Boise favored to win Mountain West again

DARIN OSWALD / Idaho Statesman file Boise State is favored to win the Mountain Division of the Mountain West this season, while Fresno State is expected to win the West Division, which means they could meet in the league title game in December. Last year, the two rivals met during the regular season in California, with the Bulldogs winning 41-40.

LAS VEGAS — The Boise State football program has dominated the Intermountain region to such a degree that no team in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division has beaten the Broncos in 17 years.

That was in 1997, coach Houston Nutt’s only season with the Broncos. They lost to Utah State.

Since then, Boise State is 11-0 against Utah State, 8-0 against Wyoming, 5-0 against New Mexico, 3-0 against Colorado State and 2-0 against Air Force.

So while the Broncos didn’t win the inaugural Mountain Division title last season, they still went 5-0 in the division and won those games by an average of 22.8 points.

“This looks like a pretty daunting task,” first-year Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “What do they say — how do you kill an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The Mountain Division members have taken a few — closing the competitive gap in the year and a half since the division was unveiled to howls that the Broncos would win it every year.

Utah State, which won the division last year because Boise State lost two interdivision games, has won 20 games in the past two years.

Colorado State hired former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain two years ago, part of an increased investment in the program. The Rams won a bowl game last season.

Wyoming hired Bohl, coming off a three-peat as Football Championship Subdivision national champion at North Dakota State.

New Mexico hired former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, who has made the downtrodden Lobos competitive.

And Air Force, coming off a winless conference season, is always a matchup nightmare.

“Our next step is to become consistent,” McElwain said of his Rams. “I see us making huge strides, but they’re strides. We need a lot of huge strides to get up there and become relevant. But the good thing is people are taking note and that tells us we’re doing something right.”

The media picked Boise State to win the division in the poll released Tuesday at the Mountain West media preview. It was a competitive race — Boise State received 20 first-place votes to Utah State’s 12.

The Broncos beat the Aggies 34-23 last year in Logan (it was 34-10 through three quarters). The teams meet in the regular-season finale Nov. 29 at Albertsons Stadium this season.

“That’ll be fun,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “I hope it’s worth all the marbles, for the division title.”

The Broncos and Aggies thought last year’s showdown was, too. The Broncos already had lost to Fresno State but the only way they could lose the division after beating Utah State was to sustain a second loss.

That happened Nov. 23 at San Diego State.

The Aggies were thrilled to swipe the division — they lost to Fresno State in the inaugural championship game — but remain disappointed that they failed to knock the Broncos off their perch as the division’s best team.

“That game really bonded us together as a team,” said senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who missed the game with a knee injury. “All that hardship, something good had to come out of it all.”

Said senior linebacker Zach Vigil: “It drives me nuts that we didn’t have Chuckie. Even with that, that game, we did a lot of things not very good. We didn’t stop the running back (Jay Ajayi) very well. That’s something we take pride in as a defense and we didn’t do a very good job that day. We’re excited we have another opportunity to play them this year.”

Colorado State gets the first crack, Sept. 6 in Boise. The Rams allowed 28 straights points after taking the first-half lead in a 42-30 loss to the Broncos in November.

The Rams boast one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, senior Garrett Grayson. He leads a big-play, physical offense that must rebuild on the offensive line and replace standout running back Kapri Bibbs.

McElwain has changed the culture in Fort Collins in two years. The Rams scored 18 points in the final 3 minutes to beat Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl.

“He expects us to be great and he won’t accept anything less than that,” linebacker Aaron Davis said. “Guys bought in — especially after that bowl game.”

The Broncos also make their first trip to Air Force on Sept. 27, go to New Mexico — where they flirted with a loss in 2012 — on Nov. 8 and visit Wyoming on Nov. 22.

But as long as they don’t lose two of their three interdivision games again, the expectation is that the season will hinge on the Utah State game.

“Standing there last year on that field with Utah State, wow, wow,” Davie said. “I really respect what Utah State has done. Those 64 kids they brought into Albuquerque last year, whew, that was impressive. That didn’t happen in a year.”

The question is whether the Aggies have passed the Broncos — or if that remains the hurdle they can’t clear.

Wells balked at the suggestion that the Broncos’ 8-5 record last year and the departure of coach Chris Petersen left them vulnerable.

“What’d Chris Petersen do his first year in there?” Wells said. “I know what he did. He ran the table, didn’t he? Absolutely not. That program has sustained itself over time. It is a model of consistency.”

The Broncos, however, are not without cracks. They haven’t won an outright conference title since 2009. In three years in the Mountain West, they have finished second overall in 2011, in a three-way tie for first in 2012 and second in their division in 2013.

“It kind of fuels the fire a little bit,” Boise State senior wide receiver Matt Miller said. “Really looking back on it, a few plays here and there and those first couple seasons we would have won outright. You work a little harder because you want to make those plays in crunch time so you’re not saying what if this happened or what if that happened.

“You want to make it happen.”