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October 1, 2022

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College football by the odds: Betting preview of the Mountain West

Going team by team from the sports book

Boise beats Fresno for MWC title

The Associated Press

Boise State running back Jay Ajayi (27) cheers while head coach Bryan Harsin hoists the Mountain West Conference championship trophy after beating Fresno State on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Boise, Idaho.

Note: Talking Points will run weekly betting previews for each of the five major college football conferences beginning next week. The Mountain West Conference is the local start to the annual series.

A row of 12 helmets representing each member of the Mountain West decorated a ballroom at the Cosmopolitan, where the conference’s media days were held this week.

Boise State’s blue and silver headpiece assimilated into alphabetical order behind Air Force on the side with the Mountain division teams. Based on expectations spelled out in the betting market, a rearrangement should have occurred.

Boise State deserved position out in front, where it could cast a shadow over every other team. In the Mountain West this season, it’s the Broncos first and then everyone else.

The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook lists Boise State as a minus-300 (risking $3 to win $1) favorite to win the conference for the second straight year, translating to a 56 percent probability after adjusting for the house’s hold percentage. Defending national champion Ohio State is the only team more likely to win its conference, according to sports books.

The divide between the favorite and the rest of the league is a new phenomenon for the Mountain West, where a fair bit of parity had previously existed. Through Boise State’s first four years in the conference, no single team was offered at lower than plus-120 (risking $1 to win $1.20) to win the title in the preseason.

It’s easy to forget that, at this time last year, the Broncos had more questions than answers. They had yet to win an outright Mountain West championship and were switching regimes from legendary coach Chris Petersen to first-year man Bryan Harsin.

But they proceeded to romp through league play and reached the program’s third BCS, er New Year’s Six, bowl game. Like their first two Fiesta Bowl appearances, Boise State emerged victorious, beating Arizona 38-30 as a 3-point underdog.

A team from one of the five mid-major conferences is guaranteed a New Year’s Six spot annually under college football’s new postseason setup. Boise State is seen as the far-and-away most likely representative again in the 2015-16 season.

Prominent offshore site 5 Dimes makes it a 50-50 proposition, posting a bet asking whether Boise State would play in one of the six preeminent bowls with both the “yes” and “no” listed at an identical minus-120 price.

Reaching one of the games would bring a multimillion-dollar windfall to the Mountain West for the second straight year — just another reason for the conference to accept that Boise State has separated from the pack.

Check below for a team-by-team preview of the Mountain West including betting odds and analysis as well as picks at the bottom. Last year, Talking Points went 102-80-2 against the spread in college football picking the 10 biggest games each week as well as every bowl game.

Boise State

Odds to win the Mountain West: minus-300

Win total: 10 (over plus-110, under minus-130)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 4 Boise State minus-10.5 vs. Washington; Sept. 12 Boise State minus-2 at BYU; Sept. 25 Boise State minus-9 at Virginia; Oct. 10 Boise State minus-10.5 at Colorado State; Oct. 16 Boise State minus-5 at Utah State; Oct. 31 Boise State minus-28.5 at UNLV

Overview: Harsin was able to pull Boise State out of a three-year, against-the-spread losing streak last season, as it went 8-6 versus the number by virtue of a 4-1 mark against out of conference opponents. The Broncos have still never posted a profitable betting record in Mountain West play, going 12-20 against the spread since joining in 2011. Bettors may have caught on to the overvalued nature, as money has come in against Boise State in four of the six games open for wagering at Golden Nugget.

It won’t be easy to fade Boise State during the season, though. This is a stacked team. The Broncos return conference-high 17 starters with a lot of experience at every position except arguably the two most important — quarterback and running back. But there are high expectations for sophomore Ryan Finley, who picked Boise State over a host of Pac-12 schools, to win the quarterback battle and succeed. Stanford transfer Kelsey Young and returning sophomore Jeremy McNichols, who averaged more than nine yards per carry as a backup last year, should be able to handle the running duties. Boise State also avoids the West division’s toughest opposition in San Diego State, which is no small coup considering the Aztecs are a perfect 4-0 against the spread versus the Broncos since they became conference mates.

San Diego State

Odds to win the Mountain West: 7-to-1

Win total: 7.5 (over minus-175, under plus-135)

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.

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Nov. 21 San Diego State minus-17.5 at UNLV

Overview: Bettors are rushing to the window to back the Aztecs in every possible way. The only game-of-the-year line involving them has moved 1.5 points in their direction. The over on San Diego State’s win total has experienced the second-largest swing in the league after opening at minus-120 on both sides. The activity must mean gamblers still believe in old school football. The Aztecs’ strengths rest in running the ball and playing defense. They return more defenders than anyone in the Mountain West to a unit that was second in the league in giving up 4.8 yards per play last season. On the other side of the ball, Canyon Springs graduate Donnel Pumphrey has become a star after leading the league with 1,867 yards and 6.8 yards per carry last season. San Diego State is the clear favorite in the West division even without a proven option at quarterback, where Kentucky transfer Maxwell Smith and Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues are both in the running.

