Monday, August 21, 2006

College football preview: Mountain West


1. Utah Utes
It was a struggle, but it appears that Utah is ready to return to the top of the Mountain West. First-year coach Kyle Whittingham had his problems in his rookie campaign, losing the first three road games of the season and also dropping conference home games against New Mexico and San Diego State. The result was an unattractive 4-4 league record, and Utah needed to win in overtime at BYU to save a chance to play in a bowl game.

Entering this season, Whittingham has a potential monster on his hands. No, not the team, which should be pretty good, returning 13 starters. I’m referring to the three-man quarterback controversy that looms this fall. It should be a position of strength, regardless of who wins the job, but watching 2005 starters Brian Johnson (63.6 percent completions, 2,892 yards, 18 TDs) and Brent Ratliff (62.3 percent, 642 yards, 8 TDs) battle with Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady will be interesting. Johnson tore an ACL late last season, and his first significant on-field work comes during fall practice. He enters as the incumbent, and I’ll guess that he will start the opener at UCLA.

In good shape: Secondary. The Utes are very solid in the secondary. Senior Eric Weddle was the Mountain West Player of the Year last year. He started the season as a safety, but moved to cornerback, where he led the league with 16 passes defensed and also picked up 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions. It sounds like he will move back to safety this year, as the Utes have improved their depth at corner. Seniors Eric Shyne and Shaun Harper will be joined by JUCO transfer Mombroso Washington and sophomore Brice McCain. Junior free safety Steve Tate posted 11 tackles and a pick in the bowl win over Georgia Tech, and senior strong safety Casey Evans will play when the Utes use Weddle as a nickel cornerback.

Needs work: Running back. Guys like Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther have carried the ground game the last couple years. Neither of them won many national or even league accolades, but both were capable runners who fit the system well. This year’s starter should be USC transfer Darryl Poston, who picked up an extra year of eligibility after an injury-ravaged career. Also in the mix will be freshman Mike Liti. The Utes have been extremely reliable on the ground in recent years. For that to continue, they need Poston to be as good as advertised, and they need him to stay healthy.

Overview: Whittingham should be able to count on strong play from both his lines this year. The offensive line returns three starters, and they also add center Jeremy Inferrera, a Hawai’i transfer who started 13 games there before moving east. The defensive line returns senior end Soli Lefiti and senior nose tackle Kelly Talavou. The loss of receiving standout Travis LaTendresse will hurt whoever wins the quarterback job, but it will be nice to have talents like junior Derrek Richards and sophomore Marquis Wilson available. Utah has a very tough opener at UCLA, but games against Northern Arizona and Utah State. The non-conference date at home with Boise State should be magnificent. I think Utah has the talent and the balance to potentially run the table in the MWC this year.

2. TCU Horned Frogs
Quietly, Texas Christian has developed quite the football program. There was a thought that the program might be on the decline after Dennis Franchione bolted for Alabama before the 2000 Mobile Alabama Bowl. Instead, defensive coordinator Gary Patterson took over, and he’s been able to build on what Franchione started. There have been hiccups along the way, including a 6-5 mark in Patterson’s first year and a 5-6 record in 2004.

No such hiccup occurred in 2005. Well, unless you count a shocking 21-10 loss at SMU that followed the Horned Frogs’ 17-10 win at Oklahoma. TCU finished 11-1, including a win over Big 12 foe Iowa State in the Houston Bowl. There are some heavy losses to the depth of the defense, but most of the headline players return on both sides of the ball, with the exception of kick returner and receiver Cory Rodgers.

In good shape: Running back. And how! The Horned Frogs have a stable of capable runners, and if past injury history is any indicator, they’ll use most of the available bodies to get through the season. Last year, TCU started the season with senior Lonta Hobbs as the top back, but Hobbs hurt his groin in the second game and took a medical redshirt. Robert Merrill and Aaron Brown split most of the time at running back, with Brown going for 163 yards in the upset win over Utah, while Merrill gained 170 in a win over San Diego State. All three return this year, and the embarrassment of riches continues at TCU, as sophomores Detrick James and Justin Watts could also push for some carries. Believe it or not, the Frogs could improve on their 192 yards per game average from a year ago.

