The Mountain West is considered by many fans to be the top non- BCS league. That, of course, is up for debate after the WAC has placed teams in the BCS last two seasons, but the 2008 edition of the MWC features three teams with legitimate 12-0 hopes in Utah, TCU, and BYU. Furthermore, the conference has some large fan bases, led by BYU and their average home attendance of 64,500 fans per game last year, good for #26 in the NCAA! Last year, the conference’s top teams all defeated BCS opposition and BYU finished ranked #14 in the country after finishing undefeated in conference play and 11-2 overall. This year, the MWC is as strong as ever and the improved depth makes it seem unlikely that the conference will see its fourth straight champion finish undefeated in conference play. The Mountain West should again be an exciting league to watch this fall.
2008 MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH
Utah struggled to begin the season in 2007, losing three of their first four (though their only win was an inexplicable FIVE touchdown victory over UCLA!) before rebounding to win eight of their last nine games, including a bowl victory over the Naval Academy. The Utes return fourteen starters from that nine win edition a year ago and could start up to a dozen seniors. Utah will find out exactly how good they are in the season opening game at rebuilding Michigan.
Senior Brian Johnson returns as the starter under center for the Utes. Johnson, who should provide an extra dimension with his running ability, threw for 1,800 yards down the stretch last year, but his 11-10 TD to interception ratio must be improved. He will be aided by the presence of senior Darrell Mack in the backfield, who ran for over 1,200 yards and 12 TDs last season and should improve even further this year. Strong will be running behind a very solid offensive line that returns four starters from last year and they will give the skill positions plenty of time to make plays. Utah has all the makings of a formidable offense.
Utah’s defense was pretty solid last fall, holding the opposition to less than three TDs a total of nine times! However, the Utes will have to replace some important cogs this fall. On the defensive line, Utah will replace both of its starting defensive tackles. However, both of their starters at defensive end return after combining for 130 tackles last year. The development of the DTs will be a big priority for head coach Kyle Wittingham. Another question mark for Utah is at linebacker, where only junior Stevenson Sylvester returns from last year’s starters. Expect some early growing pains, but the talent is there. Utah’s secondary will be very good this fall, returning both starting cornerbacks and will be a very solid unit against the pass. In general, Utah’s defense has some key question marks (DT, LB) but should develop into a stellar unit.
Utah has the best possible schedule in the MWC and it is a big reason that Utah is my pick to win the conference. They host both BYU and TCU and also welcome challenger UNLV. Furthermore, their games against foes TCU and BYU bookend what should be a laugher at San Diego State, so the Utes’ schedule sets up as well as they could hope to aid them in their conference title quest. Utah will boast a solid offense with the MWC’s most dangerous running attack and will be backed by a very good defense. Everything is in place for Utah to win the 2008 Mountain West championship.
Big Games: Oct. 11th @ Wyoming, Nov. 6th vs. TCU, Nov. 22nd vs. BYU
Texas Christian (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
Texas Christian finished 2007 unranked for the first time in 3 seasons, after finishing 8-5. TCU has been one of the strongest non- BCS teams in the past half decade, finishing ranked three times in the past 5 years, the high point of which was surely a 2005 upset of Oklahoma in Norman! However, the Horned Frogs have not won the MWC since that year and will be looking to get back to the top of the league this fall. Returning 15 starters from last year is certainly a step in the right direction.
Last year, one of TCU’s biggest issues was at the quarterback position. Sophomore Andy Dalton started most of the season as a true freshman and should be vastly improved in his second season under center. TCU also returns 3 of their top 4 receivers from last fall and there is plenty of depth at tailback. Senior Aaron Brown was injured much of last season after being voted the MWC preseason player of the year. Look for a big year from the talented tailback. On the offensive line, TCU returns four starters and should be improved from last season. The Horned Frog attack was not impressive last year, but there should be a marked improvement due to experience and overall health in 2008.
