MWC 2024 preview: Boise State and Fresno State are the front-runners


There’s a lot of new in the Mountain West this year. Six of the conference’s 12 teams have new head coaches, and eight will have new starting quarterbacks, some more promising than others. There are two new pseudo-members, too: Though Oregon State and Washington State have not joined the MWC (and are therefore not in this preview), they have entered into a scheduling arrangement with the MWC, and everyone will get familiar with each other.

As we delve further into this new era of college football — with particularly destructive conference realignment moves, NIL money, heavier transfer volume and a newly expanded College Football Playoff — it feels like the MWC is trying to find its place. It hasn’t produced the best Group of 5 team in nine seasons (according to the CFP committee), but with new blood comes new opportunity. The AAC has been weakened by recent realignment moves, and while the Sun Belt grades out as the best Group of 5 conference, per SP+, the MWC has two stalwart contenders (Boise State and Fresno State) and, UNLV, an exciting up-and-comer. Can one of these teams nab the G5’s guaranteed playoff spot? Can some of the new blood find immediate success and bring a little more depth back to what is now the only FBS conference based in the west?

Let’s preview the Mountain West!

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another FBS conference exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 134 FBS teams. The previews will include 2023 breakdowns, 2024 previews and team-by-team capsules. Here are the MAC, Conference USA and AAC previews.

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2024 projections | Best games
Title contenders | Who’s close?
Hoping for 6-6

2023 recap

We saw quite the midseason plot twist in 2023. Air Force began the season 8-0, pairing a particularly strong option attack with another excellent defense and putting itself in position to perhaps snag the G5’s New Year’s Six bowl bid. Fresno State, meanwhile, started 8-1; with Boise State stumbling to a 4-5 start and firing head coach Andy Avalos, it looked pretty clear that we were cruising toward a Falcons-Bulldogs MWC championship game.

Air Force quarterback Zac Larrier got hurt, however, and the Air Force offense ground to a halt during a four-game losing streak. Fresno State lost three in a row while collapsing equally on offense and defense. Boise State rose from the dead to win three straight, and new coach Barry Odom’s UNLV Rebels sneaked up on everyone, winning eight of nine at one point. Out of nowhere, we had a BSU-UNLV title game, and Boise interim coach Spencer Danielson ended up earning the full-time job with a 44-20 blowout of the Rebels. Per the SP+ ratings, BSU and Air Force ended up almost equal, though the former had to rise into the 40s while the latter fell there.

2024 projections

Despite all sorts of transfer portal rumors, MWC offensive player of the year Ashton Jeanty stayed with the Broncos, who then pulled off a potential coup in adding USC quarterback transfer and former top prospect Malachi Nelson. Add to that one of the most experienced defenses in college football, and you’ve got a pretty clear (and familiar) favorite atop the pile. But Fresno State has offensive experience and a favorable schedule, and it’s hard to ignore the offensive upside UNLV is both returning (in the form of receiver Ricky White) and bringing to town via the transfer portal. The main question is whether a fourth contender can emerge.

Experience could make a pretty big difference in the jockeying for position outside of the MWC’s top tier. The conference has one team in the top 10 in returning production (Hawai’i) and three in the bottom 11, including Air Force, which brings up the rear in that measure. The service academies are used to replacing quite a few pieces in a given season, but in a news conference this spring, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun said that you might have to go back to 2007, his first year in charge, to find a time when he was dealing with this much turnover. Of course, the Falcons went 9-4 that season, so maybe don’t count them out of the title chase just yet.

Five best games of 2024

Here are the five conference games that feature (a) the highest combined SP+ ratings for both teams and (b) a projected scoring margin under 10 points. As with Conference USA, the favorite is far enough ahead of that pack that it might not be involved in too many close games. But the lynchpin, in terms of both the title race and the general search for excitement, appears to be UNLV. The Rebels have enough close games to make up for BSU’s lack thereof.

1. Fresno State at UNLV (Sept. 28). An early tone-setter. Without Boise State on the regular-season schedule, Fresno State is a projected favorite in every MWC game. But this one’s a relative tossup. UNLV will have to figure out its QB situation during nonconference games against Houston and Kansas, but if the Rebels are set behind center, this could be a fireworks show.

2. UNLV at Utah State (Oct. 12). Utah State is a relative mystery after collapsing defensively and adding a massive load of transfers, and if UNLV manages to upset Fresno State in late September, this game could await as a land mine.

