The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 31, 2009

2009 Mountain West Conference Preview

2009 Mountain West Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

In the last in our series of non-BCS conference previews, we take a look at the Mountain West Conference, the most successful of the non-BCS leagues.  Last year, Utah ran the table for the second time in five seasons and won a BCS Bowl in convincing fashion.  We believe the league has the best shot at placing yet another team in a BCS Bowl in January, 2010.  However, it won’t be Utah.

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, When Utah hosts BYU or vice versa in the “Holy War,” there really isn’t much home field advantage for either team.  However, if Utah hosted Boston College on a Thursday night after BC played at Miami just five days earlier, then Utah might receive a touchdown in home field advantage.  The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.

   

Mountain West Conference Preseason Ratings

     

 

Prediction *

    Team

PiRate

MWC

Overall

    T C U

111

   8-0

11-1

    Utah

108

   5-3

8-4

    Brigham Young

104

   6-2

9-3

    Air Force

99

   5-3

8-4

    Colorado State

92

   3-5

5-7

    San Diego State

91

   2-6

5-7

    U N L V

91

   6-2

8-4

    New Mexico

88

   0-8

1-11

    Wyoming

88

   1-7

2-10

     

 

 

 

   

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

   

on expected changes to rating during the year

 

T C U: The Horned Frogs have flirted with a BCS at-large bid in recent years, falling one game short last year and falling one game short of possibly playing in the Fiesta Bowl for a chance at a number three finish in 2005.  This year, TCU has possibly the best chance of any non-BCS team of running the table and crashing the BCS party.  Out of the league, they will have to win at Virginia and Clemson just two weeks apart with a breather against Texas State in between.  We think they will win just one of those two games, and Coach Gary Patterson’s team could finish 11-1 and sit on the bubble.

The vaunted Horned Frog defense led the nation last year allowing just 11.3 points and 218 total yards per game.  Even the national title game participant Oklahoma couldn’t run the ball against their front line.  That defense took a major graduation hit with seven players departing.  One of those four holdovers is All-American end Jerry Hughes.  The future NFL star dropped enemy QBs an NCAA-best 15 times and was credited with 4 ½ other tackles for loss; he intercepted a couple of passes to boot.  The three new starters on the line will benefit from all the double teams on Hughes. 

The news is worse in the second line of defense, where both starting linebackers and the top reserve have picked up their sheepskins.  Jason Phillips, Stephen Hodge, and Robert Henson were also the team’s top three tacklers.

The five-man secondary returns three starters, including two excellent cornerbacks (Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders) who batted away 22 enemy passes and picked off three more.

We know the defensive statistics will be off compared to last year, but fret not Frog fans.  TCU will give up less than 20 points per game for the fifth year in a row, and they will allow only 280-320 total yards per game.  Now, for even better news: the offense is going to be just as good if not better than last year, and it was a record-setting unit in Ft. Worth.  TCU averaged better than 200 yards both rushing and passing while scoring almost 34 points per game.

Quarterback Andy Dalton should top 2,500 passing yards with 15-20 touchdowns this year.  Considering that TCU usually tries to run the ball into the end zone when they get into the red zone, that number is impressive.   

Dalton’s top receiver is Jimmy Young.  Young narrowly missed 1,000 receiving yards last year, and if he stays healthy this year, he should top that mark.

The running game returns three of the four backs who rushed for 380 or more yards return this year, led by Joseph Turner, who is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards. 

The offensive line has some rebuilding to do, but both tackles return this year.  Marcus Cannon and Marshall Newhouse will compete for All-MWC honors.

Will 11-1 earn TCU an at-large BCS bowl?  It’s 50-50.

Utah:  The Utes ran over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl like a herd of elephants on the rampage.  Don’t expect a return trip to a BCS bowl this year, because too many key players have run out of eligibility.

The offense lost six starters, including MWC Offensive Player of the Year Brian Johnson.  The former QB passed for 2,972 yards and 27 touchdowns with just nine picks.  True Freshman Jordan Wynn has apparently won the starting job this year, so expect the team’s passing numbers to drop from 244 to possibly less than 200 yards per game.

Making things more difficult for Wynn is the fact that the top three receivers from last year have moved on.  David Reed is the leading yardage returnee, and he only caught 25 passes for 427 yards.  He is a deep ball threat.

The running game will carry a much bigger share of the offense this year.  Three very good offensive linemen return, including tackle Zane Beadles, and leading rusher Matt Asiata is back after rushing for 707 yards and 12 scores.  Look for him to get more touches this year and possibly top 1,000 yards.

