Mountain West Conference Preview
The Mountain West Conference welcomed Texas Christian as its ninth member in 2005, and the Horned Frogs ran away with the conference title. TCU is a favorite, along with 2004 conference champion and BCS buster Utah, to win the MWC in 2006.
Speaking of the BCS, the consensus thought is a MWC school, if any non-BCS school, will earn a berth in the expanded version of the controversial bowl series. If this year’s formula had been in place last year TCU would have earned an automatic berth to a BCS bowl. Hypothetically speaking, imagine if TCU would have won a BCS bowl last year and West Virginia would have got beat in the Sugar Bowl. Then the debate about the Big East’s automatic BCS berth would be heated. It was just two years when Utah whipped the Big East champion, Pittsburgh, 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl.
There is a fine line between the Big East and MWC, but West Virginia’s Sugar Bowl win over Georgia and Louisville’s high-scoring offense have created a separation that has held off the debate, for now.
Utah 10-2 (7-1) – The Utes were on top of the world in 2004, but were given a heavy dose of reality last season. However, Utah has great shot to return the BCS for the second time in three years. It all starts with great quarterback play, and very few, if any, schools can match the Utes’ quarterback depth. Brian Johnson, Brett Ratliff or Tommy Grady could start for most MWC schools. The Utes must replace tailback Quentin Ganther and that is easier said then done. Brian Hernandez leads a good experienced receiving corps. The offensive line is solid but lacks experience depth. The defensive line returns three starters led by all-MWC candidate Kelley Talavou. The linebackers are headed by rover Joe Jiannoni and are among the best in the conference. The defensive backfield is a real strength. Cornerback Eric Weddle and strong safety Casey Evans are among the best in the country at their respective positions.
Schedule- It has BCS written all over it. The toughest test is at UCLA to start the year, but UCLA will be breaking in a host of key starters. The toughest league games, TCU and BYU, are at home. And one can’t forget the BCS Buster Bowl vs. Boise State the last day of September.
Final Words- I am still not sold on the Utah offense under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, and a quarterback controversy could kill team moral. If Utah does not win at least 10 games with this amount of talent and favorable schedule, then Urban Meyer was really a once and lifetime coach.
Bowl- Chance at the BCS, but I say Vegas baby!
TCU 8-4 (6-2) – The Frogs beat teams with sound defense and mistake free football. The formula will not change in 2006. The strength behind TCU’s offense is its depth at tailback. Robert Merrill and Lonta Hobbs is one of the most potent duos in the nation. Quarterback Jeff Ballard is 8-0 as the starter, but is not a great quarterback per se. The offensive line returns just on starter and could pose a problem if the holes can not be filled. The early departure of wide receiver Cory Rodgers hurts both on offense and special teams. The defensive line returns the two best defensive ends, Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, in the conference. The linebackers are some of the best in the country. Middle linebacker Jason Philips is an All-American candidate. However, the secondary could be the weak link of the defense. Weakside safety Marvin White is the only returning starter. I consider returning strong safety Eric Buchanan a linebacker in the 4-2-5 defense.
Schedule- The MWC did not do TCU any favors by scheduling it an after Thanksgiving game at Colorado State. TCU has never played a post October game in the Rockies. Texas Tech at home will make or break the Frogs season. Last year’s team could have easily started last season 0-4, this year’s team could conceivably be 1-4 by mid-October.
Final Words- TCU was +21 in turnover margin last year and the odds are the Frogs will not be as lucky this year. The offensive line and secondary are problems areas that were not a year ago.
Bowl- Fort Worth
BYU 8-4 (6-2) – It was not long ago when BYU was considered one of the top 10 football programs in the nation. Today the Cougars are just another “mid-major” trying to earn national respect. Utah may have the conference’s best quarterback depth and TCU the best running back depth, but there is not a better quarterback/running back tandem in the MWC then BYU’s John Beck and Curtis Brown. The receiving corps is the best in the conference, as is the offensive line. Tight end Johny Harline is one of the best in the country and Jake Kuresa is the best tackle in the conference. As good as the offense is the defense is a mess. The defensive line will be breaking in young raw talent and the starters could all be newcomers. The linebackers are the strength of the defense and are led by all-MWC performer Cameron Jensen. The secondary was decimated by injuries last year, but should stay healthy improve its numbers in 2006.
Schedule- Arizona and Boston College on the road is not going to be easy. Conference games at TCU and Utah makes if very difficult for BYU to win an outright conference title.
