NCF Nation: MWC

Get up for GameDay

August, 29, 2013
Get off your couch, because college football season is finally here. Get fired up for game day by seeing how your favorite school gets pumped up and share your allegiance to the world.

Whether it's Chief Osceola throwing a flaming spear down in Doak Walker Stadium, upwards of 110,000 screaming inside The Big House, tailgating in The Grove or all of Autzen Stadium yelling "Ooooo!" we've got your team covered.

Find your squad and spread the word.

Fresno State season preview

August, 20, 2013
Today we're looking at Fresno State, which earned a share of Mountain West Conference crown in its first year in the league.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Coach: Tim DeRuyter (10-4 overall, 9-4 at Fresno State)

2012 record: 9-4 (7-1 MWC)

Key losses: RB Robbie Rouse, LG Matt Hunt, RG/C Richard Helepiko, LB Travis Brown, LB Tristan Okpalaugo, LB Shawn Plummer, S Phillip Thomas

[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Marco Garcia/USA TODAY SportsDerek Carr returns to head up a potent Mountain West Conference offense.
Key returnees: QB Derek Carr, WR Davante Adams, WR Isaiah Burse, LT Austin Wentworth, NG Tyeler Davison, FS Derron Smith

Newcomer to watch: QB Zack Greenlee. OK, so you might not get to see much of him this season with Carr running the show. But Greenlee is an elite pick-up at the position, as he was an ESPN300 prospect and the nation's No. 10 overall signal-caller. He threw for 1,953 yards with 22 touchdowns and two picks as a senior at Lincoln (Calif.) High, and he earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Elite 11 Regionals. Greenlee is also an Under Armour All-American.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 versus Rutgers, Sept. 14 at Colorado, Sept. 20 versus Boise State, Oct. 26 at San Diego State, Nov. 2 versus Nevada, Nov. 29 at San Jose State

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Fresno State needs to keep Carr upright and give him time to lock in with what is an outstanding group of receivers. The Bulldogs lose two starters from their offensive line and have some work to do in the ground game to make up for losing Robbie Rouse. Still, this is an offense that returns many of its key pieces from a 2012 team that led the MWC in scoring. The defense returns even more pieces after finishing second in the league in scoring, even if it must replace all-time great Phillip Thomas.

Forecast: Tim DeRuyter was a huge success in his first year at Fresno State, going 9-4 and building plenty of belief inside the program throughout its inaugural season in the Mountain West Conference. Now he's hoping to build off that success, as the Bulldogs take aim at league powerhouse Boise State and perhaps even at a BCS bowl game.

The Bulldogs bring back 15 starters from last season, led by quarterback Carr. The younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, he enters his redshirt senior season needing 3,048 yards to break the school record for career passing yards. The MWC's offensive player of the year in 2012 completed better than 67 percent of his passes last season for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Fresno State brings back the league's best receiving corps and three starters up front, so a repeat campaign in 2013 could be in the cards for Carr.

While the defense says goodbye to All-American Thomas on defense, the unit still returns eight starters and has plenty of depth among its front-seven.

The Bulldogs didn't like the way last season ended, as they were upset by SMU fairly handily in a 43-10 Hawaii Bowl loss. The defeat should add some fuel to a team that did most everything else right in its first year under DeRuyter. And the squad will get a great early test in a Week 1 Thursday night opener against visiting Rutgers.

With Carr back for one more season with plenty of weapons at his disposal, it is no stretch to think that Boise State should continue to make some room atop the conference, so long as Fresno State continues progressing in Year 2 under DeRuyter.