The defense should be about as strong this year as they were last year, when the Utes surrendered 17.2 points and 289 total yards per game.  Seven starters return including the top four tacklers.  The linebacker trio of Nai Fotu, Mike Wright, and Stevenson Sylvester has no equal in the MWC.

Up front, Koa Misi is a multi-talented end.  He can get to the enemy QB or running back in the backfield, and he can play pass defense like a good linebacker.

The strength of the secondary will be the safeties.  Free safety Robert Johnson is the type of player coaches want as the last line of defense.

The schedule includes out of conference games against Utah State and Louisville at home and Oregon and San Jose State on the road.  The TCU and BYU games are both on the road, and a road game against UNLV could be tough as well.  There are too many chances for losses this year, so we think Utah could lose three times.

Brigham Young: A team noted for super offenses may succeed due to defense this year.  The Cougars suffered heavily to graduation on the attack side.  One of the four returning starters is quarterback Max Hall.  Hall just missed passing for 4,000 yards and hit pay dirt 35 times.

One player Hall will miss is Austin Collie, who caught 106 passes for 1,538 yards and 15 touchdowns.  BYU always has able replacements waiting to assume starting duties, but Collie’s contribution will not be equaled.  Dennis Pitta returns after grabbing 83 passes for 1,083 yards; he’s the top pass-catching tight end in college football.

It’s not well known, but BYU has had some running success the last few years.  Harvey Unga topped 1,100 yards rushing last year, making it three 1,000 yard rushers in four years.  Unga may have a hard time matching those numbers this year, as four starters need to be replaced on the offensive line.

The defensive line could have been dominating, but tackle Russell Tialavea decided earlier this summer to go on a mission for the church.  End Jan Jorgensen should continue to dominate after contributing 8 ½ tackles behind the line.

BYU is set at linebacker, where the starters all return after combining for 223 tackles and 11 sacks.  Behind that unit, the secondary returns two starters. 

One intangible to factor in early in the season is a rash of minor injuries to key players.  While none of the starters should miss much game time if any, they are missing practices.

The schedule does not allow Cougar fans to think BCS Bowl this year.  BYU opens with Oklahoma at the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.  Maybe punter Tyler Holt can hit the jumbotron.  A home game with Florida State could give the Cougars a chance to score an upset.  In MWC play, BYU hosts both Utah and TCU, as well as Air Force.  The one tough road game is at UNLV.  If the Cougars can shore up their offensive line and come up with a couple of good receivers to compliment Pitta, they could pull off the conference championship.

Air Force:  The service academies usually have high football graduation losses every year, so when Air Force returns six starters to both sides of the ball, it has to be considered a glut of experience.

Quarterback Tim Jefferson earned Freshman of the Year honors in the league last year even though he didn’t post gaudy statistical numbers.  When he passed the ball, he completed 55% of his passes and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt.

Six backs saw significant action last year, and five return.  There may not be a star among the group, but they know how to make the option go.  The Falcons averaged 4.5 yards per rush in 2008, and that average should head north of five this year.

The offensive line returns three starters, and the blocking schemes in this offense make it easier than average for new starters to become competent.

The Falcon defense is strongest on the back line.  The secondary returns three starters who combined for 216 tackles, five interceptions, and 13 passes broken up.

The one weak spot is the defensive line, where two of the three starters this year are new to the lineup.  Nose tackle Ben Garland could make the All-MWC team.

The linebackers all have prior experience, led by Ken Lamendola, who topped AFA in tackles last year with 118.

The schedule includes the usual other two service academies plus Nicholls State and Minnesota out of conference.  While the Falcons won’t win the conference title, they should take home the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.  Expect to see the Falcons playing in a bowl for the third consecutive season.

Colorado State:  The Rams were a small surprise in Steve Fairchild’s first year as coach in Ft. Collins.  CSU broke even in the regular season and won the New Mexico Bowl game over Fresno State.  They will be lucky to repeat that feat this season.

Only five starters return on defense, and only two of them play in the front seven.  CSU surrendered 30.2 points and 410 total yards per game in 2008, and those numbers will get worse this year.  Look for a jump to 35-40 points allowed and 430-450 total yards allowed per game.

The secondary has some experienced talent returning, but they will be forced to cover receivers longer per play.  The pass rush should be much weaker. 

Mychal Sisson is the one bright spot on the stop side.  The weakside linebacker led the Rams with 105 tackles including eight behind the line.

The offense should still have some firepower even though a new quarterback and running back must be found.  As of this writing, Fairchild hasn’t officially named a starter, but we believe that choice will be Grant Stucker. 

