What’s Wrong With Mountain West Football So Far This Season?
The Mountain West mostly hasn’t played up to preseason expectations thus far. We take a closer look to try and figure out why.
Can the conference be fixed?
Roughly one month into the college football season, only four Mountain West teams sit above .500. The conference has just one Power 5 win, against a Colorado Buffaloes team that might be the worst in the country. It has just one non-conference road win, Nevada’s victory over New Mexico State back in Week 0. Almost no one has, to quote a sage of our era, straight up had a good time of things.
Despite what looks like an unexpectedly exciting conference title chase, it’s hard not to wonder where things have gone wrong to this point in the young campaign. That’s why we want to look under the hood and figure out what might be driving the early results.
It wasn’t a secret that many teams across the conference would be replacing a substantial amount of talent since, as Bill Connelly noted in his percentage adjustments throughout the summer, the Mountain West trailed the next least-experienced conference by a full five percent going into the fall. It may have been too optimistic, then, to expect that many teams would continue to operate like normal.
Nevada and Hawaii were obvious rebuild candidates at the very bottom of the list but Utah State, for instance, returned just 50% of its overall production of 2021, too. The Aggies’ net points per drive has dropped from +0.61 (37th in FBS) to -1.43 (110th) while their net available yards percentage has fallen from +8.1% (32nd) to -11.1% (95th), but they’re hardly alone in that regard: Wyoming sat just above the Wolf Pack and Warriors with 34% of its production set to return, while San Diego State brought back only 55% of its 2021 production and Colorado State sat at 58%. Despite their differing win-loss records, all have seen similar declines by both metrics.
It may be that recency bias plays a role here, but it seems like nearly every team in the Mountain West is dealing with a harsher rash of early injuries than usual:
Air Force has been without DeAndre Hughes, Dane Kinamon, and Jayden Thiergood, among others, in recent weeks.
Boise State has played recently without Ezekiel Noa, while Tyreque Jones got banged up in the Week 4 loss at UTEP.
Colorado State is already missing both starting offensive tackles while quarterback Clay Millen got knocked out of the Week 4 contest against Sacramento State.
Fresno State is headed to UConn in Week 5 without four starters, including quarterback Jake Haener and safety Evan Williams.
Hawaii’s passing game has dealt with injuries to wide receivers Jonah Panoke and Zion Bowens.
Nevada just lost kicker Brandon Talton for the foreseeable future, and the Wolf Pack have already been without offensive lineman Aaron Frost and defensive back JoJuan Claiborne.
New Mexico just lost star safety Tavian Combs for the season, while linebacker Ray Leutele is week-to-week.
San Diego State played last week without starting guard Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli while safety Patrick McMorris has also been banged up.
UNLV wide receivers Kyle Williams and Jeff Weimer got knocked out of their Week 4 game, and the latter will miss Week 5 with a shoulder injury.
Utah State has lost contributors like Phillip Paea and Kyle Van Leeuwen for the season to injury.
Wyoming lost expected contributors like Buck Coors and Sabastian Harsh for the season back in fall camp, while Titus Swen and Frank Crum have been slowed at points.
The only team to really escape the injury bug so far is San Jose State, but the nature of the game is such that the Spartans are likely to be dealing with similar issues at some point, just as everyone else.
Red Zone Efficiency
This is where small size caveats may apply, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Mountain West, as a whole, just has not be as good in the red zone as they were in 2021. Last year, ten teams managed to convert more than 50% of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns. In 2022, that number has dropped to five… and it’s mostly not teams you’d expect: UNLV, Air Force, Nevada, New Mexico, and Boise State.
The same is also true on defense, as eight Mountain West teams allowed less than 60% of their opponents’ red zone trips to become touchdowns last year. In 2022, that group numbers just three so far with Boise State, UNLV, and San Jose State. Returning quarterbacks like Fresno State’s Jake Haener, Utah State’s Logan Bonner, and SJSU’s Chevan Cordeiro simply have not been as sharp as they were a year ago, so while there’s time to turn that around, it’s easy to see why that has influenced the results to date.
