2022 MWC Preview: Haener hopes to be top 'Dog

·30 min read

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With the college football season less than two full months away, it's time to start diving into our team previews. As a long-time die-hard Air Force Falcons fan since September 2021, I was fortunate enough to offer my thoughts on the entire Mountain West Conference.

As the MWC sets to kick off another season, the Utah State Aggies prepare to defend their crown. You may remember last season that the Aggies used a high-flying passing attack led by now-departed wide receiver Deven Thompkins -- who was second in the nation in receiving yards with a receiving line of 104-1722-10.

With Thompkins now trying to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster this offseason, and a few other key players departed, there are questions as to whether or not the Aggies can repeat as MWC conference champions. Their PointsBet odds currently sit +900 -- the fifth-best conference championship odds of any MWC team.

 

PointsBet 2022 MWC Conference Winner Odds
PointsBet 2022 MWC Conference Winner Odds

 

With another exciting season set to get underway, let's take a look at this year's teams and see how this season could shape up.

2021 Team Results and Rankings

Air Force (+500)

Points Per Game: 31.0 (4th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 19.8 (2nd)

Total Yards: 5,509 (4th)

Total Yards Allowed: 3,857 (1st)

Passing Yards: 1,242 (12th)

Rushing Yards: 4,267 (1st)

After a 10-3 finish last season that was capped by a First Responder Bowl win over Louisville, the Falcons enter 2022 with high expectations. Head coach Troy Calhoun (111-75) enters his 16th year with the team as he looks to once again establish the run more than any other program in the nation.

The Falcons return eight starters on the offensive side of the ball -- most notably quarterback Haaziq Daniels and running back Brad Roberts (299-1366-13). Daniels, as you may expect, won't offer much as a passer, but was second on the team in rushing behind Roberts with a line of 155-808-11. Daniels threw for 1,184 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions, as the Falcons. Surprisingly, the Falcons ranked second in the nation in air yards per attempt (13.0) -- often opting for the home run shots downfield whenever they did choose to take to the air.

They also played an aggressive style of ball when it came to fourth downs. Last season, the Falcons ranked third in fourth down conversion attempts and converted a nation-leading 32 fourth downs. Their 78% success rate on fourth down ranked second in the nation (min. 20 attempts) behind only Northern Illinois (83.3%).

On defense, the Falcons return seven defensive starters. The loss of DT JorDan Jackson, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season, will be felt along the d-line -- as will the loss of DBs Tre Bugg and Corvan Taylor, who combined for five interceptions.

Air Force's 15 returning starters mark the most they've had since the 2014 season. A strong veteran presence -- particularly at running back and quarterback -- should make for another strong season for the Falcons.

Boise State (+225)

Points Per Game: 29.2 (5th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 19.0 (1st)

Total Yards: 4,572 (9th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,373 (3rd)

Passing Yards: 3,127 (5th)

Rushing Yards: 1,445 (9th)

Boise State struggled to a 7-5 record last season, which included a 3-3 record on the blue turf and a 4-4 record in conference play. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier put forth a solid passing effort, completing 62.8% of his passes while throwing for 3,079 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions while ranking second in the nation with an adjusted completion percentage of 76.1%. His pass-catchers led the Mountain West with 28 dropped passes last season -- something they'll need to overcome despite losing wide receiver Khalil Shakir to the 2022 NFL Draft this offseason. The Broncos return eight offensive starters this season, including junior running back George Holani -- who will look to regain his 2019 form when he rushed for 192-1014-7.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos return leading tackler and All-Mountain West Second-Team safety JL Skinner. Skinner totaled 92 tackles, including seven TFLs and two interceptions. They also return defensive tackle Scott Matlock, who led the team with seven sacks, and linebacker Isaiah Bagnah, who was second on the team with six sacks while also totaling 36 tackles.

The Broncos have the best conference championship odds of any team in the Mountain West on PointsBet and are a favorite of Phil Steele's to appear in the conference title game.

Colorado State (+3000)

Points Per Game: 23.7 (9th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 28.3 (9th)

Total Yards: 4,989 (6th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,528 (6th)

Passing Yards: 3,022 (6th)

Rushing Yards: 1,967 (5th)

The Rams will make the 2022 season their first under head coach Jay Norvell, who left conference rival Nevada after five seasons for the Rocky Mountains. Norvell brings his Air Raid style of play that helped lead Nevada to a conference-best 37.1 points per game last season, along with six transfers along the offensive side of the ball.

