A year removed from a chaotic, unpredictable campaign, the Mountain West Conference boasts two teams capable of becoming the Group of Five’s first Playoff crashers.
The Mountain West took a step back as a conference in 2015, based partially on the injury-plagued disappointment Boise State suffered. Picking up the banner in the Broncos’ stead last season was San Diego State, which after a 1-3 start, ripped off 10 straight wins to finish the campaign.
Returning a prominent corps of starters from the first outright conference championship team in San Diego State, the Aztecs have the weapons to make a run at the Group of Five’s berth into a New Year’s Six bowl game. But longtime voice for college football’s voiceless Boise State should return to form.
The two do not face in the regular season, but could be on a collision course in the Mountain West Championship Game that determines not only the Group of Five auto-bid, but perhaps shakes up the College Football Playoff scene.
The Playoff lifting its velvet rope for the Group of Five when it’s already guaranteed to deny at least one Power Five conference entry would not come lightly. Margin for error is nonexistent.
Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter, who shares the Mountain West with Boise State and San Diego State, said at last summer’s media days he could not envision a scenario in which the Power Five would open the glass ceiling.
However, the initial ice is seemingly thawing. The Group of Five is 2-0 in the New Year’s Six bowls since the reformatting of the postseason, starting with Boise State’s thrilling, Fiesta Bowl defeat of Arizona. Houston’s emphatic win over Florida State in January’s Peach Bowl opened discussion about the Cougars as potential Playoff crashers in 2016.
Houston’s obviously best positioned for a Playoff run heading into the season. Drawing 2015 season semifinalist Oklahoma in Week 1 does nothing to hurt the Cougars’ cause — unless they lose, of course.
That immediate, preseason buzz is essential for an outsider to position itself into the party. While Houston’s the focal team, both Boise State and San Diego State have enough clout ahead of the fall.
San Diego State’s drawing some Top 25 chatter after head coach Rocky Long openly campaigned for last season’s team to finish in the polls. Lindy’s preview obliged for 2016, slating the Aztecs at No. 19 nationally.
Meanwhile, Boise State is Boise State. The program’s cultivated a reputation as one of the nation’s best for the last 15 years, and deserves some credit for the erosion of the BCS and formation of a Playoff.
The 2016 seasons marks the 10-year anniversary of the Broncos’ win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, an important milestone in proving the potential of non-power conference teams against college football’s elite.
Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin was an assistant on that 2006 team, and responsible for crafting the various trick plays that threw Oklahoma out of balance down the stretch. Harsin has a talented and experienced offense in 2016 that could unleash similar fireworks.
The Bronco trio of quarterback Brett Rypien, running back Jeremy McNichols and wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck rank among the best skill-position triads anywhere in the country.
San Diego State’s strength lies more in its defense — fitting enough, given Long’s credentials as a former defensive coordinator.
The Aztecs held opponents to just 16.4 points per game last season, tied for sixth in the nation with Michigan. Among the five teams that allowed fewer points than San Diego State? Fiesta Bowl champion Ohio State and national champion Alabama.
A loaded secondary keys San Diego State’s stingy defense. Derek Babiash, Na’im McGee and Malik Smith join with All-America caliber cornerback Damontae Kazee to form a unit that last year, contributed to a top 10 national ranking.
Just having the opportunity to make the Playoff means running a perfect gauntlet — and having some high-quality wins to show for it.
Long hasn’t minced words on Power Five programs failing to travel to Group of Five opponents’ homes, but the Aztecs draw the Pac-12’s Cal Golden Bears at Qualcomm Stadium this season.
A road trip to perennial Mid-American Conference standout Northern Illinois give San Diego State two prime opportunities for meaningful, nonconference wins outside of the Mountain West.
Boise State draws two Power Five games, one of which is at home against a Washington State team that finished 2015 just outside of the Top 25.
If all goes perfectly, the two teams would meet in a showdown of undefeateds the night before the Bowl Selection Show. Such a scenario guarantees the winner a Top 20 (or better) win for the resume at a most opportune time.
Should Power Five conference teams falter — and only two undefeateds have reached the tournament in its first two years — a perfect Mountain West champion would have a compelling case.