The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 18, 2011

2011 Western Athletic Conference Preview

Filed under: College Football — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — piratings @ 11:46 am

2011 Western Athletic Conference Preview

 

The WAC as we know it has been victimized by the Mountain West Conference.  In a move akin to the American League East losing the New York Yankees, the MWC stole Boise State.  Next year, Nevada, Hawaii, and Fresno State will join the Broncos in the Mountain West, leaving this conference a mere shell of itself.  The future of this league is in serious jeopardy, and the addition of two new teams to FBS football in 2012 (Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, may not be enough to save this league.

 

Without Boise State, the WAC race will be more open this season.  Four teams have the talent to contend for the conference championship, while a fifth has the capability of finishing over .500.

 

Nevada finished in a three-way tie for first with Boise State and Hawaii, and the Wolf Pack finished #11 in the final poll.  Gone from the school’s best ever team are stellar quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the WAC’s leading rusher Vai Taua, receiver Virgil Green, 1st Team All-WAC tackle Jose Acuna and four of the top tacklers.

 

All is not gloomy in the biggest little town in America.  Coach Chris Ault will simply reload rather than rebuild, and with the absence of a blue turf in league play, Nevada will contend for a second consecutive WAC title.  

 

Tyler Lantrip is not the runner Kaepernick was, but he has a better arm.  Lantrip should pass for more yards this year than Kaepernick did last year (3,022).  He will get a Baptism under fire when the Wolf Pack play their first four games away from Reno.

 

Mike Ball is the new tailback in the Pistol Offense. Ball has speed and quickness to excel in this offense.  He averaged 6.8 yards per carry last year in limited action.  Lampford Mark will get his shares of touches and could challenge for a starting bid.

 

The top receiver in the WAC this year will be Rishard Matthews.  He may not lead in catches or yards, because those stats belong to Hawaii receivers, but Matthews is the best at his position.  The former Oregon recruit led Nevada with 56 receptions and averaged 15.7 yards per catch.  The unexpected loss of Brandon Wimberly, who was shot in the off-season, will force Matthews to face more double teams and combo defenses.

 

The offense will click because the blocking corps is the best in the league.  Junior Chris Barker is the best guard in the league, while center Jeff Meads is one of three really good snappers in the WAC.

 

Nevada averaged 41 points and 519 yards per game last year.  Those numbers will decline a little this year.  The Wolf Pack will not be able to move up and down the field at will, but in the new WAC, they can win the title with a 35 point and 450 yard performance.

 

Nevada’s defense was just as responsible for last year’s title run as the offense.  It surrendered just 21 points per game in a league where 28 points was average.  Seven starters return, including three with all-star accolades in 2010.

 

Up front, tackle Brett Roy is poised to contend for 1st Team All-WAC honors.  He introduced enemy QBs to the turf eight times last year.  The loss of 3rd round draft pick Dontay Moch will hurt.

 

Middle linebacker James-Michael Johnson should repeat as a 1st Team All-WAC defender.  He led the Pack with 88 tackles last year.  In the back line of defense, Isaiah Frey is one of the best cover corners in the league.  He batted away 14 passes and picked off another last year.

 

The non-conference schedule is tough this year.  Nevada opens at Oregon and plays at Texas Tech and at Boise State, all in the first four games.  The schedule gets easier from there with home games against rival UNLV and helpless New Mexico.  In WAC play, Nevada hosts the other three contenders, and this should help the Wolf Pack claim another conference championship.

 

Hawaii recovered from a subpar 2009 with a 10-win season last year.  Once again, it was an aerial circus on the island, as the Warriors averaged 394 yards through the air to lead the nation.  The Run ‘n’ Shoot offense took a major hit with the loss of eight starters, but we would be surprised if Hawaii did not average more than 300 passing yards again this season.

 

One of those trio of returnees is quarterback Bryant Moniz.  Moniz topped 5,000 passing yards last year and threw 39 touchdown passes.  He tends to hold onto the ball a little longer than an average run ‘n’ shoot passer, and he went down 40 times last year, seven against Boise State in the lone game that UH failed to score in double digits.

 

Moniz lost his top two receivers, and they combined for 207 receptions and almost 3,200 yards.  Royce Pollard will be the new 100+-reception receiver for the Warriors.  There are questions at the other receiver positions, as two players figured to be starters are ailing and missing practice.

