Covers Expert Marc Lawrence continues his summer tour around college football with his Mountain West Conference betting preview.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2013 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
AIR FORCE (3/5)
Team Theme: MISSION POSSIBLE
On paper the Cadets look mighty thin with only 3 starters back on offense and a defense that’s gone backward each of the last three years. But rebuilding and reloading is never an issue with a military team as prospects waiting in the wings are always ready to be the next man up. That experience this season comes in part from 24 first-time starters last year, the most in the nation. And remember this: only five times since the AFA joined the Commander-in-Chief competition in 1972 have they been swept in the same season, as was the case last year. With skipper Troy Calhoun off his first losing season with the Academy, expect a u-turn in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: Three of the last four games with Navy have gone to overtime.
PLAY ON: at Navy (10/5)
BOISE STATE (*5/4)
Team Theme: BOWL ME OVER
For the second straight year, head coach Chris Petersen finds the cupboard bare with just nine returning starters back for the Broncos. This year, however, his troops will take on six 2012 bowl teams in the first eight games of the season, with bowlers dotting the agenda in five of six road games. A puzzling home loss to San Diego State helped snap the Broncos’ skein of four straight 12-win seasons, the only team to accomplish that feat since 1920! In addition, the schedule finds three Friday games and two bye-weeks (make it 3 if they advance to the MWC title game on 12/14). Other than that, it should be no problem for the nation’s winningest team since 1997 (a stellar 168-35) to retain a season-ending spot in the Top 15 for the 16th straight season.
Stat You Will Like: The Broncos are 18-4 SU and 16-6 ATS on Fridays, including 6-0 ATS as single-digit favorites.
PLAY ON: at San Diego State (11/23) - *KEY
COLORADO STATE (*9/6)
Team Theme: “RAM U”
Beware: 2nd-year head coach Jim McElwain’s comprehensive off-season program called “Ram U” was derived from its all-around approach to physical and mental conditioning… and it’s working. The proof is in the pudding as CSU’s 2nd half turnaround last season, despite being gutted with injuries, was remarkable. Behind a rushing attack that improved 70 YPG the final five games of the season, the Rams won three of their final five games. Nine returning starters on offense (plus OG Brandon Hayes, who started 7 games in 2012) and the entire RB corps, along with 8 of the top 9 WR’s, meld with six starters on defense (plus an influx of JUCO linemen) to give them sleeper status in 2013. Make sure you don’t snooze on this team.
Stat You Will Like: The Rams finished 17th in the nation and 2nd in the MWC in red-zone efficiency (21/24 scores) last season.
PLAY ON: at Wyoming (10/19)
NEW MEXICO (5/3)
Team Theme: LET’S STAY PHYSICAL
If you wonder how much a coach means to a program, witness Bob Davie at New Mexico. He pulled the Lobos out of three years of misery and changed the culture and psyche of the team in one season. ”There is only one way to play this game and that’s to be physical. A year ago we were trying to be competitive… now we are thinking about how we can win games. It’s a major, major change,” says Davie. He will be up against it in 2013, though, as 50 first and second-year players (as opposed to 28 third, fourth and fifth year players) comprise the majority of the roster. A pistol offense that improved 188 RYPG last season returns its top three rushers.
Stat You Will Like: The Lobos were the most improved team in scoring margin in 2012 (+25.2 PPG).
PLAY ON: vs. Air Force (11/8)
UTAH STATE (*8/8)
Team Theme: CLIMBING TO NEW HEIGHTS
The Aggies usher in a new coach, Matt Wells, to lead them into a new conference off a record-setting performance in 2012. The question begs: what can they do for an encore? Wells, last year’s offensive coordinator and a former starting QB at Utah State, assumes the reins from Gary Andersen who was lured to Wisconsin after leading USU to its first conference title since 1936. He welcomes a cast of 16 returning starters, 10 of whom won all-WAC honors, including record-setting QB Chuckie Keeton who was 275-of-407 for 3,373 yards, 27 TD’s and 9 INT’s in the air, in addition to picking up 619 yards and 8 TDs on the ground last season. Coming off the school’s second-ever bowl victory, there is no question that the deck is stacked. Let’s just hope the well doesn’t dry up.
Stat You Will Like: The Aggies were the only team in the nation not to allow a 1st-quarter touchdown last season and have not allowed a 1st-quarter TD in the last 16 games.
PLAY ON: vs. BYU (10/4)
Team Theme: BRETT MAVERICK
Meet Brett Smith, the star performer in the cast of Cowboys this campaign. Not only does this star-studded quarterback lead all active MWC QBs in passing efficiency (157.7), he was also the nation’s 5th-ranked signal caller in points responsible for last season at 20.2 PPG. However, the offense is not the concern, the defense is: it’s regressed every year under Dave Christensen and must rely on an infusion of JUCO transfers to change direction. It’s imperative the Boys get out of the gate in strong fashion against losing foes in six of their first seven games as they close out the campaign against bowlers in four of their final five contests. Look for Smith to break out this year.
Stat You Will Like: From College Football News.com: The Cowboys scored 116 points in the 2Q – and 37 points in the 3Q last season.