3. Boise State at UNLV (Oct. 26). This game could tell us everything we need to know about whether UNLV is a MWC contender and whether Boise State is a contender for a CFP slot.

4. Fresno State at Air Force (Nov. 9). Even with massive turnover, Air Force is a projected favorite in four of its first five conference games leading up to this one. The Falcons have won three in a row against Fresno State, too.

5. UNLV at Hawai’i (Nov. 9). If we are to have a UNLV-level surprise this season, it might come from the islands. After a couple of years of major turnover, Timmy Chang and Hawai’i are enjoying heavy continuity this time around, and while the schedule features four projected top-60 opponents and minimal margin for error, there’s a chance this game prompts a late winning streak.

Conference title (and, therefore, CFP) contenders

Head coach: Spencer Danielson (first full year, 3-1 overall)

2024 projection: 38th in SP+, 9.1 average wins (5.8 in MWC)

It’s easy to feel underwhelmed by a promote-the-interim hire. An athletic director likely enters a hot-seat situation with a list of potential head coach replacements in mind, and to eschew long-term thinking because a fill-in coach had a good month or so feels short-sighted.

But in this era when it’s possible to lose a humongous chunk of your roster in a heartbeat, it certainly makes sense. Hire the guy on the hot streak — he’s probably cheaper than some of the other candidates, anyway — and hope he keeps the roster together. If he doesn’t, return to the list in a couple of years.

Boise State went down that route, firing Avalos in mid-November and handing the interim reins to Spencer Danielson. When Danielson’s Broncos won three straight seemingly out of nowhere, with an MWC championship blowout of UNLV, Danielson got the full-time job. He then proceeded to keep a good percentage of the roster together and added some high-upside transfers, most notably former five-star recruit Malachi Nelson. So far, so good.

The Broncos leaped from 77th to 29th in offensive SP+, thanks largely to running back Ashton Jeanty’s star turn. In 12 games, the then-sophomore produced a combined 1,916 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns; holding onto him despite lots of tantalizing portal opportunities was a coup. His line should be far more experienced, and the upside is high, as evidenced by left tackle Kage Casey earning second-team all-MWC honors as a redshirt freshman. The passing game was inconsistent, but it had upside that could be maintained by the addition of transfer receiver Cam Camper. Over two injury-plagued seasons at Indiana, Camper played 15 games and caught 63 balls for 854 yards and three scores. If he and Latrell Caples (549 receiving yards in 2022) are both healthy, then alongside Jeanty and explosive sophomore Prince Strachan, BSU will have a lovely and deep receiving corps with which to complement Jeanty’s running and that of high-upset sophomore backup Jambres Dubar.

Unfortunately, this offensive leap was paired with a defensive collapse — the Broncos fell from 30th to 82nd in defensive SP+. The run defense was average, the secondary was a shuffled mess, and there were loads of youngsters in the rotation. Nineteen defenders played at least 200 snaps, but 16 of them return, including stars in linebacker Andrew Simpson and defensive end Ahmed Hassanein. Danielson also gave new coordinator Erik Chinander a couple of potentially high-upside transfer junior cornerbacks in Jeremiah Earby (Cal) and Davon Banks (Washington).

Per SP+, the Broncos are projected favorites of at least eight points in every game except their Week 2 trip to Oregon, and it’s not hard to see why. Their upside is immense, and they hit another gear late last season. But if Danielson’s one-month sample was misleading, the first two months of the 2023 season are a reminder that a high ceiling doesn’t guarantee high-level play.

My favorite player: RB Ashton Jeanty. There are lots of ways to rack up yardage, and they’re all OK — they all rack up yardage, after all. But Jeanty’s dedication to running through tacklers was both effective and awfully endearing.

Despite missing two games, Jeanty was dramatically ahead of the pack in the forced missed tackles department. Nationally, only four players had at least 80, and only nine had more than 65, but he had 100 while topping 100 rushing yards six times and 100 receiving yards twice.

