by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Following is our preview of 2015 MWC action, broken into the two divisions. Straight-up and pointspreads marks from the 2014 season are included with each team, presented in predicted order of finish. We begin with the West before analyzing the Mountain half of the loop in our next installment...

When last seen, San Diego State (2014 SUR 7-6, PSR 7-6) was infuriating its backers in December’s Poinsettia Bowl against Navy. Nursing a slim 16-14 lead with 6:30 to play in the fourth quarter, the Aztecs had moved to within easy field goal range at the Mids’ 12-yard line with a chance to extend their advantage to five points (and also beyond the 3-point spread in the game). Inexplicably, however, HC Rocky Long would eschew the try for three points on a 4th down and 6 to go for the first down, which failed, opening the door for the Midshipmen to win the game with a mere field goal instead of a touchdown. Which, after a subsequent fumble by SDSU RB Donnel Pumphrey, is exactly what happened, though the Aztecs would get one last chance to win the game before PK Donald Hageman would miss a 34-yard FG try with 20 seconds to play.

Final score Navy 17, San Diego State 16.

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Afterward, Aztec HC Rocky Long justified his 4th down gamble midway in the final quarter. "If we score points down there then it doesn't come down to a field goal," said Rocky, blissfully ignorant that a made field goal (of which PK Hageman had converted three earlier in the game) would have forced the Midshipmen, whose option attack had been defended well by SDSU most of the night, to score a TD to win the game. Whatever, never let it be said that Rocky Long is influenced by pointspread when it comes to game strategy.

While such minor bowl excursions have become routine for the Aztecs, who have qualified for a school record five of them in a row (four straight for Long since he succeeded Brady Hoke in 2011), longtime SDSU backers, perhaps recalling the glory days of the Don Coryell years as noted in our Mountain West Retrospective piece, have not been thrilled by the succession of horse-and-buggy offenses fielded by the Aztecs in recent years. Lately, there has been no resemblance to the Don Horn-Dennis Shaw-Brian Sipe era on Montezuma Mesa, as an offense that once revolutionized the college football passing game would rank 106th thru the air a year ago. SDSU QBs would toss only 10 TD passes vs. 15 picks in 2014, so it is no secret where the Aztecs must improve if they wish to take a step up the ladder this fall.

To that end, SDSU supporters are hoping a couple of significant changes from a year ago might provide a boost. The strike force has some new blood on the sidelines after the retirement of o.c. Bob Toledo, under whom the offense seemed to grow stale the past couple of years. Long, who apparently prefers his contemporaries to some of these young whipper-snappers who populate college coaching staffs in other locales, has promoted veteran Jeff Horton, a long-ago HC at both Nevada and UNLV and interim HC at Minnesota a few years ago, from RB coach to the coordinator spot. But it is behind center where the Aztecs could really get a pick-me-up from Kentucky graduate transfer Maxwell Smith, a HS product from Granada Hills in the Los Angeles area who started 11 games during his injury-plagued Wildcat career but gets one more shot in the college ranks...this time not having to worry about facing the sort of NFL-like speed he often confronted against SEC defenses.

Though not particularly mobile, Smith’s height (6-5) and accuracy comfortably won him the job in spring, and the thought among MW insiders is that he will be able to stretch the field much better than predecessor Quinn Kaehler, especially if speedy jr. wideout Eric Judge, an accomplished kick returner, can emerge as a go-to target after hinting at some real upside when catching 24 passes a year ago. Newcomer Desean Holmes, who was courted by Southern Cal, Nebraska, and other heavyweights, is a potential game-breaker as well.

One thing Maxwell Smith will have that he didn’t at Kentucky is a dangerous infantry led by aforementioned A-A candidate RB Pumphrey, whose 1867 YR as a soph in 2014 set a school record at a place that once upon a time featured a back named Marshall Faulk. The slashing Pumphrey and sr. Chase Price (674 YR LY) give Horton the best RB combo in the Mountain. The offseason dismissal of C Lenicio Noble is a potential problem along the OL, but three starters return up front, led by Gs Nico Siragusa and Darrell Greene. And despite his last-second miss in the Poinsettia Bowl, PK Hageman returns after proving a vast upgrade from most recent Aztec kickers, converting 20 of his 25 FG attempts last fall.

While pondering what sort of upgrade Maxwell Smith might provide the offense, the real reason we favor the Aztecs in the West will be a typically-disruptive Long stop unit that will once again be deployed in the unique 3-3-5 alignments that have become identified with Sir Rocky, who retains the title of d.c. as he also held when the HC at New Mexico for 11 years after earlier making his mark as a coordinator at UCLA and Oregon State.

Long’s defenses have thus been confounding foes for over 20 years and should do more of the same this fall after ranking 13th in points allowed (19.8 pg) and 10th in passing (179 ypg) in 2015. Optimism was further fueled in the offseason when projected starters CB J.J. Whittaker and LB Jake Fealy (30 career starts but available for only three games last season due to injuries) were each granted an extra year of eligibility.

