B/R's Mountain West All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century
Last but not least in our summer series of all-conference college football teams for the 21st century, the time has finally come to tackle the Mountain West Conference.
This league has produced eight first-round and 27 second-round draft picks over the past 20 years, as well as 15 unique consensus All-Americans. While that's nowhere near the depth of talent that the Power Five leagues brought to this exercise, it's considerably better than what Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt can boast.
Despite leaving the Mountain West Conference after the 2010 season, Utah leads the way with seven players on this all-conference roster. Considering the Utes went undefeated in both 2004 and 2008 and had three other 10-win seasons along the way, that shouldn't be a big surprise. San Diego State is close on Utah's tail with six selections, while Boise State sits in third place with four players on this roster.
Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:
- The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. That means the 2000 season does not count.
- Only seasons in which the program was part of the MWC counted. Six schools have been a part of the MWC since before 2001, but others like Boise State, BYU, TCU and Utah were only members for a portion of the past two decades.
B/R's All-21st Century Series
The Pick: Alex Smith, Utah
Wyoming's Josh Allen is well on his way to becoming the best NFL quarterback in Mountain West history, but his numbers in college were never anything special. In fairness, much of that was a product of throwing to wide receivers who had butterfingers. Nevertheless, he had a career PER of 137.7, which doesn't even put him in the top 20 in MWC lore.
If all of Kellen Moore's college seasons counted, he would've been a great candidate here, as he finished top 10 in the Heisman vote in each of 2009, 2010 and 2011. However, it wasn't until Moore's senior year that Boise State joined the MWC, and one season just isn't enough in a league where Colorado State's Bradlee Van Pelt, Fresno State's Derek Carr and TCU's Andy Dalton were each named Offensive Player of the Year twice.
Of that trio, Carr was the most tempting option. He only spent two seasons in the MWC, but in those two seasons, he threw for 9,187 yards and 87 touchdowns—353.3 and 3.3 per game, respectively. As a senior, he led the Bulldogs to 11 wins while becoming one of just four quarterbacks in this century to rack up at least 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a single season.
But we've got to go with the guy who went No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft after leading Utah to an undefeated season.
As was also his M.O. for most of his NFL career, Smith's success was rooted in efficiency and wise decision-making, opposed to arm strength or passing volume. Over his final two seasons with the Utes, he only averaged 226 passing yards per game. However, he averaged nearly seven touchdowns per interception (47 vs. 7) and rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Between 2003 and 2004, Utah went 22-2 in games in which Smith played. He also finished fourth in the Heisman vote in 2004, which is the highest such placement in MWC history.
The Picks: Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State; Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
The Mountain West has had quite a few sensational single-season stars at running back.
BYU's Luke Staley averaged 8.1 yards per carry and scored 28 total touchdowns en route to consensus first-team All-American honor in 2001. Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson rushed for 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns in the Wolf Pack's first year in the MWC (2012). In his only season playing at the FBS level, Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs ran for 1,741 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2013.
There were also a handful of two-season phenoms, most notably Wyoming's Brian Hill (2015-16) and Boise State's Jay Ajayi (2013-14) and Jeremy McNichols (2015-16). Those three running backs each had a two-season arc in which they gained more than 3,500 total yards from scrimmage, scoring a combined total of 132 touchdowns.
Let's also be sure to mention New Mexico's Dontrell Moore, who rushed for at least 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons (2002-05). Moore ranks second in MWC history with 4,956 career rushing yards, reaching the century mark in 26 of 48 career games. He would've made the cut were it not for San Diego State boasting one of the greatest running back tandems in college football history.
Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny spent three seasons (2014-16) together with the Aztecs, rushing for a combined 7,061 yards and 69 touchdowns during that time. Pumphrey was the workhorse who ended up in third place in FBS history with 6,405 career rushing yards, while Penny was the speedster who came in to gash the defense after Pumphrey wore them out. Penny was barely involved in the offense in 2014, but once he became a bigger factor, SDSU pretty much ran at will.
In Pumphrey's final season, he rushed for 2,133 yards, the best single-season total in MWC history at the time by a margin of 250 yards. The following year, Penny rewrote those history books by going off for 2,248 yards—the fifth-highest single-season total in FBS history.