Head coach: Jeff Tedford (third year of second stint, 45-22 overall)

2024 projection: 57th in SP+, 7.9 average wins (5.3 in MWC)

Jeff Tedford is a damn solid coach. Cal’s average SP+ ranking was 34.0 with Tedford in charge from 2002 to 2012 and has been 70.5 since he left. In five years over two stints at alma mater Fresno State, he has won at least nine games four times. The only thing that tends to get in his way is his own health. He cited heart problems when resigning at the end of a disappointing 2019 season, and last December, near the end of his second year back in charge, he stepped away for a bit due to health reasons again. (It might not have been a coincidence that Fresno State faded dramatically in the weeks preceding this announcement, either.) He told anyone with a microphone that he was feeling fine this spring, however, and the 62-year-old will now take on his sixth season at the helm in Fresno.

A solid Bulldogs offense returns eight starters this fall. UCF transfer Mikey Keene was all over the map in his first year as Tedford’s starter, producing three games with a QBR of 89.9 or higher — including an opening-week win over Purdue and a bowl blowout of NMSU — and four games at 27.5 or lower. Fresno State was 7-1 when he hit at least 33.0. He lost three of his top five receiving threats, but sophomore Jalen Moss and senior Mac Dalena are solid, and if one of two well-rated FCS transfers (Idaho State’s Chedon James or Missouri State’s Raylen Sharpe) sticks, then Keene should have what he needs.

Having Malik Sherrod will help quite a bit. The 5-foot-8, 173-pounder took on a pretty heavy load, with 17.2 intended touches and 96.6 scrimmage yards per game, and he’ll run behind one of the best, most experienced lines in the MWC, one that includes all-conference candidates in guard Mose Vavao and tackle Jacob Spomer.

As with Boise State, the Fresno State offense improved while the defense regressed last season. The Bulldogs slipped from 35th to 79th in defensive SP+, which isn’t dreadful, but going for big plays and turnovers often backfired. The Bulldogs return plenty of proven disruptors — end Devo Bridges, tackle Jacob Holmes, safety Dean Clark, corner Al’zillion Hamilton and 2022 star corner Cam Lockridge (injured last season) — and Tedford added former five-star USC linebacker Korey Foreman as well. There are lots of juniors and seniors in this lineup, so it’s possible that experience tamps down some of last year’s glitches.

The schedule certainly offers resume-building opportunities with nonconference games at Michigan in Week 1 and at UCLA at the end of the regular season. (The former is probably a more realistic upset chance than the latter.) In between, Fresno State is a projected favorite in all 10 games, though the Week 5 trip to UNLV is a relative tossup. If Tedford is indeed healthy and fully Tedford, he probably has the players he needs to produce a Tedford-esque season.

My favorite player: RG Mose Vavao. Here’s a list of FBS right guards who combined (a) 600-plus snaps, (b) zero penalties and (c) a blown run block rate of 1% or lower: Michigan All-American Zak Zinter and Mose Vavao. That’s it. That’s the precise definition of “good company” right there. The 6-foot-3, 313-pounder anchors what should be one of the nastier and more experienced O-lines in the West.

A couple of breaks away from a run

Head coach: Barry Odom (second year, 9-5 overall)

2024 projection: 71st in SP+, 6.8 average wins (4.3 in MWC)

One year can be a mirage. A first-year coach catches lightning in a bottle with surprising tactics, just the right quarterback and personnel dying for new direction. Maybe a coordinator leaves, or the quarterback graduates or transfers, or the personnel settles in and gets a little less hungry, and it turns out that the first-year surge is hard to match.

Granted, quarterback Jayden Maiava did leave for USC after throwing for 3,085 yards in Odom’s first season at UNLV. And who knows what happens as Odom actually tries to build a culture. But a lot of what Odom did while boosting a Rebels surge from 5-7 to 9-3 sure seemed pretty replicable. He hired a dynamite young offensive coordinator (Brennan Marion), who’s actually staying in town for a second year. He returns one of the best receivers in the country (Ricky White III), plus an ultra-reliable slot receiver (Jacob De Jesus). And hey, the defense in no way played over its head, ranking 104th in defensive SP+. Jumping four wins and 39 spots in SP+ (from 100th to 61st) is hard to maintain, but UNLV still appeared to have further room for growth in 2023, and the Rebels return a lot of the reasons for last year’s improvement.

Now they just need a quarterback. (And defensive improvement. But let’s talk QBs first.) What’s better than signing an FCS star? Signing two. Odom brought in both Matthew Sluka (Holy Cross) and Hajj-Malik Williams (Campbell); I’m very intrigued by both. Odom also dipped into the FCS ranks to grab Central Arkansas’ Kylin James, a unique athlete who, over the last two years, combined 1,074 rushing yards with 1,081 receiving yards. White, De Jesus, James, sophomore back Jai’Den Thomas, 6-foot-7 tight end Kaleo Ballungay … there are weapons in all shapes and sizes here as long as either Sluka or Williams comes through at QB.