As is usual for a Rocky Long defense, playmakers abound, with impact jr. OLB Calvin Munson the likely star of the platoon after intercepting four passes and recording 10.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Whittaker’s return means that all five secondary starters in Long’s 3-3-5 are back in the fold for 2015. Up front, Long will move NT Alex Barrett to a DE spot where he bookends sr. Jon Sanchez, one of eight returning starters (nine, if you want to count LB Fealy) in an experienced and potentially dominant platoon.

The Aztecs, rarely a pushover vs. top-level foes in the Long era, should have a look at a couple of challenging road games at Cal and Penn State in the non-conference slate which also includes an interesting clash at Qualcomm Stadium vs. crosstown lower-division local rival U of San Diego, which battles SDSU on the hardwood every year (indeed, this season’s basketball game will be taking place outdoors at the Padres’ Petco Park in December) but has never challenged the Aztecs on the gridiron. Most of SDSU’s demanding Mountain West games will also be held at Qualcomm, and Boise State is not on the 2015 schedule...until, perhaps, the conference title game on December 5.

Spread-wise, Long’s teams have usually fared well as an underdog (they’re 6-3-1 their last 10 getting points), but it’s on the “totals” side where most will be keeping a close eye on the Aztecs after they went “under” a staggering 12 of 13 times a year ago. With new QB Maxwell Smith hinting at upgrades for the offense, that trend might not endure, especially since Rocky’s first three SDSU teams were “over” 25-14.

There is less clarity lining up the rest of the West behind the Aztecs. But we have a suspicion if one team might emerge as the surprise team of the pack, if not the nation, it could be Norm Chow’s Hawaii (2014 SUR 4-9, PSR 6-7), which amazingly was in position to steal the West crown last November had a couple of results fallen its way in the final week of the regular season.

Honolulu sources also consider it a bit amazing that native son Chow is still around for a fourth kick of the can at Aloha Stadium after losing 29 of 37 games during his first three seasons on the job. Especially since Chow himself acknowledged at Mountain West Media Days last summer that he was probably going to get the boot if he didn’t oversee a quick turnaround of Rainbow Warrior fortunes.

But there are other considerations these days at Hawaii, many of them budget-oriented that force the school’s athletic department to continue tapping the state for more funds to keep the programs, namely football, afloat. (The athletic department recently had to deal with a $3 million deficit, even though the Manoa chancellor's office last year absorbed $13 million in debt that the department had accumulated so it could become solvent in 2014.) Chow himself would outline the Warriors’ plight in the high cost of getting mainland recruits over to the islands just to make an official visit. And Chow, a longtime decorated offensive coordinator at various stops such as BYU and Southern Cal, also reminded attentive scribes that he retains a home in the trendy L.A. suburb of Manhattan Beach, where he could easily relocate if his Hawaii career should come to a conclusion. (It’s worth noting that Chow predecessor Greg McMackin, also aware of the high cost of living in Honolulu, maintained a residence in Las Vegas during his tenure as Hawaii HC).

A confluence of strange factors, however, has given Chow one more chance to solidify his position in Honolulu. The aforementioned financial plight has made it difficult to buy out Chow’s contract, and the leadership vacuum in the program created by last year’s resignation of AD Ben Jay, and ongoing search for a permanent replacement, all conspired to spare Chow after his third straight disappointing season after the many highs of the “Red Gun” years under predecessors June Jones and McMackin.

Whatever. The bottom line is that Hawaii has been getting close the past couple of seasons and indeed appears as if it could be on the verge of a breakthrough this fall. Chow’s team lost five games by single-digit margins a year ago and another by 10 points after dropping five games by single digits the previous 2013 campaign, when Chow’s team won only once. Another three-game win improvement this season, as a year ago, would put the Rainbow Warriors in position to earn their first invitation to the local Sheraton Hawaii Bowl since 2010.

Chow continues to make tweaks to an offense that began to derail almost as soon as he took the job in 2012 and junked the Jones/McMackin Red Gun in favor of a pro-style look featuring a traditional TE and a pair of RBs. Unlike the Red Gun, the Chow offense continues to employ a TE, but there was a return to the 3-wideout, one-RB sets in 2013 that continued a year ago and will be retained this fall with yet another o.c., Don Bailey, imported from Big Sky Idaho State and an uptempo, pass-happy Bengal offense that topped the FCS ranks with 348 ypg thru the air in 2014.

The familiar three-receiver looks remain, though the Bailey offense will likely made better use of the aforementioned TE position, which should become more involved in “check-down” routes this fall with converted TE Tui Unga as an in-motion TE from the slot, out wide, or in the backfield.

Likely to detonate the new-look Chow/Bailey “O” is Southern Cal transfer QB Max Wittek, who might have been able to get started at Honolulu a bit sooner had his former Trojan coach, Lane Kiffin, not jerked around Wittek at the outset of the 2013 campaign when Cody Kessler would win the QB job after the season began, a development most foresaw but one that prevented Max from making a move prior to the 2013 season. Wittek, once one of the most-decorated prep QBs in the nation, thus enters the campaign without any live action in two years and having thrown just 95 passes in a college career that began in 2011.

