Mountain West Preview: Ranking the Schedules

After a couple of years of uncertainty and shifting membership during the tumultuous conference realignment battles of 2010-2013, the Mountain West Conference finds itself in a position of relative stability these days.

With enough football playing members to hold a conference championship game and a new television contract offering more visibility on ESPN (and also including more money), the new Mountain West might be in the best shape it’s ever been.

When the league expands officially on July 1, it will split into two divisions based on geography, which naturally creates an unbalanced schedule. Also, schools that have road trips scheduled to Hawai’i have the option of adding an extra game to their schedule to help offset the travel cost (per NCAA regulations). Only Colorado State will play an extra game this season, so they have five non-conference games on tap.

Without further ado, let’s see how the schedules stack up for the Mountain West Conference.

1) Colorado State – Congratulations, CSU Rams. As the only school in the conference taking on an extra game, you were most likely destined for this slot anyway. But with road games against Conference USA’s 2012 champions (Tulsa), a capable FCS program in Cal Poly (co-winner of the Big Sky Conference) and a little team I like to call the Alabama Crimson Tide, it is shaping up to be a possibly rough start to Jim McElwain’s second season in Fort Collins.

2) Nevada – The Wolfpack are truly entering a new era, as Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault retired after last season. With Brian Polian (son of former NFL executive Bill Polian) taking over, it was bound to be a bit of a transition this season. Opening up with the Pac-12 South Division champions UCLA and facing ACC champions Florida State in the first three weeks will serve as a trial by fire for the first year head coach. A road game against old WAC rival Boise State and a home tilt to close the season against BYU round out a stout schedule.

3) Hawai’i – The Rainbow Warriors almost always have to deal with a hellacious travel schedule. This season is not as bad as ones back in the WAC, even with 6 trips to the mainland on tap. The USC Trojans will come calling in week one, and then it’s off to Corvallis and Reno the next two weeks. And there’s a cross country jaunt to Annapolis in early November to face the Naval Academy.  Hawai’i’s crossover road games against Mountain Division foes are to Logan, Utah and Laramie, Wyoming.

4) UNLV – Nine. That is the number of bowl teams from last season that the Rebels will face. Given that UNLV football has won two games each of the last three seasons, the sheer volume of opponents that they will face this season who managed to get a head start on this year’s campaign via bowl practice last season makes this a potentially daunting schedule for the team from Las Vegas.

5) Boise State – The Broncos have the pleasure of traveling to Seattle to reopen Husky Stadium for Washington. It will be the second straight matchup of the teams, since they finished last season facing off in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas. The Broncos also get a visit from FCS program Tennessee Martin from the Ohio Valley Conference and a road trip to BYU. Boise State also crosses over to face three of the tougher teams in the West Division: road trips to Fresno and San Diego State and a home game against Nevada. In their own division, they have to travel to Utah State. If the Broncos are going to win the Mountain Division this season, they will have earned it.

6) San Jose State – A team that exploded onto the scene last season and subsequently lost their coach, the Spartans will face Minnesota and geographic rival Stanford on the road. San Jose State manages to avoid Boise State in conference play crossover, but will host Utah State on a Friday night in early September.

7) New Mexico – The Lobos have a tough finish to their schedule, traveling to Fresno and Boise State. Games against San Diego State and Utah State are at least separated by two weeks, but neither is an easy task. The non-conference schedule is favorable, though, and could be just the confidence builder needed to get on a roll and secure a bowl bid in Albuquerque.

8) Wyoming – The team that plays at the highest altitude in the FBS is looking to rebound this season after a disappointing 2012 campaign. The Cowboys have to travel to Lincoln to start the season, but the rest of the non-conference slate is manageable, with games at Texas State, home against Idaho and against FCS Northern Colorado. Having two of the final three games of the season being at Boise State and at Utah State is a difficult hurdle, but the Cowboys could be bowl eligible before they get to that point.

9) San Diego State – The schedule for San Diego State would probably not be this favorable if they had followed through with their plan to join the (at the time) Big East. The schedule gets funky at the end of the season, with three of the final four games being played on the road and the lone home game being Boise State. The rest of the schedule is relatively favorable, with the road game at Ohio State being a massive hurdle. The home game against Oregon State won’t be a walk in the park, but being at home is an advantage in that circumstance.

10) Utah State – The Aggies have been the hunters the last couple of seasons under former coach Gary Andersen. Now, with the move to the Mountain West after the death of the WAC, the Aggies are one of the hunted in the Mountain Division. With Andersen gone, it will be up to former Aggie player and new head coach Matt Wells to maintain the high standards recently set. In-state rivalry games at Utah and home against BYU and FCS school Weber State make up the bulk of the schedule. And all bets are off in rivalry games. A road trip to face USC at the Coliseum rounds out the non-conference schedule. But the Aggies get Boise at home and have what looks like could be a soft November schedule.

11) Fresno State – Rutgers will not be a pushover, and Cal Poly is a potentially dangerous FCS opponent. A trip to Colorado is a revenge circumstance for the Buffaloes after the team from Boulder was embarrassed last season 69-14. The Bulldogs miss Utah State in the crossover and get Boise State at home. The season finale at San Jose State could decide this division.

12) Air Force – The Falcons have a relatively easy non-conference schedule. Notre Dame is not a walkover, but Air Force is stronger than either Army or Navy at this point, and Colgate should not be a challenge for this group of cadets. The Falcons face Utah State and Boise State in weeks two and three of the season, so they will know where they stand in the Mountain Division sooner than anyone else. Closing with New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State should provide a nice final approach on the way to a bowl game.