Mountain West

Mark Lindquist
Rotoworld

Leading up to the start of the season, Rotoworld will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios. This week: The Mountain West.

 

Mountain West Fantasy Projections

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Quarterbacks

PaYD

PaTD

RuYD

FPPG

Cole McDonald (Hawaii, JR)

3406

31

308

27

Jordan Love (Utah State, JR)

3590

31

107

24

Chase Cord (Boise State, SO)

2321

16

409

22

Armani Rogers (UNLV, JR)

1751

14

598

19

Malik Henry (Nevada, JR)

2625

17

275

20

Josh Love (San Jose State, SR)

3010

22

103

16

Jorge Reyna (Fresno State, SR)

2687

21

122

17

Collin Hill (Colorado State, JR)

3371

19

0

15

Donald Hammond III (Air Force, JR)

903

6

646

16

Ryan Agnew (San Diego State, SR)

2209

13

296

13

Tevaka Tuioti (New Mexico, SO)

1920

12

146

13

Sean Chambers (Wyoming, rFR)

1875

12

251

13

 

Running Backs

RuYD

RuTD

ReYD

FPPG

Juwan Washington (San Diego State, SR)

1264

14

83

21

Gerold Bright (Utah State, SR)

778

7

269

17

Ronnie Rivers (Fresno State, JR)

604

8

281

16

Toa Taua (Nevada, SO)

752

5

176

13

Andrew Van Buren (Boise State, SO)

740

8

97

13

Kadin Remsberg (Air Force, JR)

814

6

62

13

Xazavian Valladay (Wyoming, SO)

810

6

68

12

Charles Williams (UNLV, JR)

879

6

32

12

Jordan Mims (Fresno State, JR)

326

4

261

10

Marcus McElroy (Colorado State, JR)

526

4

114

10

Robert Mahone (Boise State, JR)

517

6

81

10

Tyler Nevens (San Jose State, JR)

547

4

78

9

Jaylen Warren (Utah State, JR)

505

5

63

9

Dayton Furuta (Hawaii, SR)

512

4

73

9

Nolan Eriksen (Air Force, SR)

554

4

27

9

Kelton Moore (Nevada, SR)

380

3

99

8

Trey Smith (Wyoming, SR)

383

5

73

8

Marvin Kidsey Jr. (Colorado State, SR)

430

3

79

7

Chase Jasmin (San Diego State, JR)

395

3

46

7

 

Receivers

Rec

ReYD

ReTD

FPPG

Cedric Byrd (Hawaii, SR)

81

993

9

19

JoJo Ward (Hawaii, JR)

63

1054

9

19

Warren Jackson (Colorado State, JR)

83

971

6

18

Tre Walker (San Jose State, JR)

46

624

4

14

Romeo Doubs (Nevada, SO)

61

811

4

14

Melquise Stovall (Hawaii, JR)

52

713

6

14

Derrion Grim (Fresno State, SR)

62

658

5

13

John Hightower (Boise State, SR)

52

648

4

13

Savon Scarver (Utah State, JR)

44

687

6

13

Kaleb Fossum (Nevada, SR)

61

637

3

12

Nate Craig-Myers (Colorado State, JR)

52

681

4

12

Khalil Shakir (Boise State, SO)

52

578

4

12

Ethan Dedeaux (San Diego State, SO)

47

561

3

10

Jordan Nathan (Utah State, JR)

43

514

5

10

Bailey Gaither (San Jose State, JR)

35

624

3

10

CT Thomas (Boise State, JR)

43

491

3

10

Elijah Cooks (Nevada, JR)

37

485

4

10

Tyleek Collins (UNLV, SO)

41

477

3

10

Taylor Compton (Utah State, JR)

30

448

4

8

Jay Griffin IV (New Mexico, JR)

37

453

3

8

Nikko Hall (Colorado State, SO)

39

443

3

8

Kobe Smith (San Diego State, SO)

34

446

3

8

Jason Matthew-Sharsh (Hawaii, SR)

30

413

4

8

C.J. Johnson (Wyoming, JR)

33

413

3

8

Darren Woods Jr. (UNLV, SR)

28

404

3

7

Keric Wheatfall (Fresno State, JR)

31

387

2

7

Geraud Sanders (Air Force, SR)