Wittek was not officially anointed the starter after spring practice, but most Honolulu sources believe that is a foregone conclusion after Max was voted one of four team co-captains in spring. Strong-running Ikaika Woolsey, who started 12 of 13 games at QB last fall while battling a nagging back injury, remains in the mix and will likely be used as a change-of-pace QB by Bailey and Chow, who also have former Colorado State signee Beau Reilly in camp. But most suggest this will be the chance to shine for Wittek, who physically resembles some of the past high-profile Chow QBs such as Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer.

Wittek or Woolsey will have some established weapons at their disposal, though likely minus the Hawaii-style thumping RB role that was recently filled by thundering Joey Iosefa, who will be spending this summer in the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs camp. Steven Lakalaka, more of a slasher than Iosefa, gained 666 YR last year and could further flourish in the fall, with speedy Diocemy Saint Juste, the hero of last year’s win over Wyoming, and juco Melvin Davis potentially providing more lightning at the RB spot. Big wideouts Quinton Pedroza, Marcus Kemp, Ammon Barker, and Vazquez Haynes (who missed last year due to injury) are basketball-sized targets, with Pedroza and Kemp combining for 115 catches last fall. MW sources say that a restructured OL came together in the spring, though the development to watch in the fall will be former G Leo Koloamatangi stepping in at LT, which could free the versatile Ben Clarke to move back to his preferred C position.

Chow also has a new d.c. after Kevin Clune, hired off of Matt Wells’ Utah State staff prior to last season, returned to Logan as the Utags’ new d.c. for 2015. Under Clune, the Rainbow Warriors would improve significantly a year ago, cutting 12 ppg from their 2013 allowance and improving 30-40 places nationally in all relevant defensive stat categories. Now pushing the buttons for the stop unit is Tom Mason, recently at SMU, where he would fill in as the interim HC last fall after June Jones’ abrupt resignation in September. Mason’s SMU defenses were known for blitzing almost 70% of the time and which helped contribute to seven interceptions for TDs by the 2012 Mustang stop unit, which set an NCAA record.

Expect lots of aggression from Mason’s new defense that would confound the Bailey offense in the spring with various stunts and alignments, many featuring an intriguing and undersized NT, fearless 250-lb. soph Penitito Faalologo, who hops around in the center of the D-Line like a flame dancer on Waikiki as he looks to splice through gaps, hold at the point, or persue to the perimeter. Mason’s 3-4 will feature hybrid ends that include 280-lb. Kennedy Tulimasealii, who can play NT, while former Navy SEAL DE Luke Shawkley should thrive in Mason’s variety of blitz packages. The secondary returns three starters, including both CBs, sr. Ne’Quan Phillips and soph Nick Nelson. Overall, seven starters are back on a platoon that only allowed four foes to exceed 30 points a year ago, a dramatic improvement from recent Warrior defensive units.

If there is one player that will be hard for Chow to replace from 2014 it will be do-it-all Scott Harding, who handled punting and punt return chores as well as being a valued wideout and occasional holder for the place-kicks. Needless to say, his roles will be filled by multiple players this fall.

Surviving a tough September and wicked, long mainland trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin (paydays that the athletic department could sorely use), plus a conference opener at East favorite Boise State on October 3, then hosting West favorite San Diego State on October 10, will be important, as the schedule eases considerably in the second half of the campaign. If Hawaii isn’t too beaten and bruised by midseason, it could develop some momentum down the stretch and get to the 7-6 mark that would land it in the local bowl.

The rumor mill, however, continues to whirr in Honolulu, and cash-strapped or not, the athletic department is not likely to grant Chow a fifth season if he can’t get above .500 (the Warriors play 13 games this term), especially with a new AD likely in place by the fall. Already, there is wild speculation that none other than June Jones, who orchestrated the resurgence of the Hawaii program and the BCS Sugar bowl berth in 2007, could return, though Jones did burn several bridges when he left Honolulu more than 7 years ago. As usual, we suggest late-Saturday night viewing of the always-entertaining developments at Aloha Stadium, though legendary play-by-play legend Jim Leahey has retired from those duties to concentrate on his local TV talk show (which, if you’re interested, can be accessed on YouTube).

The jury is still out at Nevada (2014 SUR 7-6. PSR 7-6) on third-year HC Brian Polian, who has yet to make anyone in Reno quite forget about storied predecessor Chris Ault, but who has nonetheless hinted that he might have a long-term plan to return the Wolf Pack to some sort of respectability. After a bumpy 4-8 ride in his injury-plagued maiden voyage in 2013, Polian’s Nevada improved enough to get back to the postseason (Nevada’s ninth bowl in the past ten seasons) last fall, only to fall very flat in New Orleans vs. UL-Lafayette in a depressing 16-3 loss.

