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October 25, 2014

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College football by the Vegas odds: Sports book preview of the Mountain West

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Associated Press

Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton celebrates during the fourth quarter of a game against UNLV on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Logan, Utah.

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Odds to win the Mountain West

  • Boise State: 7-to-5
  • Utah State: 3-to-1
  • Fresno State: 3-to-1
  • UNR: 7-to-1
  • San Diego State: 12-to-1
  • Colorado State 18-to-1
  • UNLV: 30-to-1
  • San Jose State: 30-to-1
  • Hawaii: 30-to-1
  • Wyoming: 30-to-1
  • Air Force: 30-to-1
  • New Mexico: 75-to-1
  • Numbers from the Westgate Superbook

Note: Talking Points will preview a major college football conference every week leading up to the Aug. 28 kickoff of the season. With the Mountain West holding media days at the Cosmopolitan this week, it starts the series.

The Mountain West Conference was once not too long ago the backyard secret that football fans in this part of the country begged to broadcast.

Over the past few years, the league has turned down so drastically that it’s more deserving of getting shoved into a closet and initiated with radio silence.

No moments like conference champions Utah celebrating at the Superdome after stomping Alabama 31-17 as 10-point underdogs in the 2009 Sugar Bowl have come around in a while.

The conclusion to the Utes’ perfect season, where senior quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns, remains the pinnacle of the Mountain West’s gridiron relevance. Utah’s Bama blast came toward the end of a seven-season run, from 2004 to 2010, that saw the Mountain West go 22-9 straight-up and 19-12 against the spread in the postseason to win ESPN’s Bowl Challenge Cup four times.

If following that run was as thrilling as fiddling with satellite radio for the first time, then the last three years has been like reverting to a mantelpiece receiver-dial.

More emblematic of the recent state of the conference was the 2012 Hawaii Bowl, where Mountain West co-champions Fresno State came in as one of the biggest favorites of the postseason at minus-13 over SMU. The Bulldogs failed to cover by 46 points, losing 43-10.

A conference that once merited conversation in the category of best-performing at the end of the season has gone 6-10 straight-up and against the spread without a winning year since 2011 in bowl games.

Judging solely based on bowl performance yields an admittedly limited picture, so let’s expand the information waves. It’s still not pretty for the Mountain West.

Last year’s 1-18 straight-up record against BCS conference opponents in the nonconference portion of the regular season is particularly ugly. The Mountain West has gone 59-67 straight-up and 54-69-3 against the spread in the nonconference since 2011, an abysmal mark considering it includes games against teams from the Football Championship Subdivision.

Sports book odds don’t forecast brighter returns this season. The Golden Nugget released seven contests involving the Mountain West in its Game of the Year lines last month.

Although oddsmakers favor Boise State by 10 points at lowly Connecticut, the other six games have the Mountain West team as the underdog — and by an average of minus-12.5.

The Westgate Superbook, purveyor of one of the most expansive future-wagering menus in town, could only find reason to post odds on two Mountain West teams to win the national championship. Boise State and Utah State are both 500-to-1 to crash the first-ever national playoff with a victory.

That’s the highest preseason figure attached to the Broncos in Las Vegas since sometime during the George W. Bush administration. It’s an appropriate swing with the exodus of a man who became as iconic as the blue turf in the potato capital.

Coach Chris Petersen departed for Washington, leaving behind an astounding 92-12 straight-up and 56-43 against-the-spread record he built over the last eight years at Boise State. New coach Bryan Harsin was part of the 2006-2010 Boise State coaching staffs that went 61-5 straight-up and 39-24 against the spread.

Harsin went 7-5 both straight-up and against the spread in one year at Arkansas State before bolting for Boise State, where Petersen didn’t leave the former Bronco tight end dry.

Boise State returns its quarterback and running back, Grant Hedrick and Jay Ajayi respectively, along with more than 70 percent of a defense that ranked second across the board in the Mountain West last season.

The Sun’s Mountain West pundit may disagree, but sports books see Boise State as the conference’s team to beat. The Broncos’ plus-140 (risking $1 to win $1.40) to win the Mountain West translates to a 31 percent probability at the Superbook when calculating with the house’s hold.

Harsin could deliver Boise State’s first outright Mountain West championship, a title it surprisingly has failed to capture through three seasons in the league. Utah State prevented the possibility last season.

Even though Boise State defeated Utah State —34-23 to cover as a 6-point favorite — the Aggies finished with a better conference record to represent the Mountain Division in the first-ever Mountain West Championship Game.

Casinos power-rate Utah State as Boise State’s biggest threat in the Mountain West this season. Analyzing the Aggies prompts the age-old debate over the value of a quarterback.

Utah State has the least-experienced team in the conference with eight returning starters but the most important player in signal caller Chuckie Keeton. As a junior last season, Keeton was near the top in several national passing statistics before tearing his ACL midway through the year.

