Aug. 5, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

The WAC has mostly been dominated by Boise State over the past seven seasons with the Broncos having won at least a share of the conference title six times over that span. And many expect the dominance to continue this fall.

Boise State has the talent to make it seven of the last eight, but the Broncos will get some stern competition in the form of Nevada this fall. The unheralded Wolf Pack will look to take down their rivals from the north in a huge matchup Nov. 27th that could determine the conference champion.

But could there be a sleeper team lurking in the shadows? It can't be ruled out in the WAC.

Boise State
2008 Record: 12-1 (8-0), WAC Champs, Poinsettia Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: The face of the Broncos offense is no longer around. Ian Johnson won't be carrying the ball for Boise State for what seems like the first time in a decade. But no worries. QB Kellen Moore will take over the mantle, and after a very good freshman season he's expected to pick up where he left off. Considering Boise was putting up almost 50 points a game over the season's final five contests, figure that they'll be a high scoring bunch this year. The offensive line doesn't return entirely intact, but while it may lack in returning starters it doesn't lack in experience or depth. The receiving corps lost its top pass catchers from last season, but that doesn't figure to stop Moore.
Defensive Keys: The Broncos were stingy bunch last season, allowing just 12.6 points per game, third best in the country. Only five starters return in what will be a new look defense as they convert to a 4-2-5 scheme. That makes sense considering the strength of the team will be the experienced secondary. And just like the offensive line, there is plenty of experience and depth lurking on the sidelines for Boise. Can they top last year's scintillating numbers, aside from the disappointing performance vs. TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl? That might be tough, but the Broncos have all the makings to be the WAC's top defensive unit. Just like '08.
Keep An Eye On: WR Titus Young, CB Kyle Wilson, S Jeron Johnson
All In The Numbers: 69.4, completion percentage for Moore last season, a Boise State record.
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 vs. Nevada
Outlook: Boise will once again be a Top 15 team to start season and expectations will be very high after Moore's surprisingly excellent freshman campaign. Chris Petersen continues to churn out BCS contender after BCS contender and the Broncos figure to be in the thick of securing the school's second BCS berth. The schedule features some potential road bumps, however, with an opening week matchup against highly-regarded Oregon and a trip to Tulsa in mid-October. If the Broncos can get past Oregon in that first home game then chances are they'll be considered the favorite among the non-automatic qualifying schools to earn that BCS bid in December. A lot will be riding on the season opener.

Fresno State
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), New Mexico Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: Fresno has the unfortunate task of replacing its QB, and a pretty good one, in Tom Brandstater. And they've got three candidates to choose from. Head coach Pat Hill doesn't seem inclined to pick one just yet. It'll be between Ryan Colburn, Derek Catt and Ebahn Feathers - and Hill said all three will see playing time this fall - but Feathers is better-versed in running the ball, which Hill doesn't have to worry about too much. Considering he's got his top four rushers back from last season, it's easy to see that the Bulldogs will be running the ball a lot this fall. That balanced offensive attack Hill would ideally like to have will be put on the shelf.
Defensive Keys: Consensus seems to be that the Bulldogs will be much stronger up front this season. That's a good thing considering how they allowed 210 yards rushing per game last season. Chris Carter will anchor the line from the end and Ben Jacobs is the cog in the middle at linebacker. Based on their experience, the defense will be relied upon heavily early in the season to take some pressure off the offense that could become plodding at times.
Keep An Eye On: RB Ryan Mathews, WR Seyi Ajirotutu, SS Moses Harris
All In The Numbers: 10, bowl appearances for Fresno under Hill in his 12 seasons. 
Deciding Game: Oct. 10 at Hawaii
Outlook: Bad timing that the Bulldogs will have such a young quarterback under center and face the kind of schedule they do to start the year off. Fresno will travel to Wisconsin, host Boise State and then travel out to Cincinnati before the calendar hits October. And they close with at Nevada, Louisiana Tech and at Illinois. By far one of the hardest non-conference schedules out there, but that's Hill for you. He'll play anyone, anywhere, anytime, even if his offense will be one-dimensional.