Odom also used the portal to address defensive needs. UNLV defended the run well last season (42nd in rushing success rate) and should again with the return of nearly every defensive lineman and star linebacker Jackson Woodard. But the secondary lacked, and here come seven DB transfers, including former blue-chippers Tony Grimes (North Carolina/Texas A&M) and Jalen Catalon (Texas), to attempt a turnaround. If it works, defensive improvement could offset any possible offensive regression.

My favorite player: WR Ricky White III. Yards per route is a nice catch-all stat that combines how explosive a receiver is and how frequently he’s targeted. Anything over 2.0 is good, anything over 3.0 is elite, and only Malik Nabers could top White’s 3.6 yards per route.

That is an absurd number, and White is probably going to make any new QB pretty successful.

Head coach: Jay Sawvel (first year)

2024 projection: 87th in SP+, 6.6 average wins (4.1 in MWC)

Thank you, Wyoming.

It has been easy to get existential over the past year, pondering the future of college football with the destructive realignment moves on the way, the demise of the Pac-12 and the talk of super leagues and the rich getting even richer and private equity’s impending invasion of the sport. If nothing else, Wyoming’s September was a reminder that college football is always going to be college football to some degree. Over the course of 22 days, the Cowboys played in two of the best games of 2023, beating Texas Tech in double overtime, then taking down Appalachian State thanks in part to a blocked field goal return.

Just ridiculous fun. The two wins drove an eventual 9-4 finish, Craig Bohl’s best in a decade-long tenure. But then that tenure ended. The 65-year-old Bohl retired, with defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel taking over as his successor.

Bohl took over with Wyoming at a low point and put together a program that bowled in six of his past eight years, nearly won a MWC title and created Josh Allen. Sawvel would do well to match Bohl’s accomplishments; exceeding them will be awfully hard.

Wyoming should certainly still have a Wyoming defense. Last year’s defense was technically UW’s worst in seven years, but it still ranked a solid 63rd in defensive SP+, and it returns nine of the 14 players with at least 300 snaps. That includes havoc-heavy ends Sabastian Harsh and Tyce Westland, veteran linebacker Shae Suiaunoa and playmaking safeties Isaac White and Wyett Ekeler.

If Sawvel is to eventually one-up Bohl, it will be by fielding a decent offense. Wyoming averaged a 106 offensive SP+ ranking over the past seven years; last year’s No. 81 ranking was a high point. The passing game gets a reset with the loss of both quarterback Andrew Peasley and his top three receivers, but success typically came from the run game, and both Harrison Waylee (5.8 yards per carry) and Dawaiian McNeely (5.7 in 2022 before missing last year with an ACL tear) are back, as are four starters from what was a pretty young line. I wouldn’t expect many immediate changes here, though likely starting quarterback Evan Svoboda could form a pretty interesting partnership with high-upside tight end John Michael Gyllenborg.

My favorite player: DE Sabastian Harsh. Wyoming’s entire ethos is having a big motor, and Harsh lives that ethos. He made tackles on 11.6% of his snaps in 2023, more than anyone besides last season’s leading tackler, linebacker Easton Gibbs. He recorded three sacks and eight run stops among a team-leading 10 TFLs, so he’s got disruptive potential, but his superpower is running really hard after the ball on every play.

Head coach: Troy Calhoun (18th year, 130-82 overall)

2024 projection: 92nd in SP+, 6.5 average wins (3.9 in MWC)

We take Air Force and Troy Calhoun for granted at this point. Army (two bowl seasons and an 81.8 average SP+ ranking over the last five years) and Navy (one bowl, 83.0 average ranking) have found the road pretty rocky in recent years, but Air Force has just continued to rack up wins. The Falcons have won four bowls in five years, missing out only during an abbreviated 3-3 campaign in 2020, and their average SP+ ranking has been 41.6 in that span, absolutely dynamite considering all the recruiting and redshirting limitations they deal with. They’ve employed just two coaches in 40 years, Fisher DeBerry and Calhoun, and after a dip about a decade ago, Calhoun has found a hell of a cruising altitude.

