CFB: Predictions for the Mountain West in 2024

By Simon Carroll

The 2024 College Football season is on the horizon! As Saturday ‘ball gets ever closer, we bring you a series of conference previews. Today, Simon Carroll makes his predictions for the Mountain West, which enters a unique year as it entertains (but doesn’t welcome) the homeless Oregon State and Washington State:

Conference Winner - Boise State Broncos

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Boise State may have won the Mountain West last year, but they did it the hard way; an inconsistent start saw Andy Avalos relieved from his duties, and only a resurgence under Spencer Danielson saw the Broncos make it to a three-way tie with UNLV and San Jose State. A convoluted algorithm saw them face the Rebels in the Championship game, and they picked up their first MWC title since 2019.

Danielson returns, and presides over a roster teeming with talent; not only did the Broncos bring in highly touted 5* QB Malachi Nelson from USC via the portal, but they also kept hold of a lot of promising stars of their own. Running back Ashton Jeanty (more on him later) is now the sole, undisputed leader of the ground game after George Holani heads to the NFL. Along with a stacked defense, Boise should be tricky customers for any team on their schedule this year.

It’s fair to mention this conference has a host of teams that could potentially challenge the Broncos in 2024, with UNLV, Fresno State and Air Force very strong in recent seasons and Utah State, Colorado State and Hawaii all seemingly on the rise. The truth is, they all feel a tier down from Boise State, who will be convinced they can go undefeated in conference play. The question is, in an unusual year where they have shrunk their conference schedule to accommodate Washington State and Oregon State, can they do enough outside of Mountain West play to make a run at the expanded College Football Playoffs?

Most Valuable Player - Ashton Jeanty, RB, Boise State

The Mountain West has some incredible offenses this season, with some proven quarterbacks returning (see Brayden Schager and Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi for details) and other talented gunslingers coming in via the transfer portal. But if there’s one name you can trust to hang your hat on in this conference, it has to be Boise State’s star running back, Ashton Jeanty.

Despite being part of a triple-headed monster alongside QB Taylen Green (436 yards rushing) and RB George Holani (748 yards rushing), Jeanty still DOMINATED on the blue turf, putting up 1,347 yards and 14 scores for Boise in just his second season on campus. Not only that, but he was a significant weapon in the passing game too, adding a further 569 yards and 5 scores to his resume. In two seasons with the Broncos, Jeanty’s total production sits just shy of 2,900 yards and 26 scores – and it’s clear that he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his talent yet.

Jeanty considered his options this offseason, before returning to Idaho for what might be a ‘polish up’ season ahead of a likely NFL career. Claiming he’s “a Bronco for life”, Jeanty and his family were undoubtedly disillusioned with the murky underworld of the transfer portal. Whatever his reasons for staying, Danielson and his team will benefit from having one of the most explosive playmakers in college football on their sideline and not somebody else’s in 2024.

Offensive Player of the Year - Jalen Royals, WR, Utah State

All it takes is a change of number it seems.

If I was writing this article 12 months ago, I wouldn’t have known who Jalen Royals was. Beginning college life at Georgia Military College, the wide receiver transferred to Utah State ahead of the 2022 season. And despite playing in all 12 games that year, he didn’t record one single stat. No receptions, no kickoff returns, not even a cheeky run on a jet sweep. Without being disrespectful, when it came to football, Royals was a non-factor his first year in Logan.

All that changed last season, which coincided with a change of jersey number. Jumping from 81 to 1, Royals EXPLODED, making 71 grabs for 1,080 yards. He also set the school record for receiving touchdowns in a single season with 15. Putting this down to a change in digits may seem a little crass considering Royals’ skillset; he has blazing, 4.3 second forty speed, is a consummate route runner, and competitive at the catch point. But it is fair to wonder where a talent like this has been hiding – Royals received zero scholarship offers coming out of Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs, Georgia.

The Aggies have found themselves a real diamond in the rough.

