Mountain West Football: 12 Stats That Could Shape The 2022 Season
Every team in the Mountain West has at least one metric that could go a long way toward determining how the 2022 football season shakes out.
Numbers don’t lie.
The Mountain West football season is mere days away now, which means that every team in the conference has a blank slate and limitless aspirations. It also means rectifying some of the things that may have held programs back, or bolstering some of the surprising elements that helped propel others forward.
In other words, everyone has their eye on improving something on the stat sheet, but what could those figures be? Here are the numbers worth keeping in mind that should play a large role throughout the 2022 campaign:
This number represents the difference in points per drive scored by New Mexico from 2020 to 2021. During the COVID-shortened season, the Lobos managed 2.04 PPD, good enough to rank 84th among FBS teams, before injuries and inexperience sank them to dead last a year ago with 0.79. Because it is extremely unlikely that they will struggle to that magnitude again, the story of their season may just come down to how much positive regression to the mean UNM can muster.
UNLV has developed a fair share of promising prospects under Marcus Arroyo, including last year’s freshman of the year Cameron Friel, but one thing that plagued the Rebels was a 4.2% interception rate that persisted throughout the season-long quarterback shuffle. Cutting down on those killer mistakes will go a long way toward helping the men in Vegas make headway in their trek back to bowl eligibility.
Once opponents figured out how to attack Nevada’s front with their ground game, the Wolf Pack often struggled to contain it: In Nevada’s five losses, they gave up 5.92 yards per carry, the worst average in the Mountain West and 119th among all FBS teams. That’s also borne out in a defensive opportunity rate allowed that ranked 126th overall (55.9%) and a stuff rate which was 120th (13.1%), so how well the Pack can rectify that hindrance while navigating so much personnel shuffling will define much of their first year under Ken Wilson.
The San Jose State Spartans did pretty well for itself in 2021 defending the pass, finishing fourth in the Mountain West in allowing 6.9 yards per attempt and second with 56 passes broken up despite a 62.7% opponents completion rate that ranked next-to-last. However, San Jose State had just six interceptions on the season, an unusually low number given that many passes defended. That goes a long way toward explaining why the Spartans were also dead last in the conference with just 12 total takeaways, so if you’re looking for areas of positive regression, this is one of them.
You could argue that, for as good as Air Force has often been in the past several years, they haven’t been able to reach their true ceiling in part because of an occasionally leaky pass defense. That was no less true in 2021: In the Falcons’ three losses, they allowed an average of 9.7 yards per attempt, the highest in the Mountain West and in keeping with similar such struggles stretching back to 2017.
One big question that Boise State faces headed into the season is where the offense’s explosive plays will come from now that Khalil Shakir has moved on to the NFL. To that point, 16 of Shakir’s 77 receptions in 2021, or 20.8%, went for 20 or more yards. By contrast leading returning receiver Stefan Cobbs had six in 34 catches, or 17.6%. That difference of maybe one chunk play per game could make a big difference in the Broncos’ hopes of a rebound.
Turnovers plagued the Hawaii Warriors in both of Todd Graham’s season at the helm, a problem he never really resolved after inheriting it from Nick Rolovich. Last year, Hawaii had 29 giveaways, the third straight season in which they ranked last in the Mountain West, so while there’s every expectation that new head coach Timmy Chang and offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker will bring back a familiar kind of wide-open passing attack, how well they take care of the football could determine how much they surprise this fall
One element of the game that is likely to change at Colorado State is increased aggression on offense when close to the red zone. It isn’t hard to make a case that Steve Addazio was way too conservative in that regard: The Rams settled for a field goal on 40.82% of trips inside the 20-yard line last year, just the third Mountain West team since 2009 to top 40% in such situations. That won’t happen again, but how many of those trips are replaced with touchdowns instead remains to be seen.
Utah State played like a much different team in the back half of their championship run last season, but one lingering problem which could be corrected as an aid to their title defense is greater red zone efficiency. Excluding the abbreviated 2020 season, the Aggies offense converted just 51.85% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, the worst figure of any conference champion since 2013.
One subtle measure which had often helped Craig Bohl’s Wyoming offenses throughout his tenure was better-than-you-think starting field position. Between 2016 and 2020, the Cowboys had finished in the top 50 nationally four times by that statistic, but they didn’t get that benefit in 2021: On average, Wyoming started with 73.2 yards to go on offense, not ideal for an attack which was only average (5.8 yards per play) within the Mountain West, but that could change if the return game can find a reliable contributor.
Fresno State had strong units on both sides of the ball last year, but the Bulldogs often had a habit of making things more difficult than they had to be. To wit, the Bulldogs racked up 99 total penalties last season, their per-game average of 7.6 being the most in the Mountain West, and they tended to be particularly damaging in the team’s three losses (eight against Oregon, ten against Hawaii, 11 against Boise State). Cleaning up the sloppiness will be crucial for Fresno State’s title hopes.
That’s the seating capacity at Snapdragon Stadium, the new home of San Diego State football. Despite the overwhelming amount of success the Aztecs had over the last couple years, there’s no doubt that having to play at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, some 114 miles from their new digs, neutralized the homefield advantage that everyone typically enjoys, as their attendance topped out at 13,445 in the conference championship game at Utah State.
You have to imagine that problem is now a thing of the past. The anticipation for the new stadium has been building for years and fans on the Mesa have been overwhelmingly receptive to the Aztecs’ new home, and their presence could take the team’s recent performance to a whole new plane in 2022.