2009 Mountain West Conference (MWC) Preview
2008 produced the emergence of a clear cut top non-BCS conference as the Mountain West finished the season with three top 25 teams, two of which were in the top seven! The highlights included the Mountain West posting a 3-2 bowl record and a 5-0 record against the Pac Ten in the regular season but the biggest highlights of the year were undoubtedly Utah’s dominant victory over SEC power Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and TCU’s defeat of previously unbeaten Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. While the Mountain West lacks the depth of the automatic BCS berth conferences, there are some very good teams atop the league and it should once more be the premiere non-BCS conference in 2009.
During the 2008 season there was a great deal of discussion from the talking heads on television about the quality of the Mountain West versus the Big East and whether the MWC was perhaps more deserving of an automatic berth. I find that to be extremely shortsighted on their part as the Big East did win three straight BCS bowls from 2005 to 2007 and the Mountain West needs to show that the conference is more than BYU, TCU and Utah. In the past five years, those three teams are the only MWC teams to be ranked nationally while the Big East has had every team but Syracuse ranked during that time span. See what I mean about a lack of depth?
This fall might be the chance for some of the lesser known teams in the conference to make a statement. The top three teams all return less than 12 starters and will attempt to reload instead of rebuild after their successful 2008 seasons. I need to see someone aside from the Big Three at least compete for the conference title before I can honestly even consider the MWC deserving an automatic BCS bowl bid. It has been seven years since any other team won the conference title and the entire decade of the conference’s existence has only featured four different schools as champions! As only Colorado State (the 4 th champion) has shown any life on the national stage in the last decade, I think it might take some Boise State related expansion plans and improvement from the league’s lower half for me to truly believe that the Mountain West is a BCS-caliber league.
EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH
Hopes were high entering 2008 for the Cougars and many people pegged them as favorites to win the conference title. I was not in that camp and got a lot of negative responses from BYU fans when I picked their team to finish 3 rd in the league with a 6-2 record. However, my prognostication came true as the Cougars lost to both Utah and TCU and finished with a 6-2 record and a 3 rd place finish. My major concern was BYU replacing most of their defense and that bore fruit as the Cougars fielded their worst defense in three years. Despite some tough losses, including the bowl game, BYU still finished 10-3, good enough for a season ending 25 th ranking nationally. This fall, the big concern is on the offense as only four starters are back from last year’s exceptional group.
However, I’m not nearly as concerned about BYU’s offense this fall as I was about their defense in 2008. The biggest reason for my optimism? Senior quarterback Max Hall, who threw for 3,957 yards and 35 touchdowns against only 14 interceptions last year, returns and is undoubtedly the best offensive player in the conference. His leading rusher, junior Harvey Unga, is also back after rushing for 1,100+ yards and 11 touchdowns last fall, earning him 2 nd team All-MWC honors. Hall also will have one of his favorite targets back in senior tight end Dennis Pitta, a back to back 1 st team All-MWC choice who caught 83 passes for 1,083 yards and 6 touchdowns a year ago. The big concerns are at wide receiver and on the offensive line. There receivers have virtually no experience and I expect BYU to get multiple tight ends on the field more often than last year as back up Andrew George caught 6 touchdowns last fall. However, with the pass-happy nature of the Cougars’ attack I would be very surprised if a few stars weren’t born this fall catching passes from Hall. The offensive line only brings back one starter, sophomore left tackle Matt Reynolds but BYU replacing linemen concerns me less than other schools because many of their players go on Mormon missions and develop physically for a year or two before returning to the team and there is seemingly an endless line of agile big linemen appearing out of nowhere every fall. While BYU’s line won’t be nearly as good as last season’s group, which featured a 2 year starter, two 3 year starters and a four year starter, I still think that they’ll field one of the conference’s best units. Overall, BYU should still be very good on offense and I would not be surprised one bit of the Cougars turn out to be the conference’s best.
On defense, the Cougars bring back seven starters after only returning three a year ago. The Fightin’ Mormon defense was still very good last season despite all of the new faces, allowing only 22 points per game. This fall’s group could easily be better as the return a lot more experience. Up front, the Cougars have a very veteran line, led by two time 1 st team All-MWC senior defensive end Jan Jorgensen, who has 19 sacks in the last two seasons. BYU’s starters are all seniors with at least a full year’s experience starting under their belts. Expect the Cougars to be much better against the run after allowing opponents to average 140 yards per game on the ground last fall. Three linebackers return in the Cougs’ 3-4 scheme, led by senior Matt Bauman, who recorded 108 tackles and two sacks in 2008. All three returnees are seniors as well and should only enhance the BYU run defense. The secondary is a concern as it returns only one starter, senior safety Scott Johnson, whose 59 tackles from 2008 is the 3 rd best among returning players. However, I’m not sure that the large number of new starters will have a major effect this fall as BYU has been extremely consistent against the pass the last three seasons despite fielding three very different defenses. The Cougars have not allowed less than 205 passing yards and haven’t allowed more than 216 during that span! However, there is no question that they are much more likely to be beaten in the passing game and the new secondary should expect to be tested early and often in lieu of the Cougars’ strong rush defense. Regardless of my concerns about the pass defense, I still expect BYU to have one of the conference’s strongest defenses thanks to seven returning senior starters.