There were a couple of those sorts of head-scratching efforts a year ago that included a befuddling 40-20 home defeat vs. Fresno State in late November that would cost the Pack the MW West crown, but wins over San Diego State, at BYU, the return of the Fremont Cannon to Reno when blasting downstate UNLV, plus near-miss at Pac-12 contender and Fiesta Bowl participant Arizona, suggests that Polian is not overmatched, and not merely getting by on his bloodlines (dad Bill was a long-time NFL front-office and personnel exec).

What many Mountain West observers have noted about Polian is that he has mostly been able to keep his staff together (not always an easy thing to do in the MW), and that when needing to fill gaps, has been able to use his family connections to help in the process. There are several NFL links on the Nevada staff, including DL Coach Bill Teerlinck, who worked for several years with the Indianapolis Colts and whose dad John was a longtime NFL assistant, and CB coach Ricky Thomas also has NFL experience with the Colts (where Brian’s dad was a longtime exec). The national connections also allowed Polian to tap Scott Boone from far-away William & Mary as the new d.c. last year after Scottie Hazelton, Polian’s first d.c in 2013, was hired by the NFL Jaguars. And o.c. Nick Rolovich remains on the job as link back to the Ault years and the much-discussed “Pistol” formation introduced by Ault and made more famous by now-49er QB Colin Kaepernick.

Still, we suspect we might be saying the same sorts of things at this time next year about the jury being still out on Polian, whose 2015 version of the Pack would be doing well to get back to the postseason.

Of obvious concern is the QB position, which has effectively been held by only three players (Jeff Rowe, Kaepernick, and Cody Fajardo) since the 2004 campaign in an uncommon bit of continuity in the college ranks. The latest in that lineage, Fajardo, a starter since 2011, has graduated, however, and will be in the Oakland Raiders camp this summer, opening up a competition that did not seem to uncover a clear-cut successor in spring.

At this stage, junior Tyler Stewart, who has a bit of game experience and won the only start of his career in 2013 vs. Hawaii, is expected to win the job for the September 3 opener at Mackay Stadium vs. UC Davis. Stewart, however, lacks the mobility associated with past Pack Pistol QBs such as Kaepernick and Fajardo, and could eventually cede the jt to either soph Dante’ Mayes or local product RS frosh Hunter Fralick, both with the sort of wheels that remind of recent decorated Nevada signal-callers. By the time conference play commences October 3 against UNLV, don’t be surprised if Mayes or Fralick has won the job.

Whichever QB is used by Polian and Rolovich will have some interesting weapons on hand. The top two rushers return from last season, former juco Don Jackson (957 YR in 2013) and soph James Butler, who came on strongly at the end of his frosh campaign a year ago to end with 635 yards. The passing game bogged down a bit in the stretch drive last season after rangy 6-5 wideout Hassan Henderson (45 catches in 2014) went down with injury, but he’s back along with leading returning receiver Jerico Richardson (56 receptions LY), while TE Jared Gipson earned second-team All-MW honors.

But if there are questions at QB, there might even be more ifs along an OL that returns only two starters and has not been as dominant in recent years as the old “Union” forward walls of the Ault era. Indeed, Nevada’s offensive numbers have dropped off approximately 20% across the board since the departure of Ault, with the downgrade of the OL one of the main reasons. Though the Pack improved its rushing game almost 30 yards pg last season up to 36th nationally, it is a long way from the succession of top ten infantries from the Ault era. Four sophs could be starting on the forward wall this fall.

Under d.c. Boone, Nevada did improve its stop unit numbers last season, cutting more than 7 ppg from the 2013 allowance and shaving almost 80 ypg off of the porous 2013 rush defense that was one of the nation’s worst. Last year, the Pack allowed a more-respectable 179 ypg on the ground, ranking 68th, a big jump from finishing at 122 the previous year.

Though colorful DE Brock Hekking and his familiar mullet have moved to the NFL and the San Diego Chargers, with whom Hekking will be spending summer camp before perhaps inking a deal with Vince McMahon’s WWE down the road, five starters are back from Boone’s from seven of 2014, and they have been augmented by UCLA graduate transfer NT Kevin McReynolds, who should get on the field this fall. Senior DE Ian Seau (the late Junior’s nephew) had a breakout campaign in 2014 with 8.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, both team best, while fellow sr. Rykeem Yates (tied Seau with 10.5 TFL in 2014) is one of the top DTs in the Mountain. An experienced LB corps returns almost in tact, where Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons, and Bryan Lane, Jr. have combined for 56 career starts.

The questions on defense, however, revolve around an entirely rebuilt secondary that will feature four new starters this fall after FS Duran Workman moved to an OLB spot. MW sources insist there is athleticism and upside in this quartet, however, and Boone has moved Kendall Johnson, who impressed a a true frosh at CB last fall, to the SS spot. But the two-deep includes three frosh and three sophs, so how quickly this batch coagulates will likely determine if the “D” can continue the upgrades it displayed for Boone a year ago.

At least Polian has experience on special teams, where jr. PK Brent Zuzo is 28 for 35 in career FG attempts, and P Alex Boy also returns from last year.