What projects as the Mountain West’s biggest game of the year comes on the final week when Utah State travels to Boise State as a current 6.5-point underdog at the Superbook.

At 3-to-1, the Aggies are tied for the second-most likely team to win the Mountain West in the next weekend’s championship game at 18.5 percent likelihood. Utah State shares the price with defending champions Fresno State.

The Bulldogs are weaker in oddsmakers’ minds, as evidenced by their over/under win total of 7.5 being two games less than the Aggies’ at offshore sports books, but have the benefit of playing in the less-competitive West Division.

Fresno State wasn’t as strong as its conference title and 11-2 record last year would indicate, as it went 4-8-1 against the spread and performed brutally in the Royal Purple Las Vegas. Fresno State at least cut the aforementioned 46-point spread loss in an infamous 2012 bowl showing down close to 60 percent, just failing to cover by 19 points in a 45-20 loss to USC as a 6-point underdog.

The Bulldogs lose their offensive standouts, quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Davante Adams, and open at the Trojans this season. There’s no line yet for a game that should cause carnage.

Click to enlarge photo

San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey looks for a way around the UNLV defense during their Mountain West Conference game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Pumphrey is a graduate of Canyon Springs High School.

Fresno State’s main threat in its conference’s West Division, however, is San Diego State. It returns a low 10 starters, but two of them are ever-important quarterback Quinn Kaehler and Canyon Springs High product Donnel Pumphrey.

Upon further review, the Aztecs posted one of the most interesting seasons in the nation last year.

They made a bowl game for the fourth straight year and posted a winning against the spread record for the third time in four seasons, but typically trustworthy indicators digress on whether they over- or under-achieved.

Seven of San Diego State’s eight conference games were decided by a touchdown or less. The Aztecs went 6-1 in the games, including 3-1 in overtimes, which would denote that they were lucky.

But, at the same time, they ranked in the nation’s bottom 20 in red-zone offense, red-zone defense and turnover margin. Those are all statistics that fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, meaning they endured negative variance.

San Diego State’s one noncompetitive conference game is the one locals remember best. UNLV smashed its usual basketball rivals, 45-19 as 3-point favorites, to ensure a bowl invite.

The bad news is sports books don’t expect the Rebels to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Their over/under win total has held steady at four victories for months at CG Technology sports books.

UNLV does have some preseason characteristics that tend to sharp bettors, namely returning almost its entire offensive line and secondary. That’s not to mention Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year candidate Devante Davis at wide receiver.

Click to enlarge photo

(Clockwise) UNLV football wide receiver Jonathon James, a walk-on from Canyon Springs H.S. in North Las Vegas, is backed up by offensive linemen Brett Boyko, Cameron Jefferson, Charles Howard, Aleks Vekic and Tom Clarkson on Friday, March 28, 2014.

The Superbook odds spell out a 2.4 percent chance of UNLV winning the title, the same as San Jose State, Hawaii, Wyoming and Air Force.

The only team lower is New Mexico at less than 1 percent. The Lobos are at full-strength with 85 scholarship players for the first time since 2006, coincidentally also the last time they had a winning record against the spread until Bob Davie took over the helm. Davie has gone 13-12 versus the Vegas number in two seasons.

The middle-tier of the conference, according to sports books, consists of Nevada-Reno and Colorado State. UNR — along with conference mate Air Force — boasted one of the worst defenses in the nation last year during a 4-8 straight-up, 6-6 against the spread campaign but returns four-year starting quarterback Cody Fajardo.

Colorado State went 10-4 against the spread — 8-6 straight-up — for just its second profitable year since 2003 in coach Jim McElwain’s first year. Oddsmakers give the Rams a 3.9 percent chance at winning the Mountain West, about two percentage-points lower than the Wolf Pack.

A team or two would need to silence the odds in order for the conference to pick up what’s left of its dwindling respectability. Otherwise, the Mountain West will stay tucked away in a dark, quiet place far from the clamoring heights of the mid-to-late aughts.

Golden Nugget Games of the Year lines

Aug. 28: Boise State plus-9 vs. Ole Miss in Atlanta

Aug. 29: UNLV plus-23.5 at Arizona

Aug. 30: Colorado State plus-4 vs. Colorado in Denver

Sept. 6: Colorado State plus-10 at Boise State

Sept. 6: San Diego State plus-21 at North Carolina

Sept. 13: Boise State minus-10 at Connecticut

Sept. 13: Nebraska minus-4 at Fresno State

Sept. 20: San Diego State plus-13 at Oregon State

Oct. 4: Boise State minus-6 at UNR

Oct. 16: Fresno State plus-4.5 at Boise State

Oct. 25: BYU minus-3 at Boise State

Nov. 15: San Diego State plus-7.5 at Boise

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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