Needs work: Secondary. This shouldn’t be a huge source of concern, as TCU is traditionally very good in the secondary. However, there is a noticeable lack of experience here entering the fall. The good news for Patterson is that he has seniors to start at corner in Vernon Russell and Mike Salvage. However, the bad news is that the two had just 14 total tackles in 2005. Senior free safety Elvis Gallegos is also new, though he does have eight starts in three years. Senior safety Marvin White is the lone holdover, and he is a good one. White was honorable mention All-MWC last year, posting 67 tackles and three picks in nine starts. He’ll be the leader in the secondary while the new faces get their feet wet, and he should get help from the fifth safety, senior Eric Buchanan, who is more of a center-fielder than a physical threat.

Overview: This team is full of senior leadership. Merrill and Hobbs are both seniors, as is quarterback Jeff Ballard, who was 8-0 as a starter after Tye Gunn got hurt last year. Two of the Horned Frogs’ projected starting wideouts, Michael DePriest and Quentily Harmon, are seniors. Both projected starting tackles are seniors. All five secondary starters are seniors. Many were surprised when TCU took the Mountain West by storm last year, but this has been a good program for some time, and they had everything go their way last year. This year, the non-conference schedule is tough, with visits to Baylor and Army that could prove difficult, along with a home game against high-flying Texas Tech, who hung 70 on the TCU defense in 2004. In league play, TCU must travel to Utah and Colorado State, but their other big games are at home. This team could once again post ten or eleven wins, but I like Utah to edge them out for the conference title.

3. BYU Cougars
For Gary Crowton, it was all downhill after his first season. Called on to replace the legendary LaVell Edwards, Crowton’s first team went 12-2 and threatened to cause the BCS some headaches with a 12-0 start. Crowton’s wide-open offense averaged 44 points per game and posted over 500 yards per game. In his last three years on the job, BYU’s combined record was 14-21, and they never got back to a bowl game. Not only that, but the legendary record of 361 games without being shut out ended under Crowton’s watch.

Needless to say, Crowton lost popularity, and when he was replaced by defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall, one of the priorities was restoring the pride in the BYU program.

It took one season.

The Cougars gradually improved as the season wore on, and they ended up earning a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they took Pac-10 foe California to the limit before losing 35-28. The performance validated all that had been done well by Mendenhall and his staff in their first season, and while the Cougars have some holes to fill on defense, the stage is set for the revival in Provo to continue this season.

In good shape: Quarterback. Gee, where have we heard this before? Look, I’m not here to argue that John Beck is going to end up in the Detmer/McMahon/Bosco category when it comes to great BYU quarterbacks. But when it’s all said and done, he has a chance to set himself up for a nice pro career if he keeps improving like he did last year. Beck struggled for two years under Crowton, but exploded under Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae (Texas Tech guy, in case you’re curious). Beck increased his completion percentage from 56 in 2004 to 65.5 last year, throwing for over 3,700 yards and 27 touchdowns. His nearly 310 yards per game ranked fifth in the country. Mendenhall told Blue Ribbon that he’s not yet buying into the hype surrounding Beck (some of it BYU-generated), and that he has to win a conference title before he can be compared with those who came before him. But with the wealth of talent surrounding Beck, a huge season cannot be ruled out.

Needs work: Defensive line. While the offense looks very strong, the defense was hit hard by graduation, losing eight starters. Particularly hard-hit was the defensive line, which lose three starters. In a 3-4 defense, that’s a bad thing. Senior Halo Paongo started the bowl game last year, and he should start at nose tackle. Surrounding him could be two redshirt freshmen, though one of them is in a battle for a starting job. Jan Jorgensen should start at one end position, while the other end will be manned by either sophomore Kyle Luekenga or redshirt freshman Brett Denney, whose brother Ryan played for BYU in the early 1990s. Mendenhall, who is his own defensive coordinator, has to hope that the youngsters mature quickly, or it could be a long year for his defense.

