2009 Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Preview
The WAC might as well be renamed The Boise State Showcase. The Broncos’ conference record since joining in 2002 is an unbelievable 62-2 and they have won five outright conference titles and shared another in seven years! Only Hawai’i’s stunning run to the Sugar Bowl in 2007 prevented the Broncos from having the country’s longest consecutive championship streak.
This is, in part, a reflection upon Boise State’s excellence. However, it is also a reflection on how poor many of the conference’s other teams have been for an extended period of time. In fact, Boise State’s conference record during that time period is the best in the country by a five game margin over 2 nd place USC, who boasts a very impressive 52-7 mark in the Pac Ten since 2002!
In fact, outside of Fresno State, Hawai’i, Nevada and Boise State, the conference’s other five teams have combined for two bowl appearances in the last seven years! Only the Sun Belt Conference, which until this season had a smaller membership, has had less variety in their bowl teams over the same time period. Another big question I have about the Broncos and the WAC in general is how strong the conference truly is. As the conference’s top dog, how the Broncos stack up against national competition is a major factor in determining just how good the WAC is and the numbers aren’t pretty. Boise State is 1-4 in their last five bowl games and is an unimpressive 2-6 against ranked opponents since 2004. Those two wins came in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl for the ages against Oklahoma and against an Oregon team down to its 4 th quarterback last fall. Thus it only seems fair to wonder if year in and year out the Broncos aren’t just a good team getting fat on a very poor conference. Either way, the Broncos appear positioned to embark upon another dominant season in the WAC.
The conference championship discussion begins and ends with the Broncos. Aside from their amazing seven year run in conference play, the Broncos are led by one of the country’s most innovative offensive minds in Head Coach Chris Peterson, who has never led Boise State a season where the offense averaged less than 36 points per game. Furthermore, Peterson’s team went 12-0 last season with a freshman at quarterback! Do you think that he isn’t expecting his offense to get better this fall?
That quarterback is sophomore Kellen Moore, who threw for nearly 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns last fall against only 10 interceptions. While Moore had the benefit of a strong running game to keep defenses honest last fall, he will miss the production and savvy of departed tailback Ian Johnson (766 yards, 13 TDs). In Johnson’s place will be junior Jeremy Avery, who did carry the ball 111 times last fall and score four touchdowns. Since he will be running behind a strong offensive line that returns three starters, I expect the Broncos to improve upon 2008’s five year low in rushing yards this fall. Moore will also be looking for some new receivers to step up this fall as the only returnee is junior Austin Pettis, who had 49 catches for 567 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2008. Expect fellow junior Titus Young, who was suspended most of last season, to step up in a big way after being expected to break out last fall following a strong freshman campaign. Boise State scored 37.6 points per game last year, incredibly their 2 nd lowest total since joining the WAC. I would not be surprised whatsoever if the Broncos exceeded that total in 2009.
On defense, the Broncos’ 2008 edition allowed a miniscule 12.6 points per game, the best in school history. Interestingly enough, their rush yards allowed per game was actually the 2 nd worst since 2002 but this was offset by the top BSU pass defense in the WAC era, allowing only 190 yards per game through the air, good for 4 th in the entire NCAA! However, only five starters return from the conference’s best defense last year. Up front, junior Ryan Winterswyk, who had 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year, will be the leader of a young line which loses three starters. However, the 2008 1 st team All-WAC selection should find himself part of a pretty solid unit as Boise State has recruited far beyond its league competitors up front in recent years. At linebacker, junior Derrell Acrey is the only returnee after making 59 tackles. While the small number of returnees is a concern, Boise State actually fell off slightly in the past two seasons against the run and I expect them to continue to perform very well against the ground attack. I also expect teams to try and run often on the Broncos as they return 3 starters from one of the nation’s best secondaries. Junior Jeron Johnson was the team’s top tackler last fall with 98 and returning corners Kyle Wilson and Brandyn Thompson combined for nine interceptions! Even better news is that their expected new starter at Free Safety, sophomore George Iloka, was the team’s 4 th leading tackler last fall with 63 and snagged 4 interceptions! Boise State will be killer against the pass and I expect that their run defense will round into form quickly enough. This is one of the WAC’s best defenses.
