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August 23, 2014

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Vegas-style college football preview: Mountain West at the sports books

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Sam Morris

Boise State coach Chris Petersen greets Arizona State players after the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas game Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Boise State won the game 56-24.

Odds to win the Mountain West Conference

  • Boise State: 6-to-5
  • Fresno State: 8-to-5
  • Utah State: 7-to-1
  • San Jose State: 7-to-1
  • San Diego State: 10-to-1
  • Nevada-Reno: 20-to-1
  • Air Force: 30-to-1
  • Wyoming: 40-to-1
  • Colorado State: 50-to-1
  • Hawaii: 50-to-1
  • New Mexico: 100-to-1
  • UNLV: 100-to-1
  • Numbers from LVH Superbook

Mountain West Conference win totals

  • Fresno State: 10 (over minus-115, under minus-115)
  • Boise State: 9.5 (over minus-160, under minus-120)
  • UNR: 6 (over Even, under minus-120)
  • UNLV: 3.5 (over minus-130, under plus-110)
  • Fresno State from Cantor Gaming, rest from LVH Superbook.

Note: Talking Points will preview all of college football's most prominent conferences from a betting perspective over the next five weeks leading up to kickoff. With its Media Days winding down locally Tuesday, the Mountain West seemed like a logical place to start.

The never-ending footrace between Boise State and bookmakers may feature a new leader for the first time in nearly two decades.

The popular narrative of non-BCS conference Boise State baffling the country with its run of sustained success once rang truest in Las Vegas. Sports books could never herd the Broncos, as they stampeded to an incredible 13 straight seasons without a losing record against the spread from 1998 to 2010.

Betting blindly on Boise to book a profit, however, hasn’t worked the past two years. Oddsmakers caught up, resulting in the Broncos posting an uncharacteristic 11-15 mark versus the Vegas number combined in 2011 and 2012.

Reasons for the downturn seem somewhat self-explanatory. Three seasons ago, Boise State returned what was immediately hailed as the best team in school history with quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin and five other eventual NFL Draft picks.

That level of build-up bred inflated point spreads. It was unrealistic to expect the Broncos to cover at a high clip when they were an average of minus-25.5 in 13 games that season.

The problem of last year’s team, on the other hand, was carrying the burden that suddenly came with the name recognition of Boise State. With only six returning starters, the Broncos were among the least experienced teams in the nation and hardly resembled the groups that could have helped finance a gambler’s dream home in earlier years.

Could the Smurf Turfers sprout to the top of sports books again in 2013? There’s reason to believe they’re on the verge of making oddsmakers and dissenters blue in the face just like old times.

The expectations are lower than normal in Las Vegas. Between the Golden Nugget and LVH Superbook, betting lines are available for six different Boise State games next season.

The Broncos are underdogs in three of them — plus-3.5 at Washington, plus-2 at Fresno State and plus-3 at Brigham Young. Boise State hasn’t taken points in more than one game since 2006, the season it went undefeated and beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

When it comes to the Mountain West Conference, oddsmakers don’t see it as Boise State and everyone else like some might expect. The LVH lists Boise State at plus-120 (risking $1 to win $1.20) to win the conference championship, which comes out to around a 40 percent chance when accounting for juice.

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Fresno State falls right behind at plus-160 for an approximately 35 percent likelihood. The two teams, along with San Diego State, shared the 2012 Mountain West trophy.

But keep in mind it was a relative down year for the Broncos a season ago, while the Bulldogs overachieved by almost every measure.

Fresno State hadn’t won a conference title since 1989. It benefited from a plus-16 turnover margin, which is sure to regress this season.

First-year coach Tim DeRuyter’s attacking 3-4 defense caught the rest of the league off guard.

Three of the top four tacklers departed, and the Mountain West’s much-ballyhooed offenses should be better prepared this season. The graduation of Robbie Rouse, who was not only Fresno’s top rusher but also third-leading receiver, also seems underrated.

The MWC’s preseason offensive player of the year (quarterback Derek Carr), preseason defensive player of the year (safety Derron Smith) and most skilled receiver (sophomore Davante Adams) should ensure the Bulldogs are solidly in the mix. But paying a premium on them to win the conference when they’ll likely need to beat Boise State at the end of the year in the first-ever Mountain West championship game isn’t advisable.

Nine returning starters for Boise State is a misleading figure, as several others earned valuable playing time a year ago. Sophomore running back Jay Ajayi, most notably, never started but frequently looked like the best running back on the roster with nearly seven yards per carry.

One factor that’s difficult to quantify in the odds lands heavily in Boise State’s favor: coaching. While DeRuyter’s 9-4 debut deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten, Chris Petersen has won at least two more games in each of his seven seasons at Boise State.

It’s going to take a long run of consistency for DeRuyter to sniff the level of Petersen, who’s indisputably one of the five best coaches in college football.

The Bulldogs’ over/under win total of 10 actually comes in a half-game higher than the Broncos’ 9.5 at Cantor Gaming properties.

That’s largely due to the schedule. Fresno State drew a weak slate where it should only be favored by less than a touchdown twice — hosting Boise State on Sept. 20 and at San Diego State on Oct. 26.

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Boise State fans cheer on the field after the Broncos' 28-26 win over Washington in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Boise State boasts a much tougher lineup of opposition. In addition to the aforementioned non-conference tilts at Washington and BYU, Boise State is assigned to meet three of the four best cross-division teams in Fresno, San Diego State and UNR.