 

As pass happy as Hawaii is, they still run the ball with authority.  Alex Green rushed for almost 1,200 yards last year, but he must be replaced.  Sterling Jackson will be the new starter, but he lacks the speed and quickness of Green.  He will be more of a between the tackles pounder.

 

The offensive line was above average but not great last year, and four starters have used up their eligibility, including the two best blockers.  It will take a few weeks for the newly rebuilt line to come together, so Moniz may be facing a lot more pressure than last year.

 

The Warriors never get much credit for their defensive play.  They gave up a respectable 25.5 yards per game last year, only 20 in league play.  Coach Greg McMackin believes in aggressive attacking defenses, and he has the players to cause a lot of disruption to enemy offenses.

 

The front seven is the best in the WAC by far, and Hawaii should lead the conference in sacks and in lowest rushing average allowed.  Up front, tackles Vaughn Meatoga and Kaniela Tuipulotu are the best tandem in the conference.  Few teams will find success running line plunges up the gut against Hawaii.

 

The Warriors make hay at the linebacker position with multi-tool players.  Corey Paredes is a WAC Player of the Year candidate.  He led the conference with 151 stops, and he picked off four enemy passes last year while knocking away five others.  Aaron Brown is another linebacker who is strong against both the run and pass.

 

The back line of defense is the vulnerable unit on this side of the ball.  The two starters lost combined for 12 interceptions and 27 total passes defended.  Safety Richard Torres will need to step up and break out with a big year.

 

As usual, Hawaii plays a 13-game schedule, which means they will play six non-conference games this year.  The Warriors should beat UNLV, UC-Davis, and Tulane.  The opener against Colorado is a toss-up, but we believe Hawaii will have several intangible factors in their favor in this one.  Games with Washington and BYU should be losses.  The Warriors will only need to go 3-4 in the league to get back to the Hawaii Bowl.  They could double that amount.

 

Louisiana Tech is not far away from being a serious title contender.  Second year head coach Sonny Dykes has not been able to fully implement his version of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.  He believes the Bulldogs are ready to start making the offense click.

 

If the offense is going to start putting up numbers similar to Texas Tech in the Leach years. New quarterback Colby Cameron is going to have to improve by a great amount.  Last year, in limited action, Cameron could not complete longer passes, unless you count the high percentage of passes completed to the wrong colored jersey.  He ended up with five picks in just 91 attempts.

 

The Bulldogs took a hit with the dismissal of projected starting receiver Ahmad Paige and Tim Molton.  The Bulldogs still have their two leading receivers from last year; Taulib Ikharo and Richie Casey combined for 92 receptions and 962 yards.

 

Lennon Creer is another pass catching threat coming out of the backfield.  He caught 25 passes last year, but his running acumen is what made him a 2nd Team All-WAC performer.  He gained 1,181 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.

 

The offensive line is not the best in the league, but it is not far from it.  The Bulldogs will be nearly lethal inside with excellent guards Kevin Saia and Oscar Johnson (Saia is nursing an injury) and center Stephen Warner.

 

Will this be the year LT breaks out with scary offensive numbers?  Probably not, but their numbers will head north.  Call it 270 passing yards and 425+ total yards with a scoring average of 30-32 points per game.

 

If the Bulldogs are to make an unexpected run for the conference title and earn a bowl bid for the first time in four seasons, their defense must improve.  Tech gave up 31 points and 460+ yards per game in 2010.

 

One area where there will be improvement is up front in the trenches.  The Bulldogs have an excellent pair of ends in Matt Broha and IK Enemkpali.  Broha has developed into a great pass rusher and led LT with nine sacks last year. 

 

Two starters return to the second line of defense.  Linebackers Jay Dudley and Adrien Cole combined for 174 tackles but only 6 ½ for minus yardage.  This number needs to go up, for it will not help improve the defense if too many of those tackles come at the end of five yard gains.

 

The secondary is loaded with depth, and this should be the unit that shows the greatest improvement in 2011.  Look for more interceptions and passes defended this season. 

 

Louisiana Tech hosts Hawaii, so the Bulldogs will play a 12-game schedule.  Four of their five non-conference games will be tough to win, so the Bulldogs will need five conference wins at the least to become bowl eligible.  They are capable of achieving that feat this year.  

 

Fresno State has been so good for so long, it is hard to believe the Bulldogs have never won the WAC.  You have to go back to the days of the old Big West Conference to find FSU’s last title, when the Bulldogs finished 11-1-0 and clobbered Ball State in the old California Bowl.