The schedule is also friendly to the Broncos. Top challenger Nevada (whom the Broncos edged 41-34 last fall in Reno) must travel to the Smurf Turf (where the Broncos have never lost a WAC conference game), as must San Jose State. Furthermore, the Broncos also host Oregon to open the season for a game which could put Boise State in pole position to bust the BCS. Now, there are some difficult games as well, including trips to Fresno State and rival Hawai’i, but overall the schedule doesn’t appear to be an impediment to another hugely successful fall in Boise. Expect the Broncos to field a very strong offense once more this fall and their defense has the potential to be great if they can gel up front as BSU boasts one of America’s best secondaries. Furthermore, I just can’t ignore only two conference losses in seven years. History says the Broncos go at least 7-1 in conference play this season and since two of their top three challengers have to play on the blue field, I’m picking the Broncos to go unbeaten once more. If they can knock off a retooling Oregon team to start the year, Boise State could find themselves in another BCS bowl this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 3rd vs. Oregon, Sept. 18th @ Fresno State, Oct. 14th @ Tulsa, Oct. 24th @ Hawai’i, Oct. 31st vs. San Jose State, Nov. 27th vs. Nevada
Despite finishing with a 7-6 record last fall and a 5-3 conference record, I was very impressed with the Wolf Pack every time I saw them play. This was largely due to their impressive offensive attack but when I see a team play twice and lose both games, yet come away impressed, then I’m going to be very high on seeing improvement the next season. Improvement seems to be the best word to sum up Nevada going into 2009.
Their high-flying offense is led by junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ran for 1,130 yards and 17 touchdowns last year while passing for 2,850 yards and 22 touchdowns. This incredible performance earned him 2008 WAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Needless to say, any offense where such a superstar is the triggerman is very likely to be one of the country’s best and their 37.6 points per game production last year is a testament to his abilities. However, it isn’t just Kaepernick who makes this offense tick. Junior tailback Vai Taua ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns and provides the Wolf Pack with a two-headed monster running the ball which will try to match last year’s incredible 278 rush yards per game! The offensive line is going to be very important in matching that total and with three starters back, including both tackles who were 2 nd team All-WAC selections last year, I believe they will be just as good as 2008’s very solid line. The only worry is at receiver, where Marko Mitchell will be badly missed after catching 61 passes for 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. Expect junior Chris Wellington to become the top target after accounting for over 600 yards and 6 touchdowns last fall. Despite the questions at receiver, the Wolf Pack will challenge Boise State for the title of the conference’s best offense.
Defensively, the Wolf Pack is in need of improvement after allowing over 32 points per game last fall. For comparison’s sake, that’s twenty points more pergame than Boise State! The good news is that the majority of their defense is back with another year’s experience under their belts and should be much improved this year. Up front, the defensive line boasts the conference’s best DE pairing in juniors Kevin Basped (1 st team All-WAC in 2008) and Dontay Moch (2 nd team All-WAC in 2008), who combined for 100 tackles and 21.5 sacks last year. They will book end a line which allowed only 89 yards per game on the ground last fall and should be similarly strong once more. The linebackers were banged up last year and only sophomore J.M. Johnson returns to from the starters. However, a year of good health should actually improve their production and I expect them to form a solid group. The secondary returns three starters, led by senior safety Jonathon Amaya, who led the team in tackles and interceptions last year. The Wolf Pack should be much improved against the pass after allowing over 310 yards per game through the air last fall and I expect this defense to be a significantly better unit this season.
The schedule is a mixed bag. Nevada must travel to San Jose State and the blue hole in Boise but hosts Fresno State, Louisiana Tech and Hawai’i. In the non-conference slate, the Wolf Pack open up at Notre Dame with the chance to make history in South Bend before hosting Big 12 foe Missouri at night in late September. The good news is that Nevada is so talented that road trips shouldn’t be an impediment to having a massively successful season this year and I think this team has the potential to compete for the conference title. After a near-miss against Boise State last year and the Broncos’ subsequent losses up front on defense, I nearly picked the Wolf Pack and their powerful run game to win the conference in 2008. However, as a WAC team winning in Boise is unprecedented, I elected to play it safe and pick Boise State. That said, I think that Nevada is the one team in the WAC that could knock off the Broncos and win the conference championship this year. Even if they fall short of that lofty goal, the Wolf Pack has a very real chance to win ten games this fall with Kaepernick at the helm. Notre Dame had better not take the Wolf Pack lightly in the season opener because this team will be very good in 2009.
