4. Air Force
6. San Diego State
7. Colorado State
8. New Mexico
Fab Four: Top Storylines in Mountain West
Will the BYU line hold up? No one can question the quality of talent BYU has in their offensive backfield. The Cougars are blessed with arguably the best quarterback (Max Hall) and running back (Harvey Unga) in the MWC. In order for the two to operate at the highest efficiency, BYU needs to replace four lost starters on the offensive line. The only guy back from last year's starting five is sophomore left tackle Matt Reynolds, a freshman All-American from a year ago who was very good keeping Hall's blind side protected. BYU does have some older players to draw from on the line, including senior center R.J. Willing and junior linemen Jason Speredon and Nick Alletto. One of the reasons Hall was so successful last year was he was only sacked 19 times in 13 games. Six of those came during an embarrassing loss to TCU. While Hall should be able to count on good blind-side protection, BYU will head into the season opener against Oklahoma with some uncertainty up front. It won't be a good way to start the season, but things should be solved by the conference opener against Colorado State.
TCU will be good enough, again. Gary Patterson just finds a way to churn out a quality football team every year, no matter what they lost the year before. Defensively, the Horned Frogs are in for another challenge. In this offense-driven era of college football, TCU has allowed no more than 18.7 points per game in any of the last four seasons. Last season, the Horned Frogs permitted double-digit scoring just six times, with a season-high of 35 allowed to national championship contender Oklahoma. With just four starters back on defense, TCU may have to lean a bit on their offense in 2009. Quarterback Andy Dalton returns, as do leading rusher Joseph Turner and leading wide receivers Jimmy Young and Bart Johnson. After averaging 33 points per game, TCU could be poised for a big offensive year. With trips to Virginia and Clemson among the Frogs' first three games, they're going to need the support as the defense finds itself.
Big year for UNLV. The patience of the UNLV administration is about to be rewarded. After giving football coach Mike Sanford a three-year extension after a 5-7 finish in 2008, the Rebels are ready to take the next step. A defense that had its moments a year ago returns seven starters, including leader and tackling machine Jason Beauchamp. Quarterback Omar Clayton returns, ready to trigger a spread offense that picked up a touchdown per game over 2007, and will only get better as they continue to develop a ground attack. Helping UNLV even more this year will be a schedule that includes seven home games, including three straight to start the season. Games at Wyoming and New Mexico are totally winnable, as are home dates with Sacramento State, Hawaii, San Diego State, and Colorado State. Finding a couple more wins could make for a very big season in Vegas.
Is Brady Hoke the answer? This is a question we may need a few years to answer. Chuck Long tried, but just didn't get much good done at San Diego State. When he left after a 2-10 season in 2008, the Aztec program was very lucky to bring in former Hoke, the former coach at Ball State. Hoke comes in and inherits a stocked cupboard of players looking for some direction. The Aztecs sport a slew of experienced defensive players, and former New Mexico head man Rocky Long will try to get something out of that group. Meanwhile, quarterback Ryan Lindley, wide receiver Vincent Brown, and leading rusher Atiyyah Henderson are all back from last year. Even a marginal improvement means the Aztecs should be able to climb out of the Mountain West cellar. True bowl contention might not come right away, but with Hoke in charge and fully confident in his coaching acumen after a 12-2 season at Ball State, anything can happen.
Best of the rest
Blitz machine Stevenson Sylvester leads a maniacal Utah defense, which hopes to keep the Utes near the top of the Mountain West despite the loss of some key pieces on offense. Expect running back Matt Asiata to be the key guy on offense early in the season. ... Air Force has won 17 games in two years under coach Troy Calhoun. This should be another strong year for the Falcons, who still run the ball as well as anyone, but have integrated a more efficient passing game. ... Nice bowl run for Colorado State under rookie coach Steve Fairchild, but it's going to be tough to repeat that feat. The Rams lost a ton of skill-position talent, along with six starters from a defense that struggled, even when things were going well. ... Mike Locksley takes over at New Mexico, where the Lobos struggled to a 4-8 finish last year. Without defensive ace Long on staff, expect UNM to have issues keeping teams off the scoreboard. Considering that the Lobos haven't averaged 30 points per game since 2003, it could be a long season. ... For Wyoming, the promise of a Las Vegas bowl win back in 2004 has been tempered. The Cowboys are 19-28 since, including 4-8 last year, enough to get coach Joe Glenn fired. Former Missouri assistant Dave Christensen is the new boss. He has 16 starters, but has to find a quarterback and restructure this offense. With Christensen's offensive background, expect it to be a short turnaround, but a tough schedule that includes a visit from Texas and trip to Colorado will keep Wyoming from climbing the ladder right away.
Preseason Mountain West Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Max Hall, QB, BYU
Defensive Player of the Year: Jan Jorgensen, DE, BYU
Coach of the Year: Mike Sanford, UNLV
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike Sanford, UNLV
Best Non-Conference Game: Oklahoma vs BYU (at Arlington, Tex.), September 5
Worst Non-Conference Game: Nicholls State at Air Force, September 5