TGS 2018 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE MTN WEST--PART I
by Bruce Marshalll, Goldsheet.com Editor
We kick off our TGS previews for the 2018 College Football season with a look at the Mountain West. As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and over/under records included. We begin with the West half of the MW before previewing the Mountain portion in our next installment.
In English soccer, think Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, or Tony Pulis, managers whose specialty seems to be pulling teams out of trouble and avoiding the dreaded drop. Their equivalent in college football could be Jeff Tedford, who took over at Fresno State (2017 SUR 10-4; PSR 102-2; O/U 4-10) just as the Bulldogs looked ready for relegation to the Big Sky when they collapsed to 1-11 in the preceding final season for the regime of Tim DeRuyter, who was humanely relieved before the 2016 campaign concluded. In the process last fall FSU won the West half of the Mountain West, beat Houston in the Hawaii Bowl, and became just the second FBS team to go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins.
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Such turnarounds are nothing new for Tedford, who inherited a 1-win mess from Tom Holmoe at Cal in 2002 and had the Golden Bears in the national top ten within two years. And best of all for the Bulldogs, alum Tedford (a QB for Jim Sweeney’s teams in the early ‘80s) is probably not looking to make another move at this stage of his career.
Tedford, whose past QB pupils have included Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, and Aaron Rodgers, worked some of his magic again a year ago with Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion, who solidified what looked to be a precarious position for last season’s Dogs, taking over the starting job for the MW opener vs. Nevada. Though McMaryion experienced a few dips, he ended up passing for 2726 yards and returns most of his key weapons, including sr. WR KeeSean Johnson (77 catches LY) and the three-headed rushing trio of Jordan Mims, Josh Hokit, and Ronnie Rivers (recovering from injury). Tedford and o.c. Kevin DeBoer have juggled some positions on the OL, but three starters return up front, and there is every indication the “O” improves upon its 27 ppg from a year ago.
Whether the strike force improves as much as last year’s “D” is asking a lot after FSU made a remarkable turnaround on the stop end, shaving almost two TDs off of its ppg allowance (30.9 to 17.9 ppg!) while ascending to national rankings of 11th in total “D” and 10th in scoring. Not too shabby. Much of the credit was due d.c. Orlondo Steinauer, brought down from the CFL by Tedford (who knew him well from his own recent work with the B.C. Lions). Steinhauer has returned to the CFL and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this season but successor Bert Watts, promoted from LB coach, is well-versed in the Steinauer schemes (featuring multiple fronts and disguised coverages) for the Bulldog 4-3. Watts will be rebuilding along the line where only DT Kevin Atkins returns with starting experience, but the entire back 7 returns in tact, and a vet secondary, led by jr. safeties Juju Hughes and Mike Bell, might be the MW’s best.
The Fresno schedule is tough, as usual, but it is a little more reasonable this season, swapping out road trips to Washington and Alabama for more palatable treks to Minnesota and UCLA. A trip to Boise on Nov. 10 might preview a rematch (for the second straight year) in the MW title game if the Bulldogs can get past San Diego State, which visits the Central Valley the following week in a likely West showdown.
Spread-wise, Tedford, who also worked great magic vs. the number in his early years at Cal, was up to his old tricks a year ago, forging a splendid 10-2-2 mark vs. the line. The ‘Dawgs were also unbeaten in eight tries (6-0-2) away from home vs. the points in 2017.
There’s some stuff going on at San Diego State (2017 SUR 10-3; PSR 8-5; O/U 5-7-1) beyond the Aztecs’ eight straight bowl visits, the last seven of those since HC Rocky Long took charge in 2011. More specifically, where does SDSU play its home games after this season? Since the move of the NFL Chargers, the days of SDCCU (nee Qualcomm/Jack Murphy) Stadium are numbered, though it will take a ballot issue in the fall to decide what will actually become of the valuable property in Mission Valley. Among the various possibilities are an expanded campus for SDSU and an eventual new stadium, but about the only certainty is that the current SDCCU/Qualcomm is in its last days. Though the Aztecs might not have to find another venue until 2020 (when, temporarily, the Padres’ Petco Park is likely to be their home), they’re not sure of anything on Montezuma Mesa beyond this season. Stay tuned for further developments.
