The Mountain West has elite skill at wide receiver and running back entering this season (if it happens), but there are major question marks at quarterback, a position that typically dictates how good (or bad) a conference ends up being in any given year. There are no bona fide stars at the position, as evidenced by the fact no MW quarterbacks made the cut for the 30-player preseason Manning Award watch list, which goes to the nation's top quarterback. The MW was the only FCS conference without at least one player honored. But the league's quarterbacks will have some good players around them, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see one or two have breakout seasons despite meager outside expectations.
I was going to wait to post this story, which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, until a potential spring season, but with Pro Football Focus releasing its FBS starting quarterback rankings this week, I figured I'd release this article ranking the MW quarterback situations into tiers. Since there are 130 FBS teams, we've split our picks into five tiers, with Tier 1 ostensibly meaning a position rank from 1-26 nationally in terms of quarterback strength; Tier 2 being 27-53; Tier 3 being 54-79; Tier 4 being 80-105; and Tier 5 being 106-130. Here we go.
Boise State: While Boise State's Hank Bachmeier didn't make the Manning Award watch list, he did make the Davey O'Brien watch list, which also goes to the nation's top quarterback (because every position needs multiple postseason awards). Bachmeier played fine as a true freshman, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 1,879 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. He averaged a healthy 8.6 yards per attempt and had a quarterback rating of 142.7. Boise State's addition of USC grad transfer and former top recruit Jack Sears (who originally committed to MW rival San Diego State) indicates the Broncos might not be fully sold on Bachmeier, who shared starting duties while struggling with injuries last year. Boise State also has Chase Cord, who threw for nine scores against three interceptions as a sophomore last season. There's enough depth here to be confident this group will be above average. Pro Football Focus ranking: 65 out of 130 (fourth in MW)
Colorado State: Collin Hill showed a lot of promise but torn his ACL three times in Fort Collins and transferred this offseason to South Carolina, where he'll be reunited with his former CSU head coach Mike Bobo, who is the Gamecocks' offensive coordinator. The position isn't completely bare for Colorado State, which returns the 6-foot-5, 244-pound Patrick O'Brien, who finished the year as the team's starter. O'Brien started his college journey at Nebraska before transferring into the MW. Last season, he completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 2,803 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt and had a quarterback rating of 140 while playing his first extensive snaps in college as a sophomore. Depth is an issue as the Rams only have three quarterbacks on its roster, with backup Justice McCoy tossing two interceptions his four career attempts in college. Pro Football Focus ranking: 45 out of 130 (second in MW)
Hawaii: Cole McDonald accounted for 8,752 yards and 80 touchdowns the last two seasons before leaving Hawaii after his junior season to turn pro (he was a seventh-round draft pick by Washington). As impressive as McDonald was the last two seasons, it always felt like coach Nick Rolovich trusted his backup, Chevan Cordeiro, more, and Cordeiro briefly took over the starting duties last season. With McDonald gone (as well as Rolovich, who took the Washington State job), Cordeiro is the in the lead role. The sophomore has completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,291 with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions during two seasons at Hawaii (both were technically freshman years). There are some former three-star recruits behind Cordeiro in Zach Daniel and Boone Abbott, but this is Cordeiro's show to run. Hawaii's history of quality quarterback play bumps the group up to Tier 2. Pro Football Focus ranking: 88 out of 130 (ninth in MW)
Nevada: After indecision at quarterback during Jay Norvell's first three seasons (six quarterbacks have seen playing time with five getting starts), there's no question who's the man this year. That'd be sophomore Carson Strong, who started 10 games in 2019 and acquitted himself quite well. He completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,335 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His average yards per pass was only 6.2, so he'll have to stretch the field better, and his quarterback rating of 121.8 was below the level of Bachmeier, O'Brien and Cordeiro, but the 6-foot-4 Strong could have a higher ceiling that those three (he averaged 271.6 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions when he was healthy). There isn't much depth behind Strong, but given his arm strength, the experience he gained last year and his receiving corps, he could end up in Tier 2 by season's end. Pro Football Focus ranking: 90 out of 130 (10th in MW)
Wyoming: There's no doubt who the MW's best running quarterback is. That'd be Wyoming's Sean Chambers, who has rushed for 896 yards (6.0 per carry) and 12 touchdowns in 12 games during his first two seasons in Laramie. He's not nearly as sharp throwing the ball, so that remains a big question mark. He's completed only 45.9 percent of his 146 career passes, although he averages a strong 8.1 yards per attempt, so there is big-play potential there. Chambers also has limited interceptions with only three against 10 touchdown passes. Given his proclivity to run the ball, Chambers has suffered season-ending injuries in each of his two college seasons, which is a concern. Unlike the last couple of years, he won't be backed up by Tyler Vander Waal, who transferred to Idaho State in the offseason. But Levi Williams is a quality backup who threw for three touchdowns in Wyoming's 38-17 bowl win last year. Pro Football Focus ranking: 74 out of 130 (seventh in MW)
