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Thursday Night – Stanford vs. ASU

Thursday Night College Football – Stanford at Arizona State

10/16/2018

This week’s Thursday night game is a Pac-12 clash between Stanford and Arizona State. While the conference may have already played its way out of the national playoff hunt, both division races are still up for grabs and these teams are still viable contenders to play for the championship in December. Here is a look at the Thursday night game to start the next week of college football.

Match-up: Stanford Cardinal at Arizona State Sun Devils

Venue: At Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona

Time/TV: Thursday, October 18, 9:00 PM ET ESPN

Line: Stanford -2½, Over/Under 56

Last Meeting: 2017, at Stanford (-17) 34, Arizona State 24

Stanford was expected by many to be not just a Pac-12 contender but a serious threat to make a run at a spot in the College Football Playoffs. The season started out impressively with wins over San Diego State and USC, holding those respectable foes to a combined 13 points in home victories. Stanford then seemed to perhaps be a team of destiny with an improbable comeback to win in overtime at Oregon as well.

In a huge game at Notre Dame in a matchup of teams in the top 10 of the polls in late September the Cardinal were blown out with a 38-17 defeat. The next week playing without star running back Bryce Love Stanford fared just as poorly back at home with a 40-21 loss to Utah. Stanford is still 2-1 in Pac-12 play but has a difficult game remaining at Washington in a few weeks as another good but mildly disappointing season for David Shaw appears to be underway.

Last year Stanford won the Pac-12 North and lost a competitive Pac-12 Championship game with USC before losing in a tight Alamo Bowl against TCU. The 9-5 finish matched the most losses for Shaw since he took over in 2011 but the team had high hopes for 2018 with Love returning and K.J. Costello showing great promise after taking over at quarterback midway through the 2017 season. 

Shaw has an impressive track record currently with a 77-24 record at Stanford halfway through his eighth season, going 51-15 in Pac-12 play while winning five division titles and three conference championships. Shaw has two Rose Bowl wins as well, but the Cardinal have lost at least two games in every season to never seriously threaten in the national picture and this year’s team will be no different already with two defeats.

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Last year’s team had the worst statistical defense that Shaw has fielded and the defense so far this season has struggled, allowing 400 yards per game despite only surrendering 22 points per game. Opponents have rushed for 164 yards per game against Stanford while Stanford has shockingly been one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation, averaging 86 yards per game on the ground with 3.1 yards per rush.

Love finished second in the Heisman voting last season with 2,118 rushing yards, 19 touchdowns and 8.1 yards per rush. He has missed two games this season and has barely average half of last season’s per carry average posting 4.3 yards per rush and only 327 total yards at this point in the season for a very disappointing senior campaign. He is a question mark this week with the lingering ankle injury.

Costello didn’t play the full season last year but he already has thrown more interceptions and taken more sacks in his six starts this season for Stanford. He has thrown for 12 touchdowns on nearly 8.9 yards per attempt and his completion rate is up by nearly four percent as the offense has been effective in the passing game with a massive receiving corps led by JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

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Herm Edwards was considered a curious hire at Arizona State after the departure of Todd Graham after six seasons. Graham was famously poached from Pittsburgh after just one season and was fairly successful for the Sun Devils making a bowl game in five of six years and winning the Pac-12 South in 2013. Edwards finished 20 games below .500 as a NFL head coach and had never been a head coach at the college level, actually only an assistant for three years as a position coach at San Jose State in the late ‘80s. He had also not been on the sidelines at all in a decade, emerging as a prominent TV personality on ESPN’s NFL coverage.

The Sun Devils made an early splash this season with a home upset of Michigan State but the Sun Devils are just 3-3 on the season including 1-2 in Pac-12 play. All three losses have come on the road and all were decided by just seven points for competitive games. The remaining schedule for Arizona State is difficult still with USC, Utah, and Oregon on the schedule with two of those three games on the road as this is a critical home date if the Sun Devils are to make a bowl game.

Manny Wilkins has been a productive quarterback for the Sun Devils with nearly 1,500 yards passing and 11 touchdowns with only one interception so far this season. Arizona State has also been one of the better rushing teams in the conference led by Eno Benjamin who has 715 rushing yards on 5.7 yards per carry, currently ninth nationally and second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards.

Arizona State has held foes to just 3.8 yards per rush this season while the pass defense has posted average results with numbers just slightly better than Stanford has posted, through a lesser overall schedule so far. The scoring defense numbers are also nearly identical for these teams and a close game should be expected under the lights in Thursday’s national TV game, coinciding with a Thursday night NFL game 22 miles northwest in Glendale.

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Last season: These teams met in late September last season with matching 2-2 records. Arizona State had just defeated Oregon to recover from narrow losses to San Diego State and Texas Tech. Stanford won its opener last season in Australia but then lost to USC and San Diego State in road games before blasting UCLA ahead of this game. It was a back-and-forth game early with the teams trading scores until halftime with a 24-17 edge for the Cardinal as a heavy favorite. Bryce Love broke a 59-yard run in the third quarter but it was a one-score game in the final minutes until a late Stanford field goal. Stanford had a 504-409 yardage edge and a 2-1 edge in turnovers. Love emerged as a serious Heisman threat with 301 yards and three touchdowns, eclipsing 1,000 yards for the season in just his fifth game.

Historical Trends: Arizona State has a 17-12 S/U edge since 1981 in this series with a 6-3 ATS mark since 2006, though Stanford has won S/U in five of the last six meetings. Arizona State won the last home meeting in 2014 as a home underdog 26-10, while going 11-4 S/U and 9-6 ATS in the home meetings of this series since 1982. The Sun Devils are on a 13-5 ATS run as a home underdog since 2009, winning outright in six of nine instances since 2016. Arizona State is 12-4 S/U and ATS overall at home since 2016. Stanford is 27-13 S/U and 22-17-1 ATS in road games under Shaw since 2011, going 16-13-1 ATS as a road favorite in that span. Since the start of last season Stanford is just 1-5-1 ATS in road games however. 

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Thursday NCAA – Tulsa at Houston

Thursday Night College Football – Tulsa at Houston

10/01/2018

This week’s Thursday night ESPN game comes out of the American Athletic Conference with a West division battle between Tulsa and Houston. The Golden Hurricane fared poorly on Thursday night two weeks ago in their first conference game while this is the AAC opener for Houston. Here is a look at Thursday’s game to start college football Week 6.

Match-up: Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Houston Cougars

Venue: At TDECU Stadium in Houston, Texas

Time/TV: Thursday, October 4, 8:00 PM ET ESPN

Line: Houston -18, Over/Under 67½

Last Meeting: 2017, at Tulsa (+14) 45, Houston 17

Houston won the inaugural AAC Championship game in 2015 and grabbed headlines nationally in 2016. That success let to Tom Herman being hired in Austin and last season former Texas quarterback guided Houston to a 7-5 season in his first season as head coach.

Four of the five losses for Houston came in single score games but the one exception was a blowout loss at Tulsa, losing by 28 as a two-touchdown favorite. This season Houston is 3-1 with a notable win over Arizona while the loss came by 14 at Texas Tech. This will be the first game of the AAC season for the Cougars who figure to be the favorites in the West division with last season’s champion Memphis already 0-2 in league play.