While that background noise might seem distracting, we can’t imagine it much bothering Long, who seems immune to such intrusions after propping up SDSU to the sort of sustained success it hasn’t experienced since the long-ago Don Coryell era. At 32-9 over the past three seasons, the Aztecs can make a claim as the boss of the Mountain West, though they relinquished the Western half of the conference to resurgent Fresno State a year ago.
Another Long special likely awaits this fall, with the same defense-first recipe that has wreaked havoc in the conference in recent years. Long’s pet 3-3-5 returns seven starters from a platoon that ranked an impressive 11th nationally in total defense. As usual, impact performers populate all levels, with soph S Tariq Thompson looking like the next star of the “D” after five picks in his debut season earned him numerous Frosh A-A accolades. Led by Thompson and upperclassmen CB Ron Smith, rover Parker Baldwin (effectively playing the same role Brian Urlacher once did for Long at New Mexico), sr. LB Rodney Lakalaka (off of shoulder surgery) and sr. NT Noble Hall, playmakers abound. Though d.c. Danny Gonzales left for Herm Edwards’ new staff at Arizona State, promoted former LB coach Zach Arnett knows the ropes. And, besides, this is Long’s defense, so not much figures to change.
The question for the Rocky Aztecs has always revolved around the offense, which bears no resemblance to the Coryell years as it has recently preferred the overland route. After Donnel Pumphrey finished his career as the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader, and Rashaad Penny led the nation with 2248 YR in 2017, the baton passes to jr. Juwan Washington (at 5'7 more physically reminiscent of Pumphrey), who gained nearly 800 YR and 6 ypc while spelling Penny a year ago. Another big OL (average weight 310) should make the power-run game work and take some pressure off of sr. QB Christian Chapman, who has been efficient (35 TDP and just 11 picks) if not explosive in his career as a starter, passing for fewer than 2000 yards each of the last two seasons.
Like last year, Pac-12 Stanford and Arizona State are featured in the non-MW portion of the schedule; the Aztecs beat them both a year ago, and a repeat sets up a chance at another big season. The West half of the loop is likely decided by a visit to Fresno on November 17 before a ninth straight bowl visit.
Spread-wise, SDSU is 24-13 the past three seasons, including 20-8 vs. MW foes. Where the Aztecs have underachieved is in non-league play, covering just 4 of their last 14 in reg-season non-MW action, even including the Stanford and ASU wins last September.
Now that Nevada (2017 SUR 3-9; PSR 6-6; O/U 5-7) is back to being a basketball school again, one might think there is a bit less pressure on football coach Jay Norvell. Hardly, as the shadow of Chris Ault still looms large in Reno, and AD Doug Knuth pulled the plug not long ago on Norvell predecessor Brian Polian despite two bowl trips in his last three seasons. Norvell looked on his way to a short tenure last fall, too, with five straight losses out of the chute that included a home setback to 34 ½-point dog Idaho State. There was a break in the cloud layer late in 2017, however, as the Pack began to play better and ended up winning 2 of its last 3, including a satisfying 23-16 Fremont Cannon success vs. blood rival UNLV in the season-ender that kept the Rebs from bowl eligibility.
Along the way, Norvell made some curious moves, with an early hook straight from the Sparky Anderson book of managing, pulling jr. QB Ty Gangi, who had emerged late in 2016 and fared decently in the opener at Northwestern, for mysterious reasons in favor of true frosh Kaymen Cureton, at the helm for the Idaho State loss. Within a few games, however, Norvell had come to his senses and re-inserted Gangi, who by the end of the season would throw 25 TDP. Not coincidentally, the “O” began to pick up steam at midseason and topped 40 points on three occasions from mid-October, dropping a 59-point bomb on San Jose State in the process.