The schedule is also very friendly for the Cougars, who host both TCU and archrival Utah. Furthermore, they also host an improved Air Force team and they don’t face a road trip to a team I have picked in the conference’s upper half. The non-conference schedule is where the Cougars could run into trouble as they open the season in Dallas against Oklahoma, travel all the way to New Orleans to face Tulane and then host Florida State in consecutive weeks. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cougars win one of their games against BCS opposition, I will be shocked to see them win both and these two games are the biggest reason that I don’t expect them to contend for a BCS bowl this fall. However, BYU has the conference’s most explosive offense and one of the conference’s best defenses. They feature three of the conference’s best players in Hall, Pitta and Jorgensen and this senior class knows nothing but winning after posting a 32-7 record in their first three seasons. I fully expect BYU to win the Mountain West and post a ten win season in 2009.
Big Games: Sept. 5th vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 19th vs. Florida State, Oct. 10th @ UNLV, Oct. 24th vs. TCU, Nov. 21st vs. Air Force, Nov. 28th vs. Utah
TCU has played the bridesmaid in two of the last three seasons, finishing as runners up in 2006 and 2008 in conference play. Last season was especially crushing as TCU blew a late lead and missed three field goals in a brutal 13-10 loss at Utah late in the season, the Horned Frogs’ only conference loss. TCU fielded the MWC’s top defense last fall, only allowing more than 17 points once, in a loss to national runner up Oklahoma! Their season average was an incredible 11.4 points per game! The Horned Frogs capped off a great year by holding unbeaten Boise State to 16 points in a winning Poinsettia Bowl effort and finished the season ranked 7 th in the nation! Head coach Gary Patterson is one of the most respected coaches in the country and TCU has been fortunate to fend off BCS conference schools to keep him in Forth Worth for the past eight seasons. While TCU is always one of the conference’s best teams, they only return ten starters from last year’s fantastic group and will have a lot of work to do if they want to break the bridesmaid run.
On offense, TCU produced their best unit during Patterson’s tenure in 2008, averaging nearly 34 points per game. This was thanks in large part to a powerful rushing attack, which gashed opponents for an average of 220 yards per game! The Horned Frogs return six of last season’s top seven rushers, led by senior tailback Joe Turner, who ran for 577 yards and 11 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Andy Dalton was a strong rusher, accounting for 432 yards and 8 touchdowns while also passing for 2,242 yards and 11 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions. Dalton’s favorite target should once more be junior wideout Jimmy Young, who caught 59 passes for 988 yards and 5 touchdowns last season. Expect TCU to be a stronger passing unit while still emphasizing a very strong rushing game. The offensive line has to replace some talent as they lose three starters, one of which was an NFL draft choice. However, both tackles return after earning 2 nd team and honorable mention All-MWC selections in 2008 and should give the Horned Frogs the conference’s top tandem. While I don’t expect TCU to eclipse last season’s exceptional rushing total, I still think that this offense could actually be stronger than last year and that’s a scary thought for the rest of the conference.
Defensively, the Horned Frogs only return four starters from the conference’s best defense. The good news is that TCU hasn’t allowed opponents to average more than twenty points per game in the past four seasons, though they haven’t had to deal with the same level of turnover. The front seven is where most of the losses are incurred as senior defensive end Jerry Hughes is the only starter back. However, Hughes was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year last season and a 1 st team All-American while leading the NCCA in sacks with 15, so I’d say he’s a pretty darn good building block for the new front seven. The Horned Frogs have a lot of experience along the defensive line and junior tackle Kelly Griffin actually started two years ago as a true freshman so I think that TCU should be perfectly fine at the point of attack. The run defense also looks strong despite losing both starters at linebacker (TCU plays a 4-2-5) and their rover safety, all of which were 1 st team All-MWC choices and NFL draft picks. Senior Daryl Washington was 4 th on the team last fall with 63 tackles and three sacks and should fill in quite nicely in one of the linebacker spots. While the Horned Frogs’ run defense is definitely going to be weaker after losing their top three tacklers to the NFL, I still think that they should field one of the conference’s stronger units. The secondary boasts by far the most experience on the defense, returning three starters. Both cornerbacks are seniors and were 2 nd team All-MWC selections last fall and junior safety Tejay Johnson contributed 47 tackles and a pick. With all of their experience and strong play, I expect TCU to field one of the conference’s best secondaries in 2009. Overall, TCU has some work to do in replacing seven starters from a group which was the 2 nd best in the country in scoring average but I am very confident that the Horned Frogs will reload and field their typically excellent defense.
