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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