The Pack will have a couple of serious tests in non-league play with back-to-back September dates vs. Arizona (at Reno) and at Texas A&M before an interesting trip to Buffalo, where assistant coach Jim Hofher was once the HC and the city where Polian grew up while his dad worked for the Bills. The MW schedule cycles a bit tougher in the Western games this season, however, as Nevada must trek to Fresno and San Diego State, as well as a crossover game at Utah State, though Boise State is off of the slate this autumn.

If all falls into place, perhaps the Pack will be squaring off for the West crown in the regular-season finale vs. the Aztecs, but considering the issues at QB, the OL, and secondary, Nevada fans should be satisfied if Polian can simply get this team bowl-eligible, which has become expected in Reno.

Meanwhile, though there hasn’t been any significant pointspread trend during Polian’s first two seasons, note that the Pack has gone “under” in 15 of its last 19 games, dating to mid 2013.

A few years ago, there were not many in the Mountain West who believed that HC Tim DeRuyter would be sticking around until 2015 at Fresno State (2014 SUR 6-8, PSR 7-7). After all, DeRuyter had been courted by Pac-12 Cal and Colorado after an impressive 9-4 debut run with the Bulldogs in 2012, then Fresno would threaten the BCS in 2013 behind QB Derek Carr before finishing at 11-2.

But the shine started to come of off DeRuyter a bit in 2013 when the Bulldogs were fortunate to escape several close calls, and Fresno was demolished in a bowl game for the second year in a row, losing big to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl the year after a no-show effort the previous December in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl vs. June Jones’ SMU. Moreover, there were whispers around the MW that DeRuyter might not be the most popular coach in the circuit after Fresno ran up a few scores in what appeared to be attempts at either currying favor with pollsters and/or padding QB Carr’s gaudy stats...neither of which sitting well with opposing coaches.

All of that seemed to come back at bite DeRuyter a bit harder last season when Fresno would sink to 6-8 and endure some frightful beatings in non-conference play when allowing 50+ points in successive weeks vs. USC, Utah, and Nebraska. The Bulldogs would eventually defend their MW West title, but that was more the result of significant disappointment elsewhere in the loop. And the Dogs would even lose a game to UNLV in what was the Rebs’ only MW win of the season. Granted an NCAA waiver to appear in a bowl game despite a sub-.500 record of 6-7, DeRuyter’s Fresno would lay a third straight egg in the postseason, blasted by Rice 30-6 in another desultory trip to the Hawaii Bowl. Along the way, DeRuyter made a few more enemies in the league, especially New Mexico HC Bob Davie, who was none too pleased that DeRuyter was faking field goals late in the game and then throwing deep in the final seconds of a contest that Fresno had already sewn up 35-24, a time when teams usually order their QBs to take a knee as the clock expires.

Suddenly, no one is talking about DeRuyter moving up to a Pac-12 or Big 12 job anytime soon. Nor are they talking about a possible return to Air Force, from where DeRuyter graduated and where he coached for several years under Fisher DeBerry and Troy Calhoun. (On October 24, Calhoun, by the way, will get his first shot at Fresno since losing 48-15 to DeRuyter’s first Fresno team in 2012, a game in which the Bulldogs seemed to go out of their way to pile up the score. Stay tuned.)

Though the West might be bad enough for DeRuyter to contend for another division crown, the trendline for the Bulldogs looks to be downward. The post-Carr era at QB figures to continue being a challenge after last year’s starter Brian Burrell, with a year of eligibility remaining, mysteriously left the program in February. Not that replacing Burrell will be much of an issue after he tossed a whopping 18 picks and ranked only 7th in passing efficiency among MW QBs in 2014. But there is little experience at the position with only soph Zack Greenlee having previously taken a college snap, losing badly in his only career start vs. Wyoming last fall before getting benched at halftime in an eventual 45-17 loss to the Cowboys. Redshirt frosh Kilton Anderson and incoming frosh Chasson Virgil (who originally committed to Mississippi State) were running close behind Greenlee in spring, however, and many in the Central Valley believe the promising Virgil will eventually win the job. The darkhorse could be West Virginia transfer Ford Childress, who arrives on campus for fall camp.   Regardless, QB does not look to be a position of strength for the Bulldogs entering 2015...a point of real concern for a spread offense employed by d.c. Dave Schramm.

(MW sources say that after spring practice, DeRuyter was actively seeking to lure a graduate transfer QB who could be looking to make a late career move, but into the early summer the coach had yet to find a new pilot.)

If there is a strong point on offense, it is definitely sr. RB Marteze Waller, who motored for 1368 YR last fall. But there is not much experienced depth behind Waller, who was held out of all contact drills in spring. The offense is also minus top WR Josh Harper, now with the Oakland Raiders after catching 165 passes over the past two seasons... and whose 86 grabs a year ago were 55 more than Fresno’s next leading receiver. With soph Delvon Hardaway reportedly slow to recover from an ACL tear, it will be up to sr. Aaron Peck (32 catches last season) or perhaps one of a group of RS frosh (maybe KeeSean Johnson--love that new version of Keyshawn!-- or Keyan Williams) to emerge as a go-to threat.