The schedule is a mixed bag as the Horned Frogs only have six home games and must travel to Clemson and Virginia in the non-conference season. The conference road games won’t be easy either as they road trip to Air Force, favorite BYU and Wyoming. However, it isn’t all terrible; The Horned Frogs don’t play back to back road games all year and host Utah, UNLV and rival SMU. There is also no behemoth on the schedule like Oklahoma last fall. Overall, I expect TCU to field one of the conference’s best offenses once more this season while reloading on defense and should once more compete for the conference title. If they surprise early and sweep their non-conference schedule, they could be a darkhorse BCS buster. Anything less than nine wins this season will surprise me.
Big Games: Sept. 26th @ Clemson, Oct. 3rd vs. SMU, Oct. 10th @ Air Force, Oct. 24th @ BYU, Oct. 31st vs. UNLV, Nov. 14th vs. Utah
The Falcons continued their renaissance under head coach Troy Calhoun in 2008, notching an 8-5 record and finishing with a winning conference mark for the 2 nd consecutive season. Calhoun brought an option attack to Colorado Springs and a renewed emphasis on defense and it has paid dividends. Much like their better known military brethren at the Naval Academy, Air Force will try to control the clock and run the ball down your throat. Expect the Falcons to continue their winning ways this fall.
The offense was almost too one dimensional in 2008, rushing for 267 yards per game against only 82 yards passing. This was in large part due to the presence of true freshmen Tim Jefferson and Asher Clark at quarterback, though both were impressive at times last fall. Clark was more of a runner and accounted for 588 yards and 5 touchdowns and will begin this season as the starting tailback. On the other hand, Jefferson was also solid running for nearly 400 yards and 3 touchdowns but he threw for 655 yards and 5 touchdowns as well. With both returning after being thrown into the fire last fall, expect the Falcons’ running game to be even better this season. In fact, six of their top seven rushers from last season return and Air Force should have a lot of strong contributors available for action. The offensive line is also very good, led by senior guard Nick Charles, who was a 1 st team All-MWC selection last fall. This is vital as the Falcons will need them to open up a lot of holes in for their tailbacks. Another underrated aspect to Air Force’s rushing attack is that they’ve been very good at protecting the football, posting a plus 23 turnover margin in Calhoun’s two seasons! I expect Air Force to be the best running team in the conference this fall and improve upon their passing game in the process. That equates to a much stronger offense for the Falcons in 2009.
Air Force has also produced solid defenses in both of Calhoun’s first two years, allowing 22 points per game last fall. Up front, the defensive line returns two starters but loses 1 st team All-MWC performer Jake Garland. The remaining group didn’t have lot of success getting to the quarterback last fall and will likely be their best against the run. The Falcons play a 3-4 defense and return two starters at linebacker, including 2008’s leading tackler, junior Ken Lamendola. However, there are a lot of players who saw the field last year and the Falcons return much more experience this season than they did in 2008 so I expect the linebackers to be improved. The secondary should be the strength of the defense, led by senior safety Chris Thomas, who had 107 tackles, 5 sacks, and an interception last season. Both starting corners return as well after combining for over a hundred tackles and four interceptions in 2008. I expect the Falcons to improve against both the pass and run in 2009, meaning that they should field Calhoun’s best defense yet.
The schedule is fairly tough as the Falcons only have six home games. In the conference schedule, they must travel to BYU and Utah but host Wyoming, UNLV and TCU. Their battle for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy has them traveling to face nemesis Navy while hosting Army and the Falcons will look to wrest the military academies’ rivalry trophy away from Navy for the first time in six seasons. The Falcons also have a huge road game at Minnesota for the Gophers’ opening of their new brand new stadium. Overall, I think Air Force will field a devastating rushing attack on offense that will only improve from last season now that the quarterback has some experience. Furthermore, their defense will benefit from the offense holding the football for prolonged periods of time and I think the Falcons will again finish with a very good turnover margin. Expect Air Force to be a darkhorse in the conference title chase and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons won their first Commander In Chief’s Trophy under Calhoun as well. The Falcons have a good shot at eclipsing last season’s eight win total and should definitely be bowl bound once more.
Big Games: Oct. 3rd @ Navy, Oct. 10th vs. TCU, Oct. 24th @ Utah, Nov. 7th vs. Army, Nov. 14th vs. UNLV, Nov. 21st @ BYU
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2008 was perhaps the biggest season in Utah football history. The Utes posted their 2 nd undefeated season in five years, earning the school its 2 nd BCS bowl berth. The Utes then shocked the world by improving their record to 2-0 in Bowl Championship Series play by badly beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Their final record of 13-0 and national ranking of 2 nd at the end of the year were both the highest in school history. The Utes were also impressive in non-conference play, beating Michigan at the Big House to start the year before knocking off Oregon State, who finished with 9 wins and nearly won the Pac Ten! Utah has some serious losses to deal with this season, including ten starters and both coordinators. However, the Utes still have a lot of talent on hand and should still impact the conference championship race despite their losses.
