When San Jose State came back to beat Nevada at home (in Las Vegas, on New Mexico’s home opener) and win the MWC West, it was the continuation of one of the most exciting college football stories of 2020, which was followed up a week later when the Spartans beat Boise State to win their first MWC title.
The Spartans get almost everyone from the championship team back, but perhaps the biggest story of the 2021 MWC is the ridiculous competitiveness of the West race. According to SP+, the top four teams in the division – Nevada, Fresno State, UAC and SDSU – are within 10 spots of each other in the standings. Last year, these four teams played each other in four games and were separated by a total of 29 points. This year could be even more exciting.
By the way, you can see a reminder of the scheduled entries below: They are based on the probability of winning. A 50% chance corresponds to 0.5 profit. So when you see the top four teams in the conference go 5-3, it’s because they have a lot of exciting games to play. It’s not good for fear in the West, but it’s good for us.
Throughout the summer, Bill Connelly will present a different Group 5 and Power 5 division each week exclusively for ESPN+, including all 130 FBS teams. Previews include predictions for 2020 and 2021, as well as a brief history of each team in a handy chart. So far, the series has covered USA East and West and MAC East and West, as well as MWC Mountain.
Join the team: UNLV, Hawaii, San Diego State, San Jose State, Fresno State, Nevada.
Marcus Arroyo completed his first season as UNLV’s head coach in 2020. He will be looking for his first win in 2021.
SP+ Grade: 123. Square
Planned entry: 3-9 (2-6)
- He’ll probably win: No
- Relative pulses : Utah (51% win probability), New Mexico (45%), EBC (43%), Hawaii (35%).
- Probable losses : SDSU (21%), SDSU (20%), Air Force (18%), UTSA (16%), Fresno (13%), Nevada (11%), Arizona (1%), Iowa (1%).
* Probability of winning are the games where SP+ predicts a probability of winning by more than seven points, or about 65%. The losses are probably reversed, and the relative draws are all intermediate games.
What we learned about UNLV in 2020
Arroyo can recruit. After going 0-6, scoring 21+ points just once and allowing just 34, UNLV has committed one of the best scoring classes in the MWC – and easily the best if you factor in the difficulty. He signed 18 three-star contracts and orchestrated four Power 5 transfers, including former USC defensive end Connor Murphy and Oregon running back JaVaughn Wilson.
Arroyo was a well-known recruit at Oregon, and he lives up to his reputation in Las Vegas. Now he really has to coach those guys.
The racing game has potential. Although quarterbacks Justin Rogers and Doug Broomfield struggle with air to varying degrees, they are both effective runners. Senior running back Charles Williams ran for 1257 yards in 2019. Now they have Wilson, too. It’s a talented backfield, but there would be more reason for optimism if the offensive line didn’t replace three starters.
What we have not learned about UNLV in 2020
Not many other good things. The Rebels haven’t ranked higher than 115th in SP+ defense since 2013, and last fall they were 126th. The passing game brought no efficiency or explosiveness.
The most promising players on the field, at least, were the youngsters: Rodgers is a sophomore (UNLV lists all returning players with last year’s release), senior receiver Kyle Williams is a freshman, cornerback Nohl Williams is a freshman and defensive end Jacoby Windmon is a sophomore. If this year’s recruiting class produces talent quickly, it shouldn’t be hard to see a nice talent base by 2022 or so. But the goal this year is just to win a few games and attract even more good recruits.
UNLV’s history in a graph
- In 1984, two years after replacing Kenny Mayne, quarterback Randall Cunningham threw for 2,898 yards to lead UNLV to an 11-2 record and win the California Cup.
- The year before he made Icky Shuffle and went to the Super Bowl, Icky Woods ran for 1,658 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Rebels.
- In the first FBS game between the two teams, Wayne Nunney led the Black Coaches to a 26-18 victory over Ohio (Cleve Bryant).
- Best moment of the year since Cunningham: Under former USC coach John Robinson, UNLV won 23 games from 2000-2003, winning the Las Vegas Cup.
- Arroyo’s first season was winless, but still marked a change. The 31st. In October, the Rebels played their first game in their new home and home of the Raiders, Allegiant Stadium.
Hawaii lost three of five, but then won three of four in the first year of Todd Graham’s tenure. Will the dynamic second team and unique and entertaining racing game be enough to move the Warriors higher in the standings?
SP+ Grade: 105.
Planned entry: 6-7 (3-5)
- He’ll probably win: NMSU (92% win rate), Portland State (89%), at NMSU (86%).
