The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 22, 2011

2011 Mountain West Conference Preview

2011 Mountain West Conference Preview

If only…  If only Brigham Young and Utah had chosen to stay in this conference, and TCU would not have announced their departure after 2011-12, this conference would have leap-frogged over at least one and maybe two automatic qualifying BCS leagues.

 

Imagine a league with Boise State, TCU, BYU, Utah, and Air Force as its top tier and with San Diego State and Colorado State frequently displaying enough talent to beat teams from the “Big Six” conferences.  This league would have had the potential to state its case for inclusion in the AQ conferences.  With the Big 12 on the precipice of breaking up, who knows?  Maybe the MWC could have taken in the leftovers from that league and assumed an automatic qualifying position.

 

2011 should still be an interesting season in this conference.  TCU must still play one more year here, and then the top three teams from the WAC (Nevada, Hawaii, and Fresno State) will join Boise State in this league.

 

Boise State

The Broncos dominated the WAC like no other team has dominated a conference since Alabama dominated the SEC in the 1970’s.  BSU posted a WAC record of 69-3 in their last nine seasons in their old league (Alabama went 64-4 in the SEC from 1971-1980; Oklahoma went 64-6 in the Big 8 in that same time frame).

 

Will Coach Chris Petersen’s Broncos dominate the MWC like they did the WAC?  It looks like they will in 2011.  Boise returns just enough talent to make another run toward an undefeated season.

 

Kellen Moore is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.  The quarterback is already the leading passer in school history.  Last year, he completed better than 71% of his passes at better than 10 yards per attempt.  His TD/Int ratio was 35/6, and there is no reason to believe he cannot duplicate or improve upon those numbers this year.  He is a bit small for the NFL’s likes, but he should still be a second day draft choice next year.  Backup Joe Southwick is more than capable of running the team should Moore go down with an injury.

 

Moore loses his top two targets from a year ago.  Titus Young and Austin Pettis were gems, as they both grabbed 71 passes and teamed for 19 touchdowns.  Both were high draft picks, so there will be a drop-off in talent at this position.  However, Boise might still have the best receiver in the league.  Tyler Shoemaker proved to be a breakaway threat when he averaged better than 18 yards per reception last year.  Tight end Kyle Efaw should see more balls thrown his way this year after grabbing 24 passes and scoring five times in 2010.

 

Another pass-catching threat is running back Doug Martin.  Martin had 28 receptions last year to go with 1,260 yards rushing and 14 total touchdowns.  He’s always a threat to break open any run or reception.

 

The offensive line returns three starters; foremost among them is tackle Nate Potter.  The former two-time 1st Team All-WAC should become a 1st Team All-MWC and contend for All-American honors as well.  Center Thomas Byrd is likely to join Potter on the all-conference squad.

 

Maybe the biggest loss on this side of the ball is offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.  Harsin is now the OC at Texas.  Former Houston Oiler quarterback Brent Pease is the new OC after serving as the receivers’ coach here for multiple seasons.

 

We look for Boise State to continue dominating with an explosive offense this year, but we seriously doubt the Broncos will match their 2010 numbers of 45 points and 520 yards per game.  Call it about 38 points and 450 yards per game, as Moore will have to rely a little more on the short passing game.

 

The Bronco defense played one poor half all season.  Unfortunately, it came against Nevada, and it ended the 24-game winning streak.  They allowed just 11 points and 232 yards per game in the other 12 contests.  Expect more of the same in 2011, as the Broncos are strong from front to back.  Their defensive line could be one of the top five in the country.

 

BSU forced 49 sacks last season, and it should be another stellar year for rushing the passer.  Three starters return to the front four, and the new starter saw considerable action last year.  We would not be surprised if all four players earned some form of post-season honors.  Tackle Billy Winn will be a high draft choice next spring.  He comes off a 2010 season that saw him make four sacks and 9 ½ total tackles for loss, while driving blockers away from the linebackers.  End Shea McClellin led the team with 9 ½ sacks and tied for the lead with 13 ½ total tackles for loss.  New starting end Tyrone Crawford finished second on the team last year with seven sacks and tied McClellin with 13 ½ total tackles for loss.  Chase Baker added 4 ½ sacks from his tackle spot.

 

The linebacker position is not quite as strong as the front four, but it is still a big plus.  Both starters from 2010 are back.  Byron Hout and Aaron Tevis combined for 80 tackles a year ago.

 

The five-man secondary returns just two starters, but the new starters will receive a lot of help from having the best pass rushers in the league up front.  The Broncos did not intercept many passes in 2010, but they made up for it with excellent coverage.

 

Another key loss to the team this year is punter/kicker Kyle Brotzman.  Brotzman may be remembered for missing the critical field goals against Nevada, but he was one of the best combo kickers in the nation.

 

The new schedule finds a couple of possible bumps in the road, but we tend to believe Boise is capable of running the table and challenging for a spot in the National Championship Game.  Once again, Boise must travel 2,000+ miles to the east for their opening season game.  This time, the Broncos face Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.  If they get by the Bulldogs, then they should be 8-0 when TCU comes to Bronco Stadium.  TCU will not be as strong this year as they have been in recent seasons, and we see Boise winning that one.  So, an opening win over Georgia would more than likely send Boise to a 12-0 season with hopes that there are not two undefeated teams from the AQ conferences.

 

T C U

13-0 and a 3rd place national finish following a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin is a hard act to follow.  The Horned Frogs enjoyed their best season since the 1938 squad won the national title and tiny quarterback Davey O’Brien won the Heisman Trophy.

 

2011 looks like a rebuilding year, but Coach Gary Patterson should be able to coax another winning season and bowl bid out of his troops.

 

The bigger rebuilding job must take place on the offensive side of the ball.  Quarterback Andy Dalton may wish he was still in college rather than be the starting quarterback for the most mismanaged team in the NFL.  Dalton left as the all-time leading passer in TCU history.  This position will take a major hit, because the expected starter, Casey Pachall, has an injured shoulder.  An MRI turned up negative, but a sore shoulder does not lead to a great passer.  If Pachall is not 100% ready to start the season, TCU will be in a heap of trouble.  Behind him are two untested backups.  Matt Brown and Trevone Boykin both have the potential to be excellent dual threat quarterbacks, but both are freshmen; Boykin is a true freshman.

 

Three of the top four receivers from last year have also used up their eligibility.  That leaves Josh Boyce as the only holdover from among that quartet.  Boyce caught 34 passes and averaged an eye-popping 19 yards per reception with six touchdowns.  Antoine Hicks saw limited action and caught 13 passes, but he has the potential to be a big-play receiver.

 

The backfield is the strong spot on this team, and we look for the running game to be featured more often this season.  Last year, the Horned Frogs ran the ball 64% of the time, and that number could approach 70% this year.  Ed Wesley ran for 1,078 yards and 11 touchdowns, while chief backup Matthew Tucker contributed over 700 yards and seven scores.  3rd teamer Waymon James saw enough action to rush for more than 500 yards and five scores.  All three return, as well as fourth teamer Aundre Dean, who led the team in yards per carry at 7.0.

 

The biggest problem area is the offensive line.  Only one starter returns.  Among those missing is 1st Team All-American and Rimington Award winner Jake Kirkpatrick and 1st Team All-MWC tackle Marcus Cannon.  The OL gave up just nine sacks all season.  Look for a considerable gain in this negative statistic this season.

 

TCU averaged almost 42 points per game while rushing for close to 250 yards and passing for more than 225 yards per game last year.  The Frogs won’t jump that high this season.  Look for a regression to about 28-30 points and 375-400 yards per game.

 

There is rebuilding to do on the defensive side of the ball as well, only not as much as on the offensive side.  Of course, there is nowhere to go but down after the team finished first nationally in points and yards allowed.  The definite strength of the defense is at linebacker where both starters return after garnering All-American honors last year.   Tanner Brock and Tank Carder are future NFL stars.  The duo teamed up to record 166 tackles with 15 ½ tackles for loss, while they found time to record 10 passes defended.

 

The front four is not as talented as Boise State’s great quartet, but they are better than any other MWC team.  End Stansly Maponga earned 2nd Team All-MWC accolades last year.  The other end spot may eventually go to sophomore Jon Koontz over senior Braylon Broughton.  D.J. Yendrey and Ray Burns make a capable pair of tackles.

 

The secondary shows promise, but it is not going to be up to the standards set by last year’s team.  For the second year in a row, TCU allowed fewer than half of enemy passes to be completed, but we expect that streak to end this season.  Cornerback Greg McCoy intercepted a couple of passes and knocked away six others.  New starter Jason Verrett will replace all-conference CB Jason Teague.  At Safety, only one of the three starters returns.  Tekerrein Cuba is a sure thing at one spot, but Patterson has been switching players around at the other two positions. 

 

The schedule is manageable this season.  An opener at Baylor followed by a trip to the Springs to take on Air Force in week two will be a great indicator for this team.  A 2-0 start could give TCU a chance to visit the field of blue with a 9-0 record.  Of course, this team could lose one or both of those first two games.  We believe the Horned Frogs can earn another double-digit win season, but only if Pachall stays healthy, and the new offensive line gels quickly.

 

Air Force

If Boise State had not joined the league, Air Force would have been listed as a co-favorite in the Mountain West this year.  The Falcons have a lot of experience returning from their best team since 1998.  At the military academies, 14 starters are unheard of.  In fact, it has been many years since AFA has returned that 14 starters.

 

The Falcons gave up 21 points and 350 yards per game last year, which was very respectable but nothing like what they did in 2009 (15.7 ppg/288 ypg).  The stop troops may be as good as the 2009 edition, but even so, we do not expect the Falcons to five up less than 18 points per game in 2011 with the schedule they have.

