by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Never mind a handful of encouraging bowl results last December; 2015 was not a banner year for the Mountain West. Non-conference scorelines were decidedly underwhelming, and league flagship Boise State began to look very mortal, losing three times in conference play, including defeats on their once-invincible blue carpet to Air Force and New Mexico, for gosh sakes. While the Broncos were floundering (at least by their standards), San Diego State emerged from the vacuum to dominate the league.

The question on the mind of many Mountain West observers is if 2015 was an indicator of things to come. The seven bowl bids earned by league reps were more a function of the bloated bowl lineup (indeed, two MW entries, Nevada and Colorado State, were forced to face one another in the postseason, a matchup that barely even registered in their Reno and Fort Collins locales) than any excellence in the league.


In retrospect, perhaps it was 2014 that was the aberration, an odd confluence of factors in the Mountain half of the loop that would see Colorado State, Utah State, and Air Force all simultaneously flying at high altitude along with Boise State. More ominous, however, is a recent downturn by onetime contender Fresno State, not to mention Boise perhaps falling from its national pedestal. Consensus in the region is that the league benefits when at least one entry can make a splash on the national scene. The best chance for that to happen again soon would probably be a quick recovery by Boise State, though SDSU believes it might be able to assume that mantle despite losing three of four non-conference games in September a year ago. We’ll see what happens this fall.

Following is our preview of 2016 Mountain West action, broken into the two divisions. Straight-up and pointspreads marks from the 2015 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.

By the end of last season, the only thing grating about San Diego State (2015 SUR 11-3, PSR 8-5-1) was longtime play-by-play man Ted Leitner. Ten straight wins to close the season would make it easy to ignore the infuriating Leitner as the Aztecs began to fly in some rarified air, tying one of the legendary Don Coryell’s best SDSU teams (with QB Dennis Shaw in 1969) for the school’s all-time win mark at 11. Along the way the Aztecs rolled to the Mountain West crown and restored some dignity to the league when blasting American rep Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl.

All of that seemed a bit far-fetched in late September when SDSU was laboring at 1-3 and counted a home loss against Sun Belt South Alabama on the debit side of the ledger. Even as the subsequent win streak advanced, and the Aztecs dominated the MW by winning all of their regular-season conference games by 14 or more, they bore little resemblance to the pass-happy template that Coryell’s teams created once upon a time on Montezuma Mesa. (Indeed, it’s been a while since SDSU’s passing game resembled a well-oiled machine.) Yet Kentucky transfer QB Maxwell Smith proved an effective game manager and kept mistakes to a minimum as the offense would pivot around slashing RB Donnel Pumphrey, who would run away with MW MVP honors while rushing for 1653 yards. Meanwhile, the stop unit eventually got the hang of HC (and d.c.) Rocky Long’s noted schemes out of 3-3-5 alignments and would finish in the top ten nationally in all relevant (rushing, passing, scoring, and overall) categories. Among other noteworthy stat accomplishments by the 2015 Aztecs was a staggering +22 TO margin that ranked best in the land.

The pieces are in place to dominate the MW again, partly because of the return of star RB Pumphrey, who resisted the temptation to jump early into last April’s NFL Draft. Still on campus, the whippet-like, 180-lb. sr. from Las Vegas with 4272 career YR is now within sight of Marshall Faulk’s all-time school rushing mark of 4589 YRs (set, it should be noted, in just three seasons between 1991-93). Moreover, Pumphrey led SDSU with 28 pass receptions a year ago. He’s the closest thing to a one man gang this side of the WWE, though RS frosh Juwan Washington is a 5'7 jitterbug who could give Pumphrey an occasional blow after impressing in the spring game, when he scored on a 48-yard run.

Pumphrey’s presence is important, because there are still questions about the new QB, soph Christian Chapman, who got his feet wet late last season when taking over for injured Maxwell Smith and leading the last three SDSU wins, including the MW title game vs. Air Force and the bowl win in Honolulu vs. the Bearcats. Yet Chapman’s ability to throw downfield remains a bit of an unknown, and the strike force is again likely to revolve around the mercurial Pumphrey. More will be expected of WR Micah Holder, the leading returning wideout who caught 24 passes a year ago.

