Bill Connelly’s mega offseason previews: MWC West

NCAAF

When San Jose State came back to defeat Nevada at “home” (in Las Vegas, on a field with New Mexico’s home markings) and clinch the MWC West, it continued one of college football’s most stirring 2020 stories, one that would continue a week later when the Spartans knocked off Boise State to win their first MWC title.

The Spartans return almost everyone from that title team, but the most noteworthy MWC story of 2021 could end up being just how ridiculously competitive the West race ends up becoming. SP+ projects the top four teams in the division — Nevada, Fresno State, SJSU and SDSU — all within 10 spots of each other in the overall rankings. These four teams played four games against each other last year, and they were decided by a total of 29 points. This year, things could be even closer.

A reminder, by the way, about the projected records you see below: They are based on win probabilities. A 50% probability equals 0.5 wins. So when you see that each of the top four teams are projected to go 5-3 in conference, it’s because there are so many close games in their future. That’s not good for anxiety levels out west, but it’s great for us.

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West and the MAC East and West, as well as the MWC Mountain.

Jump to a team: UNLV | Hawai’i | San Diego State | San Jose State | Fresno State | Nevada

In 2020, Marcus Arroyo coached his first season as head man at UNLV. He’ll start 2021 still looking for his first win.

2021 Projections
Projected SP+ rank: 123rd

Projected record: 3-9 (2-6)

  • Likely wins*: None

  • Relative tossups: Utah State (51% win probability), New Mexico (45%), EWU (43%), Hawai’i (35%)

  • Likely losses: SDSU (21%), SJSU (20%), at Air Force (18%), at UTSA (16%), at Fresno State (13%), at Nevada (11%), at Arizona State (1%), Iowa State (1%)

* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative tossups are all the games in between.

What we learned about UNLV in 2020

Arroyo can recruit. After going 0-6, scoring more than 21 points just once and never allowing fewer than 34, UNLV signed one of the best recruiting classes in the MWC — and easily the best when factoring in degree of difficulty. He signed 18 three-star prospects and brought in four Power 5 transfers, including former USC defensive end Connor Murphy and Oregon running back Jayvaun Wilson.

Arroyo was a well-regarded recruiter at Oregon, and he’s living up to his reputation in Las Vegas. Now he has to actually coach these guys up.

The run game has potential. While quarterbacks Justin Rogers and Doug Brumfield struggled to varying degrees through the air, they are both efficient runners. Veteran running back Charles Williams rushed for 1,257 yards in 2019. Now they have Wilson, too. This is a talented backfield, though there would be more reason for optimism if the offensive line wasn’t replacing three starters.

What we didn’t learn about UNLV in 2020

Not all that many other good things. The Rebels haven’t ranked higher than 115th in defensive SP+ since 2013 and ranked 126th last fall. The passing game produced neither efficiency nor explosiveness.

The most semi-promising players on the field were youngsters, at least: Rogers is a sophomore (UNLV lists all returnees with last year’s eligibility), leading receiver Kyle Williams a freshman, corner Nohl Williams a freshman and defensive end Jacoby Windmon a sophomore. If this year’s recruiting class produces some early-impact talent, it’s not hard to see a fun base of talent forming by 2022 or so. But the goal this year is just to win a couple of games and sign more good recruits.

UNLV’s history in one chart

  1. In 1984, two years after replacing Kenny Mayne, quarterback Randall Cunningham threw for 2,898 yards and led UNLV to an 11-2 finish and California Bowl win.

  2. A year before he was doing the Icky Shuffle and going to the Super Bowl, Icky Woods was rushing for 1,658 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Rebels.

  3. In the first FBS game between two teams led by Black coaches, UNLV (Wayne Nunnely) defeated Ohio (Cleve Bryant), 26-18.

  4. The best span of seasons since Cunningham: Under former USC coach John Robinson, UNLV won 23 games from 2000-03, winning the Las Vegas Bowl in the process.

  5. Arroyo’s first season was winless, but it marked a change all the same: On Oct. 31, the Rebels played their first game in their and the Raiders’ new home, Allegiant Stadium.

Hawai’i lost three of five, then won three of four in Todd Graham’s first year in charge. Are a dynamite secondary and fun, unique run game enough to move the Warriors up the standings?

2021 Projections
Projected SP+ rank: 105th

Projected record: 6-7 (3-5)

  • Likely wins*: NMSU (92% win probability), Portland State (89%), at NMSU (86%)

  • Relative tossups: at UNLV (65%), at Utah State (61%), Colorado State (49%), SDSU (39%), SJSU (38%), Fresno State (37%)

  • Likely losses: at Wyoming (27%), at Nevada (25%), at Oregon State (16%), at UCLA (5%)

That’s not a typo. Hawai’i and NMSU are playing twice.

