1. Boise State
3. Fresno State
4. Louisiana Tech
5. San Jose State
7. Utah State
9. New Mexico State
Fab Four: Top Storylines in WAC
Boise a national contender again. In 2008, an unbeaten Boise State team was "relegated" to a game against TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Broncos fell 17-16, as their high-octane offense was effectively slowed by TCU's swarming defense. That said, even with the skill talent that Boise lost, they should be a heavy favorite in the WAC. With non-conference games against Oregon and Tulsa, the BCS is a more realistic goal this time around. Junior running back Jeremy Avery, who has seen plenty of playing time in the last two years, takes over the starting position vacated by Ian Johnson. Sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore has plenty of targets to choose from, including junior receiver Austin Pettis. On defense, nearly the entire secondary returns after allowing just 190 pass yards per game last year. There is work to be done to reload the front seven, but the Broncos do have All-WAC end Ryan Winterswyk back. Three years removed from their Fiesta Bowl stunner over Oklahoma, it looks like Boise State could return to being a BCS contender. It helps that fellow WAC contender Nevada has to visit Boise this year, but maybe that doesn't matter. After all, the Broncos are 54-2 in WAC play over the last seven years.
Nevada makes their move. It doesn't look like it will be good enough to win the league, but Nevada figures to field their best team in many years this fall. The Wolf Pack have 14 starters returning to Reno, and all the major players are in that group. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the league's Offensive Player of the Year last year, totaling nearly 4,000 yards and accounting for 39 touchdowns. Also back is junior running back Vai Taua, who ran for over 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Leading receiver Marko Mitchell is gone, but junior Chris Wellington caught 42 passes last year, and he figures to emerge as Kaepernick's favorite target. On defense, Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch combined for 21.5 sacks last year, and leading tackler Jonathan Amaya, a senior safety, also returns. The schedule is very tough, with trips to Notre Dame and Colorado State and a home game against Missouri. Count the WAC schedule, and Nevada plays seven games against 2008 bowl teams, four of those on the road. All told, this should be Chris Ault's most talented team, and the experience at key positions should help the Wolf Pack approach ten wins.
Rebuilding continues at Utah State. The Aggies are almost in a perpetual rebuild, but there's reason to think that the rebuild is going to lead to something good this time. Brent Guy couldn't clean up the Aggies' play on the field, but he cleaned up the recruiting, and he was able to get some pretty good players to go to Logan. New coach Gary Andersen, a former defensive coordinator at Utah, takes over now, and he has 48 returning letterwinners to work with. Among them is quarterback Diondre Borel, who showed flashes of brilliance and will only get better as he continues to tone his body and his game. Senior receiver Xavier Bowman looks like he's ready to take over as the top target, and the offensive line returns four starters from a unit that only allowed nine sacks over the team's last five games. Defensively, Andersen inherits a group that was a mess last year, but will benefit from the new coach's background. Only when the Aggies start stopping people with more regularity will Utah State's fortunes really improve. They haven't allowed under 30 points per game since 2003, and they're on a streak of four straight years allowing over 400 yards per game. The offense should keep getting better, though, and if Utah State can survive insane road trips to Utah, Texas A&M, and BYU over their first four games, bowl eligibility is a remote possibility.
Fresno State keeps on going. While Fresno hasn't won a conference title in 20 years, they have developed quite the reputation around college football. The Bulldogs have pulled some upsets over the years, won a few bowl games, and are almost always a postseason contender in the WAC. As Pat Hill tries to replace quarterback Tom Brandstater with junior Ryan Colburn, he finds stability all over the field. The only major questions are an offensive line that lost both starting tackles, and a schedule that includes road trips to Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Illinois, and Nevada. Fresno State will run the ball well with Ryan Mathews and Anthony Harding, and Colburn should have more than enough guys to throw to. The defense of last year shouldn't be the same, as eight starters return in an effort to show they're not the horrible unit that gave up over 30 points eight times in 13 games.
Best of the rest
Eight wins and a bowl trip made for a nice season at Louisiana Tech. With nine starters back on offense and seven more on defense, the Bulldogs could be even better. The key will be quarterback Ross Jenkins improve his accuracy while holding off Auburn transfer Steve Ensminger. ... A loss to Fresno State in their season finale meant that San Jose State was left home for the bowl season. Don't count on that happening again, as the Spartans return a lot of talent. Look for senior quarterback Kyle Reed to have a big season, especially if he can find a suitable target to replace leading receiver David Richmond. ... Hawai'i rode their defense to a bowl bid last year, sort of. The offense lost almost 20 points per game from the previous season, and it's hard to imagine the Warriors will magically be as potent as they were under June Jones. Now they have to deal with nine new starters on defense, too. It could be a tough year in Honolulu. ... Robb Akey is in his third year at Idaho. If he has any luck, he'll be around longer than that. Even though Akey is just 3-21 so far, his team has shown some signs of potential improvement. That said, progress is measured in wins, and the Vandals don't figure to win many this year, despite a slew of experienced players and a fairly talented signal-caller in Nathan Enderle. ... New Mexico State starts over this year. Hal Mumme and his crazy offense are gone, and Dewayne Walker takes over. He'll tone things down, try to get the Aggies to run the ball for more than the 55 yards per game they had last year, and the former UCLA defensive coordinator will get to work trying to build a respectable defense in Las Cruces.
Preseason WAC Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada
Defensive Player of the Year: Kyle Wilson, CB, Boise State
Coach of the Year: Chris Ault, Nevada
Coach on the Hot Seat: Robb Akey, Idaho
Best non-conference game: Oregon at Boise State, September 3
Worst non-conference game: UC-Davis at Boise State, October 3