More substantive concerns for o.c. Jeff Horton are on the right side of the OL, with new starters to break in at the guard and tackle spots. But three other starters, including honors candidate LG Nico Siragusa, return along a forward wall which paved the way for a school-record 3266 YR last fall. The Aztecs also have a return threat of note in Rashaad Penny, who gained a whopping 33.5 yards on his KRs and took 3 of those back for TDs.

SDSU can probably deal with a few bumps on the offensive side because the “D” looks once again to be head-and-shoulders above all others in the MW. Good news came last January when CB Damontae Kazee, the MW Defensive MVP, like Pumphrey also decided to wait on the NFL Draft so he could return for his senior season, where he will again will lock down the opponents’ best receiver and be the leader of one of the region’s top secondaries that also featured big-play jr. FS Malik Smith, who recorded 77 tackles and 5 picks of his own last season. Fellow DB Na’im McGee, playing the same “Aztec” role in the Rocky Long defense as did Brian Urlacher once upon a time for Long at New Mexico (when the position was appropriately called “Lobo”), was the team’s second leading tackler with 81 a year ago.

There are a few holes to fill up front defensively, but returnee DEs Kyle Kelley and Alex Barrett combined for 13 sacks last season, and LB Calvin Munson was a playmaker, recording a team-best 98 tackles that included 15 stops for loss and 9.5 sacks. No MW team scored more than 17 points vs. this platoon until Air Force tallied 24 in the MW title game.

The non-league schedule appears less treacherous than a year ago, especially since the highest-profile foe, Cal, visits Qualcomm Stadium in rebuild mode after QB Jared Goff was the first pick by the Rams in the NFL Draft. Challenges in the Mountain West do not include Boise State or Air Force, both off of the schedule until perhaps the conference title game. Which is where the Aztecs likely wind up again in December, where, if all goes well, SDSU could enter as a ranked team. Which would make another season of Ted Leitner at the microphone at least tolerable for Aztec backers.

Spread-wise, we’re not sure SDSU gets many chances in an underdog role that has proved profitable for Long’s Aztec teams (now 8-3-1 last 12 getting points). But SDSU has certainly been a go-with vs. MW foes, undefeated vs. the line in the last 11 regular-season league games. Consistent with the defensive theme, Rocky’s guys are also 20-7 “under” the past two seasons.

The “Pistol” formation has been about as familiar in Washoe County as the annual Reno air races in August or the legendary BBQ cook-off each September at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks. Since introduced by HOF HC Chris Ault in 2005, the Pistol has been the primary offensive formation for the Nevada Wolf Pack (2015 SUR 7-6; {PSR 8-4-1) and helped QB Colin Kaepernick make a name for himself in college before moving to the NFL 49ers.

The Pistol has remained in place at Mackay Stadium since Ault retired following the 2012 season, as successor Brian Polian was not about to change a good thing. But with o.c. Nick Rolovich, a holdover from the Ault years, having moved in the offseason to alma mater Hawaii to become its head coach, Polian is making some significant adjustments to the Nevada “O” for the first time since early in George W. Bush’s second term in the White House. Though the Pistol will not go away completely, Polian did not hire new o.c. Tim Cramsey from Montana State to abandon the high-power spread that Cramsey’s Bobcat offenses employed recently in Bozeman.

Cramsey, a Chip Kelly disciple, has been enlisted by Polian to add more pop to a passing game that regressed to a sickly 113th national ranking a season ago. The Pistol principles that produced a pair of 1000-yard rushers last season will not be abandoned, but Cramsey’s task is rather straight-forward, as instructed by HC Polian...put some dynamism back into the passing game.

To that end, Cramsey and Polian opened up QB competition in the spring despite the presence of returning starter Tyler Stewart, who led the Pack to a win in the All-MW Arizona Bowl vs. Colorado State last December. Juco transfer Ty Gangi and last year’s backup, soph Hunter Fralick, were given looks, though by the end of spring it was Stewart still in the pilot seat after looking increasingly comfortable in Cramsey’s offense as spring progressed.