Nevada season preview

August, 19, 2013
Nevada Wolf Pack

Coach: Brian Polian (0-0 overall)

2012 record: 7-6 (4-4 MWC)

Key losses: RB Stefphon Jefferson, OT Jeff Nady, G Chris Barker, TE Zach Sudfeld, LB Albert Rosette, SS Duke Williams, CB Khalid Wooten

[+] EnlargeCody Fajardo
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesWith question marks elsewhere, Nevada keeps some consistency with returning quarterback Cody Fajardo.
Key returnees: QB Cody Fajardo, WR Richy Turner, WR Brandon Wimberly, OT Joel Bitonio, C Matt Galas, DE Brock Hekking, DE Lenny Jones, NT Jordan Hanson

Newcomer to watch: RB Don Jackson. Jackson, a sophomore from Sacramento, Calif., has the unenviable task of replacing Jefferson, who ranked No. 2 among FBS players with 1,883 rushing yards in 2012. Jefferson was a workhorse, carrying the ball 375 times and scoring 24 touchdowns last season. Jackson signed with Washington State out of high school, but didn't qualify academically and played last season at Iowa Western Community College. He averaged 8.7 yards per carry in a crowded backfield and finished with 574 yards with five touchdowns on 66 carries, helping the Reivers finish 12-0 and win a junior college national championship. He chose the Wolf Pack over Iowa State and Western Michigan. He'll probably share carries with Kendall Brock in Nevada's one-back offense.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 31 at UCLA, Sept. 14 at Florida State, Oct. 4 at San Diego State, Oct. 19 at Boise State, Nov. 2 at Fresno State, Nov. 30 vs. BYU

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Polian and new defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton fix Nevada's woeful defense? The Wolf Pack scored a lot of points under former coach Chris Ault, but their defense was among the country's worst in 2012. Nevada ranked 110th in run defense (211.8 yards per game), 95th in total defense (442.4 yards) and 99th in scoring defense (33.7 points). Four of the top five tacklers from last season are gone, including three starting linebackers. The Wolf Pack will utilize a Tampa 2 defense this coming season, predicated on using smaller, faster players and allowing fewer big plays.

Forecast: Polian certainly has big shoes to fill in replacing Ault, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, who was the architect of the Pistol offense and put Nevada's program on the map.

Polian, who has never been a head coach, retained offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, so the Wolf Pack's offense figures to look the same. Fajardo is back after completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,786 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also ran for 1,121 yards with 12 scores.

Nevada will undoubtedly miss Jefferson, but it received a boost when the NCAA awarded a sixth year of eligibility to top receiver Brandon Wimberly because of medical hardship. Wimberly missed the 2011 season after he was shot in the abdomen, before returning to catch 70 passes for 845 yards with four touchdowns in 2012.

The Wolf Pack must replace three starting offensive linemen.

If the offense doesn't miss a beat and Polian's changes on defense are effective, the Wolf Pack might have a chance to finish in the top half of the Mountain West's West Division and play in their ninth consecutive bowl game.

But the schedule makers didn't do Polian any favor in his first season as a head coach. Along with road games at nationally ranked UCLA and Florida State for non-conference games, the Wolf Pack also plays at MWC preseason favorites Boise State and Fresno State.
1. The future power ranking on ESPN Insider Insider is a great offseason topic. I enjoyed discussing it with Travis Haney on the ESPNU College Football Podcast . Identifying the top teams in 2016 stops and makes you think about where the coaches will be and the quality of a program’s young talent. It’s no surprise that our panel rated Alabama and Ohio State 1-2; Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are the only two active coaches who have won more than one BCS title. Neither appears to be leaving his job before 2016.

2. The list is not without its surprises, though. There are six ACC teams in the future Top 25, an indication that the panel believes the league will emerge from its Pittsburgh Pirates-like slump. Stanford is the highest-rated Pac-12 team, even over Oregon, an indication that Cardinal coach David Shaw has established himself and new Ducks coach Mark Helfrich has not. USC at No. 25 is, whether intended or not, a reflection of the warmth of Trojan coach Lane Kiffin’s seat.