Big Games: Sept. 5th @ Notre Dame, Sept. 25th vs. Mizzou, Nov. 14th vs. Fresno State, Nov. 27th @ Boise State
The Bulldogs were my pick last year to win the WAC and knock off the Boise State Broncos. However, Fresno’s 61-10 loss in Boise led to my creation of what I call ‘The Smurf Turf Law’. It states ‘never pick a visiting WAC team to win in Boise’. Aside from their tail-kicking in Idaho, Pat Hill’s team was a bit of a disappointment last year. They opened up the year with two wins against BCS conference opponents, sported a 3-0 road record and were ranked in the top 25 before closing the season with a mediocre 4-4 run in conference before dropping their bowl game to Colorado State. I will forever be confused how a team wins at Rutgers and UCLA but manages to lose at home to a 1-3 Hawai’i team and lose four other games to non-BCS foes. Overall, the Bulldogs’ 2-3 home record last year was a large part of their undoing down the stretch. With 15 starters back, they’ll have to hope that their veteran experience can prevent another letdown.
Offensively, the Bulldogs bring back their top four rushers and five of their top six receivers. Their top three tailbacks combined for over 2,300 yards and 19 touchdowns and their leading receivers are seniors. Furthermore, they have a solid offensive line which brings back three starters, all of whom were underclassmen last fall, and they are led by 2 nd team All-WAC selection Andrew Jackson. The Bulldogs should have an even better running game than the group which averaged over 180 yards per game last year and their receivers should be open constantly. The big worry is the departure of quarterback Tom Brandstater, who was a three year starter and was selected in the 6 th round of the NFL draft. In his stead will be two candidates who have combined for 5 career pass attempts. This is a big concern for the Bulldogs and they’ll likely be a run-heavy team in the early going. However, over the course of the season I expect that this offense will come close to last season’s 30 points per game average and will be even tougher to stop on the ground.
The defense also appears to be in line for some solid improvement as eight starters return to a unit which allowed a Pat Hill-era-worst 31 points per game. This was in large part due to a porous run defense which was gouged to the tune of 210 yards per game! Luckily for the Bulldog faithful, six of the front seven return with another year’s experience and should be much stronger against the run. Up front, junior defensive end Chris Carter is an absolute playmaker, having recorded a whopping 88 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year. You rarely see a defensive end finish second on his team in tackles and you almost never see a defensive end pushing 90 for the season! Expect Carter to lead a much-improved line which struggled with injuries and featured a lot of underclassmen last fall. The linebackers look very good as well with all three starters returning; Expect junior middleman Ben Jacobs, who was a 2 nd team All-WAC selection, to be a tackling WAChine once more after making 113 tackles last year. The secondary should also be a good unit as there are a lot of players who have seen the field extensively due to injury. Expect senior Moses Harris to once more be a leader and he should be very good the run as well. Fresno State’s defense should definitely be improved and should do a much better job of keeping teams off of the scoreboard.
The schedule is a big concern for the Bulldogs, who always schedule tough non-conference opponents . With their inexperience under center, a season opening stretch of three road games (at Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Hawai’i) in their first five is daunting, especially when one of their home games is against Boise State. The Bulldogs have to be careful or they could start 1-4. Fresno State only has five home games this fall and must travel to Nevada late in the year in conference play. They also close the season at a much-improved Illinois team in December. In short, the non-conference schedule is daunting, the opening stretch is very difficult and they have to travel to play against the conference’s best quarterback. Furthermore, the Bulldogs have to replace a 3 year starter under center. While I expect Fresno State to be a much better team than last year, I think that their season will be in many ways a reverse from last year. Expect the Bulldogs to struggle early before performing well during conference play. I don’t expect the Bulldogs to compete for the conference crown thanks to playing Boise early and traveling to Nevada but they should still be one of the better WAC teams. If they can upset one of the three BCS teams they play this year then matching 2008’s regular season win total of seven is a strong likelihood. I will be very surprised if the Bulldogs don’t play in their 6 th bowl in the last seven years this winter.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Wisconsin, Sept. 18th vs. Boise State, Oct. 10th @ Hawai’i, Oct. 17th vs. San Jose State, Nov. 14th @ Nevada, Dec. 5th @ Illinois
2008 was a huge success for the Bulldogs and their eight wins were the most in the last two decades! Head Coach Derek Dooley’s second season was marked by a strong defense and a strong sense of competitiveness. The Bulldogs upset SEC power Mississippi State in the season opener, the first SEC team to visit the Dawgs in a century. Tech also won the Independence Bowl, their first bowl win in 30 years, to close out a fantastic season. With 16 starters back from last year’s team, expectations are high once more in Ruston.