Nine starters are back on offense, and that doesn’t even include jr. RB James Butler, who gained 1345 YR a year ago in a relief role (only one start). Penn State grad transfer Akeel Lynch should give Polian & Cramsey another potent 1-2 RB punch. All five starters return on an all-upperclass OL that had some problems in protecting Stewart a year ago but in spring was getting the hang of Cramsey's offense and the upgraded pass-blocking techniques.

For the "O" to hum, however, it will be up to sr. QB Stewart to take another step forward after producing only serviceable stats (2139 YP & 15 TDs) a year ago. A good athlete, Stewart also affords Cramsey some added options in the spread and Pistol. Plaxico Burress-sized Hassan Henderson and electron Jerrico Richardson combined for 120 catches and 9 TDs. They’re two of seven projected seniors to start on offense. Another sr. is PK Brent Zuzo, a nice safety blanket should drives bog down after hitting all 17 of his FG tries inside of 50 yards a year ago.

We usually spend more time talking about Nevada’s offense because, well, there’s more to talk about. But the Pack probably wouldn’t have qualified for a bowl last season if not for stop unit upgrades that continued under d.c. Scott Boone, who arrived from William & Mary in 2014 and has authored improvements each of the last two seasons after the “D” leaked badly (34.4 ppg) in Polian’s first season of 2013.

Boone, though, has a chore this fall with an almost completely-rebuilt front seven that must replace, among others, all-MW DEs Ian Seau and Lenny Jones. Several recent backups who were part of well-regarded recruiting hauls will be expected to contribute right away alongside the only returning starter up front, sr. NT Salesa Faraimo, while RS frosh DT Huasia Sekona was one of the headliners in spring. The LB corps is completely rebuilt, where returnees have combined for all of three starts and RS frosh Gabe Sewell is expected to handle MLB duties.

Fortunately for Boone, the secondary returns all four starters, with soph safeties Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber already regarded as two of the best in the MW, and sr. Elijah Mitchell rated as one of the top shutdown corners in the league.

The schedule intrigues, as the Pack gets a do-over for one of the great missed opportunities in school history when Ault’s 2009 team, with Kaepernick, was blanked at Notre Dame in the opener. This year, Nevada gets Cal Poly to hopefully work out some of the kinks in the new Cramsey offense before a return to South Bend, though a more realistic chance for a marquee non-league win might come two weeks later at Purdue. The Pack gets a break in the MW as it misses Boise State, Air Force, and Colorado State from the Mountain half, while getting West favorite San Diego State, plus Utah State, in Reno. Nevada, which since Ault installed the Pistol in 2005 has missed a bowl only in Polian’s debut campaign of 2013, should get back to one of those MW postseason dates in Albuquerque, Boise, or Tucson again this season.

Spread-wise, note that Polian’s Nevada has become ornery on the road, standing 9-2-1 vs. the line as a visitor the past two seasons. The Pack also enters this fall “under” 11-5 in its last 16 games on the board.

If you’re looking for an example of bowl bloat, meet San Jose State (2015 SUR 6-7, PSR 8-5), which made it to the postseason with a 5-7 record last fall only because there were not enough 6-6 teams to fill all of the available slots, and the Spartans had a good enough team APR score to qualify. But the Orlando Cure Bowl was glad to have San Jose face 6-6 Georgia State in a game that only hard-core gridiron junkies found interesting. The Spartans didn’t make any money from the trip, but they did win 27-16. Never mind that for the first time in college football history, bowl opponents would each finish with losing records, or that only a handful of people watched in the Citrus Bowl. San Jose, like Alabama and Stanford, was a bowl winner!