 

The WAC is down, so Fresno State will benefit, because this will not be Coach Pat Hill’s best Bulldog team.  Too many good players are missing from both sides of the ball.  One of those is quarterback Ryan Colburn, who completed better than 63% of his passes with a 23/9 TD/Int ratio last year.  The new QB has a familiar name on campus.  Derek Carr is the younger brother of former FSU great David.  Carr has five games of experience from 2009, but he missed all of last season.  Look for Carr to struggle early but begin to live up to his family name as the season progresses.

 

Running back Robbie Rouse returns after enjoying a big season in 2010.  He rushed for 1,129 yards and eight scores.  Former UCLA Bruin Milton Knox should see some action as well.

 

Jalen Saunders is the best FSU has at the receiver position, but he is not a threat to crack the 1st or 2nd team all-conference roster.  Saunders caught 30 passes and scored three times.

 

The offensive line is not a team strength.  It could actually be the weakest in the league.  Two starters return, and the three that departed were all-league players.  Expect a considerable retreat in sacks allowed and rushing yards per carry this year.

 

The defense gave up 30 points per game last year, but the Bulldogs allowed just 367 total yards per game.  Their 37 sacks topped the league charts, as Bulldog players finished one-two in the league.  One of those players returns this season.  Tackle Logan Harrell is back after recording 10 ½ sacks and 14 total tackles for loss.    Three new starters will line up in the trenches, so Harrell will see more double team blocks this year.

 

Travis Brown and Kyle Knox are back to wreak havoc from their linebacker positions.  The two teamed up for 153 tackles last year.

 

There are some concerns in the secondary, and if the pass rush is not as good as last year, it will be exploited.  Free safety Phillip Thomas is the star of this unit.  He intercepted three passes and knocked away nine others.

 

Fresno State has a 13-game schedule since they play at Hawaii.  It will be difficult to match last year’s eight wins, but the Bulldogs have a chance to compete in the weaker WAC.  We still see this team becoming bowl eligible.

 

San Jose State has fallen on hard times in the last two seasons, finishing 2-10 and 1-12.  Second year coach Mike MacIntyre has a lot of experience returning from a team that took its lumps early but became much more competitive in the second half of the season.  With 18 starters returning, we see the Spartans could win more games in 2011 than they won in 2009 and 2010 combined.

 

The big bugaboo is at the most important position on the team.  As of this writing in mid-August, MacIntyre has yet to choose a starter, or even a leader of the pack, from among three candidates.  Senior Matt Faulkner has limited experience, but that limited experience is the most on the squad.  Contending with Faulkner are sophomore Dasmen Stewart and redshirt freshman Blake Jurich.  Too bad former Michigan starter Tate Forcier will not be eligible until 2012.

 

SJSU has a nice stable of receivers, and if a quarterback can emerge and at least be decent, this unit could shine in 2011.  Noel Grigsby is a breakaway threat.  He can get open deep and has good hands.  The sophomore could emerge as a 1st Team All-WAC player.

 

The running game has been nonexistent for four years, as the Spartans have averaged 84, 87, 77, and 79 yards per game and less than three yards per carry.  Starter Brandon Rutley had one big run as a freshman when he broke free for a long touchdown against Boise State.  He has yet to show any flashes since then.  Actually, Rutley has been a better pass receiver than runner.  He did break off a long breakaway with a reception last year.  

 

The offensive line will be improved this season, but it will still be an overall liability.  Tackle Andres Vargas is the best of the quintet.

 

SJSU averaged just 16 points per game last year, but in four of their final five games, they averaged better than 30 points per game.  We see the Spartans scoring about 23-25 points per game this year.

 

The good news is that more than 11 (several saw more than 6 starts) defensive starters return in 2011; the bad news is that those starters were not all that good last year, as SJSU surrendered 464 yards per game (502 in league play) and nearly 35 points per game.

 

All joking aside, this defense will be much better this season.  In fact, the Spartans could easily shave 100 yards off what they allowed in WAC games.  It isn’t impossible that they could go from last to first in yards allowed!

 

Start in the secondary, where the four holdovers just might make up the best unit in the league.  The name “Peyton” is an important name in football, and SJSU has one of their own.  Peyton Thompson is the top cover corner in the league.  In 2010, he recorded 12 passes defended, and quarterbacks tended to throw away from him.  Safety Duke Ihenacho missed all of last year, but he should regain his starting job after earning 1st Team All-WAC honors in 2009.