Last year was a very odd year for TCU on defense. The Horned Frogs were expected to have one of the most lethal combinations of defensive ends in the country, but Tommy Blake’s personal issues cost him half of a season and TCU never really recovered. However, this season’s defensive line looks to be a very good unit, especially with the return of senior DT James Vess from an injury that cost him the entire season in 2007. TCU runs a 4-2-5 system, but senior linebacker Jason Phillips should again lead the team in tackles. In the secondary, the Horned Frogs’ returning leader in sacks was actually senior safety Stephen Hodge, who registered eight last year in a hybrid role! TCU also returns both of its starting cornerbacks for the third consecutive season. Defense is the strength of the TCU team and this is definitely the best defense in the conference. Expect a lot of turnovers out of this veteran unit.
> Support the Horned Frogs wherever you go with new TCU clothing & apparel available through College Sports Fans!
TCU has a moderately difficult conference schedule, traveling to Utah but hosting BYU, both of which are Thursday night games. The Horned Frogs’ major difficulty won’t be the alignment of the schedule as much as the fact that they don’t have a bye week until the season is eleven games deep! TCU’s shot at surprising America will be in late September, when they hope to replicate their 2005 stunner against Oklahoma by returning to Norman. Overall, TCU’s defense should be its calling card all year. Along with an improved offense, it would not be a surprise if the Horned Frogs ended up winning the MWC and if they can somehow stun Oklahoma again, an undefeated season isn’t an impossibility. TCU should be in for a great year.
Big Games: Sept. 27th @ Oklahoma, Oct. 16th vs. BYU, Nov. 1st @ UNLV, Nov. 6th @ Utah
Brigham Young (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
What a year 2007 was for Brigham Young, as they shook off a 1-2 start to run off ten consecutive victories to close out the season, capped by a dramatic Vegas Bowl victory over UCLA on a blocked field goal. The Fightin’ Mormons (my personal nickname for the Cougars, I call Notre Dame the Fightin’ Catholics, I call Boston College the Fightin’ Jesuits, so its all in fun) matched an explosive offense with stellar run defense en route to their highest final ranking in a decade, finishing at #14. Unfortunately, BYU only brings back three starters from that great defense and will have some growing pains. However, most of the offense returns and BYU should again be a contender to win their third consecutive conference title.
BYU returns the best quarterback in the Mountain West, junior Max Hall. Hall, who threw for 3,600 yards and 26 Touchdowns last fall while continuing BYU’s tradition of top-flight quarterbacking, also returns his top three receiving targets, led by junior Austin Collie. Sophomore Harvey Unga provides another dimension at tailback after rushing for 1,200 yards and 13 TDs in his freshman season. Unga’s numbers should only improve running behind a very solid offensive line, which returns four starters from last season and is one of the best units in the conference. BYU is unquestionably the best offensive team in the MWC and their offense will give every opponent fits this fall.
However, the outlook isn’t so rosy on defense. While BYU traditionally brings in more veteran players returning from Mormon mission trips to quickly fill in the gaps, this generally is best noticed on the defensive line, which should be a strength this fall anyway. Led by junior Jan Jorgensen, who had 14 sacks last year, the Cougar D-Line should be a very strong unit that will be very disruptive along the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, that’s about the end of the good news for BYU on this side of the ball. The rest of the defense (outside of senior linebacker David Nixon) has to be replaced! The Cougars don’t have one player who intercepted a pass last season returning in their secondary; So to say that pass defense is a major question is like saying BYU is a Catholic school. Obviously, with such huge turnover a ton of players will have the chance to step into the void, some of which could turn out to be stars, but BYU could struggle some before getting its defense worked out.
> Try on a new BYU hat today and cheer your Cougars on to another bowl victory in 2008!