26

435

2

7

Austin Conway (Wyoming, SR)

34

267

2

7

Devon Thompkins (Utah State, SO)

24

330

3

6

Anselem Umeh (New Mexico, JR)

22

363

2

6

Raghib Ismail Jr. (Wyoming, SR)

26

285

2

6

Brendan O'Leary-Orange (Nevada, SR)

21

323

2

5

Akilian Butler (Boise State, SR)

27

251

2

5

JaQuan Blackwell (San Jose State, JR)

23

274

2

5

Octavius Evans (Boise State, JR)

22

281

2

5

Chris Coleman (Fresno State, SO)

22

276

2

5

Dominic Christian (Nevada, SR)

21

254

2

5

Elijah Lilly (New Mexico, SR)

15

252

1

5

 

Tight Ends

Rec

ReYD

ReTD

FPPG

Jared Rice (Fresno State, SR)

46

524

3

10

Cameron Butler (Colorado State, JR)

28

305

2

6

Carson Terrell (Utah State, JR)

26

285

3

6

Parker Houston (San Diego State, SR)

29

294

2

6

 

Projected Standings

Mountain

West

Boise State 10-1 (8-0 in conference)

San Diego State 9-3 (7-1 in conference)

Utah State 8-4 (6-2 in conference)

Fresno State 9-3 (7-1 in conference)

Air Force 6-6 (4-4 in conference)

Nevada 7-5 (5-3 in conference)

Wyoming 4-8 (3-5 in conference)

Hawaii 6-6 (4-4 in conference)

Colorado State 3-9 (2-6 in conference)

UNLV 2-10 (1-7 in conference)

New Mexico 2-10 (0-8 in conference)

San Jose State 2-10 (1-7 in conference)

Mountain Division

Boise State Broncos

2018 record: 10-3 (7-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DE Curtis Weaver. Weaver explodes off the edge with speed and stride. He comes equipped with NFL-ready size at 6-foot-3, 266 pounds and will be in play for a Day 1 selection with a smooth evaluating process.

 

The case for: The case for the Broncos is actually slightly more complicated than it has been over the past few years. Over the past few years, we have grown comfortable with QB Brett Rypien and a steady stream of obvious running backs heading into August camp. That running back pipeline hasn’t necessarily run dry, but it’s going to take clanging a wrench on the darned thing to figure out who is going to take over Alexander Mattison this fall.

We like Andrew Van Buren for obvious name reasons, but even beyond The President of the Boise Valley’s old-fashioned moniker, Van Buren looks like the most likely comer to fill Mattison’s big, NFL-bound shoes. But Robert Mahone is in this conversation as well, and a time share is very much possible, here.

It would be nice if either Van Buren or Mahone can take the starting job outright in August, as that would give the Broncos a comfortable starting point on an offense that needs to replace Rypien.

The receiving corps, line and defense are on more solid footing. One name in each unit that will be a fun watch this season. WR John Hightower supplies deep fireworks, averaging 17.1 yards per play from scrimmage last season, T Ezra Cleveland is an all-conference first-teamer with NFL aspirations and oh speaking of NFL aspirations, EDGE terror Curtis Weaver is one of the best pass-rushers in the country. 

These Broncos have a few important things to sort out in preseason camp, yes, but HC Bryan Harsin has earned our benefit of the doubt. The Broncos open against FSU on Aug. 31, in what will be a fascinating watch with both teams.

 

The case against: Gee, buddy, you barely even mentioned quarterback. Brett Rypien’s stellar career in the valley has ended, leaving that hole wide open. The most obvious way for the Broncos to take a step back from their usual conference contender-ness would simply be for the quarterback not to be there. 

Perhaps the most intriguing quarterback on roster is true freshman Hank Bachmeier, who ranked as the country’s No. 235 overall prospect in the 2019 class (by the 247Sports composite) and has the most upside of any of Harsin’s options between Bachmeier, Chase Cord and Jaylon Henderson

The problem, here, is that if the passing game does not come together, or if Harsin bounces between options, that puts all the more of a spotlight on the running game. A running game which might or might not be there. The Broncos remain one of the most well-assembled outfits in the Group of 5, but this year will represent their toughest test since Ryan Finley broke his foot three years back, opening the door for a little guy named Brett Rypien.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 10

Prediction: PUSH

Utah State Aggies

2018 record: 11-2 (7-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Jordan Love At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Love has robust measurables. Don’t let that size fool you into thinking he is a statue, though. He has an innate feel for when to move in the pocket coupled with the requisite arm talent. His overall physical toolbox appeals for the pros.