 

The secondary will benefit from an improved pass rush this year.  End Travis Johnson led the Spartans with 7 ½ sacks as well as four QB hurries.  He leads a two-deep of experienced players in the trenches.

 

The second line of defense features the reigning WAC Freshman of the Year.  Keith Smith earned that award after leading the Spartans with 116 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.  

 

San Jose State starts off the season with three tough games, and the Spartans will begin in an 0-3 hole after facing Stanford, UCLA, and Nevada.  Road games with Colorado State and BYU will leave SJSU at no better than 1-5, so 2011 will not be the year the Spartans get back to the plus side of .500.  They can win three or four games though.

 

Utah State has endured losing season after losing season with false expectations of an end to that skein.  Last year looked like ‘the year” when the Aggies upset BYU to open the season 3-2.  A 1-6 finish doomed them to yet another sub-.500 year, as the offense failed to ignite.

 

Coach Gary Andersen will choose between Adam Kennedy and Chuckie Keeton as his starting quarterback.  Thus far, neither has emerged as a primetime player.  The Aggies had poor play at this position last year, so it will not take much to surpass the production of 2010.

 

The rest of the skilled positions are in good shape.  Former all-conference running back Robert Turbin missed last season with an ACL injury, but he appears to be ready to pound his way through defenses.  He rushed for almost 1,300 yards two years ago.

 

Seven of the top eight pass catchers are back for more this year, but it’s the return of two 2009 starters that missed last season that will make this unit much better this season.  Stanley Morrison could top 1,000 receiving yards.

 

The offensive line returns four starters and will be the best this unit has been under Andersen.  Center Tyler Larsen and guards Fuanki Asisi and Philip Gapelu will contend for some all-conference recognition.  Larsen made the 2nd Team Freshman All-American Team last year.

 

Utah State should improve its offensive number back to where they were prior to all the 2010 injuries.  We believe the Aggies could top 27 points and 380 yards per game.

 

Unfortunately, the outlook on the other side of the ball is a bit gloomy.  USU is a little suspect in the front line and only average in the secondary.  One area that will be a team strength is the linebacker position.  Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher are studs.  Wagner is on NFL scouts’ radar.  He led USU with 135 tackles including eight for losses.

 

The secondary took a major graduation hit, but it returns its top player in safety Walter McClenton.  McClenton made 62 tackles, but Andersen would like to see him make less this year; too many of those tackles came about because opposing teams had already defeated the other 10 defenders on the field.

 

Up front, The Aggies were abysmal in 2010.  They recorded just 13 sacks and allowed opposing backs to gain five yards per carry.  Ends Quinn Garner and Levi Koshan are the lone holdovers from the two-deep, and Andersen is switching to a 3-4 defense to try to disguise this weakness.

 

USU surrendered 34 points and 430 yards per game last year.  We do not see much improvement if any this year.  To make matters worse, the Aggies lose both their punter and place kicker from last year.

 

The schedule includes non-league tilts against defending champ Auburn, BYU, and Wyoming.  Unfortunately, the easiest conference opponents, Idaho and New Mexico State, must be faced on the road.  It looks like another long year in Logan.

 

Idaho took a step back last year after earning and winning the most exciting bowl game of 2009.  The Vandals could be looking at a major rebuilding project on the attack side of the ball with the departure of quarterback Nathan Enderle and three of the top four receivers.  However, there is cautious optimism that the newcomers are as talented as those they will replace.

 

The new signal caller is senior Brian Reader.  Reader looked sharp in limited action last year and appears to be primed to equal Enderle’s production.

 

Reader’s passing targets are not the most talented players in the league, but there are a lot of options.  Preston Davis figures to be much improved now that he is fully recovered from an ACL injury in 2010.  Walk-on junior college transfer Mike Scott could emerge as a key contributor.

 

The running game did not show much in 2010, and it will be a liability again this year.  Four backs should split time at this spot, led by former Arizona State Sun Devil Ryan Bass and Kama Bailey.

 

The offensive line is strongest at the terminals, where Matt Cleveland and Tyrone Novikoff are big and strong.  Cleveland should contend for 1st Team All-WAC honors.

 

Idaho averaged 27 points last year, and we expect the Vandals to replicate that number this season. 

 

Even though the Vandals fell from 8-5 to 6-7 last year, the defense showed great improvement, shaving almost eight points off their average allowed.  Some of that had to do with an improved turnover margin.  The news is not all that good on this side of the ball.  UI was going to be strong at linebacker, but their top player, Robert Siavii suffered a season-ending knee injury in Spring practice.