Houston struggled to find a quarterback early last season but D’Eriq King emerged in late October, keying the upset over South Florida and finishing the season with solider results in the air and on the ground. Now a junior King has rushed less successfully and has a lower completion rate but with 15 touchdowns and just one interception he has been a great leader with the offense scoring at least 45 points in every game.

Houston has rushed for over 1,000 yards in four games on 6.4 yards per carry with a committee as Patrick Carr leads the team with only 201 rushing yards and King leads the team with five rushing touchdowns.

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Houston also has one of the highest profile defensive players in the nation with Ed Oliver a projected 1st round NFL pick next spring. Houston hasn’t had great defensive numbers this season allowing over 30 points per game after surrendering fewer than 24 points per game last season.

After a two-win 2017 season is expected to be an improved team with a shot at making the postseason. The 1-3 start has featured three losses in a row all against quality competition falling to Texas, Arkansas State, and opening the conference season with a 31-17 loss at Temple two weeks ago. Tulsa out-gained Temple by more than 100 yards in that game but had five turnovers including allowing two defensive touchdowns.

Luke Skipper split time at quarterback last season and has led the offense in all four games this year. He has marginal numbers with six interceptions and just 6.2 yards per attempt. Chad President is still on the roster but has only seen a few snaps this season after sharing the load last season for Philip Montgomery, in his fourth season as the head coach at Tulsa.

Montgomery led Tulsa to a bowl game in his first season and then produced a 10-win 2016 season before reversing course last year. Montgomery was an assistant at Houston from 2003 to 2007 before being the offensive coordinator at Baylor from 2008 to 2014 as a long-time assistant to Art Briles.

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Last season: Houston was 4-1 heading to Tulsa with the Hurricane 1-5 at the time and coming off a 62-28 loss at Tulane. It wasn’t a surprise when the Cougars took a 10-0 early lead but out of halftime Tulsa was a different team, feeding off of a big turnover to produce 17 points in the third quarter. Houston would get back within seven before Skipper hit a 70 yard pass play to seal the win. Tulsa added two touchdowns in the final minute for a more convincing result than they deserved and it may be something the Houston players remember.

Historical Trends: Houston is on a 42-31-1 run in home games since 2006 including a 6-2 ATS start under Applewhite including 3-0 as a double-digit home favorite. Tulsa has covered in six of the past eight meetings between these schools going back to 2009 including covering in each of the last four meetings in Houston. Tulsa is on a 22-11 ATS run as a double-digit underdog since 2010 with seven S/U upsets, going 12-4 ATS in that role since 2015 under Montgomery.

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Thursday Night NCAA Football

Thursday Night College Football Opening Night

While college football had a brief preview last weekend with six teams in action the Thursday night schedule will officially allow the first full weekend of the season to commence. While lacking a prominent headlining game on the schedule, three major conference teams are in action while the Big Ten and the American are featuring rare opening night conference games. Here is a quick look at the four games on the schedule Thursday night.

Match-up: Central Florida Knights at Connecticut Huskies

Venue: At Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut

Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:00 PM ET, ESPNU

Line: UCF -23, Over/Under 75

Last Meeting: 2017 at UCF, UCF (-38) 49-24

Central Florida is a fitting team to kick off the 2018 schedule Thursday night as they were the only team to go undefeated in the 2017 season, even claiming the national title locally while finishing the season with an impressive Peach Bowl win over Auburn on New Year’s Day. The success had a cost as Scott Frost left for Nebraska after just two seasons and another former Big XII quarterback is now leading the way in Orlando with Josh Heupel hired from Missouri where he was the offensive coordinator. Heupel has McKenzie Milton under center to help the transition with Milton passing for over 4,000 yards last season with 37 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

Connecticut has limited expectations this season, the second campaign in Randy Edsall’s second stop leading the Huskies. This squad finished just 3-9 last season with a major transition moving toward an up-tempo offense that leans on the passing game. The numbers improved with scoring and production up dramatically last season but the defensive numbers worsened from Bob Diaco’s 2016 squad by a similar increment. Few starters return on the rebuilding defense for 2018 but this should be a team that can take another step forward offensively.

UCF had just survived a close call at SMU last season when they hosted Connecticut as an 8-0 squad that had climbed into the top 15 of the national polls. The Knights grabbed an early lead but wound up caught in a close game into the fourth quarter as the Huskies trailed by only 11 before UCF added three fourth quarter touchdowns to win comfortably 49-24 but finishing well short of the massive spread with only a 519-413 yardage edge for the Knights.

This year the spread has been adjusted downward significantly but the total is priced about 10 points higher than last season with Connecticut expected to be a productive offensive team that passes often. Quarterback David Pindell had modest numbers taking just over a third of the snaps for Connecticut last season and like Milton he is smaller in stature than prototypical quarterbacks and has good mobility as the Huskies will aim for a shootout result.

Historical Trends: Central Florida is 15-21-1 ATS as a road favorite since 2003, Connecticut is 29-18-1 ATS as a home underdog since 2001.

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Match-up: Northwestern Wildcats at Purdue Boilermakers

Venue: At Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana

Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN

Line: Purdue -1.5, Over/Under 52.5

Last Meeting: 2017 at Northwestern, Northwestern (-6.5) 23-13

Northwestern and Purdue both made the postseason last year out of the Big Ten West but both could face tougher paths this season. The West teams draw five of nine conference games on the road this season and both squads will play two of three crossover games with heavyweight East squads. The non-conference schedules for both teams are also difficult as this toss-up opening game will carry a lot of weight towards the season goals.

Last season Northwestern had a 20-0 lead in the first half before Purdue rallied for a competitive finish, winding up with a yardage edge for the game but never getting closer than the 10-point final margin in the second half. The Boilermakers nearly spoiled the favorite cover before committing the only turnover in the game inside the 10-yard line with about a minute to go. The Wildcats have won in this series each of the past four seasons and in six of the last nine meetings since 2008, going 5-2 ATS in those games.

Northwestern won 45-17 at Purdue two years ago but that was before Jeff Brohm took over the team. The former Western Kentucky head coach led a successful first season with nearly as many wins as Darrell Hazell had produced in four seasons. The offense displayed much more success running the ball last season while the defense made a massive improvement statistically. The defense will be the biggest area of concern this season with heavy personnel losses from last season while the offense has many key players back including both quarterbacks that split time last season with David Blough and Elijah Sindelar expected to share time again this season.

Pat Fitzgerald is entering his 13th season at Northwestern and the program has been to three straight bowl games with 27 wins the past three years combined. While Wisconsin is the favorite in the West, many see Northwestern as second in line after posting a 7-2 conference record last season. This game will be critical in any entertainment of that notion as the next two Big Ten games will be against Michigan and Michigan State. Clayton Thorson returns after a steady 2017 season at quarterback but 1,300-yard rusher Justin Jackson will need to be replaced.

Historical Trends: Northwestern is 10-6 ATS at Purdue since 1982, Purdue is 15-26 ATS at home since 2012.

