By, Brent Booher
While much of the attention in the college football universe will circle around the return of the Big Ten, the Mountain West Conference also makes its season debut this weekend with a five-game Saturday slate. New Mexico and Colorado State were also set to play this weekend, but that game was canceled for a wide range of reasons, and deemed as a “no contest”.
Four of the five games will air on national television, and the Mountain West will finally fill the late-night betting void, that so many college football bettors have been missing out on, with a 10:30 PM ET doubleheader to close out their opening weekend.
Not sure about how to gauge the Mountain West Conference or the teams to look out for? We have you covered with the Week 1 Mountain West Conference betting primer.
Utah State at Boise State
Spread: Boise -17
Total: O/U 52.5
Time/TV: 7:00PM ET, FS1
The 2020 Mountain West Conference season will fittingly begin on the ‘Smurf Turf’ in Boise, Idaho where Boise State, the presumptive favorites to win the conference, will play host to the Utah State Aggies.
Boise State enters the new season with holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but there is still quite a bit of talent on the roster for Broncos’ coach Bryan Harsin to work with.
The Broncos offense is led by rising star Quarterback Hank Bachmeier, and Bachmeier will once again have a potent group of wide receivers with Biletnikoff candidate Khalil Shakir being Bachmeier’s main target in the passing game.
2019 Mountain West Freshman of the Year George Holani returns to start at running back for the team after posting a 1,014-yard season with seven touchdowns in his debut season.
While Boise State does not have any question at quarterback, the same cannot be said for Gary Andersen’s Aggies’, as Utah State will look to replace the big void left behind by 2020 1st round draft pick Jordan Love.
Andersen and the Aggies turned to the transfer portal to try to alleviate their biggest concern, and former Utah Ute QB Jason Shelley made the move to Logan in the offseason to become the new signal-caller for Utah State.
Like Love before him, Shelley is another dual-threat quarterback that can make plays with his arms or his legs, and if he can adjust to his new digs, the Aggies happen to have their share of weapons on offense with running backs Jaylen Warren headlining the Utah State running attack.
Where this game takes a major turn comes on the defensive side of the ball, where Utah State struggled mightily a season ago, and Boise State’s offense is potent enough to capitalize.
Boise State’s main concern entering this contest comes along their offensive line, as the Broncos will be starting four new players along the offensive line, something that can become even more problematic considering the abbreviated camps and sudden switch towards pushing towards having a season.
Boise State enters the game favored by 17, the largest point spread of the weekend in the conference, and considering all the questions circulating the Utah State offense you can understand why. Utah State will improve as the year goes on, but this is a very tough spot to begin the season against a team coming off a 12-2 season.
Prediction: Boise State 38, Utah State 17
Best Bet: Boise State -17
Wyoming at Nevada
Spread: Wyoming -4.5
Total: O/U 50.5
Time/TV: 7:00PM ET, CBS Sports Network
If you’re a fan of old school football, namely running the ball and playing tough defense, well the Wyoming Cowboys are tailor-made for you.
The Cowboys enter the 2020 season with 11 starters returning from an 8-5 2019 campaign in which four of their five losses came by four points or less, including a 20-17 overtime loss in Boise last season.
Unlike other schools in the Mountain West, Wyoming wants to beat you into submission with a combination of a heavy dose of running and the best defense in the conference. Look for Xazavian Valladay and an experienced Wyoming offensive line that brings back four starters to pace the slow Wyoming attack.
Craig Bohl’s Wyoming Cowboys have finished in the top two of scoring defense in each of the last three seasons in the Mountain West, and that standard of defensive play is expected to continue into the new season.
Meanwhile, the Nevada Wolf Pack entered the 2020 season believed to be one of the favorites in the significantly weaker West Division of the conference, but after the COVID-19 pandemic abbreviated their season, there will be no divisions and Nevada now figures to revert more to a team that will be (no pun intended) in the middle of the ‘pack’ as far as the conference standings go.