Third Down Efficiency
It’s hard to remain competitive when you can’t move the chains consistently, and that seems to have been a conference-wide problem to date, as well. Compared to 2021, only Air Force (from 45.4% to 52.9%) and UNLV (from 35% to 38.2%) have improved on their offensive conversion rate to this point in the 2022 season. Overall, seven teams in the conference had a third-down conversion rate better than 40% last season; in 2022, only Air Force and Fresno State have managed that feat so far.
And as in the red zone, defenses have seen similar struggles, too, though there does seem to be more of a definitive split between good and bad. Six teams have allowed opponents to convert more than 40% of third down tries where only four did in 2021, though it is worth noting that the six teams on the good side of that split — Boise State, New Mexico, UNLV, Fresno State, Air Force, and San Jose State — have all improved at least slightly in that regard from last year.
A Lack of Explosiveness
This may be a little harder to measure, but looking at the raw count of 20-yard plays from many teams across the conference, it’s clear this has played a role in the early going, too. UNLV has doubled its number from 2021 through four games, from 12 to 24, while Air Force has actually racked up as many as a year ago (20), Fresno State is up slightly on a per-game basis and San Jose State has nearly matched its total in one fewer contest, but…
Hawaii had 32 plays of 20-plus yards in 2021 through five games, but the Warriors have just 13 in the same number of matchups so far in 2022.
Nevada had 15 such plays in its first three games last year, but the Wolf Pack have only 13 in five games to this point in 2022.
San Diego State had 18 such plays in 2021 through four games, but the Aztecs have just nine in 2022.
Utah State had 25 such plays in 2021 through four games, but the Aggies have 12 through the first four games in 2022.
Wyoming had 17 such plays in 2021 through four games, but the Cowboys have 13 in five games so far in 2022.
A Transfer Portal Talent Drain?
There’s no doubt the portal has upended the Mountain West since you don’t have to search for too long to find evidence of former players from the conference thriving elsewhere, some of whom were already stars and some of whom had previously struggled:
Todd Centeio left Colorado State for James Madison and has led the Dukes to a 3-0 start, with a 63.3% completion rate and 11 touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Khoury Bethley and Xazavian Valladay left Hawaii and Wyoming, respectively, for Arizona State. The former has 28 tackles and a forced fumble so far while the latter is second in the Pac-12 with 97.75 rushing yards per game to date.
Solomon Byrd left Wyoming for USC, has already picked up three sacks and four tackles for loss, and may have inadvertently shaped the Mountain West title chase, anyway, after his sack and forced fumble of Jake Haener led to the quarterback’s current high ankle sprain.
Daiyan Henley left Nevada for Washington State and currently ranks third in the Pac-12 with four sacks, second with 38 total tackles, and first with 8.5 tackles for loss.
Lucas Johnson left San Diego State for Montana, where he’s completed 70% of his throws with ten touchdowns and one interception, and chipped in four rushing scores, while leading the Griz to a 4-0 start.
Jacoby Windmon left UNLV for Michigan State and, through four games, is currently the second-highest graded edge defender in the entire country according to PFF, at 91.4.
How much different might the conference look had some of these players stuck around? The flipside of this, of course, is that the transfer portal moves made within the conference have mostly worked out: Andrew Peasley has brought stability at quarterback to Wyoming, for instance, while Chevan Cordeiro has done the same at San Jose State. Elijah Cooks has looked like his old self after leaving Nevada for the Spartans, as well, while Tory Horton has looked like the best pass catcher in the conference at Colorado State. Justus Tavai has been his usual reliable self at San Diego State, while Tylan Hines has emerged as a reliable depth piece at Hawaii and Daniel Grzesiak has done the same at Utah State.
Quality of Competition
Of course, it may just be that the Mountain West, in addition to some of the above factors, set itself up for a run through a proverbial buzzsaw. The conference has had contests against Alabama, Michigan, Utah, USC, and Iowa, the consensus preseason #1, #5, #6, #21, and #25, and lost by an average margin of 38 points. In retrospect, maybe that shouldn’t have been too surprising.
Add to that a two-touchdown loss to BYU, an eight-point loss to Auburn, a 38-point loss to LSU, and two losses to Oregon State, all of whom received votes in various preseason top 25 lists, as well, and it becomes clearer why optimism could have been tempered a little more.