 

The case for: The case for the Aggies starts with -- but is not limited to -- QB Jordan Love, a palatably-sized 6-foot-4, 225-pound gunslinger who is seriously blipping on the NFL radar. Love is a legitimate difference-maker and should be receiving more under-the-table darkhorse Heisman talk after throwing for 3,567 yards with a 32/6 TD/INT ratio. 

Not that Love is going to win the award, but he deserves to be in that conversation just as much as a Power 5 name like Adrian Martinez. Statistically glitzy without a legitimate shot at the Playoff. That’s the Heisman finalist seat which Love would be looking to fill.

His cast and crew on offense is out one explosive runner in Darwin Thompson and in another in Gerold Bright, who totaled 1,120 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage last season while splitting touches and carries. 

While the Aggies are thin at linebacker outside of stalwart David Woodward, an all-conference type of performer, and facing attrition at safety, their defensive line and cornerbacking rotations are among the best in the Mountain West. 

As exciting as Love might be, as intriguing as his draft stock may be, he may need to turn in a Herculean effort upcoming, because this is a team which is being held together by duct tape in places.

 

The case against: There are several weak points on this Utah State squad which could be exploited this coming season. Most notably, Love is working his magic behind what is going to be a green, largely unproven offensive line. And he’s going to be working said magic with a completely remade receiving corps. 

Ron’Quavion Tarver, gone. Jalen Greene, gone. Aaron Vaughns, gone. Dax Raymond, gone. Maybe Utah transfer Siaosi Mariner clicks -- he was only modestly productive with the Utes -- or maybe the likes of Jordan Nathan, Sam Lockett and Savon Scarver can step up, but the reality is that Love’s lack of a supporting cast could prove incredibly problematic.

He will also no longer have the luxury of playing in HC Matt Wells' explosive offensive system now that Gary Andersen is in the fold leading the way.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7

Prediction: OVER

Air Force Falcons

2018 record: 5-7 (3-5 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: N/A

 

The case for: The Falcons played three card monte with their quarterbacking situation last season, cycling through Arion Worthman, Isaiah Sanders and Donald Hammond III. Worthman is gone -- and wasn’t very good to begin with -- leaving it to Sanders and Hammond to duke it out for the starting role in August. 

Hammond offers the brightest light between the two, shining at his most dazzling in back-to-back performances against New Mexico and Wyoming in which he ran for 225 combined yards while accounting for seven total touchdowns. They will need more of that this fall, especially following the unexpected offseason departure of RB Cole Fagan (more on Fagan below). 

If Hammond can sustain his gains from last season, this is a Falcons team which boasts a sturdy, move-the-pile offensive line and an elite run defense -- No. 20 on S&P+ in 2018 -- and could make a run for a bowl.  

 

The case against: Say Hammond’s successes from last season were something of fool’s gold. Say that he just happened to offer a nice spark for a ho-hum team and it’s nothing more than a momentary burst in the football cosmos. Well then the Falcons are back to square one at quarterback. 

Then there is the other thing. The Cole Fagan one. Hammond, Sanders, neither, both, no iteration of quarterbacks brings Fagan back. He is no longer with the team. Reason why, unknown. Fagan’s loss stings deeply. Not only did he rush for 997 yards and seven touchdowns last season, he was all kinds of clutch when it mattered, converting for first downs or touchdowns on 30% of his carries (per Pro Football Focus).

Air Force will throw bodies at the Petersberg-sized crater Fagan left behind, and maybe a Taven Birdow and a Kadin Remsburg step up to help cover for that loss. It’s one more thing for Air Force HC Troy Calhoun will have to worry about in August camp, one more thing that could go wrong. 

Oh, and the flipside to that fantastic run defense our cheerier half mentioned above -- the pass defense was an inversely horrible unit last season.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: UNDER

Wyoming Cowboys

2018 record: 6-6 (4-4 in conference)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Logan Wilson. A former two-star receiver, Wilson has bulked up to 6-foot-2, 250 over the course of his Wyoming career. He tackles everything in sight and plays with accountable leadership. Will have spotlight on him in fall with so many other notable defenders now off roster.