Final Words- BYU will be much improved, but the tough schedule will prevent the Cougars from making any splash beyond a minor bowl win. If the defense can overcome its shortfalls and be a force, BYU just may win the conference title.
Colorado State 6-6 (5-3) – Sonny Lubick is the dean of the MWC coaches, but his program has fallen on some hard times. Departure of Parade All-American quarterback Justin Holland is welcomed by many Rams fans, but he could be harder to replace than many expect. Running back Kyle Bell is built like a truck (6’ 2 226) and will top 1,000 yards on the year. The receiving corps loses David Anderson, but returns four of the top five pass catchers. The offensive line loses two starters but looks to be just a strong as last year’s unit. The Rams are loaded on defense. The front seven is experienced and deep. Defensive end Jesse Nading will vie for all-MWC honors. The secondary is led by stellar cornerback Robert Herbert. It is, as well, very deep and experienced.
Schedule- Lubick tried to tone down the non-conference schedule this year, but games at Nevada and Fresno State will not be easy, neither will be the annual game vs. Colorado. BYU and TCU have to come to Fort Collins in MWC play.
Final Words- The Rams will be underrated, again. Has Lubick lost his touch? No, in fact with an upset or two, CSU could find itself atop the conference.
Bowl- New Mexico
San Diego State 6-6 (3-5) – Chuck Long steps into a great situation in San Diego. The former Oklahoma offensive coordinator is finally a head coach, and just may be the one to awake the sleeping giant that is known as the San Diego State football program. The offense will start and end with tailback Lynell Hamilton. He has not been healthy since late 2003, but could be the best back in the West by season’s end. Quarterback Kevin O’ Connell must learn a new offensive scheme, but should adapt well. The receivers lose some talent, but shouldn’t miss a beat. The offensive line loses three starters, but should be comparable to last year’s unit. The Aztec defense will be led up front by one of the conference’s best defensive ends, Antwan Applewhite. The linebackers should be a lot healthier and more productive this season. The secondary is underrated, but should be among the best in the country. Cornerbacks Donny Baker and Terrell Maze are undersized, however, are the best CB duo in the MWC.
Schedule- SDSU can make an early splash with a win over UTEP in the season opener. At Wisconsin will not be as tough as many expect. Utah comes to San Diego the following week.
Final Words- Long has great weapons on offense to work with. The defense will be strong point and there is a great chance for SDSU to win eight to nine games.
Bowl- Quite possibly the hometown Poinsettia
UNLV 4-8 (3-5) – The Rebels might as well join the Pac 10 considering how many Pac 10 transfers will call UNLV home in 2006. The offensive back field will be led by former USC quarterback Rocky Hinds. The “little” Erick Jackson (5’6 185) is a decent back, but there is little experience behind him. Two of top three receivers depart, but still remains a strong point. The offensive line returns virtually in tack. The defense is full of potential and question marks. Howie Fuimaono is mountain of a nose guard and will anchor the 3-4; however, overall the unit is very inexperienced. All-MWC linebacker Beau Bell leads an inexperienced group. The secondary is full of big-name transfers, but will they blend well and contribute. Former USC cornerback Eric Wright is considered by many pundits one of the best in the nation, yet he has not played in nearly two years and only started four games for the Trojans in 2004.
Schedule- The conference road schedule is brutal: Colorado State, BYU, Utah and San Diego State. The Rebels have to play two of the WAC’s best, at Hawaii and vs. Nevada, along with a very tough road game at Iowa State.
Final Words- The big name transfers draw media attention and give fans hope. However, the transfers have yet to play or contribute to the team per se. I am not sold on the “elite” secondary and UNLV could struggle early on against great passing teams (Hawaii and Nevada).
Bowl- With a few upsets, there is an outside shot.
New Mexico 4-8 (2-6) – The Lobos lose their top rusher, DonTrell Moore, and receiver, Hank Baskett III, and must rebuild with only 10 returning starters. Former UCLA head coach Bob Toledo will be the new offensive coordinator. He will switch from the spread to more of a West Coast offense, but has few weapons to work with. Quarterback Kole McKamey is a duel-threat quarterback, but will have to hold off Chris Nelson for the starting job. Moore and Baskett’s departure leave gaping holes at the skill positions. The returning receivers have size, but were not impressive last season. The offensive line returns three starters, led by all-MWC tackle Robert Turner. The defensive line is raw and undersized. But the heart of the Lobos 3-3-5 is the linebackers and Cody Kase and Quincy Black are among the best in the conference. The secondary will be much improved from a year ago.