On attack, seven starters are back; beyond now-sr. Gangi, soph WR McLane Mannix (57 catches LY and making onto some Frosh A-A teams) and blasting 220-lb. RB Kelton Moore (855 YR) return. There are still elements of the old Ault Pistol, though now mixed with more spread concepts of o.c. Matt Mumme, whose dad Hal was one of the pioneers of air-raid football. Still, the infantry, always a key to the best of the old Nevada offenses, could prove key to any upgrade with Moore joined by touted frosh Toa Tuaua, a four-star recruit.
Defense, however, has been bad for the Wolf Pack seemingly since Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries for the heavywieght title within Reno city limits back in 1910, and last year ranked in triple digits almost across the board in all relevant stats. As was the case with the offense, however, there was improvement on the stop end down the stretch a year ago for d.c. Jeff Casteel, who has added some bigger juco bodies up front in hopes of bolstering his 3-3-5 “stack” alignments. Those newcomers have allowed Casteel to move two-time All-MW DE Malik Reed to an OLB spot. There is experience in the secondary with sr. safeties Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus, but depth could be an issue, especially with only four CBs on the roster in spring.
To get back to a bowl, Norvell will have to deal with a schedule that at least features most of the expected heavyweight opposition from the Mountain West (Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State, and Colorado State) all visiting Mackay Stadium, but Nevada is probably going to have to win at least one of a potentially-tricky three-game non-league stretch in September (at Vanderbilt, home vs. Oregon State, at Toledo) to bring some momentum into league play. The Pack has not missed bowls in three straight years since early in its transition from the old PCAA to the old WAC (2002-04).
Spread-wise, things improved down the stretch last season, too, covering 5 of the last 7. Norvell also rediscovered the Pack’s former spread prowess in Reno, as Nevada covered its last four at Mackay Stadium after mostly losing its home edge in the Polian years.
Well, we can’t say there’s no progress being made at UNLV (2018 SUR 5-7; PSR 7-5; O/U 7-5) under HC Tony Sanchez. It might be incremental, but the Rebs have indeed increased their win total each of the first three seasons on Sanchez’s watch. Now, it’s only been one win per year, and at this rate we might have to wait until into the next decade before UNLV finishes a season above .500. But at Sam Boyd Stadium, where they’ve lost more often than slot players at the MGM Grand, who’s counting?
The risk Sanchez runs, however, with this sort of tedious progress is that one year of regression can un-do whatever momentum, even incremental, has been generated. It’s also not lost on Sanchez that he now works for an AD (Desiree Reed-Francois) who did not hire him, and there is a faction of Rebel backers (yes, there are some) who have always been skeptical about the jump Sanchez made from local prep power Bishop Gorman High straight to the college ranks. (Some prominent boosters reportedly remain behind Sanchez, but those sorts can be fickle; look what happened to Reb hoops coach Dave Rice a couple of years ago.) Expectations are also being raised with a move into the Raiders’ new stadium in 2020. No time, then, for UNLV to slip back to a 4-8 or 3-9 record this fall. What the Rebels, and Sanchez, really need is a bowl bid, one that was within their grasp before a bitter season-ending loss at rival Nevada in the finale last November.
Whether they get there will likely rely upon promising RS soph QB Armani Rogers taking the next step. Rogers, who at 6'5 physically reminds of the last QB who took UNLV to a bowl win (in 2000), Jason Thomas, flashed considerable upside a year ago as a long-striding dual-threat who also gained 78 ypg rushing, though he must improve upon his modest 52.4% completions and the paltry 6 TDP he tossed last fall. It might also be a good idea to curb, at least a bit, his reckless running style that resulted in a late-season injury; Rogers is the key element to any Rebel bowl hopes. There was a chop-busting element to the offense that ranked 18th nationally in rushing at better than 240 ypg, and welcomes back big-play RB Lexington Thomas (1336 YR in 2017), plus three starters return up front. But keeping Rogers healthy and developing more consistency in the passing game will be key to any breakthrough.