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Match-up: New Mexico State Aggies at Minnesota Golden Gophers

Venue: At TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:00 PM ET, BTN

Line: Minnesota -20.5, Over/Under 45.5

Last Meeting: 2013 at New Mexico State, Minnesota (-16.5) 44-21

New Mexico State was one of the teams that played last Saturday and the Aggies had a forgettable opening performance with very poor results for the offense in a 26-7 loss hosting Wyoming. It appears that replacing long-time quarterback Tyler Rogers will be a challenge as the Aggies posted just 144 passing yards behind Matt Romero and Nick Jeanty. The Aggies also wound up with negative rushing yards in the game and the only score for the team came with 1:16 remaining and the outcome well past decided.

New Mexico State is on the road the next two weeks with this a tricky turnaround going from Saturday night and traveling to Minnesota for a Thursday night game. The poor result last week sours momentum from a great 2017 season with a 7-6 finish in Doug Martin’s fifth season, getting the team’s first bowl appearance and win since 1960. The Aggies now have little margin for error for a return trip playing an Independent schedule. While some challenges for the offense replacing Rogers along with the top rusher and receiver from last season were expected, the defense was considered a possible strength with nine starters back after showing great improvement last season. Wyoming rushed for 312 yards last week on 5.5 yards per carry which should mean a favorable opportunity for Minnesota.

Amidst great self-promotion and fanfare P.J. Fleck’s first season with the Gophers fizzled as a 3-0 start wound up with a 5-7 finish in the standings and only two Big Ten wins. The offense was among the worst of all power conference programs with only 22 points per game and 309 yards per game. The answer this season will be a freshman quarterback as Zack Annexstad was a mild surprise to win the job this summer. The Gophers do have a veteran offensive line and should remain a quality defensive team looking for a breakthrough second season.

The opening result for New Mexico State has meant a growing favorite spread for Minnesota with the Gophers failing as a heavy favorite in opening games the past two seasons in narrow wins. After being shutout in each of the final two games of the season last year pressure will grow on Fleck and with a more challenging game next week at home this is a critical game for Minnesota but also a spot where the Aggies, with a game under their belt, can certainly play better that they did last week.

Historical Trends: New Mexico State is 16-23-1 ATS as a double-digit underdog since 2012, Minnesota is 17-24 ATS as a home favorite since 2007.

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Match-up: Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Tulane Green Wave

Venue: At Yulman Stadium in New Orleans, Louisiana

Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 8:00 PM ET, CBSC

Line: Wake Forest -5.5, Over/Under 55

Last Meeting: 2016 at Wake Forest, Wake Forest (-14.5) 7-3

These teams opened the 2016 season in Winston-Salem with a 7-3 win for Wake Forest in a game with no second half scoring. Wake Forest won despite only 10 first downs and 175 total yards in what was a great defensive showing for Tulane in the debut of Willie Fritz on the sidelines. Fritz led a very successful two-year run at Georgia Southern but has gone 4-8 and 5-7 the past two seasons at Tulane. The Wave have a team capable of taking the next step with most of last season’s offense back in action but the schedule ahead is difficult, particularly on the road. For a bowl season Tulane will need an upset at some point and this home opener is likely one of the best opportunities.

Tulane only lost twice at home last season falling to South Florida by six and to Cincinnati by one and wins at home over Army and Houston offer some promise. Jonathan Banks is an experienced quarterback that had solid production passing and rushing last season while LSU transfer Justin McMillan is also on the roster. Tulane had a season of regression on defense last year and with minimal returning experience improvement isn’t likely for a Wave team that allowed 5.4 yards per rush last season.

Wake Forest had problems stopping the run last season and one of the worst losses of the season came against another triple-option team falling 38-24 at Georgia Tech. The Demon Deacons have returning experience but replacing long time quarterback John Wolford has been a challenge. Kendall Hinton has been suspended for the first three games while Jamie Newman is injured as freshman Sam Hartman is expected to start. He’ll likely lean on the top returning receiver Greg Dortch who can also be a factor on special teams.

Wake Forest won eight games last season and Dave Clawson has returned the program to a respectable place. A breakthrough season of contention isn’t expected in the tough ACC Atlantic. Holding on to a bowl bid isn’t a given either as this is an important game in reaching the needed win count for Wake Forest as well with Notre Dame on the non-conference schedule and no easy outs on the ACC slate.

Historical Trends: Wake Forest is 12-18-2 ATS as a road favorite since 1982, Tulane is 22-30-2 ATS as a home underdog since 2004.

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Get previews and predictions on every college and pro football game of the season with Nelly’s Green Sheet newsletter subscription!

Issue 9 was just released on Monday covering all 44 college games this weekend and NFL preseason Week 4.

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Early Pac-12 Preview

Early Pac-12 Preview

This is a big season for the Pac-12 coming off a disastrous bowl campaign with only one win from nine postseason squads. That win came from Utah in a minor game as marquee game defeats from Stanford, Washington, USC, Washington State, and UCLA led to an ugly national storyline out West. The poor results led to a number of coaching changes with five of 12 programs making moves in the off-season.

Despite a few transition seasons underway the Pac-12 has a few teams that could make a run in the national picture. The balance of power is tilted north with Oregon, Washington, and Stanford considered threats for a championship but the depth in that division might make it difficult for a clear cut national playoff contender to emerge. The conference has just one touchdown over the past three College Football Playoffs but getting a team through this conference 10-0 might prove to be a challenge.

 

Pac-12 North

Washington: Following an appearance in the College Football Playoffs expectations remained sky high last season as Washington went through a mildly disappointing 10-3 season, falling short of the North division title and ending the season with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State. For a program that went winless a decade ago a third straight double-digit win season looks possible in 2018. Washington returns Jake Browning at quarterback and Myles Gaskin at running back while a defense that allowed just 16.1 points per game last season returns nine starters. The schedule gets a major upgrade this season with an opener in Atlanta against Auburn that will determine whether or not the Huskies are a national threat. USC and Arizona are absent from the South draw and Stanford visits Seattle as the Pac-12 slate lines up favorably for the Huskies to finish on top.

Stanford: Stanford lost five times last season but David Shaw is now 73-22 in seven seasons with last season’s 9-5 mark the second worst record for the Cardinal in that span. The Cardinal has not cracked the College Football Playoff yet but this year’s team has that potential. K.J. Costello and an elite receiving corps will surround Heisman candidate Bryce Love as this should be a very effective offense even if not among the nation’s most prolific offensive teams. Stanford actually had its worst defensive numbers under Shaw last season and that unit has question marks for 2018 as well. The biggest hurdle for Stanford is the schedule however with two very tough non-conference games plus road games vs. the two chief division threats while drawing South division favorite USC. Stanford has a team capable of beating anyone but running the table looks unlikely with the path ahead.

Oregon: Oregon rebounded to win seven games last season after the stunning 4-8 2016 season but after just one season Willie Taggert left the program for Florida State. Offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal steps in as it won’t be a complete transition and Cristobal has head coaching experience. The Ducks have decent returning experience and if Justin Herbert can stay healthy they have the makings of a high quality offensive team. Oregon actually had its best defensive numbers in several years last season but a down Pac-12 was a factor. Oregon will play an extremely light non-conference schedule as a strong start should be expected and this is a sleeper in the North as both Stanford and Washington visit Eugene while Oregon avoids USC from the South. If things break right Oregon could be back in the national spotlight again.