Overview: After a rough start, the running game came around last year, thanks to 1,100-yard rusher Curtis Brown, who is back for his senior season. In fact, BYU projects to have six senior starters on offense, including Beck and his leading pass-catcher, tight end John Harline. The offense, built around the passing game, should be proficient once again this season. Beck is mobile when he needs to be, he is deadly accurate, and he has a good offensive line in front of him, anchored by senior tackles Jake Kuresa and Eddie Keele. Junior cornerback Keyle Buchanan is a potential star, and considering that the defense allowed 269 passing yards per game and a completion percentage of 63.0 last year, BYU could use more guys like him in the secondary. The first three games will be tough for the Cougars. They open at Arizona, then host Conference USA power Tulsa, and follow that up with a game at Boston College. If BYU can go 2-1 in those games, they may be able to make a run at Utah and TCU for the conference title, even though the Cougars play both on the road this year. The Cougars have the talent to win eight or nine games, and they should qualify for a bowl game for the second time in as many seasons under Mendenhall.

4. Colorado State Rams
Since the ten-win season Colorado State posted in 2002, things have not been well in Fort Collins. The Rams have fallen behind in terms of team speed, and they have had a ton of trouble defending, well, anything. CSU has finished last in the Mountain West in run defense for two straight years, allowing 222 and 223 yards per game. And the scoring defense has gone downhill, too. The Rams allowed more than 30 points per game last year after allowing 29.5 per game in 2004, an average that was the worst posted by a CSU defense since Sonny Lubick took over the program.

Lubick is safe here, and I’m certainly not calling for his head. However, it’s obvious that teams like Utah and TCU have passed Colorado State. The Rams now have to replace the key players in their passing offense, as well as their top three tacklers from last year.

In good shape: Running back. The Rams only averaged 122 yards per game rushing last year, a far cry from the three-year run of 195, 206, and 191 yards per game in 2001-2003. Not only that, but in CSU’s first four losses last year, the running game averaged a mere 60.75 yards and 2.1 yards per carry. There were positives, though, like the 257 yards against Nevada and 213 the next week against Air Force. For Kyle Bell, the season was similarly up-and-down. Bell got just four rushing attempts in a blowout loss to Minnesota, but rebounded with 183 yards against Nevada and 197 (with three scores) against Air Force. Bell posted four more 100-yard games on the season and ended with over 1,200 yards and a team-leading ten scores. The junior has a chance to become the first Ram runner in 20 years to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Backup Nnamdi Ohaeri moves to defensive back, but the Rams have high hopes for redshirt freshman Alex Square. Junior fullback Kyle Van Horn should help provide some muscle in the backfield, though he won’t get too many carries.

Needs work: Passing game. It would be fine if they weren’t both gone. Quarterback Justin Holland ended up leading the Rams to a bowl in his senior season, and he rebounded after throwing five picks in CSU’s first two games to post pretty solid numbers, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 23 scores. Wide receiver David Anderson shattered the school record for career receiving yards with over 3,600. He caught 86 (breaking his own school record) for over 1,200 yards and eight scores as a senior. There are capable players at both positions now, but it will be hard to replace Holland and Anderson. The new quarterback is likely to be junior Caleb Hanie, who made five starts in 2004 and has appeared in 13 games over his first two years. At receiver, Johnny Walker, a junior, is the best receiver on the team entering fall camp. He caught 43 passes last year. Juniors Damon Morton and Luke Roberts should also be factors.

Overview: For Colorado State, a high priority is improving the run defense. Junior end Jesse Nading will lead the defensive line. Sophomore Matt Rupp and junior Blake Smith both return at tackle, and middle linebacker Jeff Horinek gained valuable experience last year as a freshman by starting 11 games. Ohaeri could make an impact as a nickel back, and the Rams also have starting corners Darryl Williams and Robert Herbert back from last year. Senior safety Ben Stratton returns after missing the 2005 season, and his presence should be a boost to the run defense, which suffered last year – in part – because no one seemed able to step up and fill his shoes. The Rams have opened three straight seasons with losses to in-state rival Colorado, but they are going to open this year by hosting I-AA Weber State as a tuneup of sorts for the Colorado game, which is in Denver this year. I expect solid improvement out of the run defense, and while Hanie might not be as prolific as Holland was, he still has the personnel to put up decent numbers and keep CSU bowl-eligible.