Three starters do return along the OL, where 303-lb. sr. LT Alex Fifita is regarded as a likely NFL draftee. But the “O” dipped more than 1300 yards over the course of the season and 17 ppg post-Carr in 2014, and Fresno certainly does not look equipped to win many shootouts this fall.

After getting overrun by quality opposition last season, d.c. Nick Toth threw open competition for 10 of the 11 starting spots on his platoon, sparing only sr. LB Kyrie Wilson, who is nonetheless being shifted to the strong-side “Mike” position from his ILB spot of last fall. Starters return at the corners, but sr. Charles Washington is returning from offseason core surgery. Washington’s availability is key, because he is considered the closest thing Fresno has to a shutdown CB. Remember, the secondary has allowed a staggering 113 pass completions of 20 yards or more over the past two seasons. The Bulldogs lacked playmakers overall a year ago, partly explaining a -7 TO margin, ranking a poor 103 rd nationally.

Spread-wise, the stickout trend is seven straight losses vs. the number against non-MW, non-Idaho FBS opposition, including those blowout losses in the last three bowl games.

The schedule sequences a bit better for the ‘Dawgs in 2015, as USC will be replaced in the opener by...Abilene Christian. Still, there are three other challenging non-league games (at Ole Miss and BYU, and home vs. Utah) in which Fresno will likely be the underdog. Boise cycles out of this year’s MW slate but Fresno must trek to Air Force and West favorite San Diego State in October.

The West might be weak enough again for DeRuyter to squeeze out a fourth straight bowl trip, but this Fresno edition seems to have more question marks than a year ago when the Bulldogs lost 8 times. For what it’s worth, we also don’t like most of Fresno’s new uniform combinations, including a hideous all-black outfit, and the shiny silver helmets in which no one can make out the traditional Bulldog logo. We wish Fresno would return to its all-red home unis and keep the red helmets, white shirts, and red pants on the road...a much better look than what we’ve often seen the past couple of years.

If San Jose State (2014 SUR 3-9, PSR 3-9) football trends were to be analyzed by Jim “Mad Money” Cramer from CNBC, or any other Wall Street technician, we can only imagine what the responses might be. Using stock market graphs, the Spartans’ fluctuating performance pattern would probably resemble a volatile high-tech entity, and likely cause Cramer and others to squeal. That sort of pattern has been the way things have gone for over 40 years at SJSU, where the occasional dramatic updrafts have always been followed by disturbing downturns...the likes of which the program seems to be enduring for third-year HC Ron Caragher.

The affable and well-polished Caragher, a one-time backup QB behind Troy Aikman at UCLA, and who came to San Jose in 2013 from the same U of San Diego program that sent Jim Harbaugh to Stanford in 2007, unfortunately looks to be in the process of steering the program into the ground after it reached some unexpected heights a few years ago for Mike MacIntyre, who rehabilitated the Spartans from the depths of the end of the Dick Tomey regime...which had earlier salvaged the program from possible extinction after the failed Fitz Hill experiment early in the last decade. Which followed surprising success under predecessor Dave Baldwin...who left immediately after an 8-win season in 2000. We could go back another 30 years and identify the same rollercoaster pattern, which Caragher will have to hope begins cresting toward another summit...soon.

While the Spartans are not expected to compete for a spot in the national rankings, the football program nonetheless has been targeted for elimination in the past by various campus activists, citing a money-losing history. And San Jose has yet to provide much of a dividend to the Mountain West since joining the league two years ago. Its basketball program is horrendous, drawing low three-figure crowds to some home games (we were there in February when all of 269 fans...270, including this writer, watched a game vs. Nevada at the Event Center). And while charming in a throw-back fashion, and offering some very good sightlines, the aging Spartan Stadium is not the most-dynamic college football venue, without any bells and whistles and with limited nearby parking forcing a bit of a needless hike for any fans to a Spartans football game.

While a part of the biggest media market in the conference, San Jose State is also easily lost in the Bay Area sports picture. A notorious pro sports-oriented region makes it hard for even the higher-profile nearby Stanford and Cal programs to get noticed. The huge local SJSU alumni base has also never been properly mobilized to support Spartan sports, which sometimes appears to be operating in a vacuum. If the Spartans could ever sustain their success, perhaps a breakthrough could occur, but until then San Jose football is often crowded out of the local media coverage, struggling for front-page recognition even in the hometown Mercury-News sports section, and an afterthought in the nearby San Francisco Chronicle or Oakland Tribune. Never mind the local TV sports coverage, where sports anchors like Larry Beil on KGO have other things to talk about...like the World Series champion Giants and NBA champion Warriors.

Thus, the task for Caragher is also to make San Jose State football relevant in a very tough and competitive sports environment...maybe the biggest challenge of any entry in the Mountain West.