The offense was largely ground-based last season, averaging almost 190 yards per game, thanks to the presence of 1 st team All-WAC tailback Daniel Porter. Porter, now a senior, rushed for 1,164 yards and 9 touchdowns and also contributed nearly 200 yards through the air. That production should continue as the entire offensive line is back from last year and every single starter is an upperclassman. With a year’s experience of success underneath their belts, expect this line to be one of the conference’s best and Porter should find plenty of running room. Meanwhile, the passing game has a lot of space for improvement as junior Ross Jenkins will start the entire year after taking over part way through in 2008. Jenkins threw for 1,155 yards and 7 touchdowns against only 3 picks in eight starts last fall and I expect his numbers to improve this year. That assumes, of course, that one of his receivers step up behind junior Phillip Livas, who was solid last year with 43 catches, 607 yards and 4 touchdowns to lead the team. If depth can be found (keep an eye on sophomore R.P. Stuart, who scored two rushing TDs last year in trick sets) then Louisiana Tech might be able to field a balanced offense. Either way, I think that this is a solid group with a lot of experience and should exceed last year’s 24.5 points per game average.
The defense was the strength of the team last year, allowing less than 24 points per game, including four games in which they held the opposition to two touchdowns or less. Even better, eight starters return, including the entire defensive line. That line was the pillar upon which the Bulldogs’ exceptional rush defense (104 yard per game average) was built last fall. Led by senior DT D’Anthony Smith, who was a 1 st team All-WAC selection and finished third on the team with 65 tackles, 5 of which were sacks, the Bulldogs might field the conference’s toughest D-Line. However, there is some concern behind them. At linebacker, junior Dominique Faust was the only starter to play the entire season. However, senior Brian White began the year as a starter but missed the final 8 games due to injury and should be a solid force opposite Faust now that he has returned to health. While I expect the Bulldogs to have another good group at ‘backer, I still don’t think that you can call them any better than average in the WAC. The secondary is also a mixed bag, as senior safeties Deon Young and Antonio Baker (1 st team All-WAC in 2008) are back after combining for 174 tackles and 6 interceptions last fall. However, the loss of their starting cornerbacks, who combined for 136 tackles and six picks in 2008, is a major concern. While I expect that steady safety play will benefit the Bulldogs, I also think they’ll have a tough time replacing the production they got at corner last fall. Overall, this defense should be very solid up front, meaning that teams will attack the secondary much more often. The new starters at corner need to step up quickly for the Bulldogs to become a true competitor for the conference title.
The schedule is also fairly tough. The non-conference features trips to Auburn, LSU, and Navy and the trip to Baton Rouge comes right in the middle of conference play. In fact, the games surrounding it are a home game against Boise State and a road trip to Fresno State! The Bulldogs also have to play at Nevada and Utah State, giving them a tough conference road schedule. Despite the tougher slate, this Bulldog team should once more be a bowl-caliber group. However, the tougher non-conference schedule makes me believe that if they get to eight wins once again then Dooley could be one of the country’s hottest coaching commodities. Louisiana Tech will probably not make a run at the WAC title but they should once again be rewarded with a bowl trip.
