Ever since its formation in 1999, the Mountain West Conference has had lofty aspirations. Breaking away from the watered-down WAC, the eight universities that made up the new conference hoped to create a more competitive league and make a name for themselves on a national level. In terms of being competitive, the MWC has succeeded in establishing parity; upsets are so common that they're hardly considered upsets, and only once in the league's five-year history has any team gone through conference play undefeated. In terms of earning national respect, there have been several very good MWC teams, but arguably no great ones, and while MWC squads have beaten dozens of opponents from BCS* conferences and won their fair share of bowl games, they haven't won quite enough to change their status. The principal goal of the MWC remains, quite simply, to break through - to be nationally competitive and belong in the same conversation with the other power conferences. They're like your kid brother. They're going to keep coming, and coming, until they manage to beat you.
One of the Big-10 favorites, Minnesota, travels to the Hughes Stadium to face the dangerous CSU Rams. Wyoming will host Ole Miss of the SEC in Laramie. The highly-regarded Cal Bears will have to brave Falcon stadium and the option attack of Air Force. An angry BYU squad will try to upset the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the top-ranked USC Trojans in Provo. Texas A&M and North Carolina will travel to Rice-Eccles stadium to face the Utah Utes. And New Mexico will play host to Texas Tech and Washington State. A .500 non-conference record against the big boys would go a long ways towards proving that the Mountain West Conference belongs.
Now, let's consider the conference race itself.
Colorado State Rams
Even though Quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt has gone on to the NFL, CSU has always been competitive with Sonny Lubick at the helm. And while the loss of Van Pelt is huge, his replacement, Justin Holland, is no greenhorn (so to speak). He may in fact even be a better passer than Van Pelt was. He certainly has a stronger arm. Junior WR standout David Anderson was probably the best WR in the league last year, hauling in 72 passes for 1293 yards, and the highly skilled TE/H-back Joel Dreesen, who looks to be healthy for his senior year, is a great third down threat. These two headline a solid corps of returning targets and talented freshmen for Justin to get the ball to.
One of the big differences between the good and very good CSU teams of the last few years has been the effectiveness of the Ram ground game. Fortunately for Ram fans, they are deep at RB. Jimmy Green and Marcus Houston appear to be the top candidates to lead the Rams in this area. The real question mark for the CSU offense is the offensive line. CSU has a couple of very strong linemen in Eric Pears and Michael Brisiel, but the rest of the line is unproven, and depth is real issue. The young players will have to become better as the season goes on.
If CSU can be consistent in running for short first down yardage, then the Rams will have a very balanced offensive attack. Expect them to put it together by the time conference play rolls around, even if they struggle early.
The real issue for CSU in 2004 is their defense, more specifically, their secondary and pass defense, which cost them several games last year, including an opening loss to arch-rival Colorado. Colorado State only returns four defensive starters, but considering how last year went, that might not be such bad news. It also didn't help that the Ram's defensive coordinator left for UCLA last year. Defensive Coordinator Steve Stanard will need to pull this unit together quickly.
Lubick is the best coach in the league, and he wins consistently when he has the tools. He and his staff are also great developers of young talent. If the OL and defense can stay relatively healthy and gel in 2004, and young players can turn into solid contributors, then CSU will contend for the league title. If not, they'll be pushed aside by a more fortunate contender. While a road date with USC appears daunting, games at Colorado and at home against Minnesota are winnable for the Rams, and will tell much about what one can expect from them in conference play.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: vs. Colorado Buffaloes
San Diego State Aztecs
Two years ago, the Aztecs had an explosive passing game and a prolific offense. One year ago, they had a stifling league-leading defense. This year, they hope maintain their defensive strength while generating more offense so that they can turn moral victories, such as the 13-16 scare they put into Ohio State in Columbus, into real victories.
One of the best days during the off-season for head coach Tom Craft had to have been the day that linebacker Kirk Morrison opted not to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft. With the All-Conference (some say All-American) senior anchoring the defense, the Aztecs return 16 starters from last year's team and are considered among the league's most dangerous squads.
Their weakness in 2003 was offensive anemia, as the Aztecs averaged a meager 13 points in each of their six losses. If the SDSU offense is to return to its 2002 form, it will be heavily dependent both upon WR standout Jeff Webb, who caught 55 balls last year, and a fully-recovered sophomore RB Lynell Hamilton, who rushed for 1082 yards in 10 games as a freshman before going down with a serious leg injury. QB Matt Dlugolecki also returns, although early indications from Fall Camp are that the QB spot is up for grabs.