3. But the biggest surprise is the omission of Boise State. Perhaps everyone not in the top five conferences will suffer in the playoff era. But I don’t buy that. If the Broncos aren’t among the Top 25 programs in 2016, that means head coach Chris Petersen has finally been lured away from Boise. And I don’t buy that, either. Petersen is the winningest active FBS coach. How good is his 84-8 (.913) record? If Boise State goes 0-12 this season, Petersen’s record of 84-20 (.808) would still be fourth among active coaches.
1. Sanity returns! Boise State’s decision to forego its membership in the Big East is a victory for the long view, not to mention geography. Now that Boise State will return to the Mountain West, can San Diego State be far behind? And after that, maybe Maryland will return to the ACC. Maybe Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers will come back to the Big East. A guy can dream, right?

2. USC is the first preseason No. 1 to finish the season with six losses, and how exactly does that mean that the Trojans should have fingers pointed at them? It seems to me that the poll voters fell victim to Hollywood-style hype. Of the 20 voters in the power rankings, I had USC the lowest -- at No. 5. Guilty as charged. Lack of depth due to NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions meant the Trojans couldn’t withstand their injuries. The defensive problems are another story.

3. While we’re at it, I had LSU as No. 1 in my preseason vote. I failed to factor the Hat’s playcalling into my analysis. As he did against Alabama, Les Miles turned a close victory into a heartbreaking loss Monday night, 25-24, to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. All of those mindbending victories for which Miles became famous? The Hat is no match for the law of averages.

In a day dominated by backup quarterbacks, Rice took down Air Force 33-14 in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl thanks to 26 unanswered points in the second half. It was Rice's first bowl appearance since the Owls beat Western Michigan 38-14 in the 2008 Texas Bowl.

It was over when: Rice junior safety Paul Porras intercepted Air Force quarterback Kale Pearson's pass at the Falcons' 36-yard line with Rice leading 27-14 with 3:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Rice scored four plays later to make it 33-14.

Game ball goes to: Rice backup quarterback Driphus Jackson took over for starter Taylor McHargue late in the first half after McHargue suffered a head injury from a hit by Air Force's Steffon Batts. Jackson went on to complete 15 of 21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

Stat of the game: Air Force entered the game averaging 435.9 yards of offense per game but was outgained 503-214 Saturday. That was a season low for the Falcons. Rice also registered 24 first downs to Air Force's 12. The Falcons recorded just two first downs in the second half.

Stat of the game 2: The Falcons owned the nation's No. 2 rushing attack, averaging 328.8 yards per game, but registered only 166 yards against the Owls, which were allowing nearly 200 rushing yards per game. Rice's rush defense stepped up in the second half, as the Owls allowed just 24 rushing yards in the final two quarters.

Unsung hero of the game: Jackson gave the Owls a nice spark in the second half, but he also got a lot of help from wide receiver Jordan Taylor, who caught nine passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns.

What it means for Rice: The Owls finished the season winning six of their final seven games and claimed its first bowl win since its last postseason appearance in 2008. It was only the second bowl win for Rice in the past 57 years.

What it means for Air Force: The Falcons ended the season losing four of their final five games, turning the ball over 17 times during that span. Air Force has lost two straight bowl games. For the first time since 2005, it lost to Army and Navy, lost its bowl game and had a losing season.
Here are three keys to today's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl between Rice and Air Force (11:45 a.m. ET, ESPN):

1. Keep that momentum going: Rice enters today's game on a four-game winning streak and having won five of its past six games. Remember, this was a team that started the season 1-5 and was just getting eaten up by opposing rushing attacks. From that low point, the Owls completely transformed when it came to stopping the run, allowing teams to average a measly 116.2 yards over the final six games and giving up just nine total rushing touchdowns. The Owls outscored opponents by 80 points during their final five victories and averaged 432 yards of offense during their four-game winning streak. How well that rushing defense plays will be crucial against Air Force, which ranks second nationally in rushing offense (328.8 yards per game) and has 37 rushing touchdowns on the season. If the Owls can contain that triple-option rushing attack, they'll have a good chance to get a win in their first bowl game since 2008.

