Aug. 7, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

It was the WAC that produced two straight BCS party crashers in Boise State and Hawaii. Now could it be the Mountain West Conference's turn?

With Utah coming of its Sugar Bowl appearance last season and a loaded TCU team rigged to explode, the MWC is once again taking aim at cashing in on one of college football's biggest games come January. And with three teams ranked in the Coaches' Preseason Top 25, they're off to a good start.

 As for who that team will be, it's anyone's guess.

TCU and Utah are considered by many to be the conference's elite this season but that doesn't mean they can't be picked off by a few other conference crown contenders who would love nothing more than to rain on their parade. Whether it's BYU, Air Force or an under-the-radar UNLV squad, the MWC's top teams are going to have their work cut out for them this season in the ever-improving league.

Air Force
2008 Record: 8-5 (5-3), Armed Forces Bowl 
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The quarterback situation is, as of now, up in the air. Tim Jefferson, coming off a very impressive freshman campaign, is the logical choice to step right in and take over the Falcons offense. But it's not that easy. After Jefferson missed spring practice, there's a possibility that running back Asher Clark could be the man under center. Whoever ends up as the Falcons QB will still navigate the run-first offense. If Jefferson does take over, expect to see Air Force throw the ball a lot more after he showed his throwing prowess.
Defensive Keys: The linebacking corps is stacked and will be strength of the defense. The unit struggled down the stretch, allowing a ton of points in the three-game losing streak to close out the season, but with a great core returning, big things should be expected of the Falcons. The secondary figures to be one of the better units in the conference.
Keep An Eye On: G Nick Charles, LB Ken Lamendola, SS Chris Thomas
All In The Numbers: 82.5, yards per game passing for Air Force last season, 117th in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 at Utah 
Outlook: The Falcons almost knocked off the Utes in last year's early-season matchup, so it goes to show you that this team has what it takes to stick with the league's best. Troy Calhoun has done a pretty good job in his two seasons at the helm, leading the school to 17 wins and two straight bowl games. Another winning season and bowl game appear to be in the cards, but a difficult schedule will challenge Air Force for sure. With trips to Minnesota, Utah and BYU on the slate, coming up with another eight win season will be tough.

2008 Record: 10-3 (8-2), Las Vegas Bowl 
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: With Max Hall back under center all is good with the Cougars. The talented senior threw for 35 scores last season and will lead a BYU attack that figures to be just as potent as it was a season ago. Especially if RB Harvey Unga stays healthy. He already battled swine flu this off-season and when he's 100 percent he's arguably the league's best, certainly among the nation's top runners. Hall will also rely on one of the better tight ends in the country, Dennis Pitta, who returns for his senior season.
Defensive Keys: Only one starter will be missing from the front seven so this year's group in the 3-4 set will be among the strongest in the conference. DE Jan Jorgensen, who happens to be BYU's all-time sack leader, will draw the most attention, but there are plenty of other quality players in this unit. The big cause for concern comes with the secondary that struggled to defend the pass at times last season. Only FS Scott Johnson - who was a cornerback last year - returns to the last line of defense
Keep An Eye On: WR McKay Jacobson, T Matt Reynolds, LB Matt Bauman
All In The Numbers: 21-5, Hall's record as a starter.
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 vs. TCU
Outlook: Few will put up the kind of numbers Hall should, but how will he perform in the Cougars biggest games? That's the big question surrounding the Heisman Trophy caliber QB who has unfortunately had some of his worst games in some of BYU's most important contests. The Cougars should fight tooth and nail for the conference with Utah and TCU. A fifth straight bowl game seems a certainty even though the schedule is going to be a bear. BYU starts the season with Oklahoma before getting Florida State at home in Week 3. Fortunately, the TCU and Utah games both come at home this year. The Cougars begin the season No. 24 in the Coaches' Poll.

Colorado State
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), New Mexico Bowl 
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Good news for the Rams is that they offensive line returns four starters and a pair of productive wide receivers. The bad news is they'll be without their top running back, tight end and starting quarterback from 2008. As far as the QB is concerned, fifth-year senior Grant Stucker appears to the be man barring something unforeseen during fall camp. RB Gartrell Johnson and his 1,476 yards and 12 TDs might just prove to be impossible to replace.
Defensive Keys: Getting to the quarterback must be priority No. 1 for the Rams because they struggled mightily in that department last year. Hopefully the fact that both cornerbacks return from last year helps things out up front but the lack of returning starters in the front seven could make things difficult for the Rams. The suspension of Ricky Brewer for the 2009 season will be a big blow.
Keep An Eye On: WR Rashaun Greer, WR Dion Morton, LB Mychal Sisson
All In The Numbers: 9, sacks by the Rams in 2008, last in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 10 vs. Utah
Outlook: The New Mexico Bowl berth was a nice reward for the Rams, who won their final two games of the season to qualify for bowl eligibility. Can they do it again? The non-conference portion of the schedule is not overly daunting, featuring just one BCS team (Colorado). But there are major pieces of the puzzle from last season missing. Another run at a bowl certainly seems realistic. 