 

Eight starters and eight key reserves return to this side of the ball, so the Falcons will definitely be improved.  As you must have to succeed in this league, Coach Troy Calhoun has a dynamite secondary.  Safety Jon Davis finished second on the team with 93 tackles and tied for first with three interceptions.  Calhoun would like to see his tackles go down and his interceptions go up.  Often, he had to make tackles on running plays after backs broke through the first line of defense.  Cornerback Anthony Wright knocked down six passes and intercepted two others, as the AFA passing game gave up just 148 yards per game last year.

 

The Falcons are equally strong at the linebacker positions.  Calhoun used three and four linebacker sets last year, and he has a full stable of experienced players back this year.  Jordan Waiwaiole led the Falcons with 96 stops with 7 ½ tackles for loss.  Brady Amack added 82 tackles, while Patrick Hennessey got in on 60 stops with 10 for loss.

 

The one weak spot on this side of the ball is the defensive line.  The Falcons were too generous against the run last year, giving up more than 200 yards per game.  TCU rushed for 377 yards in a 38-7 pasting.  The Falcons have no 300-pound linemen, so they will always be vulnerable in the trenches.  Using a 3-4 defense places a large amount of pressure on the nose tackle, and at 260 pounds, Ryan Gardner is at a disadvantage.  Gardner made only 29 tackles in 10, 2010 starts.  End Zach Payne is the star of the front wall.  He came up with 6 ½ stops behind the line.

 

We are optimistic that Air Force will once again feature an exciting and efficient offense.  The main reason is the return of quarterback Tim Jefferson.  Removing sacks, Jefferson rushed for more than 800 yards and 15 touchdowns.  He passed for 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging better than nine yards per pass attempt.

 

The running game is in great hands with running back Asher Clark joining Jefferson in the option attack.  Clark led AFA with 1,031 rushing yards.  Two fullbacks that combined for more than 1,000 yards must be replaced, but Calhoun never seems to have a lack of talent ready to plug in here.  The new fullback is Wesley Cobb, a seldom used backup the last two years.  Mike DeWitt will back him up.

 

When your leading pass receiver had 18 receptions, it’s hard to call his return a major asset.  However, Jonathan Warzeka is the perfect academy flanker/slot.  His 18 receptions went for 406 yards (22.6/rec) and three touchdowns.  Warzeka provided excellent ability to run on the perimeter when Jefferson pitched him the ball; he averaged 7.6 yards on his 41 carries.  Zack Kauth grabbed 16 passes and averaged 17+ yards per reception, so the Falcons should once again burn defenses that put eight in the box to try to stop the option attack.

 

The offensive line returns three starters, but there is some concern here with expected starting guard Jordan Eason out with a knee injury and backup center Jeffrey Benson, who was expected to slide over to guard to replace Eason, also suffered a knee injury.  Thus, Calhoun will have to do more shuffling.  One player sure to star wherever he ends up on the line is A. J. Wallerstein, a 1st Team All-MWC performer last year.

 

Air Force averaged 31 points and 425 yards per game last year.  There is no reason to believe they will not equal or better those numbers in 2011.  The schedule sets up nicely for the Falcons.  A relatively easy opener with South Dakota is followed by a visit from TCU.  If the Falcons can get revenge on a rebuilding Horned Frog team, they could be headed to their first double-digit win season this century.  If not, a repeat of last year is within their grasp.

 

San Diego State

2010 was a memorable one at Qualcomm Stadium, as the Aztecs won nine games, including a 21-point win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.  It was SDSU’s first winning season since 1998 and first nine-win season since the 1977 team went 10-1-0 (Denver Broncos Head Coach John Fox was a member of that team).  However, the main force behind the turnaround has moved to the “Big House.”  Coach Brady Hoke is now pacing the sidelines at Michigan.

 

All is not lost.  Rocky Long is the new head man after serving as Hoke’s defensive guru the last two years.  Long won at New Mexico; look at what happened to the Lobos since his departure.

 

This year’s Aztec squad will not be as strong, but there is enough returning talent to send SDSU back to a bowl game.  However, Long was faced with an epidemic to one part of his offense, and it could sink the Aztecs’ bowl hopes.

 

The injury bug hit his receiver corps—big time.  Expected starters Jay Waddell and Dominique Sandifer both suffered season-ending knee injuries.  Incoming freshman Anthony Sheffield failed to qualify academically.  Then, possible replacement starter Larry Clark suffered a knee injury.  Not even Oklahoma could lose four key players at one position and not suffer.  San Diego State was already looking at having to replace their top three receivers from last year.  Now, tight end Gavin Escobar is the only returning receiver that caught at least 10 passes last year.  His backup, Hunter Hewitt, has been suspended for the start of the season, so the Aztecs have a lot of work to do disguising this weakness.  Walk-on Dylan Denso and Marcus Russell may see considerable playing time.

 

Quarterback Ryan Lindley will give the new receivers a chance to become successful.  Outside of Kellen Moore, he is the next best quarterback in the league.  Lindley will leave SDSU as the all-time leading passer if he can pass for about 160 yards per game this year.  He passed for close to 300 yards per game last year, so barring injury or just downright pitiful play at the receiver position, he should own that record by October or early November.

 

Long’s coaching style resembles Woody Hayes more than Mike Leach, so expect the Aztecs to run the ball more this season, especially with the liability at wide receiver.  Both of last year’s key backs return.  Sophomore Ronnie Hillman led the conference by a large margin with 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns, which beat Marshall Faulk’s freshman records.  Backup Walter Kazee added 320 yards and three scores.

 

One place that the Aztecs don’t have to worry is the offensive line.  Four quality starters return from a year ago, and they should open holes for the running backs to sneak through for five yards.

 

After averaging 35 points and almost 460 yards per game last year, expect a reduction in both areas.  Long’s game plans usually seek to control the ball on extended scoring drives and not go for the quick score.  Look for about 28 points and 380-400 yards.

 

The defense has a bit of rebuilding to do.  An already raw defensive line took an extra beating when starter to be Neil Spencer was declared academically ineligible.  Larry Gibbs was expected to compete for Spencer’s end spot, but he suffered a broken foot in Spring drills.  That leaves nose tackle Jerome Long and end J. J. Autele as the only experienced holdovers from last year.  Long, an undersized nose tackle in the 3-3-5 alignment, got in on 30 tackles with 6 going for losses last year.  Autele posted 15 tackles as a backup.

 

The strength of the defense is the three-man linebacker unit.  All-conference star Miles Burris returns to the Sam linebacker position after leading the team with 80 tackles.  He led the conference with 9 ½ sacks and 20 tackles for loss. 

 

The secondary will miss free safety Brandon Davis for the first couple of games.  That will leave cornerback Leon McFadden as the lone returning starter until the third game.  McFadden was the star of last year’s secondary with 14 passes defended (led the conference).

 

The schedule presents SDSU with seven or eight win opportunities. We believe they will get to six, maybe seven wins and go bowling once again.

 

Colorado State

The Rams have suffered through back-to-back 3-9 seasons after going bowling in 2008.  Fourth year head coach Steve Fairchild may begin to feel the heat in Fort Collins, if the green and gold go 3-9 again this season.  Fairchild has enough tools to build a winner this year, but like San Diego State, the Rams have been plagued with a rash of problems in one area.

 

That area is the offensive line.  It started when projected starting guard Connor Smith chose to take his sheepskin and enter the workforce rather than use his final year of eligibility.  Then, key reserve tackle Justin Becker was ruled academically ineligible.  To make matters worse, three more offensive linemen suffered injuries in one week of preseason drills.  The other expected starting guard Jake Gdowski had knee surgery and will more than likely miss the start of the season.  Jason Baird and Mason Hathaway are sidelined with ankle injuries.  CSU is now razor thin here, and any chance for a winning season will hinge on the success of their offense.

 

If the Rams can provide any pass protection, they have no worries at quarterback.  Sophomore Pete Thomas put up some amazing numbers as a freshman.  He completed 64.7% of his passes for 2,662 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.  He did toss 13 interceptions, but almost half of those came in September.  Thomas has the ability to pass for 3,300 to 3,500 yards this year, as the Rams move to more of a pro-style passing attack like those used by the New England Patriots.

 

The Rams have two receivers capable of topping 50 receptions this season.  Lou Greenwood and Byron Steele teamed up for 54 receptions and 787 yards last year.  The Rams have depth here with the return of five backups that registered 15 or more receptions.

 

The running back position is not what it used to be in the Sonny Lubick days.  Nobody on this roster is a threat to rush for 1,000 yards, but this offense will not need that to succeed.  If Fairchild can find a back that can consistently pick up three yards on 3rd and two and can punch it in from the two yard line, the Rams will be okay at this position.  Raymond Carter saw limited action here last year after transferring from UCLA.  Carter, at one time a 4-star recruit from Los Angeles, has never lived up to his press credentials, mostly because of multiple knee injuries.  If he can remain healthy, he is capable of rushing for 100 yards against the weaker defenses, but we have to question his durability.  He should be limited to about 15 touches a game.

 

The offense averaged a meager 16.5 points and 335 yards per game in 2010.  If the problems in the offensive line can be solved, CSU will easily surpass these numbers in 2011.  If the OL stays as it is as of mid-August, Thomas could be running for his life rather than running downfield to congratulate his receivers.

 

The defense is much healthier, but it is not as talented as the offense.  The secondary is suspect after giving up nearly 70% completions last year and finishing 3rd to last in passing efficiency defense.  Cornerbacks Elijah-Blue Smith, Momo Thomas, and Shaq Bell have the potential to be good, but only if they get a little help from the pass rush.  The trio combined for just one interception and one pass defended, which is completely unacceptable at this position.

 

The strength, if you can call it that, on this side of the ball will be at linebacker.  Mychal Sisson is a probable 1st team all-conference player after making the 2nd team two years in a row.  He finished second in the league with 15 tackles for loss and recorded 95 total tackles last year.

 

The front four is another liability, and Fairchild could use more 3-4 alignments this year trying to hide the liability and take advantage of more talented linebackers.  The Rams posted just 21 QB sacks, and the chief instigator, Guy Miller, graduated.  Ends Broderick Sargent and C. J. James combined for just 3 ½ sacks.  Davis Burl can play a hybrid position (end/lb), and he has the quickness to pursue across the field and get into the backfield.