Utah State

Odds to win the Mountain West: 10-to-1

Win total: 8 (over plus-160, under minus-210)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 16 Utah State plus-5 at Boise State; Nov. 28 Utah State plus-4.5 at BYU

Overview: The schedule does Utah State no favors as it travels to play a pair of Pac-12 schools, Utah and Washington, and the only higher rated Mountain West teams, Boise State and San Diego State, in back-to-back weeks. The showdown at Boise State sets up as the biggest regular-season game of the season, which history indicates is trouble for Utah State. The Broncos have beaten the Aggies in 12 straight meetings and covered in 13 consecutive matchups between the former WAC and current Mountain West foes.

Utah State is one of two teams in the conference returning more on offense than Boise State. Leading rusher LaJuan Hunt along with top receivers Hunter Sharp and JoJo Natson are back as well as quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The fifth-year signal caller was last year’s preseason Mountain West offensive player of the year and longshot Heisman candidate before a rough start to the season culminated in an ACL tear in a game against BYU. The test will be how the defense responds to losing three of its top four tacklers from a unit that was fifth in the nation in giving up 4.5 yards per play.

Colorado State

Odds to win the Mountain West:: 12-to-1

Click to enlarge photo

Colorado State wide receiver Xavier Williams (84) misses a catch while guarded by Utah defensive back Brian Blechen (4) during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in Las Vegas. Utah won 45-10. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Win total: 7.5 (over plus-140, under minus-180)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 10 Colorado State plus-10.5 vs. Boise State

Overview: Changing the culture is an understatement for what departed coach Jim McElwain, now at Florida, achieved in Fort Collins, Colo. The Rams had won nine total games in the three years before the arrival of McElwain, who led the team to a 10-win season last year. “Coach Mac” also pulled Colorado State out of the dregs as the worst Mountain West team to bet on in the decade prior to his tenure with a 24-14 against-the-spread record in three seasons. It’s now up to former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to sustain the momentum. He won’t be alone with the nation’s leading receiver in yards and touchdowns, junior Rashard Higgins, on his side. But the betting market is skeptical, with action slanted toward the under 7.5 victories.

Fresno State

Odds to win the Mountain West: 12-to-1

Win total: 4 (over minus-190, under plus-150)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 16 Fresno State minus-13.5 vs. UNLV; Nov. 21 Fresno State plus-18 at BYU

Overview: Perhaps nothing speaks to the decline of the Mountain West — which endured its third straight losing straight-up and against-the-spread bowl season — better than the fact that Fresno State played in the conference championship game last year. The Bulldogs were outscored by 9.5 points per game through the season and didn’t even crack the top 100, out of 128 teams, in Football Outsiders’ F/+ ratings. They managed to cover as 23-point underdogs in the Mountain West championship by scoring two touchdowns after the game was already decided with Boise State leading 28-0. That’s more than can be said for their Hawaii Bowl showing, where Rice orchestrated a 30-6 slaughtering as 2-point favorites. Fresno State was so horrendous last season that returning a low 11 starters might not be much of a cause for concern. It’s not for gamblers, as they’ve sliced the Bulldogs’ price to win the conference in half while forcing the conference’s largest line move on the over in their win total.

Air Force

Click to enlarge photo

Air Force running back Jacobi Owens (28) runs with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UNLV Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, in Las Vegas. Air Force won 48-21. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Odds to win the Mountain West: 15-to-1

Win total: 6 (over minus-160, under plus-120)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: Teams have long grumbled that preparing for a game at Falcon Stadium is among the toughest tasks in the Mountain West given the second-highest elevation in college football and the home team’s unconventional triple-option offense. Last year, the belief rang true. Air Force won outright in the pair of games it was the biggest underdog — plus-13.5 versus Boise State and plus-7.5 against Colorado State. The Falcons went from 10 losses to 10 wins in one year and posted a profitable against the spread record for the first time since 2009. The majority of skill players are back, including Centennial High product Jacobi Owens, but their two toughest games are on the road instead of at home. Air Force will be even bigger underdogs to Boise State and Colorado State this season.