What we learned about Hawai’i in 2020

Calvin Turner is super fun. By the end of the season, Hawai’i was deploying the Jacksonville University transfer in every possible way. Over the last four games, he had 45 combined rushes and receptions for 413 yards, and in a New Mexico Bowl win over Houston, he scored on a 75-yard catch and a 92-yard kick return.

Between Turner, running back Dae Dae Hunter and slot man Jared Smart, new coordinator Bo Graham has diverse weapons to deploy. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro can scoot, too. (We’ll see if he can throw; Hawai’i ranked 97th in passing success rate and lost three of Cordeiro’s top five targets.)

New branches for the Graham coaching tree. Graham’s reputation for hiring high-quality up-and-comers as assistants, especially on offense, is well-established. It’s also resulted in him having to make lots of replacement hires. After losing coordinator G.J. Kinne to UCF and wide receivers coach Brennan Marion to Pittsburgh, he has already had to make a couple more out on the islands.

What we didn’t learn about Hawai’i in 2020

Whether the Warriors can make teams throw against a great secondary. Defensive coordinator Victor Santa Cruz had fun when opponents were behind schedule, sending pass rushers from every angle and deploying a sticky, aggressive secondary. Unfortunately, opponents were rarely behind schedule. While the Warriors ranked 31st in passing success rate allowed, they were also 106th against the run.

Almost literally everyone’s back, including nickel Quentin Frazier and corners Cortez Davis and Michael Washington. But tackle transfers Pita Tonga (Utah) and Zacchaeus McKinney (Oklahoma) need to make an immediate impact up front.

Hawai’i’s history in one chart

  1. Hawai’i’s first big run of high quality came in 1980-81. The Rainbow Warriors went 17-5, scoring wins over South Carolina and West Virginia in the process.

  2. Hawai’i hasn’t always run a pass-crazed offense. In 1987, new head coach Bob Wagner hired burgeoning option master Paul Johnson. One of his early QBs: Ken Niumatalolo.

  3. Timmy Chang (2000-04): 53 games, 17,072 passing yards, 117 touchdowns, 80 interceptions. A true volume shooter for run-and-shoot master June Jones.

  4. Colt Brennan (2005-07): 28 games, 14,193 yards (!!), 131 touchdowns, 42 interceptions, two top-six Heisman finishes and 22 wins in his last 24 games.

  5. The UH program had fallen into disrepair, literally and metaphorically, when former UH QB Nick Rolovich took over in 2016. Three bowls and a division title later, he was off to Wazzu.

In Brady Hoke’s first season back in charge at SDSU, the Aztecs were great defensively and limited at best on offense. It was as if Rocky Long was still the head coach.

2021 Projections
Projected SP+ rank: 94th

Projected record: 7-5 (5-3)

  • Likely wins*: NMSU (96% win probability), New Mexico (87%), at UNLV (79%), Towson (75%)

  • Relative tossups: at Hawai’i (61%), Fresno State (54%), at Air Force (52%), Nevada (51%), at Arizona (50%), at SJSU (42%)

  • Likely losses: Boise State (28%), Utah (15%)

Six games are projected within one score. The Aztecs’ season could go in many different directions.

What we learned about SDSU in 2020

The great defense didn’t leave with Long. Long is a legendary defensive figure, and SDSU ranked 15th in defensive SP+ in 2019, his last year in charge. When Hoke took over, he brought in Kurt Mattix, a coach from outside of the Long coaching tree, as defensive coordinator.

Change coming? Not really. They still operated out of a 3-3-5, and it still kicked butt: first in three-and-out percentage, 11th in scoring defense. Defensive end Cameron Thomas and linebacker Caden McDonald were active and disruptive, corners Darren Hall and Tayler Hawkins were outstanding in coverage, etc.

Everyone in the front six returns, but if there’s a dropoff, it could come in the secondary, where Hall and safeties Tariq Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr. depart. But recent history suggests some new pieces will play at a high level.

What we didn’t learn about SDSU in 2020

Great offense didn’t magically appear, either. In Long’s last three seasons, the Aztecs plummeted from 50th in offensive SP+ to 68th, then 92nd, then 122nd. Longtime Hoke assistant Jeff Hecklinski took over as offensive coordinator but SDSU improved only to 119th.

Quarterback Carson Baker lost his job halfway through the year and transferred, leaving a foursome to fight for the starting job: Lucas Johnson (who looked pretty good against Nevada but got hurt), senior Jordon Brookshire, incoming Mississippi State transfer Jalen Mayden and well-touted freshman Will Haskell.

Two all-conference linemen (Zachary Thomas and William Dunkle) return, and the skill corps is loaded with experience. (Running back Greg Bell and wide receiver Jesse Matthews are particularly solid.) But until Hecklinski figures out the QB position, improvement will be limited.

