Photo courtesy of Kyle Pulek/Nevada athletics
The Mountain West division doesn’t get the onlookers that most Power 5 conferences do, but the quality of play is there nonetheless.
Boise State has long been the perennial power in the conference, but the Mountain West boasted four 10-win teams in 2019. Only the American Athletic Conference and Big Ten had more.
In a two-part series, we’ll be looking at the most important game for each team in the conference. We cap the short series by looking at the most important game for each West division team:
Fresno State (4-8 in 2019)
Don’t let the 4-8 record fool you, Fresno State was a good team last season. Led by new quarterback Jake Haener, the Bulldogs could be a threat to win the division. There isn’t one team that stands out from the crowd as last season’s two best teams, Hawaii and San Diego State, are both replacing head coaches and starting quarterbacks.
It’s likely the division winner this season could end up being a team with two or three conference losses. Fresno State will likely have as good a shot as everyone else going into November. In Week 12, the Bulldogs are hosting their in-state rival San Diego State in a game that has the potential to decide their division on Nov. 21.
Hawaii (10-5 in 2019)
Hawaii will almost certainly be taking a large step back in 2020. The Rainbow Warriors lost head coach Nick Rolovich to Washington State. They also lost their star quarterback Cole McDonald to the NFL Draft. While Hawaii will almost certainly be rebuilding, there is still potential to win the division. The first three conference games are daunting.
It’ll be opening against Nevada, Air Force, and Boise State. After this 3-game stretch, the Rainbow Warriors face off with conference rival Fresno State on Halloween. The Bulldogs won the match-up in Honolulu last season. After this game, Hawaii will have the easiest stretch of any MWC team with games against New Mexico, UNLV, and San Jose State. If Hawaii can beat Fresno State on the road, it should be able to pick up these three conference wins afterwards. That would lead to an important season finale against San Diego State.
Nevada (7-6 in 2019)
Nevada finds itself returning more 2019 production than any team in the division. The Wolf Pack also are the only team in the division who return their head coach and starting quarterback. Their conference schedule starts with San Diego State on Sept. 26.
San Diego State looks to be the division’s favorite heading into the 2020 season. A win against the Aztecs would give Nevada the leg up it may need to win its first division title in the Mountain West. Nevada has one of the MWC’s easiest 2020 schedules, so getting a win in its conference opener would ensure that the Wolfpack are in contention come November.
San Diego State (10-3 in 2019)
Coming off a 10-3 season in 2019, head coach Brady Hoke has a lot to work with in his second stint as the Aztecs’ head coach. They had one of the best defenses in the nation last year, although their offense did leave a lot to be desired. They start their conference schedule with a road trip to Reno on Sept. 26.
In 2019, Nevada held San Diego State to 13 points in a 17-13 Nevada victory. Nevada isn’t replacing as many pieces as San Diego State, and is one of the division’s favorites. This game could have tiebreaker implications later in the season, making it a must-win for Hoke.
San Jose State (5-7 in 2019)
The Spartans were better than their record last year. They lost five games by 10 points or less in a deep Mountain West. Losing Josh Love at quarterback will force them to adjust, but the Spartans should still be good enough to get into bowl contention. There are five games in 2020 that the Spartans can, and probably should win.
Those are Central Michigan, UC-Davis, UNLV, New Mexico, and Connecticut. Win those five games and they would be 5-5 going into the end of the year. In Week 12, San Jose State plays a against Hawaii team that beat the Spartans by two in Honolulu last season. The Nov. 21 game will likely play a vital role in determining bowl-eligibility for the Spartans.
UNLV (4-8 in 2019)
There isn’t a lot to be optimistic about with UNLV in 2020. The Runnin’ Rebels return less production than 128 of the 130 FBS teams, and this is coming off a 4-8 season. They have a new head coach and have likely the toughest non-conference schedule among Mountain West teams. It’s hard to see a way for the Rebels to make a bowl game in 2020.
They do however. have a great chance to make a dent in their rival Nevada‘s season. UNLV has a bye week heading into the season finale on Nov. 28. UNLV actually beat the Wolf Pack last season in overtime. This game could be huge in establishing momentum heading into the offseason.