With that said, they still have enough weapons on offense to give Wyoming concern on Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Carson Strong enters the 2020 season coming off of a strong start to his career with 2,335 yards passing and 11 touchdowns, and he should pick up where he left off a season ago thanks in large part to wide receivers Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks. Like Wyoming, Nevada also boasts great continuity along the offensive line, bringing back four of five starters upfront. Toa Taua anchors the running game for Nevada, and he will play a big role on Saturday in running against a very stingy front 7 for the Cowboys.
The difference in this game boils down to who can play better defense on Saturday, and considering the latest play from Wyoming and the fact Nevada has several new starters on defense along with a brand new signal-caller in Brian Ward, and the Wolf Pack unit that surrendered over six yards a play a season ago will be under the microscope in this one.
Fortunately for Nevada, Wyoming’s offense is about as explosive as Jay Glazer’s COVID-19 news, and this may not be a huge issue for the team on Saturday.
With that being said, this is a very difficult home opener for the Wolf Pack, and I’m going to side with the team that has more talent on the defensive side of the ball in a gritty, smashmouth opener for the two sides.
Pick: Wyoming 24, Nevada 17
Best Bet: UNDER 50.5
Hawaii at Fresno State
Spread: Fresno State -4
Total: O/U 67
Time/TV: 7:30PM ET, N/A
The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors are your reigning Mountain West West Division champions, but face several challenges to get back to the Mountain West Conference title game this season.
First and foremost, Hawaii has a new coach in former Arizona State head man Todd Graham. Graham had very successful stints at Tulsa and Rice but seemed to struggle more in a Power 5 conference. That could mean great things for Graham in the softer coaching environment that is the Mountain West.
Hawaii will also have a new signal-caller under center for them in 2020, as four-year starter Cole McDonald graduated from the team following the 2019 season. Dual-threat Chevan Cordeiro will take over at quarterback for the Rainbows.
While Todd Graham is a defensive-minded coach, he has notoriously been a haven for young offensive coordinators that like to air it out in the passing game. This season appears to be right in line with that mode of thinking, as Graham hired G.J. Kinne to coordinate the Hawaii offense. Kinne, for those who don’t know, was the quarterback at Tulsa when Todd Graham was the head coach. The offensive coordinator at Tulsa at the time Kinne was quarterback was none other than Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
In other words, while this iteration of the Hawaii football team likely won’t rival the gaudy stats posted by June Jones’ Hawaii teams, expect Todd Graham’s version of Hawaii football to be just as up-tempo and pass-heavy as it has been for the last several years.
Meanwhile, Fresno State is also undergoing a transitional phase, as they too will be debuting a new head coach on Saturday as new Bulldogs head man Kalen DeBoer takes over for Jeff Tedford, who stepped away from the sport at the end of last season.
Outside of Wyoming, Fresno State boasts one of the best defensive units in the conference and returns multiple starters from a season ago. Many supporters of Fresno State football began to grow tired with the stale and dated Jeff Tedford offense, and DeBoer looks to change those fortunes behind the strong running from Ronnie Rivers (1,247 all-purpose yards, 16 TD in 2019). Fresno State will also have a new quarterback under center with Jake Haener, formerly of Washington.
This looks to be a very evenly matched game on paper, but I will give Fresno State the edge here given the fact Hawaii’s rush defense ranked next to last in the Mountain West a season ago and has not made any real improvements on that side of the ball, though the hiring of Graham will surely improve that unit as the season goes on.
Look for a big day from Ronnie Rivers and for the Fresno defense to make key stops to pull out their first win of the season.
Pick: Fresno State 38, Hawaii 28
Best Bet: Fresno State -4
UNLV at San Diego State
Spread: San Diego State -14.5
Total: O/U 49
Time/TV: 10:30PM ET, CBS Sports Network
San Diego State also enters the new Mountain West campaign with a new (old) head coach at the helm, as Brady Hoke returns to San Diego for a second stint as Aztecs head coach, taking over for former head coach Rocky Long who retired as a head coach at the end of the 2019 season before returning to his alma mater, New Mexico, to be the team’s new defensive coordinator.