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California: A 5-7 season doesn’t generally earn a lot of praise but first year head coach Justin Wilcox inherited an inexperienced team and turned in a pair of prominent non-conference wins last September. A 3-0 start fizzled with a 2-7 Pac-12 mark but the Bears were very competitive in most games and this team could take a big stride forward in 2018. 18 starters are back to top the conference in experience but the statistics from last season offer some concern as the Bears were ultimately out-gained by 45 yards per game on average. The challenge for Cal will be that the three North powers all visit Berkeley as a tough home slate is waiting and this team won just once on the road last season.

Washington State: Mike Leach has revitalized his career at Washington State with the Cougars going from being one of the nation’s worst power conference teams to three straight bowl bids while Washington State has often been in the Pac-12 North race into November. The 2018 season presents an impossible challenge however with Luke Falk graduating and the sad death of Tyler Hilinski leaving the team with inexperience at quarterback and only 10 returning starters. Washington State has one of the most difficult South draws and while they nab five home games in Pac-12 play it is a difficult set of games. Making a fourth straight bowl game would be a great accomplishment for Leach and the Cougars given the circumstances.

Oregon State: There is nowhere to go but up for Oregon State with Jonathan Smith taking over a Beavers team that didn’t win a FBS game last season. After an awkward coaching departure the Beavers did produce a few competitive games down the stretch and improving on awful turnover luck from last season could lead to improvement. The Beavers are likely still the clear bottom team in the conference and they have to open the season at Ohio State but there are a few decent opportunities ahead in Corvallis as signs of progress look possible. With a couple of legacy pieces back on the staff there should be renewed enthusiasm for the program and in a Pac-12 that wasn’t very good last season and has several programs in transition, the opportunity to close the gap may be there.

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Pac-12 South

USC: USC has 21 wins the past two seasons under Clay Helton but a playoff invitation was expected of this powerhouse program that featured one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Sam Darnold is off to the NFL and while a few other key players also depart from last season’s 11-win squad, there is solid returning experience to make the Trojans the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South. USC has taken on a daunting schedule in recent years and two heavyweight non-conference games are again ahead while the conference slate features five road games including playing at Stanford. Avoiding Washington is a plus however and the Trojans won’t likely need to be perfect to win this division.

Arizona: Off the field allegations opened the door for Arizona to make a coaching change after last season even with a comeback bowl season for Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats nabbed Kevin Sumlin to provide credibility in the transition and this is a team that can compete immediately. Khalil Tate was one of the most exciting players in the conference last season and Arizona draws an ideal conference schedule with five home dates while avoiding both Washington and Stanford. The defense has nine returning starters even if it was a unit that allowed 471 yards per game last season as Arizona is likely to be back in the postseason and lurks as a serious threat in this division should USC falter.

Colorado: After the 10-win breakthrough in 2016 Colorado fell to just 5-7 last season needing to replace most of the key players from the South division championship team. This year’s team again is light on experience but the Buffaloes have a fairly attractive conference slate ahead as getting back to postseason eligibility is within reach. Colorado won just twice in a down season for the Pac-12 last year but most defeats were in tight games and the defense is likely to post improved numbers in 2018 after taking a big step back last season. Mike MacIntyre has the opportunity to stabilize the Buffaloes into a steady bowl performer in the years to come.

Utah: Utah has declined in win count the past two seasons but last year’s squad was likely better than the 7-6 record indicated. The Utes shuffled through two quarterbacks and had much better statistics that the record suggests, out-gaining foes by 75 yards per game but losing four single-score results in Pac-12 play. Utah will play five conference road games while pulling all three of the North contenders as Utah has a difficult path ahead. This was a bowl team and the lone bowl victor from the Pac-12 last season even with a 3-6 conference record and Kyle Whittingham has provided consistent success in Salt Lake City in now his 14th season.

Arizona State: Arizona State made one of the more curious coaching hires in recent years luring former NFL head coach Herm Edwards out of the TV studio. While Edwards hasn’t been on the sidelines in a decade he is a well known football mind that will resonate with players in a talent rich recruiting base. Unlike most new head coaches Edwards takes over a team that was pretty successful with Todd Graham leading the Sun Devils to a bowl game in five of the past six seasons and the Sun Devils won six Pac-12 games last season. The offense should remain productive but Edwards will have work to do rebuilding the Sun Devils on defense. Relative to its South division peers Arizona State has a more difficult schedule pulling the top three North teams and featuring five Pac-12 road games.

UCLA: Chip Kelly returns to the college coaching ranks at UCLA but instant success seems unlikely with a dramatic scheme change and the loss of quarterback Josh Rosen. The Bruins couldn’t maintain Jim Mora’s early success with back-to-back losing seasons but injuries played a significant role in the failure to meet expectations. UCLA has a tough non-conference schedule to open the season and while the Bruins get five Pac-12 home games they are all difficult games as there are not many sure-wins ahead on this schedule particularly for a program that has gone 1-11 on the road the past two years. The first year for Kelly might be a challenge resembling his failed season up the coast with the 49ers.

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Early Big XII Preview

Early Big XII Preview

Many felt like adding a Big XII title game would cost the conference a possible playoff bid but last season Oklahoma managed to survive a rematch with TCU and was selected into the national field. In four seasons Oklahoma has represented the conference twice in the College Football Playoffs but no other team has been selected and the conference is still searching for its first victory on that stage.
This season the conference lacks a clear frontrunner as getting a team to go 10-0 in the always deep league looks unlikely. Last season the Sooners were able to shake off the home upset loss to Iowa State on the strength of their victory over Ohio State in non-conference play but they won’t have that margin of error this season. Ultimately a competitive race looks likely on top of the conference this season and getting a one-loss team in the tournament might be a challenge. Here is an early look at the 10 Big XII teams ahead of the 2018-19 season.

Texas: Tom Herman led Texas to its best win count since 2013 last season even if the expectations were much higher as a high profile hire that led dramatic success at Houston in just two seasons. Texas lost exclusively close games last season and had erratic defensive performances despite being one of the nation’s top run defenses. The offensive production also dropped by nearly 100 yards per game compared with Charlie Strong’s 2016 squad in Austin. This year’s team will be one of the more experienced Big XII groupings. The schedule is similar to last season facing both Maryland and USC again for a tough non-conference schedule but the Trojans will visit Austin as will TCU and West Virginia. Ultimately the Red River Rivalry game will determine whether or not Texas takes a big leap or has another decent season that isn’t up to the expectations of the Longhorns brass.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma was stunned at home against Iowa State last October but the Sooners rallied to return to the College Football Playoffs for the second time in three years. Oklahoma wound up on the wrong side of an epic battle with Georgia but it was an impressive first season for Lincoln Riley who took over suddenly for Bob Stoops last summer. Replacing the #1 pick in the NFL draft plus several other top contributors will be a challenge but this should remain a top offense team with Kyler Murray likely to quarterback the team for one season before pursuing a baseball career. Oklahoma was not an elite defensive team last season and it will be difficult to match the amazing production the Sooners had under Baker Mayfield. The schedule offers Oklahoma a realistic opportunity to run the table but they won’t have a marquee non-conference win like they did last season after beating Ohio State. That could mean little margin for error for a program that always seems to have at least one stumble in the regular season.