Air Force has won at least nine games for each of the last four full seasons, but if the Falcons pull that off again in 2024, give Calhoun national coach of the year honors. He’s used to dealing with more turnover than most, but now he’s dealing with the most turnover.

Quarterback Zac Larrier is gone. So are the top four rushers (including Larrier), top eight offensive linemen and nine of the 14 players who saw at least 250 snaps on a defense that ranked in the defensive SP+ top 30 for the fourth straight year.

There could still be hope for the defense, which has thrived under third-year coordinator Brian Knorr. The linebacking corps got wiped clean, but tackle Payton Zdroik is a star, and 310-pound senior James Tomasi could become one with more snaps. And while safety Trey Taylor, a seventh-round draft pick, is a particularly damaging loss, corner Jamari Bellamy is one of the best in the MWC, and the return of senior Camby Goff, injured in 2022, gives the Falcons a nice, physical option at either safety, corner or nickel.

It’s harder to be optimistic about the offense, but the top two leading rushers, 210-pounders Dylan Carson and Aiden Calvert, each averaged at least 7.3 yards per carry in limited snaps, and since this is Air Force, the new starting offensive line will still include juniors and seniors who have been in the program a while. But John Busha, the only QB with any experience, struggled in a late fill-in game for Larrier, and the other options are sophomores.

Calhoun gets the benefit of the doubt here because he’s been so good for so long. But his Falcons should suffer some regression this season, even if they still grind out another bowl bid.

My favorite player: DT Payton Zdroik. The 275-pounder from Brentwood, California, missed one tackle all year and led an active line in TFLs (8.5), run stops (10) and pressure rate (9.7%). And like Wyoming’s Sabastian Harsh, he’s super active, too, making tackles on a linebacker-esque 10.5% of his snaps.

Just looking for a path to 6-6

Head coach: Jay Norvell (third year, 8-16 overall)

2024 projection: 98th in SP+, 6.0 average wins (3.7 in MWC)

When things are good at Colorado State, they’re good for a while. Sonny Lubick engineered a run of 10 straight winning seasons and six WAC titles from 1994-2003. And after a post-Lubick funk, the Rams won 10 games in 2014, the second of a five-year run of bowl bids. You can produce high-level pros in Fort Collins — in recent times, see: Shaquil Barrett, Rashard Higgins, Michael Gallup, Trey McBride, lots of O-linemen — and the Rams play in a pretty, new(ish) stadium. Success feels natural.

When things are bad, however, they’re also bad for a while. After a 7-6 season in 2003, the Rams finished above .500 just once in the next nine years. And since Mike Bobo’s last 7-6 campaign in 2017, they’ve suffered six straight losing seasons. When Nevada’s Jay Norvell came aboard in 2022, bringing quite a few solid Nevada players with him, it seemed like the table was set for a rebound. Instead, Norvell’s 8-16.

If you’re optimistic, you could note that Norvell is 5-5 after a 3-11 start. The offense perked up last year, with redshirt freshman Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi throwing for 3,460 yards, about a third of which went to star receiver Tory Horton. The run game remained dreadful, but both Fowler-Nicolosi and Horton are still in Fort Collins, slot man Dylan Goffney is a big play threat (if he can tamp down the drops) and former blue-chipper Armani Winfield (Baylor) joins the receiving corps as well. The O-line will feature at least three seniors and redshirt freshman running back Justin Marshall enjoyed a three-game star turn (311 yards, 5.5 per carry) late in 2023.

There’s every reason to believe the offense will improve again. And while the defense slipped a bit, it is at least experienced. Ten returning juniors and seniors started at least one game last year, including edge rusher Nuer Gatkuoth (11.5 TFLs), linebacker Chase Wilson (7.5 TFLs) and safety Henry Blackburn (seven TFLs, three INTs). Norvell is a good recruiter and has attracted quite a few mid- to high-three-star prospects over the last couple of years. Those efforts could begin to provide decent depth, too. SP+ gives the Rams a solid chance of climbing up to bowl eligibility this season, and if history is any indication, that probably means they’ll bowl a few more times in the years that follow.

My favorite player: WR Tory Horton. He caught at least seven passes eight times, gained at least 99 yards five times and topped 1,100 yards for the season, all with minimal big plays. If he and Fowler-Nicolosi can generate an actual downfield connection this year, the yardage totals could skyrocket.