 

The case for: If the Cowboys are going to improve off of their .500 campaign from last fall, it is going to happen on the strength of the team’s defense. Admittedly, they are facing notable losses on the defensive line in Carl Granderson and Youhanna Ghaifan, ditto losses in the secondary in Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps.

Even without the aforementioned stud defenders, though, the Cowboys have a tough, nasty unit on the whole, one led by cornerbacks Antonio Hull and Tyler Hall. Hull and Hall, coupled with Wingard and Epps, helped to lead a passing defense which ranked a lofty No. 9 on S&P+ last season. That returning pair is buttressed by LB Logan Wilson, who has led Wyoming in tackles each of the last two campaigns. 

So long as the Cowboys can paper over for their losses, they are going to find themselves playing in close, low-scoring contests. A little offensive oomph would go a long ways. Which leads us to our biggest concern with Wyoming.

The case against: Just how much water can Wyoming draw from the offensive rock. That’s our main concern. The team named Sean Chambers starting quarterback out of spring practice, allowing him the rest of the offseason to prepare as starter in earnest. 

That is all well and good. It’s just that Chambers remains largely unproven. In his four games last season, playing as a true freshman, he attempted just 25 passes. He proved willing to run at the drop of a hat, which again, all well and good, but we simply don’t know how far along Chambers is on the mental front.

It doesn’t help matters that his supporting cast is largely unproven. We are still talking about the likes of Austin Conway and C.J. Johnson in the receiving corps, an uninspiring concept, while surprise breakout RB Niko Hall danced off roster over the offseason. It will be Xazavian Valladay starting in Hall’s place upcoming. Valladay at least flashed as a true freshman last season in rushing for 396 yards (5.6 YPC) on 71 carries.

The reality for Wyoming is that this offense probably isn’t there, yet, unless we see a major step forward from Chambers. The Cowboys lost games a year ago simply due to the fact that their defense, while very able, would eventually snap on the scoreboard over the course of a given contest simply due to a lack of offensive support. That could well be the case again this coming season. My kingdom for Josh Allen?

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5.5

Prediction: UNDER

Colorado State Rams 

2018 record: 3-9 (2-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: LB Tron Folsom. Slim picking for draft prospects on CSU, but we’ll roll with Folsom. What piques our interest most with the former Troy linebacker is his productivity -- 80-plus tackles each of the past two seasons -- but even more than that, his analytical marks. PFF sees a potential diamond in the rough here, assigning Folsom an overall grade of 81.4 for the 2018 season. His size at 210 pounds is problematic, though.

 

The case for: If CSU is to turn itself around off a lost 3-8 season, that starts with QB Col.in Hill. Hill began the season on Colorado State’s bench, behind K.J. Carta-Samuels, but after Carta-Samuels hit on a few respectable early games only to hit struggles, HC Mike Bobo opted to bench the graduate. Hill started four games for the campaign while posting three games north of 280 yards passing. 

We would prefer a more experienced offensive line to keep Hill clean -- he has undergone multiple knee injuries in his career -- and some kind of running game, at all, but even without those two things, we trust that Colorado State will field a few killer receivers. They always do, fielding a 1,000-yard receiver in each of the last five seasons. Warren Jackson is the lead contender to be The Next Man in a line which includes Preston Williams, Olabisi Johnson, Rashard Higgins et al. 

Jackson logged a 32-405-4 receiving line last season. It’s easy to be sucked into the idea of Colorado State, they always seem to have something cooking on offense. We don’t know what Hill will look like as a starting quarterback, but we feel confident saying that this offense will have the capability to put up points not yet knowing the particulars.

 

The case against: The abominable defense, for starters. The Rams ranked No. 117 in the country in scoring defense and scored numerous hideous grades on ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s S&P+ advanced metrics (No. 119 against the run, No. 118 against the pass). There is no reason to believe that there is an immediate rescue for the downtrodden unit. 