PLAY ON: at Air Force (9/21)
FRESNO STATE (*7/8)
Team Theme: BABY, YOU CAN DRIVE MY CARR
Former Texas A&M DC Tim DeRuyter made an impact in his first season on the sidelines in Fresno when his Bulldogs improved their numbers substantially on both sides of the ball last year en route to 9-win, five game improvement. It tied for 6th-best increase among all FBS teams last season. Leading the charge was all-MWC QB Derek Carr, a 5th-year senior who enters the season with a .652 completion percentage to go along with 63 TD’s and only 16 INT’s in his career. His prime target, WR Davante Adams, reeled in 102 passes as a freshman in 2012, while catching TDs in each of his last 8 games of the season. A 13th bowl game in the last 15 years appears in the offing.
Stat You Will Like: FSU ranked dead-last with 9 takeaways in 2011, and 5th with 35 takeaways last season. It was the largest improvement by a FBS program since the turn of the century.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Boise State (9/20)
Team Theme: ODIOUS OFFENSE
Little did the Warriors realize when they hired novice native Norm Chow as their head coach last season that the lifelong college assistant offensive guru would direct the worst offense in the FBS. Perhaps it’s what happens when you are forced to play 32 first-time players – the most in the nation. The problem, though, may not be just the youth issues, but Chow himself. Consider: Bill Connelly of SB Nation.com reports his 2008-10 Tennessee offenses ranked 114th, 88th and 90th in his three years with the Vols. Then in 2011 his Utah offense ranked 95th. Hawaii did, however, improve down the stretch, slashing its losing margin from -42.25 PPG the first five games to -22.2 PPG the final seven games of the season. The clothespins are standing by.
Stat You Will Like: The Warriors will take on teams that appeared in bowl games in each of their first five games of the season in 2013.
PLAY ON: vs. Colorado State (10/26) - *KEY if CSU off a loss
Team Theme: RELOADING THE CHAMBER
The Godfather of the Pistol, Chris Ault, has retired for the third time in his illustrious career at Nevada. In doing so, he leaves a legacy as an offensive innovator, so innovative that when he attended the NFL combine he was flocked upon like a rock star by NFL brass looking to pick his mind. Filling his shoes is 38-year old Brian Polian, son of former NFL GM Bill Pollian and never higher than a RB coach. Polian will rely on offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, OC for the Wolf Pack last season and at Hawaii the previous nine years. He’ll hand the gun to QB Cody Fajardo who passed for 2,780 yards and 20 TDs last season while rushing for 1,121 yards and 12 TDs.
Stat You Will Like: During his three-term tenure with Nevada, the Wolf Pack went 49-65 in the 10 years without Ault.
PLAY ON: at San Diego State (10/4)
SAN DIEGO STATE (*7/9)
Team Theme: TAKING THINGS TO A NEW LEVEL
It’s safe to call San Diego State the Troy State of the west coast. After all, they are both resident red-headed step-children in their respective states and, as a result, they get the 2nd-level players. But 2nd-level is not a bad thing when you reside in the state of California, and the fact that the Aztecs have been to three straight bowl games confirms that notion. Not bad for a team that had been to just 3 bowl games in the previous four decades. Sixteen returning starters, including DB Nat Berhe and LB Jake Fely – who ranked among the top 4 players in the nation in tackles per game in 2012 – look to climb up another rung.
Stat You Will Like: San Diego State’s win over Boise State last year was its first victory over a ranked team since 1996.
PLAY ON: at San Jose State (11/9)
SAN JOSE STATE (*7/6)
Team Theme: DON’T FALE ME NOW
When Mike McIntyre headed to Colorado after leading the Spartans to their highest-ever season-ending ranking (21st in the nation) last year, not only did he plant the seeds for new head coach Ron Caragher – former UCLA assistant and University of San Diego coach (44-22), and Troy Aikman’s backup with the Bruins – he also left him a wealth of experienced talent. From a squad that went from 1-12 in 2010 to 11-2 last season, San Jose State welcomes the 4th highest number of returning starts overall (317) this 2013 season. The keys to this vastly improved racecar are in the hands of QB David Fales, who had 4,193 yards and 33 TDs on 73 percent completions last year. Failure is not an option.
Stat You Will Like: The last time the Spartans enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons was 1991-92.
PLAY AGAINST: at Minnesota (9/21)
Team Theme: GIMME FIVE
If you like patterns, this should be an interesting year for the Rebels. The previous coach, Mike Sanford, won two games in each of his first three seasons before capturing five victories in each of his final two years with UNLV. Similarly, Bobby Hauck has delivered two wins in each of his first three seasons with the Rebels. Could a 5-win campaign – or more – be in the offing with a deep and experienced squad in 2013? Logic says yes, considering eighteen returning starters including QB Nick Sherry, RB Tim Cornett and last year’s top two wide receivers are back from the group that lost five games by 8 or less points last year. Should they shore up an Achilles’ heel (a porous rush defense), the prototype for success could be reached in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: Leading WR Devante Davis and RB Tim Cornett, as well as TE Jacobie Russell and receivers coach Cedric Cormier, all hail from Galena Park (TX) North Shore high school.
PLAY AGAINST: at Air Force (11/21)
Be sure to check back here next Monday, July 29th for Marc’s 2013 PAC 12 Football Preview!