5. San Diego State Aztecs
When Chuck Long took over the SDSU program following the dismissal of Tom Craft, the former H*i*m*n Trophy runner-up and Oklahoma assistant made his intentions clear, declaring that the goal was to win championships. The Aztec program has been far from a title contender, even in the “mid-major” Mountain West, for quite a while. After a 7-4 season in 1998, things started going in the wrong direction. 2003’s 6-6 season was followed by consecutive seven-loss campaigns, and that was it for Craft. The offense improved, but the defense took steps back each of those two years, allowing nearly 28 points per game last year, a ten-point increase over 2003.

Long’s first team features 13 total starters back, and eight of them are on defense. If the defense gels under new coordinator Bob Elliott, the Aztecs could surprise.

In good shape: Secondary. Elliott has to be happy. He has four senior starters projected to take the field in the Aztecs’ opener. Both senior corners, Donny Baker and Terrell Maze, broke up a dozen passes last year, while combining for four picks. Safeties Reggie Grigsby and Brett Sturm both have starting experience. Grigsby was honorable mention All-MWC last year. Players like sophomore safety T.J. McKay and redshirt freshman cornerback Kwincy Edwards will push for playing time in a talented, deep secondary that will cause fits for more than a few quarterbacks this season.

Needs work: Wide receiver. Long knows he has a good one in junior quarterback Kevin O’Connell. O’Connell already has 17 starts to his credit, and he did put up some good numbers in 2005, completing 62 percent of throws for 2,663 yards and 19 scores. However, 92 of his 233 completions on the year went to senior receiver Jeff Webb, who took his 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns to the NFL as a draft pick of the Chiefs. Also gone is second receiver Robert Ortiz, who caught 39 passes and five touchdowns. Long projects to start three juniors at receiver in the opener, with Chazeray Schilens being the most experienced of the group. Alex Ghebreselassie and Brett Swain should also see a lot of snaps, and redshirt freshman Mekell Wesley could push the group, too. The development of a solid receiving corps for O’Connell is essential, and Long knows he has to find a go-to guy.

Overview: The defense was nicknamed the “Dark Side Defense” under Craft and coordinator Thom Kaumeyer. Elliott will do good work with this group, and he has plenty of experience to deal with. Only two sophomores, talented end Siaosi Fifita and outside linebacker Russell Allen, are expected to start. The rest of the group is nothing but juniors and seniors. This gives Elliott smart and experienced players to install his defense with, and with any luck, he’ll have a full season to develop his young players in the system and build depth. Junior running back Lynell Hamilton is a keeper. He’s coming off a solid season that saw him post four 100-yard games and over 800 yards for the year. They do need to keep Hamilton healthy, but the offense should improve. A non-conference slate of UTEP (home), Wisconsin (road), Cal Poly (does it matter?), and San Jose State (road) is fairly difficult (all but the Cal Poly game could be problematic), and Long doesn’t catch any breaks because the first three games are against 2005 bowl teams. The Aztecs could surprise and push for a top three spot in the league, but it isn’t likely with the questions in the passing game and along the offensive line.

6. Air Force Falcons
For the first time in coach Fisher DeBerry’s tenure, Air Force is dealing with back-to-back losing seasons. On top of that, the Falcon program is dealing with controversy, after DeBerry’s comments after a loss to TCU last year where he talked openly about the need to recruit more black athletes to the Academy. A host of former Air Force players stood up behind the coach, and the administration gave no reason to believe that he is in trouble. When you win 154 games in 21 years at a place like Air Force, where recruiting is not easy, you end up getting a bit of a reprieve when you struggle for a couple seasons.

The Falcons’ on-field issues can be traced almost solely to the defense. Air Force was strong defensively as recently as 2003, when they gave up 20.2 points per game. But that total ballooned to 31.1 in 2004 and 31.7 last year. For Air Force to get back into the bowl picture for the first time since 2002, DeBerry and defensive coordinator Richard Bell (8th season) have to figure out a way to down the opposition. In an era of wide-open offenses, it’s going to take improved depth, especially in the secondary.