There’s a major drop-off behind Boise State and Fresno State, according to oddsmakers, as former WAC members Utah State and San Jose State are the only other two teams listed at less than 10-to-1 at the LVH to win the conference.

Both are 7-to-1 and share a similar situation and set of challenges. They must face significantly improved competition under new leadership after last year’s coaches bolted — Utah State’s Gary Andersen to Wisconsin and San Jose State’s Mike MacIntyre to Colorado — following 11-2 seasons both straight-up and against the spread.

The adjustments should be less pronounced at Utah State, as the Aggies promoted from within and made offensive coordinator Matt Wells their next coach. San Jose State brought in San Diego’s Ron Caragher to take over.

Every hire is unique but it’s hard not to think about the lack of progress made by the Mountain West’s last Football Championship Subdivision coaching import, UNLV’s Bobby Hauck.

The Spartans benefited from a fair share of good fortune during their best year in team history, going 2-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown and posting a plus-8 in turnover margin. The Aggies, in contrast, went 0-2 in such games and were minus-1 in turnovers.

San Jose State looks like a bet-against team, at least early in the season, though if quarterback David Fales lives up to the first-round NFL Draft promise some are bestowing upon him then an adjustment might be necessary.

For a bet-on team, look just south of San Jose State in the projected standings. Or just north of here.

UNR shouldn’t encounter much resistance in reaching its sixth consecutive bowl game under first-year coach Brian Polian.

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UNR quarterback Cody Fajardo (left) cuts away from Hawaii linebacker Brenden Daley during the Wolf Pack's blowout victory on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. The difference in talent in the Mountain West right doesn't get any larger than between these two teams.

Polian retained offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich to continue running the Pistol with quarterback Cody Fajardo, who had nearly 4,000 combined rushing and passing yards last season. The defense, which was one of the worst in the Mountain West a year ago and surrendered 33 points per game, only needs to improve marginally when considering the explosiveness of the offense.

It’s interesting that the betting market disagrees, as gamblers have come in against the Wolf Pack. Cantor had to apply more juice to the under-6.5 wins for UNR. The Golden Nugget opened UNR as a 15-point underdog against UCLA and a 26-point underdog at Florida State. Those numbers have been bet up to 17 and 29, respectively.

At the LVH Superbook, UNR is a 14-point favorite to beat UNLV and keep the Fremont Cannon for the ninth straight year.

But even UNLV and the three other Mountain West teams at 50-to-1 or higher to win the title possesses some cause for optimism.

The Rebels return the most starters in the conference with 18, and have gone 12-5-1 against the spread at home under Hauck.

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UNLV running back Tim Cornett breaks away from the Wyoming defense during their game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Wyoming won 28-23.

Much-ridiculed New Mexico had a winning record against the spread, at 7-6, for the first time in six years last season. In his first season, Bob Davie went 4-9 straight up to win more games than Mike Locksley did in three years combined.

Colorado State, the worst Mountain West team to bet on over the past 10 years with a 49-66 mark versus the number, even eked out a 6-6 against-the-spread record. The Rams lost 53 starts to injury in 2012, the most in the nation according to Phil Steele, which makes their four-win campaign more respectable.

They return 17 starters, one less than UNLV but one more than Hawaii. The Warriors were dreadful a year ago, but covered their last three games and showed some signs of getting used to new coach Norm Chow’s systems overhaul.

The gap between the best in the league and the worst appears as wide as ever, though, and much like the rest of the conferences around the country. The four projected bottom-feeders would all be more than a three-touchdown underdog to Boise State.

Or Fresno State.

Already-released game lines

Aug. 29: UNLV +14 at Minnesota (Golden Nugget)

Aug. 31: UNR +17 at UCLA (Golden Nugget)

Aug. 31: Colorado at Colorado State -2 (Golden Nugget)

Aug. 31: Boise State +3.5 at Washington (Golden Nugget)

Sept. 7: Arizona at UNLV +15 (Golden Nugget)

Sept. 13: Air Force +19.5 at Boise State (LVH Superbook)

Sept. 14: UNR +29 at Florida State (Golden Nugget)

Sept. 14: Central Michigan at UNLV -4 (Golden Nugget)

Sept. 20: Boise State +2 at Fresno State (LVH Superbook)

Sept. 21: Oregon State at San Diego State +6.5 (Golden Nugget)

Sept. 21: Colorado State +41 at Alabama (Golden Nugget)

Sept. 27: Utah State +1 at San Jose State (LVH Superbook)

Sept. 28: Southern Mississippi at Boise State -21.5 (Golden Nugget)

Oct. 4: Brigham Young at Utah State +4 (LVH Superbook)

Oct. 12: Boise State -3 at Utah State (LVH Superbook)

Oct. 25: Boise State +2 at Brigham Young (LVH Superbook)

Oct. 25: Boise State +3 at Brigham Young (Golden Nugget)

Oct. 26: UNLV +14 at UNR (LVH Superbook)

Nov. 21: UNLV +9 at Air Force (LVH Superbook)

Nov. 22: Navy at San Jose State -7.5 (LVH Superbook)

No. 30: Brigham Young at UNR +7.5 (Golden Nugget)

Three early leans: Fresno State under 10 wins, Boise State +2 at Fresno State, UNR +17 at UCLA

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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