragusa leads the San Diego State offensive line, which has to protect a new starting quarterback (Christian Chapman) this year. Maxwell Smith passed for 1,529 yards and 13 touchdowns last year in the Aztecs’ run-oriented, ball-control, Pumphrey-led offense.
The heart and soul of the Aztecs, however, is its physical defense led by linebacker Calvin Munson (98 tackles, 9.5 sacks a year ago), defensive end Alex Barrett (13 tackles for a loss), cornerback Damontae Kazee (8 interceptions) and safety Na’im McGee (81 tackles).
Barrett, Munson and Kazee were named to the Mountain West Pre-season All-Conference team with Kazee named the Pre-season Defensive Player of the Year. The Aztecs (11-3, 8-0 last year) allowed just 16 points and 287 yards a game on defense last year in Mountain West games.
“It’s not basketball on grass when we (Nevada and San Diego State) play,” Polian said. “It’s a 15-round heavyweight fight. And somebody usually ends up bloodied.”
The Wolf Pack is poised to take a huge step this year after finishing 7-6, 4-4 last year for the second year in a row under Polian. The Wolf Pack returns a ton of experience that includes quarterback Tyler Stewart, running back James Butler, offensive linemen Austin Corbett and Nathan Goltry, tight end Jarred Gipson and wide receivers Hasaan Henderson and Jerico Richardson. The defense returns defensive backs Dameon Baber, Elijah Mitchell and Asauni Rufus.
The Wolf Pack, though, must rebuild its front seven on defense after losing defensive linemen Lenny Jones, Ian Seau and Rykeem Yates and linebackers Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons and Bryan Lane.
Seau (10 sacks) and Jones (seven sacks) had more than half of the Pack’s 25 sacks last year.
Butler finished with 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns despite sharing the workload with departed senior Don Jackson (1,082 yards) last year. Stewart passed for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns last year in his first year as the full-time starter. Richardson had 68 catches, Henderson had 52 and Gipson had 19 a year ago and the trio combined for 14 touchdown catches.
San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV and Hawaii are picked to finish behind San Diego State and the Wolf Pack in the West Division.
San Jose State finished 6-7 a year ago with a win in the Autonation Cure Bowl over Georgia State, 27-16. Spartans coach Ron Caragher said the bowl victory gives his program momentum.
“It does carry a lot,” Caragher said. “It carried momentum into recruiting and into spring ball. We’re moving forward and I’m excited about it.”
San Jose State, though, does have to replace workhorse running back Tyler Erwin, who ran for 1,601 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2015. Quarterback Kenny Potter (1,984 passing yards and 415 rushing yards) is back as is wide receiver Tim Crawley (39 catches) and tight end Billy Freeman (48 catches).
Fresno State is coming off a dismal 3-9 season a year ago and must replace departed running back Marteze Waller (920 yards). The Bulldogs averaged just 22 points a game last year and are just 9-17 over the last two years after losing quarterback Derek Carr to the NFL (Oakland Raiders). Chason Vigil (298 yards last year) and Kilton Anderson (817 yards) are expected to compete for the starting quarterback job this year.
“We have to build some confidence in our group,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “Our message to our guys is that this year is about fighting back. We got knocked down a peg last year and now it’s about fighting back. Our kids have come back this year with a chip on their shoulder. Last year wasn’t acceptable.”
UNLV finished 3-9, 2-6 in Tony Sanchez’s first year as head coach last year. The Rebels return wide receivers Devonte Boyd (54 catches, 90 yards, seven scores) and Kendal Keys (43 catches, 515 yards six touchdowns) as well as quarterback Kurt Palendech (794 yards, nine touchdowns).
The Wolf Pack will travel to Las Vegas to try and recapture the Fremont Cannon (after a 23-17 loss in Reno last year to the Rebels) in the regular season’s last game on Nov. 26.
“I am very happy that the game is on rivalry weekend,” Polian said. “Our game with UNLV is just as meaningful to us as all of the other rivalries around the country.”
Hawaii will have a Wolf Pack flavor this year as former Nevada offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich takes over the program as head coach. Hawaii finished just 3-10, 0-8 last year and could be headed to a similar season this fall.
Paul Harris returns at running back (1,132 yards) as does quarterback Ikaika Woolsey (9-5 yards) and wide receivers Marcus Kemp (36 catches) and Devan Stubblefield (30).
Rolovich was the Pack’s offensive coordinator from 2012 through last season.
“I can’t wait for something bad to happen to this team to see how we respond,” Rolovich said.
The former Hawaii quarterback likely won’t have to wait long for something bad to happen to his rebuilding program Hawaii plays Cal (in Australia) and at Michigan just eight days apart early this season.
“Will we start complaining or will we stick together and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get through this,” Rolovich said. “I want something to go wrong early to see how we respond. I want to see adversity.”
The Mountain West suffered through a down year last year and is looking to rebound in 2015 nationally. The league was 18-30 in non-conference games last year and suffered some embarrassment when two of its schools (Nevada and Colorado State) had to play each other in a bowl game. A Mountain West title game between two undefeated teams could lift the conference’s reputation nationally.
“It would be big for the conference,” the Aztecs’ Pumphrey said.