In good shape: Quarterback. Whether Air Force wants to continue the recent trend of throwing the ball a bit more (passing yards per game have been up in three successive seasons now) or not, Shaun Carney is the guy to lead the offense. He’s the kind of dual-threat guy that can make this offense extremely dangerous. Carney led the team with 710 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last year, and he also threw for nearly 1,400 yards and seven more scores. With the Falcons’ top two receivers both having graduated, this could be the year that Carney breaks out as a running threat. A 1,000-yard rushing season is certainly a possibility, and if Air Force can develop a couple of their more inexperienced receivers, Carney could be a 1,000-1,000 quarterback. Honorable mention here goes to the running backs. It’s not necessarily common for Air Force to return three experienced running backs, but they do this year. Seniors Jacobe Kendrick and junior Ryan Williams will split time at fullback, while senior Justin Handley and junior Chad Hall will man the wings. Also a factor here is junior Ty Paffet, who moved from safety and had a good spring.

Needs work: Defensive front seven. It’s more of a “front six” or a “front eight”, depending on how you choose to classify the Falcon positions, which are hybrid linebacker/safety positions. I would tend to lean towards the Falcons being strong safety types, and that would classify Air Force as playing a 4-2-5 defense, though they are “officially” a 4-3. Enough of the semantics. The Falcons have issues in the front seven. Their line is, as usual, undersized. They do return a solid defensive end in senior Gilberto Perez, but the tackle position isn’t deep, and they don’t have a wealth of size available. Seniors Grant Thomas and Kevin Quinn are expected to battle with junior Chris Monson playing time at the two tackle positions. Thomas, at 275 pounds, is the biggest of the group, which isn’t a good thing. Perez is the jewel of the group, and the Falcons hope they can develop enough talent around him so he won’t be constantly battling double teams. At linebacker, junior Drew Fowler returns after a solid 77-tackle season, but the other inside linebacker position is open. Junior John Rabold is the favorite there.

Overview: The controversy surrounding the way he presented his thoughts notwithstanding, DeBerry certainly brought up a valid point. His program is falling behind in terms of athletic ability and overall depth. The argument that it is exceptionally difficult to recruit at a service academy is real, and it is valid. And Air Force will need DeBerry’s coaching acumen now more than ever if they’re going to keep up with the increased athleticism present in the Mountain West. Certainly, the offense is still good enough to baffle opposing defenses. Carney and the backfield are very strong, and the offensive line is always built with strong leaders and smart players. Three returning seniors, guards Curtis Grantham and Tyler Dohallow and tackle Robert Kraay, anchor the line this year, along with senior center Stuart Perlow. Projected right tackle Caleb Morris was a starter in 2004 who sat out last season with a wrist injury. Perez, Fowler, and junior safety Bobby Giannini will lead the defense, but DeBerry has to keep his fingers crossed that his front-line guys stay healthy. The defense lacks depth at all positions. Non-conference games at Tennessee and at home against Notre Dame are almost certain losses, and the games against Army and Navy won’t be easy, either (Air Force lost both last year). All told, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that, if Air Force can rebuild on defense, the Falcons could find themselves bowl eligible. However, it might be too much to ask this season because of the ferocious non-conference schedule.

7. New Mexico Lobos
It’s a stunning development, really, when you consider where the New Mexico program once was. As recently as 2000, the Lobos completed a stretch of three straight losing seasons, but the 1997 season saw UNM make their first bowl trip since 1961. The Lobos have since posted five straight winning seasons and made three more bowl trips. Last year’s 6-5 season was viewed as a disappointment in Albuquerque, which is a really good sign, because it means fans are no longer satisfied with the program scraping to finish with a winning record.

Expectations are now present, and as a result of those expectations, head coach Rocky Long changed offensive coordinators during the offseason. He moved Dan Dodd to special teams and brought in former UCLA coach Bob Toledo, who wants a more pro-style offense instead of the run-heavy attack UNM has been using for quite a few years. In fact, the last time that the Lobos averaged more passing yards per game than rushing yards in a season was way back in 1999. That will probably change this season.