Horton caught just five of 24 balls thrown 20-plus yards downfield; that was a massive downgrade from the 16-for-29 clip that drove another 1,100-yard campaign in 2022.

Head coach: Blake Anderson (fourth year, 23-17 overall)

2024 projection: 101st in SP+, 5.1 average wins (3.1 in MWC)

In the transfer portal era, your roster’s strengths and weaknesses can vary pretty significantly from year to year. Blake Anderson’s Utah State is proof. In three seasons in Logan, Anderson has fielded offenses ranked 62nd, 108th and 54th in offensive SP+, respectively; his three defenses have ranked 54th, 105th and 131st.

USU’s turnover has not slowed after a pair of 6-7 seasons. Anderson lost 25 players to the transfer portal and brought in 23 transfers of his own, plus 10 JUCOs. The Aggies will have a new leading passer (likely one of four incoming QB transfers), new leading rusher and, in terms of targets and catches, new leading receiver. The defense has lost six starters but added four part- or full-time starters from other FBS schools. It’s a new team once again.

The offense should be fine. Between Spencer Petras (Iowa), Bryson Barnes (Utah), Jacob Conover (Arizona State) and CJ Tiller (Boise State), a decent QB should emerge, and he’ll have an experienced line in front of him and, in running back Rahsul Faison (6.2 yards per carry) and receivers Jalen Royals (2.2 yards per route) and Micah Davis (2.1), proven weapons around him. But the key will be a defense that has trended drastically in the wrong direction. A decent pass defense was undone by a complete inability to defend the run, which probably explains why Anderson brought in seven transfer linemen, a batch that includes both a former blue-chipper (Stanford’s Jason Armitage) and a Division II star (Limestone’s Collin Vaughn). The secondary adds excellent NMSU cornerback transfer Andre Seldon to a depth chart that already includes havoc-heavy safety Ike Larsen. Anderson also took NMSU’s defensive coordinator, Nate Dreiling. That might end up being the most important transfer of the bunch.

My favorite player: RB Rahsul Faison. He withdrew from the transfer portal in late May. That gave Anderson an extra portal win because Faison’s big plays correlated pretty well with USU success. When he had at least two rushes of double-digit yardage, the Aggies averaged 39.1 points per game (32.7 if you don’t include the 78-pointer against Idaho State) and went 4-3. When he didn’t, they averaged 26.2 PPG and went 2-4. He’ll get more carries, and more shots at chunk plays, this fall.

Head coach: Timmy Chang (third year, 8-18 overall)

2024 projection: 100th in SP+, 5.6 average wins (3.1 in MWC)

Just as Wyoming contributed huge things to the college football ecosystem with its silly September last year, we owe Hawai’i enormous debts for similar contributions through the years, be it winning late-season games against power-conference foes in the 1980s and 1990s or fielding an offense that allowed Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan to combine for 31,265 career yards and 248 career TDs. The Warriors have entertained us for decades.

They might field their most entertaining team in at least five years this fall. After dealing with epic turnover for a couple of years, Chang’s Warriors now rank seventh nationally in returning production. Quarterback Brayden Schager returns after throwing for 3,542 yards and 26 TDs, and he gets his six leading receivers back as well, including big-play man Steven McBride and possession man Pofele Ashlock. All-conference tackle Luke Felix-Fualalo returns up front, too. (Chang predictably runs an absurdly pass-heavy attack, so there’s no need to talk about the run game.)

The offense perked up last year, but the defense got worse, falling to 121st in defensive SP+ and allowing 41.4 points per game in losses. The Warriors overachieved against SP+ defensive projections by 8.0 PPG in November; that could be a sign of impending improvement, though the loss of three of last year’s top four linemen is worrisome. If Hawai’i has enough oomph up front, it has a lot of playmakers in the back. Linebacker Jalen Smith had 9.5 TFLs and 15 run stops last year, linebacker Logan Taylor had 5.5 and 11, respectively, in 2022, safety Peter Manuma is a unique playmaker (five TFLs, three INTs, 10 run stops), and the cornerbacks, led by 6-foot-2 senior Virdel Edwards II, are super aggressive. (That’s sometimes a good thing, sometimes not.) The defense has attitude and aggression, but it needs more consistency to make Hawai’i a bowl team again.