What Norvell will have to figure out is life without tight end Trey McBride (90-1121-1) and who his quarterback will be heading into the season. Redshirt quarterback Clay Millen is figured to have the inside job after transferring to Colorado State this offseason. Millen was a three-star quarterback from the 2021 recruiting class and was the 38th-ranked quarterback in his class per 247Sports' composite rankings. In their independent rankings, 247Sports ranked Millen as a four-star QB and the 23rd-best QB in the class.

 

Clay Millen 247Sports Profile
Clay Millen 247Sports Profile

 

Sophomore wide receiver Tory Horton is also expected to slot in as a starter for the Rams as another transfer from Nevada. Last season, Horton posted career-highs, going for 52-659-7 after a solid freshman season in which he went for 20-336-5 in six games. Running back A'Jon Vivens looks to lock into the starting role in his fifth season on campus. A wide receiver converted to running back, Vivens has a career rushing line of 139-534-1, averaging an underwhelming 3.8 yards per carry.

The Rams are set to return 12 starters from last season, with six on each side of the ball. Fifth-year senior linebacker Cam'Ron Carter returns after a 100 tackle, six sack season, as does defensive back Tywan Francis -- who struggled in pass coverage last season to the tune of a PFF coverage grade of 51.4.

During his days at Nevada, Norvell had his offenses averaging 28.2 points per game or better in four of his five seasons, while leading them to a 33-26 record that included two bowl wins. His aggressive style of play and familiarity with the conference should lead to a quick turnaround for the Rams, who went 3-9 last season.

Fresno State (+250)

Points Per Game: 33.4 (2nd)

Points Allowed Per Game: 20.5 (4th)

Total Yards: 6,030 (2nd)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,526 (5th)

Passing Yards: 4,247 (3rd)

Rushing Yards: 1,783 (7th)

Fresno State enters 2022 with the second-best conference championship odds in the MWC at +250. This is buoyed by the return of quarterback Jake Haener (4096-33-9), who had briefly entered the transfer portal last season only to return and subsequently lead the team to a 31-24 bowl game win over UTEP.

Haener helped lead the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record while ranking second in points per game and total yards. The Bulldogs return eight starters along the offensive side of the ball, including wide receiver Jalen Cropper, who led the team with 85 receptions for 899 yards and 11 touchdowns. Wide receiver Nikko Remigio, who transferred in from Cal, has a career receiving line of 97-903-7, with his best season coming in 2019 when he went for 38-513-3. They'll be without veteran running back Ronnie Rivers, who departed for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of last season. Rivers was a key contributor for the Bulldogs last season, totaling 812 rushing yards and five touchdowns while adding 34-364-2 through the air. Senior Jordan Mims (127-724-6) is expected to take over starting duties in 2022.

Head coach Kalen DeBoer, who spent two seasons with the program, has departed for Washington, as newly minted head coach Jeff Tedford has returned to campus. Tedford was at Fresno State from 2017 to 2019 before stepping down due to health concerns but had a 26-14 record during his first stint on campus.

Fresno State also has seven returning starters on defense -- a good sign for a team that allowed the fourth-fewest points in the conference last season. Defense end David Perales, who led the team with seven sacks and was named to the All-Mountain West Second-Team, is set to return and anchor the line, as is DB Evan Williams, who led the team with 90 tackles while also forcing four interceptions.

The transition from DeBoer back to Tedford should serve as nothing more than a footnote to the 2022 season for Fresno State. Haener and Tedford were on campus for one season together and should be familiar with one another's style of play and coaching. Several returning starters on both sides of the ball should make for another exciting season for Fresno State.

Hawaii (+10000)

Points Per Game: 28.8 (6th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 31.4 (11th)

Total Yards: 5,265 (5th)

Total Yards Allowed: 5,798 (12th)

Passing Yards: 3,408 (4th)

Rushing Yards: 1,857 (6th)

No Mountain West team was hit by this offseason quite like Hawaii.

Gone is head coach Todd Graham, whose toxic coaching style and rumors of verbally abusing players felt like the biggest story for much of Hawaii's season.

