Steve Conner / AP
Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Going into the conference season a year ago, the Mountain West appeared to be wide open.
The two big favorites coming into the season, Boise State and Fresno State, both looked rocky in non-conference play while a few deep sleepers including San Jose State and UNLV appeared much improved. Then all the teams started playing each other, and the year played out more or less according to script.
Boise State and Fresno State went a combined 15-1 against Mountain West competition in the regular season with the only loss occurring when the former beat the latter 40-20 midway through the year. Fresno State later avenged the defeat by beating Boise State 28-16 in the conference championship game.
It might have been a letdown for anyone rooting for upheaval, but there’s nothing like a second chance. This season looks like it has an even better chance to produce a surprise in what might be the highest-quality league left behind the Power Five conferences.
The Sun Belt Conference can rival the Mountain West on top, but the latter likely has the better teams in the middle to lower tiers of the league. Especially this season.
The historically worst teams in the Mountain West look a little better on paper currently, while the best teams aren't quite as imposing. Boise State and Fresno State remain the favorites for another year but they take up a smaller chunk of the win probability in the futures market than a year ago at 2-to-1 and 4-to-1, respectively, at Circa Sports.
Air Force at +425 (i.e. risking $100 to win $425) and San Diego State at 8-to-1 fall in next by the odds, but they’re both limited offensively. A flawed team is going to win the conference either way, but that’s part of what should make the Mountain West fun.
The contenders were more clearly evident in the first five team-by-team conference previews, but in today's sixth and final, there’s a handful of teams that have a realistic shot at the crown. Add in San Jose State (15-to-1), UNLV (15-to-1), Wyoming (15-to-1) and Colorado State (18-to-1), and two-thirds of the league is at 20-to-1 or less.
None of this guarantees a wild season but, at the very least, it makes parity a bit more likely. I'm fully buying in on the Mountain West yielding some wonky week-by-week results, as the win-total picks below will illustrate.
Read below for a win-total handicap on every team in the Mountain West. Listed odds next to the team are from Circa Sports, while the pick comes from the best odds on the chosen side available at the five Las Vegas sports books with win totals available on their mobile apps — Circa, SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, Caesars/William Hill, STN Sports, BetMGM and Boyd Sports. Picks are labeled in three confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses. Plays will be tracked in the Weekend Wagers column throughout the season.
Air Force: 8.5 wins (over -120, under Even money)
Air Force is in the midst of arguably the best four-year run in program history, and it would require significant fall-off for it not to go over this win total. That’s probably not a smart bet with the steadiness of coach Troy Calhoun. The Falcons roster is largely overturned, but that’s nothing new for a service-academy school. They still may have the most imposing offensive line in the conference, which is what historically has separated them.
Lean: Over 8.5 wins at -104 (Boyd Sports)
Boise State: 8 wins (over -145, under +125)
Too much is being made of Boise State’s hot run to end last year’s regular season, and not enough is remembered about how much its offense struggled early on. The bottom fell out in a 17-point loss to UTEP, which prompted veteran coach Dirk Koetter to take over the offense and ultimately turn it around in short order. Koetter is retired now, and it’s far from a sure thing that new coordinator Bush Hamdan can coax the same level of performance out of electrifying-but-mistaken prone quarterback Taylen Green. Props to the Broncos for building a great non-conference slate — with games against Washington, UCF, North Dakota and Memphis — but that doesn’t help from a win-total perspective.
Play: Under 8.5 wins at -130 (BetMGM)
Colorado State: 5 wins (over -115, under -105)
Jay Norvell made progress down the stretch of last season with four straight covers to cap his first season as head coach in Fort Collins, Colo. The pieces are in place for the Rams to build on the late improvement, starting with quarterback Clay Millen. Colorado State has been consistently underwhelming, but the talent and resources are in place for it to become a Mountain West power. Perhaps this is the year it takes the first major step in that direction, though the over was easier to bet when it opened at 4.5.
Guess: Over 5 wins at -110 (SuperBook)
New Mexico: 3 wins (over -130, under +110)
The Lobos have long been the doormat of the conference, but with many of the better teams in the looking slightly down this year, there might be an opening for them to be more competitive than usual. The arrival of a former UAB duo in offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent and quarterback Dylan Hopkins is more of an upgrade than the betting market is pricing. And with non-conference games against Tennessee Tech, New Mexico State and Massachusetts, there’s a real chance that New Mexico could match its win total before even starting conference play begins.
