2021 Mountain West Rankings: Pre-Spring
Mountain West: West
1. Nevada Wolf Pack
Why To Be Happy: If you thought the passing game was a whole lot of fun last year, you’re going to love what’s coming. QB Carson Strong is back, and so are his receivers including Elijah Cooks, a star who missed most of last year hurt. Just as big is the defensive side with a loaded group of veterans returning for the the front line along with LB Lawson Hall.
What To Work On: The running game should do more. It’s too tempting to not throw and keep throwing with Strong under center, but the Wolf Pack have a deep, good group of backs to work around, too. The Pack should do more than 122 yards per game.
Bottom Line: The Wolf Pack came up just short last year with a loss at Hawaii and a tough battle defeat to San Jose State. This year they should be the class of the West.
2. San Jose State Spartans
Why To Be Happy: Let’s do it all again. QB Nick Starkel is back for another year, getting back OT Jackson Snyder is massive, and just enough talent is back on defense to keep the success of last year rolling. The season ended with a thud after the team was barely itself in the bowl loss to Ball State – thanks to COVID issues, but this version will be great again.
What To Work On: The receiving corps has to find new playmakers with Tre Walker the main receiver gone, and the running game has to improve. Everything clicked for the offense overall, but averaging 133 yards per game on the ground could stand to be better.
Bottom Line: If 2020 was a shocker, 2021 needs to be an emphatic confirmation that San Jose State is just that good now under Brent Brennan. The Spartans will once again be the ones to beat in the West.
3. San Diego State Aztecs
Why To Be Happy: Let’s get this passing game going. There are options on the Aztecs, but bringing QB Jalen Mayden and WR Tyrell Shavers from Mississippi State adds two former big-time high school talents with the upside to upgrade the O. The line might need some work, but the offense should be better. Now …
What To Work On: The secondary isn’t starting over, but it’s close. Three starters are gone to the NFL and it might be a full-scale overhaul with the possibility of all five main men done. However …
Bottom Line: The defense continues to be amazing. It was third in the nation, No. 1 in the Mountain West, and the standards haven’t dipped. Brady Hoke needs more out of his passing game in his second year and the D can’t slip.
4. Fresno State Bulldogs
Why To Be Happy: The offense should be fantastic. It was good and fun at times in the first year under head man Kalen DeBoer, but it wasn’t consistent. QB Jake Haener started putting up big numbers, RB Ronnie Rivers is back for another year, and the offensive front should be good. Getting back DT Kevin Atkins and DE Kwami Jones might help the Bulldogs have the best D line in the Mountain West if …
What To Work On: The run defense has to be better. Fresno State was one of the best teams in the nation at generating plays in the backfield, but it got gouged very, very badly by good ground games. The D line has to hold up better, and the O line has to prevent sacks, and …
Bottom Line: Look out. It was a shaky 2020 with the only wins coming against three of the worst teams in the Mountain West, but the talent is there to bounce back huge if the lines are better.
5. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
Why To Be Happy: Year Two under Todd Graham should be a bit more consistent with the offensive backfield in place to shine again and the defense likely to return most of the top tacklers. Using the transfer portal works for the program, and it’s getting in enough decent replacements to keep this going, and …
What To Work On: The passing game was fine, but it has to hit more downfield passes. There has to be a better running game, more time given to Chevan Cordeiro to work, and … the O line needs some rebuilding. A slew of young guys have to rise up.
Bottom Line: Can the team that showed up in the bowl win over Houston and was good enough to win a few big Mountain West games do that on a regular basis? That might take a bit, but at least the team has a place to play with the Aloha Bowl closing down, and Graham has talent to work with.
6. UNLV Rebels
Why To Be Happy: The Rebels got their guy back. Charles Williams is one of the better running backs in the Mountain West, and he’s returning for one more shot. He should have an improved O line to work behind, and the passing game has the parts to be better. Enough talent is back on D to hope for a turnaround, but …
What To Work On: The lines have GOT to be stronger. The offensive front couldn’t do anything to keep defenses out of the backfield, and the defensive side couldn’t stop anyone’s ground game.
Bottom Line: This is still going to be an overhaul under Marcus Arroyo. This was never going to be an overnight change, and it’s still going to take a while to get enough pieces to compete for anything big. Being more competitive will be a good start.