Enter first-year head coach Timmy Chang, whose first career head coaching assignment comes at his alma mater. Chang was the Warriors' quarterback from 2000-2004, throwing for over 17,000 yards while tossing 117 touchdowns to 80 interceptions. Under Chang and former head coach June Jones, the Warriors implemented an Air Raid style of offense -- something that Chang and offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker are expected to implement this season.

Looking to lead the Warriors' offense is quarterback Cammon Cooper, who transferred from Washington State after two seasons with the Cougars. Cooper brings a high-profile resume and untapped potential to Hawaii, after enrolling at Wazzou as a four-star recruit from the 2020 class. Per 247Sports' composite rankings, Cooper was the 15th-ranked pro-style QB of his class but has managed just 23 career pass attempts in two seasons.

 

Cammon Cooper 247 Sports Profile
Cammon Cooper 247 Sports Profile

 

Cooper and the Warriors will look to familiarize themselves ahead of this season, as only four offensive starters are set to return this season -- a trickle-down effect from the Graham Era that led to several player transfers. Backup quarterback Brayden Schager remains on the roster but struggled to the tune of 615-2-5 passing on 107 attempts last season.

Hawaii returns just two starters on the defensive side of the ball and will have several first-year starters come Week 1. Linebacker Isaiah Tufaga, who totaled 35 tackles, two TFLs and two sacks in 2021 is expected to step up and fill a key role.

In a lot of ways, 2022 will be an uphill climb for the Warriors, who went 6-7 last season -- narrowly achieving bowl eligibility. For Timmy Chang and his Warriors, fielding a competitive team while rebuilding a broken culture would be a step in the right direction.

Nevada (+2800)

Points Per Game: 35.7 (1st)

Points Allowed Per Game: 26.5 (8th)

Total Yards: 5,517 (3rd)

Total Yards Allowed: 5,287 (10th)

Passing Yards: 4,511 (1st)

Rushing Yards: 1,006 (12th)

Where do we start with the Wolfpack heading into 2022?

Former head coach Jay Norvell is now at Colorado State. Quarterback Carson Strong is now in the NFL. As are wide receiver Romeo Doubs (80-1109-11) and tight end Cole Turner (62-677-10) -- the team's two leading receivers from last season. In total, Nevada will be without six pass-catchers who totaled 600 or more receiving yards last season. Their leading receiver from the 2021 campaign is running back Toa Taua, who caught 39 passes for 296 yards and one score while rushing for 150-766-6.

First-year head coach Ken Wilson is set to take on his first ever head coaching job and is expected to do so with quarterback Shan Illingworth at the helm. Illingworth and Wilson will need to fully revamp an offense that is down a bevy of pass-catchers, and four of its five starting offensive linemen -- in total only two offensive starters are back for the Pack in 2022.

Illingworth transferred to Nevada from Oklahoma State, where he spent two seasons. A former four-star recruit from the 2020 class, Illingworth has thrown for 939 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 57.5% of his passes. Wide receiver Jamaal Bell is expected to slot in as a starting receiver after going for 14-119-1. Transfer receivers Spencer Curtis and BJ Casteel will look to make an impact after failing to do so at their previous locations.

On the defensive side of the ball, Nevada returns four starters, including fifth-year DT Dom Peterson, who totaled 39 tackles, 9.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks last season. Peterson has 22 career sacks to his name and racked up an impressive 15 TFLs and nine sacks in his sophomore season while being named to the All-Mountain West First-Team.

Nevada has a lot to do if they hope to repeat their 8-5 season from last year. Head coach Ken Wilson is looking to do an entire rebuild on both sides of the ball but could have a tough time with so many offensive replacements. Illingworth may need to surprise a few people this season if he and the Wolf Pack hope to achieve bowl eligibility in 2022.

New Mexico (+20000)

Points Per Game: 12.2 (12th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 28.4 (10th)

Total Yards: 2,804 (12th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,357 (11th)

Passing Yards: 1,365 (11th)

Rushing Yards: 1,439 (10th)

The best part about New Mexico's 2021 season is that it mercifully came to an end. Under third-year head coach Danny Gonzales, the Lobos limped to a 3-9 record that included a 1-7 record in conference play with their only win coming against Wyoming on the road.