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TCU: Gary Patterson has led TCU to 11 or more wins in three of the last four seasons as it would be foolish to count out the Frogs as a serious Big XII threat. TCU loses a lot of key players from a very good defense from last season and they also need to break in a new quarterback. TCU faces Ohio State, Texas, and Oklahoma in the first seven games of the season as there will be opportunities to move up in the national and conference race with notable wins but it also means the Frogs could reach last season’s loss count rather early. TCU has gone undefeated at home three of the past four seasons and if they accomplish that again in 2018 a top three finish in the Big XII looks assured with five of nine games in Fort Worth, although a road heavy September could take a toll on the season goals.

West Virginia: Dana Holgorsen should finally feel some security in Morgantown with winning results in six of seven seasons. Will Grier returns for the Mountaineers after posting some of the nation’s best numbers last season prior to an injury that changed the trajectory of the season. TCU and Oklahoma will visit Morgantown this season as the Mountaineers will have opportunities for big wins with an offense that should be among the most productive in the conference if not the nation. The defense struggled at times last season however and has minimal depth back in action as shootouts should be the norm with Grier capable of being the top quarterback in the conference and a Heisman sleeper.

Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State has won 10 or more games in six of the last eight seasons but they have been stopped at 10 the past three seasons with expectations of a possible breakthrough to a Big XII title or a playoff bid. Highly productive quarterback Mason Rudolph departs but most of the backfield is intact as this can still be an above average offensive team. The defense should remain a stable though not dominant group but the schedule ahead in 2018 looks like a challenge. Five Big XII road games are ahead including several difficult tests and a non-conference game with Boise State lurks as a dangerous September matchup. Matching the 10-win level of recent years looks like a reach for the Cowboys this season.

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Kansas State: Kansas State lost five times last season but four of those misses were by seven or fewer points as the Wildcats found a way to compete even with one of the lesser offenses in the Big XII and a revolving quarterback situation. The offense could be better this season with much more experience but the defense could regress for a second straight season. While Kansas State had mostly close losses last season they also had several narrow fortunate wins as this team was soundly out-gained on the season despite a solid scoring differential. Coach Snyder always finds a way to keep this team in the mix as another winning season shouldn’t be ruled out.

Iowa State: Matt Campbell eschewed opportunities elsewhere to stay in Ames where last season’s 8-5 campaign was a historic rise for the Cyclones. Wins over Oklahoma and TCU were incredibly impressive and the Cyclones also stopped a great Memphis offense for a bowl win. Matching that success will be a challenge and Iowa State plays the heavyweights early in the Big XII campaign this season. Several key players are back as this is a program with average experience and while there were narrow wins last season all five losses came by 10 or fewer points as well as a more dramatic breakthrough had been possible. Iowa State is no longer the conference doormat and will be a competitive team likely on the bowl border.

Texas Tech: Kliff Kingsbury has done enough to stay on in Lubbock with five underwhelming seasons and a 30-33 record. There have been some close calls but still a few blowout losses every year to paint the gap between the Red Raiders and the elite teams in the conference. Texas Tech showed a dramatic improvement on defense last season and with 10 starters back the Red Raiders can take another stride to shake off their former reputation as perennially one of the worst defensive teams in the nation. The offense has some question marks however needing a third new starting quarterback in three seasons and losing most of the top receivers from last season. Oklahoma and Texas both play in Lubbock but that might mean fewer realistic opportunities for wins with a pair of challenging non-conference games in September as well.

Baylor: Matt Rhule stepped into a very tough situation at Baylor and a 1-11 season was the result. Baylor did show signs of progress late in the season and should show improvement but getting back to being a Big XII force looks like it will take a long rebuilding process. This will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation thanks to a lot of young players getting time last season and Charlie Brewer gave the offense life after taking over at quarterback. Statistically this didn’t look like a 1-11 squad that lost to a FCS school in September and if the Bears play all season like they did last November a handful of wins will follow.

Kansas: Kansas has been patient with a major transition hitting year four for David Beaty and a combined three wins in three seasons. The non-conference schedule offers three viable opportunities for Kansas but the gap with the rest of the Big XII remains severe with only one Big XII loss even within 15 points last season. 19 starters return for Kansas as the pieces are there to take a step forward but it remains a steep uphill climb in Lawrence and the best opportunities for conference wins this season will unfortunately all be road games.

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Early MAC East Preview

Early MAC East Preview

The MAC produced the top Group of Five squad two years ago before the conference had a less distinguished campaign in 2017 led by Toledo’s league title. The Rockets along with the rest of the MAC other than Ohio had a disappointing bowl season however.

The MAC frequently deals with coaching turnover but 11 of 12 head coaches from last season return as with some stability league-wide the conference could deliver notable performances to get back on the map in 2018. Several returning quarterbacks are also back in action as the East could close the recent gap with the West this season. Here is a look at the six schools fighting for MAC East supremacy in 2018.

Ohio: Frank Solich is the dean of the MAC entering season #14 in Athens and the Bobcats turned in a 41-6 bowl blowout for the lone postseason victory for the conference last season. Ohio has turned in three straight winning seasons but fell short of the division title last season after losing narrowly in the final two regular season games on the road. Ohio has posted a winning home record in nine straight seasons and the biggest tests in the MAC East should be at home this season with the Bobcats likely favored to go 6-0 at Peden Stadium. The road slate features some challenges with two of the better West squads on the schedule as well as playing up in two non-conference tests in September. The offense should be the strength of the team after averaging 39 points per game last season and featuring returning talent at every position but a Bobcats program known for steady defense under Solich could step backwards this season to open up the division race.

Buffalo: The Bulls improved by four wins last season to reach 6-6 but despite winning the final three games of the season to become bowl eligible, Buffalo did not get an invitation. Buffalo has three difficult non-conference games in September as making a bowl breakthrough won’t be easy in 2018. Tyree Jackson has a chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in the conference while the top four rushers from last season return for Lance Leipold’s fourth season with the program. The defense isn’t likely to be among the top MAC units and Buffalo has a tough MAC West draw along with facing Ohio on the road late in the season. Buffalo is a threat in this race with a quality offensive line and this was a team that didn’t lose a single game by more than 10 points last season, including a pair of one-point losses in MAC play plus a seven-overtime loss vs. Western Michigan.  The Bulls weren’t far away from a big breakthrough last season and should be considered a MAC contender.

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Miami, OH: The Redhawks finished the 2016 season with six straight wins to go from 0-6 into a bowl game where they almost upset Mississippi State. Expectations were high to start last season but Miami suffered a disappointing 5-7 season despite outscoring and out-gaining its opposition. Quarterback Gus Ragland missed some time last season and could be one of the top players in the conference if he can complete an entire season after missing a lot of games the past two years. Miami has one of the most experienced teams in the conference and the Redhawks will get to host Ohio in conference play for a big opportunity to move up. The road slate in the MAC is challenging including a game at Northern Illinois while also drawing Western Michigan from the West for one of the more challenging MAC schedules overall. Add in four difficult non-conference games and Miami isn’t a lock for the postseason even if it won’t be a surprise if the Redhawks are among the top division finishers.

