Welcome to The Ciskie Blog's 2008 College Football Preview. As usual, you can expect a rundown of every Division I-A (or "Football Bowl Subdivision", if you prefer) conference, as well as a brief look at the independents. Some of the information used to compile these previews came from various football preview publications that I took the time to review this summer. I give a full endorsement to Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the national edition, as well as his various regional magazines). I also have looked at Sporting News, Athlon Sports, and Blue Ribbon (via ESPN Insider). Information was also gathered from local newspapers and school websites. Please use the comments section or e-mail for feedback, questions, and any corrections you feel need to be noted.
1. Fresno State
2. Boise State
4. New Mexico State
5. Louisiana Tech
7. San Jose State
9. Utah State
TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN THE WAC
June Jones moves on. The biggest addition for Conference USA is the biggest loss for the WAC. Jones won 76 games in nine seasons at Hawai'i, taking the Warriors to the Sugar Bowl in his final season. Yes, the Warriors got worked by Georgia, 41-10, in the bowl, but the fact that Jones took a program on a shoestring budget ($50,000 for recruiting) as far as he did is a testament to his coaching abilities. Former UH defensive coordinator Greg McMackin takes over the head job, and he starts by making $300,000 more per year than Jones did (McMackin is slated to make $1.1 million). The longtime assistant coach has quite a task on his hands, as Hawai'i returns only nine starters from last year's 12-1 team. Early-season trips to Florida and Oregon State should only complicate the transition.
Fresno's BCS potential. As usual, Pat Hill has an interesting team in the Valley. The Bulldogs return 17 starters, including ten on offense, from a team that got hot late last season. Fresno won eight of their last ten games after a 1-2 start. They clearly found the QB to lead them into a potentially huge season in 2008, as Tom Brandstater (photo) hit nearly 63 percent of his throws and tossed just five picks in 337 attempts. He has all his skill players back. Feature back Ryan Mathews ran for 14 touchdowns, and top receivers Marlon Moore and Bear Pascoe combined for 93 catches and nine scores. Hill's defense was subpar a season ago, allowing over 400 yards per game and permitting 27 points per game. The schedule is also daunting, probably preventing Fresno from having a real shot at a BCS run. The Bulldogs play non-conference games at Rutgers, Toledo, and UCLA, host Wisconsin, and they also travel to Boise State November 28 for their WAC finale. It will take Hill's best coaching job yet to get this team to Boise with an 11-0 record, but it would be great to see a team like Fresno State rewarded for it's "anyone, anywhere, anytime" scheduling mentality.
The race for third. It appears Nevada is favored to end up third in the league. With WAC Freshman of the Year Colin Kaepernick (right) returning to run the Pistol offense, and all the offensive leaders back, Nevada should have little trouble topping the 33.5 points per game they averaged last season. Much like the rest of the WAC, Nevada's defense is leaky, and it likely keeps them from being a serious league title contender. Hawai'i has to replace record-setting QB Colt Brennan, three receivers who caught 90 or more passes last year, and offensive architect June Jones. New Mexico State has to be considered a threat to rise up the league standings. The Aggies return 14 starters, including seven on a defense that will benefit greatly from an improved offense. Hal Mumme's Air Raid offense was grounded by injuries to QB Chase Holbrook and WR Chris Williams. All the key pieces return on offense, so it's a matter of turning the ball over less and staying healthy. Holbrook is one of the more talented and accurate quarterbacks in the country, and he's all set up for a huge senior year. The other wild card in the WAC is Louisiana Tech. They have two transfers battling for the QB job, including last year's Georgia Tech starter, Taylor Bennett. Auburn transfer Steven Ensminger is also in the mix, as is sophomore Ross Jenkins. The Bulldogs won five games a year ago, despite a passing game that floundered under 200 yards per game. Improving the play out of the QB position will help LT a great deal. Getting more consistent defensive play would also be a good thing. Then again, that's a weakness all over the league.
Holbrook Chase-ing some attention. Yes, it's New Mexico State. Yes, it's Hal Mumme's gimmicky Air Raid offense. But Holbrook (right) is still something to watch. Despite battling injuries and throwing 18 interceptions, Holbrook hit 70 percent of his throws last year, and he's already the school's all-time leading passer by over 1,000 yards. Having a healthy Williams will help Holbrook (Williams caught over 90 passes in 2006), as will an improved offensive line and the experience of another year in Mumme's offense. The schedule shows visits from Boise State and Hawai'i, as well as a non-conference home game with rival New Mexico. Holbrook has a big arm, so anything he can do to impress NFL scouts is a bonus. He won't be a high draft pick because of Mumme's offense (he spends too much time in the shotgun), but his progress definitely bears watching. He's probably the highest-profile QB in this league.
Utah State continues to have problems. Try as he might, Brent Guy just can't right the ship in Logan, Utah. The fourth-year coach did lead his team to wins in each of their last two games a year ago, but that was after an 0-10 start that included losses by 51, 16, 15, and 52 points. The Aggies have to reconstruct the offense this year, as three-year starting QB Leon Jackson departs. Senior Sean Setzer and junior Jase McCormick appear to be the leaders to take over the position. A smallish USU defense allowed nearly 200 yards per game rushing, but they get back five of their front seven for this year. Guy also recruited DT Casey Davis from nearby Snow Junior College, hoping he can bolster the interior pass rush. The Aggies posted just 12 sacks last year, and no more than two in any single game. Winning more battles up front is a top priority for the defense. Opening at UNLV and Oregon, then at home against Utah, is not helpful. But Guy has the right attitude, and he continues to slowly improve the depth of the football team.
BEST OF THE REST
Boise State's offense continues to evolve. The Broncos have added a quicker tempo to their attack, and they're also using some spread stuff and some of Nevada's pistol offense. They still have All-America RB Ian Johnson, who battled injuries again last season. Dick Tomey led San Jose State to a bowl win in his second season, but the Spartans fell off last year. The return of RB Yonus Davis should help SJSU improve, but it means nothing if they can't replace productive QB Adam Tafralis, who graduated. If a team like Hawai'i, New Mexico State, or San Jose State falter, it is an opportunity for Idaho to surprise. Second-year coach Robb Akey should see his offense improve, thanks to ten returning starters. He'll benefit from the decision to play now-sophomore Nathan Enderle in nine games last year. That experience will pay off, as will the play of second-team All-WAC back Deonte' Jackson.
PRESEASON AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brandstater, QB, Fresno State
Defensive Player of the Year: Kyle Gingo, LB, Boise State
Coach of the Year: Hal Mumme, New Mexico State
Coach on the Hot Seat: Brent Guy, Utah State
Best Non-Conference Game: Wisconsin at Fresno State, September 13
Worst Non-Conference Game: Idaho State at Boise State, August 30