With their leading passer from last season now gone, transfer quarterback Miles Kendrick is expected to take the reins as the starter -- transferring in from Kansas earlier this offseason. Kendrick was a JUCO transfer from the College of San Mateo back in 2018, and touted as a dual-threat QB on 247Sports.com. During his time with the Jayhawks, Kendrick totaled 853 passing yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions on 157 attempts, and rushed for 75-105-1. Playing behind an o-line that has just two players with starting experience, Kendrick may be forced into using his mobility to keep plays alive unless a unit that ranked 82nd in PFF's pass-blocking grades can find a way to improve on last season.

Running back Nathaniel Jones is expected to lead the backfield in touches after the redshirt sophomore missed all of last season. As a true freshman, Jones rushed for 49-232-4 but could split time with JUCO transfer RB Sherod White, Bobby Wooden and a trio of true freshmen.

Defensively the Lobos return seven starters from last season, including DB Donte Martin, LB Ray Leutele and leading tackler Jerrick Reed. Last year's defense struggled on paper, ranking 11th out of 12 teams in total yards allowed, but some of this could be attributed to an offense that simply couldn't keep drives alive.

As a defense, the Lobos ranked 28th in the nation in passing success rate against (37.7%) and were 17th in passing down success rate against (25.8%). They played aggressively up front, with a blitz rate per drop back percent that ranked third in the nation (42.9%) and forced opponents into several third-down situations.

All this to say -- while the Lobos are in need of some massive improvements on the offensive side of the ball, a number of defensive stats suggest this returning group could play better than advertised last season. I like them to turn a corner in 2022.

San Diego State (+400)

Points Per Game: 27.4 (7th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 19.8 (3rd)

Total Yards: 4,799 (9th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,455 (4th)

Passing Yards: 2,351 (9th)

Rushing Yards: 2,448 (3rd)

Last year's conference championship game losers, the Aztecs look to build on a 2021 season that featured a ton of success -- especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Starting on that side, the Aztecs are looking to return seven defensive starters from last season, including defensive lineman Keshawn Banks, who was named All-Mountain West Second-Team last season (just as he was in 2019). Last season, Banks totaled 35 tackles, 11 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, but should fill a major void left by last year's sack leader Cameron Thomas, who was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals earlier this offseason.

Safety CJ Baskerville is also set to return for his sophomore season after turning in an impressive sophomore campaign that included 38 tackles, one interception, and the highest PFF coverage grade (86.4) of any safety set to return to the MWC in 2022.

Offensively the Aztecs hope to get better at quarterback, after Lucas Johnson and Jordon Brookshire combined for just 2,254 passing yards for 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. The hope is that improved play at QB will come by way of transfer Braxton Burmeister, who enters his senior season after spending the last three years at Virginia Tech. Originally recruited by Oregon, Burmeister is on his third team and has a line of 3020-18-11 to show for his five years of experience. His career completion percentage of 56.0% won't impress any on-lookers, but he's a quarterback who's willing to take shots down field -- evidenced by his 10.3 career aDOT. His 11.0 aDOT from last season would have ranked fourth in the MWC.

Running back Chance Bell (72-359-4) will look to fill the vacated role left by Greg Bell. Last season, (Chance) Bell saw limited action for the Aztecs, but was efficient with his touches. Per PFF, the senior running back forced a missed tackle on 23.6% of his carries and averaged a solid 3.58 yards after contact per attempt. Likely to be leaned on heavily in 2022, Bell will have a chance to emerge as one of the lead-backs in the Mountain West -- a role that twice led to Greg Bell receiving All-Mountain West Second Team honors (2020 & 2021).

The Aztecs' receivers are only likely to go as far as Burmeister will carry them, but junior wideout Jesse Matthews is worth keeping an eye on after totaling 57-642-9 last season. Burmeister will also have an enormous target in Tyrell Shavers, who caught 18 passes for 213 yards and two scores. Shavers stats at 6-foot-6, 210-pounds, and could prove to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders if Burmeister can deliver him the ball.

San Jose State (+2500)

Points Per Game: 20.0 (11th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 26.5 (7th)

Total Yards: 4,082 (10th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,455 (4th)

Passing Yards: 2,636 (7th)

Rushing Yards: 1,446 (8th)

Head coach Brent Brennan and his San Jose Spartans set their sights on turning around a 2021 season that saw them finish 5-7 with one of the more underwhelming offenses in the conference. For the Spartans, last year's 20.0 points per game total marked the lowest since 2017 when they averaged a dismal 15.8 points per game.