My favorite player: RT Luke Felix-Fualalo. He’s here because he’s both good (one sack allowed despite over 600 dropbacks) and huge (6-foot-8). He’s also here because his bio is spectacular. Born in Australia. Named after Luke Skywalker. Father played rugby for Tonga. Cousin was New Zealand’s Strongest Man. He might be my favorite player in all of college football this year.

Head coach: Sean Lewis (first year)

2024 projection: 104th in SP+, 5.2 average wins (2.9 in MWC)

Deion Sanders’ loss is SDSU’s gain. Sean Lewis left his post as Kent State’s head coach to become Sanders’ offensive coordinator at Colorado, but after a bright start to last season, the relationship quickly cooled. (My own theory: Lewis likes to run the ball and throw loads of quick sideline passes for efficiency purposes, but both of those things took the ball out of Shedeur Sanders‘ hands too quickly for the head coach’s liking.) Now he gets to go back to being a Group of 5 head coach. He was pretty good at it at Kent State, leading the Golden Flashes to two bowls and going 22-21 over his last four seasons. That is miracle work at Kent State.

Lewis teams are also usually fun; SDSU hasn’t seen fun in a while. Even when the Aztecs were winning double-digit games five times from 2015-21 under Rocky Long and Brady Hoke, success came with defense and special teams. They have averaged a 110.2 offensive SP+ ranking over the last six years, and when the defense tailed off last season, everything collapsed.

Lewis predictably brought in quite a few offensive transfers, including former blue-chippers like quarterback AJ Duffy (Florida State), tight end Jude Wolfe (USC) and receiver Jerry McClure (UCLA) and former Kent State stars in RB Marquez Cooper and receiver Ja’Shaun Poke. We’ll see if that’s enough to prompt an immediate turnaround.

The defense gets a hard reset. New coordinator Eric Schmidt, most recently a Kalen DeBoer assistant at Washington and Fresno State, has to replace nine of the 11 defenders with 300-plus snaps. But here comes a load of transfers, of course. Lewis went mostly young with his portal additions, but seniors like linebacker Kyle Moretti (Central Michigan), safety William Nimmo Jr. (UCLA) and corner Bryce Phillips (Tennessee State) should play immediate roles.

My favorite player: WR Ja’Shaun Poke. Poke didn’t make much of an impression at West Virginia last year, but he was the personification of the Lewis offense at Kent State.

At its best, the Lewis offense stretches defenders to both sidelines, gets opponents moving horizontally, then exploits that with lots of Marquez Cooper between the tackles and the occasional (and probably successful) deep shot. SDSU might have the pieces for that this year.

Head coach: Ken Niumatalolo (first year)

2024 projection: 112th in SP+, 4.7 average wins (2.5 in MWC)

One of Timmy Chang’s most reliable receivers while he was throwing for a million yards at Hawai’i? Craig Stutzmann. Now Chang is Hawai’i’s head coach, and Stutzmann is one of the most interesting assistants in the MWC. He will be the first Ken Niumatalolo offensive coordinator without an option background.

Niumatalolo won 109 games with a pair of AP top-20 finishes as Navy’s head coach, and his success was tied primarily to the flexbone triple option offense. But his program slipped over his final few seasons, and he spent last year with a unique position: director of leadership for Chip Kelly’s UCLA. He is by all accounts one of the best people in the coaching business, and now he’ll try to succeed as a CEO-type while keeping things more modern on the field. Stutzmann comes from the run-and-shoot tree and served as GJ Kinne’s passing game coordinator at Texas State last season.

There’s intriguing logic behind these hires, but it might take a couple of years for things to fall into place. The Spartans rank 131st in returning production and are looking at replacing their starting quarterback, top two rushers, four starting O-linemen and nine of the 14 defenders with over 300 snaps. When you’re breaking in a new quarterback and two new lines, things don’t tend to go very well.

Likely starting quarterback, Jay Butterfield, a former blue-chipper and Oregon signee, does have some upside, and he’ll have senior receivers Nick Nash (728 yards and eight TDs) and Justin Lockhart (578 yards in 2022 before a 2023 arm injury). And the defense has decent veterans in tackle Soane Toia and linebackers Jordan Pollard and Taniela Latu. Still, when you’re making a unique hire and the returning production levels are that low, it feels like a Year 0 situation. We’ll start evaluating Niumatalolo in 2025.