 

The Rams were generous a year ago, giving up 35 points and 425 yards per game.  Without an improved pass rush, don’t expect much improvement this year.  However, their schedule will actually give them a chance to challenge for bowl eligibility, especially if Thomas can help the Rams outscore the opposition in 38-35 style games.

 

Games against New Mexico, Northern Colorado, Colorado, Utah State, and San Jose State could actually give the Rams a chance to start 5-0 before enjoying a week off to prepare for Boise State.  The second half of the season includes games with UTEP, UNLC, and Wyoming.  This gives CSU eight winnable games, and we believe they can win at least six of them, but only if the offensive line can protect Thomas.

 

Wyoming

Dave Christensen came to Wyoming after serving as Gary Pinkel’s offensive coordinator at Missouri.  He immediately produced big results in his first season in Laramie in 2009, winning seven games, including the New Mexico Bowl.  In year two, the Cowboys didn’t catch the breaks they caught the year before and finished 3-9.  Both years, Wyoming was outgained and outscored, so the question remains: can Christensen turn this program around and produce a consistent winner?  Wyoming has a storied history in college football, and even though it is the smallest state by population, the ability to recruit all over the Rockies gives this school a chance to succeed.  One look at the lovely campus at more than 7,100 feet in elevation is a great recruiting tool to big sky country (Disclaimer: the photo montage screen saver on the computer typing this preview includes a lovely picture of Laramie, WY, taken by our founder when he lived in the Rockies and frequently hiked in Curt Gowdy State Park just a bit to the east of Laramie).

 

Wyoming will have a new offensive coordinator and new quarterback this year after averaging just 19 points and 286 total yards per game in 2010.  Former Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon produced some stellar passing teams, especially with Tyler Sheehan at quarterback.  Brandon finds the QB cupboard almost bare.  Austyn Carta-Samuels transferred to Vanderbilt when his former OC left for Cal.  Emory Miller was expected to compete for the starting job and given a 50-50 chance of winning it, but he quit the team.  That leaves true freshman Brett Smith as the starter.  Look for Brandon to keep things simple for Smith.  Wyoming will throw short and try to spread the field and cut down on mistakes.  Smith’s completion percentage could be over 60, but his yards per attempt could be under six.

 

The Cowboys lost their top two receivers, leaving Chris McNeill as the leading returnee.  But, he averaged just 9.2 yards per reception last year.  When UW uses a tight end, T. J. Smith can get open in the seams of zones.  He caught just eight passes last year, but he averaged nearly 22 yards per catch.  Look for him to more than double his amount of touches this season.

 

The Cowboys are just fine at the running back position.  Alvester Alexander returns after leading the team with 792 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.  We believe he has 1,000 yard potential, and he could become an important weapon in the short passing game.  In fact, it would not surprise us to see him lead the team in rushing and in receptions.

 

The offensive line is the real strength of this offense, and it will give Smith a chance to learn without fearing continual turf poundings.  After giving up 31 sacks last year, the OL should chop that number by at least 10.  Tackles Kyle Magnuson and John Hutchins create a solar eclipse when they stand up straight.  They will protect the flank and open holes for Alexander.

 

If Smith can just have an average year as a freshman, Wyoming’s numbers will improve on this side of the ball.  We are looking for a typical stat line of 17-27 for 175 yards against an average opponent.  Throw in 150 yards rushing, and Wyoming would average about 20-25 points per game this year.  That would be an enormous improvement; UW has not averaged 20 or more points per game since 2006.

 

There is good news and bad news on the other side of the ball.  Wyoming needs more good news after giving up more than 30 points and 400 yards per game last year.  The Good news is the return of the entire starting front four from last year.  There will be improvement on the 20 sacks and 200+ rushing yards allowed.  End Josh Biezuns led the team with 6 ½ sacks, while his counterpart Gabe Knapton added four.  The healthy return of Mark Willis gives the outside quality depth.

 

Now the bad news: Wyoming must rebuild its back seven line of defense.  Only two starters return here, and the unexpected loss of middle linebacker Oliver Schober is likely to be a major factor in why the Cowboys will not improve much if any on this side of the ball.

 

Brian Hendricks is the lone holdover at linebacker.  He finished third on the team with 80 tackles, but he did not get into the backfield, nor did he cover well on passing plays.  Backup middle linebacker Devyn Harris saw considerable action in 2010, so he has a chance to partially fill the void left by Schober.

 

The secondary performed admirably last year considering there was very little pass rush, and the safeties had to make a lot of stops on running plays.  Cornerback Tashaun Gipson could vie for all-conference honors this year.  He defended a dozen passes last year, intercepting three.

 

It will be hard to hold opponents under 30 points per game this year with the weaknesses in the back seven.  The schedule offers the Cowboys a chance to top last year’s win total, but we do not see this team getting to six wins.  4-8 or 5-7 is about the peak for this season.

 

U N L V

Bobby Hauck replaced Joe Glenn at Montana and in seven seasons, guided the Grizzlies to seven conference championships.  His last team included future Pro Bowl rookie kick returner Mark Mariani. 

 

In his first season in Las Vegas, Hauck’s Rebels finished 2-11, only six fewer losses than he experienced in seven years at Montana.  Glenn left Montana to take a job in the MWC at Wyoming, but he never turned the program around and was dismissed after six seasons.  Is the Montana position a lot like the Boise State position has been?  You can win big at Montana, but don’t try to let the chips ride for bigger stakes?

 

Only time will tell, but in year two in Vegas, Hauck may wish that what happens at Sam Boyd Stadium, stays in Sam Boyd Stadium.  The Rebels will have a hard time improving on the woeful 2-11 season of last year, and they could even win 50% fewer games if they cannot defeat New Mexico.

 

Hauck comes from the three yards and a cloud of dust offense school, and he does not have the horses to make it run.  The current roster was recruited to play in the spread offense, and what talent there is was recruited for speed over girth.

 

Trying to improve on 18 points and 274 yards per game, the first order of business is finding a new quarterback.  Omar Clayton has left the building after finishing second in school history to Randall Cunningham in passing yards.  Caleb Herring should line up under center when the season opens on September 1.  He completed half of his 56 passes last year with four touchdowns and three interceptions (the latter stat too high to win in this league).

 

We expect improvement in the Rebels’ running game this year, but it would be hard to go downhill from last year’s weak results (103 rushing yards per game). Tim Cornett and Bradley Randle teamed for just 655 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, but both have looked solid so far in August drills.

 

UNLV has experienced depth at the receiver positions, but the leading receiver from 2010 will miss the start of this season.  Phillip Payne led the Rebels with 40 receptions, while proving to be the only breakaway threat on the team.  He is still recovering from a broken foot.  Payne has the potential to be an all-conference player.  Replacing him until he is ready to go will be tall and lanky Kurt Davis.  Marcus Sullivan has the potential to give the Rebels a solid one-two punch on the perimeter.

 

The offensive line is still a major liability, and expected starting tackle Allen Carroll has been a spectator in practices so far.  The transfer from Washington would be the one true talent on this line, but he has yet to suit up after being medically cleared.  Redshirt freshman Cameron Jefferson is well undersized to play tackle, but he will start at the all-important left tackle position.  Jefferson is 6-6 and only 265 pounds having been a basketball star more than a football star in high school.

 

With an inexperienced line and inexperienced quarterback, defenses may be able to choke off the running game and stop the Rebels’ offense again this season.  We are a little pessimistic on their prospects in year two of the Hauck regime.

 

The defense makes the offense look good.  UNLV had no defense last year.  The Rebels surrendered 40 points and 450 yards per game.  There was no pass rush; enemy backs enjoyed career days; and the secondary played like matadors.  Maybe having major graduation losses on this side of the ball is not such a bad thing.

 

There is one man among boys on this side of the ball.  Linebacker Princeton Jackson comes from Blinn Junior College (Cam Newton’s school) where he was a legitimate superstar in the Juco ranks.  Jackson is quick and strong, and he can make a tackle on either sideline.  He will immediately be the star on this side of the ball and team with Nate Carter and Tani Maka to give the Rebels respectability at this position.

 

You know things are not well when your leading returning sack master recorded just 1 ½ sacks.  UNLV only dumped QBs 12 times in 13 games last year.  B. J. Bell tied for the lead (with a defensive back) with just 1 ½ sacks.  The other starting end, James Dunlap, never touched a QB.  In the interior, Hauck has a couple of beefy bulldozers coming in at 300+ pounds, but there is very little experience or depth here.

 

The secondary might have been an asset this year, but the Rebels’ projected starting strong safety Chris Jones decided to quit playing the game.  The news is a little better at cornerback with the return of the top three players with starting experience.  Will Chandler and Sidney Hodge (the other player with 1 ½ sacks) combined to stop 10 passes last year with Chandler intercepting five of those.  Former starter Quinton Pointer returns after missing 2010 with a knee injury.

 

The schedule does no favors for UNLV.  The Rebels open the season with road games against Big Ten power Wisconsin and improving Washington State.  Then Hawaii comes for a visit.  Game four finds the Rebels hosting a dangerous FCS team in Southern Utah; the Thunderbirds are capable of pulling off the upset.  In conference play, UNLV faces the other two weakest teams on enemy turf, so this could be a very long season in Vegas.  The chances for an 0-12 season are there, but we believe the Rebels can find a way to win two times.

 

New Mexico

How many times have you seen something similar to this story? A publicly traded company has a history of turning a modest profit most quarters with an occasional loss but never a big loss.  The board decides the modest profit is not enough and brings in this promising assistant from one of the Dow Jones 30, and the modest quarterly profits all of a sudden became incredible losses, threatening to make the company the next Eastern Airlines.