So far the indicators are not good. The Spartans collapsed a year ago with one of the most-inefficient offensive displays in recent memory. A team that ranks 70th in total offense should not rank 113th in scoring as the Spartans did in 2014. A team that gains 462 yards and does not punt the ball in a game should never be blanked as San Jose was last November 15 vs. Hawaii. Part of the problem was a TO margin of -12, one of the nation’s worst (ranking 114th). Special teams issues reflected in a hideous 126th national field position margin were another dilemma. But the main issue is an offense that Caragher mistakenly tweaked upon his arrival in 2013 and has lost its identity since.

After the high-tech MacIntyre “O” was throwing the football all around the yard with QB David Fales during the 11-2 breakthrough campaign in 2012, Caragher arrived and changed the formula in 2013, implementing a multiple offense featuring a pair of running backs that harkened to the previous millennium in San Jose. Eventually, Caragher would implement more of the spread looks that worked so well for the MacIntyre offense in 2012, but once Fales graduated after 2013, the trend really went downward a year ago. Part of the problem was inconsistency behind center, where three different QBs started last fall.

What is troubling for Caragher is that a repeat of 2014 could be in the offing unless sr. QB Joe Gray, who took the bulk of the snaps last fall and tossed for 2305 yards (but only 9 TDs), solidifies his claim in the first month of the season when San Jose will have a challenging stretch of games that includes road tilts at Air Force, Oregon State, and Auburn sandwiched around a home grudge match vs. old rival Fresno State. Otherwise, a couple of intriguing juco transfers, Kenny Potter or Malik Watson, could steal the job.

Caragher’s infantry upgrades have been minimal at best, as the Spartans have ranked 97th and 94th, respectively, in rushing during Caragher’s first two years on the job. Senior Tyler Ervin (888 YR and 5.6 ypc in 2014) is a capable threat both running the ball and as a kick returner, but what this offense could use is another go-to WR to emerge besides Tyler Winston, who caught 78 passes a year ago. A squadron of dangerous wideouts helped spearhead the recent Fales teams and it is hoped that RS frosh Justin Holmes or perhaps one from among a touted class of frosh recruits (perhaps Compton’s Kanya Bell or Murrieta’s Colin Baker) could develop into complementary threats across from the accomplished Winston, who will otherwise be the subject of double-teaming as he was down he stretch last season when the Spartans scored just 14 points over their last three games. Four starters along the OL return from last season but spring work suggested there could be changes in the lineup, with four frosh or sophs likely featured.

Caragher, who went back to his UCLA roots to hire Greg Robinson as his d.c. a year ago, went ex-Bruin again as he looked for a new o.c. to replace Jimmie Dougherty, who reunited with his former USD boss Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Old friend Al Borges, who served with Caragher on Bob Toledo’s UCLA staffs as the o.c., now has the same job with the Spartans. Borges’ career, however, has been a mixed bag since the highlight years in the ‘90s at UCLA, and must re-establish some sort of an identity for the “O” while solving the red zone woes that proved a recurring headache last season.

San Jose’s schizophrenic statistical profile extended to its defense in 2014, where the algorithms were also all over the place. Did San Jose really have the nation’s best passing defense, as its top rating and mere 118 ypg suggests? Or was that because foes were simply running at will on the Spartans defense, which ranked an abysmal 116th vs. the rush, conceding 239 ypg? The inconsistencies continued elsewhere, as the nation’s 32nd-ranked total defense was 83rd in scoring. (Blame the offensive miscues and resultant recurring bad field position, as well as poor special teams, for some of those problems.)

Robinson will oversee a “D” that is mostly rebuilt (maybe a good thing) along the front seven but returns three starters in the secondary, including CBs Cleveland Wallace and Jimmy Pruitt, arguably the best corner tandem in the conference. And among a surprisingly strong recruiting class rated by some as the second best in the MW, behind only Boise State, DBs number four of the top ten newcomers. With Robinson’s scheming, perhaps the platoon can keep SJSU close in some of its games.

The aforementioned schedule gets very tough in a hurry after the opener at home vs. New Hampshire, and we will probably know by early October if QB Gray has the stern stuff needed to lead the offense. Unfortunately for the Spartans, home games in the second half of the season vs. San Diego State, BYU, and Boise State look to be high hurdles, and the chance for Caragher to get some of the heat off of his back and make a minor bowl might have to wait until 2016. Sources say that AD Gene Bleymaier, another of the UCLA connection at San Jose, likely gives Caragher at least that long to get the program headed back in the right direction, but another 3-9 mark (or worse) could put Caragher in trouble a bit sooner. The trendlines cannot be ignored at a locale such as San Jose that simply cannot afford to again disappear from the local sports radar.

Spread-wise, the wild successes of the MacIntyre years are now far in the rear-view mirror, as Caragher’s San Jose enters 2015 having dropped 12 of its last 16 vs. the number, and 6 of its last 7 vs. the line on the road.

And then there was UNLV (2014 SUR 2-11, PSR 5-8). After trying almost everything with coaching hires over the past thirty years, from successful lower-division winners to high-profile assistants and coordinators to former big-time coaches, and having failed at all, the Rebels are rolling the dice with the ultimate college football gamble...and no, they're not stealing Donny and Marie from their act at the Flamingo to give coaching a shot.