Big Games: Sept. 30th vs. Hawai’i, Oct. 9th @ Nevada, Nov. 6th vs. Boise State, Nov. 21st @ Fresno State, Dec. 5th vs. San Jose State
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The Spartans were my pick to finish last in the entire conference last fall. Well, they proved me wrong by finishing with a 4-4 conference mark and a 6-6 record overall. In fact, only a 3 game losing streak to close the year prevented the Spartans from their 2 nd bowl appearance in three seasons. With fifteen starters back, they’ll be looking to improve upon last year’s strong showing.
On offense, the Spartans will try to improve a very poor unit which scored less than 19 points per game! Luckily, there are eight starters back and the offense should see some improvement with another year’s experience. At quarterback, Cal transfer Kyle Reed will look to improve upon his 1,500+ yards and 9 touchdowns from last season, his first as the starter. Reed’s receivers are an interesting bunch as no one was super productive in 2009 but five players return with double digit catches. I would expect to see some solid improvement from this group and Reed should definitely find some playmakers. At tailback, there is a hodgepodge group competing for the starting job, with the favorite being junior college transfer Lamon Muldrow, who ran for nearly 3,000 yards in two years before arriving in the spring. I expect the Spartans’ pathetic running attack from the last two years, during which they’ve averaged 85 rush yards per game, to be much improved this year. The return of the entire offensive line should also help. While this is the same cast of characters which blocked for such rushing ineptitude the last two years, there is a lot to be said for experience and the Spartans should find a solid group quickly. I cannot imagine San Jose State struggling so badly on the ground again this fall and I think that the Spartans’ offense will be the conference’s most improved. Then again, that isn’t saying much considering that they were among the country’s worst in 2008.
Defensively, it was a much brighter picture last year. The Spartans only allowed 21.5 points per game and were excellent against the pass. Head Coach Dick Tomey should once more field a solid group with six of the front seven back. The Ihenacho brothers (senior Carl at DE was a 2 nd team All-WAC choice while junior Duke was a 1 st team All-WAC choice) should once more be a force as they combined for 130 tackles, 7 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss last year. Senior linebackers Travis Jones and Justin Cole should join them as the heart of the unit and I expect a much improved run defense this fall as the Spartans might be the best team in the conference up front. The secondary is much more of a concern as they lose two All-WAC choices at cornerback, both of whom were NFL draft choices in April. The lone holdover is junior safety Devin Newsome, who did account for 59 tackles and 2 picks last year. However, it is tough to imagine the Spartans fielding such an excellent pass defense once more with the losses of two All-Conference NFL caliber corners. Despite the losses in the secondary, San Jose State still should be one of the conference’s better defenses.
The schedule is perhaps the biggest impediment to success for SJSU this year. The conference schedule is tough, with back to back road games at Fresno State and Boise State coming immediately before hosting Nevada, a stretch that will decide their season. Furthermore, they have to travel to Louisiana Tech to close out the year. In short, the Spartans have all but one of their toughest conference tests on the road. The non-conference schedule is also very tough as they must travel to Pac-10 foes USC and Stanford and host last year’s BCS darling Utah in the season’s first three weeks. While I like the Spartans to have a much improved offense and another solid defense, it seems very unlikely that they’ll manage to make a run at the conference title. Furthermore, they will need to exceed my expectations to even qualify for a bowl game as their non-conference schedule is particularly difficult. Despite the apparent improvement overall, if San Jose State matches last year’s 6-6 mark then I will have to call 2009 a successful year.
Big Games: Sept. 5th @ USC, Oct. 17th @ Fresno State, Oct. 31st @ Boist State, Nov. 8th vs. Nevada, Dec. 5th @ Louisiana Tech
It was no surprise that Hawai’i took a step back last year; After all, 2007 was only the best season in school history as the Warriors went 12-1 and earned a BCS bowl birth. After head coach June Jones departed for SMU and star quarterback Colt Brennan left for the NFL, the Warriors finished the regular season with a 7-6 record and finished off the year with a bowl game blowout loss for the 2 nd consecutive season. The picture isn’t going to be any prettier this year as Hawai’i only brings back nine starters and faces a very difficult schedule.