Just assume the defense will be bad. And as with all bad defensive teams, it takes just a few offensive cracks for the dam to burst into an uncompetitive game.* 

* This was Oregon State’s go-to game last season. A few third-and outs and suddenly the offense is looking at a 14- or 17-point deficit. It doesn’t matter that the Beavers have Jermar Jefferson or Isaiah Hodgins

It’s not nothing to lose a pair of NFL wideouts, not even for a team which routinely pumps them out -- Colorado State probably can’t call itself WR U, but maybe WR Community College? -- and we have our questions on Hill as the signal-caller for this offense. Most of those questions revolve around his health. 

Hill missed the whole of the 2017 season rehabbing from a knee injury and only just returned to action midway through the 2018 campaign. We simply don’t know if his knee will hold up as a 12-game starter. That is impossible to predict, given just how little we have actually seen from Hill while waiting for him to ascend to his expected starting role. 

Behind a mostly green offensive line, without a running game, the 6-foot-5, 214-pound Hill is going to have to carry a load, here. Whether that left knee is strong enough to hold said weight is going to determine just how competitive this team will be on offense.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 3.5

Prediction: UNDER

New Mexico Lobos

2018 record: 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DL Aaron Blackwell. Blackwell is country strong -- capable of squatting 675 pounds -- but has yet to translate that big boy strength into serious production. He will need to show a bit more this fall if he is to legitimately blip for a late draft selection.

 

The case for: For many, many reasons, the year 2016 will be forever etched in the history books. As time passes, though, it can start to feel very, very distant. You know what we’re talking about. In the fall of 2016, New Mexico won nine games. We’re gonna stick to sports on this one. 

Things have rapidly collapsed since then, with HC Bob Davie’s squad posting back-to-back three-win seasons. 

Nine wins with this current team is a laughable proposition. Bowl eligibility, even, might not be realistic. If they are to find five wins, if they are to even have a hint of relevancy then they are going to need to go Daniel Plainview on things and hit a few wellsprings of oil. That starts with sorting out a quarterback morass between Sheriron Jones, Tevaka Tuioti, Brandt Hughes and Trae Hall.

Jones -- who has been spending his down time this summer getting in touch with New Mexico on the possibility of building an on-campus skate park -- is probably the odds-on favorite to start from this lot. He torched UNLV and Liberty last season. Also threw 12 interceptions, but there is no sure thing in this position room.

Most bad teams have some glimmer of upside if you squint for it, even with the Coastal Carolinas of the world. Well we’re squinting like George Costanza and will admit upfront that New Mexico’s outfit offers distressingly little to work with. To paraphrase Adam McCay’s VICE, we did the best we could.

 

The case against: Very quietly, the Lobos might be the saddest team in the country. We don’t blame the New Mexico faithful -- an endangered species at this point -- for feeling cynical. This is a program which suspended its head coach for a month last spring due to multiple investigations around the culture he was fostering, then went 3-9 and then just brought him back because hey, sure, why not. It was a dumb shrug in the same way that Lynn Swann dumb-shrugged USC’s retention of Clay Helton

Except USC just had a kind of mediocre season. They aren’t inherently mediocre. New Mexico under Davie is inherently mediocre trending toward bad. Just twice in Davie’s seven seasons with the program have the Lobos won more than six games. They won seven in 2015 and nine in 2016. And they bounced off those “big” seasons to post back-to-back three-win campaigns. The worst case for New Mexico is that they just play like New Mexico always has under Bob Davie

Tangibly, the Lobos do not have a starting quarterback of any proven worth, are out lead rusher Tyrone Owens and are in the process of replacing both of their starting guards (fare thee well most notably to all-conference right guard Aaron Jenkins). That looks rosy in comparison to a completely-gutted defensive secondary which lost almost literally everybody, which might as well have had a run-in with a bear.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5

Prediction: UNDER

West Division

 

San Diego State Aztecs 

2018 record: 7-6 (4-4 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Juwan Washington. A balanced, smooth back possessing of strong vision. He is undersized at 5-foot-7, 190 pounds and has little experience as a receiver, which figures to handicap his evaluation by degrees.

 

The case for: We didn’t really receive the full San Diego State Experience last season. The Aztecs still pulled off their patented road upset, with Boise State falling victim on the blue turf in mid-October, and they still boasted a stifling run defense -- seventh-best in the country on a per-game average -- but it just wasn’t the full monty.