My favorite player: RG Marist Talavou. The only returning starter on the O-line is a good one. The 6-foot-3, 346-pound former Utah signee allowed just one sack and produced a solid 1.5% blown block rate last season. And while he doesn’t have any Tonga rugby or New Zealand’s Strongest Man ties in his family, he does have two uncles who played in the NFL.

Head coach: Jeff Choate (first year)

2024 projection: 121st in SP+, 3.4 average wins (1.8 in MWC)

In the two years since Jay Norvell left Nevada for CSU, it’s turned out poorly for everybody. CSU has averaged just four wins, while Nevada has fielded its two worst teams since at least 2000. After going 8-5 and ranking 52nd in SP+ in 2021, the Wolf Pack proceeded to go 2-10 twice under Ken Wilson, first falling to 118th, then 132nd. Dire stuff. Norvell had arrested a slide that began after the legendary Chris Ault retired in 2012, but when he left, the collapse resumed.

Now it’s Jeff Choate’s turn to turn things around. On paper, Choate is the perfect type of hire for Nevada. A Montana Western grad, he put together coaching experience at Utah State, Boise State, Washington State and Washington before serving four seasons as Montana State’s head coach and bringing them to the FCS semifinals in 2019. He spent the last three years as Steve Sarkisian’s defensive co-coordinator at Texas.

Choate’s situation is most certainly a Year 0. The only thing the Pack were decent at last year was defending third-and-longs, but they couldn’t force any, and the offense ranked at or near the bottom of FBS in just about everything. Both of last year’s primary QBs, Brendon Lewis and AJ Bianco, return, and former blue-chipper Chubba Purdy comes to town from Nebraska, too. The running back room and offensive line are more experienced, but the receiving corps is starting over.

The defense should be able to lean on a lovely linebacking corps led by junior Drue Watts, and sophomore cornerback KK Meier is nice and aggressive. Choate brought Texas safety Kitan Crawford with him as well. The cupboard isn’t completely bare, and I like Choate’s coordinator hires: former Oregon and Washington OC Matt Lubick has spent the last two years as an analyst for Andy Kotelnicki at Kansas, and Kane Ioane was Andy Avalos’ defensive co-coordinator at Boise State. Still, there’s no reason to think some good ideas and a handful of transfers will turn this thing around quickly.

My favorite player: LB Drue Watts. The guy did all he could. Tasked with cleaning up messes on an overwhelmed defense, Watts made tackles on 15.3% of his snaps (72 overall), but he also found time to disrupt matters with eight TFLs, 10 run stops, 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups and four fumble recoveries. Give him a bit more help and see what he can do.

Head coach: Bronco Mendenhall (first year)

2024 projection: 131st in SP+, 2.2 average wins (1.5 in MWC)

After two years on a ranch, Bronco Mendenhall’s back in the coaching game, and the unique coach has found another unique job. He rejuvenated a stalled BYU program and won double-digit games five times in a six-year span, and he earned bowl eligibility in five of six years at Virginia, a team that had enjoyed only one winning record in the eight years before his arrival (and in zero of the two since his departure).

New Mexico feels like a Mendenhall job, and he’s brought the band back together, hiring former UVA QBs coach Jason Beck as his offensive coordinator and former BYU and UVA defensive coordinator Nick Howell as his DC. And stop me if you’ve heard this before: It’s probably going to take them a while. The Lobos return about seven total starters, and Mendenhall has dipped heavily into the portal, especially on the offensive line (eight incoming transfers) and secondary (six). Sophomore quarterback Devon Dampier and junior receiver Caleb Medford are decent starting points for Beck, former USC defensive tackle De’jon Benton (5.5 TFLs in just 209 snaps last year) might be a portal steal, and hey, Mendenhall can promote heavy competition at basically every position on the roster. But it took him a year to get anything going at Virginia, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it took him even longer at a school that hasn’t produced a bowl team since 2016.

My favorite player: QB Devon Dampier. Call this a hopeful fave. We probably overreact to small samples too much, and that’s exactly what I’m about to do, but in New Mexico’s last three games of 2023, Dampier saw 74 snaps — about one full game’s worth. And in those snaps, he went 24-for-41 for 336 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and while he took four sacks, he also rushed 28 times for 146 yards. He was above average against both man and zone defenses, he scrambled beautifully, and he produced big plays. Color me very intrigued, especially since he’s pairing up with a coordinator who knows how to operate with a mobile QB.

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