In the real universe upon returning from Disney World, however, personable San Jose HC Ron Caragher realizes that he is on something of a hot seat as his Spartans, while admittedly 1-0 in their bowl appearances, have yet to crack the .500 mark in his three years on the job. Which represents quite a slide in the wrong direction for a program that seemed on the ascent a few years ago for predecessor Mike MacIntyre when going 11-2 and beating Bowling Green in the 2012 Military Bowl. Since MacIntyre is now on the hot seat at Colorado after winning only ten games in the three years since with the Buffs, and the Spartans have not climbed during that time period, either, perhaps MacIntyre could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by just staying in San Jose, but we digress.

In what might be a must-win season for Caragher, at least his Spartans figure to have a fighting chance. There are 15 listed starters back in the fold from 2015, though one of those is not RB Tyler Ervin, who led the nation’s rushers for a time last fall and ended with 1601 YR plus another 45 pass receptions before being drafted by the NFL’s Houston Texans. Although former juco QB Kenny Potter does return after an impressive debut when completing 67% of his passes and tossing 15 TDs after taking the job from holdover Joe Gray. Potter’s feet are also not in concrete, reflected in his 415 YR and five scrambles good for 30 yards or more.

Potter’s ability to both pass and run is a good indicator for an attack that if nothing else was well-balanced a year ago, ranking a respectable 60th in total offense. Achieving that sort of balance might be harder chore this fall minus Ervin, though compact 202-lb. sr. Thomas Tucker has run with some flair when not injured in recent years, even if most of those highlights came back in 2013. More than likely, o.c. Al Borges will employ a RB-by-committee approach in the fall.

The versatile Potter, however, at least figures to give SJSU a puncher’s chance, especially with three of his top four targets back in the fold, including All-MW sr. TE Billy Freeman (48 catches last year). Four starters are back along an OL that successfully implemented some position switches in spring, with jr. Nate Velichko moving from LT to RT. Velichko, along with LG Jeremiah Kolone, are rated as honors candidates along the forward wall.

The “D” has a different look after vet d.c. Greg Robinson retired. New coordinator Ron English, once a HC at Eastern Michigan who has lived to tell about it after earlier in his career considered an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks when Lloyd Carr’s d.c. at Michigan, has a new staff with him that will be tasked first and foremost to improve a sieve-like rush “D” that has ranked 119th and 102nd, respectively, vs. the run the past two seasons.

English does have some experience at his disposal with seven returning starters on the platoon, including sr. DEs Nick Oreglia and Isaiah Irving. During spring, English and staff decided to move jr. Andre Chachere to a CB spot after he started 10 games as a hybrid LB/safety a year ago in Robinson’s alignments. Playmakers of note at the LB spots include Christian Tago, an All-MW pick last fall, and soph Frank Ginda, who flashed real upside as a frosh. Though foes spent most of their time running at the soft San Jose rush defense a year ago, the Spartans still ranked second nationally in pass yards allowed and a very respectable 34th in total defense, spectacular numbers for San Jose and a credit to the schemes of the crafty Robinson. Not the easiest shoes for English to fill.

Caragher, who was likely to get another season even before the bowl invitation after San Jose improved from three wins in 2014, is nonetheless on a semi-hot seat and cannot afford the program to regress if he wants to last into 2017. A tricky non-league slate that includes games at Tulsa and Iowa State and home vs. Utah might make a fast start difficult, and San Jose has road league dates at division favorites Boise State and San Diego State.  To paraphrase the great actor John Houseman from the long-ago Smith Barney TV commercials, if Caragher is to last into next season, he will have done it the old-fashioned way, by earning it.

Spread-wise, Caragher’s San Jose’s has developed a few noteworthy trends, including 9-2 as chalk the past two seasons, but just 2-12 as an underdog over the same span. The Spartans have also covered their last four openers dating to the end of the MacIntrye regime, something perhaps to keep in mind for the September 3 kickoff at Tulsa.

For 30 years, UNLV (2015 SUR 3-9; PSR 5-7) tried almost everything to find the proper head coach since Harvey Hyde was fired after the 1985 season, the last time a Rebel mentor had a winning career record at the school. Promoting from within, tapping up-and-coming assistants and decorated coordinators, luring former legendary coaches, and hiring successful coaches at lower levels all didn’t work. But before UNLV would be reduced to hiring Wayne Newton as its next coach, it would test the one hiring route it had not traveled before...straight from the high school ranks.