The offense’s biggest hole will be in the passing game, where quarterback Brian Johnson departs after three years in charge and his top three receivers have also moved on. Johnson’s likely replacement will be junior Terrance Cain, who was the 2008 Junior College Offensive Player of the Year and impressed in Spring Practice with the Utes. While he likely won’t match Johnson’s productivity, Utah should still boast a solid passing attack. At receiver, senior David Reed is the top returning wideout after catching 25 passes for 6 touchdowns last season while averaging an impressive 17.1 yards per catch. Cain’s first year should also feature an improved rushing attack led by senior Matt Asiata, who led the team in rushing last fall with 707 yards and 12 touchdowns. As the Utes lost over 250 carries thanks to graduation, Asiata will be expected to carry a much heavier load this fall. I expect him to have a very big year behind a very good offensive line that returns three starters. While the right side of the line departs, including a 1 st team All-MWC selection, Utah can comfortably rely upon 1 st team All-MWC tackle Zane Beadles to lead another great line. With a new quarterback and questions at receiver, I expect Utah to put more emphasis on the run. Overall, Cain’s development and the emergence of another receiving option behind Reed will be the biggest two factors in whether the Utes can come close to last season’s 37 points per game average. However, I have no doubt that the Utes will feature a strong running game (their new OC was the running backs coach last season) and this will still be a solid offense despite all the turnover at the skill positions.
The defense has far less questions. Six starters return from a unit which held opponents under 20 points per game for the 3 rd consecutive season and the 5 th in the last six years! The top four tacklers are all back as well and Utah should once again be very formidable on defense. Up front, senior defensive end Koa Misi is the lone returning starter and should be a huge force after making 68 tackles and 3 sacks in 2008. However, there are also some big losses, especially 2 nd round NFL draft pick Paul Kruger. Head coach Kyle Wittingham brought in a lot of junior college recruits this fall and perhaps the biggest was defensive end James Aino, who was the #1 junior college defensive lineman according to one of the national services. While I don’t expect Utah’s defensive line to easily replace Kruger and company, it probably won’t fall off as much as one would expect with only one starter back. At linebacker, all three starters return, led by two seniors: hybrid ‘backer Stevenson Sylvester, who was a 2 nd team All-MWC selection in 2008, and middle linebacker Mike Wright, who led the team in tackles. Utah’s linebackers should be among the best in the Mountain West and should help their new defensive line immensely against the run. The secondary also looks solid as senior safeties Joe Dale (66 tackles, 3 picks in ’08) and Robert Johnson (41 tackles, 4 picks) will provide veteran leadership and excellent production. While there will no doubt be struggles, especially early, after losing two starting cornerbacks to the NFL draft, there are some very solid players (including a few highly ranked junior college recruits) waiting their turn and I fully expect Utah to field one of the conference’s better pass defenses. Overall, Utah has been consistently excellent defensively and I expect the Utes to continue that trend despite longtime defensive coordinator Gary Anderson’s departure to take Utah State’s head coaching position. New coordinator Kalani Sitake was the linebackers coach in recent years and he should provide plenty of continuity in terms of both scheme and preparation and that’s a very good thing for the Utes.
The schedule is pretty difficult, featuring six road games. The non-conference portion features a trip to Oregon and then follows up the next week when Louisville comes to Salt Lake City. The conference schedule is also very tough as the Utes have to travel to UNLV, TCU and archrival BYU! While I expect that the Utes will have a solid offense and a very good defense, there are some big questions that I think will hold them back. Can Utah overcome the loss of both their offensive and defensive coordinators? Will new quarterback Terrance Cain produce immediately? Can the Utes navigate a very tough schedule? I think that despite the team’s talent, replacing a lot of key players and solid coaching will be difficult in the face of a very tough schedule. While Utah will definitely make noise in the conference title race, they’re a long shot to repeat as champions and if they win nine games during the regular season I will be impressed.
Big Games: Sept. 19th @ Oregon, Oct. 17th @ UNLV, Oct. 24th vs. Air Force, Nov. 14th @ TCU, Nov. 28th @ BYU
I had high hopes for UNLV entering last season, predicting them to finish with a .500 conference record and reach their first bowl game this decade. However, despite the Rebels’ 2-0 record against BCS conference opposition and a 3-1 record in the non-conference schedule, they fell to a very disappointing 2-6 conference mark to finish with head coach Mike Sanford’s 4 th losing record in as many seasons. While I’m risking repeating last year’s error by picking UNLV to finish .500 again, fourteen returning starters and a 3 rd year starter at quarterback make me think that Sanford has his best shot at finally breaking through and earning a postseason berth for the Rebels.