BYU also has a pretty tough schedule in front of them for the conference run, facing both TCU and Utah on the road. At home, where BYU averaged over 64,000 fans last year, the Cougars must face improving Wyoming, UNLV and a pesky New Mexico team that nearly beat them last season. BYU certainly won’t get any gifts from the schedule. The Cougars also have a chance to continue beating BCS opposition, featuring a home rematch with UCLA and a trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on Washington, both of which are winnable games. Overall, BYU has an excellent offense which should run up plenty of points on opposing teams. However, their defense will likely decide whether BYU is going to win their third straight conference title. With so many new starters, it is real easy for there to be breakdowns, especially in the secondary. If their defense can come together, BYU has the offense to win the conference, but it is unlikely that the Cougars will be the top dog this fall due to the huge turnover on defense.
Big Games: Sept. 20th vs. Wyoming, Oct. 16th @ TCU, Nov. 22nd @ Utah
New Mexico (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
New Mexico was perhaps the most unheralded nine win team in America last year. However, the Lobos have quietly been bowl eligible for most of the decade, but last year’s bowl victory, a 23-0 romp over Nevada, was their first since 1961! Oddly enough, head coach Rocky Long enters this season with a career record of 61-61 at New Mexico in his first decade on the job. The Lobos return only eleven starters from last year’s team, so a repeat of last year will be difficult to attain in 2008.
New Mexico’s offense will be led by junior QB Donovan Porterie, who threw for 3,000 yards last year. Unfortunately, Porterie loses his two leading receivers from last year, both of which tallied over 1,000 yards. The Lobos will need their young receivers to step up this fall. At tailback, senior Rodney Ferguson will return as the top option out of the backfield after racking up over 1,100 yards and 13 TDs last fall. However, there might be some struggles in his future, as New Mexico loses four starters from last year’s offensive line! Only junior center Eric Cook is back, but they say that center is the quarterback of the offensive line, so maybe the transition won’t be as difficult as expected. Expect the Lobos to struggle early on offense before improving as they enter the meat of their conference schedule.
New Mexico plays an unorthodox 3-3-5 scheme, but the rover position they employ is usually a very athletic linebacker-type, the most famous of which is Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. This year’s edition features last year’s leading tackler, junior Ian Clark, who will likely be called upon again to make a lot of tackles. On the defensive line, the Lobos need to replace both of their defensive ends, but New Mexico seems to always have a solid line under Long, so it doesn’t seem to be as big of a concern as it would elsewhere. The secondary will be a strength for the Lobos as they return two seniors at cornerback, Glover Quin and DeAndre Wright. Expect the Lobos to be strong through the air again. New Mexico should have a pretty good defense this fall.
The schedule also sets up well for New Mexico, hosting both Utah and TCU and giving them a chance at an upset. Furthermore, New Mexico only plays back to back road conference games once this season. The Lobos will also have two chances to make some noise against BCS opposition, hosting both Arizona (who New Mexico beat last fall) and Texas A&M in early September. New Mexico isn’t on the same level as TCU, BYU, or Utah, but they have enough talent to upset any of the three. While it is probably not fair to expect the Lobos to match last season’s nine win total, it is certainly not impossible for this group to achieve, especially if their offensive line gels quickly..
Big Games: Aug. 30th vs. TCU, Sept. 13th vs. Arizona, Oct. 11th @ BYU, Nov. 1st vs. Utah
UNLV (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
The Runnin’ Rebels had an awful 2007, stumbling to a 2-10 finish. Surprisingly, one of their wins was a 27-0 thumping of Utah! UNLV has not been a successful team under head coach Mike Sanford, registering only 6 wins in the past 3 seasons. However, things are looking up in Las Vegas, as the Rebels return fourteen starters and almost all of their offense returns intact for another run together in 2008.