Never mind recent history, and other sorts elsewhere such as Gerry Faust and Todd Dodge that had failed to make the similar jump. After the Bobby Hauck regime finally ran aground after another 2-win season in 2014, UNLV gambled and plucked local prep legend coach Tony Sanchez from in-town national power Bishop Gorman. After all, what could the risk be if all other avenues had failed?

Well, as expected, the jury remains out on the Sanchez hire. Optimistic sorts in Clark County point to a slight improvement (two wins to three) from the last season of the Hauck era. Some longtime regional observers also detected a bit more spark last year from the Rebs, who might have made a run at a minor bowl had injuries not decimated the team in the second half of the season.

Ahh, the injury excuse. Always a convenient scapegoat. In the case of UNLV 2015, however, it certainly applied in the late collapse. That’s also a byproduct of shallow depth, and when there is little or no cover at the all-important QB spot.

Indeed, we never really got to see what the Rebels could do a year ago with a healthy QB Blake Decker, who was in and out of the lineup almost the entire season with a collection of nagging injuries that forced limited backup Kurt Palandech, who wouldn’t even complete 50% of his 152 pass attempts, into action in all but one game. With Palandech forced either to start or relieve hurting Decker from early October, the Rebs would lose (and fail to cover) 6 of their last 7 games after briefly teasing the locals following a rousing win at Reno vs. Fremont Cannon rival Nevada.

Decker has moved on and the QB position remains a question as UNLV proceeds into year two of the Sanchez experiment. Palandech remains, but most MW observers believe that juco A-A Johnny Stanton, who began his career at Nebraska where he played for current Reb o.c. Barney Cotton, is likely to win the job this fall after exiting spring slightly ahead of Palandech. The wild card in the mix is true frosh Armani Rogers, an L.A. area product most likely to be redshirted unless Stanton or Palandech can’t deliver.

Cotton’s Nebraska-styled offense moved the ball effectively on the ground a year ago, gaining almost 200 ypg rushing, and top RBs Keith Whitely (team-best 711 YR) and Lexington Thomas (506 YR) are back in the fold. The forward wall was one area that was injury-wracked in 2015 and ended the season with a severely undersized quintet, but a year of beefing up at the training table could pay dividends. There are established receiving targets in jrs. Devonte Boyd (54 catches LY) and Kendal Keys (another 43 receptions), who combined for 13 TDs in 2015, plus RS frosh Darren Woods, Jr., who put on a show in spring. But unless Cotton finds consistency at the QB spot, these other potential positives might not resonate.

What Mountain West observers mostly applauded about Sanchez in his debut year was hiring veteran coordinators like Cotton and Kent Baer (formerly at Colorado, Washington, and Notre Dame, where he was also interim HC for the Fighting Irish in the 2004 Insight Bowl after Ty Willingham’s dismissal), who oversaw the defense. Much like the offense, however, Baer’s platoon would tail off late in the season after injuries brutally exposed a lack of depth. UNLV allowed 42 ppg in its last five games after not embarrassing itself early in the season vs. the likes of UCLA and Michigan.

Areas of needed upgrade are obvious, especially vs. the run where the Rebs were more than a bit ginger last fall when ranking a sorry 111th nationally and routinely overpowered at the line of scrimmage. Opposing runners would gain an astonishing 800 yards after first contact as well as a hefty 5.7 ypc. Baer was supposedly satisfied with the progress he saw in spring, and another year in the weight room should help the Reb physicality. UNLV also finished last nationally with a puny nine sacks, an especially unsatisfactory stat in this day and age.

There is some experience in the front seven, with DE Mark Finau and DT Mike Hughes as returning starters up front, and all three LBs return, now augmented by Illinois sr. transfer LaKeith Walls and decorated juco Brian Keyes. The secondary returns both starting corners, Terry McTyer and Tim Hough, and figures to be the strength of the platoon, whatever that means for a stop unit that ranked 110th nationally.