Junior Omar Clayton will be the team’s starting quarterback this fall. Clayton, who threw for 1,894 yards and 18 touchdowns against only four picks in 2008, is one of the conference’s best quarterbacks and could have a huge year in his 3 rd season under center after guiding last season’s team to a scoring jump of more than a touchdown per game from the previous year. Providing even more hope for the Rebels’ passing game is the return of 1 st team All-MWC receiver Ryan Wolfe, who had 88 catches for 1040 yards and 6 touchdowns last season. Wolfe will pair with explosive sophomore Phillip Payne (who had 7 touchdowns as a true freshman in only nine games last year) to give Clayton lots of options as one of the league’s top pass catching duos. At tailback, the Rebels’ pass-heavy offense should have a solid change of pace in sophomore C.J. Cox, who impressed in as a true freshman back up last season. Expect the Rebels’ offensive output to improve once more this season with a solid offensive line that features three returning starters. I expect junior offensive tackle Matt Murphy, who was a freshman All-American in 2007 before earning 2 nd team All-MWC honors last season, to be one of the conference’s absolute best and I think that the UNLV line will be even better than last season despite losing 2 two year starters. Overall, UNLV averaged just less than 26 points per game in 2008 and I fully expect them to eclipse that number by a healthy margin this fall.
There is also reason for optimism on defense. The Rebels were gouged on the ground last season to the tune of 213 yards per game and that played a large part in their allowing an average of 32.5 points, 2 nd worst in the conference. This season should be much better with seven starters back, including three of their top four tacklers. Up front, the Rebels return three starters but they will have to hope for better production after generating only 11 sacks as a defense in 2008. The good news is that I think they’ll improve with a year’s experience and should at least be better against the run this season. My optimism for an improved run defense is further bolstered by the return of two starting linebackers from last season. Senior Jason Beauchamp racked up 127 tackles and two sacks last fall and was a 1 st team All-MWC selection and junior Ronnie Paulo contributed 90 tackles as the pair were the top two tacklers on the team. Even better news is the return of junior Starr Fuimano, who was a major contributor two years ago before running into injury trouble. If Fuimano remains healthy this year, UNLV might have the conference’s best group of linebackers. In the secondary, there is work to do as junior cornerback Quinton Porter is the team’s only returning starter. Sanford was aware of the impending talent drain and brought in at least four junior college defensive backs as part of his most recent recruiting class in an effort to improve this season’s aerial defenses. The Rebels’ pass defense might have only allowed 210 yards per game through the air but I think that might have been more of a byproduct of opponents choosing to attack their poor run defense as they allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete over 61% of their passes and allowed lowly San Diego State to throw for nearly 400 yards on the season’s final day to knock UNLV out of bowl eligibility. Thus, I’m not so sure that replacing a large portion of last season’s secondary is really a bad thing and with the expected improvements in UNLV’s run defense, the secondary might allow more yardage but be a stronger unit. I expect UNLV to definitely improve against the run after allowing over 200 yards in a game seven times last year, including Nevada’s shocking 444 yard performance and a 346 yard gashing at the hands of Air Force. With an improved run defense comes an improved scoring defense and I would be surprised if UNLV’s defense didn’t hold opponents under 30 points per game this fall.
The schedule is a mixed bag, though there are seven games in Sin City. However, their non-conference schedule features a home game against Oregon State and road trips to Wisconsin and archrival Nevada. All three teams are expected to be bowl teams and the Rebels will be underdogs in each game. The conference schedule features road trips to Wyoming, TCU and Air Force and the Rebels face back to back home games against BYU and Utah. While facing a daunting schedule, things are in place for UNLV to make some noise in the conference title chase. However, they face three very tough non-conference games and need to live up to my expectations to earn Sanford’s first bowl berth. While there are rumors about Sanford’s job security, a 5-3 conference record would double his career total of Mountain West wins and should certainly keep his job safe. At worst, UNLV will be a very fun team to watch this fall as they should be involved in some shootouts during their push for a shot at the postseason.
Big Games: Sept. 26th @ Wyoming, Oct. 3rd @ Nevada, Oct. 10th vs. BYU, Oct. 17th vs. Utah, Oct. 31st @ TCU, Nov. 14th @ Air Force
Of the three teams who changed head coaches in the Mountain West this past offseason, San Diego State appears to have made the strongest hire. Brady Hoke arrives in town from Ball State after guiding the Cardinals to a 12-1 record last fall and he will be the next in a long line of coaches who will attempt to take advantage of SDSU’s built in strengths. Seriously, how does a school located in the middle of one of America’s most beautiful cities that plays in an NFL stadium and happens to be smack dab in the middle of one of the most fertile recruiting territories in the country manage to avoid a winning season in the last ten years? That’s unfathomable. The Aztecs routinely end up in the top half of the league when it comes to recruiting rankings but three previous coaches have failed to translate that into success on the field. With fifteen starters back, Hoke has a chance to change that in his first season.