 

The Vandals will rally around middle linebacker TreShawn Robinson, who recorded 10 total tackles for loss last year.  Homer Mauga returns to start at the other linebacker spot.

 

Up front, Idaho had a strong pass rush last year, but the chief instigator of mayhem is gone.  Aaron Lavarias departs after leading the team with 10 sacks.  Tackle Michael Cosgrove is the best of the holdovers.

 

The secondary returns three 2010 starters, but none of the trio figures to make 1st Team All-WAC accolades this year.  If the pass rush is weaker, this group will be exposed and give up more than 250 passing yards per game.

 

Idaho has a fair schedule.  Non-league games with Texas A&M, Virginia, and BYU figure to be automatic losses.  North Dakota figures to be an easy victory.  The season opener with Bowling Green is a rematch of that great 2009 Humanitarian Bowl, and we consider this game a must-win affair for the Vandals.  If they win, and Reader proves to be as capable as Enderler, this team could make this prediction look silly.  If they lose, then Coach Robb Akey could become achy over his future.

 

New Mexico State has been one of the five weakest teams in FBS football in recent years, but luckily for them, the worst team has been in-state rival New Mexico.  Third year coach DeWayne Walker must show some form of improvement this year, or he could be headed away from the Land of Enchantment.

 

The offense scored 14 or fewer points five times last year and averaged less than 16 for the season.  Former Kent State coach Doug Martin takes over as the new offensive Coordinator.  Martin hopes quarterback Andrew Manley can solve the problem at quarterback.  Manley completed just 52% of his passes with a 1/6 TD/Int ratio last year as a true freshman.  Former starter Matt Christian completed just 48% of his passes but had a much better 8/2 TD/Int ratio.  There is only one way to go for this position.

 

The big problem with the passing game is the receiving corps.  Not only are the top two pass catchers from last year missing, those that are returning do not offer much in the area of quickness or mobility.  Taveon Rogers is the closest thing to a star, and he only caught 18 balls last year.  Juco Transfer Kemonte Bateman could emerge as the leader here.

 

Robert Clay figures to start at running back with 2010 leading rusher Kenny Turner at H-back.  The tandem rushed for just 687 yards and two touchdowns.

 

The one bright spot on the offense is an experienced and improving offensive line.  Sioeli Fakalata can play center or guard, and he is the best man in the front line.

 

The Aggies should see improved numbers all around this season.  Look for about 21 points and 325 yards.  However, that will not be enough to move them out of the WAC basement.

 

The defense figures to take another step backwards after giving up 40 points and 450+ yards per game last year.  It doesn’t help when two of your top players are declared academically ineligible.  Those two, tackle Augafa Vaaulu and end Donte Savage figured to be the stars of the front four.  Now, the Aggies are hurting in the trenches.

 

The linebackers are more of a liability than an asset, even though two starters return from last season.  B. J. Adolpho was a 3rd Team All-WAC player last year, but he cannot make plays for the other six players in the front seven.

 

Any hope for defensive improvement must come from the secondary.  We fear that with little or no pass rush, the back four will eventually break down and give up too many big plays.  The Aggies may have the best tandem at cornerback with Donyae Coleman and Jonte Green.  Last year, the pair teamed for 166 tackles, many times being the last hope to prevent breakaway plays.

 

Things do not look hopeful for Walker and his Aggies.  At least they have a game with New Mexico, but that is not a given win.  Even though NMSU’s offense is much improved, they will not be able to outscore the other teams in the WAC.  It will be another long year in Las Cruces.

 

2011 WAC Preseason Media Poll

Team

1st Place Votes

Points

Hawaii

18

292

Fresno State

11

284

Nevada

11

264

Lousiana Tech

 

184

Utah State

 

166

Idaho

 

141

San Jose State

 

85

New Mexico State

 

60

 

 

2011 WAC PiRate Ratings

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

Nevada

101.4

7-1/8-4

Hawaii

98.4

5-3/8-5

Louisiana Tech

93.5

5-3/5-7

Fresno State

93.0

6-2/7-6

San Jose State

91.1

2-6/2-10

Utah State

90.2

2-6/3-9

Idaho

88.2

4-4/5-7

New Mexico State

78.8

1-7/1-11

 

Next: A look at the four independents, Friday, August 19

 

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