Quarterback Nick Nash returns to the team this season, but as the backup behind transfer Chevan Cordeiro, who played for Hawaii last season. When healthy, Cordeiro has proven to be effective as a passer, totaling 6,167 yards, 45 touchdowns and 22 interceptions for his career, while also displaying some ability as a runner (295-1083-13). Playing behind a veteran offensive line that has a combined 59 starts to their name, Cordeiro and running back Kairee Robinson (68-448-1) will rely on a veteran group to pave lanes and keep the passing game alive.

In regards to receivers, the Spartans' top pass-catcher last season with tight end Derrick Deese (47-730-4), who is now trying to carve out a career with the Detroit Lions. Outside of Deese's absence, the Spartans return leading receiver Isaiah Hamilton (31-414-2) and Jermaine Braddock (27-390-2) but have also added transfer Justin Lockhart from Nevada. Last season with Nevada, Lockhart managed a solid 35-470-2 while averaging 13.4 YPR. He's likely to serve a complementary piece alongside Hamilton -- who saw 82.6% of his snaps come from the slot.

Defensively, the Spartans boast a solid unit that returns eight of its 11 starters from last season. Defensive lineman Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko return to anchor the front, after going for a combined 16.5 TFLs and 11.0 sacks last season. Linebacker and leading tackler Kyle Harmon also returns for his senior season after compiling 134 tackles and 7.5 TFLs last season -- leading to All-Mountain West First-Team honors.

UNLV (+10000)

Points Per Game: 20.8 (10th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 32.8 (12th)

Total Yards: 3,747 (11th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,916 (9th)

Passing Yards: 2,430 (8th)

Rushing Yards: 1,317 (11th)

The Tate Martell was a colossal failure for UNLV in 2021 after the former No. 2 ranked QB from the 2017 recruiting class attempted a mere six passes during his time with the Rebels before an injury ended his season and he subsequently retired.

A mixture of Cameron Friel, Doug Brumfield and Justin Rogers saw the Rebels finish 2-10 on the year, leaving head coach Marcus Arroyo searching for answers this offseason.

In regards to the quarterback position, both Brumfield and Friel remain on the roster, but transfer Harrison Bailey is hot on their trail for the starting job. It's a camp battle that shouldn't be too difficult for Bailey to win, as the former Tennessee Vol brings SEC experience and a limited passing sample size (594-4-2) that is still more impressive than that of either incumbent. Bailey was a four-star QB from the 2020 class and the third-ranked QB in 247Sports' composite rankings.

Harrison Bailey 247Sports Profile
Harrison Bailey 247Sports Profile

The Rebels return an offensive line that is comprised of 69 career starts, which will hopefully lead to a more productive campaign in 2022.

At running back, sophomore Aidan Robbins will look to replace the production from Charles Williams (254-1325-15) after transferring in from Louisville. During his time with the Cardinals, Robbins totaled seven carries for 51 yards and a score, as the 6-foot-3, 225-pound bruiser will look to smash his way through the Mountain West in his first season with the Rebels. At receiver, UNLV returns Kyle Williams (42-601-2) and welcomes transfer Ricky White, who went for 10-223-1 as a true freshman at Michigan State in 2020. A former three-star recruit, White impressed in limited action in 2020, averaging an impressive 22.3 yards per reception while catching five of eight deep balls for 173 yards and a score per PFF.com. UNLV's offensive unit should be much improved relative to last season, although it's hard to get much worse than what we saw in 2021.

On the defensive side of the ball, things aren't much better. But the Rebels do return six defensive starters, including defensive back Nohl Williams, who totaled 33 tackles, one interception and four pass breakups while receiving a PFF coverage grade of 64.5. To say UNLV has some work to do on defense would be an understatement. With five players set to see starting snaps for the first time, and last year's returning starters offering little of note, the Rebels will hope another year of experience will breed success. Linebacker Brennon Scott was a bright spot for the team, as the redshirt freshman totaled 36 tackles which included 10 TFLs and four sacks. Serving primarily as an EDGE last season, Scott could be set to turn a corner as a once highly-touted recruit.

Utah State (+900)

Points Per Game: 32.6 (3rd)

Points Allowed Per Game: 24.4 (6th)

Total Yards: 6,238 (1st)

Total Yards Allowed: 5,498 (11th)

Passing Yards: 4,248 (2nd)

Rushing Yards: 1,990 (4th)

If you're hoping to run it back with back-to-back conference championships, it's good to have the majority of your key contributors intact. That's exactly the case for Utah State, which returns seven of their 11 offensive starters, including quarterback Logan Bonner (3828-36-2), who was voted All-Mountain West Third-Team in 2021. Bonner won the starting job over incumbent Andrew Peasley, and rewarded the Aggies' coaching staff with a productive first season.