In good shape: Offensive line. The Lobos have another big line in place this season, and they have some experience returning, too. UNM returns both starting tackles, Robert Turner and Anthony Kilby, along with left guard Bo Greer. Toledo likes his front-line players, but told Blue Ribbon that he’d like to have a deeper front line. Junior Vince Natali should start at center, while junior Matt Streid (JUCO) and senior Patrick Hodges expect to vie for the starting job at right guard. With Toledo switching to a pro-style offense where the Lobos expect to be more proficient passing the ball, the sight of experienced starting tackles has to make him feel pretty confident.

Needs work: Running game. Granted, the Lobos are changing a few things offensively. But Toledo isn’t going to want to throw the ball every down. With that in mind, he has to find a way to replace four-year starter DonTrell Moore, who only holds the school’s career rushing record by 1,111 yards. Moore ran for nearly 1,300 yards and scored 17 total touchdowns (3 receiving) last year, and the leading returning rusher is quarterback Kole McKamey. Among the running backs, Toledo and Long are looking at the prospect of a dreaded “running back by committee” this season. Junior Martelius Epps and sophomores Rodney Ferguson and Paul Baker are the key players entering the season. The returning running backs combined for just 53 yards a year ago, who whoever gets the job will be inexperienced. Ferguson has the size and speed to be effective, but Toledo seems committed to the committee approach at least for the time being.

Overview: McKamey enters his senior year with some question marks. He missed some time with a back injury last year, and was up-and-down with his overall effectiveness when he was healthy. The coaches need him to take better care of the football, and with Toledo’s offense probably calling for more passing (UNM averaged 48 running plays and just 28 passing plays a year ago), McKamey will have to perform well with some new targets. Leading receiver Hank Baskett is gone, and Moore was second on the team with 31 catches last year. Baskett will be especially tough to replace because of his size and ability to go after jump balls. Junior Travis Brown is 6-3 and is probably the best option Toledo has for a top receiver this year. On defense, the Lobos have issues. They allowed nearly 30 points per game last year, up 11 from the year before, and they lose seven starters. There is a lot of potential for coordinator Osia Lewis to work with, but that potential is relatively untested. Particularly tantalizing are redshirt freshman corner Ian Clark and sophomore safeties DeAndre Wright and Blake Ligon. Senior outside linebacker Quincy Black enters with very high expectations, as he will be the only senior to return with any significant starting experience. UNM gets a rare home game against a BCS-conference for when Missouri comes to town in Week Three. UTEP also visits, so the Lobos have two very tough non-MWC games. The changeover on offense, along with significant personnel turnover on defense, probably will keep the Lobos in the lower half of the Mountain West.

8. UNLV Rebels
Mike Sanford was one of three first-year head coaches in the Mountain West last year. He ended up at UNLV after being offensive coordinator at Utah under Urban Meyer, and he brought the spread offense with him to Las Vegas. That made for a bit of a difficult transition, and Sanford hopes the second year is much smoother.

The offense was putrid at times last year, using two different quarterbacks but never really finding a rhythm. The Rebels averaged a shade under 19 points per game last year, while only posting 325 yards of offense per game. Opponents averaged 34 points and over 400 yards against the Rebels, so there is quite a gap for Sanford to plug on both sides of the ball.

In good shape: Secondary. Yes, UNLV ranked 109th in Division I-A in pass defense. That’s bad. However, help has arrived. Juniors Eric Wright (USC) and Mil’Von James (UCLA) have transferred in and are eligible. Also back is senior corner John Guice, who is undersized but very fast. There is also new-found depth at safety, where senior Jay Staggs is back, and the Rebels are set to welcome JUCO transfer Tony Cade. Cade originally signed at Oklahoma before moving into the JC ranks. Also back is senior “Rebel” (nickel-back position) Nate Kenion. There is much more talent here than there was a year ago, and the improvement should be quick.

