Mountain West Conference
4. Air Force
5. San Diego State
7. Colorado State
9. New Mexico
Stories to Watch in the Mountain West
TCU reloads for another BCS run. The pieces are certainly in place for the Horned Frogs to make another trip to a BCS bowl. Leading rusher Joseph Turner is gone, but efficient senior quarterback Andy Dalton returns, off a strong season that saw him take very good care of the football while throwing accurately. He's one of nine starters back on offense, so the Frogs figure to improve on last year's solid total of 38 points per game. There's nothing flashy about this offense. They have balance in their game, don't rely on one running back, and they don't have any superstar receivers. Seniors Jeremy Kerley and Jimmy Young lead the way there, but neither is a dominating presence, and defenses aren't able to clamp down on an obvious go-to guy. At running back, look for Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley to carry the load. Gary Patterson's defense is always good, and they bring back seven starters from a ferocious unit that allowed less than 13 points per game despite having teams like BYU, Clemson, and Boise State on the schedule. Senior tackle Cory Grant and senior linebacker Tyler Luttrell are the top players on a unit that should be even better than it was last year. With Oregon State, SMU, and Baylor on the non-conference schedule (only Baylor travels to Fort Worth), TCU is hiding from no one, and if they go 12-0, they'll have earned it.
Can Utah pose a threat? We thought BYU -- with senior quarterback Max Hall leading the way -- could challenge TCU in the Mountain West last year. No dice. The Cougars were thrashed by the Horned Frogs on national television in Provo, and TCU never looked back on their way to an undefeated regular season. Like BYU last year, Utah appears to be the top challenger this year, and they get to play TCU at home. Kyle Whittingham returns a good chunk of offensive talent, including sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn, who took over the offense at mid-season and led the team to improvement down the stretch. With a full season, Wynn could become a big-time player in the MWC. While the defense only brings back four starters, the Utes have fielded solid defensive teams for the better part of the last seven years, so there's no reason to think they won't do it again. Look for junior end Derrick Shelby and freshman linebacker V.J. Fehoko to become huge names on this defense. Utah has a rough path to the TCU game Nov. 6. They face Pittsburgh (home) and Iowa State (road) in non-conference play, and they travel to Wyoming and Air Force in league action. After the TCU game, the Utes travel to Notre Dame and host BYU, so it's hardly a cakewalk schedule for one of the real darkhorse contenders to "bust" the BCS.
Can Air Force crack the "Big Three?" Lately, Utah, BYU, and TCU have owned the MWC. Air Force has gone 5-3 in league play each of the last two years, but only managed a fourth-place finish each time. They haven't beaten any of those three teams since 2007, when they bested TCU and Utah in back-to-back weeks. That's only six games total, but it's a lot when you're talking about a team's ability to crack the top three of a conference. Air Force is good, but they have some issues to overcome this year if they are to get in the top three of the MWC. While the skill position players all return -- led by quarterback Tim Jefferson, only a junior, and running backs Jared Tew, Asher Clark, and Savier Stephens. The offensive line is completely blown up, however, and they figure to lack experience up front. The projected five starters have combined for only one collegiate start among them, but this isn't a new challenge for Air Force. It's quite common for them to have to replace a lot of starters on both sides of the ball, because they typically have a slew of seniors in their starting lineup. On defense, the Falcons will rely on end Rick Ricketts, outside linebacker Andre Morris, and cornerback Reggie Rembert, all seniors. They have skill and experience all over, and they should be very efficient once again this year. The schedule is manageable, with only a non-conference trip to Oklahoma looking somewhat daunting, along with a road date with TCU in league play.
Wyoming tries to recreate the magic. 7-6 probably doesn't sound like much of a magical season, but for Wyoming, it got the job done last year. A team that lost games 41-10 (Texas), 24-0 (Colorado), 52-0 (BYU), and 45-10 (TCU) managed to go bowling despite being outscored by an average of 27-18 over its 13 games. The Cowboys then stunned Fresno State in double overtime in the New Mexico Bowl. For Wyoming to get back to a bowl game, a lot has to go right. Dave Christensen returns eight starters on offense, including sophomores at quarterback (Austin Carta-Samuels) and running back (Alvester Alexander). Both must significantly improve and become the big guys on this team. The secondary will improve -- largely because it can't get much worse -- and look out for sophomore safety Shamiel Gary, who was strong as a true freshman. As Christensen gets more of his recruits in Laramie, things will get better. It will help that the Cowboys will be better on the field, but the schedule includes Texas and Boise State in non-conference play, and it's hard to imagine this team winning more than five games unless things go quite right again.
Best of the rest
Hall is gone at BYU, and now the rest of the league may be a bit perturbed at the school's willingness to go indie in football and leave the MWC. That said, the losses of Hall and Harvey Unga will make it very tough for Bronco Mendenhall to keep the Cougars in the league's top echelon. ... Like Christensen at Wyoming, San Diego State coach Brady Hoke has quickly improved matters. The Aztecs won four last year, and they were very competitive in a lot of their losses. Hoke has a solid quarterback in junior Ryan Lindley, who could blossom into a pretty good NFL prospect if he keeps improving. ... After a bowl game in his first season and a 3-0 start in his second, Steve Fairchild fell hard at Colorado State. The Rams lost their last nine games last year, though four of them were by less than ten points. Expect the Rams to use a freshman quarterback -- Pete Thomas -- for at least a part of the season. That might be scary, but it's a sign of the future, because Thomas is a highly-regarded recruit. Fairchild did well to get him to Fort Collins. ... Former Montana coach Bobby Hauck takes over at UNLV. The Rebels won five last year, but it wasn't enough to save Mike Sanford's job. Now, Hauck will bring a winning mindset to what has been traditionally a losing program. He has 15 starters back, including underachieving senior quarterback Omar Clayton, who could do some big things in Hauck's system. ... It was a tumultuous first season for New Mexico coach Mike Locksley, but things are going to look up soon. Locksley was suspended for a game because of an altercation with an assistant, but he has done well in recruiting, and his team wasn't as bad as 1-11 indicates last year. If they can figure out the quarterback position, the Lobos could surprise, but it's not likely they'll be good enough for a bowl game.
Preseason Mountain West Superlatives
Best QB: Andy Dalton, TCU
Best RB: Eddie Wide, Utah
Best WR: Jimmy Young, TCU
Best offense: Utah
Best defense: TCU
Best coach: Gary Patterson, TCU
Coach in the most trouble: Mike Locksley, New Mexico
Best non-conference matchup: Oregon State vs. TCU at Dallas, Sept. 4
Worst non-conference matchup: Northwestern State at Air Force, Sept. 4