Last season, the Warriors scored nearly twenty less points per game than 2007! While their production was still a respectable 24.5 points per game, it was a long way away from the Colt Brennan days. Brennan’s replacement, senior Greg Alexander, had a solid year (1,985 yards, 14 TDs and only 5 picks) after taking over halfway through. During his seven starts, Hawai’i averaged 30.3 points per game, over a touchdown of improvement over their 1 st half pace. His receivers appear to be solid as juniors Malcolm Lane (613 yards, 6 TDs) and Greg Salas (831 yards, 3 TDs) will provide leadership in the Warriors’ four wide set. The offensive line struggled last fall, allowing 57 sacks (one short of the NCAA record!), but I expect that they’ll improve this year with three starters back, including 1 st team All-WAC center John Estes. Hawai’i doesn’t’ emphasize the run in their offense but their top five rushers from last year return so they should be productive enough for their scheme. I expect Hawai’i’s offense to be a much stronger group this fall, though I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a return to the high flying days of 2006 and 2007.
The defense, on the other hand, is one gigantic question mark as only two starters return. Even worse, there is very little experience as only two of their top thirteen tacklers are back! Those two are seniors John Fonoti, who had 62 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year, and Brashton Satele, whose 59 tackles was the lowest of the three starting linebackers a year ago. The defensive line had a lot to replace last year as well but Hawai’i managed to compensate thanks to the presence of Solomon Elimimian, the WAC’s all-time leading tackler. He is now departed as well. Look for Hawai’i to have trouble against the run. The secondary is an absolute blank slate, as they have to replace everyone. To give you an idea of how little we really know about the secondary, the leading returning tackler is junior safety Spencer Smith, who had 12 tackles last year. When a team has to replace virtually the entire defense, it is never a good sign and I can’t even possibly predict where this defense will go this fall. What I can predict is a lot of growing pains and that means that the Warriors are going to give up a lot of points and are the odds-on favorite to field the conference’s worst defense.
The schedule, usually Hawai’i’s friend thanks to the enormous home field advantage that the lengthy flight to the islands usually affords them, is also very difficult. Hawai’i has conference road trips to Nevada, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech, which is the longest in-conference road trip in the country. Furthermore, they have six road games! Why is this such a big deal? Well, the Warriors have had one season in the past eight years with less than seven wins, yet their record away from home is an underwhelming 19-20! While the Warriors usually clean up at home, this year they have to host Fresno State, Boise State, Navy and Wisconsin! I couldn’t think of a much tougher schedule for Hawai’i to play this year. On top of that, since the NCAA allows them to play 13 games to cover travel costs, the Warriors need seven wins to become bowl eligible. Frankly, that simply isn’t going to happen this year. While I really think Hawai’i’s offense is going to be much better this fall, they’re going to be on the wrong end of a lot of 38-35 games thanks to their completely new defense and the schedule is also far tougher than the past few seasons. I think Hawai’i will have serious trouble winning the usual minimal bowl requirement of six games, much less the seven that they actually need. Expect Hawai’i to miss a bowl for only the second time in nine years this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 30th @ Louisiana Tech, Oct. 10th vs. Fresno State, Oct. 24th vs. Boise State, Oct. 31st @ Nevada, Nov. 21st @ San Jose State
It there is a team which embodies the proverbial ‘bottom of the barrel’, it has to be the Idaho Vandals. They haven’t won more than five games in a season since the turn of the century, they’ve won a conference-low 23 games in the nine years since, they’re on their 4 th head coach during that time period, they play in the smallest stadium in the country, and their ‘rival’, Boise State, has owned them worse than Ohio State has owned Michigan in recent years. Their closest loss to Boise in the last five seasons was by sixteen points! Last year, their average game was a 43-20 loss! However, hope is not completely lost as the Vandals return 13 starters and will hope to improve upon last year’s putrid 2-10 record.
Offensively, junior quarterback Nate Enderle will be relied upon to take the next step forward in his 3 rd year as the starter. Enderle threw for 2,077 yards and 20 touchdowns last season against 17 interceptions and saw his completion percentage jump from 44% to 54%. However, he is not mobile and will need a decent line blocking for him. This is a concern as the offensive line only returns two starters, though senior guard Mike Iupati was a 2 nd team All-WAC selection last year. I think that the line, which allowed 36 sacks last fall, has nowhere to go but up and that means that Enderle’s production should improve as well. Furthermore, last season’s top two rushers are back, led by junior Deonte Jackson, who paced the team with 700 yards and 3 touchdowns. Idaho will need an improved running attack this fall and I think they’ll get it. The biggest concern for me is at the receiver position, where sophomore Preston Davis shows the most promise after reeling in 27 passes (3 touchdowns) last year as a true freshman. If he doesn’t step into a starring role this fall, it seems unlikely that anyone on the Vandals will. Still, I have to think with a 3 rd year starter at quarterback and an improved running game that Idaho’s offensive production should improve moderately from last year’s 19.6 points per game average.