The new starter behind Stucker is John Mosure.  He won’t remind Ram fans of Gartrell Johnson, who rushed for 1,476 yards and 12 scores last year.

The top two receivers from last year return to start at wipeout.  Dion Morton and Rashuan Greer teamed for 114 receptions and 1,973 yards last year.

The offensive line welcomes back four of the five starters from a year ago, so we expect the Rams to improve in the running game and remain strong in the passing game—if Stucker can take over the controls without short-circuiting.

The Rams open up with Colorado yet again, but this game will be played in Boulder instead of Denver.  After hosting Weber State, they host Nevada and venture to BYU.  TCU and UNLV must be played on the road, while Utah and Air Force come to Hughes Stadium.  It looks like the Rams will come up a bit short this year and win no more than five times.

San Diego State: Brady Hoke worked wonders at Ball State, and he begins his tenure on the West Coast in a great situation.  The Aztecs are going to improve immediately in his first year, and if the ball bounces right, SDSU could even challenge for bowl eligibility.

Seven starters return to both sides of the ball, and most of the key special teams players are back as well.  Quarterback Ryan Lindley didn’t play like a freshman last year, and now as a sophomore he could top 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air.

When Lindley passes, he will have one of the league’s best set of receivers running under the ball.  There are numerous capable hands on the roster, but none of them have breakaway potential. 

The running game has much room for improvement after averaging just 73 yards per game last year.  Atiyyah Henderson led SDSU with 490 yards on the ground.  He’ll run behind an offensive line about as talented this year as last.

For the record to move toward .500, the Aztecs must improve their defense against both the run and pass.  They gave up 461 yards and 37.2 points per game in 2008.  They must come up with a way of stopping the run, and it all begins up front, where three starters return from last year.  In the second line of defense, Luke Laolagi and Andrew Preston are the leading returning tacklers.

The secondary has been weak for two consecutive seasons, and it will be the weak point again this year.  Cornerback Aaron Moore broke up six passes a year ago.

Hoke’s best recruiting efforts were in the choosing of his staff.  Former New Mexico coach Rocky Long is the new defensive coordinator with former Ball State DC Mark Smith coming along as linebacker coach.  The Aztecs will come with many different types of blitzes this year and come up with some big plays.  Al Borges, the former offensive coordinator at Auburn, back when the Tigers had an exceptional offense, takes over in the same position here.  Former Cleveland Browns QB Brian Sipe will coach the QBs here.

The out-of-conference schedule could give SDSU three wins.  A probable loss at UCLA in the opener is the one tough game before conference play.  With New Mexico, Wyoming, New Mexico State, and Southern Utah coming to Qualcomm Stadium, and with a road game scheduled against Idaho, the Aztecs can win five games in year one of the Hoke era.

U N L V: The Rebels came within one game of becoming bowl eligible in 2008, and this should be the year they break through and earn a bowl bid. 

Junior quarterback Omar Clayton missed three games last year but still managed to pass for 1,894 yards and 18 scores versus just four interceptions.  With a strong supporting cast, Clayton should pass for 2,800 to 3,000 yards.

Wipeout Ryan Wolfe is the league’s leading returning receiver after catching 88 passes for 1,040 yards and six touchdowns.  Joining him are two promising receivers who can turn short passes into long gains.  Phillip Payne and Jerriman Robinson both averaged more than 15 yards per reception in 2008 and could combine for 100 receptions in 2009.

The only fly in the ointment for this offense is a solid running attack.  C. J. Cox is the leading returning rusher, and he had just 191 yards rushing last year.

The offensive line has three returning starters, including probable all-MWC tackle Matt Murphy. 

The defense returns seven starters, plus a former starter from 2007, to a unit that gave up 33 points and 423 yards per game.  Three players with starting experience return at linebacker, and three more start in the front line.    Linebackers Jason Beauchamp and Ronnie Paulo are the stars of this team.  Look for the duo to combine for 200-230 tackles.

While the secondary loses three starters, Coach Mike Sanford went the JUCO route to find adequate replacements.

The schedule gives the Rebels multiple chances to pull off an upset or two along the way.  After opening at home with Sacramento State, Oregon State and Hawaii visit Vegas.  Consecutive road games against Wyoming and Nevada precede consecutive home games with BYU and Utah.  TCU and Air Force are road games as well. 

New Mexico:  After guiding New Mexico to five bowl games in six years (a 6-5 record in the year they failed to earn a bid), former Coach Rocky Long was dismissed after posting one losing record.  Enter Mike Locksley, former offensive coordinator at Illinois.  Locksley may find the going rough for a few seasons, as he is making sweeping changes to the offense and defense.  The players to run those systems are not there.