- Relative percentages: at UNLV (65%), Utah (61%), Colorado (49%), SDSU (39%), SDSU (38%), Fresno State (37%).
- Probable losses: Wyoming (27%), Nevada (25%), Oregon (16%), UCLA (5%).
This is not a typo. Hawaii and NMSU play twice.
What we learned about Hawaii in 2020.
Calvin Turner is super funny. At the end of the season, Hawaii was a transfer from Jacksonville University in every sense of the word. In his last four games, he has thrown 45 times and scored 413 yards, with a 75-yard run and a 92-yard return in New Mexico’s win over Houston.
Between Turner, running back DE Hunter and slot manager Jared Smart, new coordinator Bo Graham has a variety of weapons he can use. Quarterback Cheven Cordeiro could also run. (Let’s see if he can throw; Hawaii ranks 97th in pass completions and has lost three of Cordeiro’s top five targets).
New branches for Graham’s training tree. Graham’s reputation for hiring top-notch assistants, especially for criminal cases, is well known. It also led to him having to hire many people to replace him. According to the coordinator, G.J. Gill, the project coordinator was appointed by the President of the Republic. Kinn lost to UCF and wide receivers coach Brennan Marion lost to Pittsburgh.
What we didn’t learn about Hawaii in 2020.
Can make Warriors teams pitch against a great second. Defensive coordinator Victor Santa Cruz had fun when the opponent was down, sending passes from all directions and unleashing a sticky, aggressive secondary attack. Unfortunately, the opponents were rarely behind. While the Warriors ranked 31st in passing yards, they were also 106th against the run.
Almost literally everyone is back, including Nickel Quentin Frazier and corners Cortez Davis and Michael Washington. But tackles Pete Tonga (Utah) and Zachay McKinney (Oklahoma) should have an immediate impact.
The history of Hawaii in a graph
- The first major quality race in Hawaii was held in 1980-81. The Rainbow Warriors were 17-5 with wins over South Carolina and West Virginia.
- Hawaii hasn’t always had crazy attacks. In 1987, new head coach Bob Wagner hired developmental option master Paul Johnson. One of his first QBs: Ken Niumatalolo.
- Timmy Chang (2000-04): 53 games, 17,072 passing yards, 117 touchdowns, 80 interceptions. A real high-flying plane for the master of running and shooting, June Jones.
- Colt Brennan (2005-07): 28 games, 14,193 yards (!!), 131 touchdowns, 42 interceptions, 2 Heisman top-6s and 22 wins in his last 24 games.
- The UH program went downhill, literally and figuratively, when former UH QB Nick Rolovich took the reins in 2016. Three bowls and a league title later, it went to Wazzu.
In Brady Hoke’s first season at SDSU, the Aztecs had a great defense and a limited offense at best. It’s like Rocky Long is still the head coach.
SP+ Grade: 94.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: NMSU (96% win rate), New Mexico (87%), at UNLV (79%), Towson (75%).
- Relative problem : Hawaii (61%), Fresno State (54%), Air Force (52%), Nevada (51%), Arizona (50%), South Africa (42%).
- Probable losses : Boise State (28%), Utah (15%).
Six games are at one point. The Aztec season can go in many different directions.
What we learned about SDSU in 2020
The great defense did not choose Long. Long is a legend on the defensive line. In 2019, SDSU ranked 15th in defensive SP+ in its final year as a commander. When Hoke took over, he brought in coach Kurt Mattix as defensive coordinator, who is not a permanent staff member.
Is there any change coming? Not really. They always operated in a 3-3-5 formation, and he always pushed: First in hitting percentage, 11th in defense. Defensive end Cameron Thomas and linebacker Kaden McDonald were active and disruptive, cornerbacks Darren Hall and Tayler Hawkins were outstanding in coverage, etc.
All players from the front six are back, but if anything goes down, it could be in the second half, where Hall and safeties Tarik Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr. start. But recent history shows that some of the new pieces will play at a high level.
What we didn’t learn about SDSU in 2020
The Great Crime didn’t just fall out of the sky either. Over the past three seasons on Long, the Aztecs have gone from 50th in SP+ offense to 68th, then 92nd and finally 122nd. Jeff Hecklinski, Hoke’s longtime assistant, was the offensive coordinator, but SDSU only made it to 119th.
Quarterback Carson Baker lost his job for six months and transferred, leaving the other four to compete for the starting job: Lucas Johnson (who looked good against Nevada but was injured), senior Jordon Brookshire, new Mississippi State transfer Jaylen Mayden and experienced freshman Will Haskell.
