2008 WAC Football Preview
The WAC has been the poster child for the BCS-busting that has occurred the past few years. After the BCS expanded to 5 bowls in 2006, the WAC has placed a team in a BCS bowl in each of the past two seasons! 2006’s Champion, Boise State, stunned Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in an overtime shocker, while last year’s champ, Hawai’i, wasn’t as lucky while being pounded in the Sugar Bowl by Georgia. Still, the WAC’s past achievements make it the current leader in the debate as to which non-BCS conference is the strongest, and the top teams in the conference this fall will again challenge for a BCS berth.
Fresno State (Predicted Conference Record: 8-0)
Fresno State had a successful 2007 season, finishing with a 9-4 record. Included in the nine win total was an upset over visiting Kansas State late in the year, the 2 nd time in four years that Kansas State has fallen at the hands of the Bulldogs! This year, Fresno State returns 17 starters from last year’s team, which fell short at Texas A&M in three overtimes and suffered a lot of injuries before beating Georgia Tech to close out the season in the Humanitarian Bowl. This fall, it is not unreasonable to expect Pat Hill to field perhaps his strongest team in his tenure at Fresno State.
Fresno State’s high-powered offense is led by senior quarterback Tom Brandstater, who completed over 62% of his passes last fall and finished with an impressive 3-1 TD to interception ratio. Brandstater returns all of his top passing targets from last year, led by senior TE Bear Pascoe. Brandstater will also play behind one of the best offensive lines in the WAC, as four starters return from last year’s unit. Finally, the running game is in good hands with sophomore Ryan Matthews returning to start a year after rushing for 14 touchdowns. In short, Fresno State’s offense is a very strong veteran unit (ten starters return from last year!) and should score a lot of points this fall.
The Fresno State defense is also an impressive squad. The Bulldog defensive line returns senior DT Joe Monga, who registered 6.5 sacks last fall. The front seven is also bolstered by sophomore middle linebacker Ben Jacobs, who is the team’s leading returning tackler. He will try to make up for the loss of Marcus Riley, who registered a monstrous 132 tackles last year before graduating. In the secondary, Fresno State returns both starting safeties. Look for junior AJ Jefferson, who led the NCAA in kick return average last year, to step into the open cornerback slot and help Fresno’s defense actually hold onto some interceptions. Last year’s secondary only combined for three picks! However, the overall health of the Fresno State defense is very good and the Bulldogs have a stellar unit.
The conference schedule for FSU is interesting in that the Bulldogs play alternating blocks of two home and two away games, never having a one-game stand at home. The schedule begins with two home games against Hawai’i and Idaho, games that are eminently winnable. Three of the last four games are Friday night affairs, including the season finale at Boise State on the Smurf Turf, a game that will likely decide the conference championship. Fresno State also has put together a really tough non-conference schedule, facing Rutgers, Wisconsin, and UCLA, an achievement that many BCS conference teams should notice! While Fresno State isn’t likely to finish the year undefeated and earn a BCS bowl berth, it is not out of the question for the Bulldogs to run the table during the conference slate. With a very strong offense and a good defense, the Bulldogs should be in for a heck of a year in 2008.
Big Games: Sept. 1 st @ Rutgers, Sept. 13 th vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 7 th vs. Nevada, Nov. 28 th @ Boise State
Boise State (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
Despite a 10-3 mark in 2007, last year was a relative disappointment for the Broncos, as they lost their six year grip on the WAC conference championship. In fact, Boise State has only FOUR games in their entire WAC history! However, Boise State has been able to bring in better talent than the rest of the league for a while now, so even though the Broncos only return 12 starters from last year’s ten win group, they should still be very competitive this fall.
The Broncos have a major question at the quarterback position, where four different players split time in the spring. Either senior Bush Hamdan or redshirt freshman Kellen Moore is expected to emerge from the pack, but the Broncos will have some questions to answer at QB this year. Another factor which could be a problem for Boise State in the early going is the return of only one offensive lineman who started last year, especially since their tackle 2 deep only includes one upperclassman! This youthful offensive line could also hurt senior tailback Ian Johnson’s production, since you can’t run if no one blocks for you! However, the Broncos should be able to offset their inexperience in the trenches with the return of their top four receivers from last season. Overall, Boise State has a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball but there will questions surrounding the inexperience at QB and on the O-Line.
