Cade Beresford
Boise State looks strong this fall, and offensive lineman Cade Beresford is one reason (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)

Mountain West Preview: Boise State Should Supplant Fresno State

The Mountain West Conference was defense-dominant last season. Wyoming and Air Force come to mind when it comes to strangling the competition. After defense, football is about running the ball in the West. Look at Air Force and Boise State, the top rushing attacks in the conference. Fresno State had an exciting offense in 2022, as did San Jose State.

Wyoming looks to have a stalwart defense once again, led by another outstanding linebacker in Easton Gibbs. The question for Wyoming is: Can it generate enough offense to become a threat in the conference? Quarterback play hasn't been strong since Josh Allen roamed the field for the Cowboys.

Number of Teams/Movement

The Mountain West has been linked to lots of future movements in recent weeks, thanks to the activity taking place in the Pac-12 and its trickle-down effect. The Mountain West should stay as is but add more teams from the West. Add the remaining teams from the Pac-12 and then add the Football Championship Subdivision's stout Dakota schools either in football only or some variation, and there's a chance of a quick rebuild.

So to sum up, nothing massive happened before 2023 in terms of conference movement, but it could happen soon.

2022 Bowl Teams

The Mountain West had seven programs make bowl games last year and had arguably the most impressive overall performance at the Group of Five level, with both Fresno State and Air Force knocking off Power Five teams in bowls. Fresno State defeated Washington State, and Air Force defeated Baylor by two touchdowns. Boise State was the other bowl winner, and Wyoming went to overtime before falling.

San Jose State, San Diego State and Utah State all fell in bowl games. But, as the programs will tell you, they got a chance to practice for a bonus month, and the young men in the program were treated like kings and received NCAA-legal gifts from the bowl games.

Easton Gibbs

Wyoming Cowboys linebacker Easton Gibbs plays against the Air Force Falcons on Oct. 9, 2021, at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Falcons beat the Cowboys 24-14. (Mandatory credit: Troy Babbitt-UW Media-Athletics)

The Elder Statesman

Troy Calhoun at the Air Force Academy isn't only the elder statesman of the Mountain West — he's one of the longest-tenured mentors in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. In his 17th season at Air Force, he is No. 2 in the G5 level behind only Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill (18th year). Stockstill and Calhoun are No. 3 and No. 4 in the FBS behind only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (25th year) and Utah's Kyle Whittingham (19th year).

Getting the Fresh Start

Barry Odom is in his first year at the helm of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but he's hardly inexperienced in steering the ship at an FBS program. After playing at Missouri, he spent most of his assistant coach tenure with the Tigers, including their transition to the SEC a little more than a decade ago.

He was the head coach at Mizzou from 2016-2019, going 25-25 with two bowl appearances. His last stop was at Arkansas, where he was the defensive coordinator. He's already off to a great start at UNLV in recruiting.

The Rebuilder

There are a few candidates, but Hawaii is one that sticks out. Last year, former star Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang was hired after a pro football career and 10 years as an assistant. He went 3-10 with a depleted roster, with wins against FCS Duquesne, Mountain West opponent Nevada and UNLV at home. The Rainbow Warriors are fighting back into the world of relevance with five offensive starters and nine defensive starters returning, but they still may be a year away.

The Upstart

The popular choices this year are incredibly talented Boise State and mega-experienced Air Force, but who could upset the popular-choice bandwagon? There's no question San Diego State is the team to be leery of when it comes to the Boise State-Air Force echelon. The Aztecs may have the conference's top defense; and they do have experienced junior quarterback Jalen Mayden, who threw for more than 2,000 yards last year in just eight starts. The offensive skill players around Mayden will be the big question mark.

The Best League Game

This is an absolute no-brainer: Air Force at Boise State on Nov. 25. Air Force has the offense that everyone in college football loathes preparing for in one week — the triple option, which all three service academies run because they have outstanding leadership, coachability and cerebral players, and they lack size because of academy guidelines. But they can out-trick anyone on a good day, suffocating opponents in time of possession.

The problem for the academies is that when they give up early points and turn the ball over, these teams aren't built to come back in the final minutes of a game. Boise State, on the other hand, is extremely talented on offense (with nine starters returning) after a 10-4 season. Buckle your safety belts for this monster end-of-the-year matchup, folks.

The Best Non-MWC Game Upset Chance

Fresno State at the Big Ten's Purdue on Sept. 2 is intriguing. Many national "all-team" FBS rankings have Fresno State above Purdue — even though it doesn't appear the Bulldogs are quite as strong as they were last year when they beat Washington State in a bowl game. Whether it produces a win in Fresno State's trip to Indiana for this Week 1 trip is one thing, but there is no way this isn't a damned good matchup.

Levelle Bailey

Fresno State linebacker Levelle Bailey will be a strength in 2023. (Photo credit: Fresno State Athletics)

The Overall Take

On paper, the Mountain West seems to be a three-horse race in 2023. Boise State and Air Force are loaded to make a serious run at national prominence. And how can you discount head coach Jeff Tedford and Fresno State after the program knocked off the Pac-12's Washington State in a bowl game and had two of its losses in a 10-4 season come from Pac-12s (Southern Cal and Oregon State)?

In the final season rankings after 2022, Fresno State was second only to Tulane (which beat Southern Cal in a bowl) as the top two teams in the Group of Five realm.

The Predictions

Because Boise State has that pivotal league game against Air Force at home the week of Thanksgiving and also hosts Power Five newbie University of Central Florida at home, there's a real chance this program could go 11-1 in the regular season (with the road trip to Washington likely to be a loss) and be a serious contender — like in the old days — for a New Year's Six bowl game. On the other hand, last year's MWC darling, Fresno State, does have Boise State at home and likely is the lone 50/50 game on the road in conference play.

According to other national media, Air Force has one of the easiest FBS schedules in the country. The non-conference slate has FCS Robert Morris and FBS newbie UCF — and, of course, the two academy matchups with Army and Navy for the Commander in Chief Trophy, although wins against Army and Navy are attainable. This should be a double-digit win year for this program.

Look for teams including Fresno State, San Diego State and Wyoming to be bowl game types, with outside candidates including San Jose State and Utah State.