Running back Calvin Tyler made life easy for Bonner, as the senior running back rushed for 196-919-7 in his first season as a starter and over 1,000 rushing yards for his career. Tyler also contributed in the passing game (11-50-0) and could be asked to do a bit more through the air with a young group of receivers set to replace departed veterans like Deven Thompkins, Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright.

Together, Thompkins, Bowling and Wright combined for over 200 receptions, 3000 yards and 31 touchdowns, marking three big losses for Utah State heading into the season. Last season, Justin McGriff caught 35 passes for 414 yards and six scores but will be asked to step up alongside JUCO transfer Justin McGriff, who enters his first season with the program.

On defense, the Aggies return five starters, but add two former Power Five defensive linemen in Phillip Paea and Byron Vaughns. Last season, Paea totaled 14 tackles and two TFLs, while Vaughns managed 44 tackles, 11 TFLs and 4.5 sacks in somewhat of a limited capacity for Texas. Safety Hunter Reynolds returns as the team's leading tackler after totaling 84 tackles, four TFLs, two sacks and one INT last season while earning a PFF coverage rating of 61.2.

Utah State's biggest obstacle to overcome in 2022 will be its receiving game as it's not every day a team has to replace over 70% of its receiving yards from the previous season. The combination Bonner and Tyler, plus an experienced offensive line that returns four starters should make the Aggies legitimate contenders for a title repeat despite PointsBet giving them the fifth-best odds to do so.

Wyoming (+2500)

Points Per Game: 25.4 (8th)

Points Allowed Per Game: 23.7 (5th)

Total Yards: 4,860 (7th)

Total Yards Allowed: 4,815 (8th)

Passing Yards: 2,115 (10th)

Rushing Yards: 2,745 (2nd)

Wyoming got off to a blistering 4-0 start last season before a loss to Air Force in Week 5 began their downward spiral. Wyoming would go just 2-5 the rest of the regular season before trouncing Kent State in the Idaho Potato Bowl by a score of 52-38 to close out the year with a 7-6 record.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, a disappointing season led to several transfers. Included in that group was quarterbacks Levi Williams and Sean Chambers, with Williams departing for Utah State while Chambers left for Montana State. Williams and Chambers combined for 2,115 yards, 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on the season, with much of Wyoming's offense being precedented on the run and running back Xazavian Valladay -- who is now with Arizona State.

On paper, the Cowboys look like a team that's "down bad" with just four starters set to return on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

Former Utah State quarterback Andrew Peasley will look to fix a down quarterback situation as the starter for the Cowboys in 2022. Despite losing out on the starting gig at Utah State to Logan Bonner, Peasley still saw plenty of action with the Aggies. The veteran quarterback threw for 415-3-2 while rushing for 25-161-1, but has completed just 52.8% of his career pass attempts.

Running back Titus Swen could be leaned on heavily if Peasley isn't able to move the ball through the air. In a backup role behind Valladay last season, Swen impressed to the tune of 132 carries for 809 yards and four touchdowns while also catching five passes for 24 yards. Per PFF, Swen forced a missed tackle on 33.3% of his carries while averaging 3.84 yards after contact per attempt. Surprisingly, Swen's 44 missed tackles forced ranked third in the conference behind Calvin Tyler and Charles Williams.

On defense, the Cowboys will have to learn to function without linebacker Chad Muma, who led the team with 142 tackles last season, while also posting eight TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Linebacker Easton Gibbson, who ranked second behind Muma with 90 tackles, seven TFLs and two sacks is expected to earn a larger role heading into this season, as is transfer linebacker Cole DeMarzo -- formerly of Michigan State.

The Cowboys also return DT Cole Godbout, whose 70 tackles, seven TFLs and five sacks were enough to earn him Honorable Mention All-Mountain West honors last season by coaches and media.

Wyoming's defense has the makings of a top unit once again, but underwhelming quarterback play could once again be their downfall. Leaning on a quarterback with a career completion percentage of less than 55% doesn't tend to be a good recipe for success, even in a conference wrought at the position. While it's possible the Cowboys could see a slight bounce back in 2022, last year's finish and a low number of returning starters could be enough to suggest a bowl game isn't in the cards.