The schedule is a bit more favorable than a year ago, though there is a first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl in week two for the return match vs. UCLA. Still, the Rebs figure to be heavily favored at home vs. Jackson State and Idaho before Mountain West play commences. Trips to San Diego State and Boise State might be beyond UNLV’s reach, but if the Rebs can stay healthier than last year and avoid their depth being exposed, plus get some satisfactory work at QB, they ought to have a look at the other games, and the locals might prefer watching UNLV on Saturdays instead of taking in Donny & Marie at the Flamingo. But those are some big ifs.

The Sanchez spread marks in 2015 were distorted by the QB issues and the spate of injuries; the Rebs were covering numbers early in the season and not doing so down the stretch. What was worth noting, however, was an 0-4 home dog mark at wind-swept Sam Boyd Stadium, a role in which UNLV had fared quite well in the preceding Hauck and Mike Sanford regimes. The Rebs also enter 2016 “over” in 13 of their last 16 games dating back to late 2014.

The fall from grace for Fresno State Bulldogs (2015 SUR 3-9, PSR 4-8) HC Tim DeRuyter has not been quite as dramatic as for British Prime Minister David Cameron after the recent Brexit vote. After all, DeRuyter will still have his job this fall, and Cameron won’t. But come December or January, DeRuyter might be looking for his next job, too, if his Fresno program can’t pull out of its recent lurch and get back to a bowl for the first time since 2013.

And it’s not just that the Bulldogs are losing. They’ve taken more beatings than former heavyweight contender George Chuvalo the past few years, underlining how far they have fallen since DeRuyter was considered a coach du jour not long ago.

The Red Wave support base is certainly getting nervous about the direction of a program that has been all downhill since DeRuyter’s early days that were aided by holdovers from the preceding Pat Hill regime. Including QB Derek Carr, now the starter for the Oakland Raiders and who posted record-breaking stats for DeRuyter’s 2012 & ’13 teams. Numerous heavy defeats have followed, several of those a year ago, including a 73-point bomb dropped by Ole Miss and a 56-14 home loss to Utah State.  Utah also rolled at Fresno, when the Utes rubbed it in with a last second pass for a score. There were suspicions in the region that Utah HC Kyle Whittingham wanted to send a message to DeRuyter for needlessly running up the scores on some other members of the coaching fraternity, or which Whittingham is a card-carrying member, earlier in his Fresno career.

So, the one-time golden boy coach from Air Force is now at a crossroads, and prospects are not encouraging for a program that is slipping fast, not the direction to be headed in your fifth year on the job.

The most glaring need is for some stability at the QB position, which has cycled six different starters post-Carr. There is hope that RS frosh Chason Virgil, who showed promise early last term before getting KO’d with broken collarbone in his first start during that ill-fated 45-24 loss to Utah, can provide some relief, but garbage-time TDs at Ole Miss make for a risky endorsement. Former West Virginia transfer Ford Childress, also hurt last season, and soph Kilton Anderson, who started much of the second half of the campaign but completed fewer than 50% of his passes while tossing just 2 TDs in 157 attempts, are also in the mix. Some MW observers believe DeRuyter might even roll the dice with true frosh Quentin Davis if the season starts to go pear-shaped into October.

In a true sign of hot-seat status, DeRuyter made several staff changes in the offseason (six in all), cleaning out almost the entire cast of offensive assistants, including coordinator Dave Schramm, after the “O” slumped to triple figures nationally in all key stat categories, including a ghastly 122nd in total offense. New o.c. Eric Kiesau arrived from Alabama and began to simplify the offense in spring, junking the uptempo spread looks and instead installing multi-set pro looks designed at establishing the run, as they do in Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately, there is no Derrick Henry on the Bulldog roster, with QB Anderson the leading returning rusher after gaining 211 yards while often running for his life a year ago. Workhorse Marteze Waller, who gained 2288 YR the past two seasons, has departed, and Kiesau likely employs an RB-by-committee approach, though 217-lb. juco transfer Dontel James got most of the first-team reps in spring.