While Rocky Long is of the conservative and more vanilla variety on offense, Brady Hoke is not (yes Michigan fans I can hear your grumbling). San Diego State has been methodical in their approach, and have played games similar to how Wyoming approaches them now, but that was the old Aztecs, the new iteration of San Diego State football will be much quicker paced and have a lot more action from the passing game than we’ve seen in recent seasons. Hoke will need to figure out who his starting quarterback will be, and on Saturday we will likely see action from both Carson Baker and Georgia Tech transfer Lucas Johnson.
With that all being said, the lifeblood of the Aztecs remains on the defensive side of the ball, where once again they boast one of the nastiest front sevens in the conference. The Aztecs have the best linebacker corps in the conference and a secondary that shouldn’t be discounted either.
Meanwhile, not much has gone right for the UNLV football program over the last few decades or so. The Rebels finally pulled the plug on the failed Tony Sanchez era, and now welcome new head coach and former Oregon offensive coordinator, Marcus Arroyo to the sidelines.
Once again the Rebels will try to feature a quick-tempo spread offense, in large part because they feature one of the stronger wide receiving corps in the conference. Randal Grimes (696 yards, 7 touchdowns in 2019) headlines the deep unit that saw six pass-catchers grab more than 20 passes in 2019.
The catalyst for UNLV’s attack, however, comes with running back Charles Williams (1,257 yards, 11 touchdowns), and he figures to be the main horse that Arroyo will lean on all season.
This is one of the more difficult games to handicap this weekend, as it’s not clear what each team will look like under their new head coaches. One thing is for certain though, the San Diego State defense is going to be a problem for a lot of teams in this conference, and they will be what eventually carries the Aztecs to win here.
Pick: San Diego State 24, UNLV 14
Best Bet: UNDER 49
Air Force at San Jose State
Spread: Air Force -7
Total: O/U 62.5
Time/TV: 10:30PM ET, FS1
The final game of the opening weekend in the Mountain West involves the only Mountain West program to play a college football game so far this season when Air Force (1-0) takes on San Jose State out in Silicon Valley.
Air Force throttled Navy earlier this season by the score of 40-7, accounting for 369 yards on the ground with their famed triple-option attack. This came after they rushed for nearly 300 yards a game last season, en route to the 2nd best rushing attack in college football, only trailing Navy in that category.
Needless to say, San Jose State probably couldn’t have asked for a more difficult team to prepare for in an abbreviated offseason. A season ago, the two teams met and Air Force had their way with them, rushing for 382 yards in a 41-24 thumping. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot that separates last season’s Spartans defense from this one, look for them to struggle once again.
However, if you noticed, the total on this game is 62.5. That’s not just because Air Force can run all over a defense as much as they please (though it certainly plays a role), but San Jose State actually boasts a very respectable offense and should be just as successful this season as for the first time since 1989, the Spartans made no changes to their coaching staff.
Former Texas A&M and Arkansas quarterback Nick Starkel is the new signal-caller in San Jose, and he enters the job with some of the best skill-position players in the conference. San Jose State boasts a three-pronged attack at wide receiver with senior Tre Walker (79 receptions, 1161 yards and two touchdowns in 2019) being the primary weapon in the receiving game, though Bailey Gaither and Isaiah Hamilton (1,530 combined yards, 10 TD in 2019) will also see plenty of targets and are equally dangerous in the Spartan offense.
Despite the weapons on offense for San Jose State, those weapons can only be effective if they’re on the field. Air Force loves to bleed the clock and run, run, run, run, run, and then run the ball once more. The San Jose defense is not a bad unit, but Air Force is about to make them look that way.
The Falcons rush for over 400 yards as a team and cruise for their second victory of the season.
Pick: Air Force 41, San Jose State 27
Best Bet: Air Force -7