2. Hold on to the ball: The Falcons might be able to run the ball down other teams' throats, but they have really struggled in the turnover department of late. During its first eight games of the season, Air Force turned the ball over just 12 times. But during the Falcons' 1-3 finish, they handed the ball to opponents 14 times. With how well Rice is playing right now, and with how efficient the Owls have been on offense, Air Force can't afford to turn the ball over and expect to win. With the way the Falcons can run the ball, and given how much Rice struggled earlier in the season to stop the run, it could be a major advantage for the Falcons if they can just keep feeding running back Cody Getz, who became the first player in school history to register three 200-yard rushing games in a single season, and have quarterback Connor Dietz make plays with his feet to keep that option attack going. Grinding it out will wear Rice down.

3. Act like you've been there before: This is Air Force's sixth consecutive bowl game, while Rice is making its first trip to the postseason since 2008. That year, the Owls throttled Western Michigan 38-14 in the Texas Bowl. For the Owls, it's all about not getting cold feet and letting the nerves take hold. They had to work extremely hard to get six wins after the 1-5 start, so it's not the time to let the bright bowl lights intimidate them. As for Air Force, the Falcons have a ton of bowl experience, but the confidence might be lacking after such a bad end to the season. This team has to realize that it has been here before. It knows how to handle the magnitude of the final game of the season. Rice hasn't been in this situation in a while, so the Falcons will have the advantage when it comes to nerves today.

Pregame: Armed Forces Bowl

December, 29, 2012
Rice (6-6, 4-4 C-USA) vs. Air Force (6-6, 5-3 MWC)

Who to watch: Air Force senior running back Cody Getz. Air Force enters the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl with the No. 2 rushing offense in the country, averaging 328.8 yards per game. The main reason for the Falcons' ground success has been the play of Getz. He has 1,213 rushing yards and nine touchdowns despite missing two games this year because of an ankle injury. Getz became the first player in school history with three 200-yard rushing games in a season and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. He must be licking his chops at the thought of playing against a Rice defense that is tied for 91st nationally in run defense, giving up 192.8 yards per game.

What to watch: Can Rice put pressure on Air Force's backfield? The Falcons have been very good at protecting quarterback Connor Dietz this season. Through the first nine games of the season, Air Force's offensive line didn't allow a single sack. What might have been more impressive about that is that the Falcons' line did it without starting center Michael Husar, who went down in the season opener. Air Force is tied for second nationally in sacks allowed (seven). Rice ranks 47th nationally in sacks this season with 26 on the year. The Owls are averaging 2.17 sacks a game, and defensive linemen Cody Bauer and Hosam Shahin have combined for 10.5 sacks on the year.

Why watch: Who doesn't like culture clashes when it comes to offense? Air Force has that challenging triple option, but Rice owns a much more balanced offense. The Owls are averaging 201 rushing yards and 219 passing yards per game. Although Air Force has been very deadly running the ball, the Falcons really struggled down the stretch because of costly turnovers. Air Force finished the season with a 1-3 run, turning the ball over 14 times in the process after turning it over just 12 times in the first eight games. Rice comes in red hot, winning five of its last six games, including its last four. In the final six games of the season, the Owls allowed an average of only 116.2 rushing yards. Watching this Rice defense try to contain Air Force's potent rushing attack should be fun.

Prediction: Air Force 31, Rice 27. Rice might have all the momentum on its side after such a good end to the season, but Air Force finally got a substantial break and thus got some much-needed rest. The Falcons played for 10 consecutive weeks, and you could tell this team was hurting for a break. That break has come, and, although the Owls have been very good against the run lately, Air Force's triple-option attack will be just too much for Rice in the second half.

New Mexico Bowl keys

December, 15, 2012
Three things to watch in today's New Mexico Bowl between Arizona and Nevada:

1. Slow down Ka'Deem Carey. Then what? Carey is the national leader, averaging 146 yards per game and he's scored 20 times on the ground with nine 100-yard rushing performances (and let's not forget that 366-yard performance). But quarterback Matt Scott is an awfully good runner as well. He averages 4.5 yards per carry, has five rushing touchdowns and he's netted 485 yards. Who steps up to spy Scott?