That’s because we didn’t get a full season of Juwan Washington, who missed four games with a fractured collarbone. Chase Jasmin was serviceable, was fine in a sort of anybody-could-be-fine-running-the-ball-in-that-offense kind of way, but averaged just 4.3 YPC on 138 carries. Washington, even missing time, finished with 999 yards and 10 touchdowns while working at a 5.0 YPC clip. 

So long as Washington is healthy this fall, the team brings back an experienced line and enough of a passing game with QB Ryan Agnew that everything on offense should work as expected. And in an interesting twist of fate, it’s going to be the secondary -- locked down by safeties Tariq Thompson and Trenton Thompson -- rather than the front which leads the way on defense.

 

The case against: Starting on defense, our biggest concern comes in what happens as the Aztecs turn over their front. Especially on the defensive line. Only senior DE Myles Cheatum returns among last year’s starter. Beyond Cheatum we are talking about a whole lot of youth. 

Hey, maybe Long figures out how to reconfigure what has been his team’s trademark run defense, even with the lack of experience. We wouldn’t put it past the old California fox. That’s a maybe, though. San Diego State’s schedule is manageable-ish, with UCLA in Week 2 and Utah State in Week 4 the headline contests for September. 

No Boise State this year, but SDSU will have a chance not just to wreck Jordan Love’s day in Week 4, but also potentially Fresno State’s season in a November showdown. They will get both of those contests at home.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: OVER

Fresno State Bulldogs

2018 record: 12-2 (7-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DE/LB Mykal Walker. Walker made first-team All-Mountain West last season while posting a PFF grade of 84.0. He graded out even more sharply as a run-defender (87.3). There is not a more sure, consistent tackler in the conference.

 

The case for: For everything Fresno State lost from last season -- oodles, just wait -- they still have several fun weapons returning, led by redshirt TE Jared Rice, who went off for 55-664-3 last season and should serve as a fantastic baby binkie for QB Jorge Reyna, set to take over for the departed Marcus McMaryion.

Rice should have a legitimate chance to make his case for an NFL selection in what is a thinner impending position class than this spring’s mega-group of Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and friends. Another pair of fun returning weapon, RB tandem Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims, both who offer a little bit in the running game and a little bit in the passing game.

There is more than enough in the offensive cupboards to keep on keepin' on in Fresno's workmanlike way, assuming that Reyna is ready to take over for McMaryion. We trust Jeff Tedford to keep things on the right track. Really, the defensive losses (of Jeff Allison and Mike Bell) have us a little more spooked than the offensive ones. Because even at its peak this is an offense that plays a lot of close games. You would like to have the defense to back it. 

 

The case against: We love what the Bulldogs have done under HC Jeff Tedford, who has forged them into legitimately one of the best Group of Five teams in the country, one built on a physical, disciplined defense and a methodically efficient offense. 

It might take a miracle for Tedford to keep this outfit afloat, though, given all the holes that were left when multiple key pieces on both sides of the ball departed over the winter. Among those who have taken their bows and said their farewells, the aforementioned McMaryion, WR KeeSean Johnson, LB Jeff Allison and S Mike Bell.

That’s the kind of turnover that would have us wondering about a team like Penn State, let alone a Group of Five outfit.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: OVER

Nevada Wolf Pack

2018 record: 8-5 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Brendan O’Leary-Orange. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, O’Leary-Orange comes equipped with nice size and a slick catch radius. He has already proven himself able to burn defenses deep -- 15.7 yards per reception for his career -- but has struggled with injury at Nevada. A healthy, consistent season is a must for his draft hopes.

 

The case for: It’s the running backs and wide receivers, man. And maybe the quarterback. The options at signal-caller peak with upperclassman Cristian Solano -- who backed up Ty Gangi in 2018 -- and ‘Last Chance U’ notable Malik Henry. The safe bet would be Solano, who is already versed in the offense. We are gamblers ‘round these parts, though, and Henry brings a different level of intrigue to the fore. 

The former Florida State signee returned to Independence Community College for a second year after failing to net an FBS offer prior to the 2018 season, before finally landing with Nevada in what really does figure to be his last chance. Count us cautiously optimistic that he might actually turn into more than a Netflix name. He has been taking well to the Nevada playbook, completing 16-of-28 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown in the team’s spring game. It may be like walking on Jello to trust Henry, but Cristian Solano is a sixth-year senior who has not started a game since 2013. Think on who you were in 2013. It’s better to walk on Jello than walk on the bones of the past?