On the other side of the ball, Boise State struggled with run defense last year, allowing their most yards per game in five years! However, the Broncos should improve with the return of their entire starting linebacker corps, led by senior Kyle Gingg. On the defensive line, the Broncos have to replace only one starter from last year’s unit, which will be led by their two defensive ends; Senior Mike Williams and sophomore Ryan Winterswyk, who combined for 11.5 sacks last year. The secondary will be the Broncos’ biggest question on defense, as only junior Kyle Wilson returns from last year’s starters, which included 1 st team WAC safety Marty Tadman. Boise State will need to improve their rush defense, because their pass defense looks to take a step backwards this year.
Boise State has a manageable schedule, but closes the season with four of its last six games away from the Smurf Turf. The Broncos do have the good fortune of hosting Fresno State and rival Hawai’i this fall, so they have the potential to succeed in conference play. The Broncos’ big chance to make a big BCS splash coming in the shape of a road trip to Autzen Stadium to face the Oregon Ducks. Overall, Boise State should feature a pretty good defense and their offense could prove to be a solid unit as well. Furthermore, the Broncos have led the conference in recruiting over the last few years, so there is a lot of talent in Boise. However, the Broncos also have a lot of questions, so it seems unlikely, but certainly not impossible, that they’ll reclaim the WAC title this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 20 th @ Oregon, Oct. 17 th vs. Hawai’i, Nov. 22 nd @ Nevada, Nov. 28 th vs. Fresno State
Nevada (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
The Wolf Pack endured a trying 2007, finishing with a 6-7 record after being shut out in their bowl game to close out the season. However, the Wolf Pack can blame some of their struggles on their defense, which allowed nearly 2 TDs more PER GAME last year than it did in 2006! The biggest game for Nevada last year was the epic four overtime loss at Boise State in a historic 69-67 decision, one of the highest combined point totals ever recorded in college football. The Wolf Pack returns 13 starters from last year and is expected to improve this fall, especially on defense.
Nevada’s explosive pistol offense is led by sophomore Colin Kaepernick, who took over at midseason and threw for 19 TDs against only 3 interceptions while leading the Wolf Pack to four wins. Kaepernick is also a major threat to run, racking up nearly 600 yards last year on the ground. Kaepernick will be protected by a very experienced offensive line which returns four starters from last year. That also bodes well for Nevada’s running game, which is led by senior Luke Lippincott, who rushed for over 1,400 yards last year and 15 touchdowns! Senior Marko Mitchell returns to lead a wide receiving corps which should score plenty of touchdowns this fall. Nevada’s offense is going to put up a lot of points this year and will be one of the best in the conference.
However, the Wolf Pack will be in for a long season even with their excellent offense if the defense can’t improve from last year’s miserable showing. Only five starters from last year’s group return, which is probably a good thing in this case. Senior linebacker Josh Mauga is expected to be the unit’s leader after making over 80 tackles last year. On the defensive line, sophomore Kevin Basped is expected to improve upon the four sacks he recorded last year. However, the biggest change on the defense will be the overhaul in the secondary, where only senior safety Uche Anyanwu returns. Nevada must improve against both the run and the pass for the Wolf Pack to succeed this fall.
The conference schedule isn’t easy for the Wolf Pack, having to play three of their last five games on the road, including trips to Hawai’i and Fresno State. The Wolf Pack also have two top ten teams from the Big XII on their preseason slate, hosting Texas Tech and visiting Missouri in back to back weeks early in the season. They also face rival UNLV on the road. Overall, Nevada has a very good offense, but the Wolf Pack defense is one big question mark. If a decent defense can emerge, then Nevada could find itself in the program’s 4 th straight bowl game in spite of the difficult schedule. A conference championship, however, is unlikely this year.
Big Games: Sept. 6th vs. Texas Tech, Sept. 13th @. Missouri, Sept. 27th @ UNLV, Nov. 7th @ Fresno State, Nov. 22 vs. Boise State
New Mexico State (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
The first surprise of the predicted order of finish has to be the selection of New Mexico State, who had all of four wins last season, ahead of defending champion Hawai’i. However, the Aggies have a solid core of returning talent and bring back 14 starters from last year’s team which lost four games by less than ten points en route to a 4-9 season.
