Mountain West Football Preview

August 26th, 2009

Can someone else crash the BCS party?


Utah was able to qualify for the BCS thanks to an undefeated season and the necessary ranking in the final BCS poll. But what they did once the Allstate Sugar Bowl kicked off sent shockwaves throughout the college football world, harassing the Alabama offense from start to finish. The Utes’ 31-17 win over the Crimson Tide left no doubt as to which team was the better of the two, and it gave the Mountain West a solid platform on which to stand in discussing their merits for an automatic BCS bid. The arguments got all the way to Capitol Hill, but nothing’s been changed to the current format (ESPN’s deal runs from 2010 to 2013, so it’s doubtful anything happens before that contract ends).


What can the Mountain West do for an encore? They can grab another at-large berth, and the three teams who finished atop the conference standings in 2008 have more than enough ammunition to make a run. The defending champion Utes will have a new quarterback among seven new starters on offense. Three of those starters are on the offensive line with senior left tackle Zane Beadles leading the way. Quarterbacks Terrance Cain and Jordan Wynn will compete for snaps and both could very well see action this season. Matt Asiata is back at running back, but expect many players to get quality touches both in the backfield and at receiver.


Defensively Utah was slated to return seven starters with rover Stevenson Sylvester leading the way. But the defensive end who had the best ability to make up for the loss of Paul Kruger, Koa Misi, went down in fall camp with a back injury. While it’s doubtful that Misi will play in the opener against Utah State he should be back the following week against San Jose State. But there’s still more than enough talent on defense to get Utah through the first two games of the season. The hope is that by the time they visit Oregon (September 19th) Cain and/or Wynn will be comfortable in leading the offense.


TCU was the other Mountain West team ranked in the Top 10 at season’s end, and they could find themselves back in that realm due to a team that returns seven offensive starters. Senior QB Andy Dalton is a dependable option who can make plays with his arm or with his legs. Running back Joseph Turner also returns, and he was the team’s leading rusher in 2008. Gary Patterson’s team tends to look to a variety of options on offense instead of leaning upon a few choice stars.


And while the defense returns just four starters they do welcome back DE Jerry Hughes. Hughes was a headache for opposing offensive coordinators, racking up fifteen sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2008. TCU lost their top three tacklers from a season ago, but they do return four starters in the secondary. Add to this a schedule that lends itself to an undefeated run (Virginia and Clemson are both beatable) and it isn’t difficult to picture the Horned Frogs making a run at the BCS.


BYU has the toughest schedule of the three, opening with Oklahoma in the new Cowboys Stadium before hosting Florida State two weeks later. QB Max Hall, RB Harvey Unga and TE Dennis Pitta all return to Provo, but the Cougars have just four starters back on offense. And unfortunately for head coach Bronco Mendenhall guys have gotten hurt in fall camp. Left tackle Matt Reynolds broke his hand, and younger brother Houston will be out for the year due to a torn ACL. For a group that returned just two starters (Matt was one of those two) the missed time due to injury could have an effect on its chemistry.


Defensively the Cougars will be very good with eight starters back. Senior DE Jan Jorgensen leads the way up front and middle linebacker Matt Bauman also returns after leading the team with 108 tackles. The talent is there for BYU to make a run at the Mountain West title, and they host both TCU and Utah. They’ll also deal with slightly lowered expectations due to the tough early schedule, and the hype was an issue once things didn’t go as planned in 2008 (the loss to TCU).


There’s a clear separation between the top three teams and the rest of the Mountain West, which should make for entertaining matchups between teams in the middle of the league. Mike Sanford enters an important year at UNLV, and with fourteen returning starters the Rebels could surpass five wins for the first time since 2003. QB Omar Clayton had eighteen touchdown passes and just four interceptions last season, and backup Mike Clausen also saw time under center. More production will be needed from the passing game, especially with RB Frank Summers off to the NFL. Defensively, first team All-MWC LB Jason Beauchamp leads a unit that returns seven starters.


Air Force has had a solid two-year run under Troy Calhoun, winning seventeen games over that span. Tim Jefferson takes over full-time under center in their option attack, and the backfield has more than a few options with tailbacks Asher Clark and Kyle Lumpkin being among the returnees. Seven starters return to a Falcon defense that will look to improve upon its standing of fifth in the conference in total defense. Optimism abounds in Fort Collins as well, with Colorado State looking to build upon a season that included a bowl victory in Steve Fairchild’s first campaign.


The Rams will have seven starters back on offense, led by All-Mountain West receivers Rashaun Greer (first team) and Dion Morton (second team). But they’ll need to replace the production of running back Gartrell Johnson and quarterback Kyle Farris if they want to entertain any thought of finishing in the top half of the conference. The defense returns just five starters but leading tacklers Mychal Sisson and Ricky Brewer will both be back. Expect CSU to once again flirt with bowl eligibility, hoping for back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2002-03.


Wyoming and San Diego State both return seventeen starters, but cynics may note that it could be a negative since both also have new head coaches. Dave Christiansen arrives in Laramie following a successful stint as the offensive coordinator at Missouri. And while there’s no Chase Daniel or Jeremy Maclin he will have a senior quarterback in Karsten Sween who should be looking to close out an otherwise underwhelming career on a high note. The receivers are there for Sween to do just that; it remains to be seen if the coaching change improves his production.


The Aztecs have long been described as a sleeping giant due to the recruiting resources at their disposal. Well, they’ve fallen into a virtual coma in recent seasons, and the fans hope that Brady Hoke is the answer. Hoke led Ball State to a MAC West crown in 2008 on the strength of Nate Davis’ throwing arm. QB Ryan Lindley took his fair share of lumps in 2008 yet still finished with sixteen touchdown passes to nine interceptions. Returning leaders abound on the ground and through the air, putting the onus on a defense that was dead last in the conference to make improvements. While it’s too much to expect big things from San Diego State this season do not be surprised if they surprise someone.


New Mexico also welcomes a new head coach in Mike Locksley, who replaces Rocky Long. The question is what they’ll get from the quarterback position; Donovan Porterie was largely disappointing last season, eventually losing his job to Brad Gruner. With the loss of RB Rodney Ferguson the Lobos will need more from the passing game, which also returns wide receivers Chris Hernandez, Bryant Williams and Roland Bruno. New Mexico will also have a lot of rebuilding to do on defense with just three starters returning to a unit that ranked forth in the Mountain West. Three of their top four tacklers are back, led by middle linebacker Clint McPeek (103 tackles).


As for a winner, look for the Horned Frogs to edge out BYU, despite the fact that they have to visit Provo on October 24th. Utah could be a spoiler but the fact that they have to visit both of the other two contenders will do them no favors. Can the conference add more evidence to the idea that they deserve an automatic seat at the BCS table? They’ve got a pretty good shot to do just that.


Storyline: Can any of the top three teams make a run at the BCS? BYU has the schedule best suited to make national waves (Oklahoma and Florida State), but TCU may have the best schedule in terms of possibly going undefeated. Virginia isn’t expected to be very good, and Clemson has talent but will break in a new quarterback in Kyle Parker.


Players of the Year: QB Max Hall (BYU) and DE Jerry Hughes (TCU)


How they’ll finish

1.      TCU

2.      BYU

3.      Utah

4.      UNLV

5.      Air Force

6.      Colorado State

7.      San Diego State

8.      Wyoming

9.      New Mexico


Next: Mountain West Ultimate Schedule