 

New Mexico’s most influential supporters were not satisfied with Rocky Long’s typical six and seven-win seasons in a state that just does not have any recruiting base to expect anything more.  Long won nine games in 2007, and he should have been given a lifetime contract.  Instead, a rebuilding season in 2008 brought a 4-8 record and his dismissal. 

 

How do you feel about that now you influential supporters?  You traded five bowls in six years for back-to-back 1-11 seasons and with no prospects for much improvement if any. 

 

New Mexico’s most recent 1-11 season was much worse than the 1-11 season the year before.  The Lobos averaged 16 points and 266 yards (last in the nation) per game while giving up 44 points and 470 total yards per game last year.  Among the losses was a second consecutive defeat to rival New Mexico State, a team that finished 2-10.

 

Third year coach Mike Locksley has appointed two new coordinators, but that is not the problem.  As a popular commercial once made popular, “Where’s the Beef?”  There are not enough FBS-caliber players on the roster, and Vince Lombardi couldn’t win six games with this team.

 

There is talent on offense, but none of it as in the line.  Two starters return to the blocking corps, and this group may be weaker than last year.  Last year’s line gave up 27 sacks and opened holes for just 108 rushing yards at less than three yards per rush.  The top lineman, tackle Darryl Johnson, missed Spring practice.

 

The Lobos went through four quarterbacks last year, and two return for more pain and suffering.  Either B. R. Holbrook or Tarean Austin will start against Colorado State in game one, but with the lack of protection, it would be no surprise if true freshman Dustin Walton is starting at some point during the season.  Holbrook and Austin combined for 1,017 passing yards with a 51% completion rate and a 4/10 TD/int ratio.

 

The top two receivers from last year are back, giving the Lobos a chance to have a little better passing yardage this year.  Ty Kirk and tight end Lucas Reed teamed for 71 receptions and 936 yards.  New wide receiver Lamaar Thomas has world class sprinter’s speed; he started his career at Ohio State, and he could become the top receiver here.

 

Kasey Carrier and James Wright both return to the backfield.  The two gained 677 yards on the ground and scored four touchdowns last year, but it could be harder for them to gain yards with the raw offensive line.

 

It looked like the defense had a chance to improve quite a bit, but major defections/injuries/suspensions have put a major crimp in the trenches of the 4-2-5 alignment.  The big loss is tackle Calvin Smith, who was a big-time recruit.  He transferred to Purdue.  End J. J. Hugine transferred as well.  End Omar Castillo was dismissed from the team, while end Johnathan Rainey broke a bone in his neck and will miss the entire season.  Two juniors who played sparingly a year ago will be counted on to lead the front line.  Joe Harris and Reggie Ellis will join Jaymar Latchison as the only experienced players in the trenches.

 

UNM has some talent at linebacker.  Carmen Messina, Joe Stoner, and Javarie Johnson, and Spencer Merritt give Locksley a decent two-deep.  Messina led the Lobos with 115 tackles with six tackles for loss.  He batted away four passes as well. 

 

The secondary returns four starters from a year ago, but unless the line develops some threat of a pass rush, it will be hard for this quintet to improve by much.  Free safety Bubba Forrest made way too many tackles last year (100).  If he records triple digit stops again this year, the Lobos will be looking up at the rest of the MWC in the standings.

 

The schedule gives UNM a chance to win four times.  Colorado State is vulnerable in the opener due to their offensive line issues.  Sam Houston State visits on September 24, and if the Lobos lose that game, Locksley could be out.  New Mexico State visits Albuquerque the following week, and the Lobos have dropped the last two games to the Aggies.  On November 12, UNM hosts UNLV in a game that could decide which team avoids the basement.

 

New Mexico has so much room to make up on the rest of the league, it is really hard to predict that they will win any of these four winnable games.  We believe that lightning will strike at least one time—again.

 

2011 Mountain West Conference Media Poll

Team

1st Place Votes

Points

Boise State

28

236

T C U

3

208

Air Force

 

176

San Diego State

 

160

Colorado State

 

104

Wyoming

 

80

U N L V

 

77

New Mexico

 

39

 

 

2011 Mountain West Conference PiRate Ratings

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

Boise St.

121.7

7-0/12-0

T C U

110.0

6-1/11-1

Air Force

106.6

5-2/8-4

S.D.State

100.3

4-3/6-6

Colo.State

92.4

3-4/6-6

Wyoming

90.4

2-5/4-8

UNLV

85.2

1-6/2-10

New Mexico

81.7

0-7/1-11

 

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August 14, 2010

2010 Western Athletic Conference Preview

Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Western Athletic Conference Preview

 

No team has dominated a conference for an entire decade the way Boise State has dominated the WAC since Alabama toyed with the SEC for 10 years after Bear Bryant went to the wishbone.  The Broncos last eight years in conference play have produced a league mark of 62-2!  Things will change next year, when BSU moves to the Mountain West.  It appears impossible for the Broncos to top last year’s 14-0 record, but this year’s team might be considerably stronger.

Nevada is the clear-cut second best team, and Fresno State is the clear-cut third best team.  After those two, there are three teams that are equally mediocre and three teams that will be fodder for the top six.  With Boise primed to make a run for a National Championship, there is a legitimate possibility that there will not be enough bowl eligible teams for the allotted bowl spots.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos Team WAC Overall
1 Boise State 8-0 12-0
2 Nevada 7-1 10-3
3 Fresno State 6-2 9-3
4 Utah State 4-4 5-7
5 Hawaii 4-4 6-7
6 Louisiana Tech 4-4 5-7
7 Idaho 2-6 3-10
8 New Mexico State 1-7 2-10
9 San Jose State 0-8 2-11

 

BCS Bowl: Boise State (possible National Championship Game)

Humanitarian Bowl: Fresno State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Nevada

Hawaii Bowl: Will need an at-large team

New Mexico Bowl: Will need and at-large team

 

Hawaii is guaranteed a spot in the Hawaii Bowl if they have seven or more wins.  If not, this bowl gets the third choice after the Humanitarian and Kraft Bowls select.

 

Team By Team Breakdown

 

Team Boise State Broncos
               
Head Coach Chris Petersen
               
Colors Blue and Orange
               
City Boise, ID
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 14-0
               
PiRate Rating 121.7
               
National Rating 8
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 8-0
Overall 12-0

 

Offense: Better?  You betcha.  The Broncos return 10 starters on this side of the ball as well as every player that ran the ball and every receiver that caught a pass!

Let’s start with the nation’s number two quarterback in passing efficiency in 2009, trailing only some guy named Tebow.  Kellen Moore made 3rd Team All-American last year, and he could move up two spots if his team runs the table this year.  We expect him to be making a trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan in December.  Moore completed 64.3% of his passes for 3,536 yards.  His TD/Int ration was an astonishing 39/3.  He was a down-the-field passer, so those stats were not inflated by having some speedster frequently turning a two-yard pass into a 65-yard touchdown.

Moore’s only problem may be trying to decide which open receiver to throw the ball.  His top two options are 2009 1st Team All-WAC Austin Pettus and Titus Young.  Those two combined for 142 receptions and 24 touchdowns.  Tyler Shoemaker is the bruiser of this group, and he can go across the middle and make the tough catch in a sea of defenders.

When Boise runs the ball, they will have a trio of special backs toting the pigskin.  Jeremy Avery ran for more than 1,150 yards, and Doug Martin added 765.  Martin led the ground contingent with 15 touchdowns.  Third back D. J. Harper accounted for just 285 yards, but he is the best breakaway threat of the three.  He averaged 6.5 yards per rush a year ago.

The offensive line returns four starters a year after allowing just five QB sacks, only three after the first game.  The entire second team has some starting experience, so Coach Chris Petersen can feel confident relieving his starters for a series.

Boise State averaged 42.2 points and 450 total yards last year, and those numbers should be eclipsed by this veteran squad.  Look for 45-50 points and 450-475 yards per game this season.

Defense: Now the bad news: Uh, the only bad news is for the rest of the league, because Boise State will be more improved on this side of the ball than on offense!

The Broncos gave up 17 points and 300 yards per game last year, and 10 starters also return on this side of the ball.  Almost the entire second team returns as well, and it would not surprise us to see BSU finish in the top five in both total offense and total defense.  We’re talking 1997 Nebraska-type dominance if that happens.

If there is a liability of any kind with this defense, it is at linebacker.  Boise uses a 4-2-5 defense, and the two linebackers get lost among all the stars on the stop side.  Aaron Tevis and Daron Mackey combined for just 90 stops a year ago, and they were merely above-average players in the WAC.

In the trenches, the Broncos can rely on four experienced upperclassmen, including a sure future NFL (assuming the NFL plays in 2011 or 2012) end.  Ryan Winterswyk made 17 tackles on the other team’s side of the line—nine sacks and eight tackles of runners.  Tackle Billy Wynn is just as potent at causing teams to lose yardage.

The secondary is even stronger this year.  Nickel back Winston Venable is a monster against both the run and the pass, and when he is on the field, opposing teams may think there is more than one #17 running around.  Cornerback Brandyn Thompson and strong safety Jeron Johnson should both make 1st Team All-WAC after teaming for 10 interceptions last year.

Schedule: It all comes down to the first game of the season.  Boise travels over 2,000 miles across two time zones to face Virginia Tech at the Washington Redskins’ stadium on Monday night, September 6.  The Broncos proved they could beat a BCS conference champion last year when they completely shut down Oregon in the opener.  That game was at home.  If the Broncos beat the Hokies, we don’t see anybody else threatening them.  A home game with Oregon State and a road game against Nevada might be the only other games where they cannot win by three touchdowns or more.  It will be either 1-0 on the way to 12-0 or 0-1 on the way to maybe 10-2.  At 12-0, they would be riding a 26-game winning streak and deserve to go to Glendale, Arizona, on January 10.

Team Fresno State Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Pat Hill
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Fresno, CA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 99.6
               
National Rating 60
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 9-3

 

Offense: Fresno State has always fielded exciting, well-balanced offenses under Coach Pat Hill.  This year will be no different.  The Bulldogs may have lost their top player on this side of the ball, but they return eight starters and should have another successful season moving the ball.