Play: Over 3 wins at -130 (Circa)
Utah State: 5 wins (over +110, under -130)
The Aggies’ talent level has dipped considerably since their Mountain West championship two years ago. And they weren’t exactly stacked back then considering they were as high as 200-to-1 in the offseason futures market. Utah State particularly grades out poorly on the offensive line and in the secondary, which are two of areas most correlated with success beyond the skill players. The win total has steadily crashed and is verging on unbettable territory, but a rough season seems to be ahead.
Guess: Under 5 wins at -110 (SuperBook)
Wyoming: 6 wins (over -115, under -105)
The Cowboys have overachieved on a near perennial basis under coach Craig Bohl and his defense-first mentality, but the offense has begun dropping off at extreme levels. At some point, Wyoming is going to have to be able to pick up yards in a different way than a traditional smashmouth running game. They went 7-5 last year, but collegefootballdata.com’s expected wins metric put them at only 5.25 victories. Perhaps this is the season where some regression hits.
Lean: Under 6.5 wins at -140 (STN Sports)
Fresno State: 8 wins (over -115, under -105)
The Bulldogs won their fourth Mountain West title in 10 years last season, but this one felt different than the previous ones. It was almost entirely due to quarterback Jake Haener, as the team was mediocre a best during a long stretch without him while he recovered from a high ankle sprain in the middle of the season. The roster has even more holes this year — especially among the skill positions —and UCF transfer quarterback Mikey Keene has never shown an ability to play at as high of a level as Haener, whom the New Orleans Saints selected in the NFL Draft.
Play: Under 8.5 wins at -150 (STN)
Hawaii: 4 wins (over +105, under -125)
Tylan Hines could emerge as one of the Mountain West’s best running backs. And the personnel around him is significantly improved from coach Timmy Chang’s first season when Hawaii had one of the most makeshift rosters in the nation. The Warriors remain far from talent-laden, but some buzz is building back up in the program as Chang restores recruiting to a respectable level. The fact that they get an extra regular-season game to try to eclipse the win total is also no small advantage.
Play: Over 3.5 wins at -130 (SuperBook)
San Diego State: 7 wins (over Even money, under -120)
The defense is drastically different from a personnel perspective, but the Aztecs have been able to maintain a high level of play on that side of the ball for years. It’s offense where they must improve, and there’s at least a plan in place to do so with former quarterback Ryan Lindley stepping in as coordinator. Quarterback Jaylen Mayden looked promising by the end of last season. This is much more of a coin flip at the 7-win mark, but one sports book had an off-market 6.5 that made the pick a bit easier.
Guess: Over 6.5 wins at -134 (Boyd Sports)
San Jose State: 5.5 wins (over -130, under +110)
Chevan Cordeiro is coming off arguably his best season of a long college career that’s been mostly spent at Hawaii, but he’s now lost three of his top four receivers. That’s usually a formula that leads to a buzzed veteran quarterback not living up to the hype. The protection in front of Cordeiro also looks weakened. San Jose State dominated the trenches a year ago to fly over their 5.5 win total in just more than two months, but it will have to build a new identity to repeat the success this year. New identities take time to sync.
Guess: Under 5.5 wins at +126 (Boyd Sports)
UNLV: 6 wins (over +120, under -140)
Everything may hinge on the health of quarterback Doug Brumfield. The Rebels have a high ceiling if they can keep him healthy and improve defensively, which should be attainable given new coach Barry Odom’s success in doing so at virtually every stop of his career. Asking Odom to reach bowl eligibility in his first year at the helm of a program that’s only done so once in the last 20 years is difficult, but UNLV was on pace last year before Brumfield went down. The win total bottomed out at one local sports book to make a worthwhile risk on UNLV exceeding expectations.
Guess: Over 5.5 wins at -120 (Caesars/William Hill)
UNR: 4.5 wins (over +115, under -135)
The Wolf Pack raided the transfer portal and landed a handful of once highly-touted recruits, including former Oregon running back Sean Dollars. But there’s a long way to go for a team that spent almost all of last year in the nation’s bottom 10 by most power ratings. They don’t rank much higher than that in terms of returning production, making this look like another rebuilding campaign. They should be more formidable on defense, but that only goes so far if they struggle to score points.
Guess: Under 4.5 wins at -110 (SuperBook)