MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Boise State
3. Air Force
5. Colorado State
6. San Diego State
7. New Mexico
Top Storylines to Watch in the Mountain West
The new guy. As the Mountain West mourns the losses of Utah and rival BYU, the league is still strong, thanks to the addition of Boise State from the WAC. The Broncos have been a monster in college football for some time, posting a staggering 61-5 record over the last five years, with three of those losses coming in 2007. Three-year starter Kellen Moore is back under center for Boise, carrying a TD-interception ratio of 99-19 into this season. That's solid. Senior running back Doug Martin is back, as is senior receiver Tyler Shoemaker. Senior left tackle Nate Potter has been first-team All-WAC twice, and he's an odds-on favorite for similar honors in the MWC this year. Chris Petersen's team returns seven starters on defense. Among them are senior tackles Billy Wynn and Chase Baker, senior ends Tyrone Crawford and Shea McClellin, and linebackers Aaron Tevis and Byron Hout, both seniors. This is a serious national championship contender, and it doesn't hurt them at all that key MWC games against TCU and Air Force will both be contested on the blue carpet.
The lame duck. Boise is in, and Fresno State and Nevada might be on the way soon, but the loss of TCU will hurt the league in a way, because they no longer have a foot in the door in Texas. TCU's decision to move to the Big East was controversial in a way, in large part because of the league's decision to move a home game against Boise to Idaho after TCU announced it was departing. On the field, this figures to be a tough season for the Horned Frogs, who posted back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons (only loss was the 2009 Fiesta Bowl to Boise), and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last year to complete a 13-0 campaign. As usual, TCU will be led by its defense, which hasn't allowed more than 20 points per game in a season since 2004. Linebackers Tanner Brock and Tank Carder are back, as is defensive end Stansly Maponga. The offense took some hits, as quarterback Andy Dalton -- the school's all-time leading passer by nearly 3,000 yards -- departed, along with leading receiver Jeremy Kerley and top offensive linemen Marcus Cannon and Jake Kirkpatrick. Going to Baylor and Air Force right out of the chute won't help matters, but I still think there's a decent chance TCU will be unbeaten when they head to Boise Nov. 12. It's not too early to get excited about that one.
Air Force is doing it ... again. It's probably a bit insulting now to talk with amazement about how Air Force -- with stringent admissions standards and often an undersized team -- continues to remain more than competitive in today's college football landscape. Instead, this has become old hat. The Falcons have not won fewer than eight games in any of their four years under coach Troy Calhoun, and there's no reason to think they will struggle to hit that number again this year. Senior quarterback Tim Jefferson returns for a fourth year at the controls, something rather unprecedented in the Air Force system. And, yet, it's the second class in a row that's featured a four-year starter for them (Shaun Carney from 2004-2007). Jefferson can throw enough to keep defenses honest, and he's the kind of run threat you expect from the option offense. Senior back Asher Clark returns after a 1,000-yard season, and junior Wesley Cobb should also see plenty of carries. Eight starters are back on defense, including nose tackle Ryan Gardner, a key figure in the team's 3-4 defense, one that struggled mightily to defend the run last year (over 200 yards per game). An experienced secondary helps keep teams from running away with games. An early home date with TCU will tell us a lot about this Air Force team, one that has a realistic shot at ten or more wins.
Rocky Long returns. Well, to the league, that is. Long is the new head man at San Diego State, taking over for Brady Hoke after he moved on to Michigan. Long coached at New Mexico for a decade, taking the Lobos to five bowls in seven years before being shoved out the door. The Lobos are 2-22 since. Long takes over a team that Hoke did a tremendous job with, getting them to nine wins and a bowl win over Navy last year. The Aztecs do have senior quarterback Ryan Lindley back after a tremendous season last year, and running back Ronnie Hillman returns after tearing up defenses as a freshman, but SDSU loses six starters from a Long-led defense that had some struggles a year ago. That's the new head man's priority: get more out of that defense, including a lot more big plays. A winning season is a solid bet here, but they'll have to make quick strides defensively to match the nine they won in 2010.
The Rest of the Story
I'm hitching up to the Wyoming bandwagon. The Cowboys return 14 starters, have an emerging star in back Alvester Alexander, and should be significantly better on defense. If Dave Christensen can find a quarterback, he'll have a team capable of going bowling for the third time since 1993. ... Colorado State should also be a lot better this year. The Rams suffered through a 3-9 season, but now-sophomore quarterback Pete Thomas made strides each start. Just think about how much better he will be thanks to last year's experience. ... There's no doubt that Mike Locksley is in trouble at New Mexico. He has a better team on paper, but they're 2-22 the last two years and not looking to be better than four or five wins this year. Doesn't help that former UNM coach Long is now a head man for a league rival. ... Former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck is trying to build UNLV into a contender, and one year won't show those results. Look for the Rebels to play a ton of young players as Hauck stocks the shelves with his players. For now, though, only marginal improvement can be reasonably expected after a 2-11 campaign.