Two soldiers (Zachary Thomas and William Dunkle) return, and the master corps is brimming with experience. (Running back Greg Bell and wide receiver Jesse Matthews are particularly solid). But until Hecklinski can master the QB position, the improvement will be limited.
San Diego State’s history in achart
- After winning three consecutive national titles in the lower division, SDSU made the jump to the upper division in 1969. Head coach Don Coryell left for the NFL, but the victories continued under Claude Gilbert.
- Marshall Faulk (1991-93): 4,589 rushing yards, 973 receiving yards, 62 combined touchdowns. It’s so good.
- The long, slow decline ended with just nine wins from 2006 to 2008. SDSU hired Hoke in 2009, and the rebounding began immediately.
- Long replaced Hoke after he transferred to Michigan, and SDSU eventually found another gear, winning 32 games and two MWC titles from 2015-17.
- Long retired after a few years of decline, and the school brought Hoke back in 2020.
Few teams have changed as much in 2020 as Brennan’s Spartans, who went 7-1 with their big play and big pass and won their first MWC title.
SP+ Grade: 81.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: Southern Utah (98% chance of winning), NMSU (97%), Utah State (85%), at UNLV (80%).
- Relative draws : Hawaii (62%), BDSU (58%), Colorado State (56%), Wyoming (55%), Fresno State (55%), WMU (46%), Nevada State (42%).
- Probable Loss: Against USC (8%)
One game is probably out of reach for the Spartans in 2021, but there are only four sure wins. Get ready for some big, scary second halves and maybe a lot of wins.
What we have learned about the AOC in 2020
Culture: Strong. Resistance level: High COVID’s 19 minutes forced the Spartans to play their final two home games – a divisional game against Nevada and a conference game against Boise State – in Las Vegas, not San Jose. I will always believe that we can find a way, that it will get better, that we can do it, Brennan said, and his team proved him right.
SJSU rose to 66th in JV+, and they return just about everyone, from quarterback Nick Starkel to conference interceptions Jack Snyder and devastating defensive ends Cade Hall and Villamy Fehoko. SP+ projections suggest they are far from certain to repeat in the West, but they have every chance to get even better in 2021.
What we didn’t learn about SDSU in 2020.
What does the passing game look like without Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither. The duo combined for 86 catches and 1,352 yards, and although they are the team’s only starters, they leave a void. No other Spartan has caught more than 13 passes, and while replacements Isaiah Hamilton and Jermaine Braddock show promise, they are big shoes to fill.
The big games were key for USSU in 2020: They rank 27th in the FBS with 2.8 ball gains of 30+ yards per game and seventh with just 1.1 tackles. Killer action and a veteran DB should keep the second row high, but Walker and Gaither were crucial to the first.
San Jose State’s history in achart
- In 1959, doctoral student (and former USSU defender) Bill Walsh completed his dissertation. Because it was Bill Walsh, it was called Flank Football Formation – Stress: The defense. (Yes, it’s online.)
- SJSU’s golden age: Claude Gilbert led the Spartans to a 10-win season in 1986-87 and Terry Shea won nine in 1990. From 1993 to 2011: two winning seasons.
- Jeff Garcia in 1992-93: 5,026 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and a record of just 9-13.
- After a 1-12 first season, Mike McIntyre went 11-2 two years later in 2011. That would have been worth an invitation from the Spartans.
- After a 3-22 record in his first two seasons, Brennan led SJSU to an even better 7-1 record and the MWC title last fall.
Kalen De Boer showed Fresno State’s potential in his first season, but the aggressive, no-nonsense defense suffered too many setbacks in a 3-3 campaign.
SP+ Grade: 78.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
- He’ll probably win: Cal Poly (96% win probability), UConn (91%), New Mexico (88%), UNLV (87%).
- Relationship: Hawaii (63%), Nevada (53%), SDSU (46%), SDSU (45%), Wyoming (44%).
- Probable losses : Boise State (30%), UCLA (12%), Oregon State (5%).
Of the Bulldogs’ eight conference games, five are relatively even, including games against the other three top contenders in the West. This race is going to be fun.
What we learned about FSU in 2020
Ronnie Rivers is still Ronnie Rivers. Last season, the veteran accounted for 1,100 yards on the ground and nearly 600 yards receiving in 13 games. He is one of the most proven and exciting champions in the West, and with a bonus year he could end his career with nearly 5,000 yards of scrimmage.