Needs work: Passing game. Yes, the numbers were better last year (UNLV went from 48 percent completions and 167 yards per game in 2004 to 55 percent and 217 last year). But they weren’t good enough. The Rebels have to throw the ball better, and the guy to do that might be USC transfer Rocky Hinds. Hinds was caught in a numbers game in Los Angeles, but he fits in perfectly as the starter in Vegas. He still has to win the job over senior Shane Steichen, who was okay last last season and might earn some playing time early because of his experience in the offense. At receiver, the departures of Greg Estandia and Donell Wheaton leave some openings. The good news is that JUCO Aaron Straiten is now on board. His size and speed should be a good fit for the offense, but he lacks experience at this level. Sophomore Casey Flair should make an impact.

Overview: The offense could turn around quickly, if Sanford finds a consistent quarterback and gets better play out of an offensive line that allowed an unsightly 39 sacks last year. The key player up front will be senior center Aaron Mueller, who should have a permanent home after jumping between left guard and center. Senior defensive tackle Howie Fuimaono anchors the front three. He’s huge at 335 pounds, and if he can stay healthy, he’s an ideal nose for UNLV’s 3-3-5 look. With early trips to Iowa State and Hawai’i, Sanford probably can’t afford to be juggling quarterbacks, but that is the likely scenario unless either Hinds or Steichen create some separation during fall camp. The conference schedule is tough, with road trips to BYU, Utah, Colorado State, and San Diego State. The defense will be better, thanks to the improved secondary, but the Rebels will be fortunate to win five games against a difficult schedule.

9. Wyoming Cowboys
The Cowboys went in the wrong direction last year. After a stunning Las Vegas Bowl win over UCLA to close out the 2004 season, the Cowboys fell flat a year ago, finishing 4-7, while losing their last six games. The offense slipped from the year before, scoring fewer points and committing more turnovers. Defensively, they didn’t have as many takeaways, they allowed more points, and while they gave up fewer yards, they had a ton of problems down the stretch, allowing nearly 38 points per game over the last four games.

For the first time since 2000, the Cowboys won’t have a Bramlet at quarterback, as Casey and Corey are both gone. And they lose another key weapon on offense, as star receiver Jovon Bouknight. Leading tackler Ron Rockett is gone, too. So, yeah, there are some holes to fill.

In good shape: Running game. Leading rusher Wynel Seldon returns after gaining 871 yards in his freshman campaign. However, fumble issues continued to haunt Seldon in the spring. As a result, seniors Joseph Harris and Ivan Harrison are listed as co-starters with Seldon, and all three could get playing time early. It might not matter who runs, however, as the Cowboys have the makings of an elite offensive line. Senior center Jason Karcher returns along with senior tackles Hunter Richards and Chase Johnson. Sophomore guard Kyle Howard makes it four returning starters up front. The four have combined for 97 collegiate starts.

Needs work: Secondary. Wyoming took a hit here when cornerback Derrick Martin jumped to the NFL Draft a year early, leaving relatively inexperienced juniors Michael Medina and Julius Stinson to start on the outside. While senior safety John Wendling returns, the other safety position is in flux. Senior Dorsey Golston is the favorite to start, but the job could also go to sophomore Quincy Rogers or JUCO Darryl Gober. Wendling moved from strong safety to free safety last year, and still posted good numbers, finishing second on the team with 75 tackles. Because of the inexperience, this should be a huge area of concern for head coach Joe Glenn and defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

Overview: Also of concern is the passing game. Bramlets are gone, leaving the job for redshirt freshman Karsten Sween, junior Jacob Doss, or sophomore Stinson Dean. Bouknight’s absence leaves the receiving duties for juniors Michael Ford and Hoost Marsh, along with senior Tyler Holden. The three combined for 45 catches last year. The Cowboys’ best defensive unit should be the linebackers. All three 2005 starters return, led by senior Austin Hall, who plays on the strong side. Sophomore Ward Dobbs starts on the weak side, and junior Luke Chase returns to start in the middle. The schedule shows some good news, with three of the first four games at home. The bad news is that one of those games is against Boise State. If Glenn can get a quarterback developed, Wyoming might have a chance to sneak into the top six of this league, thanks to what should definitely be an improved defense. But it won’t be easy for Wyoming to win more than four or five games.

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