Saturday, January 2, 2016

2016 Mountain West schedules and analysis

(Edited January 3, 2016)  --  The 2016 college softball season is a little more than a month away, so let's take a look at the non-conference opponents each MW team faces this season.  As always, strength of schedule is one of the most important factors in any team's NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. And thanks to some strong scheduling, a couple of teams in the conference have put themselves in prime position to gain an NCAA at-large bid if things happen to fall the right way.

Fresno State - The defending Mountain West champions put together another demanding schedule, with 15 non-conference games against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago, including three who made it to Oklahoma City.  Things start off with a bang for coach Trisha Ford's team as the Bulldogs meet SEC powerhouse Tennessee on the opening day of the 2016 season.  Fresno State will face teams from the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC and more.  Highlights include a pair of home games vs. Pac-12 power Washington, two at home vs. Kansas of the Big 12, a pair against Big Ten power Northwestern, and neutral site games with defending NCAA runner-up Oregon and former NCAA champion Oklahoma.  Also on tap: Baylor, Cal, Utah, BYU, Ohio State, Oregon State, Indiana, Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge and Fullerton squads.  There are simply no breaks in the non-conference schedule, and Fresno State will enter Mountain West play in late March battle-tested and ready.  It's a slate designed by a coach who feels her team is ready to take the next step and make a strong push to advance to NCAA Super Regional or Women's College World Series play.  See the full schedule.

San Diego State - It's another quality schedule for the Aztecs, who are fortunate to play the overwhelming majority of the year in southern California.  There will be a lot of home cooking, and nine non-conference games against teams that made the 2015 NCAA Tournament.  San Diego State leaves the state of California only one time before the month of May, and it's only for the short drive to UNLV March 24-26.  Coach Kathy Van Wyk's squad will play games against SEC power Kentucky, Ohio State of the Big Ten, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Cal all at home in San Diego.  Also on the docket are games versus Stanford, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, BYU, Washington, Cal State Northridge and Fullerton.  An interesting feature this season:  the Aztecs and Fresno State will both participate in non-conference tournaments on the other team's home field.  See the full schedule.

New Mexico - Coach Erica Beach has taken things up a notch with this year's Lobos schedule.  There weren't a ton of chances a year ago to post some eye-popping wins, but New Mexico gets that opportunity this time around.  UNM starts things off in Tempe with a strong weekend where it will face Kentucky, Oregon State, Stanford and an underrated Cal Poly squad, among others.  The Lobos will see some SEC faces in traditional power Alabama and two games against the Arkansas Razorbacks.  Also on the schedule:  Texas A&M, Nebraska and DePaul.  This schedule tells us Beach thinks her squad has a chance to make another move towards the top of the Mountain West standings in 2016.  See the full schedule.

San Jose State - Peter Turner's team will be getting an RPI boost this season if things fall the right way.  After missing out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago with a team that probably was better than some others who earned at-large berths, it seems like SJSU wanted to improve the slate.  And they did. It could be a daunting task, though, as San Jose State only has one non-conference home date (a March doubleheader vs. Colgate).  So SJSU must do most of its winning on the road in neutral-site matchups.  On tap: Arizona State, Tennessee, Georgia, Utah, Oregon State, Washington, Oregon, Missouri, Baylor, Northwestern and Ohio State, among others.  It's a rigorous and impressive list of foes.  See the full schedule.

UNLV - With a home like Las Vegas, known for its (usually) great weather and lots to do, it's natural for the Rebels to host a lot of games.  This year is no exception.  UNLV has the most favorable schedule of any Mountain West team, opening the year playing 19 of its first 23 games at home.  But unless something changes, and many of those on the slate have surprisingly strong seasons, there are fewer chances for big RPI points this year.  The schedule doesn't appear as strong as in the past by UNLV standards.  Only four teams who made the NCAA Tournament a year ago dot the non-conference slate:  Washington, Nebraska, Kansas and Florida Atlantic.  See the full schedule.

Nevada - This is a soft and disappointing schedule, but one that gives Nevada an opportunity to pick up a number of wins.  The good news:  Nevada has a legitimate shot to have the best record among Mountain West teams entering conference play.  The bad news:  the RPI, in all likelihood, will be poor.  And it's a slate that leaves little to no margin for error, and one that practically eliminates the Pack from NCAA at-large consideration before the season even begins.  Nevada doesn't have a single non-conference game against an opponent with a top 75 RPI from a year ago.  In fact, the Pack plays just two non-conference games against teams that finished with Top 100 RPIs.  The two?  Stony Brook and Boston College, who finished 86th and 98th, respectively, in the RPI last season.  With a team that appears -- on paper -- to be stronger this season than last, it would have been nice to see the Pack challenge themselves more. See the full schedule.

Colorado State - The Rams face a strong, lively slate of games early in the season before things drop off significantly in the final couple of weeks before conference play begins.  Credit coach Jen Fisher for scheduling some very tough opponents right out of the gate.  Not many teams would want to face 13-time national champion UCLA on the opening weekend of the season, but Colorado State faces the Bruins not once, but twice in the first week.  A true road game against Texas A&M is also on the schedule, along with neutral-site games on the season's third weekend against Missouri, Cal and Long Beach State in Palm Springs.  Add in NCAA Tournament teams BYU, Cal State Northridge and Weber State, and the Rams will face overall stiffer competition in non-conference play than they did a year ago.  That's a good move.  See the full schedule.

Utah State - The Aggies face a mixed bag of scheduling of 2016.  At first glance, things look a little less tough than last year.  But contrast that with the fact Utah State plays in a cold climate that requires the Aggies to be away from home for 21 straight games to begin the season.  That can be taxing, and it's understandable to try and ease things a bit.  USU got off to a bad start in 2015 and we're sure coach Steve Johnson wants to remedy that this time around.  Arizona State, Cal State Northridge and Maryland highlight the opening weekend in Tempe, and that could be the most difficult week of the non-conference season for Utah State.  A pair of games against both DePaul and BYU will provide good tests, as will dates with improving teams like Weber State and UC Riverside.  See the full schedule.

Boise State - The Broncos' schedule for the 2016 season does not currently appear on the school's athletics web site.