It will be hard to replace running back Ryan Mathews after he led the league with more than 1,800 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns.  We expect Robbie Rouse to step in and rush for 1,000+ yards in his first year as a starter.  He showed flashes of brilliance last year in a backup role.

In a league of outstanding quarterbacks, Ryan Colburn rarely gets a mention in the press outside of Fresno.  Colburn is a capable, but not flashy passer.  He completed 61% of his tosses for 2,459 yards last year, but he needs to cut down on his 3.7% interception rate.

The Bulldogs lost three of their top four receivers, but there is good talent left.  Jamel Hamler and Devon Wylie can turn a short pass into a long gain.

The offensive line welcomes back all five starters.  This unit could be a little better than Boise State’s interior line.  Best among this quintet are center Joe Bernardi and tackle Kenny Wiggins, two seniors that should have a chance to play professionally (maybe in Canada).

Fresno State may take a small step backward on this side of the ball, but the Bulldogs will still be an offensive threat in every game.  Look for about 28 points and 400 yards per game.

Defense: FSU surrendered 214 rushing and 200 passing yards last year, and we see that problem continuing in 2010.  The Bulldogs return the majority of their contributors from 2009, but we see only three really good players on this side of the ball.

One of those three is end Chris Carter.  The 1st Team All-WAC performer accounted for almost half of the team’s sacks (5 out of FSU’s poor 11) and added eight other tackles for loss.  He’s the only star player in the trenches, and he will see double teams on most plays this year.  The Bulldogs gave up a profane six yards per rush last year, so teams will run the ball at them until they can prove they can slow it down.

The second line of defense is much better than the first and considerably better than the unit behind them.  Linebacker Ben Jacobs led FSU with 106 tackles last year, but too many were five or more yards down the field.  Neither he, nor outside linebacker Kyle Knox recorded a sack.

The secondary is pedestrian, but it was hard to cover the WAC’s receivers when there was no pass rush.  Strong safety Lorne Bell earned 2nd Team All-WAC honors, but he is better in run support than in pass coverage.

Fresno State will give up a lot of points again this season, and it will prevent the Bulldogs from contending with the big two in the league.  Look for 26-30 points and 400-425 yards allowed—about the same as last year.

Schedule: Outside of the WAC, Fresno plays its usual contingent of BCS schools.  This year, they host Cincinnati and Illinois and visit Ole Miss.  They get a breather with FCS member Cal Poly.  Boise State is a road game, and they have no chance in that one.  They get Nevada at home and could sneak up on the Wolf Pack.  6-2 in the league is a strong possibility, and we believe the Bulldogs can upend two of the three BCS conference teams they play.  Call it nine wins and a bowl in 2010.

Team Hawaii Warriors
               
Head Coach Greg McMackin
               
Colors Green, Black, and White
               
City Honolulu, HI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 85.0
               
National Rating 97
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-7

 

Offense: Hawaii has once again become a great vacation trip for BCS schools.  Since June Jones left for SMU three years ago, the Warriors have fallen on hard times.  The UH offense went from a 40+ per game juggernaut to a 20-point per game patsy.

Don’t look for any improvement on this side of the ball in 2010.  Coach Greg McMackin has too many holes to fill to expect a better showing.  In fact, things could get worse.  Only five starters return, but only one of them is from the offensive line.  Tackles Austin Hansen and Laupepa Letuli give the Warrior a good couple of anchors.

Quarterback Brian Moniz returns to pilot the attack after starting eight times last year.  He is a good runner as well as passer, but he won’t be confused with Colin Kaepernick.

Moniz will benefit from the return of receivers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares.  The two combined for 172 receptions and 2,280 yards.  Speedy Rodney Bradley gives Moniz a third good option.

The running game has not been much of a factor in recent years.  As long as the back in the game can block for the quarterback, run a good safety valve route and cut on a draw play, he has done his job.  Alex Green should fit the bill nicely, and he should catch 25-30 passes this year.

With the troubles up front, we just cannot see Hawaii topping 24 points per game this season.  Look for 21-24 points and 375-400 yards.  The Warriors turned the ball over a lot last year, and that trend may continue in 2010. 

Defense: There should be improvement on this side of the ball, but it may not show up that much in the stats.  If the offense gives up the ball quickly due to incompetence, the defense will stay on the field longer.

Seven starters return on this side of the ball, but the top two tacklers from a year ago are gone.  One area that should not be a problem is the secondary.  All four starters return after giving up just 203 passing yards per game (low for this league).  All four (corners Jeramy Bryant and Lametrius Davis and safeties Mana Silva and Spencer Smith) proved to be excellent pass defenders, combining for 10 interceptions and 24 passes batted away.

The front seven is more of a problem.  Hawaii did a poor job against the run last year, and it could continue this season.  Two starters must be replaced up front, and two starters must be replaced at linebacker.  None of this year’s front seven will contend for even honorable mention all-conference.

Hawaii will give up 30-35 points and 400-425 yards per game.  

Schedule: The opener should draw a lot of national attention.  UH entertains bad boy Lane Kiffin and his Southern Cal Trojans on Thursday night, September 2.  They follow it up with a trips to West Point to face Army on 9/11 and to Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes on 9/18.  It could actually be snowing in the Front Range on that date.  The Warriors return home to face Charleston Southern, which should be their first win.  UH concludes the season with UNLV.  The Rebels could possibly be playing for bowl eligibility in that game.  In league play, UH has road games with Fresno State and Boise State and will come home with their tails beneath their legs. 

We believe the Warriors will break even in league play, but they will fall one game short of bowl eligibility again.

Team Idaho Vandals
               
Head Coach Robb Akey
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Moscow, ID
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 90.3
               
National Rating 88
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 3-10

 

Offense: 2009 was one of those years when the stars aligned just right for Coach Robb Akey’s Vandals.  Idaho won five close games, including a 43-42 Humanitarian Bowl thriller over Bowling Green, on its way to its first winning season of the century.  With the graduation of most of their offensive line, their top running back, and their top receiver, it looks like the one year recovery will be an anomaly. 

The one bright spot on this side of the ball is the return of quarterback Nathan Enderle.  After the big two, he may be the third best QB in the WAC.  Last year, he passed for 2,906 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Enderle’s top target has graduated, and Max Komar was vital to this team’s success.  Maurice Shaw returns after averaging more than 20 yards on his 32 receptions.  He should form a solid trio with Preston Davis and tight end Daniel Hardy, but Komar will be sorely missed.

Idaho used a platoon at tailback, and two of the three principle members of that platoon return.  Princeton McCarty and Deonte Jackson combined for 1,108 yards, so the Vandals’ running game is in good hands this year.

Because the rebuilding blocking wall will be a liability this year, expect both the rushing and passing yardage to fall back in 2010.  Call it about 23-26 points and 380-420 yards per game.  

Defense: Idaho didn’t win because of great defensive play in 2009.  They gave up 36 points and 433 yards per game!  With 10 starters returning, there should be some improvement, but we don’t see enough improvement to justify picking Idaho to return to a bowl.

The entire front seven returns intact.  They were not particularly strong against the run or the pass.  While the Vandals gave up just a tad over 150 rushing yards per game, opponents averaged 4.7 yards per rush.  They were too busy picking the secondary to shreds to run the ball much more than 30 times per game.

The strength of the front seven is on the outside where end Aaron Lavarais and outside linebacker Jo Jo Dickson will contend for all-conference honors.

The secondary will not fare much better than their dismal performance last year after giving up 278 passing yards per game and allowing better than 66% completions.  Without a much better pass rush, look for the Vandals to maybe give up 300 yards per game through the air.

Idaho will once again give up 30+ points per game, but maybe it will be less than last year’s 36.  Let’s go with 32-35 points and 425-450 yards allowed.

Schedule: The Vandals should start off the season on a winning note when they open with North Dakota at home.  Then, they must play at Nebraska, where they could lose by six touchdowns.  A home game with UNLV should tell the fans whether they have any reason to remain optimistic, and we believe the Rebels will leave Moscow with a win.  A trip to Colorado State the following week will either put the nail in the coffin for the 2010 season or give the Vandal hope.  The Rams will treat that game as a must-win contest.  A final non-conference game at Western Michigan won’t give them a win.  Idaho hosts both Nevada and Boise State, which should be considered a curse this year.  They cannot compete with either, and it would be better for the Vandals to have two other home games.  At least, UI gets New Mexico State and San Jose State at home—those are their two conference wins for 2010.

Team Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Sonny Dykes
               
Colors Red and Blue
               
City Ruston, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 96.5
               
National Rating 66
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7

 

Offense: After half of the coaches in FBS football turned down the Tennessee job last year, Tech coach Derek Dooley took the job.  Welcome new coach Sonny Dykes.  Dykes turned around the Arizona Wildcats’ offense after learning the “Air Raid” Spread offense at Texas Tech under Mike Leach.  Expect a complete overhaul of the offense this year, as the Bulldogs return to a wide open offense like teams of yesteryear in Ruston.

Unfortunately, Tech won’t have Tim Rattay, Luke McCown, or Terry Bradshaw lining up at quarterback.  Actually, neither Dooley nor offensive coordinator Tony Franklin know who will be lining up at quarterback in the opener.  As August practices began, it was a four-way race between incumbent Ross Jenkins, Auburn transfer Steven Ensminger, last year’s backup Colby Cameron, and junior college transfer Tarik Hakim.  Whoever wins the battle will be throwing the ball anywhere from 40 to 60 times a game.

Tech has a fine stable of pass receivers thanks to the school that stole their prior coach.  Tennessee transfer Ahmad Paige left Orangeville last year to escape the tornado known as Lane Kiffin.  Paige will join holdovers Cruz Williams and Phillip Livas to form a solid first team.  In this offense, expect at least five other receivers to catch more than 25 passes. 