Senior Chase Holbrook returns to take the offense’s reigns for the third straight year. Holbrook had injury troubles last fall and threw 18 interceptions, double his 2006 total! Look for Holbrook to return to his 2006 form, where he threw for over 4,600 yards and 34 TDs. Holbrook’s top receiver will be senior Chris Williams, who accounted for over 700 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. In the backfield, junior Tonny Glynn is expected to take over as the starting tailback and will look to prevent the team’s fourth consecutive year averaging less than 100 yards rushing per game. The return of three starters on the offensive line should also help improve the running game, but the two losses were at both tackle positions. New Mexico has all the ingredients to have a dangerous aerial attack and the potential for a solid running game is there as well. If the Aggies can find consistency at the tackle positions, New Mexico State could have a very good offense this fall.
The defense was an albatross last fall, allowing more than five touchdowns per game. However, the 3-4 Aggies defense should improve this year and their linebackers should help lead the way. Seniors La’auli Fonoti and Chris Nwoko should play a large role for the Aggies. New Mexico State also returns the bulk of its secondary, including both starting cornerbacks. Senior safety Derrick Richardson should prove to be a force again this year after making over 100 tackles last year. New Mexico State has all the ingredients present for a big defensive turnaround and if the defense actually improves, the Aggies will become a dangerous team.
The Aggies’ conference schedule is moderately difficult, traveling to Nevada and Fresno State while hosting Boise State and Hawai’i. The Aggies’ out of conference schedule includes trips to UTEP and Nebraska while rival New Mexico has to travel to Las Cruces for their annual grudge match. New Mexico State should have a very strong offense this year and their defense should improve. The key to the season is the development of the defense, especially against the run. While it seems unlikely that the Aggies will factor heavily into the conference race, a chance to play in their first bowl game since 1960 seems like a real possibility.
Big Games: Sept. 27th vs. New Mexico, Oct. 11th @ Nevada, Nov. 1 vs. Boise State, Nov. 15th @ Fresno State
Hawai’i (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
2007 was the most successful season in the history of Hawai’i football. The Warriors ran through the regular season 12-0 and busted their way into the BCS, receiving a Sugar Bowl invitation to play the Georgia Bulldogs. Unfortunately for Hawai’i and the WAC, the Warriors were completely outclassed and were destroyed 41-10. After that, the Warriors lost head coach June Jones to SMU and most of their team’s core is now gone. Hawai’i only returns 9 starters from last year’s team and new head coach Greg McMackin has a lot of rebuilding to do.
Last year’s offense featured Heisman finalist Colt Brennan, who threw for nearly 40 touchdowns. His replacement will be senior Tyler Graunke, who played in a few games last year, most notably starting during Hawaii’s close win late in the season over Nevada. Graunke has the good fortune of playing behind three returning offensive line starters. Junior Leon Wright-Jackson and sophomore Kealoha Pilares return after being the team’s top two rushers last year. Hawai’i has to replace their top four receivers. In fact, the returning leading receiver had less than 300 yards last year, so there are a lot of unknowns here. Hawai’i actually seems to have a lot pieces in place to improve a running game that didn’t even rush for 1,000 yards as a team last year. The Warrior offense should see a significant drop off from last year and the presence of a new coach cause the Warrior attack to find more of a ground attack. June Jones will be missed.
On defense, Hawai’i returns its top two tacklers from 2007; senior linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard, both of whom registered over 100 tackles last year. Those two should be the backbone of the defense in 2008. The Warriors have massive losses on both the defensive line and in the secondary, with only one starter returning from each group. However, Hawaii’s 2 deep has a very large number of upperclassmen, so the Warriors should be in good position to replace some defensive talent. However, there should be a significant drop off from last year’s defense.
The schedule also does the Warriors no favors. Of the teams picked ahead of them, only Nevada has to make the long trip out to the islands, which are a huge home field advantage for the Warriors due to their distance. As a matter of perspective, New York City is closer to Los Angeles than Honolulu is! Another factor is the non-conference schedule for the Warriors, who face road trips to both Florida and Oregon State in the early going and then welcome Washington State and Cincinnati at the end of the season. Had Hawai’i played this schedule last season, it is likely that the Warriors would have lost long before their demolition in New Orleans. The Warriors have a lot of rebuilding work to do and while there is plenty of talent in the islands, the Warriors seem primed for a big step backward this season.