New Mexico
2008 Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense
Offensive Keys: Historically, or at least for the past decade, offense has never been the Lobos strong suit. But new coach Mike Locksley hopes to change what the Albuquerque faithful are used by installing the spread offense he was running as Illinois' former offensive coordinator. Gone will be the run-first mentality that dominated the Lobos' offensive scheme and in will come the shotgun, four receiver sets and some no-huddle action. And on top of the transformation, Locksley needs to find a new quarterback.
Defensive Keys: Just as the offense will look different this season, so too will the defense. No longer will the Lobos employ the 3-3-5. Locksley has installed a more conventional defense so expect to see New Mexico lining up in the 4-3 come September. Four new starters will be featured up front while the secondary must find two new cornerbacks.
Keep An Eye On: QB Donovan Porterie, LB Clint McPeek, S Ian Clark
All In The Numbers: 1, team that threw fewer touchdown passes than New Mexico's four last season.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Colorado State
Outlook: Lobos fans will have to get used to seeing a few growing pains this season. They're going to be unavoidable with all the change going on offensively and defensively. Locksley is trying not to brand this as a rebuilding job, but there are major changes taking place as he tries to parlay the recruiting success he had at Illinois to New Mexico. But don't entirely dismiss New Mexico. If the offense comes together they're definitely capable of a few upsets. A sound kicking game can be counted on.

San Diego State
2008 Record: 2-10 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: Ryan Lindley quietly had himself a very impressive first season running the Aztecs offense last season. Just a redshirt freshman, Lindley finished the year throwing for 2,653 yards, 16 TDs and just 9 INT. And he's got a very good receiving corps to throw to. Vincent Brown and a hopefully healthy DeMarco Sampson will be Lindley's top two targets. The Aztecs desperately need a solid running game to develop to take some pressure off the passing game. San Diego State averaged a measly 73.2 yards per game on the ground in 2008. But optimism is running high with new coordinator Al Borges, out of retirement, taking over.
Defensive Keys: Brady Hoke, who led Ball State to that magical regular season last year, takes over as head coach and essentially the defense while former New Mexico head coach Rocky Long will serve as the coordinator. The Aztecs will switch over to the 3-3-5 that Long had a lot of success with, but will it address the defense's biggest problems last year? Stopping the run was a losing proposition for San Diego State in '08. The front three must do a better job because this unit cannot continue to allow 247.5 yards per game on the ground like it did a year ago.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jon Toledo, DE B.J. Williams, LB Luke Laolagi
All In The Numbers: 1, winning seasons over the last 10 for San Diego State 
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. New Mexico
Outlook: Throwing the ball and defending the pass wasn't the problem for San Diego State. Rushing it and defending the run led to the disappointing 10 losses. How much of a difference will the new coaching staff make? Probably a good amount. Hoke's a good recruiter and should have an easy time attracting players to San Diego while Long has a reputation as a good defensive coach. The turnaround might not happen overnight, but the Aztecs are hoping to build toward a return to the MWC's upper echelon.

2008 Record: 11-2 (7-1), Poinsettia Bowl 
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Another season with Andy Dalton leaves the offense in good hands. The Horned Frogs aren't returning a ton of starters on offense, but with Dalton leading the way it shouldn't be that big of a deal. Dalton is on his way to breaking a number of TCU records and will lead a squad that ran the ball rather effectively last season. TCU figures to do much of the same again this fall with the combo of Joseph Turner and Ryan Christian in the backfield.
Defensive Keys: Statistically speaking, the Horned Frogs were the nation's best defense. They finished first in total and rushing defense, second in scoring defense and 11th in passing defense. Equaling those stellar numbers will be a challenge with just five starters back, but TCU will feature one of the game's best in DE Jerry Hughes who just happened to lead the nation in sacks last season. Hughes will have help. He won't have to do it all on his own so expect another season of stifling defense in Fort Worth.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jimmy Young, LB Daryl Washington, FS Tejay Johnson
All In The Numbers: 3, times under Garry Paterson that TCU has finished first nationally in total defense. 
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Utah
Outlook: Amazingly, last year's 11-2 campaign was deemed a disappointment by some Horned Frogs. All they did was lose at Oklahoma and Utah before beating Boise State in the bowl game. This year's squad has some talent on offense and will yet again feature a great defense. TCU has done it with defense and rushing and they'll do the same as they zero in on their first league title since 2005. And if things break right, with a schedule that features winnable games against BCS opponents, they could very well find themselves in the BCS discussion come December. The Horned Frogs begin the season No. 17 in the Coaches' Poll.