Meet Tony Sanchez, straight from the high school ranks and the latest to give the UNLV job a whirl after Bobby Hauck’s regime mercifully extinguished a year ago following a fourth 2-win season in five years. Indeed, that two-win pattern has been familiar to the Rebs, who have landed on two a staggering eight times in their last eleven seasons. Playing golf, that might be a great score, but for season wins in football terms it 's equivalent to a string of double or triple bogeys.

The Sanchez credentials were burnished at local Bishop Gorman High, which emerged as a regional and national-rated powerhouse in recent years. The Gaels won six straight state titles in Nevada, capped by the mythical national title a year ago, so there was nothing more for Sanchez to accomplish on the high school level. But that was also similar to the wild success that sorts like Gerry Faust (Cincinnati Moeller) and Todd Dodge (Southlake, TX Carroll) also experienced at the high school level before jumping directly into the college ranks, and failing...Faust at Notre Dame, Dodge at North Texas.

Sanchez, who won with a run-first philosophy at Gorman, will, at the outset, at least, not have those sorts of personnel advantages to allow him to do the same at UNLV, so immediately sought some sage counsel to help out in his maiden college voyage. Veteran coordinators were enlisted; Barney Cotton, recently o.c. at Nebraska and interim HC for the Cornhuskers in last December’s Holiday Bowl, will have the same o.c. job with the Rebs, while Kent Baer, a longtime d.c. at locales such as Notre Dame, Washington, and most recently Colorado, will run the stop unit for Sanchez. (No one in Las Vegas seems to mind that both coaches were moved out of their most-recent jobs.)

One change from the Hauck era is that Sanchez is likely to feature the same QB in back-to-back years, something that never happened for the Hauck Rebels. Blake Decker, last year’s juco import who won the job for Hauck’s final edition, is likely to take snaps when UNLV opens at Northern Illinois on September 5, though juco Kurt Palendech pushed Decker in spring. (Nick Sherry, who started for Hauck as a frosh in 2012 and briefly at the outset of 2013 but descended off the depth chart by the end of last season, has left the program.)

Decker, however, flashed plenty of upside last season despite being guilty of a whopping 18 picks, throwing for 2886 yards, and can move around nimbly in the pocket. He’ll have to be mobile as the OL is mostly rebuilt from last season and must replace a pair of four-year starters in T Brett Boyko and C Robert Waterman. The running game, which sagged last year to 102nd nationally after having some bite in previous years with explosive RB Tim Cornett, will likely be emphasized a bit more by Sanchez and Cotton. Junior Keith Whitely, who ran with some flair when gaining 504 YR in 2014, will likely get the bulk of the carries early, though he will be pushed by touted all-name frosh Lexington Thomas and Xzaviar Campbell.

Still, this is the Mountain West, where a team has to throw to be competitive, so the UNLV aerial game likely features a lot of max protection for Decker, keeping a back close to Decker and likely requiring the TE to concentrate on blocking, while electric soph wideouts Devonte Boyd (65 catches LY as a frosh) and Kendall Keys look to get open.

Even if Sanchez and Cotton can make lemonade from lemons with the offense, there is still the stop unit, which ranked in the familiar triple digits in most relevant categories last season (including 113th in scoring, and 123rd in both rushing and total defense). Among the more-glaring shortcomings was an inability to stop the run, as the Rebs allowed whopping 293 ypg to opposing infantries a year ago.

Sanchez has authorized Baer to get as aggressive as needed to hopefully turn the tide, but that will be easier said than done. Only four starters return, though jr. OLB Tau Lotulelei and sr. FS Peni Vena combined for 188 tackles a year ago and are a couple of good foundations to build around. Newcomers are going to get a chance to contribute all over the platoon. Watch juco DE Mark Finau and true frosh DT Salanoa-Alo Wily up front, while juco CB Jay’Onn Myles reportedly turned down Baylor to ink with the Rebs and will be expected to move into the lineup quickly despite missing spring work and not arriving on campus until August.

Making things more difficult for Sanchez is a brutal schedule that has the Rebs opening at MAC contender Northern Illinois before hosting UCLA and traveling to Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan, all within the first three weeks of the season. The only break with the schedule was that AD Tina Kunzer-Murphy was able to change out of a date vs. BYU, sparing UNLV what might have been the toughest non-league slate in the country (though it’s still pretty rough). Boise State also cycles back into the Rebs’ Mountain West slate after being absent the past two seasons.

Hauck’s Rebel teams, like those of predecessor Mike Sanford, mostly fared very well in the home dog role (UNLV was 24-12-1 as a Sam Boyd Stadium dog between 2005-13) before falling off to 1-3 vs. the line in that role a year ago. Expect the Sanchez Rebs to have a lot more of those same underdog chances this season.

Another 2-win UNLV campaign looks just about right. At least that number is something the locals are used to seeing.



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