On offense, sophomore Ryan Lindley will look to build upon a strong freshman campaign which saw him throw for 2,653 yards and 16 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions. He also returns both of his starting receivers and his entire backfield. Junior receiver Vincent Brown could be in for a big year after catching 61 passes for 631 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2008. After averaging an anemic 73 yards per game on the ground in 2008, I expect Hoke to place a renewed emphasis on the running game and that means senior Atiyyah Henderson is in for a much improved season after only running for 490 yards and 4 touchdowns to lead the team in 2008. What will really tell the tale of the tape for the Aztecs is the performance of the offensive line, which underachieved last season and lost their best performer to the NFL draft. If SDSU can find a solid offensive line, their running game is virtually guaranteed to improve and the Aztecs should make a big jump in offensive production.
The defense was the worst in the conference in 2008, allowing a league-high 37 points per game. However, Hoke made a fantastic hire on defense, bringing in longtime New Mexico head coach Rocky Long as the defensive coordinator. Long has fielded many fine defenses in the past decade and knows the opposition in the Mountain West very well. His first priority will be to fix the run defense, which allowed an average of nearly 250 yards per game on the ground in 2008. In that vein, six of the front seven from last season return and should be much improved with a year’s experience. The Aztecs’ 3 man line will be led by junior defensive end BJ Williams, whose 74 tackles and 3.5 sacks earned him 2 nd team All-MWC honors last fall. Long loves to blitz, so the linebackers should be a threat to get to the quarterback every down. Expect senior Luke Laolagi to improve upon his 99 tackles from a year ago as the group’s leader. I expect the run defense and the sack totals (only 13 last year) to improve significantly this fall. The secondary is a much bigger concern as only senior Aaron Moore returns among the starters. However, they allowed nearly 66 percent of opposing passes to find their mark and the situation was so desperate in the spring that the Aztecs might start former wide receiver Brandon Davis at safety this fall. Junior Jose Perez did have two picks as a backup last year so I expect that he will be an improvement but last season’s only saving grace was that opposing teams didn’t need to pass because the run defense was so bad. Overall, I think that the run defense will be significantly better but the best pass defense that the Aztecs can muster is a significantly improved pass rush up front. I think that the defense will be much improved this year but they’ll still be vulnerable through the air.
The schedule is an interesting mix. The non-conference schedule’s only major landmine is a road trip to still-rebuilding UCLA and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Aztecs finish 3-1 outside of conference play. The conference schedule also features a stretch where five out of six games are at home, which could be huge for SDSU finding a winning rhythm. While road games at Air Force, Utah and UNLV won’t be easy, the Aztecs’ schedule won’t be an impediment to a strong turnaround. Overall, I expect the Aztecs to be much improved in every facet of the game and if Brady Hoke can live up to my expectations in conference play, he could kick off his San Diego State career with a trip to a bowl game.
Big Games: Sept. 26th @ Air Force, Oct. 17th vs. BYU, Oct. 24th @ CSU, Oct. 14th vs. Wyoming, Nov. 28th @ UNLV
2008 was a tough season for the Cowboys, as they finished with a 4-8 record and a 1-7 conference mark. Wyoming’s 5 th bowl-less season in six years under Joe Glenn meant that a coaching change was in order and former Missouri Offensive Coordinator Dave Christensen takes over as head coach. Christensen walks into a very good situation; The Cowboys return eight starters on each side of the ball! Can he get his brand of explosive offense going quickly in 2009?
Christensen’s offenses averaged over 40 points per game during the last two seasons at Mizzou but he doesn’t have Chase Daniels to run it for him in Wyoming. Instead, he will have to pick from a pair of returning quarterbacks who combined for two touchdown passes against a whopping twelve picks last year! Senior Karsten Sween seems most likely to take over and could benefit from a schematic change. The top four receivers return from last fall, including senior tight end Jesson Salyards, but no one had more than two touchdowns or 26 catches! However, with a renewed emphasis on the passing game, there should be notable improvements in their production. Keep an eye on sophomore Brandon Stewart, who missed more than half the season due to injury but averaged over nineteen yards per catch when healthy. At tailback, their inexperience is shocking (16 total carries from running backs in 2008 return) and any of a large number of players could emerge as the starter. The only really solid spot on the offense is the line of scrimmage, where three starters return including both tackles, and I expect Wyoming to be much better at protecting the quarterback. Overall, a new system and a lot of returning experience gives me hope that the Cowboys will be much better on offense. After all, they averaged under 13 points per game last year so they really can only get better.
The defense is another matter entirely. While they allowed just under 28 points per game last year, the Cowboys’ inability to hold onto the football put the defense in a lot of bad spots with a negative 22 turnover margin. Opponents averaged less than 200 yards passing and only 330 total yards per game, which was 3 rd best in the conference! With 8 starters back from that solid performance, I expect the Cowboys to once more field one of the conference’s toughest units. Up front, the entire defensive line returns and all three starters are seniors. Led by defensive end John Fletcher, a 2 nd team All-MWC choice in 2008, this group will be very strong and should only bolster an already solid run defense. The linebackers return two starters, led by sophomore Gabe Knapton, who racked up 92 tackles as a freshman last year. Along with senior Weston Johnson, Knapton should anchor a solid group that should be just as productive as last year’s unit. The secondary returns three starters, anchored by the Gipson brothers at cornerback. Junior safety Chris Prosinski is also a big time player, racking up 88 tackles and snagging 3 picks in 2008. After allowing only 190 yards per game last fall through the air, the Cowboys could actually improve on that tally this year. Another positive for Wyoming is that new defensive coordinator Marty English was the linebackers coach the last five seasons and will bring continuity to what has been one of the conference’s most consistently solid defenses. I expect the Cowboys to allow a lot less points this year.