Schedule- Missouri and UTEP come to Albuquerque and both pose great upset opportunities. New Mexico’s last five games are against arguably the MWC’s best: Utah, at Colorado State, TCU, at BYU, and San Diego State.
Final Words- The cupboard is bare on offense, and after the first two games there are no breathers. If no one steps on offense it could be a very long season for Lobo fans.
Bowl- The hometown bowl will have to wait at least another year.
Wyoming 3-9 (2-6) – Joe Glenn is 15-20 in his first threes at Wyoming. The highlight of his Cowboy coaching career was the Las Vega Bowl win over heavily favored UCLA in 2004. Last year’s team should have contended for the conference crown after starting an impressive 4-1, but lost its last six games. The dynamic pass-catching duo of Casey Bramlet and Jovon Bouknight has departed and Cowboys return just 12 starters. Bramlet didn’t have the best senior year, and projected starter Karsten Sween could post better numbers. The offensive and defensive lines look to be stronger. Weakside linebacker Ward Dobbs is a super sophomore and heads a very strong unit. The secondary is a wreck. Only one starter, free safety John Welding, returns.
Schedule- The non-conference slate really has no breathers. Utah State is decent ball club that could upset the Cowboys in the opener. Boise State, road games at Virginia and Syracuse will be tough for a Wyoming team trying to build some momentum early in the season. In conference play, it ends the season on the road at BYU and UNLV.
Final Words- There is a still talent in Laramie. There is only one major concern, defensive back, and if the Sween can develop chemistry with his receivers the Cowboys have a shot to win six games.
Bowl- Not likely
Air Force 2-10 (1-7) – Man oh man do I hate to pick Air Force last. Since 2003 the Falcons have steadily fallen and they just may hit rock bottom in 2006. Shaun Carney is another in a long line of great Air Force quarterbacks. The running backs and offensive line are experienced but were not that impressive last year. The receiving corps must be rebuilt. Despite returning just five starters on defense, the Falcons are still experienced. Defensive end Gilberto Perez is an all-MWC caliber player. The linebackers and secondary will improve if they can stay healthy.
Schedule- Navy is no longer a gimme, and neither is this year’s road trip to Army. Notre Dame and Tennessee will be blowouts, but at least the Irish are at home. In conference the tough games are at home, and the easier ones are on the road.
Final Words- The Falcons are not the worst team in the MWC. Any of the predicted bottom six teams could finish third through ninth; unfortunately the Falcons have the toughest schedule of the six, in my opinion.
WR- Johnny Walker, Colorado State
WR- Brian Hernandez, Utah
TE- Johny Harline, BYU
T- Jake Kuresa, BYU
T- Robert Turner, New Mexico
C- Nick Allotta, Colorado State
G- Dallas Roberts, BYU
G- Bo Greer, New Mexico
QB- John Beck, BYU
RB- Kyle Bell, Colorado State
RB- Lynell Hamilton, San Diego State
AP- Curtis Brown, BYU
DL- Tommy Blake, TCU
DL- Kelly Talavou, Utah
DL- Antwan Applewhite, San Diego State
DL- Chase Ortiz, TCU
LB- Jason Phillips, TCU
LB- Cameron Jensen, BYU
LB- Ward Dobbs, Wyoming
CB- Eric Weddle, Utah
CB- Donny Baker, San Diego State
SS- Casey Evans, Utah
FS- Ben Stratton, Colorado State
PR- Chris Sutton, Air Force
K- Chris Manfredini, TCU
P- Jimmie Kaylor, Colorado State
KR- Brent Casteel, Utah
Offensive POY- John Beck, BYU
Defensive POY- Chase Ortiz, TCU
Freshman of the Year- Walter Watts, Utah
Coach of the Year- Chuck Long, San Diego State
Game of the Year- BYU at Utah
Upset of the Year- Colorado State over TCU
Most Overrated- Eric Wright, UNLV
Most Underrated- Donny Baker, San Diego State
Best Quarterbacks- Utah
Best Running Backs- TCU
Best Wide Receivers- BYU
Best Offensive Line- BYU
Best Defensive Line- TCU
Best Linebackers- TCU
Best Defensive Backs- Utah
Best Special Teams- San Diego State
Best Coaching- TCU
Best Intangibles- TCU