Another escapee from the Kiffin asylum is tailback Lennon Creer.  We expect Creer to step in and start from day one, but the Bulldogs backs will not match the production of graduated star Daniel Porter.

The offensive line returns four starters, but there could be some rough times in the transition from a predominantly running attack to an offense that will pass the ball at least 60% of the time and as much as 80-85% of the time.

LT averaged 29 points per game last year, and we think the Bulldogs will shatter that mark this season.  Look for 31-35 points and 400-425 yards per game in year one of the “air raid.”

Defense: This is the reason Dykes won’t turn things around in year one.  Tech gave up 26 points per game last year, and the defense is noticeably weaker this season.

The problems start up front where only one starter returns to the four-man trench.  Included in the graduation losses was two-time All-WAC star D’Anthony Smith.

The three-man linebacking corps returns two starters, including 2009 1st Team All-WAC Mike linebacker Adrien Cole.  Cole led the Techsters with 93 tackles last year.

The secondary is better than average and returns three starters, but they may have trouble matching last year’s numbers due to the weaker pass rush. 

We expect LT to give up more than 28 points and maybe as much as 33 points per game to go along with 375-400 yards per game.

Schedule: Finally it will happen!  Louisiana Tech will play Grambling for the first time ever to kick off the 2010 season.  The schools are within walking distance, but they have been separated by mountains of Southern philosophical opinion for years.  It should be an interesting game, but any chance for Grambling to pull off the upset disappeared when they weren’t able to gain approval for a medical hardship redshirt for their starting quarterback.  Tech will be 1-0 when they venture to Aggieland to take on Texas A&M, and that game should be a shootout.  Ditto the following two weeks’ games with Navy and Southern Miss.  When Tech enters WAC play, they may be just 1-3, but they could be averaging 40 points per game.  We see them splitting their league games, coming up one win short of bowl eligibility.

Team Nevada Wolf Pack
               
Head Coach Chris Ault
               
Colors Blue and Silver
               
City Reno, NV
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 102.6
               
National Rating 51
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 10-3

 

Offense: Coaltown, Alydar, Sham, the 1961 Detroit Tigers, the 1962 Detroit Lions—what do these have in common?  Coaltown, Alydar, and Sham were great horses that might have won the Triple Crown in their three-year old campaigns, but they happened to race against Citation, Affirmed, and Secretariat.  The 1961 Tigers won more than 100 games and was probably better than the 1968 World Champions.  The 1962 Lions were probably the best ever in the Motor City.  Those Tigers played second fiddle to the Maris and Mantle Yankees.  Those Lions played second fiddle to the greatest NFL team in history—the 1962 Green Bay Packers.

Nevada is this year’s Coaltown.  The Wolf Pack is clearly the second best team in the WAC and one of the best teams in WAC history (in the current alignment) not wearing an orange and blue uniform.

Coach Chris Ault’s team ran the pistol offense to near perfection a year ago.  Nevada outpaced Georgia Tech and the three service academies that run triple option and averaged a nation’s best 345 yards rushing per game.  They had three players top 1,000 rushing yards.  Not even the great Oklahoma teams of the 1970’s that rushed for more than 400 yards a game had such a trio.

Two of those three stars return this season.  One is quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  He rushed for almost 1,200 yards (actually well over 1,300 when you factor out sacks) and 16 touchdowns.  He tossed another 20 touchdown passes on his way to 2,052 yards passing.

Joining Kaepernick in the pistol backfield will be Vai Taua, the other 1,000 yard back.  He totaled 1,345 yards with 10 touchdowns.  Backup Mike Ball will take over as the number two running back.  He averaged almost 10 yards per try in limited action last year, so he could replace Luke Lippincott as the third 1,000-yard rusher this year.

The receiving corps isn’t exactly chopped liver.  The four main receivers return after combining for 130 receptions and 14 touchdowns.  Brandon Wimberly was the WAC Freshman of the Year after grabbing 53 passes for 733 yards.

The offensive line lost two All-WAC performer, but we think this unit will be close to last year’s unit in blocking ability. 

Unless one of the option teams has an incredible season, there is no reason not to believe that Nevada will top the rushing charts again this season.  Look for another 325-350 effort on the ground with an additional 175-200 yards through the air.  The Wolf Pack should top 40 points per game after threatening that mark the last two seasons.

Defense: This side of the ball is missing just enough to prevent Nevada from competing with Boise State for the title.  As it is, the Wolf Pack is still the second best team by far.  Three of the top four tacklers must be replaced, so it is likely that Nevada will have to outscore opponents this season.

Up front, one of the returning starters is end Dontay Moch, who earned WAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.  Moch registered 20 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including  6 ½ sacks.  At 6-1, he may be on the small side to be a star at the next level.

Brandon Marshall gives Nevada an outstanding strong-side linebacker.  Marshall dumped defenders for loss 9 ½ times in 2009, and he batted away four passes as well.

It is the secondary where Nevada cannot stop Boise State and thus cannot win the WAC this year.  The ‘Pack surrendered almost 300 yards through the air and 61.5% completions in 2009, and no starter had more than one interception.  Former Utah quarterback Corbin Louks has been brought to Reno to anchor the secondary at free safety. 

Nevada will once again give up more than four touchdowns per game.  Look for about 30 points and 425 yards allowed per contest.

Schedule: Nevada gets two breathers to open the season.  They host Eastern Washington and Colorado State.  A third consecutive home game against California could give the Wolf Pack a good chance to pull off the minor upset and crack the polls.  The following week finds them venturing to BYU for a potentially great shootout.  A week later, Nevada plays at UNLV.  They could be 5-0 when WAC play starts, and they will be no worse than 3-2.  They should be 4-0 in conference play when they go to Fresno State on November 13.  After a breather with New Mexico State, they host Boise State on Friday, November 26.  It isn’t impossible, but highly improbable they will win this game unless Boise State falls apart with numerous injuries.  Still, this should be Ault’s best team in Reno since he returned for the third time in 2004.  Call if a double-digit winning year.

Team New Mexico State Aggies
               
Head Coach DeWayne Walker
               
Colors Crimson and White
               
City Las Cruces, NM
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 3-10
               
PiRate Rating 78.4
               
National Rating 109
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10

 

Offense: One word can best sum up the Aggies’ offense—offensive.  NMSU scored just 11.5 points per game and tallied just 229 total yards per game.  That looks like stats you would see from a college team in the days when players went both ways.  The Aggies had no passing game whatsoever, and they were not an option team.  They averaged just 88 yards per game and completed less than half of their passes.

Quarterback Jeff Fleming might do better if he could throw to himself.  He just doesn’t have much talent in which to throw the ball.

Things are much better with the running game.  Seth Smith ran for more than 1,000 yards even though defenses placed an extra defender and sometimes two extra defenders up close to stop the run.

The offensive line returns three starters, but the Aggies pick up a plum in former Texas Longhorn tackle Aundre McGaskey.

With stats like last year, there is only one way to go for Coach DeWayne Walker’s offense, but we don’t expect State to fool many defenses this year.  Look for a slight improvement to 14-17 points and 250-275 yards per game. 

Defense: When your offense cannot sustain many drives and convert first downs, your defense will be on the field much longer than average.  Opponents ran an average of eight more plays per game against the Aggies last year, and more of the same will happen this season.

One unit that will be better is the back line.  All four starters return to the secondary.  This quartet of Stephon Hatchett, Alphonso House, Jonte Green, and Davon House teamed up for 32 batted passes and five picks.

The defensive line will be a little better this year, and that will make the secondary that much better.  Ends Pierre Fils and Donte Savage teamed up to make 13 QB sacks.

It’s at linebacker where there will be difficulties this year.  The Aggies must break in three new starters, only one of whom saw any real action last year.

The Aggies will give up 28-32 points and 400-425 yards again this season.  They are still a long way from competing for bowl eligibility.

Schedule: The one plus for New Mexico State is that as weak as they are, their in-state rival is weaker.  The Aggies should beat New Mexico.  They won’t be so lucky with San Diego State, UTEP, or Kansas.  NMSU gets upstart San Jose State at home, so we believe they will win twice this season.  That is one less than last year.

Team San Jose State Spartans
               
Head Coach Mike MacIntyre
               
Colors Dark Blue and Gold
               
City San Jose, CA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 82.7
               
National Rating 101
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 2-11

 

Offense: New Spartan head coach Mike MacIntyre takes over at San Jose after earning the national Assistant Coach of the Year award as the defensive coordinator at Duke.  Too bad he won’t get to defend against his own offense.  The Spartans scored just 13.8 points and produced 284 yards of total offense in 2009. 

Quarterback Jordan La Secla returns after passing for 1,926 yards at a 60% completion rate.  He tossed more interceptions than touchdown passes.

La Secla will have to make do without the top two receivers from last year.  Kevin Jurovich graduated, while Marquis Avery was declared academically ineligible.  Throw in the sudden departure of offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to Arkansas State, and it looks like another long season on this side of the ball.

The running game was abysmal last year; don’t expect much improvement, after the Spartans averaged a meager 77 yards per game.

The offensive line is probably the strongest component of the offense, but it is still below average in the WAC. 

If MacIntyre can squeeze 17 points and 300 yards out of this offense, it will be a huge success.

Defense: San Jose State must replace four of their front seven defenders, so there won’t be much improvement on this side of the ball.  The Spartans didn’t fare much better on defense than offense last year. 

SJSU surrendered 259 rushing yards (6.1 yds./rush) last year, and with three of the front four having to be replaced against a slate of teams that can pound the ball down the field, the Spartans might actually fare worse this year.

All four starters return to the secondary.  Unfortunately, this quartet had to stop a lot of running plays last year and didn’t face many passing plays, as opponents ran the ball almost 65% of the time.

After giving up 35 points and 443 yards per game last year, the numbers could actually head south this year.  Look for maybe 36-40 points and 450-475 yards allowed.