Unfortunately for Sanchez, the “D” has remained as bad as it has been since early in the long-ago John Robinson regime, ranking in triple digits in several key categories (including a woeful 114th in total defense last year). After veteran d.c. Kent Baer could not break the code, Tim Skipper arrives from Florida as the next to try and solve a decade-plus defensive riddle off of Boulder Highway. Seven starters do return, and Skipper spent spring implementing more blitzes and exotic looks that will hopefully translate into improved numbers in the fall. But all sorts of schematic tricks have failed to produce results for a succession of UNLV stop units the past 15 or so years.
There appear to be some opportunities for wins on the schedule; then again, this is the same UNLV that lost as a 44 ½ -point favorite (an ignominious record) in its opener vs. FCS Howard last year. The Mountain West, however, is not the SEC, and the Rebs have a chance at a fast start with UTEP and Prairie View appearing winnable non-conference games at Sam Boyd in September.
Spread-wise, while the Rebs have embarrassed themselves at times under Sanchez, they have managed spread covers in each of their “payday” road games (at Michigan, UCLA, and Ohio State) the past three seasons, something to think about for the opener at USC. UNLV has also covered 6 of its last 7 on the road.
They’ve been chasing the June Jones era for more than a decade at Hawaii (2017 SUR 3-9; PSR 2-9-1; O/U 5-7), spanning three coaches and a conference move from the WAC to the Mountain West. Indeed, it’s been mostly downhill for the Rainbow Warriors since that magical undefeated regular season, 2007 campaign that finished up in the Sugar Bowl before Jones left the islands for SMU.
It’s crunch time now, however, for Hawaii to ever recapture the magic of those years. Third-year HC Nick Rolovich was hired as a link to the “Red Gun” era, having served as a QB for Jones, and after two years of gently reintroducing the spread offense he once piloted in Honolulu, has fully committed to resurrecting the old attack whose roots trace to Mouse Davis and Jones from their coach/player days at Portland State in the ‘70s. There is also no more time to waste for Rolovich, whose honeymoon with the nasty fishbowl of a fan base on the islands pretty much ended a year ago when the Rainbows lost 9 of their last 10 after a win in the hometown Hawaii Bowl in his debut season. But Hawaii still hasn’t finished above .500 since 2010, and hired to rekindle the Jones era, Rolovich can wait no longer to retrofit the offense in the old Red Gun image. The volcano eruptions on the big island have calmed and the locals can now get back to their favorite pastime of over-scrutinizing Hawaii football.
So the old Jones offense it will be this fall, with none other than Rolovich taking over the play-calling duties himself. Unfortunately, QB Dru Brown, who had started 22 consecutive games, transferred to Oklahoma State. Soph Cole McDonald emerged in spring as the likely starter, but enters the fall having thrown all of 9 passes in his college career. Frosh Chevan Cordeiro, who ran a version of the run-and-shoot at local Saint Louis High (where his predecessors included Marcus Mariota and Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa), could be another option. The receiving corps is also mostly new, with John Ursua (47 catches LY) the lone returning starter after Dylan Collie’s transfer to BYU. And while the offensive emphasis has changed for the 'Bows, Rolovich still might miss pinball RB Diocemy Saint Juste, who set a school rush record (1510 yards) a year ago. A near-complete rebuild of the OL is also part of the 2018 equation, and more production from the kicking game is essential after notching just four field goals a year ago.
It might not matter how much the offense improves if the “D” doesn’t begin to carry a bit more weight after ranking in triple digits nationally in almost all relevant stat categories last year. Hawaii, which notoriously has problems keeping assistant coaches in the fold (partly because of the uncommonly high cost of living in Honolulu), introduces its 8th different d.c. since 2011 this fall in Corey Batoon, mostly recently at FAU, with three new assistants alongside. On the field, only four starters return, and juco imports are going to be counted upon to provide upgrades along the line. Batoon will be looking for ways to unleash sr. Jahlani Tavai, listed as an ILB but also adept as an edge rusher, a stand-up nose in wide splits, and a pass defender a year ago when recording better than 11 tackles pg.
