There’s been a lot of talk about the BCS hopes of BYU this offseason, and with good reason. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall welcomes back ten starters on offense, most notably quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga. And while the defense returns just three starters from a year ago, defensive end Jan Jorgensen (14 sacks in 2007) is back along with a cast of players who despite the lack of starting experience did contribute to last year’s 11-2 campaign. Add to this a schedule that outside of the MWC is manageable (the trip to Washington can be a challenge, but they get UCLA at home) and you have on paper the makings of a seat at the table with the BCS party at season’s ends.
But to focus solely on the Cougars would be unfair to Kyle Whittingham’s Utah team, who may also have the ability to crash the BCS party. QB Brian Johnson, who when healthy is an absolute headache for opposing defenses to deal with, is back for his final season along with seven other starters on offense. The defense could stand to improve some against the run (52nd in 2007), but they still ranked 18th nationally in total defense last year. And kicker Louie Sakoda is one of the country’s best, giving the Utes a nice security blanket in tight ball games. And other than the season opener at Michigan, they also have a manageable non-conference slate.
Utah @ BYU (November 22nd). Mark that one on your calendar.
But in their quest to hit a major payday come January, both teams will have to be aware of some dangerous opponents within the Mountain West. After failing to validate the expectations of some and be that next “it” team from outside the BCS leagues, TCU could very well be a darkhorse to win the league. But the hang-ups for the Horned Frogs could be on the defensive line, where they have to replace Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake, and in the kicking game where they have to replace their kicker and punter. TCU will host BYU in mid-October in a game that will go a long way in setting the tempo for the season’s stretch run.
Rocky Long is another head coach in the MWC that employs the 3-3-5 defensive scheme, and for that reason alone New Mexico has the ability to deal with the loss of five starters and defensive coordinator Osia Lewis, who is now at UTEP. Donovan Porterie is back at quarterback for the Lobos, but they have to find replacements for dynamic receivers Marcus Smith and Travis Brown, both of whom were all-conference selections in 2007. Air Force, who surprised many with their 9-4 record under first-year head coach Troy Calhoun, will only return ten starters but you know the Falcons will be in the running for a bowl bid come season’s end. Due to their lack of returning experience there may be a larger gap between them and the top four, but they could shock someone lat in the season (they host BYU November 15th).
Joe Glenn’s Wyoming squad opened the season with wins over Virginia and Utah State, only to go 3-7 the rest of the way. The Cowboys head into 2008 looking to end their four-game losing streak, and improvement on offense is a must if they are to improve upon their 5-7 record. The Pokes, who ranked last in the conference in total offense, will choose between incumbent Karsten Sween and junior college transfer Dax Crum at quarterback. Wyoming also welcomes back seven defensive starters to a unit that ranked 22nd nationally in total defense in 2007. Defensive tackle John Fletcher may be the best player on this side of the football.
The bottom three in the Mountain West all seem to be programs in a state of flux. Despite being in an area rich in scholastic talent, San Diego State has struggled to make a serious move up the standings. Eight starters return to a defense that was anything but a strength in 2007 (115th in total defense). And with just four starters back on offense, the defense may have to be that pillar of strength in the early going. Whether or not the Aztecs have the horses to do so is something we’re going to find out early, with a trip to Notre Dame September 6th.
Colorado State welcomes back alum Steve Fairchild, who replaces Sonny Lubick with hopes of revitalizing the Ram program. First thing on the agenda will be finding a replacement for three-year starter Caleb Hanie. And it’s been a tough road for Mike Sanford at UNLV, racking up a record of 6-29 in his first three seasons in charge. But with an early schedule that includes trips to Utah and Arizona State (along with home games against Iowa State and Nevada); there may not be much advancement in the win column this season. While there are some teams capable of playing the role of spoiler in the Mountain West race, right now it looks like there are only two thoroughbreds capable of running with the BCS schools.
Players of the Year: QB Brian Johnson (Utah) and DE Jan Jorgensen (BYU)
Coach of the Year: Bronco Mendenhall (BYU)
Newcomers of the Year: WR Ryan Gardner (Colorado State) and LB Gabe Knapton (Wyoming)
Top Three Non-Conference Games
1. Utah @ Michigan (August 30th): The Utes are more than capable of winning this game, especially with Michigan bringing in a new coaching staff and system.
2. TCU @ Oklahoma (September 27th): The last time the Horned Frogs visited Norman they left with a victory. And that was back in 2005, when OU had a running back by the name of Adrian Peterson.
3. UCLA @ BYU (September 13th): For the third time within a year these two get together, with UCLA winning at home and BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The rubber match could be the game that sets BYU’s BCS run in motion.
Conference Game of the Year
Utah @ BYU (November 22nd): This series, nicknamed the “Holy War”, is an affair that is heated and in recent years has come down to the fourth quarter- if not the final play. Who knows, both could head into this showdown in Provo undefeated.
How they’ll finish
4. New Mexico
5. Air Force
7. San Diego State
8. Colorado State