2008 Record: 7-7 (5-3), Hawaii Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 2 defense
Offensive Keys: Hawaii went through an offensive overhaul last season so while the numbers they put up weren't bad, there's definite room for improvement. Greg Alexander may not be Colt Brennan - then again, who is - but with a year under his belt in the run-and-shoot he should top the 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns he threw in '08. Also keep in mind that Hawaii's top four receivers from '07 were gone. And the offensive line was a problem last fall allowing far too many sacks and demonstrating a disturbing inability to provide much support for the running game. Hawaii may be known for its throwing, but second year coach Greg McMackin wants the Warriors to become a more balanced team.
Defensive Keys: There are big shoes to fill on this side of the ball. The Warriors lose two NFL Draft picks and the program's all-time leading tackler. The secondary will be without a returning starter, but will feature mostly upperclassmen. The front four has one starter back, like the linebackers, so 2009 won't be a case where the defense carries the team for stretches. There figures to be some growing pains with this group.
Keep An Eye On: RB Leon Wright-Jackson, DE John Fonoti, LB Brashton Satele
All In The Numbers: 0, teams that allowed more sacks last year than Hawaii's 57. 
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 vs. Boise State
Outlook: Hawaii finished second in the WAC last year, but a repeat performance will depend heavily on how all those new faces on defense come together. Replacing so many starters is a tall task and when you lose the kind of talent the Warriors did, it makes for a gloomy picture. But offensively, Hawaii should be a stronger unit with a much more balanced attack. They just have to cut down the mistakes that hurt them so many times last year (penalties and turnovers). Gone are the June Jones wing it days. It's been over a decade, but rumor has it there may be a tight end sighting in Honolulu this fall.

2008 Record: 2-10 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Idaho hopes the duo of Deonte Jackson and Princeton McCarty will again provide them with a solid running game. Jackson had an impressive first season two years ago, but he and McCarty split carries last season and the Vandals seem inclined heading into the season to do more of the same. Quarterback Nathan Enderle will be back for his third season under center. He showed improvement last year, namely cutting down in the interceptions. There will be no replacement for TE Eddie Williams, a late round NFL Draft pick.
Defensive Keys: They can only go up. After finishing last year 117th in the nation, allowing 42.8 points per game, the Vandals have to improve. Injuries played a role in the bad numbers and so did inexperience. Experience shouldn't be that much of a problem this year. Secondary should be the strongest on the unit with three starters back. The holes, however, are biggest at linebacker as the Vandals hope they can shore up a porous run defense with three new starters.
Keep An Eye On: WR Max Komar, OL Mike Iupati, SS Shiloh Keo
All In The Numbers: 18, games the Vandals have won since 2001. 
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Utah State
Outlook: The Vandals, on top of their issues on defense, will bring in new kickers and return specialists into the fold this year. Bottom line: The wins could be hard to come by with road games against the likes of Nevada, Boise State and Washington. The Vandals will continue to try and build toward the future under third year head coach Robb Akey.

Louisiana Tech
2008 Record: 8-5 (5-3), Independence Bowl
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Ross Jenkins is firmly entrenched as the Bulldogs quarterback. Now he has to put in the extra time to improve that passing game. Tech struggled last season, throwing for just 156 yards per game. Teams won't be surprised by the Bulldogs offense this year, not with the running game expected to yet again be the team's strong suit. So opposing defenses will put all the pressure on Jenkins to throw the ball. But he does have all five offensive linemen back and All-WAC running back Daniel Porter to hand off to. The diminutive back could be on his way to becoming the school's all-time leading rusher this fall.
Defensive Keys: It starts up front for the Bulldogs where they boast one of the best front fours in the conference. It returns pretty much intact, featuring tackle D'Anthony Smith and end Matt Broha. Team's had a tough time rushing against Tech last season and figures to once again be the case. Improvement will be essential against the pass. Just like the offense, Tech has trouble in the passing game last fall and two new starters at cornerback will not make the job of defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler easier.
Keep An Eye On: WR Phillip Livas, LT Rob McGill, FS Antonio Baker
All In The Numbers: 2,015, all-purpose yards for Livas last year, tops in the WAC. 
Deciding Game: Nov. 6 vs. Boise State
Outlook: What will the Bulldogs do for an encore? Winning eight games, securing second place in the WAC and the Independence Bowl appearance was a bit of a shock last year. Will they be able to handle the increased expectations? Tech has the talent to compete right down the stretch for the conference crown, but will that passing game come back to bite them? That game against Boise State could shape up to be quite the contest if Tech continues its winning ways.

New Mexico State
2008 Record: 3-9 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: It'll be different for sure as Hal Mumme no longer is in charge of the team and his "Air Raid" offense has been tossed to the trash heap. Also, the Aggies will be without three of the program's top offensive players. Dewayne Walker, he of UCLA coordinator fame, comes in to take over and New Mexico State has installed a much more traditional, pro-style offense. So the transition, featuring a number of junior college players, figures to feature plenty of growing pains.
Defensive Keys: Just like the offense, the defense will feature a new look, switching from the 3-3-5 to the 4-3. We'll see how that affects the passing defense that was third in the nation last season. But when you look at the yards the Aggies allowed on the ground last year it's easy to see why Walker wants to change things up. New Mexico State gave up an astonishing 220.2 yards per game on the ground. While no starter returns up front, two linebackers return.
Keep An Eye On: WR Marcus Anderson, LB Jamar Cotton, CB Davon House
All In The Numbers: 1960, the last year New Mexico State made a trip to a bowl game. 
Deciding Game: Oct. 10 vs. Utah State
Outlook: Walker had been rumored for a number of head coaching jobs the past few seasons when he was running the UCLA defense, but he finally got his head coaching gig in Las Cruces. He has a big rebuilding job ahead of him since the Aggies have only gone 4-28 in conference games since joining the WAC in 2005.  He says he's up for the challenge, but with all the change and losses on offense, a turnaround appears to be a few seasons away.