Akron: The Zips delivered a surprise division title last season with a pair of late season wins over the top contenders in the division. A blowout bowl loss followed up a double-digit defeat in the MAC title game however as Akron felt like an overachiever reaching seven wins. On the season Akron was soundly defeated in the scoring and yardage statistics although a tough non-conference schedule was a significant factor. Akron won three MAC games by three or fewer points and chances are a few results will flip in 2018. Akron draws three of the best teams from the MAC West while taking on seven road games overall in the 2018 schedule. The defense has a chance to improve but a lot of the production from last season’s offense has departed and a decline in wins for Terry Bowden’s seventh season with the Zips looks likely.

Bowling Green: The Falcons have gone from three straight MAC title game appearances to picking up only five MAC wins the past two seasons combined. Pressure could be elevated for Mike Jinks in his third season at Bowling Green and this year’s roster has a chance to show improvement. Bowling Green had a number of narrow defeats last season but a defense that surrendered 507 yards per game must make major strides to get the Falcons back on the MAC radar. Carl Pelini comes in as a high profile defensive coordinator and he has some experience to work with but the offense still might be a year away from regaining its past production levels from earlier in the decade. Bowling Green does have a few favorable home opportunities after going winless in five home dates last season but three power conference non-conference tests will take a toll on the overall numbers.

Kent State: The only coaching change in the MAC comes at Kent State after five straight losing seasons, Sean Lewis takes over for Paul Haynes. Injuries have taken a toll on this program in recent seasons but this program will get a boost with Lewis being a long-time assistant to Dino Babers who had a lot of success in the MAC at Bowling Green. This will be a major scheme transition but a few notable transfers and decent returning experience could help the cause though the schedule is a beast with seven road games and some of the top MAC teams visiting Kent as there are few clear opportunities for wins ahead.

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Early C-USA East Preview

Early Conference USA East Preview

Conference USA made some noise last season with Florida Atlantic dominating the conference with a 9-0 campaign and a dominant bowl win under the guidance of firebrand Lane Kiffin. UAB’s revival also provided a great storyline while Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State were also bowl winners as underdogs.

This season the East discussion will again start with Kiffin and Florida Atlantic as he surprised many by not making a leap after one season to a major conference program. Here is a look at the seven teams in Conference USA East and an early outlook for the 2018 season.

Florida Atlantic: The Owls outscored conference foes by an average of more than three touchdowns per game then winning the title game by 24 points and their bowl game by 47 points. The Owls will need to replace quarterback Jason Driskel but nearly the entire defense is back in action this season. The opening month offers three difficult non-conference games including games at Oklahoma and at UCF as the Owls will get a chance to shine in a bigger spotlight this season. The gap between FAU and the rest of the East was severe last season and that could be true again but the Owls will have to play three road games against the likely stronger teams in the division. The crossover draw of Louisiana Tech and North Texas is also a difficult pairing as FAU will earn a repeat title if they accomplish what they are heavily favored (-150) to do in this conference. Devin Singletary could emerge as a potential Heisman long shot if he can surpass his 1,900 yard 2017-18 season and should the Owls stun a re-tooling Sooners team in the opener (currently +21) this squad will be certainly be on top of the Group of 5 rankings.

Marshall: Doc Holliday is 61-42 in eight seasons at Marshall including 5-0 in bowl games. The Herd bounced back from an ugly 2016 campaign to finish 8-5 last season despite going just 4-4 in conference play. Marshall lost those Conference USA games by a combined total of 19 points including a five-point loss in Boca Raton with the Herd out-gaining Florida Atlantic but struggling with turnovers. Marshall has a lot of starting experience back for the 2018 season however excellent quarterback Chase Litton is not among the returnees which will make ascending to the top of this division a challenge with a much more pass oriented offensive scheme than Florida Atlantic relies on. Marshall was fantastic defensively against the run last season allowing just 121 yards per game on 3.4 yards per carry and the Herd get to host both Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic for a favorable division draw. Marshall also pulls UTSA and Southern Miss from the West for one of the better overall schedules in the conference as a return to the postseason looks likely for this team. A pair of games vs. the SEC and ACC in September also allows for marquee opportunities with the program picking up wins over Purdue and Cincinnati in the past three seasons.

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Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders played much of the 2017 season with a backup quarterback and having Brent Stockstill for the entire season could make Middle Tennessee State a serious threat in Conference USA. Middle Tennessee State won four of its final five games including a bowl win over Arkansas State with the lone miss coming in triple overtime. Middle Tennessee State beat Syracuse last September and three SEC schools are on the schedule this season which will make the postseason margin of error much smaller than most of its division counterparts. The conference draw isn’t ideal as while the Blue Raiders will host Florida Atlantic, three of the four road games in C-USA play are challenging and they will also have to play one of the top west division threats in geographically misplaced UAB, though that game is the home finale. Facing seven road games and three power five games make the path to a great season difficult for the Blue Raiders but a lot of experience returns on both sides of the ball for a team that will be a threat to win in every conference game.

Old Dominion: After a 10-win 2016 season Old Dominion slipped to 5-7 last year but after a 2-6 start the Monarchs picked up wins in three of the final four games. The five wins last season were of extremely low quality however and against top competition the Monarchs were out-classed with three losses by at least 30 points against the top tier of Conference USA. The offense took a huge step back last season from the 2016 numbers scoring just over 20 points per game but the returns could be stronger in 2018 with nine starters back in action. Old Dominion will need to win seven games to make a bowl game as they will play two FCS foes but a rebuilding Rice squad is part of the West draw and East Carolina is also on the schedule as it won’t be a shock if the Monarchs get back to a winning ledger. Old Dominion gets many of the key division race swing games at home and the returning roster should lead to better statistics on both sides of the ball after the team was soundly out-scored and out-gained last season.

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Western Kentucky: Mike White wound up with strong numbers at quarterback last season but the Western Kentucky offense dropped dramatically in production with a coaching change. Mike Sanford still got this team to a bowl game but it took some good fortune with several narrow wins. The offense has very little returning experience and production and making a fifth straight bowl game will be a great challenge for the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky has road games at Wisconsin and at Louisville in non-conference play while also going on the road against three of Conference USA’s projected top teams. Pulling UTEP from the west is a plus while the home slate in league play is manageable but ultimately this program looks likely to land several tiers below the great squads of 2015 and 2016.

Florida International: It was a season of redemption for Alex McGough and Florida International with an 8-5 2017 season led by Butch Davis in his first season ‘back’ in Miami. The long-time quarterback has departed however and the season ended with a lopsided bowl loss against Temple. The 2018 schedule offers many of the easiest conference games coming on the road while two power five non-conference tests will add to the loss column as a step backwards in record is likely. The offense lost top players at every position while the defense was gutted with the top four leading tacklers from last season departing. This was a fortunate team that went 4-4 in league play despite being outscored and out-gained by more than 50 yards per game on average. Florida International hasn’t had a winning road record since 2011 and the best opportunities this season will be in some of those road games. Ultimately this looks like a team that won’t be able to compete with the top division rivals.