Schedule:  By the time San Jose State faces a team they can beat, their players will be demoralized after beginning the season on the road with Alabama and Wisconsin. The Spartans will be 0-2, nursing a lot of bumps and bruises, and facing a scoring deficit of about 90-10!  They should find a way to beat Southern Utah in game three.  The following week finds them heading to Utah, where the Utes will remember the scare this team gave them last year.  Look for another blowout loss.  Then, SJSU faces UC Davis.  They should get a nice win in that one, but that will be their last of the season.  We see them losing all eight league games.

Team Utah State Aggies
               
Head Coach Gary Andersen
               
Colors Navy and White
               
City Logan, UT
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 95.3
               
National Rating 72
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7

 

Offense: Coach Gary Andersen was a defensive genius as Utah’s defensive coordinator.  In his first year in Logan, he looked more like Urban Meyer.  If it wasn’t for a couple of key injuries, Utah State might have been looking at a winning season and bowl bid this year for the first time since 1997.

Running back Robert Turpin tore his ACL earlier this year and appears to be out for the season.  He led the Aggies with close to 1,300 rushing yards.  In his place, Michael Smith will carry the load.  Don’t expect 1,300 yards, but Smith has breakaway speed and can turn a small hole into a big gain.

Quarterback Diondre Borel ranks with Nathan Enderle as one of the WAC’s two best passers not named Moore or Kaepernick.  Borel had a splendid junior season in 2009 passing for 2,885 yards with 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions. 

The Aggies had a lot of options in the passing game, but they have been henpecked with injuries.  Turpin was a great receiver out of the backfield.  2009’s top receiver, Stanley Morrison, caught 33 passed and averaged 19 yards per catch.  He is gone for the season with a broken foot.  Then, just before practice began, wide out Eric Moats dropped a refrigerator on his foot.  He needed stitches, and as of this writing, he has yet to practice.  Junior college star Matt Austin was supposed to be a starter last year, but he missed the entire season.  He returns and will have to live up to his potential immediately.

The offensive line returns four starters, so if Borel has any talent running routes, he will have time to find them. 

Even with all the injuries, we believe USU will move the ball and score points this year, just not enough to move from middle of the pack to within shouting distance of Fresno State.  Look for 25-30 points and 400-425 yards per game.

Defense: Defense was a major problem last year, as USU gave up 34 points and 455 yards per game.  They could not stop the run or the pass.  With eight starters returning, expect some form of improvement.

The three linebackers are as good as any other WAC unit short of Boise State.  Bobby Wagner, Kyle Gallagher, and Junior Keiaho should team for more than 200 tackles.  Hopefully, not too many will be more than five yards downfield.

The defensive line returns three starters, but there is nothing special up front.  Actually, new starter Levi Koskan recorded more three more sacks than the three returning starters, who recorded ZERO SACKS!

The secondary had no chance last year with no pass rush.  Two starters return, and the two new starters saw considerable action last year.

If the Aggies can trim a touchdown off their defensive scoring average, they have a shot to emerge as the fourth bowl eligible WAC team.  Look for the defense to yield 26-31 points and 425-450 yards.

Schedule: The Aggies start the season at Oklahoma.  Assuming they have any depth left after that game, they should slaughter Idaho State.  If they are relatively healthy, game three could determine whether or not they can get over the hump and become the Idaho of 2009.  The Fresno State game in Logan is a make or break game.

Following that game, USU plays at San Diego State and then hosts BYU on Friday, October 1.  They should go 1-3 out of league play, so they will need five WAC wins to become bowl eligible.  They will have to beat either Fresno State or Louisiana Tech plus Hawaii to get there.  We believe they will come up one win short.

 

Coming Tomorrow: The Mountain West Conference—Can anybody beat TCU?  Are there six bowl eligible teams?

August 28, 2009

2009 Western Athletic Conference Preview

2009 Western Athletic Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

In the fourth in our series of conference previews, we take a look at the Western Athletic Conference, where Boise State has dominated this loop like no other team has dominated their conference in the 21st Century.  The Broncos have never lost a home game in the WAC, and they have won six of seven conference titles.  It took a 12-0 Hawaii team in 2007 to edge them in Honolulu to prevent them from a total skunking of the league.  The 2009 WAC preview was the first conference where the staff at the PiRate Ratings had to discuss at length before issuing predictions.  The raw preseason ratings gave Utah State the third best beginning rating, but none of us believed the Aggies will finish there, even though we all agree they are very much improved this year.

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, if New Mexico State was to get really lucky and host Texas or Oklahoma, it would be expected that the Longhorn or Sooner fans would find a way to get to Las Cruces and make it a home game for the visiting team.  However, if that same Aggie team hosted Army a week after Army played at Air Force, then the Aggies could enjoy as much as five points 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.

   

Western Athletic Conference Preseason Ratings

     

 

Prediction *

 
    Team

PiRate

WAC

Overall

 
    Boise State

109

7-1

10-2

 
    Nevada

98

7-1

9-3

 
    Utah State

96

4-4

5-7

 
    Fresno State

95

6-2

7-5

 
    Louisiana Tech

94

5-3

7-5

 
    San Jose State

92

4-4

5-7

 
    Hawaii

86

1-7

3-10

 
    New Mexico State

78

1-7

2-10

 
    Idaho

75

1-7

1-11

 
     

 

 

 

 
    *  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but  
    on expected changes to rating during the year  

 

Boise State: Can the Broncos run the table in the regular season yet again?  This year, we think that won’t happen for two reasons.  They have non-conference games against Oregon and Tulsa, and we think they will lose one of them.  Also, we believe Fresno State has an excellent shot to pull off the upset in conference play.  Now, we’re still picking BSU to win the conference, but we think it will be with one conference loss.

Quarterback Kellen Moore is already the second best passer in the WAC as a sophomore, and he should top 3,000 yards passing with 25-30 touchdown passes this year.  His percentage (69.4% in ’08) could drop a little because his receiving corps has less experience this season.  The running game could regress without former star Ian Johnson and with a question mark in the offensive line.

Defensively, there is a great deal of rebuilding to do in the front seven, where only two starters return.  The secondary is the strength of the team with safeties Jeron Johnson and George Iloka and cornerbacks Brandyn Thompson and Kyle Wilson leaps and bounds more talented than the next best WAC secondary.

Nevada: The Wolf Pack could play at Boise State on Black Friday with a chance to steal the conference championship.  If the game was played at Mackay Stadium, it might be a 50-50 proposition.  Nevada should have its best team this decade with most of the key elements returning to the defending top offense in the league and one of the best in the nation (509 total yards per game in ’08).

It all starts under center where quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the king of the WAC.  Last year, he rushed for 1,130 yards and passes for 2,849 yards, accounting for 39 touchdowns!  Factor out quarterback sacks, and he averaged over eight yards per rush.  He may rush less and pass more this year because Nevada returns the WAC’s top running back, a sure-handed wide receiver, and a tight end with great hands.  Add to it a strong recruiting class where one or two freshmen receivers could supply great depth.

That top running back is Vai Taua, who rushed for 1,521 yards with 15 touchdowns last year.  Taua reminds us some of Green Bay Packer Ryan Grant.  Behind Taua is a stable of able backs, so the Wolfpack should rush for 275-300 yards per game and could easily top six yards per rush again this season.

There are some new receivers this year, but they will be greatly aided by the fact that defense must try to stop or slow down the run first.  Look for Kaepernick to pass for around 250 yards per game.

The offensive line returns two excellent tackles.  Mike Gallett and Alonzo Durham both earned 2nd team All-WAC honors last year and both could make it to the first team this year.

Defensively, Nevada has liabilities, but they should be able to hold most opponents under 35 points.  With a team capable of easily topping 40 points per game, giving up 30 could be enough to challenge for the league crown.  The strength lies in the terminals as ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch combined for 36 tackles behind the line of scrimmage (21 ½ sacks).

The schedule may keep Nevada from a top 25 finish.  The Wolf Pack play at Notre Dame to open the season, and this game could be interesting for most of the day.  A road game at Colorado State could be the pivotal game.  Nevada can still have a decent year if they start 0-2, but they won’t challenge for the conference title after that.  A home game with a rebuilding Missouri team gives them a good shot at an upset, and the following game against UNLV should be exciting.  Unfortunately, the game with Boise State is on the field of blue, and we don’t believe Nevada is up to the task.  It looks like a second place finish and nine regular season wins.

Utah State: We double and triple-checked our statistical formula to make sure this rating was correct; it was.  The PiRate formula believes USU will be one of the five most improved teams in FBS football.  Personally, we believe they will be a better team, but not the third best in the WAC.

Gary Andersen takes over as head coach after serving as the defensive coordinator at Utah for five years.  The Aggies will shift to a no-huddle spread offense from the shotgun, and they have the talent on offense to make it go. 

Quarterback Diondre Borel isn’t as talented as the top passers in this league, but he should be able to approach 2,500 yards and 15-20 touchdowns.  A poor man’s Colin Kaepernick, Borel could approach 800 yards rushing as well.

Borel will have a boatload of average receivers at hand.  While none of them will be all-conference performers, the depth will allow Andersen to shuttle them in and keep them fresh.  Borel will need three of the receivers to step up because he has very little help in the backfield.

The offensive line will be stronger this season, and center Brennan McFadden will receive first place votes for all-WAC.  Look for the Aggies to rush for about 125 yards per game and pass for about 225.  It should give them a great shot at averaging more than 25 points per game for the first time in eight years.

The defense was really weak in 2008, and they face an added obstacle trying to improve this year.  USU games averaged 136 plays per game last year, and with the new offense, they will probably average close to 150 plays this year.  That should lead to about seven more defensive plays, so the Aggies will yield 30-35 points and 400 total yards per game again this year.

What will keep State from posting a winning record is their killer schedule.  Out of conference, they travel to Utah, Texas A&M, and BYU.  Only a home game with Southern Utah will give them a win prior to conference play.  What hurts more is that the weakest conference opponents host the Aggies, while the strongest teams come to Logan.  USU will not upset Boise State or Nevada at home, but Idaho, Hawaii, and New Mexico State cannot be counted as automatic wins.  It adds up to another losing season, but the Aggies could pull off an upset along the way.