DeBoer is aware of the violation. After winning three NAIA titles, DeBoer switched to the FBS and built great offensive systems at Fresno State and Indiana before taking over as Fresno State’s head coach last year following the departure of Jeff Tedford. The Bulldogs were 34th in strikeout rate and 32nd in marginal explosiveness (my measure of strikeout rate), replacing only two starters, both on the line. Rivers, quarterback Jake Haener and three explosive receivers (Jalen Cropper, Josh Kelly, Kerich Wheat Falls) should provide big numbers again.
What we didn’t learn about FSU in 2020
If William Inge’s aggressiveness always pays off. The intentions of Fresno’s new defensive coordinator were clear: Misdemeanor. Fresno State ranks third nationally in passing yards, third in passing yards allowed and 13th in lost balls (TFLs, passes defended and forced fumbles divided by number of games played). Unfortunately, they are also ranked 125th in terms of the allowable explosion limit. They allowed 20 points per game in a win, but 40 per game in a loss. Nearly everyone is back, including offensive ends David Perales and Kwami Jones and hyper-aggressive corner Bralyn Lux, but the margin for error needs to shrink.
Fresno State’s history in achart
- Fresno State’s first upper division conference title came in 1977, when the Bulldogs won eight consecutive games, mostly…after losing to Montana State.
- Trent Dilfer helped head coach Jim Sweeney win his sixth and seventh conference titles in the 1992-93 season, with 6,799 total yards and 51 TDs.
- The legendary Sweeney overstayed his welcome and had three consecutive losing seasons before retiring. It didn’t take long for his successor, Pat Hill, to set things right.
- From 2001-2004, SF won 38 games, defeated Colorado, Oregon State (twice), Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, California, Washington, Kansas State and Virginia, and produced first-round pick QB David Carr.
- With DeBoer as Tedford’s offensive coordinator, the Bulldogs went 12-2 and ranked 16th in the SP+. When Tedford resigned a year later, DeBoer was an extremely logical replacement.
Jay Norvell’s Wolf Pack came within 20 minutes of the West Division title, but with the return of most of last year’s players, they will be back in the mix.
SP+ Grade: 74.
Planned entry: 7-5 (5-3)
- Likely winners: Idaho State (97% win rate), NMSU (97%), UNLV (89%), Hawaii (75%), Air Force (67%).
- Relative pulses : SDSU (58%), Colorado (58%), SDSU (49%), Fresno State (47%), Kansas (36%).
- Likely losses: at Kolkata (31%), at Boise State (23%).
The Pack has not been spared in the road rides this year: Of the six most promising teams on the schedule, only one made it to Reno (SJSU). It’s rude.
What we learned about Nevada in 2020
Quarterback Carson Strong is awesome. He came on strong at the end of 2019, but we still didn’t know what to expect last fall: He completed 70% of his passes for 2,858 yards and a 27-4 TD/IT ratio. His mastery of pass rush coordinator Matt Mumme went through the roof, even despite the injury to Elijah Cooks, Nevada’s top receiver in 2019,
Running back Romeo Daubs rushed for 1,002 yards, rookie Tori Horton broke through late and Nevada scored at least 34 points on five occasions. The running game has been as inconsistent as it has been explosive, but the Pack can move the ball, especially when Cooks is healthy.
What we haven’t learned about Nevada in 2020
How far protection can go. Norvell brought in defensive coordinator Brian Ward to anchor a unit that dropped to 85th in defensive SP+ in 2019. Despite the change in back seven and injury-delayed star tackle Dom Peterson, the Pack moved up to 70th. They were good on third downs, and Ward helped unleash a major destructive weapon in the late Sam Hammond.
They didn’t excel in many statistical categories, but they didn’t have any glaring weaknesses either. And now they’re going to bring back every player on both sides except one. With Petersen healthy and all that experience – especially with the addition of USF cornerback Bentlee Sanders, among other transfers – was last year a sign of things to come?
Nevada History in a Diagram
- After flirting with the Major Leagues in the postwar era (including two solid 9-2 campaigns), Nevada settled into the minor leagues for two decades.
- In 1976, the school hired UNLV assistant Chris Ault. He led Puck to the FCS semifinals five times and the title game once, leading to a return to the FCS in the early 1990s.
- The second division was disbanded in 1993, but returned in 1994 and the Pack won nine games and the conference title in 1994 and 1995. Then he withdrew again.
- Ault is back in 2004, and the Pack is at it again, this time with his new weapon attack. With Colin Kaepernick as a center, they went 13-1 in 2010.
- Alta retired for good after 2012, and Nevada again struggled to stay healthy without him. Norvell looks like he’s building something very promising.
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