2008 Record: 7-6 (5-3), Humanitarian Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The Pistol was hitting its mark last season and there's no reason why it won't again this fall. Chris Ault's offense, led by QB Colin Kaepernick, will once again be one of the nation's most potent with the do everything signal caller. The 2008 WAC Offensive Player of the Year enters his junior year having just finished throwing for 2,849 yards, 22 TDs and rushing for another 1,130 yards and 17 TDs. He literally does it all. But he has plenty of help. Vai Taua led the conference in rushing last year and he's back. The offensive line returns three starters, but Kaepernick does lose two of his top targets from last year. But chances are that won't throw him for a loss.
Defensive Keys: There was nothing wrong with this unit last season stopping the run. The Wolf Pack finished sixth in the nation against the run, allowing just 88.6 yards per game and they return five of the front seven. The passing defense, on the other hand, can only improve after finishing dead last against the pass. The beleaguered secondary must step up because they had enough help up front last year. Having FS Jonathon Amaya lead the team in tackles again will be a huge disappointment.
Keep An Eye On: RB Luke Lippincott, WR Chris Wellington, DE Dontay Moch
All In The Numbers:  0-6, record for Nevada last season when it allowed 35 points or more
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 at Boise State
Outlook: Nevada averaged 37.6 points per game last season. No reason why they won't put up similar numbers this fall. The offense is going to be potent and carry the team. Will the defense make the necessary stops, especially that secondary? Nevada will be gunning for Boise State and that elusive WAC title that has pretty much belonged to Boise this decade. It's going to need the defense to rein in the other high scoring teams they face if they're truly serious about ending the Broncos reign on top.

San Jose State
2008 Record: 6-6 (4-4)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: With some key starters returning, expect the Spartans to be an improved team this fall. The offense struggled to put points on the board, but that won't be such a big problem with Kyle Reed back under center and WR Kevin Jurovich expected back on the field after missing most of last season with an illness. There's depth on the offensive line, but last year's top runner in Yonus Davis is no longer around town. Will Patrick Perry, who has battled injuries the past two years, be able to step up in Davis' absence?
Defensive Keys: San Jose State has quietly been a very good unit the past few seasons, especially last yer when the Spartans finished the year 10th in the nation against the pass. That has a lot to do with the front seven, which is led by end Carl Ihenacho. He does a great job of disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage. The problem for this unit will be the secondary where two new starters at corner must be found after the Spartans lost both to the NFL Draft. 
Keep An Eye On: WR Terrance Williams, OL Ailao Eliapo, DB Duke Ihenacho
All In The Numbers:  1.54, tackles for loss per game for Carl Ihenacho last year, tied for eighth nationally.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 at Fresno State
Outlook: A bitter taste was left in the mouth of the Spartans after how last season ended. Three game losing streak, following a 6-3 start, and a measly two yards rushing combined in those three defeats. But with an experienced group under his tutelage, Dick Tomey can make a run at a bowl game if things break right for the Spartans. A big obstacle will be the schedule. With USC and Utah right off the bat, September's going to be tough. And then once conference play starts, a trip to Boise is followed by a meeting with Nevada.

Utah State
2008 Record: 3-9 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: With 10 starters back, you'd think things would be looking up for the Aggies on offense. But how will they handle the transition to the spread? That's the big question surrounding this unit as new head coach Gary Andersen takes over in Logan. QB Diondre Borel will be in the shotgun most of the time, using three and four wide receiver sets. Borel and the rest of the offense better be on their toes as Andersen wants to run the no-huddle a good portion of the time.
Defensive Keys: Expect to see some different looks from time-to-time out of the Aggies. From the 4-3 to a five DB rotation, they're going to switch it up as they emphasize putting increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks. So you'll see more blitzing out of the Aggies and hopefully that translates into better numbers than they put up last year. Allowing 34.7 yards per game won't get them over that three win plateau.
Keep An Eye On: RB Robert Turbin, LB Paul Igboeli, FS James Brindley
All In The Numbers: 15, number of the wins for the Aggies over the last six seasons.
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 vs. Louisiana Tech
Outlook: There's a lot of change around the Aggies. Not only with the offense, but with the defense that will feature a good dozen players lining up in new positions this fall - some former offensive players. Andersen, the former Utah assistant and coordinator, has a tough task on hand, trying to lead Utah State to the .500 mark. But it's not impossible. Not after last season saw the Aggies narrowly lose a few conference games. The schedule, however, is not easy, not with Utah, Texas A&M and BYU on it.