If Henry does finally finally hit, the skill-position talent around him may well be enough to lift this outfit from what otherwise might be a stalling of the offense. Most exciting among that skill talent would be RB Toa Taua, coming off a Mountain West Freshman of the Year ramble which saw him rush for 872 yards (4.9 YPC) and six touchdowns while adding a 22-202-1 receiving line just for good measure. 

Taua is complemented by a receiving corps that might be out McLane Mannix, who has bounced to Texas Tech, but still has uber-efficient slot maven Kaleb Fossum, who went 70-734-1 last season, as well as pop-you-deep wideouts Brendan O’Leary-Orange and Elijah Cooks. To be completely honest, we were always a little underwhelmed by Nevada with Ty Gangi at the helm. A somehow-successful Malik Henry would make things interesting.

 

The case against: Slow down, optimistic friend. Let’s really think on Nevada’s offense. It’s out Gangi, who threw for 3,331 yards last season with at least 25 touchdowns accounted for each of the past two seasons. It’s out a killer and (crucially) reliable deep ball receiver in Mannix. 

The interior of that offensive line would make a hollow earth conspiracist weep, because it’s been completely cored. Good luck to Taua finding inside yards. And now you’re relying on Malik Henry, who has never attempted a pass in the FBS. Or Cristian Solano, who has an 0/4 TD/INT ratio for his career, all backed by a defense which ranked as ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s 98th in returning production. 

Set aside that Nevada was actually -- gasp -- good on defense last season, surrendering 25 or fewer points in seven games including bowl action, the players who made that happen are largely gone.  

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER

Hawaii Warriors

2018 record: 8-6 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Cole McDonald. McDonald is one tough cookie, playing through internal bleeding in 2018 while racking up big stats. He comes equipped with a big arm and nice size at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, but lacks the mechanical polish of a Jordan Love. Could be viewed as a rising project for pro purposes.

 

The case for: Warriors HC Nick Rolovich brought the run-and-shoot back in terrifying, short-out-the-scoreboard fashion last season, with Cole McDonald throwing for 3,875 yards with a 36/10 TD/INT ratio as Hawaii battled a typically daunting travel schedule on their way to eight wins. Now just imagine if McDonald had been right. He revealed this summer that he played through a case of internal bleeding after taking a hit to his side against San Jose State in September. According to McDonald, it “didn’t drain properly … it was all in my scrotum.” McDonald described the injury as “pretty brutal.”

Egads. That McDonald had some faltering moments late in the season which led to murmurs for Chevan Cordeiro to take over as starter makes sense in context. Cordeiro is going to have to wait, though, barring a superhero showing in August camp. Just what McDonald might be able to accomplish if healthy is a tantalizing prospect. 

He will no longer have John Ursua to throw to, but Cedric Byrd did silly things as a true freshman last season and coupled with Jo Jo Ward, the receiving corps is going to be fine shape. Byrd went for 79-970-9 still acclimating to collegiate ball. 

 

The case against: For all of the early offensive pyrotechnics from Hawaii, the second half saw them fade off, with just two games of more than 25 points scored after the month of September. McDonald’s injury undoubtedly played into that slowdown, ditto for the travel schedule, which wears on the Warriors in its own unique way. What makes that slowdown scary for Hawaii is that there is one other distinct possible reason: That defenses simply caught up to a flash offense. 

Even if McDonald and crew are able to reignite the spark that began to fizzle at the end of the fall, they are facing a bear of a schedule to start with, opening against Arizona, with Oregon State and Washington to follow. That’s an 0-3 or 1-2 start from the jump.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5.5

Prediction: OVER

UNLV Rebels

2018 record: 4-8 (2-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: G Justin Polu. Polu has started 36 consecutive games for the Rebels and brings to the field a tough nose coupled with good size at 6-foot-4, 325 pounds.

 

The case for: While taking part in a college football fantasy draft last season, an owner living in Las Vegas messaged this author after this author selected QB Armani Rogers in the later rounds. “I’m hearing all kinds of great things about him. They think he can take the next step.”