The Idaho defense was one of the country’s worst last fall, allowing a shockingly bad 42.8 points per game. The primary culprit was an ineffective rush defense which allowed 210 yards per game, though a turnover margin of minus fourteen didn’t help either. I’m not sure what’s worse; the completely new group at Hawai’i or the returning front seven at Idaho who had their tails handed to them last fall. Either way, the Vandals’ D-Line will be led by a pair of juniors, John Sataraka and Aaron Lavarious, who each notched 21 tackles and zero sacks last fall. After last year, one would have to think that they can only get better. At linebacker, the Vandals will be hit hard by the loss of their 2 nd and 3 rd leading tacklers, both of whom walked away from the team during the offseason. It isn’t a stretch to say that the Vandals will field the conference’s worst linebackers. Now, if you’ve made it this far into the Idaho preview looking for a glimmer of hope, I have one for you: The Vandal secondary. Three starters return to a solid unit which should definitely be improved from last year. Senior Virdell Larkins is the team’s leading returning tackler and junior cornerback Isaac Butts led the team in interceptions last fall with three. While I expect teams to have their way with the Vandals up front, Idaho should hold their own against the pass. Overall, I expect Idaho’s defense to get better but this team is still going to allow thirty-something points per game at a minimum and that just isn’t going to help them win many games.
The schedule makers also did the Vandals no favors, handing them four road games in their first 6 contests. While they only face one BCS conference opponent, the Vandals have a stretch in the second half of the season where they face Nevada, Louisiana Tech, Fresno State and rival Boise State in consecutive weeks. In short, Idaho might be stronger on offense this year but their defense is still going to be pretty terrible. I only picked them to win two games because they have a few home games against some of the weaker conference opponents. The Vandals have next to no chance to make a bowl game and I don’t expect them to win more than three games this season.
Big Games: Sept. 5th @ New Mexico State, Oct. 17th vs. Hawai’i, Oct. 31st vs. Louisiana Tech, Nov. 14th @ Boise State, Nov. 28th vs. Utah State
Much like Idaho, Utah State has not seen much success the last decade. Their last bowl appearance was in 1997, they’ve only won eight road games in the last nine years and they haven’t come close to beating in state rivals Utah and BYU in a very long time. Last year’s 3-9 season was about par for the course under former head coach Brent Guy and new boss Gary Anderson, formerly the defensive coordinator at Utah, has a huge rebuilding job ahead.
Utah State actually fielded their best offense in seven years last fall, averaging 24 points per game. This was largely due to quarterback Diondre Borel, who rushed for 632 yards and 5 touchdowns on top of his 1,705 passing yards and 11 touchdowns. Borel’s mobility helped keep drives alive and he should continue to provide USU with dual threat capabilities. Last year’s leading rusher was junior Robert Turbin, who ran for 8 touchdowns and will look to improve his productive. Expect junior college transfer Michael Smith to be another strong contributor in the backfield with his exceptional speed. Utah State should see even more improvement in their running game as four starters are back on the offensive line, led by 2 nd team All-WAC center Brennan McFadden. If USU can find Borel some decent receivers, Utah State should be an improved offensive squad this year.
The defense struggled in 2008, allowing nearly 35 points per game. However, Anderson was the defensive coordinator for two BCS bowl teams at Utah and should give this unit a lift. Up front, the Aggies bring back three starters and I expect them to be much improved under Anderson’s tutelage. The linebackers should also be a solid unit, led by senior 4 th year starter Paul Igboeli, who earned 2 nd team All-WAC honors last season. The secondary brings back some experience as well, led by senior safety James Brindley, who was the team’s #3 tackler last fall and led the Aggies with 3 interceptions. I expect USU to field a solid defense in the coming years under Anderson but this unit won’t be any better than an average WAC defense.