But after years of running uptempo, the switch to a ball-control offense seems curious, especially without any experienced RBs to rely upon. This move could backfire on DeRuyter.

If there is a strength on offense it would appear to be the receiving corps, as the top three pass catchers from 2015 (wideouts Jamire Jordan, KeeSean Johnson, and Da’Mari Scott) all return, but three new starters are being plugged in along the OL. There appears nowhere to go but up for the offense...but wouldn’t it be hard to be more inept than the Bulldogs were a year ago?

DeRuyter also made switches on his defensive staff, demoting Nick Toth to a LB coach in favor of SEC veteran Lorenzo Ward, most recently on South Carolina’s staff and now in charge of DeRuyter’s beloved 3-4 that was a sack and turnover machine upon his arrival. Not lately, however, deteriorating much like the offense, all of the way down to a 118th ranking in scoring (38.1 ppg) a year ago, leaving plenty of gaps for Ward to fill.

Only four starters return on defense, which might not be a bad thing, though the CB position should be capable with returning starters Tyquwan Glass and Jamal Ellis still in the fold. Upgrades are really needed up front where the Bulldogs were routinely blown off of the line of scrimmage last season en route to ranking a sickly 117th vs. the run (235 ypg). To that end, a couple of 310-lb. juco NTs, Malik Forrester and Patrick Belony, were signed in a hurry in the offseason, and their presence at least allows Nate Madsen to slide back outside to his natural DE position. A possible playmaker to watch is hybrid LB/safety James Bailey, one of the few Bulldog defenders to flash real upside a year ago.

Schedule-wise, Fresno is expected to be overmatched in the opener at Nebraska, and we’ll get a better feel if DeRuyter has the program back on the upswing if results are better vs. Toledo and Tulsa later in September. The Mountain West is not a treacherous league, but Fresno won only two games in the loop a year ago. Unless DeRuyter can improve significantly on that number, it will be confirmation that the program has gone in the wrong direction on his watch, and his future job prospects at Fresno become cloudy. We’ll see what happens.

Another reason DeRuyter has quickly fallen out of favor with the Red Wave is an unmistakable pointspread downturn that actually began during Derek Carr’s last season in 2013. The Bulldogs are a subpar 15-23-1 vs. the line the past three seasons, since 2013, and just 5-11 against the number their last 16 away from home. Fresno is also just 3-10 vs. the line its last 13 vs. non-MW foes, with two of those Ws against lower-level Southern Utah and Abilene Christian opposition, something to keep in mind prior to the Nebraska, Toledo, and Tulsa games.

It was US philosopher and poet George Santayana who once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, we can be reasonably sure that the schedule-makers for football at Hawaii (2015 SUR 3-10; PSR 3-10) paid no attention to Mr. Santayana, as the Rainbow Warriors do not seem to have learned much from their suicidal scheduling resolve from a year ago.

To wit: Last year, Hawaii took a pair of long trips to Big Ten powers Ohio State and Wisconsin within a two-week span in September. In the process, the Rainbows were ground into hula dust, blanked in both of those games with confidence shaken and bodies badly bruised. And when the team returned to Honolulu from Madison and flew back to Boise a few days later, instead of staying on the mainland as many past Hawaii editions had done, the exhausted Warriors were blasted by the Broncos, 55-0. Three shutouts on the road within three calendar weeks, traveling more miles than Secretary of State John Kerry in the process. Hawaii’s season was effectively finished at that point, as was the disappointing tenure of HC Norm Chow, who would be dismissed a month later after a 58-7 Halloween night massacre at Aloha Stadium administered by Air Force. And the game wasn’t that close.

So what does Hawaii have scheduled for this season? How about an early opening the other way across the Pacific, all of the way down to Sydney, Australia to face Cal! But rather than take a week off afterward (as Cal is doing), or playing a game at home, it’s on to Ann Arbor to face Jim Harbaugh’s highly-ranked Michigan. So, a 10,000-mile round trip to Sydney will be followed by a 9000-mile round trip to Detroit Metro. Two weeks later, it’s back to the mainland again to face Pac-12 Arizona in Tucson. Thus, in the first month of the season alone, the Warriors will be logging well over 25,000 air miles, and will have traveled approximately 46,594 air miles by the time the 2016 term is complete, two-to-three times more than most NFL teams travel in a season.