On offense, the Lobos transform from a run the ball up the gut to set up the play-action pass to a no-huddle, spread passing attack.  Quarterback Donovan Porterie was not having a great year early in 2008, but it became much worse when he was lost for the season.  It allowed three other signal callers to see action, and they all return this year.  However, we don’t expect to see spectacular passing statistics.  In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more interceptions than touchdown passes from this group, a lower than expected completion percentage, and a relatively low yardage per pass attempt (maybe as lower than last year’s 5.4).

The running game will suffer immensely with this new offense.  Losing 1,110 yard rusher Rodney Ferguson will make matters worse.  The UNM running game could drop from 208 yards per game to as low as 85-100.

There’s ample experience at the receiver positions, but the talent is not up to the standards set by the upper division teams.  There will be more receptions, for sure, but there will also be considerably more incomplete passes and interceptions.

The defense is switching from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 this year, and it doesn’t help that there isn’t any experience or much depth in the defensive line.  No starters return, and since the passing game will create more total plays, this green unit will be exploited all year.  We could see opponents rushing for 160-180 yards per game with an average per rush well over four.  Also, the pass rush will not produce as many sacks or hurries.

Only one starting linebacker returns, but he’s the best defensive player on the team.  Clint McPeek led the Lobos with 103 tackles.  He’s not just a run-stuffer; he’s probably the best pass defender on the team as well.

The secondary returns a couple of able safeties, but both cornerbacks must be replaced.  The Lobos gave up 214 passing yards per game, and that number was actually impressive because it came against the likes of Arizona, Tulsa, and New Mexico State out of conference, as well as the usual pass-happy conference opponents.  This year, New Mexico adds Texas Tech to the schedule, so the Lobos could give up 250-275 passing yards per game.

We just don’t see many opportunities for this team to win this year.  The home game against rival New Mexico State may be their best and only shot.  The other games where they have a chance are on the road. 

Wyoming: Joe Glenn was never able to turn the corner in Laramie, and he’s now history.  His replacement is Dave Christensen, the former offensive coordinator at Missouri.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to bring Chase Daniel, Derrick Washington, and Jeremy Maclin along to suit up.  He does have a lot of returning talent from a team that wasn’t all that bad at times.

The spread offense will sputter somewhat in year one.  Junior college transfer Robert Benjamin will begin the season as the starter, taking over for former starter Karsten Sween.  Benjamin fits the mold to run Christensen’s offense, and if he can hold onto the job, he should rush for 600-750 yards and pass for 2,500-2,750 yards with a nice TD/INT ratio.

Wyoming lost 1,300 yard blazing rusher Devin Moore and bruising Wynel Seldon (637 yards rushing).  Benjamin is likely to be the leading rusher, and we expect the average yards per game to drop from 178 to 120-130.

Benjamin will have some quality receivers to pass the ball.  Tight end Jesse Salyards gives him a big target over the middle and on delayed release routes.  Defenses will have to respect him, and that will allow wipeouts Greg Bolling and Brandon Stewart to get open more.  Stewart can burn a secondary for a quick six, and he should score a lot more than once (his ’08 stat).

The offensive line welcomes back three starters plus a fourth player with starting experience.  They should provide a formidable pass protection for Benjamin.

Eight starters return to a defense that yielded just 330 yards per game in 2008.  All three defensive line starters from 2008 return, and the three Cowboys aren’t that far behind the lines of TCU and BYU.

Half of the four-man linebacking crew returns this year, led by inside ‘backer Gabe Knapton. 

The secondary returns three starters, and all three are capable of landing on the all-MWC team.  Chris Prosinski and the brothers Gipson (Tashaun and Marcell) teamed to knock down 29 passes last year.

Wyoming opens the season at home with preseason #9-ranked in the BCS Weber State.  The Cowboys should begin the Coach Christensen era on a winning note before facing Texas at home the following week.  A visit down US 287  to Boulder to take on Colorado should be the tell-tale sign of how improved this team will be.  If they can be competitive and pull off the upset in this backyard brawl, the Cowboys could flirt with a winning record and be the big surprise of the West this year.  We think the chances are slim, and CU will win that game handily, so Wyoming will take their lumps this year and compete with New Mexico, Colorado State, and San Diego State for sixth in the league.

Next up: A look at the first of the BCS conferences, The Big East.  It should be an interesting race and a possible death watch for a coach.

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