San Jose State

Odds to win the Mountain West:20-to-1

Win total: 4 (over minus-125, under minus-115)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: The Spartans’ price to win the conference has decreased by 80 percent after they opened tied for the second longest shot at 100-to-1. That might come as a surprise until a closer evaluation, which starts with 16 returning starters and new offensive coordinator Al Borges. San Jose State looked helpless last year, going 3-9 straight-up and against the spread, but was just as much hapless. It had the eleventh worst turnover margin in the nation at minus-11, which notoriously tends to regress season by season. The only clearly superior team in the West division is San Diego State, which San Jose State gets to face at home. Any team could come out of the West, something Fresno State proved last season.

UNR

Odds to win the Mountain West: 30-to-1

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck and UNR head coach Brian Polian come together on the field in Sam Boyd Stadium on Friday, November 29, 2014.

Win total: 7 (over Even, under minus-120)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 3 UNR minus-17 vs. UNLV

Overview: Year three traditionally registers as the time when it’s safe to start making stauncher judgments on a coach, so the pressure is on Brian Polian. It’s an unenviable position for him with the graduation of standout quarterback Cody Fajardo and 11 returning starters. While Polian’s 11-14 straight-up record through two years may appear underwhelming, he’s managed a winning 13-12 against-the-spread tally. His teams have also played well off a loss — an area where many successful coaches excel — in going 8-4 against the spread. Bettors seem to think, at the least, Polian can keep the Fremont Cannon blue as the point spread for the UNLV game has gotten pushed up three extra points since opening at minus-14.

Wyoming

Odds to win the Mountain West: 30-to-1

Win total: 5 (over minus-120, under minus-210)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: War Memorial Stadium is where gamblers can find an overvalued home field advantage. Despite its renown for sitting at the highest elevation in college football, the Cowboys are just 23-34-2 against the spread in their home venue over the last decade. Last season, Wyoming was bad everywhere. After a promising start that included an outright victory over Air Force, it closed the year 2-7 straight-up and against the spread. The Cowboys had the third-worst defense in the nation, surrendering 6.7 yards per play, but could improve with standout defensive end Eddie Yarbrough providing some optimism.

Hawaii

Odds to win the Mountain West: 30-to-1

Win total: 6 (over plus-190, under minus-270)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: The Warriors have drawn some attention as a dark horse contender in the West division from the media, with USC transfer Matt Wittek potentially the conference’s most talented quarterback. Bettors aren’t seeing it, as they’ve had the biggest move on the under in win totals of any team in the conference. There aren’t many trends uglier than coach Norm Chow’s 4-20 straight-up, 8-16 against-the-spread conference record with two of the wins coming against UNLV. Most of Hawaii’s skill players are back around Wittek, but they didn’t exactly thrill last season in gaining a Mountain West-worst 4.6 yards per play.

New Mexico

Odds to win the Mountain West: 100-to-1

Win total: 4.5 (over minus-175, under plus-135)

Click to enlarge photo

New Mexico running back Jhurell Pressley celebrates after his team defeated UNLV during their NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Golden Nugget games of the year: None

Overview: Bet on New Mexico — sounds weird, right? — against teams with poor rush defenses. The Lobos bring back all three starting running backs from their option attack — Jhurrel Pressley, Teriyon Gipson and Lamar Jordan — that generated 6.4 yards per rushing attempt last season, fourth best in the country. Like Hawaii, New Mexico is 4-20 straight-up in conference play under current coach Bob Davie. But Davie has cashed for bettors more frequently, going 13-11 against the spread in the Mountain West and 19-17-1 overall.

UNLV

Odds to win the Mountain West: 300-to-1

Win total: 2.5 (over plus-130, under minus-150)

Golden Nugget games of the year: Sept. 12 UNLV plus-32 vs. UCLA; Sept. 19 UNLV plus-33 at Michigan; Oct. 3 UNLV plus-17 at UNR; Oct. 16 UNLV plus-13.5 at Fresno State; Oct. 31 UNLV plus-28.5 vs. Boise State; Nov. 21 UNLV plus-17.5 at San Diego State

Overview: If locals are convinced new coach Tony Sanchez can spur an immediate turnaround, they aren’t putting their money on it. UNLV will be one of the lowest power-rated teams in the nation by oddsmakers once again. They had the highest point spreads of any team at Golden Nugget, and the second-lowest win total next to Kansas at CG Technology. And so far it looks like bettors don’t think the books have gone far enough. Three of six games posted at the Golden Nugget have seen line moves against the Rebels. With the second-least experienced team in the Mountain West and the toughest schedule because of the nonconference slate, Sanchez falls into a thankless position in his first year.

Six pack of picks: Utah State over 8 wins at plus-160, Fresno State under 4 wins at plus-150, Air Force under 6 wins at plus-120, San Jose State over 4 wins at minus-125, Washington plus-10.5 at Boise State, UNLV plus-13.5 at Fresno State

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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