Charlotte: in three seasons in Conference USA Charlotte has just four league wins. The 49ers finished 1-11 last season and the lone win was an overtime result at home. There were a few close calls along the way but the offense managed just over 14 points per game on average for the season. Charlotte has a chance to surpass last season’s win count early this season as the opening month slate is favorable with four of the first six games at home without any overly demanding matchups. The 49ers don’t get to play any of the bottom West teams in the draw however and a road heavy late season schedule will take a toll. The program has been patient with Brad Lambert in his sixth season and improvement in record is likely this season though competing for a bowl bid likely will need to wait. This could be a very respectable defensive team but the offense isn’t going to be able to compete with the top teams in the conference.

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Early C-USA West Preview

Early Conference USA West Preview

Conference USA made some noise last season with Florida Atlantic dominating the conference with a 9-0 campaign and a dominant bowl win under the guidance of firebrand Lane Kiffin. UAB’s revival also provided a great storyline while Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State were also bowl winners as underdogs.

The West offers a muddled collection of teams with a case for five different squads to be on top. It won’t be a surprise if several teams wind up tied at 6-2 or 5-3 and tiebreakers are needed in the West in 2018 as there is no clear front runner as there is on the East side.  Here is a look at the seven teams in Conference USA West and an early outlook ahead of the 2018 season.

Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs made a major statement in bowl action with a 51-10 win over SMU in the Frisco Bowl. That win clinched a fourth straight winning season for Skip Holtz in Ruston and after slipping to just seven wins last season this year’s team has a chance to get back to the nine-win campaigns of the previous years. Facing two SEC teams on the road limits the overall ceiling for this group and the Bulldogs have to play at Florida Atlantic in the East draw as well to put several major hurdles on the slate. J’Mar Smith emerged as a quality playmaker at quarterback last season however and the running game has always been productive under Holtz. Last season’s defense was among the better units in Conference USA and it should remain a quality group in 2017. It likely won’t take perfection to win this division as the Bulldogs will be in the mix and they get to host one of the top threats in UAB.

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North Texas: The Mean Green improved by four wins last season and Mason Fine returns as likely the top quarterback in the conference coming off throwing for 4,000 yards with 31 touchdowns last season for a nine-win team. North Texas was the division champion at 7-1 last season but there were numerous close calls as the Mean Green only outscored foes by 21 points if you count the conference championship loss. Both league losses came to the same Florida Atlantic squad last season however but the Mean Green again draws the East favorite this season along with a capable Old Dominion team in the crossover games. Despite the strong record last season this wasn’t a quality defensive team but the Mean Green could flip a -11 turnover margin from last season as well. With five wins by seven or fewer points last season the 2017 squad was fortunate but having a great quarterback helps one win those types of games and the Mean Green are a threat for another solid season.

UAB: After ending the football program for two years UAB returned as one of the feel-good stories of the season as Bill Clark led the team to an 8-5 record last season. UAB had a lot go right last season as the scoring and production numbers were more indicative of a .500 squad and four wins came by seven or fewer points. The West is clearly the lighter side of Conference USA however as there will remain favorable opportunities for wins and three of the four non-conference tests are also of the winnable variety. This year’s team has most of last season’s offensive production back in action and while the defense must replace a few key players this can again be a competitive team that can return to the postseason and compete for the division title. A good offensive line and a veteran quarterback can go a long ways as the Blazers could rise to the top of the West.

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Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles won eight games last season as Jay Hopson has kept the program in the postseason in both of his seasons in Hattiesburg. This will be one of the least experienced teams in the conference however even with the return of the two viable quarterback options for Southern Miss. This was a very respectable defensive team last season that was steady against the run and the pass but some of the numbers were built with a few dominant showings against the bottom of this division. Southern Miss will play one of the weaker schedules in the nation this season with only a September game at Auburn in the ‘certain loss’ camp as they avoid Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State and will play games with Marshall and Louisiana Tech at home. This year’s team likely isn’t as strong as last season’s squad with the Golden Eagles posting fairly dominant numbers in a 6-2 league campaign but matching last season’s record isn’t out of the question with this slate.

Texas-San Antonio: The Roadrunners finished with a winning record last season but they played just 11 games thanks to a hurricane-related cancelation. The schedule starts with a bang this season facing three power five teams in succession to open the season but it won’t be a surprise if UTSA can reverse course with three wins in a row after that. UTSA draws two decent teams from the East and has a fairly tough set of home games in league play for a squad with little returning offensive experience other than running back Jalen Rhodes. The defensive numbers from 2017 are eye-popping with just 17.0 points per game and 288 yards per game allowed albeit through what wound up being an extremely weak schedule. Losing a great deal of leadership from last season plus facing a more challenging schedule likely leads to a decline in San Antonio this season however the gap between the top five teams in this division isn’t likely to be substantial.

UTEP: Dana Dimel is the new leader at UTEP after a long run as a Kansas State offensive assistant. Inheriting a 0-12 program there are obvious issues at UTEP but expectations will be quite grounded. UTEP managed only 12 points per game on average last season as clearly the worst offensive team in the country and the defense faced great strain as well despite keeping the team in a handful of games. There is a lot of player turnover on the roster but the opportunity for quick improvement is possible. Quarterback injuries plagued the team last season as the Miners had to dig far down the depth chart and the 2018 schedule offers a handful of promising opportunities with only a few games where UTEP has little chance to compete. Dimel won’t be able to deliver a miracle turnaround in year one but getting the team in the win column looks likely especially if a few transfers with potential live up to their billing.

Rice: The Owls mad a change with David Baliff let go after more than a decade in Houston. The 1-11 season and four straight seasons of decline in record made the move justifiable especially with last season’s offense averaging only 16 points per game. The Owls had very little production in the passing game last season and making a quick improvement for the program will be challenge for new head coach Mike Bloomgren, a Stanford assistant since 2011 that doesn’t really have ties to the program or area. It will likely be a long transition season for the Owls although in this division there are opportunities for wins. Rice plays at Hawai’i and will play 13 games this season though seven of those games are on the road. Topping last season’s win count looks likely with numerous favorable chances including a FCS opener but there will likely be several lopsided losses as well as a marginal defense lost the top five tacklers from last season.

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Early Mountain West Preview

Early Mountain West Preview:

With six bowl teams and three bowls wins the Mountain West is coming off a solid season although the league has failed to provide a New Year’s six representative since Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl in the first season of the College Football Playoff system four years ago.

Expectations are high for Boise State to be a team that could run the table to be in that conversation this season but this is a conference that has offered some surprises in recent years, including Fresno State’s rise to the West title last season after failing to win a FBS game the previous season. Here is an early summer look at the 12 Mountain West teams and the season ahead in 2018-19.

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MOUNTAIN OUTLOOK:

Boise State: Bryan Harsin is 42-12 at Boise State including posting an 11-3 record last season after defeating Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. Harsin’s name certainly has come up in consideration for major conference openings and that isn’t likely to change with another double-digit win season expected. Boise State takes on a few difficult non-conference games and will face a difficult draw from the West though the toughest conference games will be home games. Brett Rypien returns as one of the top passers in Broncos history but last year’s team took a big step back on offense and was led by a sound defense that was very tough against the run. That defensive success should continue with 10 defensive starters back in 2018 as the Broncos are the clear favorite in the division with the potential to emerge in the national conversation if they can win at Oklahoma State in September.