On offense, sophomores Omar Clayton and Travis Dixon will vie for the starter’s position. Both can run and pass. Expect Clayton to get the nod early as he was the starter last season before injuries struck. At receiver, the Rebels return their top three targets in the spread offense, led by junior Ryan Wolfe. The UNLV running game will fall to senior Frank Summers, who ran for over 900 yards last year. Summers will have plenty of holes to run through, as the UNLV offensive line returns four starters and should be one of the conference’s better units, especially since all the returning starters are upperclassmen. UNLV has a lot of talent on offense and should improve with everyone back from last year. If there is no controversy under center, UNLV could have a very good offense.
On defense, UNLV will need to improve upon last season’s results if the Rebels are going to have a successful year. On the D-Line, they return both of their DTs but none of their defensive ends! However, the Rebels have a lot of BCS conference transfers to step in at defensive end, so they should have a pretty solid defensive line. At linebacker, junior Starr Fuimaono will be counted on to be a presence for UNLV and he should be one of their top tacklers. The UNLV secondary will be led by junior safety Daryl Forte, who had over 90 tackles last fall. Overall, UNLV has the makings of a pretty good defense, but there are some question marks due to lack of experience, especially in the secondary.
UNLV’s schedule sets up pretty well in conference play, as the Rebels host New Mexico, Wyoming, and Air Force, all of which are similarly talented. They have to travel to face San Diego State and Colorado State, but both games are winnable. What is unlikely is that UNLV will upset one of the conference’s top three teams, since they have to travel to both Utah and BYU. Particularly difficult will be back to back games against BYU and TCU at the end of October. Overall, UNLV should have a pretty good offense and a decent defense, so it seems possible that UNLV will win enough games to qualify for a bowl. However, its very unlikely that UNLV will come close to the upper echelon of the conference this fall.
Big Games: Oct. 4th @ CSU, Oct. 18th vs. Air Force, Nov. 8th vs. New Mexico, Nov. 13th vs. Wyoming
Wyoming (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
Wyoming’s 2007 was really the tale of two seasons. The Cowboys began the year 4-1, including an upset over ACC opponent Virginia in the season opener. Wyoming looked primed to challenge in the MWC. Then, the Cowboys fell off, going 1-6 down the stretch to finish a disappointing 5-7. Perhaps 2008 will be kinder to the Cowboys, who return 14 starters from a year ago and a desire to move beyond their terrible finish to last year.
Junior Karsten Sween enters 2008 with a year of starting experience under his belt. Sween performed fairly well last fall, but he also threw 17 interceptions, a number that has to be improved upon. Sween will benefit greatly from the presence of two very good senior tailbacks: Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon, who combined for over 1,500 yards last year. The pair should improve upon those numbers running behind the most experienced offensive line in the MWC, which returns all five starters from a year ago! Having such an experienced O-Line will also greatly benefit the passing game, which needs to break in a new set of receivers. Only junior Greg Bolling returns from last year’s leaders. The Wyoming offense should definitely improve from last season and the running game could be one of the conference’s best.
On defense, the Cowboys will be very strong along the D-Line and at safety. In between is where the question marks are, especially at cornerback. The Cowboy defensive line ( Wyoming plays a 3-3-5 system) returns all three starters, led by junior DE John Fletcher, who notched 10.5 sacks last year. However, the only returning starter at linebacker is senior Ward Dobbs, who led the team in tackles last year. So the cupboard certainly isn’t bare, but the Cowboys don’t have much experience at the other positions. In the secondary, seniors Michael Ray and Quincy Rogers return for their second year starting together. However, the rover and cornerbacks must be replaced, including All-MWC CB Julius Stinson, who had 5 picks last year. Wyoming looks to be a solid defense against the run, but could have some growing pains in aerial defense. Overall, Wyoming should have a solid defense that will improve as the year continues.