Defensive Player of the Year - Ahmed Hassanein, EGDE, Boise State

Five years ago, Ahmed Hassanein barely knew a word of English. The Cairo native left his home nation of Egypt for Anaheim, California back in 2019, a crossfit athlete that had never played football in his life. Two years of high school ball saw him attract a multitude of scholarship offers, and choosing Boise spent the first two years with the Broncos perfecting his craft.

In 2023, Hassanein had his breakout campaign, being named an All-American, All-District and All-Conference. He finished second in the Mountain west with 12.5 sacks, good enough for 6th in program history, and added 53 more tackles as he helped Boise State to another Mountain West title. Now entering his senior season, Hassanein is primed to go one further in 2024 and cement himself as one of the program’s greatest ever edge rushers.

Boise State has previous when it comes to utilising edge talent from abroad, after sending George Tarlas (Greece – Raiders) to the NFL two years ago. Hassanein will have similar aspirations no doubt, but after passing up offers elsewhere to stick with the Broncos, this coming season looks like a fantastic opportunity for him to show pro scouts what he has achieved in such a short space of time.

Freshman of the Year - Damien McDaniel, WR, UNLV

It’s not often a three-star prospect turns down scholarship offers from Ole Miss and Oregon in favour of UNLV, but that’s exactly what wide receiver Damien McDaniel did last year, committing to the Rebels in December. In fairness, it’s a testament to the great work being done by Barry Odom in Las Vegas that he’s able to lure a coveted talent out of Texas – and McDaniel has a big opportunity to get his college career up and running early at Reliant Stadium.

A two-way star at Hitchcock high school, McDaniel is a talented athlete who also won a state championship ring on the basketball team. Fairly tall with a slender frame, he’ll be looking to challenge for snaps as both an outside receiver and in the slot – and his speed will make him an intriguing deep threat in Brennan Marrion’s offense.

Oh, and his nickname is ‘Jackpot’. Sometimes, things are just meant to be.

Breakout Player of the Year - Pofele Ashlock, WR, Hawaii

The Mountain West is all about the receivers! 2024 is the year that Jimmy Chang finally brings back the high powered offense he once ran himself at Hawaii. The former Warriors QB enters his third season as head coach with some explosive pieces in the passing game, led by returning quarterback Brayden Schager. Schager will want to improve on the 3,500 yards he put up last season – and he has an ascending receiver to target…

Can you be a breakout player if you put up 832 yards last year? Well yes, I think you can – if you did that as a freshman. That’s exactly what Pofele Ashlock achieved in his first season on the Islands, and despite working in the ‘Air Raid’ offense and having plenty of mouths to feed, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to crush those numbers in 2024. Tall and long with impressive burst, he predominantly lines up as one of two slot receivers for Hawaii, but as his game develops more opportunities on the outside will come his way.

Remember where you heard it first – Ashlock is going to be a STAR.

Surprise Team of the Year - Colorado State Rams

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One of the best things about the Mountain West is there’s always one team that surprises you each year. Last season it was UNLV, the year before Air Force. And for some inexplicable reason, I think the team to watch out for in 2024 is Colorado State…

The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2017, and haven’t hoisted the Mountain West trophy since 2002, a forgotten memory of the halcyon days of Sonny Lubick. Current head coach Jay Norvell heads into year three of his career in Fort Collins, enjoying a modest improvement last season, but still not close to challenging for conference honors. His five years in charge of MWC rivals Nevada produced no titles either, but perhaps this season he has the pieces to change that.

If Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi can cut down the turnovers, he has the weapons to make a real mark in this conference. Tory Horton is a bonafide 1,000 yard receiver, topping that mark the last two years. He’s joined by deep threat Ollie Donovan who comes over from Cincinnati, and big things are expected from redshirt freshman running back Justin Marshall. Last year’s o-line was a vulnerability, and improvement here is paramount if they are to defy expectations.

We’ll know more about this team if they are again competitive against Colorado, who they took to double overtime last year. Outside of that, they avoid Washington State, Boise State and UNLV on the schedule. This will be an up and down season, but seven wins and a bowl game is well within this team’s reach. In a shrunken, seven game conference schedule after accommodating the ‘Pac-2’ teams, that might be enough to put them in contention down the stretch.

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