San Diego State’s history in one chart

  1. After winning three lower-division national titles in a row, SDSU jumped to the top division in 1969 and thrived. Head coach Don Coryell left for the NFL, but the wins kept flowing under Claude Gilbert.

  2. Marshall Faulk (1991-93): 4,589 rushing yards, 973 receiving yards, 62 combined touchdowns. So good.

  3. A long, slow decline culminated with just nine wins from 2006-08. SDSU hired Hoke in 2009, and the rebound began immediately.

  4. Long succeeded Hoke after the latter’s move to Michigan, and SDSU eventually found another gear, winning 32 games and two MWC titles from 2015-17.

  5. Long resigned after a couple of years of regression, and the school brought Hoke back in 2020.

Almost no team altered its trajectory more in 2020 than Brent Brennan’s Spartans, who rode big plays and a big pass rush to a 7-1 finish and their first MWC title.

2021 Projections
Projected SP+ rank: 81st

Projected record: 7-5 (5-3)

  • Likely wins*: Southern Utah (98% win probability), NMSU (97%), Utah State (85%), at UNLV (80%)

  • Relative tossups: at Hawai’i (62%), SDSU (58%), at Colorado State (56%), Wyoming (55%), Fresno State (55%), at WMU (46%), at Nevada (42%)

  • Likely losses: at USC (8%)

Only one game is probably out of reach for the Spartans in 2021, but there are only about four sure wins, too. Prepare for a lot of anxious second halves and, perhaps, a lot of wins, too.

What we learned about SJSU in 2020

Culture: strong. Resilience levels: high. COVID-19 protocols required the Spartans to play their last two “home” games — a division-clincher vs. Nevada and the conference title game vs. Boise State — in Las Vegas instead of San Jose. “I’m always going to choose to believe that we can find a way, the situation will improve, we can get it done,” Brennan said, and his team proved him right.

SJSU jumped to 66th in SP+, and now they return virtually everyone, from quarterback Nick Starkel to all-conference tackle Jack Snyder to devastating defensive ends Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko. SP+ projections suggest they are in no way guaranteed to repeat in the West, but they’ll have every chance to improve further in 2021.

What we didn’t learn about SJSU in 2020

What the passing game looks like without Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither. The duo combined for 86 catches and 1,352 yards, and while they are the team’s only departing starters, they do leave a hole. No other Spartan wideout caught more than 13 passes, and while backups Isaiah Hamilton and Jermaine Braddock showed promise, these are big shoes to fill.

Big plays were vital to SJSU in 2020: They ranked 27th in FBS with 2.8 gains of 30+ yards per game and seventh with just 1.1 allowed. A killer pass rush and veteran DBs should assure that the latter ranking remains high, but Walker and Gaither were vital to the former.

San Jose State’s history in one chart

  1. In 1959, grad assistant (and former SJSU defensive end) Bill Walsh finished his thesis. Being that he was Bill Walsh, it was called “Flank Formation Football — Stress: Defense.” (Yes, it’s online.)

  2. SJSU’s golden age: Claude Gilbert led the Spartans to 10-win seasons in 1986-87, then Terry Shea won nine in 1990. Between 1993-2011: two winning seasons.

  3. Jeff Garcia in 1992-93: 5,026 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and just a 9-13 record.

  4. After going 1-12 in his first season in charge, Mike MacIntyre engineered a stirring 11-2 run just two years later in 2011. It earned the Spartans an MWC invitation.

  5. After going just 3-22 in his first two seasons, Brennan led SJSU to an even more stirring 7-1 record and MWC title last fall.

Fresno State showed Fresno-level upside in Kalen DeBoer’s first season, but an aggressive, all-or-nothing defense suffered too many “alls” in a 3-3 campaign.

2021 Projections
Projected SP+ rank: 78th

Projected record: 7-5 (5-3)

  • Likely wins*: Cal Poly (96% win probability), UConn (91%), New Mexico (88%), UNLV (87%)

  • Relative tossups: at Hawai’i (63%), Nevada (53%), at SDSU (46%), at SJSU (45%), at Wyoming (44%)

  • Likely losses: Boise State (30%), at UCLA (12%), at Oregon (5%)

Of the Bulldogs’ eight conference games, five are relative tossups, including each game against the three other primary West contenders. This race is going to be fun.

What we learned about FSU in 2020

Ronnie Rivers is still Ronnie Rivers. Projected over 13 games, the veteran running back was on pace for 1,100 rushing yards and nearly 600 receiving yards last season. He’s one of the most proven and exciting skill players out west, and with the bonus year of eligibility, he could finish his career close to 5,000 career yards from scrimmage.

