Could this be the third straight season the champion of the WAC crashes the BCS party? Most people like BYU in the Mountain West, but there are two teams in the WAC that could possibly snatch a berth. Fresno State is thought to have its best team in the Pat Hill era, and that just may be the case with QB Tom Brandstater back for his senior season leading ten offensive starters. The key to their hopes will be improving a defensive unit that ranked 73rd in total defense last season. And given their “anyone, anywhere, anytime” attitude in regards to the non-conference slate (@ Rutgers, Wisconsin, @ Toledo and @ UCLA), the tough schedule outside of the WAC is looked at as an opportunity instead of a challenge in the Valley.
Boise State could make their second BCS appearance in the last three years, led by a deep backfield which features Ian Johnson, D.J. Harper and Jeremy Avery. They only return fourteen starters overall, but the Broncos bring back enough players who were a part of the rotation on both sides of the football to make a seamless transition. Boise State’s non-conference schedule doesn’t lack for challenges either, with trips to Oregon and Southern Miss on the schedule.
After the top two, there will be a tough time figuring out where the next four teams will finish. New Mexico State returns one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chase Holbrook, but the Aggies need to improve on defense (94th in total defense in 2007) if they’re to have any shot a bowl bid. Chris Ault’s Nevada squad returns eight offensive starters, including sophomore quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who should have an even better grasp of the “Pistol” offense. But they return just four starters on defense, most notably linebacker Joshua Mauga.
Hawaii lost June Jones to SMU, and he’ll be replaced by defensive coordinator Greg McMackin. The good news is that he knows the program well. The bad news is that QB Colt Brennan and a talented quartet of wide receivers are all gone. Not to mention losing Tyler Graunke to off-field issues and this will leave UH without an experienced signal caller. Just nine starters return for the Warriors in 2008, but keep an eye on linebacker Solomon Elimimian. San Jose State has to replace one of the country’s best cornerbacks in Dwight Lowery, but sidekick Christopher Owens is back for his final campaign. He’ll have to lead a secondary in which he’s the only returning starter. Their big question mark on the other side of the ball is who will play quarterback: Myles Eden, Kyle Reed, Jordan LaSecla or Sean Flynn.
Louisiana Tech did some good things in their first season under Derek Dooley, taking Hawaii to overtime and finishing the season 5-7. With eight starters back on offense, the main thing the Bulldogs need is a starting quarterback, and they’ll welcome Georgia Tech transfer Taylor Bennett into the fold along with Ross Jenkins and Steven Ensminger. While the Bulldogs could make their way up the standings in 2008, the same may not apply to Idaho and Utah State.
Rob Akey enters his second season in Moscow with his work cut out for him, but the good news is that seventeen starters return, including all eleven on offense. Running back Deonte Jackson was the WAC’s second-leading rusher last season, averaging just under ninety-eight yards per game. The task of rebuilding is a bit tougher for Brent Guy at Utah State, but nine defensive starters are due back in Logan this season. Linebacker Jake Hutton was a second-team all-conference selection last season, but the Aggies were one of the nation’s worst on both sides of the football. Add to this a non-conference schedule that includes a trip to Oregon and home games against BYU and Utah and you have the makings for a rough 2008.
Players of the Year: QB Chase Holbrook (New Mexico State) and LB Adam Leonard (Hawaii)
Coach of the Year: Pat Hill (Fresno State)
Newcomers of the Year: QB Taylor Bennett (Louisiana Tech) and CB Coye Francies (San Jose State)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Wisconsin @ Fresno State (September 13th): Give Wisconsin credit for taking this game in the first place, an act that they may regret on the flight back to Madison. If the Bulldogs win this one and get to 2-0 (provided they beat Rutgers September 1st), look out BCS.
2. Boise State @ Oregon (September 20th): This game will be the first major roadblock for the Broncos. Autzen Stadium is one of the nation’s loudest stadiums, meaning that BSU will have their work cut out for them.
3. Texas Tech @ Nevada (September 6th): The Wolf Pack may not win this game, but this game is one that could light up the scoreboard. First one to fifty wins? Maybe.
Conference Game of the Year
Fresno State @ Boise State (November 28th): The schedule makers got this one right, placing this game at the end of the regular season. At the least, the WAC title could be on the line. But if one (or both) of these teams can get to this point undefeated, a whole lot more could be on the line.