Unfortunately for the Wyoming faithful, there are some serious concerns about the schedule. Featuring only six home games, the Cowboys must travel to Colorado, Florida Atlantic, Utah, Air Force and rival Colorado State. Furthermore, their home schedule includes BYU, TCU, UNLV and Texas! Schedule aside, I think that the Cowboys will be a much better team this year. They should field one of the conference’s toughest defenses and could easily double their scoring from 2008 if they can find a serviceable quarterback. I also can’t imagine Wyoming posting a turnover margin anywhere near as terrible as last season’s minus 22 mark, which should put their defense in a lot better position in 2009. I really think that Wyoming football will be a much improved product but with three tough non-conference games, the Cowboys will be hard pressed to earn bowl eligibility.
Big Games: Sept. 12th vs. Texas, Sept. 19th @ Colorado, Oct. 17th @ Air Force, Oct. 31st @ Utah, Nov. 7th vs. BYU, Nov. 21st vs. TCU, Nov. 27th @ Colorado State
Last season marked the beginning of a new era at Colorado State as longtime head coach Sonny Lubick retired, leaving former CSU quarterback Steve Fairchild in charge. The program, which attained national prominence in Lubick’s early years, had fallen off and Fairchild appeared to have a rebuilding job ahead. However, he guided the team to a 6-6 record and followed it up with a New Mexico Bowl victory to give CSU their first winning record in five seasons! Fairchild faces an equally stiff task this fall following up 2008’s success and it will be interesting to see if he can push CSU back towards the prominence enjoyed around the turn of the century.
On offense, there are six starters back but the losses come at key positions. Sophomore Klay Kubiak would appear to have an edge on the competition at quarterback after serving as the backup last year but he missed the spring with shoulder surgery and the situation under center is as clear as mud. The tailback position is a major concern as well, as the top two rushers from 2008 depart, including 4 th round NFL draft pick Gartrell Johnson. Junior John Mosure was solid in limited action last season and appears to be the favorite to take over in Johnson’s stead. Despite these losses, I think the running game will be solid this season thanks to the presence of an offensive line that brings back four starters, all of whom are seniors. Guard Shelley Smith was a 2 nd team All-MWC selection last year and should anchor the group. The wide receivers also look very good, led by seniors Dion Mortron (51 catches, 859 yards, 10 touchdowns in 2008) and Rashaun Greer (63 catches, 1114 yards, 3 touchdowns). I expect both to be a huge help to whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Fairchild is a former NFL offensive coordinator and he calls all the plays so I expect the Rams to fight for the most balanced offense possible. That means I expect a solid run game to emerge quickly behind the veteran offensive line and the potential for a great passing game is there thanks to Greer and Morton. The big question is at quarterback where four players will battle it out for the starting job. If someone emerges from the pack with authority, Colorado State could have a very productive offense and exceed expectations.
The defense struggled at times last year, allowing 190 yards per game on the ground and over 30 points per game. I’m not so sure that they’ll be any better against the run this fall with only one starter back on the defensive line. My pessimism towards their ability to stop the run is furthered by the return of only one linebacker from last season. Sophomore Mychal Sisson was a Freshman All-American after racking up 105 tackles, tops on the team, but my enthusiasm was tempered when Rocky Brewer, who was 2 nd with 103 tackles, was suspended for the entire 2009 season. There is virtually no experience back next to Sisson. The secondary appears much stronger, returning three starters. They should benefit mightily from the return of senior safety Klint Kubiak, who missed half the year last season due to injury and both cornerbacks appear solid. However, all three starters only combined for 3 interceptions last fall, so the potential for the big play appears muted. For Colorado State to improve on defense this fall, they’re going to have to improve upon last year’s total of 10 sacks, find a way to intercept more passes and establish a solid front seven after losing most of their experience. That seems like a hefty task and I’m afraid that I don’t see the Rams improving any on defense in 2009.
The schedule is a toss up. Colorado State has six road games, including trips to archrival Colorado, conference favorites BYU and TCU and a dangerous UNLV squad. The home schedule also includes a very tough non-conference matchup against Nevada and a homecoming date against Utah. The Rams will need to repeat their stellar 4-2 home record from 2008 if they want to compete for a bowl game. However, I don’t think that is in the cards as CSU appears likely to regress on defense while struggling to find a triggerman on offense. In all likelihood, Fairchild’s second season appears primed for a step back and I will be surprised to see the Rams in a bowl game.