The only other program to have at least two seasons in which a single player rushed for more than 2,100 yards is Wisconsin, which had Ron Dayne in 1996, Melvin Gordon in 2014 and Jonathan Taylor in 2018. Having back-to-back seasons like that is just plain ridiculous.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
Wide Receiver: Rashard Higgins, Colorado State; Davante Adams, Fresno State
Tight End: Dennis Pitta, BYU
It only took three seasons for Rashard Higgins to become the Mountain West Conference's career leader in receiving yards, narrowly edging out David Anderson, Jovon Bouknight and J.R. Tolver. Higgins had 3,648 receiving yards and 31 receiving touchdowns in his three years with Colorado State. That touchdown count also puts him in second place on the MWC leaderboard in that category.
But perhaps even more impressive than his full-career statistics is what Higgins did as a sophomore in 2014, making 96 catches for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns. After a painfully slow start in the season opener against Colorado (one reception for 16 yards), Higgins racked up at least 110 yards in 10 of his final 11 games. Even in the exception to that rule, he still hauled in nine balls for 98 yards and a score.
He ended up with more than three times as many yards and more than four times as many touchdowns as his closest teammate.
Higgins is one of just 11 players in the past two decades to finish a season with at least 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns, and one of just three to do so in 12 or fewer games.
One of those other 10 players was Derek Carr's primary target during his 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown season in 2013, Davante Adams. That season Adams totaled 131 receptions for 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns. In just two seasons at Fresno State, he scored 38 times. Adams holds the record for most receiving touchdowns in the history of the MWC, with Higgins' 31 coming in a distant second.
(Colorado State's Michael Gallup also had an incredible two-season stay at the FBS level, accruing 176 receptions for 2,690 yards and 21 touchdowns. He would have been our third choice if we were picking that many wide receivers.)
And at tight end, it'd be difficult to argue with BYU's Dennis Pitta. After a mediocre freshman season and a two-year LDS mission, Pitta returned to the Cougars for three consecutive years with at least 800 receiving yards. He finished his career with 221 receptions, 2,901 yards and 21 touchdowns, making him one of the most productive tight ends in FBS history.
Tackle: Jordan Gross, Utah; Nate Potter, Boise State
Guard: Joel Bitonio, Nevada; Zane Beadles, Utah
Center: Weston Richburg, Colorado State
There have been two MWC offensive linemen chosen as consensus first-team All-Americans. It only makes sense to start this discussion there.
The first of those two stars was Utah's Jordan Gross. He bounced all over the O-line during his time with the Utes, but he thrived no matter where they put him. Gross was not personally responsible for a single sack in either of his final two seasons with the program and was a consensus All-American in 2002, despite Utah going 5-6 on the season. A few months later, the Carolina Panthers chose him eighth overall in the 2003 NFL draft, making him the highest non-quarterback selection in league history.
The other All-American wasn't anywhere near as coveted by the NFL, as Boise State's Nate Potter was a seventh-round pick in the 2012 draft. But he was the anchor of an offensive line that very rarely allowed sacks. The Broncos were only part of the MWC for one of these seasons, but from 2009-11, opponents brought down a Boise State quarterback (primarily Kellen Moore) behind the line of scrimmage a grand total of 22 times in 40 games, per CFBstats. They went 38-2 during that time.
For the three interior line spots, we're letting the NFL draft serve as our guide.
Joel Bitonio (35th pick in 2014), Zane Beadles (45th pick in 2010) and Weston Richburg (43rd pick in 2014) were each selected within the first half of the second round. Richburg's NFL career was marred by a litany of injuries, forcing him to retire before even turning 30, but both Beadles (2012) and Bitonio (2018-20) made at least one Pro Bowl.
Defensive End: Jerry Hughes, TCU; Jan Jorgensen, BYU
Defensive Tackle: Sione Pouha, Utah; Paul Soliai, Utah
Not only is Jerry Hughes the only defensive lineman to be named a consensus All-American in MWC history, but he's the only player at any position in this conference to receive that honor twice.
Between his 2008 and 2009 seasons at TCU, Hughes had 26.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, six passes defended and two interceptions. His four-sack, two-forced-fumbles performance in a Thursday night win over AP No. 9 BYU in October 2008 is what really put him on the national radar. That gem came in the middle of a five-game stretch in which he racked up 11 sacks. TCU went 23-3 in his two All-American seasons.
In the same four years that Hughes was at TCU, Jan Jorgensen was putting up similar career numbers at BYU. Both defensive ends finished their college careers with 28.5 sacks. But while Hughes shined during his latter years, Jorgensen's best work came during a sophomore season in which the Cougars boasted one of the stingiest defenses in the country. Jorgensen had 20 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2007, ranking seventh and fifth, respectively, in the country.