DeBoer knows offense. A three-time NAIA title winning head coach, DeBoer moved up to FBS and established excellent offenses at both Fresno State and Indiana, then landed the Fresno State head job last year after Jeff Tedford’s departure. The Bulldogs ranked 34th in success rate and 32nd in marginal explosiveness (my measure of the magnitude of successful plays), and now they replace only two starters, both on the line. Rivers, quarterback Jake Haener and three explosive receivers (Jalen Cropper, Josh Kelly, Keric Wheatfall) should assure big numbers once more.

What we didn’t learn about FSU in 2020

When William Inge’s aggression will consistently pay off. The new Fresno defensive coordinator’s intentions were clear: attack. Fresno State ranked third nationally in sack rate, third in passing success rate allowed and 13th in havoc rate (TFLs, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by total plays). Unfortunately they also ranked 125th in marginal explosiveness allowed. They allowed 20 points per game in wins but 40 per game in losses. Almost everyone’s back, including attacking ends David Perales and Kwami Jones and hyper-aggressive corner Bralyn Lux, but the glitch rate has to come down.

Fresno State’s history in one chart

  1. Fresno’s first top-division conference title run came in 1977, when the Bulldogs raced to eight straight mostly dominant wins … after losing to Montana State.

  2. Trent Dilfer helped longtime head coach Jim Sweeney to his sixth and seventh conference titles in 1992-93, throwing for a combined 6,799 yards and 51 TDs.

  3. The legendary Sweeney stayed a bit too long, suffering three straight losing seasons before retiring. His replacement, Pat Hill, didn’t need long to fix things up.

  4. From 2001-04, FS won 38 games, beat Colorado, Oregon State (twice), Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, UCLA, Washington, Kansas State and Virginia, and produced a No. 1 pick in QB David Carr.

  5. WIth DeBoer as Tedford’s offensive coordinator, the Bulldogs went 12-2 and finished 16th in SP+. When Tedford resigned a year later, DeBoer was an extremely logical replacement.

Jay Norvell’s Wolf Pack fell about 20 minutes short of the West division title, but with most of last year’s lineup back, they’ll be right back in the hunt.

2021 Projections
Projected SP+ rank: 74th

Projected record: 7-5 (5-3)

  • Likely wins*: Idaho State (97% win probability), NMSU (97%), UNLV (89%), Hawai’i (75%), Air Force (67%)

  • Relative tossups: SJSU (58%), at Colorado State (58%), at SDSU (49%), at Fresno State (47%), at Kansas State (36%)

  • Likely losses: at Cal (31%), at Boise State (23%)

The Pack drew the short straw when it came to home-road splits this year: Of the six highest-projected teams on the schedule, only one visits Reno (SJSU). That’s rough.

What we learned about Nevada in 2020

Quarterback Carson Strong is excellent. He came on strong late in 2019, but we still didn’t know what awaited last fall: he completed 70% of his passes for 2,858 yards and a 27-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio. His command of coordinator Matt Mumme’s quick-passing attack went through the roof, even despite a season-ending injury to Elijah Cooks, Nevada’s leading receiver in 2019,

Wideout Romeo Doubs erupted for 1,002 yards, freshman Tory Horton came on strong late and Nevada scored at least 34 points five times. The run game was as inconsistent as it was explosive, but the Pack can move the football, especially with Cooks healthy.

What we didn’t learn about Nevada in 2020

How much higher the defense can rise. Norvell brought in defensive coordinator Brian Ward to fix a unit that had dropped to 85th in defensive SP+ in 2019. Despite turnover in the back seven and the fact that star tackle Dom Peterson was slowed by injury, the Pack improved to 70th. They were good on third-and-long, and Ward helped to unlock a major disruptive weapon in end Sam Hammond.

They weren’t elite in many statistical categories, but they didn’t have many outright weaknesses either. And now they are projected to return all but one player from the two-deep. With Peterson healthy and everyone so experienced — especially with the addition of USF cornerback Bentlee Sanders, among other transfers — was last year a sign of more improvement to come?

Nevada’s history in one chart

  1. After a post-war flirtation with top-division football (which included a couple of solid 9-2 campaigns), Nevada settled into the lower divisions for a few decades.

  2. In 1976, the school hired UNLV assistant Chris Ault. He would take the Pack to the FCS semifinals five times and to the title game once, prompting an early-1990s return to FBS.

  3. Ault retired in 1993 but returned in 1994, and the Pack won nine games and conference titles in both 1994-95. Then he retired again.

  4. Ault returned AGAIN in 2004, and the Pack again returned to prominence, this time with his newfound Pistol offense. With Colin Kaepernick behind center, they went 13-1 in 2010.

  5. Ault’s final retirement came after 2012, and Nevada has once again struggled to maintain form without him. Norvell seems to be building something promising, however.

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