Saturday’s Mountain West Football Championship Game will be the first appearance for the Wyoming Cowboys in the conference title game since the Mountain West introduced a championship game in 2013.
It will mark the second consecutive season that San Diego State is playing in the MW Championship. Last season, the Aztecs defeated Air Force by a score of 27-24 in San Diego.
This year’s Cowboy squad won the school’s first divisional title since winning the 1996 Western Athletic Conference Pacific Division in 1996. That year, the Cowboys played BYU in the inaugural Western Athletic Conference Championship Game in Las Vegas. Wyoming lost to the Cougars by a score of 25-28 in overtime.
The Cowboys will be trying to win their first conference title since winning a share of the regular-season WAC Championship in 1993, which it shared with BYU and Fresno State.
The last time Wyoming won a conference football title outright was in 1988 as the Cowboys captured back-to-back WAC titles in 1987 and ‘88.
It has been a magical season for Wyoming Football. The Cowboys have been one of the most improved teams in the country. In fact, they are sitting atop the list of most improved FBS teams in the nation this season. Wyoming has improved its overall record by six wins from the end of the 2015 regular season to the end of the 2016 regular season. UW ended the 2015 season 2-10. The Cowboys are currently 8-4 entering the Mountain West Conference Championship Game. The other three FBS schools that have improved by six wins from the end of the 2015 regular season to the end of the 2016 regular season are: Colorado (4-9 in 2015 to 10-2 in 2016), Central Florida (0-12 in 2015 to 6-6 in 2016) and Eastern Michigan (1-11 in 2015 to 7-5 in 2016).
As was the case two weeks ago when Wyoming and San Diego State played in Laramie, the Cowboys feature the No. 1 ranked scoring offense in the Mountain West, averaging 38.2 points per game. San Diego State has the the No. 1 scoring defense in the Mountain West, allowing opponents only 20.8 points per contest.
The two longtime conference foes will be playing for the 37th time in history. The Cowboys hold a slim two-game advantage with 19 wins to 17 wins for San Diego State.
The last 11 games between the two teams have been split nearly evenly, with Wyoming winning six times to SDSU’s five.
Wyoming’s successful 8-4 record this season has been accomplished against the 16th most difficult schedule in the nation and the most difficult schedule in the Mountain West, according to NCAA Statistics.
The NCAA measures the toughest schedules based on the winning percentage of a team’s FBS opponents for the season. The FBS opponents that Wyoming has played this season have a winning percentage of 57.1 percent against FBS schools. The next most difficult schedules faced by Mountain West teams this season were Utah State (No. 19), and Colorado State (No. 27).
This week saw the announcement of the 2016 All-Mountain West Conference teams. Wyoming was well represented, with 10 Cowboys earning honors. Two of the top honors went to members of the Wyoming Football program. Head coach Craig Bohl was voted the Coach of the Year and redshirt freshman linebacker Logan Wilson was named Freshman of the Year. Wyoming had four individuals earn First Team honors, including Brian Hill at running back, Jacob Hollister at tight end, Chase Roullier at offensive line and Andrew Wingard at defensive back. Second Team honorees were Josh Allen at quarterback, Tanner Gentry at wide receiver and D.J. May at return specialist. Linebacker Lucas Wacha earned Honorable Mention honors. The All-Conference Team was selected in a vote of the 12 Mountain West head football coaches and media members from across the Mountain West.
UW’s opponent in the 2016 MW Championship game was also well represented on the All-Conference teams. San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey was named MW Offenisve Player of the Year for the second straight season. SDSU cornerback Damontae Kazee was also named the Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row, and Aztec kick returner/running back Rashaad Penny earned his second consecutive Special Teams Player of the Year honor.
Looking back on the history of the Mountain West Football Championship Game, there have been three different MW members win in the first three years of the championship game. In 2013, Fresno State defeated Utah State (24-17) in Fresno. The 2014 game saw Boise State defeat Fresno State (28-14) in Boise. Last year, San Diego State captured a 27-24 win over Air Force in San Diego. The average margin of victory has been only eight points.
This week’s match-up of the Cowboys and Aztecs should be another excellent one. Who could forget just two weeks ago when the same two teams, playing in Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, fought to a one-point game that ended when UW cornerback Antonio Hull knocked down Aztec QB Christian Chapman’s two-point pass attempt to give the Pokes a 34-33 win.
While there are many outstanding players on both the Cowboys’ and Aztecs’ rosters, there is no doubt that this meeting will feature two of the greatest running backs currently playing in college football. Pumphrey leads the MW in rushing and ranks No. 2 in the nation at 159.0 yards per game. Hill ranks No. 2 in the league and No. 5 in the nation, averaging 139.5 rushing yards per game. The two were chosen as the First Team All-MW running backs this season and both were semifinalists for the 2016 Doak Walker Award, honoring the nation’s premier college running back each season. Pumphrey is one of the three finalists for that award.
Defensively, both teams also have dynamic players. The Cowboys have Wingard at free safety. Wingard is the league’s leading tackler and ranks 11th nationally. He was one of 16 semifinalists for this season’s Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented annually to the top defensive back in the nation. SDSU cornerback Kazee has earned MW Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons. Kazee is No. 2 in the MW and No. 10 nationally in interceptions, with five.
And on the sidelines, the two men guiding their respective programs have done a masterful coaching job again in 2016. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl (in 2016) and SDSU’s Rocky Long (in 2015) are the last two men to earn MW Coach of the Year honors.