UNLV: The Rebels has a quarterback battle on its hands after TCU transfer Justin Rogers was given immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Rogers was a top-50 recruit in the 2018 class but attempted just one pass in two seasons with the Horned Frogs. Former starter Armani Rogers transferred to Ohio, so he's out of the mix, but sophomore Kenyon Oblad was better than most expected playing as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He put up similar numbers to Nevada's Strong, completing 54.2 percent of his passes for 2,081 yards (6.8 yards per attempt) with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Former Cal transfer Max Gilliam also is on the roster after plating extensively in 2018. True freshman Doug Brumfield has a lot of potential. But this battle is between Rogers and Oblad, and it's probably safe to assume Rogers gets the nod considering he was recruited by first-year coach Marcus Arroyo and Oblad wasn't. Pro Football Focus ranking: 86 out of 130 (eighth in MW)
San Jose State: SJSU lost last year's MW offensive player of the year, Josh Love, who threw for 3,923 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2019, but it has what appears to be a capable replacement in Arkansas transfer Nick Starkel, who began his career at Texas A&M before transferring within the SEC. I'm always a little leery of a quarterback who has transferred twice (one is understandable). Starkel was a three-star recruit coming out of high school, so he wasn't a big prep star. But he put up solid numbers at A&M, completing better than 60 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. He wasn't good at Arkansas (53.6 percent passing, seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions), but nothing at Arkansas last season was good. Starkel has a strong cast of receivers to work with and won't be playing SEC defense this season, so there's a chance he jumps up a tier against lesser competition. Pro Football Focus ranking: 56 out of 130 (third in MW)
San Diego State: For all the amazing things San Diego State did in the Rocky Long era, it never had a great quarterback. In fact, it rarely even had an above-average quarterback. The Aztecs leaned heavily on a great running game, and that was cashed in for three MW championships, but quarterback was always a position that could have been upgraded. With starter Ryan Agnew gone after graduation and USC transfer Jack Sears switching his commitment to Boise State, it appears to be Carson Baker's job. The 6-3 quarterback started SDSU's final regular-season game last year as a redshirt freshman and was good in a win over BYU. Baker completed 19-of-24 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown. He was a lower-level recruit with just one FBS offer (that coming from SDSU) but showed promise in his lone start. There isn't much depth behind Baker, so it's his job and he'll be surrounded by a good supporting cast. Pro Football Focus ranking: 91 out of 130 (11th in MW)
Fresno State: The Bulldogs have a quarterback competition between Ben Wooldridge, who is entering his third season at Fresno State, and Washington transfer Jake Haener, who sat out under transfer rules last season. Haener, who is 6 feet, didn't get much playing time at Washington, tossing just 13 passes, completing nine for 107 yards with a touchdown and interception. He will battle last year's backup Wooldridge, who also has played sparingly. The good news for these quarterback is they get to work with first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer, who is one of the better offensive minds in the conference. Haener is expected to win the job, and he's got intriguing potential but doesn't have the experience of some of the others above him on the list. Haener has more ceiling than some of those above him, but he's an unknown going into what would be his first year as a full-time college starter. Pro Football Focus ranking: 101 out of 130 (12th in MW)
Utah State: The Aggies had first-round draft pick Jordan Love last season but he looked more like a quarterback in need of being benched after posting 20 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a 129.1 rating, which was a combination of a poor supporting cast and some suspect coaching. With Love off to the NFL, he's expected to be replaced by Utah transfer Jason Shelley, who should get the job after last year's backup, Henry Colombi, transferred to Texas Tech following Shelley's move to Logan (if you didn't notice, players like to transfer these days). A grad transfer, Shelley had some playing experience at Utah, mostly in 2018. He put up so-so numbers, completing 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,205 yards, six touchdowns and six picks (only 6.7 yards per attempt). He can make plays with his legs, but like Haener, he'll have to prove he can be an above-average starting quarterback (and his supporting cast isn't great). Pro Football Focus ranking: 71 out of 130 (fifth in MW)
Air Force: This is a tricky one because the latest update has Donald Hammond III not in good standing with Air Force, meaning he wouldn't play this season. Hammond would have been my vote for MW preseason offensive player of the year and would have put Air Force's quarterback situation in Tier I. But if he's not in good standing to play, quarterback is a big question mark for the Falcons, and it's obviously a hugely important position given the triple-option scheme. Since Hammond is not listed on Air Force's 2020 roster, this ranking reflects him not being available to play this season. That leaves four quarterbacks on Air Force's roster who have combined to attempt two college passes, both from the hand of junior Chance Stevenson, who is 2-for-2 with 63 yards while rushing two times for 11 yards in his career. The difference between Hammond starting and Stevenson starting seems vast. Pro Football Focus ranking: 31 out of 130 (first in MW)
New Mexico: This is the MW team in which I have the largest disagreement with Pro Football Focus, which ranks the Lobos' Tevaka Tuioti as the sixth-best starting quarterback in the league. I obviously have the Lobos last here. One thing Tuioti has that others on the list don't is experience. It's just not great experience. In 20 career games, Tuioti has completed 51.4 percent of his passes for 2,604 yards and 16 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. His quarterback rating is 119.8, although he's a solid runner (504 yards, 5.3 ypc, two touchdowns). New Mexico is no longer using its option offense after Bob Davie was fired, so perhaps the new staff can unlock some more accurate passing from Tuioti, who has struggled mightily on deep balls. But my guess is there's a better chance Tuioti doesn't finish the season as the Lobos' starter than he ends up being in the top half of the MW in quarterback proficiency. Pro Football Focus ranking: 73 out of 130 (sixth in MW)