Big Games: Aug. 30th @ Florida, Sept. 13th @ Oregon State, Oct. 4th @ Fresno State, Oct. 17th @ Boise State, Oct. 25th vs. Nevada
Louisiana Tech (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
2007 was a difficult year for Louisiana Tech, finishing with only five wins. Though the Bulldogs pushed champ Hawai’i to the limit in overtime early in the season, failing on a 2 point conversion that would have decided the game, the Bulldogs were barely competitive against their best opponents. However, Tech is in good shape in 2008, returning 13 starters and should be looking at a better year this fall.
At quarterback there will be a battle of BCS transfers when senior Taylor Bennett (Georgia Tech) and sophomore Steven Ensminger (Auburn) face off in fall camp. Whoever wins the starting job will have the good fortune of returning every skill position player who recorded a statistic last year! On top of that, Louisiana Tech’s offensive line returns three starters and should be an improved unit overall. In short, the Bulldogs are looking at a serious improvement on offense this fall and that should win them some games.
The Louisiana Tech defense will need some work in the early going, however, as only the secondary is full of veterans. Led by junior safeties Deon Young and Antonio Baker, the Bulldogs should be very improved against the pass. However, the front seven is a major question in Ruston, LA as only junior D’Anthony Smith returns from last year’s starters on the D-Line. Senior Quin Harris returns at linebacker a year after leading the team in tackles. Tech should be improved against the pass, but they could take a step back against the run. Overall, though, the defense should be improved from last year.
The conference schedule is daunting, facing long distance road trips to San Jose State, Boise State and Hawai’i, giving the Bulldogs one of the longest travel schedules in college football. Out of conference, the Bulldogs begin by hosting Mississippi State and then traveling to Kansas. Overall, Louisiana Tech should have a much-improved offense and if their defense can improve, Louisiana Tech could be a dangerous team in the WAC. The Bulldogs could conceivably knock off one of the league’s top teams on any given day, so it will be an exciting season in Ruston. However, contending for a conference title seems to be a year away and achieving bowl eligibility would be a major success.
Big Games: Aug. 30th vs. Mississippi State, Oct. 1st @ Boise State, Nov. 1st vs. Fresno State, Nov. 29th vs. Nevada
Utah State (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)
It was a struggle for Utah State in 2007, finishing with a poor 2-10 record. However, the silver lining is that both of the Aggies’ wins were in conference play during the season’s final two weeks. However, the future seems a bit brighter at Utah State as 15 starters return from last year’s team and the Aggies should be much improved from a year ago.
On offense, the Aggies struggled mightily last year. However, sophomores Derrvin Speight and Curtis Marsh should combine to form a solid rushing tandem behind an improved O-Line which returns three starters. Utah State has a large group vying to start under center, but junior Jase McCormick appears to have the edge. If Utah State can develop a passing game, they have the potential to score some points. However, the offense is unlikely to be much better than average this fall.
On defense, Utah State returns most of last year’s unit, including the entire back seven. Senior linebacker Jake Hutton returns after recording more than 100 tackles last year to lead the defense and returning along with him are the team’s top seven tacklers from last year! The secondary and the linebackers both are good enough to rank in the upper half of the WAC at their respective positions and the defensive line isn’t too bad either. The Aggies are projected to start all upperclassmen on the line and should also be improved from last season. Expect a much improved year on defense from Utah State this fall.
Utah State has a very good schedule in terms of travel, with their only long road trip being to Louisiana Tech. Major home field advantages from BYU, Utah, Fresno State, and Nevada will be negated as all of the above travel to Logan. Utah State also faces a tough non-conference opener at rival UNLV to begin the season. Overall, the Aggies have a solid defense which could rank in the upper half of the WAC. If their offense can avoid turnovers and put up a respectable number of points, Utah State could have a decent year. Bowl eligibility seems unlikely, though.
Big Games: Aug. 30 th @ UNLV, Sept. 13th vs. Utah, Oct. 3rd vs. BYU, Nov. 29th vs. New Mexico State
Idaho (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
Idaho really struggled last year, winning only one game against lower division foe Cal Poly. Idaho has had sixteen winning seasons in the past 25 years, but unfortunately the last one was in 1999! Idaho returns a large group from last year, 14 starters in all and should improve slightly from last year.