Utah State: In what felt like a critical season for Matt Wells, Utah State rebounded with a steady season getting back to a bowl game and ultimately finishing 6-7 with an Arizona Bowl loss in overtime. The Aggies possess a veteran offensive line and sophomore quarterback Jordan Love showed some potential last season. The Aggies have an ideal scheduling draw in conference play missing the top contenders on the west side but they are one the road for the key Mountain division games which makes a rise to the top unlikely. Another bowl-eligible season looks possible with a pair of favorable non-conference tests and favoritism likely in all six home dates. Wells has seen his defense get worse each of the past two years and returning to the strong results from his first three seasons in Logan will determine whether or not the Aggies take a leap forward in 2018.

Wyoming: Despite having a NFL draft pick at quarterback Wyoming had terrible offensive production last season, averaging only 288 yards per game in conference play. The Cowboys were outstanding defensively allowing only 17.5 points per game on the season and that unit keyed a second straight bowl bid and the program’s first bowl win since 2009. This year’s team should again dominate defensively with stars at every level of the defense. The offense could actually improve as well with a more stable offensive line helping the running game back to the success the Cowboys had as division champions in 2016-17. Wyoming has a pair of power five non-conference games plus drawing last year’s West champion on the road as there are some hurdles ahead in trying to match or surpass the eight-win count from last season. Boise State and Utah State will both have to head to Laramie for a potential edge as Wyoming is a threat in the Mountain race.

Colorado State: Mike Bobo’s squad doesn’t return a great deal of experience for his fourth season in Fort Collins but a few notable transfers will put major conference talent in his offense. The Rams have made but lost bowl games every season under Bobo with three consecutive 7-6 campaigns. While expectations for a breakthrough are growing it will be a tough act to deliver in 2018. Colorado State does have a preferable draw of the West teams missing the top two threats but a very tough non-conference schedule with three power five dates will leave little margin for error in Mountain West play regarding bowl eligibility. Ultimately a Colorado State defense that surrendered 436 yards per game while going 5-3 in league games last season doesn’t look likely to be greatly improved.

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Air Force: After winning 10 games in 2016, that count was cut in half for Air Force last season, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The Falcons lack proven depth on the offensive line which is always the key component of the option attack but top rusher and passer Arion Worthman returns. The pull from the West features three difficult games with two road tests vs. quality teams and the non-conference schedule is a bit tougher than expected with Army and Florida Atlantic coming off strong seasons. Air Force is 20-4 S/U at home the past four seasons and the Falcons will need to maintain an edge in Colorado Springs to have a successful season with most of the pivotal swing games coming at home.

New Mexico: A great rebuilding run for Bob Davie collapsed last season as the Lobos fell to 3-9. Davie wound up suspended for a month in the winter surrounding misconduct allegations as New Mexico isn’t well positioned for a great season. There is some returning experience and this team lost a couple of very tight games last season to fall from 9-4 to 3-9. The schedule in 2018 is daunting with perhaps the three best West teams on the path and four very difficult home games in conference play. The Lobos have a talented young quarterback and the top rusher from last season back but the defense could slide backwards after two respectable seasons with capable defensive numbers. Ultimately a lot is adding up for potential problems for New Mexico to have a successful season and it won’t be a shock if the program looks to go another direction at some point.

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WEST OUTLOOK:

San Diego State: The Aztecs went 2-0 vs. the Pac-12 last season with a pair of early season upsets but after a 6-0 start, a pair of home losses ended a two-year run on top of the MWC. San Diego State also missed in bowl action losing to Army but Rocky Long has guided this team to a 32-9 record the past three years combined. Christian Chapman is back at quarterback but replacing record setting running back Rashaad Penny could be a challenge. The defense also loses a few contributors but this year’s squad is a threat to get back to the MWC title game. An opening game at Stanford could determine whether or not San Diego State could have more at stake this season. The quartet of road games in league play is daunting as another runner-up finish in the West is realistic as well.

Fresno State: The Bulldogs delivered one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football history as veteran head coach Jeff Tedford turned in a 10-4 season at his Alma Mater after inheriting a team that went 1-11 the previous year. The Bulldogs improved dramatically on both sides of the ball and turned around a lot of close game fortune, winding up falling just short in the MWC Championship but winning the Hawai’i Bowl. Matching last season’s success will be difficult but much of last season’s roster is intact. The schedule is difficult outside of the conference with three perilous non-conference games plus having to play two of the top Mountain squads including making a trip to Boise. A lot went right for Fresno State last season and while the Bulldogs are still a threat in 2018 a slight slide back to the pack looks possible on the 2018 schedule.

UNLV: The Rebels have improved in win-count by one each season under Tony Sanchez and a continuation of that pattern would get the Rebels in a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The schedule ahead features two non-conference road games that will be difficult to win as at least a 4-4 league campaign looks necessary which is the mark the Rebels hit last season. UNLV faces two of the lesser Mountain foes in its path and has a pair of winnable road games in the division. Returning talent on both offense and defense should lead a solid squad with quality in the backfield and a defense with veteran linebackers. The numbers need to get better defensively with 5.4 yards per rush allowed last season while the offense only scored 29 points per game despite posting 427 yards per game as more efficiency will be needed to complete the rise for a breakthrough campaign.

Nevada: Jay Norvell had a disappointing first season at Nevada with the Wolf Pack dipping to 3-9 for the worst season for the program in more than a decade. Nevada allowed at least 30 points in all but three games as the defense has regressed in back-to-back seasons. The offense has capable numbers with Ty Gangi ultimately taking over and delivering a productive season but a program built on running the ball successfully needs more consistent results on the ground. Nevada has a fairly difficult MWC slate as the four home games will all be difficult and winning on the road has been a challenge with Nevada 0-6 in road games last season. The non-conference schedule also features two power five schools and a tough road game at Toledo as a season of improvement isn’t assured even with a low bar to reach and a decent group of returning players.

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San Jose State: Brent Brennan stepped into a tough situation but his first season in San Jose was a challenge with the Spartans outscored by 26 points per game on average with only a three-point win in the season finale a FBS victory for the team. Road games at Pac-12 powers will make September difficult and San Jose State isn’t likely to be competitive in four difficult road games in MWC play. The home dates offer some potential however and matching or topping last season’s win count is realistic even with the rebuilding still clearly a work in progress. Goals will need to be modest for the Spartans this season but several teams have been able to regroup quickly for a major turnaround in this conference in recent years.

 

Hawai’i: The Warriors were a surprise bowl team in 2016 but fell to just 3-9 last season as Nick Rolovich enters his third season with growing unrest. His squad has lost several contributors due to transfers as this will be a very inexperienced team. John Ursua will be the leader in the receiving corps but there isn’t a lot of depth behind him in a system that relies on multiple receiver sets and efficient quarterback play remains a question mark. Defense was the weaker side of the ball last season as well and the three wins came vs. UMass, FCS Western Carolina, and San Jose State last season as competing with the top MWC teams looks unlikely. There are winnable games on the schedule and the Warriors avoid Boise State from the Mountain side while drawing preferable matchups at home.