Working in Rolovich’s favor might be a schedule that for the first time in memory is void of any Power 5 foes, though a trip to West Point in mid-September looms ominous. At least the Warrior “D” will have had a look at the option when facing Navy in Honolulu two weeks earlier.
Spread-wise, Hawaii slumped badly a year ago, covering in only its first two games. No edge lately at once-intimidating Aloha Stadium, either, where the Rainbows are just 4-15-1 vs. the line dating to the last year of the aborted Norm Chow regime in 2015. What must iconic, retired play-by-play man Jim Leahey be thinking these days?
At some locales, a 2-11 record might prompt boosters to send moving vans to the home of a head coach. At San Jose State (2017 SUR 2-11, PSR 5-7-1; O/U 6-7), however, few seem to notice, partly because the Spartans function in near-anonymity at the bottom of the Bay Area sports pyramid, often pushed off of the pages of local Mercury-News entirely. Those paying attention, however, were not much impressed last fall in the debut season of Brent Brennan, a first-time HC whose main qualification appeared to be that he had previously served on SJSU staffs, and, supposedly, knew of the considerable pitfalls associated with Spartan football. Apparently he learned little of overcoming those obstacles; after predecessor Ron Caragher fell short of a higher bar established by Mike MacIntyre (who wisely escaped to Pac-12 Colorado at the first opportunity in 2013), Brennan undershot expectations like a third-world economy, causing those few who care down the peninsula to wonder if the Spartans badly missed the mark on yet another gridiron hire.
Brennan will have to go a ways to prove that he’s not the second coming of Caragher or Dr. Fitz Hill, predecessors whose shortcomings had at times caused the school to wonder if it should even continue the football program. Evidence from 2017 suggests that disbanding might prove less painful; after ranking a hideous 126th in scoring (15.8 ppg) and 127th in scoring defense (41.7 ppg), at least there’s nowhere to go but up. The offense can hardly be worse, though we’re not sure what Brennan can do if QB returnee Montel Aaron, who tossed no TDP and 7 picks in the four games after regaining the starting job last November, remains in the pilot's chair. The return of the top six receivers from LY might help, and soph RB Tyler Nevens (670 YR) ran with a bit of flair a year ago. Spring work featured plenty of long balls from Aaron and jr. Josh Love, who split time at QB a year ago. But playing from behind on the scoreboard and in back of a suspect OL remains a recipe for more disaster if things don’t change this fall. At least sr. PK Bryce Crawford (30 of 35 FGs the past two seasons) has been able to salvage points from the many stalled drives.
Help from the defense would seem wishful thinking, too, though d.c. Derrick Odum dealt with an uncommon spate of injuries a year ago, and much of the platoon sat out spring ball in recuperation mode. Still, even at full strength, this is hardly Alabama; among many horrifying numbers a year ago, the Spartans also ranked next-to-last nationally against the run (285 ypg...whew!), and conceded 50+ points on five different occasions. Thus, the return of most of the front 7 can hardly be considered good news, though it is hoped an infusion of jucos can at least plug some of the many leaks in the secondary.
Schedule-wise, it would help to add more than one FCS opponent (this season, it’s UC Davis), but that’s not the case, with a couple of Pac-12 road dates at Washington State and Oregon, and an awkward home date vs. Army (which could get very ugly for the Spartans) in addition to the Mountain West slate. Which, though modest, doesn’t seem to feature one game the Spartans ought to win.
Spread-wise, SJSU wasn’t quite as bad a year ago (5-7-1), but considering the considerable cushions the oddsmakers continued to provide (Brennan’s teams was a double-digit dog in 11 of 13 games), even that mark vs. the number appeared to undershoot.
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