Sophomore Nathan Enderle returns to start at quarterback a year after throwing 18 interceptions against only 10 touchdowns. Luckily for Enderle, he returns 4 starters on the offensive line and sophomore Deonte Jackson returns a year after rushing for nearly 1,200 yards. Enderle also returns his top 5 receivers from last season. Overall, the Idaho offense should be much improved with so many starters returning for their second year playing together.
On defense, the Vandals were ransacked last year. Idaho allowed nearly 37 points per game last year, so the feeling here is that the defense can’t get any worse. A season after having trouble fielding enough healthy linemen to run a 4-3 defense, the defensive line should be improved in both depth and performance despite returning only two starting linemen. The entire linebacking corps will be composed of new starters, most likely all underclassmen. The linebackers are a big question mark for the Vandals this year. The secondary will be led by 2007 team MVP Shiloh Keo, who had 4 interceptions last fall. While the Vandals picked off Heisman finalist Colt Brennan 5 times last year, their pass defense was abysmal and Idaho should be in for an improvement there as well. Idaho’s defense should be much better than last season.
Idaho’s schedule has a heavy dose of road games early in the conference schedule, but a three game homestand featuring New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Boise State could decide if 2008 will be an improvement for the Vandals. Overall, Idaho is going to be a much stronger team than they were in 2007, but it likely won’t be enough for the Vandals to improve to much more than 3-9 or 4-8 this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 6th vs. Idaho State, Nov. 1st vs. San Jose State, Nov. 15th vs. Boise State
San Jose State (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
The Spartans of San Jose State struggled through a 5-7 season, a disappointment a year after reaching their first bowl in 15 years. The major culprit was an anemic offense which averaged less than half the yards per game on the ground that it did in 2006! San Jose State loses its top three rushers from last year and also must replace their starting quarterback. The Spartans return 13 starters from last year’s unit in head coach Dick Tomey’s 4 th year at the helm.
On offense, the Spartans are expected to hand the reigns to junior Kyle Reed, who transferred from Cal. However, Reed suffered a foot injury during the spring, so there are a lot of questions at quarterback. At receiver, SJSU returns its top three receivers from last year, led by senior Kevin Jurovich, who accounted for nearly 1,200 yards and 9 touchdowns! The offensive line returns three starters a year after being racked by injuries. For whom they will open up holes for in the running game is also a major question, as no running back returns who rushed for over 100 yards last fall! San Jose State should score some points, but the offense seems to be a step behind last year’s unit, which is not a good sign.
On defense, San Jose State has a very good defensive line and senior USC transfer Jeff Schweiger is expected to make a big impact. Junior Carl Ihenacho also returns a year after registering five sacks. However, the linebackers are a major question as the Spartans graduated their two biggest stars on defense, both of whom recorded well over 100 tackles. There is a huge void to fill there. In fact, the leading returning tackler is actually cornerback Christopher Owens, who had six interceptions as well in 2007! Owens will anchor a secondary that could be an improved unit from last year. Overall, San Jose State has a decent defense, but its biggest strength will be pass coverage.
The schedule does San Jose State no favors, hosting both Fresno State and Boise State, neither of which is a realistically winnable game for the Spartans. Furthermore, the conference schedule alternates between home and away games for the entire year, making it very difficult for the Spartans to build any momentum at home. San Jose State is a surprise pick for the WAC basement, but the Spartan’s 7 losses last year only included 2 winnable games, while their 5 wins featured 3 very close games. If San Jose State can’t find a solid quarterback and running game, then they could be in trouble as they could struggle against the run and lose many of those close games that they edged out last year. It should be a long season in San Jose for Dick Tomey’s squad this year.
Big Games: Oct. 11th vs. Utah State, Nov. 15th @ Nevada, Nov. 21st vs. Fresno State
The Bottom Line for the WAC in 2008
The Western Athletic Conference is not quite as deep or strong as it was the last two years, when Boise State and Hawai’i both forced their way into BCS bowl games. This year’s likely BCS challenger is Fresno State, who returns a large core of great players from last year’s team. However, Fresno State’s exceptionally difficult non-conference schedule makes it very unlikely that a WAC team will make a BCS bowl for the third consecutive year. However, the conference should again be in for an exciting year and both Boise State and Nevada could make a difference during the conference season. In the end, expect the Fresno State Bulldogs to emerge victorious over Boise State on the season’s final day to claim the 2008 WAC Championship.
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