Vilardo: 2023 MW Football Title Preview & Power Rankings

The conference race came down to two matchups in the final week of the regular season

Posted on December 1, 2023


  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

It was a season of twists and turns in the Mountain West in 2023. We had some surprises, both good and bad, and we saw some upsets and dominant performances.

The conference race came down to the final week of the regular season with two head-to-head matchups to decide things.

The hottest team in the league will not be among the two dueling it out in Las Vegas for the title, but that is why it’s a 12-game season and not played over one month.

Here’s my Conference Championship Preview and a final look at how the MW teams stand at the end of the regular season.


Mountain West Championship Preview
Boise State at UNLV

Saturday, December 2
12:00 pm, FOX

Boise State is appearing in the Mountain West Championship game for the seventh time in search of their fifth title, while  UNLV is playing in the contest for the first time.

The Broncos rank 11th in the nation in rushing with 207.7 yards per game. In Mountain West games BSU has run for 238.1 yards per outing.

The Rebels have allowed 151.8 yards on the ground per game, but in the last two games, they have allowed 288.5.

This seems like a game in which the Broncos should be able to move the ball on the ground.

The two-headed monster of George Holani and Ashton Jeanty, along with the dual threat of Taylen Green could be in for a very big game.

And they will need it. Maddux Madsen is out and he was the thrower in the Broncos’ two-QB system.

Bronco RB Ashton Jeanty | KTVB.com

The passing game could struggle, but the Broncos could run for 275. If they can avoid turnovers they will be in good shape.

Both of these teams run the ball very well.

The Broncos may have a slight edge in the run game on offense and an edge with the offensive line. BSU also has a slight edge when it comes to stopping the run.

A big key for UNLV in this one will be Jayden Maiava and Ricky White.

The two have connected well all season and White is 38 yards away from tying Jim Sandusky’s program record of 1,346 receiving yards in a season.

The Rebels passing attack could prove to be an X-factor in this one. The real key could be which team controls the line of scrimmage better.

My Pick: Boise State 28, UNLV 26


Mountain West Regular Season Power Rankings

1. San Jose State Spartans (7-5, 6-2) ▲1
San Jose State ended the regular season with a six-game win streak, and while they will miss out on the conference championship game, no team in the league is hotter at the moment.

The Spartans averaged 38.7 points per game during their win streak to close the regular season, outscoring opponents 232-106.

Kairee Robinson closed out the regular season with a TD in every game he played this season and his 11 straight games with a rushing TD is the second-longest active run in the nation.

In their final five games of the regular season, the Spartans outscored their opponents 125-46 in the second half.

The Spartans will await their bowl game and whoever they play will get an extremely hot opponent that has been tested with a difficult schedule.

No matter what the outcome of the bowl game, the Spartans have back-to-back over .500 seasons for the first time since 1991-92.


2. Boise State Broncos (7-5, 6-2) ▲1
Spencer Danielson is just the second interim head coach in college football history to take over midseason and lead his team to its league championship game.

The only other coach to achieve that feat was Clay Helton with USC in 2015.

For as good as Boise State has been in recent years, they will be looking for their first Mountain West Championship game title since 2019.


3. UNLV Rebels (9-3, 6-2) ▼2
UNLV fell behind by 17 in their regular season finale and it was too much to overcome against a really good San Jose State squad.

UNLV had a six-game home-field winning streak that ended at the hands of the Spartans.

The loss may dampen the end of the regular season, but the Rebels will still play and host the Mountain West Championship game for the first time ever.

UNLV reached the nine-win mark for only the sixth time in history and the first time since finishing 10-1 in 1984. The Rebels have scored at least 24 points in 10 consecutive games and the 11th time this season.

The ten-game streak is the longest in school history since making the jump to Division I in 1978.


4. Wyoming Cowboys (8-4, 5-3) ▲1
Wyoming closed out the regular season with their first road win of the season and did so in dominant fashion over Nevada.

In the 42-6 win in Reno, the Cowboys recorded 12 TFL, giving them 21 over the last two games.

With a win in their upcoming bowl game, Wyoming would reach the nine-win mark for the season. It would be the program’s most victories in a single season since going 10-2 in 1996.


5. Fresno State Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4) ▼1
The Bulldogs lost the Old Oil Can for the first time since 2019 and Fresno State will enter their bowl game on a three-game losing streak.

The last two losses came at the hands of New Mexico and most recently San Diego State.

