A look at the Mountain West Conference by division and predicted order of finish:

WEST DIVISION

1. FRESNO STATE: The Bulldogs lost plenty, including QB Derek Carr, the second-round pick of the Raiders. They also lost their two top receivers in Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse. But an experienced offensive line -- Fresno's 67 career starts among returning linemen is third in the conference -- give reason to believe the defending champions can remain the team to beat. The defense also brings back eight starters, and even though that side of the ball struggled last year, the experience should help it improve in a conference that doesn't have the same elite quarterbacks this season.

2. SAN DIEGO STATE: The Aztecs are one of the few teams that can boast a returning quarterback in Quinn Kaehler, the former California High-San Ramon and Diablo Valley College signal-caller who threw for 3,007 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. But San Diego State's bell cow was running back Adam Muema and he's gone after declaring early for the NFL Draft, then walking away from the game. His backup, D.J. Pumphrey, returns. So does leading receiver Ezell Ruffin. The Aztecs have been to four straight bowl games and should make that five.


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3. NEVADA: The Wolf Pack had an uncharacteristically down 4-8 season last year with first-year coach Brian Polian. That didn't stop Nevada from continuing its dominance against San Jose State. QB Cody Fajardo was banged up most of the year, but his performance against the Spartans (20 of 27 for 171 and a touchdown, 104 rushing yards and a touchdown) showed how lethal he can be. If he leads the Wolf Pack to a win on the road at SJSU, a game that follows meetings with Pac-12 foes Washington State and Arizona and a bye, Nevada will be in good position to beat out the Spartans for a top three spot in the division.

4. SAN JOSE STATE: The Spartans have the skill players to compete for a top spot in the division. The big question will be if the least experienced offensive line in the conference and a new quarterback can deliver a productive offense, and if the revamped defense can win a couple games. SJSU gets UNLV, Hawaii and Nevada at home, which should help keep them out of the basement.

5. UNLV: The Rebels broke their 13-year bowl drought last season, with a win in the regular season finale over San Diego State likely serving as the reason they got the MW's final bowl spot over San Jose State. Even though UNLV successfully appealed to get an APR-related bowl ban overturned, it'll be tough for the Rebels to return to one. UNLV took advantage of the Hawaii rule to add a 13th game and faces a tough Houston team. That means UNLV will need seven wins instead of six to be eligible and will have to do so without the benefit of a second bye.

6. HAWAII: The Rainbow Warriors were winless in conference play last year, although they put a serious scare into Fresno State and took San Diego State and Wyoming to overtime. Salesian High-Richmond product Ikaika Woolsey is in line to be the starter at quarterback, but a tougher schedule -- they have to face San Diego State, Colorado State, San Jose State and Fresno State on the mainland over the season's final seven weeks -- will make getting out of the cellar difficult.

MOUNTAIN DIVISION

1. UTAH STATE: The Aggies won this division last year despite losing to perennial power Boise State and that was without Chuckie Keeton for the final eight games. With Keeton, Utah State could've very easily been holding the MW trophy. The darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate is the best player in the conference. The defense may only return four starters, but LBs Kyler Fackrell, Zach Vigil and B.J. Larsen are among the conference's best defensive players.

2. BOISE STATE: A couple years of slight decline and the departure of coach Chris Peterson bring a few more questions than the Broncos are used to. But Boise State has returnees at key positions on offense. QB Grant Hedrick played almost all of the final seven games after Joe Southwick was injured. Jay Ajayi is the best returning running back in the conference after rushing for 1,425 yards and 18 scores last year and Matt Miller is one of the league's best receivers.

3. COLORADO STATE: The Rams have been a program on the rise for the last couple of years and took some momentum into the offseason with their wild comeback win over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. QB Garrett Grayson is productive and CSU hopes he can become elite. The Rams won't contend for the division crown, but if they get through a tough early schedule, a bowl bid should be well within reach.

4. WYOMING: The Cowboys couldn't get it done the past two years with talented quarterback Brett Smith, who made the head-scratching decision to leave early for the NFL (he wasn't drafted and had to head to the Canadian Football League). New coach Craig Bohl, who won three Football Championship Subdivision titles at North Dakota State, is trying to install a power running offense. That should be successful in time, but expect Wyoming to take some lumps in Year 1.

5. NEW MEXICO: This is the crucial third year for coach Bob Davie, the former Notre Dame coach tasked with trying to rebuild this program. That's typically the year under a new coach where it makes the most significant jump. But a one-dimensional offense that lost its top three rushers means someone needs to step forward.

6. AIR FORCE: Injuries besieged the Falcons last year, especially at quarterback. That led to a disaster of a season as Air Force went 2-10 and joined Hawaii in going winless in MW action. Improved health could lead to a little more success, but moving toward the upper half of this division will take time.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Utah State over Fresno State. Keeton, recovered from last year's torn anterior cruciate ligament, keeps Utah State's run of success going and the Aggies use the league's best defense to capture the MW title in their second season in the conference.

Follow Jimmy Durkin on Twitter at Twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.