2. Slow down Stefphon Jefferson. Then what? Jefferson, who is No. 2 in the nation behind Carey in rushing yards per game, has rushed for 1,703 yards and 22 touchdowns (and let's not forget about his seven touchdown performance against Hawaii). He's run for at least 100 yards in nine games this season. But even if the Wildcats can slow him down, they still have to worry about quarterback Cody Fajardo, who will run the ball, on average about 15 times per game. At 5.8 yards per attempt, he actually has a higher per-carry average than Jefferson. He also has 11 rushing touchdowns and needs just 19 more yards to crack 1,000. Who steps up to spy Fajardo?

3. One defense has to step up: There's a reason we keep hammering home the idea of playing defense -- it's because both offenses are really good and neither defense is particularly stout, especially when it comes to applying pressure. Both units rank in the bottom half of the country in sacks and tackles for a loss. Both are in the negative on turnover margin. This might come down to the proverbial situation of whichever team can make two or three stops will win the game. Punters need not apply.

Pregame: Gildan New Mexico Bowl

December, 15, 2012
Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) vs. Nevada (7-5, 4-4 MWC)

WHO TO WATCH: Don't blink, or you might miss the running backs. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey leads the nation in rushing yards per game, and Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson is right behind him at No. 2 nationally. They have a combined 42 touchdowns on the ground this season. Carey, a consensus All-American, has done more with less (275 carries), averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and Jefferson has been more of a workhorse, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on 341 attempts.

WHAT TO WATCH: Safeties and linebackers. Because, as good as both running backs are, both quarterbacks are equally potent with their legs. Matt Scott (Arizona) and Cody Fajardo (Nevada) are second on their teams in rushing behind Carey and Jefferson, respectively. Both will run some option; both will spread defenders out with designed runs; and both will scramble if nothing is open through the air. The better "spy" defender could be the difference-maker.

WHY TO WATCH: If watching the nation's top two statistical running backs isn't enough motivation, you need to find a new hobby. Both are fantastic players. But if you do need another reason, it's the first bowl game of the postseason -- so there is some novelty there. Two explosive offenses -- both ranking in the top 20 in scoring -- should make for a fun postseason kickoff.

PREDICTION: Arizona has traveled a far more difficult road to its 7-5 season, playing five ranked teams and going 2-3 versus Top 25 competition. Nevada played just one ranked team -- Boise State -- and fell 27-21. The Wildcats are more battle-tested. Arizona 41, Nevada 31.

AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 8, 2012
With the regular season in the books, it’s time to hand out some All-America accolades. Heisman candidate Johnny Manziel leads the team as the SEC placed nine players on the squad. Watch The AT&T ESPN All-America Team Show on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Kenjon Barner, Oregon
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
WR: Marqise Lee, USC
WR: Terrance Williams, Baylor
TE: Zach Ertz, Stanford
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
G: Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
C: Barrett Jones, Alabama
G: Chance Warmack, Alabama
OT: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
DE: Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
LB: Jarvis Jones, Georgia
LB: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
CB: Dee Milliner, Alabama
CB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
S: Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
S: Eric Reid, LSU

P: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech
K: Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
KR: Reggie Dunn, Utah
All-purpose: Dri Archer, Kent State

Coach: Bill O'Brien, Penn State
Rice Owls (6-6) vs. Air Force Falcons (6-6)

Dec. 29, 11:45 a.m. ET, Fort Worth, Texas (ESPN)

Rice take from RecruitingNation's David Helman: It'll be interesting to see how this Rice team handles the time off, given the way the Owls have played this season.

