Mountain West Football: Separating Contenders From Pretenders After One Month
Four weeks into the season, we re-examine what the race to the Mountain West championship could look like over the next two months.
Not quite what was expected.
Things haven’t come together as planned at Fort Air Raid. The Rams have scored a meager 10.8 points per game, ahead of only UMass among FBS teams, and averaged 4.03 yards per play, which ranks 129th in the country, while quarterback Clay Millen has been battered week after week to the point that he finally got knocked out of the contest with Sacramento State in Week 4.
It isn’t all doom and gloom in Fort Collins, as Tory Horton, Mohamed Kamara, and Jack Howell have all shined despite the difficult circumstances, but it may serve CSU fans well to recall that head coach Jay Norvell had to absorb a 3-9 campaign in his first year at Nevada back in 2017, too, before the Wolf Pack got on track.
It’s been a bumpy ride for Timmy Chang’s Warriors in the first month of his tenure, with a win over Duquesne and lopsided losses to Michigan, New Mexico State, Vanderbilt, and Western Kentucky by an average of 37.5 points. Running back Dedrick Parson has been a bright spot on offense, but no one could have predicted it would take five games for Hawaii to secure its first passing touchdown.
The defense, meanwhile, has been active about getting its hands on the football with seven takeaways in five games, but they also rank 128th among FBS teams in allowing 7.33 yards per play to date. It’s not out of the question they could steal another win or two against other also-rans in conference play, but it may just as easily be a long Year Zero on the islands.
It was nice while it lasted, but the Wolf Pack have come back to earth with a three-game losing streak in which they’ve posted a not-so-nice -69 point differential. While they’re still tied for first in the Mountain West with 11 total takeaways, Nevada has been shut out on that front in the last two games, as well.
Don’t mistake the diminishing returns for bottoming all the way out like others in the Mountain West, though. Nate Cox appears to be the answer at quarterback while the running back duo of Toa Taua and Devonte Lee has been solid, but the explosiveness on offense just hasn’t been there yet with only 13 plays of 20 or more yards in five games. Dom Peterson has continued to ball out as expected, too, while the secondary has at least proven it can be opportunistic, so the Wolf Pack have at least a few things going for them which could lead to a surprising result or two in the next couple months.
Of all the teams in this part of the column, the Lobos are the likeliest candidate to be a real headache for those expected to contend. That’s because, even after being drubbed by LSU in Week 4, UNM still ranks 69th in the country by defensive SP+. For the sake of context, San Diego State currently sits at 56th on that side of the ball while Fresno State is 80th.
The bigger question is whether the offense will ever come around. In terms of offensive SP+, the Lobos are dead last in the country; if you prefer yards per play, UNM is 126th after four games with an average of 4.21. Their running game has flashed potential here and there, most notably from Sherod White and Christian Washington, but it’ll take a group effort to truly play the spoiler role.