As the season is less than a month away and we ramp up our season previews, let’s take a look at which early-season games are going to be most important to the conference that currently leads the Group of 5 pack. Beware, though. Losing too many nonconference games to bad teams or getting blown out against too many good teams could easily send the Mountain West Conference behind the American Athletic Conference in the GO5 pecking order.
Top 5 MWC Nonconference Games in 2015
First of all, let’s be clear on one thing: Every game that Boise State plays will be more important to the conference than every other nonconference game. Right now, Boise State is the MWC’s best (and possibly only) lock to get that bid to a New Year’s Six bowl if they go undefeated. They are certainly the only “mid-major” (along with maybe BYU, but the Cougars are even longer odds) to have even a minuscule chance of reaching the College Football Playoff. The Mountain West Conference wants an undefeated Boise State team, at least when conference play starts. Boise losing a game will take the credibility of the entire conference down several pegs during the entirety of the regular season. An undefeated Boise State keeps the MWC in that category of “too good to be a mid-major, not good enough to be a power conference” that they spent the final years of the BCS occupying. The Mountain West might have other avenues to the New Year’s Six and could even get another team in the tail end of the Top 25, but as far as national recognition goes it’s Boise or bust. So while we look at the nonconference games, bear in mind that every Boise State game is more important than all of these as far as the conference as a whole is concerned.
(Please note, all kickoff times are Eastern time and are subject to change. And, as always, bear in mind that this is based on what we can assume before the season starts. Once some games are played, some of the games on this list might become irrelevant and some other games might suddenly gain importance.)
#5. Hawaii @ Ohio State, September 12th, 3:30 PM, BTN
This is a classic case of “don’t get embarrassed”. Hawaii does not have a chance of beating the Buckeyes, even on Ohio State’s worst day. Unless the Buckeyes lose their opener to Virginia Tech, they will be the #1 team in the country, though, and playing against #1 is always a chance to impress. Hawaii is not talented enough to take real advantage of this game, but with the Buckeyes being only on five days’ rest, expect them to be a little fatigued and not at their best. That makes this game a tremendous opportunity for the Warriors to give this a close-enough scoreline to leave an impression that maybe the MWC can compete with the big boys.
4. Colorado State vs Colorado, September 19th, 7 PM, CBS SN, game played in Denver
The Rams are the Mountain West question mark this year. Jim McElwain left some talent on the roster, but it was clear to many over the past few years that he has done a better job developing and coaching talent than anyone else has done in Fort Collins in a long time. No one is quite sure what Mike Bobo can do with them. The Rams probably don’t have the talent to challenge Minnesota (who they play in Week 2), but this rivalry game against a very beatable Power 5 opponent will give us a major insight into the Rams’ potential this season. It will also tell us whether the stacked Mountain Division will be falling down to Earth a bit or whether, for the second straight year, the MWC’s top four teams are all in the same division.
3. Utah State @ Utah, Friday, September 11th, 9 PM, ESPN2
In most year’s, a Group of 5 conference’s dream is to have two nationally-relevant teams pick up big nonconference wins so that the conference can claim that their champion was challenged in-conference as well as in the nonconference portion of the schedule (think of the arguments against Boise State in their WAC days). Unfortunately for the Mountain West this year, such a plan won’t work out well for them. Utah State, with Chuckie Keeton at the helm for what feels like his 15th year, is clearly the second-best team in the MWC in the preseason. But two of Utah State’s three biggest nonconference games, against Washington and BYU, are against teams that Boise State also plays. While that’s a wash as far as technical SOS for Boise is concerned, it does mean that the stronger USU looks, the weaker Boise’s nonconference schedule looks (and vice versa). Which is why this in-state game is so important for the Mountain West. Utah is certainly more talented than the Aggies this season and by a fair margin. But the conference needs its second-best team to pick up a big nonconference win and this is the only game left, really. A loss, so long as it’s not a blowout, won’t hurt the MWC much. But a win could really help the conference’s dream of getting a second team with a little number next to their name.
2. San Diego State @ Penn State, September 26th, time and network TBD
San Diego State is the preseason favorite in the West Division and are currently running an under-the-radar five-year bowl streak. That will probably continue this year regardless of the outcome of this game. But the West division needs to gain some credibility, and quickly. A win over Cal in Week 2 would help the Aztecs’ reputation. A good showing against Penn State in Happy Valley would do wonders for it. When that final weekend of the season rolls around, conference executives are going to be thinking about the best resume-boosting opponent Boise State can face (and they are desperately hoping for an undefeated Boise State team, as mentioned above). A San Diego State team boasting a nonconference road win over the Nittany Lions is as resume-boosting as you can get in this year’s West Division.
#1. Air Force @ Michigan State, September 19th, Noon, ABC or ESPN
Why do I have this as the Mountain West’s most important nonconference game? I have two reasons. First of all, the Spartans are by far, as far as we can guess before the season, the best opponent that a MWC contender will face this season. Most importantly, though, Air Force actually has a chance to win. Think I’m crazy? This has “trap game” written all over it. Air Force is a talented team, they run an uncommon offense, and they get the Spartans the week after this year’s most anticipated nonconference game for any teams (when Oregon visits East Lansing). This game has little downside as well, because even good teams are expected to lose to the Spartans this year. But an upset of Michigan State, especially if they have just beaten Oregon, will do wonders for the reputations of both Air Force and the Mountain West. And, especially if Michigan State has an impressive season otherwise, it could make the “Boise State to the CFP” conversation just a little bit louder.