Wyoming faces one of the toughest schedules in the MWC, traveling to BYU, TCU, UNLV, and New Mexico, all of whom I’ve picked ahead of them this fall. This is unfortunate for the Cowboys, as they play at the highest elevation in college football and have a serious home field advantage. It would not be surprising to see the Cowboys win all their home games and lose all their road games! Particularly difficult is a 4 week stretch early in the year beginning with a trip to BYU and ending with hosting Utah. In between, the Cowboys face MAC power Bowling Green and travel to New Mexico. Wyoming has a very good running attack and their defense could develop enough to make them a very dangerous opponent. While Wyoming is almost certainly better than 6 th in the conference based on talent alone, they have a very difficult schedule and that will likely prevent them from finishing better than .500 in conference play.
Big Games: Sept. 20th @ BYU, Oct. 4th @ New Mexico, Oct. 11th vs. Utah, Oct. 25th @ TCU, Nov. 13th @ UNLV
Air Force (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)
To say that Air Force surprised a lot of people in 2007 is an understatement. A year removed from a 4-8 record, new coach and alumnus Troy Calhoun led the Falcons to a surprising 9-4 season, falling just short in their bowl game against Cal. However, much of that team has since departed and the Falcons only return 8 starters, one of the lowest figures in the NCAA!
Air Force has a very run-heavy attack and doesn’t rely on its quarterbacks to pass a lot. Last year’s starter, Shaun Carney, only attempted 200 passes, while running over 130 times. The expected starter is senior Shea Smith, who played for Carney in the bowl game and underwhelmed. So, the position is wide open. What will really hurt the Falcons is the loss of Chad Hall, who led the Falcons in both rushing AND receiving, combining for a total over 2,000 yards! In fact, Air Force doesn’t return a single player who rushed for over 150 yards last season and only senior Travis Dekker caught more than 8 passes. The Air Force offensive line also only returns 2 starters from last year. The Falcons are no doubt in for a rebuilding year on offense.
The defense returns a bit more experience, including all three starters on the defensive line, led by senior DE Ryan Kemp, who had 4 sacks last year. The linebackers in Air Force’s 3-4 defense make a lot of tackles and only senior Hunter Altman returns for last year’s excellent group. Surrounding Altman will be a group of talented but very inexperienced players and the linebackers won’t be as good as last year’s edition. In the secondary, junior safety Chris Thomas is the only returning starter a year after registering 110 tackles! However, the cornerbacks are a major question and Air Force’s pass defense could suffer. Overall, the unit has a solid front, but there are a lot of questions beyond that.
Air Force also has a fairly tough schedule, traveling to TCU, UNLV, and Wyoming. The season ends with back to back games against TCU and BYU, so Air Force might have its bowl hopes dashed by two of the conference’s best teams. In the Commander In Chief’s Cup, Air Force hasn’t won the trophy in 6 years. However, this could be their year, as Navy comes to Colorado Springs in early October with their own new coaching staff to deal with. So, while heavy losses and a tough conference schedule seem to make Air Force an afterthought in the MWC, the Falcons should have a good chance at finally reclaiming the C-I-C trophy this year, something that many Air Force fans will tell is as important as a MWC title.
Big Games: Sept. 6th @ Wyoming, Oct. 4th vs. Navy, Oct. 18th @ UNLV, Nov. 1st @ Army
Colorado State (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
For the first time in nearly two decades, Sonny Lubick is no longer the coach at Colorado State. However, it came as no surprise since CSU hasn’t had a winning season since 2003. Taking over for the CSU legend is former player Steve Fairchild, who inherits quite the rebuilding job. Fairchild returns 12 starters from a 3-9 team, so there could be major overhauls at many positions.
On offense, the quarterback position is wide open, as Caleb Hanie, last year’s starter, has departed after taking most of the snaps last fall. Quarterback is a huge question for the Rams. The same goes at the wide receiver position, where four of last year’s top 5 receivers have all gone. Luckily, its not all gloom and doom on offense, as the Rams return their top three rushers from last fall, led by senior Gantrell Johnson. The Rams’ rushing attack will be aided by the return of 4 starters along the line of scrimmage, so Colorado State might rely heavily on the run in the early going. Expect a tough year from the Rams through the air, but they have the makings of a decent running attack.
