analysis:

Bern’s-Eye View: Predicting the Mountain West’s best this football season

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck listens to a question during a news conference for the Heart of Dallas Bowl Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

The biggest question facing UNLV football at this point last year was whether or not the Rebels would finally win more than two games. Compared to that, this year’s quandaries already feel like success.

Will the Rebels be bowl bound again?

Will UNLV football reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history?
Yes — 69.6%
No — 30.4%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

Will the Rebels make it to a second straight bowl game? Can they come close to matching one of the best offensive seasons in recent program history while also making strides on defense?

No team’s future will be determined this week at the Cosmopolitan, but plenty of those questions will be asked as the Mountain West takes over a Strip ballroom Tuesday and Wednesday for its annual media days.

Before the official version is released, here’s an attempt to answer some of those questions with my ballot for the preseason All-Mountain West team, along with predicted order of finish in both divisions:

OFFENSE

QB — Chuckie Keeton, Utah State

RB — Jay Ajayi, Boise State; Donnel Pumphrey, SDSU

WR — Devante Davis, UNLV; Josh Harper, Fresno State

TE — Kivon Cartwright, Colorado State

OL — LaMar Bratton, New Mexico; Cody Wichmann, Fresno State; Brett Boyko, UNLV; Michael Husar, Air Force; Terry Poole, SDSU

Offensive Player of the Year — Davis

• The focus from last season will shift from the guys lining up behind center to the ones catching their passes.

Davis is the clear preseason favorite after coming back for a senior season as the nation’s top returning leader in touchdown catches. However, the main thing that could limit another monster season is UNLV’s quarterback situation, which at this point is unproven.

Other teams have uncertainty at that position, too. Last year all the media day focus was on the glutton of quarterbacks like Fresno State’s Derek Carr and San Jose State’s David Fales. Keeton was also part of that group, until a knee injury on Oct. 4 prematurely ended his season.

Now he’s the league’s best quarterback (on paper) despite coming off that injury. It’s a changing of the guard at quarterback for many programs, although there is still a familiar name up north with UNR’s Cody Fajardo.

And although it may be difficult to take that next step, there was enough positive in Pumphrey’s freshman season to believe the Canyon Springs High grad could become the league’s second-best running back.

DEFENSE

DL — Brock Hekking, UNR; Tyeler Davison, Fresno State; Travis Raciti, San Jose State; Eddie Yarbrough, Wyoming

LB — Zach Vigil, Utah State; Ejiro Ederaine, Fresno State; Jordan Stanton, Wyoming

DB — Derron Smith, Fresno State; Donte Deayon, Boise State; J.J. Whittaker, SDSU; Peni Vea, UNLV

K — Jared Roberts, Colorado State

P — Garrett Swanson, Fresno State

Returner — Carlos Wiggins, New Mexico

Defensive Player of the Year — Smith

• Don’t throw to Smith’s side. Just don’t do it.

A two-time first-team All-Mountain West pick, Smith has 13 interceptions over the past two years. His 14 career interceptions lead all active defensive players.

Vea could be a homer pick, but with the improvements the defense made in coordinator Tim Hauck’s first season, there’s reason to believe the group will get better once again. And if that happens, I think Vea will be a big reason why.

And since I already advised you where not to throw it, let me also suggest you never kick it to Wiggins, who's also my preseason Special Teams Player of the Year. Last season the Lobo led the nation in kickoff return yardage (1,303) and tied for the touchdown lead with three, stats that were certainly aided by New Mexico’s awful defense.

I’m not sure how much that advice helps since Wiggins primarily returns kickoffs and pooch kicks often leave a team worse off. Welp, good luck with that.

Mountain Division

1. Utah State

2. Colorado State

3. Boise State

4. Wyoming

5. New Mexico

6. Air Force

• It’s the first year of a new era at Boise State, and while I wouldn’t be shocked if that results in a division title, I’m willing to bet against it. The Aggies were rolling before Keeton went down, and if he’s able to return close to form, then they should be the favorites.

West Division

1. Fresno State

2. SDSU

3. UNLV

4. UNR

5. San Jose State

6. Hawaii

• The APR recalculation should rejuvenate the Rebels, who could finish anywhere from second to fifth without anyone batting an eye. Davis is a stud and the offensive line is solid, although depleted thanks to the APR-related departure of Cameron Jefferson to Arkansas.

The biggest concerns are the defense taking a step back or a quarterback — likely Blake Decker, but possibly Nick Sherry — not able to approach Caleb Herring’s breakthrough senior season.

At the top, Fresno State is replacing an NFL-level quarterback, but in an uncertain division, the Bulldogs are still the favorites.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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