DENVER >> Boise State could very well make this a memorable 20th season for the Mountain West Conference.
Extremely memorable, perhaps. Because if things go just right and break just so, the Broncos may be in the conversation for the College Football Playoff.
That’s big preseason talk, but not out of the realm of feasibility given the return of seasoned quarterback Brett Rypien, a stalwart offensive line and a formidable defense. The strength of schedule is favorable as well, with games at Troy and Oklahoma State. They look like a major contender for the New Year’s Six bowl spot that’s saved for the best conference champion from outside the Power Five. Boise State earned that during the first year of the CFP when it went to the Fiesta Bowl and beat Arizona.
Still, Broncos coach Bryan Harsin is tapping the brakes on all the expectations surrounding his squad, which is the favorite to win the Mountain side of the division. There are plenty of potential pitfalls in the way, including resurgent Fresno State — the pick to win the West half of the league. Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford orchestrated quite a turnaround in 2017, taking a 1-11 Bulldogs team and turning it into a 10-4 squad that beat Houston in the Hawaii Bowl.
“From what I see and the competition we play and the league we’re in and the success our teams have, if you’re fortunate to win those games, you probably have a good shot,” Harsin said of an MW team reaching a big-time bowl game. “It’s exciting. We’re trying to compete in this league, in this division and make sure we take care of business here.
“If you do, you probably have a good shot at being mentioned in one of those games.”
How times have changed over the last two decades in the Mountain West: The Broncos weren’t in the conference picture when the league played its first game on September 16, 1999, with Brigham Young beating Colorado State 34-13.
There were eight teams in those days. Now, it’s expanded to a dozen.
A constant: Rocky Long.
He’s still coaching in the conference, going from head coach at New Mexico to defensive coordinator at San Diego State to taking over as the Aztecs’ head coach in 2011. His squad was picked to finish runner-up in the West.
“When (the Mountain West) started I don’t think anybody thought it would be what it is right now,” Long said. “I think that the caliber of football we play, the caliber of coaches in the league is better and better and better every single year.
“As long as (the bigger schools) keep playing us, they’ll keep getting beat.”
Things to know as the Mountain West heads into season No. 20:
HISTORY LESSON: The league formed when teams decided to break away from the Western Athletic Conference. Schools have come and gone, with Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV still going. The conference has seen some top-tier teams depart (Texas Christian, Utah, BYU) and added other high-profile programs (Boise State).
PRESEASON AWARDS: Rypien was voted the conference’s preseason player of the year. He’s thrown for 9,876 yards and 60 TDs over 37 games.
Wyoming senior defensive back Andrew Wingard earned the preseason defensive player of the year nod for a second straight season. Wingard has 367 career tackles and is 88 tackles short of breaking the Mountain West record held by New Mexico’s Carmen Messina (2008-11).
On special teams, Boise State sophomore Avery Williams earned the player of the year nod. He had two punt returns for scores in 2017.
EXPOSURE: The Mountain West has frequently been late-night viewing, with kickoffs after 10 p.m. on the East Coast. It’s the price of being on television, even if it’s not the ideal slot.
Given a choice, Harsin would pick a more favorable time.
“Noon. Saturday. Consistently,” Harsin said. “Be able to go home and watch the other guys go through the misery at the end of the night.”
FACEBOOK FRIENDS: The league will have seven games air on Facebook this season, beginning with two on Sept. 1 — Stony Brook at Air Force, followed by Idaho at Fresno State. Last season, six Mountain West games were on Facebook and reached more than 17 million fans, with the Utah State at Wyoming game on Oct. 14 reaching 4.6 million.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Boise State. 2. Wyoming. 3. Colorado State. 4. Utah State. 5. Air Force. 6. New Mexico.
1. Fresno State. 2. San Diego State. 3. UNLV. 4. Nevada. 5. Hawaii. 6. San Jose State.