At defensive tackle, which Utes would you prefer?
Utah has had six defensive tackles drafted in the past two decades while the rest of the Mountain West Conference has had a grand total of one DT taken in the top 200 of a draft (Fresno State's Tyeler Davison went 154th overall in 2015). We won't count Star Lotulelei because he did most of his work after Utah moved to the Pac-12. However, Sione Pouha and Paul Soliai are strong options, both spending at least seven seasons in the NFL.
San Jose State's Cade Hall is also on the unofficial watch list to join this club. He had 10 sacks in seven games this past fall, and he could easily leapfrog Jorgensen for the second DE spot with another year that prolific.
The Picks: Curtis Weaver, Boise State; Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State; Kirk Morrison, San Diego State
Curtis Weaver was the best pass rusher in MWC history. In just three seasons with Boise State, the outside linebacker had 34.0 sacks and 47.5 tackles for loss. In both categories, he is the conference's all-time leader.
Weaver's first season with the Broncos also coincided with Leighton Vander Esch's last, making for a lethal combination in the lone season they played together in 2017. While Weaver had 11 sacks, Vander Esch had 141 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions. He subsequently went 19th overall in the draft and was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Vander Esch was named MWC Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. Weaver was given that title in 2019. But long before either of those Broncos started playing college football, San Diego State's Kirk Morrison was MWC DPOY in back-to-back years in 2003-04.
Per GoAztecs.com, Morrison is the program's all-time leader in both solo tackles (241) and fumble recoveries (10). He also made six interceptions.
It's a shame the Aztecs were a hot mess on offense throughout his time leading the defense. They went .500 or worse in each of his four seasons. Conversely, Boise State went a combined 52-15 with either Vander Esch or Weaver on the roster.
Cornerback: Damontae Kazee, San Diego State; Darren Hall, San Diego State
Safety: Eric Weddle, Utah; Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
Damontae Kazee was named MWC Defensive Player of the Year in both 2015 and 2016. Between those two seasons, he had 15 interceptions and 15 passes defended. Kazee fell one pick shy of tying for the national lead in each of those seasons.
Phillip Thomas did lead the country in interceptions in 2012 with eight. He returned three of them for touchdowns, including two in the same game as part of a 55-point drubbing of Colorado. Thomas also had 84 total tackles, four sacks and four forced fumbles that season en route to becoming the only consensus All-American in Fresno State history.
Eric Weddle was also a consensus All-American in 2006, went 37th overall in the subsequent NFL draft and eventually became a six-time Pro Bowl safety. He, too, had a multi-pick six game in his final year of college, picking off three passes and returning two for touchdowns in a win over San Diego State. Weddle also rushed for a touchdown in that game, one of six in his career. Since 2000, he's the only person to record at least three rushing touchdowns and at least three interceptions returned for a touchdown.
And then it's back to San Diego State for Darren Hall, who had six interceptions and 25 passes defended over the past three seasons. He broke up 16 passes and forced two fumbles just during the 2019 campaign. He then came back in 2020 and was the star of a defense that held opponents to just 4.36 yards per play.
Kicker: Louie Sakoda, Utah
Punter: Ryan Stonehouse, Colorado State
Returner: Avery Williams, Boise State
All-Purpose: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Louie Sakoda was a consensus All-American in 2008, making 22-of-24 field-goal attempts and 56-of-57 extra-point attempts for a Utah squad that went a perfect 13-0. He converted 86.4 percent of field goals attempted in his college career, as well as 97.9 percent of extra points. Sakoda also doubled as Utah's full-time punter.
Colorado State has had quite a few successful punters in the thin air they play in, but the best one by far is Ryan Stonehouse, who has averaged 46.8 yards per punt in his career. That's currently the best mark of this century in the entire FBS.
It's a shame Boise State was only able to play seven games in 2020, but Avery Williams managed to return two kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns during that abridged campaign. He was the only player in the country to score at least three touchdowns on special teams last year, bringing his career total to six punts and three kickoffs returned for touchdowns.
Shoutout to Air Force's Chad Hall, who was named the MWC Offensive Player of the Year in 2007 for one of the better single seasons of all-purpose work with 1,478 rushing yards, 524 receiving yards, 505 kick-return yards and 176 punt-return yards. However, we've got to double-dip on Rashaad Penny. He set the MWC single-season rushing record in 2017, but that was only about one-third of the total yards amassed in his career. Penny also had seven kick-return touchdowns, six receiving touchdowns and a punt-return score.
All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference unless otherwise noted.