On defense, the Rams gave up as many rushing yards per game as they did passing yards (over 200) and they allowed over 30 points per game! This year, the Rams return their entire linebacking corps from last year, led by senior Jeff Horinek, and should provide the defense’s strength. However, only senior Tommie Hill and his 5.5 sacks return on the D-Line and the secondary is equally bare. Expect the Rams to have trouble while replacing both cornerbacks and most of their defensive line. In short, CSU might be improved from last year’s disaster of a unit, but that improvement won’t be enough to carry the team by any measure.
The schedule is also pretty difficult, bringing 4 of the top 5 teams in the conference to Colorado Springs. Thus, all of the games that the Rams likely have a shot at winning will be road games, never a good sing for a winning year. As always, the Rams open with their rivalry game against Colorado in Denver, but don’t count on them in that matchup either. CSU is just beginning a fairly daunting rebuilding project and if they better last season’s 3-9 mark, it would be an achievement for Fairchild in his first year.
Big Games: Aug. 31 st vs. Colorado, Oct. 4th vs. UNLV, Oct. 25 @ San Diego State
San Diego State (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
San Diego State had a tough 2007 season, finishing with only four wins. Much of the Aztecs’ struggles can be attributed to their abysmal defense, which allowed over 240 yards rushing and 34 points per game. The Aztecs return 10 starters from that group but only three of those starters return from an offensive unit which scored over 25 points per game.
On offense, the quarterback position is wide open after the Aztecs graduated Kevin O’Connell, who was a 3 rd round NFL draft pick this past April. The Aztecs don’t have any major skill position players returning and senior receiver Darren Mougey is one of the few experienced players available. On the offensive line, the Aztecs return two starters and will have one of the most inexperienced lines in the MWC. In short, SDSU has to break in an entirely new offense and it is unlikely that they’ll match last year’s production.
On defense, the Aztecs are much more experienced, returning seven starters. However, those seven were all part of one of the NCAA’s worst defenses, so their overall talent level has to be questioned. Senior Linebacker Russell Allen was the team’s leading tackler in 2007 and he will be the leader of a linebacking corps which returns three starters from last year. SDSU also returns both cornerbacks in the secondary; each had four picks last year so the SDSU pass defense should be decent this fall. In general, San Diego State’s rushing defense can only improve, so the defense should be better than it was a year ago.
The conference schedule is fairly trying, but when you’re projected to finish in the basement the schedule always looks hard. The Aztecs do host Air Force and Colorado State, so their two best chances at winning conference games will be on home turf. San Diego State is still in the midst of rebuilding mode under third year coach Chuck Long and they haven’t had a winning season in a decade. Their offense is one big question mark and their defense had more holes than Swiss cheese last year, so it seems unlikely that their ten years of losing will end in 2008.
Big Games: Oct. 11th vs. Air Force, Oct. 25th vs. Colorado State, Nov. 22nd vs. UNLV
The Bottom Line for the Mountain West in 2008
The Mountain West is a pretty deep conference and could have a number of teams bowl eligible this fall. New Mexico, Wyoming, and UNLV should all have a decent shot to finish with winning records overall. However, the conference’s top teams are pretty clear cut, with BYU, TCU, and Utah being very good bets to top the conference. While all three teams are very legitimate threats to win the conference, Utah seems to be the best bet due to balance on both sides of the ball and a favorable home schedule. However, TCU has the strongest defense and could force enough turnovers to beat the Utes and if BYU finds a defense they could be downright dangerous. The Mountain West should again be a very good conference in 2008 (in my opinion it is the best of the non-BCS leagues) and expect one of the big three teams to upset a BCS opponent this fall. However, when the dust settles at the end of the year, expect Utah to emerge victorious in both the Holy War Game with BYU and win the Mountain West Championship.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s newest staff writer. If you’d like to join his college football therapy group, email him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.