It looked like a doormat-type of season back on Oct. 6, when Memphis downed Rice 14-10 to drop the Owls to 1-5. Since then Rice has reeled off a 5-1 record, with the one loss coming to Conference USA champion Tulsa. And with the exception of a 49-47 nail-biter against Tulane, all of those wins have come by two possessions or more.

Chalk that up to the Owls' rushing attack -- ranked 30th nationally -- which is averaging 201 yards per game this season. Rice racked up 246 yards on the ground in the season-finale win against UTEP to earn bowl eligibility.

The Owls feature three players who have rushed for more than 500 yards, led by junior Charles Ross with 743 yards. Junior quarterback Taylor McHargue has 628 yards on the season and leads the team with 11 rushing touchdowns. Fellow junior Turner Petersen has contributed 510 yards and five touchdowns.

Air Force take by SoonerNation's Brandon Chatmon: It’s been a roller-coaster season for the Falcons, who won three straight games in the middle of their season before losing three of their last four.

In this era of spread-passing offenses, there’s no doubt how the Falcons are going to attack a defense. Air Force has led the Mountain West in rushing for 14 straight seasons and averaged 328.8 rushing yards per game in 2012. Senior running back Cody Getz leads the ground attack for the Falcons with 191 carries for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns.

That’s a scary proposition for a Rice defense that has allowed 5.1 yards per carry this season.

Air Force is a young squad which saw 25 different players earn the first start of their collegiate careers in 2012, so a bowl win combined with the extra bowl practices would give the Falcons terrific momentum heading into 2013.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

December, 2, 2012
Fresno State Bulldogs (9-3) vs. SMU Mustangs (6-6)

Dec. 24, 8 p.m., Honolulu (ESPN)

Fresno State take by Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell: In one season, head coach Tim DeRuyter has reversed the fortunes of the Bulldogs, taking over a 4-9 squad and transforming it into a 9-3 unit. The backfield of quarterback Derek Carr and running back Robbie Rouse has been potent. Carr is completing 68.1 percent of his throws with 36 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He's been especially sharp on third downs, completing 66 percent of his throws with nine touchdowns and one interception. Rouse has crossed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third straight season (1,468) and has accounted for 14 touchdowns (12 on the ground).

But, perhaps DeRuyter's biggest influence has been on the defensive side of the ball, where the Bulldogs were 107th in scoring defense last season before his arrival, yielding 35.15 points per game. This season Fresno State ranks 27th, allowing 22.25 points per game.

SMU take by RecruitingNation's David Helman: It hasn’t been bad month for SMU coach June Jones.

The Mustangs ended Jones' fifth season in Dallas by winning four of their final six games, capped off by an upset of Conference USA West Division champion Tulsa to earn bowl eligibility. The reward is a trip back to Jones' old stomping grounds at Hawaii, where he led the Warriors to a 76-41 record from 1999-2007, not to mention an undefeated regular season in 2007.

Fans will no doubt recognize SMU triggerman Garrett Gilbert from his previous stint at Texas. Gilbert hasn't enjoyed the same success typically associated with Jones-coached quarterbacks. The junior completed just 53.1 percent of his passes on the year for 2,720 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

While Jones' Hawaii teams often used running backs as an afterthought, the Mustangs lean heavily on Zach Line. The senior finished 2012 with 1,207 yards -- just 17 behind his total from 2011 -- and 12 touchdowns. Line's 46 career rushing touchdowns puts him just one behind Eric Dickerson as the program's all-time leader, and he sits 336 yards away from Dickerson's career rushing total of 4,450 -- good enough for No. 2 in SMU history.

Video: Boise State wins share of MWC

December, 1, 2012

Joe Southwick throws two touchdowns to lead Boise State to 27-21 win over Nevada.

Video: Boise State 7, BYU 6

September, 21, 2012
Nose tackle Michael Atkinson returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown and No. 24 Boise State held off BYU 7-6. The Cougars failed to convert a 2-point conversion attempt with less than 4 minutes to play after Taysom Hill scored on a 4-yard touchdown.