Hard to take the next step when you are sitting on the bench with a foot injury, though. We touched on Juwan Washington’s collarbone-induced absence for SDSU earlier in this column, and how that discombobulated the offense. 

That, times a million, for UNLV. In Rogers’ place, Max Gilliam, who might be more comfortable throwing the ball than Rodgers, but offered absolutely none of Rodgers’ dual-threat ability to scramble the defense like it’s a botched omelet. In just six games, Rogers rushed for 565 yards and eight touchdowns. Gilliam rushed for -4 yards in nine contests. 

Presumably, UNLV will get a fully healthy Rogers this coming season. He and RB Charles Williams have upside for a sweet dance, with Williams set to take over for the departed Lexington Thomas this fall after rushing for 332 yards on 65 carries last season. 

UNLV’s best hope for 2019 comes in that pair, but specifically in Rodgers. He may not have climbed the next rung in the ladder, but when he does, if he does, he could throw a very fun wrench into the conference.

 

The case against: Much like your author in high school mathematics class, so many of UNLV’s hopes depend on Armani Rogers actually fulfilling his potential. If he’s still completing under 55% of his passes in 2019 -- and in his healthy games last season, he was at a dreadful 44.6% -- then this is a one-dimensional team. 

Stop Williams -- who, by the by, is nowhere near a guarantee to replace Lexington Thomas’ production -- or whomever emerges from the UNLV running back fighting pits and just dare Rodgers to throw the ball. That might seem simplistic, but there are only so many wrinkles that UNLV can manufacture if defenses do not buy Rodgers as a passer.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 4

Prediction: UNDER

San Jose State Spartans

2018 record: 1-11 (1-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: Probably SJSU’s last best hope for a draft prospect next spring, the ever-active Osuna burst out with 10 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions last season, with three passes defensed. He remains a raw prospect in need of molding.

 

The case for: San Jose State might have been a one-win team last season, but it was at least a generally entertaining one-win team. A 44-38 loss to FCS Norfolk State! A 44-41 loss to Hawaii! A 50-37 win (!!!) over UNLV! They also gave up 62 points to Utah State and lost 52-3 to Army, but that’s life for a team like San Jose State. 

For the Spartans to find stepping stones forward coming off a one-win season, it’s probably going to start with the continued development of QB Josh Love, who threw for 1,963 yards (56.1% completions) and a 14/9 TD/INT ratio in 2018. Those might not be numbers that cause a crack in the earth, but Love is capable of big games. He put up 453 passing yards and three touchdowns against Hawaii and 335 passing yards and four touchdowns against UNLV last season. 

Those two contests accounted for half of his season-long touchdown tally. It’s just a matter of coaxing a little more consistency out of Love for an entire season. Also about keeping him healthy. His is not a comfortable work environment, let’s say. The Spartans have surrendered at least 35 sacks in every season since 2014. 

Love is not going to carve a defense up with efficiency or volume, but what Love does fantastically well is strike for the big deep ball. Per Pro Football Focus, he posted the second-best adjusted deep passing percentage in 2018 among returning Mountain West quarterbacks.

The loss of Josh Oliver is the most immediately obvious mention for SJSU’s receiving corps, but the Spartans quietly boast a lovely one-two punch at receiver in Bailey Gaithers and Tre Walker. We’ll see on tight end among Derrick Deese, Dominick Mazotti and Billy Humphries. 

 

The case against: A porous defense and a running game that couldn’t find success against a porous defense. That’s San Jose State. Charitably, they have a few nice defensive pieces. We’ll throw a highlight to redshirt senior LB Jesse Osuna, for one, after Osuna -- a stout presence against the run by PFF metrics last season -- posted a career-best 93 tackles (10.0 for loss), two interceptions and a fumble forced. 

We’re just talking pieces, though, and pieces alone can’t hold this thing together. SJSU allowed a touch over 36 points a game last season and ranked 107th in run defense. The running backs room, meanwhile, might not be completely falling apart, but there’s not much on the shelf to help out Love, Gaithers and friends.

Unlike New Mexico, which seems to be floundering about without direction or leadership, San Jose State is a bad Mountain West team which we will actually tune into watch without being forced to do so for Game Day blurbs.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 2.5

Prediction: UNDER

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