So, welcome home, Nick Rolovich!

We’re sure Hawaii’s new HC, hired off of Brian Polian’s Nevada staff but very familiar on the islands after his playing days as QB during the June Jones Red Gun era and on staffs of Jones and successor Greg McMackin at Aloha Stadium, would not have endorsed such sadistic non-conference scheduling. But it is what it is at Hawaii, which runs a significant budget deficit with its football program and needs a couple of big mainland (or Aussie) paydays to stay afloat.

Rolovich, who became well-versed in the Chris Ault Pistol at Nevada after being exposed to the Red Gun earlier in his career, is going to try to combine both in a hybrid system that blends the run-and-shoot and read-option concepts. During spring, Rolovich was able to test drive not only the new offense, but also the unique play-calling arrangement to be shared with former Rainbow Warrior teammates Brian Smith (run game) and Craig Stutzmann (pass game). Still to be figured out is who will be taking snaps after nothing was resolved in spring. Holdover Ikaika Woolsey is the only QB on the roster who has thrown a D-I pass, but RS frosh Aaron Zwahlen and soph Beau Reilly, back from his LDS mission, remain in the mix heading into fall camp.

Nothing ever worked for the preceding Chow offense, which ditched the Red Gun principles first implemented by Jones, and the Rolovich attack has nowhere to go but up after Hawaii ranked 120th in total offense and 118th in scoring a year ago. There are eight starters back in the “O” mix, including slashing RB Paul Harris, one of the few bright spots of last season when running for 1132 yards. Nine of the top ten receivers, including Marcus Kemp, who caught a team-best 36 passes a year ago, also return. The change theme continued in spring when Rolovich and his co-coordinators juggled positions with the four returning starters up front. Hawaii also saves a scholarship or two by having on the roster sr. Rigoberto Sanchez, who handles FGs, PATs, punts, kickoffs, and peanut sales at Aloha Stadium when time permits.

The back-to-the-future element continues on defense, where Rolovich has brought back another link to the June Jones era, d.c. Kevin Lempa, who last worked in Honolulu 13 years ago and was most recently DB coach at Boston College. Lempa will resurrect the 4-3 defense from the Jones years with hopes of coaxing more big plays after the 2015 platoon generated a puny 11 TOs, contributing to a nation’s worst -23 TO margin (ouch!).

Unfortunately, the top returning defender, All-MW DT Kennedy Tulimasealii, is in eligibility limbo after a pair of spring arrests earned him a suspension from the team. Even with Tuilmasealii, Hawaii ranked 120th nationally vs. the run, and his availability, plus fellow DTs, former Colorado transfer Kory Rasmussen, and Samiuela Akoteu, recovering from offseason knee and foot injuries, respectively, will be key to any upgrades.

In spring, Lempa moved DE Jahlani Tavai from DE to MLB with positive results, and weakside LB Jerrol-Garcia Williams is considered the best pro prospect on the platoon. More position switches figure to continue when the Warriors report to fall camp. A key in the secondary will be the return of SS Trayvon Henderson, a two-year starter who sat out 2015 with injury.

In conclusion, we wonder if Rolovich is going to regret this move back to Hawaii, and the likely bitter homecoming this fall. Hawaii has quickly become a thankless job, more treacherous because of the Honolulu fishbowl and exorbitant local pressure. True, the link to the Jones era has some local diehards, including former play-by-play man Jim Leahey, excited, and the ghost of Don Ho also likely approves, but it looks like a long, long slog for Rolovich to get the Rainbow Warriors, with five straight losing seasons, back on track.

Spread-wise, Aloha Stadium relinquished its reputation as a fortress during the Chow years, and Hawaii enters 2016 having dropped 10 of its last 11 vs. the line at home. The Warriors also dropped 10 of their last 11 vs. the spread at all sites a year ago.


Return To Home Page