The schedule will also make Anderson’s first year very difficult. Despite their putrid results this century, Utah State’s home record is a respectable 20-24. However, their four conference home games this season are against Boise State, Nevada, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, all of which will be very difficult. Furthermore, the non-conference schedule includes trips to in state rivals Utah and BYU and a sojourn to the Lone Star State to face Texas A&M. While I expect Utah State to be a better team this year, I will be surprised if they top last year’s three win total thanks to an unkind schedule maker.
Big Games: Sept. 3rd @ Utah, Oct. 2nd @ BYU, Oct. 10th @ New Mexico State, Oct. 24th vs. Louisiana Tech, Nov. 14th vs. San Jose State
The trifecta of recent ineptitude at the bottom of the WAC is completed with the inclusion of New Mexico State. The Aggies’ last winning season was in 2002 and since then they have posted a 19-53 record, including a 0-12 record in 2005! Their conference record is 9-35 since and new boss DeWayne Walker is the 3 rd head coach. To top it all off, the Aggies haven’t beaten rival New Mexico in six years! With only nine starters back, it will be another long season in the desert.
The Aggies’ rushing offense was one of the country’s worst last fall, averaging only 55 yards per game en route to a 22 point per game season. While their passing game was much stronger, they now face the prospect of replacing the school’s all time leading passer (3 year starter Chase Holbrook) with a group that has never attempted a pass at the college level! Don’t expect the new starter to get a lot of help from the receivers either: Only senior Marcus Anderson, who caught 50 passes for 617 yards and 9 touchdowns last fall, returns any experience. The Aggies are going to take a big step back through the air this season, though the return of three starters on the O-Line makes me believe that Walker will try to establish a much better running game. Still, the Aggies will likely be a very poor offensive team.
On defense, NMSU will switch from a 3-3-5 look to a more conventional 4-3 defense to fit Walker’s style. Unfortunately, the entire line will be comprised of younger players and last year’s backups and I think they’ll struggle. The good news is that the linebackers behind them are all seniors and all started last fall. Nick Paden and Jamar Cotton combined for 191 tackles last year and will be relied upon to support the young D-Line during the transition. The secondary is another big concern as junior cornerback Davon House is the only returning starter. The Aggies will need to find some contributors quickly for the pass defense to gel. Overall, the New Mexico State defense might actually be a little bit better than last year but they’re still one of the conference’s weakest units.
The schedule, which features 13 games thanks to a trip to Hawai’i, is fairly difficult. The Aggies have seven road games, including trips to rival New Mexico (where they have lost 13 out of 14 games), heavyweight Ohio State, San Diego State and conference foes Louisiana Tech, Boise State and San Jose State. In fact, the combination of inexperience, lack of talent and tough home games leads me to believe that the Aggies will be lucky to match last year’s three wins! New Mexico State might be one of the worst teams in college football this season.
Big Games: Sept. 5th vs. Idaho, Sept. 26 @ New Mexico, Oct. 10th vs. Utah State, Nov. 28th @ San Jose State
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Western Athletic Conference seems to be clearly divided between the haves and have-nots this fall. Boise State and Nevada are the clear cut top teams in the league and will be tough for any team to beat, while Fresno State and Louisiana Tech appear to be in line for bowl-worthy seasons. However, the conference’s other five teams have major questions and it seems highly unlikely that the WAC will field a 5 th bowl team.
Overall, the lack of depth at the bottom of the WAC is one of the leading reasons that many observers, myself included, believe that the WAC’s recent run of BCS busters came as much due to favorable scheduling as it did Boise State and Hawai’i’s successes. This season will be no different. The bottom of the conference is once more exceptionally weak and Boise State is more than ready to take advantage. The only team that has a chance at challenging the Broncos is Nevada but I will not go against my #1 rule when it comes to the WAC: Never pick a visiting WAC team to win in Boise. Where is the game this year? Boise. That makes it very unlikely that Nevada can knock off the Broncos and if they can’t do so then they won’t eclipse them for the conference title.
Thus, it seems that my path is laid quite clearly out before me. Boise State is my choice to win the 2009 Western Athletic Conference crown.
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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