Big Games: Sept. 5th @ Colorado, Oct. 10th vs. Utah, Oct. 17th @ TCU, Nov. 7th @ UNLV, Nov. 21st @ New Mexico, Nov. 27th vs. Wyoming
New Mexico might have been the most disappointing team in the entire conference last season. I predicted the Lobos to follow up a solid 9-4 season in 2007 with a 5-3 conference record and another trip to a bowl game but instead they fell flat on their face to the tune of 2-6 in conference a 4-8 record overall. That was enough to earn longtime head coach Rocky Long a pink slip and former Illinois offensive coordinator/super recruiter Mike Locksley was hired to turn the team around. However, Locksley inherits a league-low nine returning starters and a tough schedule, making it unlikely that he’ll immediately have a cure for all of the Lobos’ ailments.
The offense is a very big question mark despite the return of six starters. Locksley’s offenses were known for their ability to spread the field and take advantage of a quarterback’s mobility. However, the Lobos ran a very run heavy offense last fall and passed for only three touchdowns! I expect the change from an option attack means that Locksley’s two freshmen recruits are the most likely candidates to open the season on offense and any time you’re starting a true freshman at quarterback there are going to be some serious growing pains. Furthermore, the receiving corps is going to have to bear a much bigger load of the offense this fall and juniors Bryant Williams (36 catches) and Chris Hernandez (33 catches) are going to have to step their game up big time. The running game appears to be the better option to move the football in the early going. Sophomore James Wright was only the 3 rd string tailback last year but impressed as he ran for 348 yards and 2 touchdowns. His first year as the starter should show significant improvement running behind a solid offensive line led by senior center Eric Cook, who was a 2 nd team All-MWC choice last fall. However, the offense is largely unproven at the skill positions and the prospect of starting a true freshman at quarterback is daunting. Let’s face it; few freshmen can be as effective as Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State or Robert Griffin at Baylor were last season. The Lobos only averaged 21 points per game in 2008 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them have trouble reaching that total this fall as they transition to a completely new offensive scheme.
The Lobo defense was quite good last season. However, the departure of the defensively oriented Long and eight starters doesn’t bode well for 2009. The entire defensive line needs replaced and sophomore Jaymar Latchison appears to be the best of the group after playing well in limited action last year, though he’s primarily a pass rusher. At linebacker, only senior middle linebacker Clint McPeek, who notched 103 tackles in 2008 to earn 2 nd team All-MWC honors, is back and he will likely be flanked by a pair of underclassmen. That’s not a good sign. Finally, the secondary returns two starters, senior safeties Ian Clark and Frankie Solomon. Neither flashed much big play potential last season and this secondary will take a big step back after both of their starting cornerbacks were taken in April’s NFL draft. Overall, I expect a big step back on defense in Locksley’s first year and New Mexico will be very vulnerable against the run.
The schedule, as I mentioned above, is also very tough. The non-conference schedule features trips to Texas A&M and Texas Tech along with difficult home games against Tulsa and rival New Mexico State, though the Lobos have won six straight against the Aggies. The conference schedule will also be hard, including road trips to Wyoming, Utah and TCU. Overall, I expect that there will be a lot of struggles adapting to new schemes on both sides of the ball and the looming specter of a true freshman starting quarterback should scare most Lobo fans. I expect some growing pains on offense until Locksley can properly recruit for his system and the defense is going to take a step back without Long in charge. If New Mexico matches last season’s four win total, I will be very surprised.
Big Games: Sept. 26th vs. New Mexico State, Oct. 10th @ Wyoming, Oct. 31st @ San Diego State, Nov. 21st vs. Colorado State
THE BOTTOM LINE
After such an excellent 2008 season, the big question is going to be how the Mountain West follows it up this fall. It will be very important for the conference’s high profile push for changes in the BCS that their teams remain highly competitive as they can’t afford to be perceived as a flash in the pan. However, I think it is very likely that BYU and TCU will be able to carry the conference flag well in the spotlight and thus maintain the Mountain West’s favorable national standing.
As for the conference race, there are only two teams that I can honestly see emerging as champion at the end of the season. One is BYU, with their explosive offense led by the conference’s best offensive player in quarterback Max Hall. The other is TCU, with their always excellent defense led by the conference’s best defensive player in defensive end Jerry Hughes. Both teams should be very good on both sides of the ball this year. However, BYU has the more favorable schedule and fewer questions to answer in the reloading process. Furthermore, BYU’s seniors know how to win, as they are gunning for their 3 rd conference title in four seasons while TCU has fallen short repeatedly during the same time span.
While Utah, Air Force, UNLV and others will undoubtedly make an impact on the conference race this season, I fully expect that the most important game all year will be the October 24 th showdown between TCU and BYU in Provo and considering that BYU is unbeaten at home in each of the past three seasons, I’m going to pick the Cougars to win that game and the conference along with it. My choice to win the 2009 Mountain West Conference Title is the Brigham Young Cougars.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell
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