A Team to Buy

San Jose State Spartans

The Air Force homer in me will always feel inclined to pump up the Falcons. And while I like them as contenders in the conference, I think there's some smart money to be had on San Jose State.

Sitting at +2500 to win the conference over on PointsBet, the Spartans boast more returning players on defense than any team in the conference (8) and have six returning offensive players to go with what we hope will be improved quarterback play from transfer Chevan Cordeiro.

Coming out of the "West" half of the MWC, San Jose State will have its work cut out against Fresno State and San Diego State, but should have no trouble with UNLV, Nevada or Hawaii. Both Fresno State and SDSU have a talented returning group in their own right, but the payout for a San Jose State hit is just too sweet to pass up.

The Spartans had a talented group on defense last season. If they prove capable of further shutting down opponents in 2022, a slight offensive bump could be enough to get them into the championship game. Look for them to surprise after last year's 5-7 performance.

A Team to Fade

Wyoming Cowboys

Tied with San Jose with +2500 odds to win the conference is Wyoming -- who I simply can't buy into. A down season that included a home loss to New Mexico is never a good sign.

While quarterback Andrew Peasley will look to replace a dismal group of passers from last season, there's no reason to believe that Peasley is the quarterback you want leading this team for the foreseeable future.

While I think the Cowboys will hold up fine defensively, the sixth-best odds to win the conference suggest they could contend with the "Mountain" side of the conference that features Boise State, Air Force, Utah State and a potentially much-improved Colorado State team. Among the six teams in the "Mountain" portion of the MWC, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Cowboys finish fifth among the six teams thanks in part to an underwhelming offense that will need to be reworked in 2023.

A Player to Watch

Clay Millen: Colorado State (QB)

As previously mentioned, 247Sports.com listed Millen as a four-star QB from the 2021 recruiting class and ranked him as the 23rd-best quarterback in the class. Scout Brandon Huffman had a glowing report of Millen, who showed enough talent for Power Five Oregon last season before opting to transfer after one year.

Huffman said of Millen:

"Backed up his Pac-12 quarterback brother his first two years, so still has minimal varsity experience but put up big numbers in first year as a starter. Boasts the arm strength, athleticism and play-making ability optimal for the position. Makes the smart throws, plays within the context of his offense but can make plays when out of rhythm and off platform and isn’t afraid to take a few risks, with a little bit of a gunslinger mentality. Son of former NFL quarterback, has been around the game, and understands concepts and coverages. Loaded with physical upside. Projects as multi-year Power 5 starter and projects as late second day or early third day pick in the NFL draft."

When thinking about the type of players who fit the mold of a Jay Norvell quarterback, Millen is that quarterback. With years of eligibility left, it will be interesting to see what Millen can do in his first season with the Rams, who are also featuring several Nevada transfers on the offensive side of the ball as well.

And the Winner is...?

Apologies to my Falcons, who I love but struggle to ride with here.

If you're a fan of stories and fairytale endings, perhaps none may be better than one that ends with Fresno State and Jake Haener going out as Mountain West champs.

After entering the transfer portal only to return and lead his team to a bowl win, it's hard to imagine Haener not having a chip on his shoulder this season. His subsequent entry into the transfer portal only to return weeks later has undoubtedly left folks talking, hoping that his decision to return to the team will be "worth it" for all involved. This of course, for fans, would be a conference title.

On top of Haener's return and desire to prove himself is the return of head coach Jeff Tedford, who recruited Haener back in 2018 when he encouraged him to transfer to Fresno State for the 2019 season.

Unfortunately, Haner was required to sit out the 2019 season under the old transfer rules, which ended up marking the last at Fresno State for Tedford.

Now, Tedford is back with the Bulldogs and Haener has returned. However, 2022 will be the only one in which the two embattled vets get to see the fruits of their 2019 decision pay off.

The Bulldogs return 15 total starters, with eight along the offensive side of the ball, and boast a defense that was top-five in both points allowed and yards allowed. It's not a bold take to say that Fresno State will wind up conference champs -- they have the second-best odds at +250.

While it may not be the boldest of takes, you want to know who I have winning it all out West.

It's the Bulldogs, in one of the greatest coach/QB stories ever told.

Pick: Fresno State +250

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