2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: Quarterback competition will be the big theme during the Rebels' fall camp. Omar Clayton is considered the starter but right behind him is Mike Clausen. Whoever eventually cements himself behind center will have three quality wide receivers to throw at. The offensive line appears to be a strength as well.
Defensive Keys: The Rebels' front seven will be very strong, especially at linebacker. And that's a good thing considering how poorly they defended the run last season, allowing 213.1 yards per game. A much more experienced group should improve upon 2008's numbers. The secondary, however, will be a cause for concern after allowing too many big plays for the coaching staff's liking. Only one starting cornerback returns to the depth char this fall.
Keep An Eye On: WR Ryan Wolfe, DT Malo Taumua, LB Jason Beauchamp
All In The Numbers: 4, straight years UNLV had won 2 games before last season.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Utah
Outlook: A bounce of the ball here or a big play there and UNLV very well could have been bowling last year. That's how close they came to completing quite the turnaround. Mike Sanford seems to have finally righted the ship on The Strip and with seven home games this season - including contests against Oregon State, BYU and Utah in Sam Boyd Stadium - notions of the program's first bowl game since 2000 are legitimate.

2008 Record: 13-0 (8-0), MWC Champs, Sugar Bowl 
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: First and foremost, the Utes will be without QB Brian Johnson, the 2008 MWC Offensive Player of the Year. His replacement will come down to a competition between Corbin Louks and JUCO transfer Terrance Cain. Jordan Wynn is also in the discussion. Loukus is known more for his running ability but that certainly won't hold him back in Utah's spread attack. The offense was one of the more potent units in the country last season and they have the ability to be similarly dangerous as long as someone steps up as a reliable passer at quarterback. The line certainly represents the Utes most experience unit on this side of the ball - and their strength.
Defensive Keys: Considering there was only one senior on the Utah defense last season, they did very well for themselves. And last year's success means this unit is shaping up to be among the nation's best this year. The front seven - especially the line - will be extremely strong. The secondary must account for two new corners, but the Utes have all the makings of being a top 10 defense this fall.
Keep An Eye On: RB Matt Asiata, DE Koa Misi, LB Stevenson Sylvester
All In The Numbers: 7, statistical categories the Utes finished among the top 20 last year.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at TCU
Outlook: Will they or won't they? That's all everyone wants to know regarding the Utes. Kyle Whittingham took an under the radar team all the way to the Sugar Bowl and helped further inflame the BCS/playoff debate with his team's performance. So naturally a lot is expected for the encore. It'll be extremely tough to reproduce last year's results, especially with a new QB and six other new starters on offense. But that's no reason to dismiss Utah. That defense is going to be a bear for opponents and the Utes will surely duke it out for the conference title. That TCU contest will be one of the season's can't miss games. And don't forget about the loss of K/P Louie Sakoda, one of the nation's best the last few years. The Utes being the season No. 18 in the Coaches' Poll.

2008 Record: 4-8 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense 
Offensive Keys:  One of the reasons Wyoming brought in former Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to take over the program was to put more people in the seats. Christensen hopes to do that with his version of the spread offense that was so successful with the Tigers. Now granted, Christensen had Chase Daniel running the show for him. Can he find a comparable QB? That's probably too much to ask, but Christensen will have his hands full trying to pick a signal caller from three candidates and settling on a go-to running back.
Defensive Keys: The Cowboys were a pretty good squad in 2008, finishing 38th in the nation in total defense and third in the conference behind TCU and Utah. With eight starters back, there isn't too much tinkering that needs to be done. The loss of Ward Dobbs will be tough, but DT John Fletcher will take over the leadership role and look to add to the 6.5 sacks he had last season. The linebacking corps and secondary return two and three starters, respectively.
Keep An Eye On: WR Greg Bolling, LB Gabe Knapton, SS Jamichael Hall
All In The Numbers: 5, times Wyoming scored seven points or fewer last season, including two shutouts.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. TCU
Outlook: Change is in the air in Laramie with Christensen. Joe Glenn's six seasons did not produce enough offense or wins, but it's not easy to rack up the Ws at Wyoming, especially as the conference continues to produce multiple top 25 teams. But if the administrations top priority this off-season was putting people in the seats then they're going to accomplish that goal. Christensen's offense will be a vastly more exciting brand of football than what they've been used to up there. And if that wasn't enough, Wyoming has a Week 2 matchup with BCS Championship contender Texas.