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Mountain West football tiers: Who will contend for a title? Who is bowl-bound?

October means time for the real meat of the college football season.

Pretenders are exposed and true threats start to shine as conference play hits full stride.

The Colorado State football team is just beginning Mountain West play this week, but every other team has at least one league game. Several teams are on byes this week.

The early days of the league schedule are a perfect time to look at the tiers of the Mountain West.

Tier I: The favorites

Fresno State (5-0, 1-0 MW): So much for any Jake Haener hangover. Mikey Keene has taken over at QB and the Bulldogs are rolling. They won a shootout at Purdue and dominated Arizona State on the road. There's a weird 2OT struggle to beat Eastern Washington, but Fresno State looks really good. A No. 24 ranking in the polls and leader in the clubhouse not only in the Mountain West, but this also in contention for the top Group of 5 program with an excellent defense to compliment the offense.

Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Mikey Keene (1) throws the ball ahead of the NCAA football game against the Purdue Boilermakers, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. Fresno State Bulldogs won 39-35.
Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Mikey Keene (1) throws the ball ahead of the NCAA football game against the Purdue Boilermakers, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. Fresno State Bulldogs won 39-35.

Air Force (5-0, 3-0 MW): It doesn't matter who leaves, there's always another group of guys ready to come in and keep the triple-option cooking. Zac Larrier has 362 rush yards and has completed 74% of his passes for more than 22 yards per completion. Emmanuel Michel is also running it really well. Air Force isn't just undefeated, the Falcons are wiping teams out. Air Force and Fresno State are the clear frontrunners right now.

Wyoming Tier: Wyoming

Guess which team is in this tier?

Wyoming (4-1, 1-0 MW) does have an argument to be in the "favorites" tier and the Cowboys sure could join it soon. An impressive home win over Texas Tech and taking Texas to the fourth quarter on the road were impressive showings. But there was also a last-minute escape to beat Appalachian State at home on a blocked field goal returned for TD and a bit of a struggle against New Mexico. Also, I don't trust the offense. Wyoming is definitely good. Conference title game good? The Cowboys' next four games are vs. Fresno State, at Air Force, at Boise State and vs. CSU. We'll know very soon which tier Wyoming fits in.

Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Andrew Peasley (6) looks to pass the football during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)
Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Andrew Peasley (6) looks to pass the football during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)

Tier III: Bowl teams?

These teams are likely too flawed or limited to make the conference title game, but are in real bowl contention.

UNLV (4-1, 1-0 MW): Let's not forget that UNLV started 2022 4-1 before failing to make a bowl and then making a coaching change, so there could be a backslide. But a 4-1 start with a win over Vanderbilt and the only loss at Michigan is a great opening for Barry Odom. UNLV is scoring it at a high rate (36 points per game) and should get a couple more wins to get to a bowl.

Boise State (2-3, 1-0 MW): An odd team. Boise State could have beaten both UCF and Memphis and we would be looking at this team as a potential Mountain West leader, but instead the Broncos lost both of those and barely escaped a bad home loss to San Diego State. Boise State gives up a lot of yards and now has a QB controversy. The Broncos started slow last season before going 8-0 in league play, so it's not out of the question that they figure it out. A three-week stretch coming up at CSU, vs. Wyoming and at Fresno State will decide the season. Surely a bowl team, but likely not a MW contender.

CSU (2-2, 0-0 MW): The Rams seem to be turning a corner. If CSU had held on to beat Colorado the look would be even rosier, but even without it a newly-found offensive surge has provided hope. The defense is giving up too many yards right now and the consistency doesn't seem to be there for a Mountain West title run, but not making a bowl would be a disappointment.

Sep 30, 2023; Fort Collins, Colorado, USA; Colorado State Rams wide receiver Louis Brown IV (4) runs for a first down in gate first quarter at Sonny Lubick Field at Canvas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2023; Fort Collins, Colorado, USA; Colorado State Rams wide receiver Louis Brown IV (4) runs for a first down in gate first quarter at Sonny Lubick Field at Canvas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State (2-4, 0-2 MW): The Aztecs are a stretch to make a bowl. The defense is usually a strength and it's bad this season. The offense is always bad and it's still bad. The main reason I keep San Diego State in the potential bowl tier is because of their history of success and upcoming schedule. SDSU is at Hawaii, vs. Nevada and vs. Utah State the next three weeks. Three wins and a bowl game is possible. Overall, a down and disappointing year in San Diego.

San Jose State Tier: San Jose State

Is San Jose State (1-4, 0-1 MW) bad? Or the victim of a brutal schedule? Or somewhere in the middle?

A 1-4 record is bad, but the losses are to teams with a combined 18-2 record and two of them (USC and Oregon State) are in the top 25.

A trip to Boise State this week is tough, but then it's at New Mexico, vs. Utah State and at Hawaii. There are wins out there. The Spartans have an excellent QB in Chevan Cordeiro. I think it's a decent team but might be in too deep a hole to make a bowl.

Tier V: Not quite yet

Utah State (2-3, 0-1 MW): The Aggies are another funky team to figure out. They've played a pretty tough schedule and hung in at Iowa and had a nice comeback to beat UConn a week ago. Utah State has a dangerous offense but leaky defense, and they're battling a number of injuries. There is a path to a bowl, but it's quite narrow.

New Mexico (2-3, 0-1 MW): The Lobos have shown some signs of life. If they can win upcoming games against Hawaii and Nevada, a shot at a bowl isn't out of the question. Even a five-win season would be growth.

Hawaii (2-4, 0-1 MW): Hawaii hung in against Power 5 foes Vanderbilt and Stanford and ground out a win vs. New Mexico State. But a shellacking at the hands of UNLV causes concern that it may be a rough go in conference play. A couple wins in Mountain West play is probably about the ceiling.

Tier VI: Cellar dweller

Nevada (0-5, 0-1 MW): I don't think Nevada will go winless, but I don't think it's impossible, either. The Wolf Pack has the longest losing streak in FBS by a long way at 15 games. Upcoming home games vs. New Mexico and Hawaii are the best chances for wins.

Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle on Twitter and Instagram @Kevin_Lytle.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Mountain West football tiers: Who will contend for a title? Who is bowl-bound?