For a team that was trending towards playing in the conference championship game for most of the season, the collapse at the end is especially troublesome.

The Bulldogs lost the game after trailing at the break which drops them to 1-4 on the season when trailing at halftime.

Despite the difficult end to the season, Fresno State has a chance to build momentum heading into the offseason with a solid performance in the bowl game and preparation leading up to it.


6. Air Force Falcons (8-4, 5-3) ◄►
Air Force has dropped their last four games after starting the season 8-0. The offense let the Falcons down in the last third of the season.

Air Force had some injuries, most notably to QB Zac Larrier, but the offense did not have the same edge it had to start the season.

Against Boise State, the Falcons ran for 206 yards. It was the fourth time in the last six games that Air Force has rushed for under 250 yards.

The Falcons averaged 33.6 points per game during their eight games to start the season. In their four-game losing streak to close things out that figure fell to 15.5 points per game.


7. Utah State Aggies (6-6, 4-4) ▲1
It may have taken all season, but the Aggies may have finally got the first quarter figured out, and it was a good thing as they needed every point in the overtime win over New Mexico.

USU outscored the Lobos 14-7 in the opening quarter, on the season they have now been outscored 120-45 in the first 15 minutes.

Levi Williams had thrown a total of 30 passes in his two seasons with Utah State prior to getting his first start in the finale.

He accounted for 351 yards of offense and five touchdowns in leading the Aggies to bowl eligibility in the 44-41 double-overtime win.

It means USU is bowl-eligible for the 11th time in the last 13 seasons. Blake Anderson has been stellar in the final month of the regular season since arriving in Logan.

The Aggies are now 9-3 in 12 games in the month of November under Anderson.


8. Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (5-8, 3-5) ▲2
Hawai’i ends the season with some momentum to take into Year Three of the Timmy Chang era. The Rainbow Warriors closed out the season going 3-1 in their final four games.

Brayden Schager looks to have command of this offense and that should carry over to next season and UH should hit the ground running in 2024—or passing, as it would be.

The QB threw for 300+ yards six times, becoming the eighth quarterback in program history to post at least six 300+ yard passing games in a single season.

Schrager’s 272.5 passing yards per game ended up being the 21st most in the nation.


9. Colorado State Rams (5-7, 3-5) ▼2
Colorado State will not be going bowling this season.

Against Hawai’i, the Rams lost on a 51-yard field goal as time expired. It was the third time this season that CSU dropped a game on the final play of the game. The others came against Colorado and UNLV.

The Rams certainly had their chances to get bowl-eligible and did not take advantage of opportunities to get the road wins when they were presented with them.

This was the sixth time this season the Rams had a game decided by one score as they finished 3-3 in such games.


10. New Mexico Lobos (4-8, 2-6) ▼1
New Mexico lost a double overtime heartbreaker in their season finale against Utah State.

The Lobos ended 2023 with four wins, their most in a season since going 9-4 in 2016. The two conference wins also equaled the highwater mark since going 6-2 in that 2016 season.

Ultimately none of those improvements were enough to keep Danny Gonzales on the sidelines for a fifth season. Gonzales finished up 12-32 in his four seasons in Albuquerque and 5-26 in Mountain West play.

New Mexico ended the season as the most penalized team in the country with 9.9 flags per game for 89.7 yards per contest.


11. San Diego State Aztecs (4-8, 2-6) ▲1
The Aztecs suffered through a 4-8 season, their first sub .500 record since an identical 4-8 mark in 2009, Brady Hoke’s first season in his first stint with SDSU.

In the win over the Bulldogs, Jalen Mayden had a 70-yard TD run in the second quarter, the longest TD run by an Aztec QB since at least 1986.

The 33-18 win over Fresno State in Hoke’s final game as a head coach was far more indicative of what was expected this season than the results that the Aztecs had.

The win in the finale not only sends Hoke out a winner but will build momentum in the program for new hire Sean Lewis and his staff to use heading into the 2024 season.


12. Nevada Wolf Pack (2-10, 2-6) ▼1
Nevada had some moments in 2023.

They broke their 16-game losing streak at the time with a shutout win at San Diego State, the first shout for the Wolf Pack since 2011.

Nevada had a two-game win streak and played a very good Kansas team to the gun in September before falling by seven.

There just were not quite enough of those moments this season and the result was a 2-10 mark for the second consecutive season.




—More from Stephen Vilardo—