Fresno State: The Bulldogs are almost always a tough team to beat, but they always lose to somebody they should have beaten.  That’s why FSU has always been the bridesmaid and never the bride in the WAC.  This year, Coach Pat Hill has enough talent on hand to play head-to-head at home with Boise State, but they could also lose to teams like San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, and even Utah State.

What’s keeping the Bulldogs from seriously challenging Boise State is an experienced quarterback.  Hill has stated that three different players will see playing time early in the season.  Whoever ends up as the regular will have one of the league’s top receivers as well as three other really good receivers at the other end of those passes.  Look for Seyi Ajirotutu to appear on the nation’s receiving leaders.  He could top 1,000 yards in receptions.

Three running backs who each topped 600 yards rushing return this year.  Anthony Harding, Lonyae Miller, and Ryan Matthews combined for 2,250 rushing yards and 19 scores, and they should top that mark this year.

The offensive line needs two new tackles, and with a new quarterback, that could mean a few extra sacks and interceptions. 

The Bulldog defense surrendered 31 points and 411 yards per game in 2008, and those figures are going to drop this season.  We see them coming in at 26 points and 380 yards.  The top four tacklers return from last year, as well as the top two pass defenders.  Look for middle linebacker Ben Jacobs to play for pay in two years.  He made 113 tackles and broke up five passes in 2008.  He’ll be an excellent Tampa 2 defender.

The schedule is manageable, and if the ball bounces the right way, Fresno could pull off a couple of road upsets against teams from BCS conferences.  We don’t see them winning at Illinois, but Cincinnati and Wisconsin are not impossible this year.  UC Davis provides an easy opening win, and all three quarterbacks could get some positive game experience.  The Boise State game is at Bulldog Stadium on Friday night, September 18.

Louisiana Tech: Long-time Georgia football coach Vince Dooley won more than 200 games in a quarter century in Athens.  Most of those teams moved the football by the rush.  Now, his son Derek is following in his footsteps.  Louisiana Tech may line up in the one back offense like most teams these days, but they still deliver the goods by running the ball more than 60% of the time.  Running back Daniel Porter rushed for 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and he’ll be running behind an offensive line that returns intact from last year.  He could top 1,500 yards this year.

The Bulldogs will not challenge for the WAC title this year unless the passing game improves by 50% or more.  Returning quarterback Ross Jenkins completed just 52.9% of his passes last year for only 1,155 yards and seven scores.  He needs to increase that number to 1,700 yards or more or else the offense will bog down against the WAC teams with good run defenses.  Phillip Livas is the best receiver on the team, but he will need some support.

Defensively, the Bulldogs will be tough again up front.  After allowing just 104 rushing yards per game in 2008, there’s a good chance that number will drop to double digits this season.  All four starting defensive linemen return as does three of the second team quartet.  The problem for LT is that they couldn’t stop an average passing attack last year, and unless some new secondary members become stars, the Bulldogs could give up 275 passing yards per game again this year.

The schedule begins with road games against Auburn and Navy.  The Bulldogs could start 0-2 and just as easily could start 2-0.  If they upset the Tigers and handle the Midshipmen, they should be 4-0 when they play Nevada in Reno on Friday night, October 9.  Boise State is a home game also played on a Friday night.  The only certain loss on the schedule this year is a game at LSU on November 14.  If the Bulldogs come up with any semblance of a passing game and pass defense, they could contend for the conference title.  Of course, conference titles are rather common in the Dooley family, with papa Vince and Uncle Bill owning a bundle of them.

San Jose State: Until the Spartans learn how to move the ball and score points, they will remain in the middle of the pack in the WAC.  SJSU averaged a paltry 283 total yards per game last year and less than 20 points per game.  The defense stayed on the field too long, and it collapsed late in the season.

The Spartans could only gain 87 rushing yards per game in 2008, and to make matters worse, they lost their only decent rusher.  That number should move into triple digits this year, even with a raw set of backs toting the pigskin.  All five starting offensive linemen from last year return.

Quarterback Kyle Reed could be one of the most improved quarterbacks in the league this year.  If a couple of competent receivers can be found, and if tight end Terrance Williams can continue to improve, we project that Reed could pass for more than 200 yards per game with a better TD/INT ratio this year (9/6 in ’08).  If the receivers don’t come through, then SJSU will continue to falter with an anemic offense.

The Spartan defense returns a top-flight front seven, but the back four could be suspect.  End Carl Ihenacho will compete for 1st team All-WAC honors this year after recording 18 ½ tackles behind the line with seven sacks last year.  Brother Duke Ihenacho anchors the second line of defense.  He recorded 5 ½ tackles behind the line, intercepted five passes, and broke up six others.

The secondary surrendered just 170 passing yards last year, but with three new starters, that number could inflate by 35-50 yards per game.

The schedule is the big bugaboo for the Spartans.  An opening game at Southern Cal, followed by a home game with Utah and a game up the road at Stanford could leave them at 0-3.  Fresno State, Boise State, and Louisiana Tech are also road games, so San Jose State would have to beat everybody else on their schedule to repeat the 6-6 record of last year.

Hawaii: June Jones is now two seasons removed from Hawaii, and the downslide in Honolulu will continue.  The Warriors no longer have the devastating passing game that can outscore opponents regardless of how porous the defense might be.  Now, the defense will be even weaker, while the offense is run of the mill.  It all adds up to a major drop in the standings.

The Warriors return just a pair of starters from a defense that yielded 29 points and 361 total yards per game.  Expect those numbers to climb to 35 points and 425 yards allowed.  The secondary will be torn to shreds by Moore, Kaepernick, Borel, and a few others.  Nary a player on the roster has ever started a game in the defensive backfield.

The front seven is only marginally more experienced as end John Fonoti and linebacker Brashton Satele return, but they were not major contributors last season.

The offense is pedestrian at best.  Without Jones and the great passing of Colt Brennan, Hawaii’s numbers fell from 43 to 25 points and 512 to 346 total yards per game.  Quarterback Greg Alexander returns after sharing starting duties last year.  Alexander has experience and depth in his receiving unit, so the Hawaii passing numbers should jump from about 250 to near 300 yards per game this year.

The running game needs improvement, but it’s doubtful those numbers will increase this year.  We figure Hawaii will be forced to pass more due to having to attempt to come back from deficits, and the offensive line may not be up to the task to open enough running lanes.

Another major problem this year are the special teams.  UH couldn’t keep a kicker on campus and didn’t know who would start until Scott Enos arrived late from a junior college.  A true freshman will be the punter.

The schedule is always tough when every road game travels from two to five time zones.  The road games this year find Hawaii travelling to Washington State, UNLV, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, Nevada, and San Jose State.  We believe they will go 0-6 in these games.  Navy, Wisconsin, and Central Arkansas visit Honolulu, as well as conference foes Fresno State, Boise State, Utah State, and New Mexico State.  It looks like the Warriors could be headed to double digit losses this year.

NOTE: Satele out for the season with a shoulder injury

New Mexico State: The Hal Mumme era is over in Las Cruces, and the Aggies could do no better than 4-8 during his tenure.  Enter DeWayne Walker, the former defensive coordinator at UCLA.  Walker’s Bruin defense held Southern Cal to nine points in a 2006 upset, and he coached UCLA in the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl after Karl Dorrell left.

Walker made some major changes when he assumed control.  Gone is the spread passing formation replaced by a more balanced attack.  With NMSU career passing leader Chase Holbrook gone, the job will be inherited by junior college transfer Jeff Fleming.  Expect the Aggie passing attack to shrink from over 300 passing yards per game to just over 200 yards per game.  Running backs Marquell Colston, Tommy Glenn, and Ronald Opetaia will get more carries this year after combining for 683 yards last year.  They will be running behind a line with about the same experience as last year’s line, but the extra rushing attempts (and the reduction in sacks from 44 by almost half) should add up to about 100 rushing yards per game compared to an NCAA 2nd worst 55.

The defense will begin to make strides toward respectability this year.  After surrendering 34 points and 380 yards per game last year, even with massive losses on the stop side.  A fine duo at linebacker returns in Jason Scott and Nick Paden.  The front four has no returning starters, so the pass rush and defense against the run should suffer some early until Walker can “coach ‘em up.”

The schedule gives NMSU a chance to get off to a fast start, and the Aggies could gain some confidence early.  They open at home against Idaho, and that game should be a toss-up.  Next, they host Prairie View.  That will be the last game where they will be favored to win.  Road trips to Ohio State, Boise State, and Louisiana Tech should be unpleasant.

Idaho: Coach Robb Akey’s Vandals doubled their win total last year from the year before, but unfortunately that meant a 2-10 record after a 1-11 record in 2007.  Idaho has not finished over .500 since 1999, and that streak will not end this year.

Quarterback Nathan Enderle returns this year after passing for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.  He also tossed 17 interceptions, but he often had to run for his life due to poor pass blocking.  The pass blocking may actually be weaker this year, so expect another year of turnovers.

The running backs may take some of the heat off the passing game.  Donte Jackson and Princeton McCarty combined for 1,176 yards, and Jackson has the potential to be a 1,000 yard rusher.

The passing game could suffer due to the loss of top receiver Eddie Williams, who had more than double the receptions of anybody else on the squad.

The defense was horrible last year, giving up 43 points and 472 yards per game!  Don’t expect much improvement this year, because three of the five decent defenders from last year have graduated.  The defensive line has no pass rushing threats, and the linebacking unit took a major hit.  The secondary returns three starters, but none of them would start at most of the other WAC schools.

The schedule is a killer for this team, and if the Vandals fail to win at New Mexico State in the season opener, it’s going to be a hard road to find a win on the schedule.  A home tilt against Hawaii could be the only other winnable game this year.

Next up: A look at Conference USA. Can this conference finally supply an at-large participant in a BCS Bowl?

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