SDSU's early schedule is like Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde. They start out against I-AA Idaho State and then travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan. They then face Nevada at home before going on the road again to face UCLA. For the Aztecs to have a successful non-conference run and position themselves to have a shot at the MWC title, they will need to have their offense come together early. In the meantime, one can only hope that Hamilton has been receiving the best medical care possible. If he's healthy, the Aztecs will be a legitimate threat to beat everyone they will play.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: @ UCLA Bruins
The Utes have been accused of having a soft schedule, but one never knows. Texas A&M, North Carolina, and Arizona are all capable of having decent years. It's not Utah's fault that their non-conference scheduling happened to coincide with declines in those programs.
The Utes are loaded. They return 17 starters from last years Liberty Bowl and MWC championship team.
Their Junior quarterback Alex Smith is very good at not making mistakes that beat his team - an unfortunate hallmark of previous Ute quarterbacks - and he's an effective runner as well. WR's Paris Warren and Steven Savoy are big, strong, fast, and excellent receivers. RB Marty Johnson returns from suspension and hopes to remain healthy. He ran for over 500 yards in his previous three games as a Ute.
Defensive Coordinator Kyle Whittingham has put together a fantastic unit. Ask Southern Mississippi about being shutout in the Liberty Bowl. This unit put quarterbacks on their backs all year long and helped the team to big wins against Oregon and Cal in 2003.
Still, depth remains a question at the skill positions, particularly at quarterback, and while the safety Morgan Scalley anchors a solid defensive backfield, a team that can hold up the pressure can pass on the Ute's man coverage.
Everything went Utah's way last year. Expect them to be in contention again. 2004 may be different however, because everyone has the Utes in their sights. The game at New Mexico, and the home bout against arch-rival BYU are the most dangerous games on Utah's schedule.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: Texas A&M
Question Marks (3)
Air Force Falcons
While many pick the Falcons to struggle in 2004, history would suggest otherwise. Air Force's football tradition under head coach Fisher DeBerry is such that the Falcons end up being competitive almost every year. With only six starters returning however, it's easy to see why the MWC media picked the Falcons to finish 7th in the league.
Another factor with the Air Force is depth. The Falcons are rarely deep enough to handle lots of injuries and they tend to fade as a result as the season goes on. It's common for other MWC teams to pay attention to when they play the Falcons - be it early in the year, or later. It's considered good fortune to draw the Falcons at year's end.
The key to the Air Force option attack is the Quarterback. The Falcons enjoyed the skill and savvy of Chance Harridge for two years. In 2003, Adam Fitch was the designated starter, but he has since gone down with an injury and won't be available until mid year. Now the task falls to one of two competitors - Junior Andy Gray or Freshman Shaun Carney, who both seem to be capable. DeBerry does tend to start upper classmen, but while Carney may be a freshman, he prepped in the Air Force system. The latest word from Falcon scrimmages is that they're both still fighting for the starting spot.
Regardless of who the starting quarterback is, if they decide to air the ball out, WR Alec Messerall is a highly underrated threat who can routinely beat man coverage and provide one of the counter threats that makes the option attack so effective. Darnell Stephens also returns at running back to take the heat off of the new quarterback.
The real hallmark of the great Falcon teams - aside from their heady option quarterbacks - has been a strong defense. Recent scandals and graduation have eroded much of last year's solid defense, so this is a huge question mark. LB John Rudzinski and DB Nate Allen are solid players, but the defensive line is a big question mark. In order to stay within striking distance of early opponents, like the high-octane Cal Bears, the Falcons will need to have several players emerge.
In the end, one has to spot Air Force points because their system has been so effective over the years and because they tend to reload rather than rebuild on offense. On the other hand, they have several question marks and the defense, in particular, may take a while to learn to play together. They may threaten to make a run at the MWC title next year, but this year will likely be a rare down one for the Academy.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: California
This is the league's mystery team. BYU recruits as well as anyone in the league, has the largest fan base, the best facilities etc. What can go wrong? In a word: turnovers. Last year's campaign was an unmitigated disaster. After starting out the year with nice wins over Georgia Tech and New Mexico, and after holding their own against the mighty USC Trojans on the road, BYU lost their starting QB, Matt Berry, and the season tanked with him. Before the year was over, BYU's turnover margin was -14. The turnovers also seemed to come at the worst possible times - blocked kicks returned for touchdowns, fumbles and interception inside their own 20. Week after week the Cougar faithful turned out only to see new lows in self-destruction, as the Cougars gave away games against Air Force, Wyoming, and Stanford, and were obliterated by Notre Dame, Boise State and Colorado State. It is a season Cougar fans would prefer not to remember.
Fortunately, the prospect of success in 2004 may provide Cougar fans with an opportunity to practice selective amnesia. Usually prone to being overhyped, this year's edition of the Cougars may actually be significantly underrated.
It starts with the defense. One bright spot from 2003 was the emergence of the new Cougar Defense. Bronco Mendenhall joined the coaching staff last year and led a revolution that saw the Cougars move from 83rd to 14th in total defense. All-Conference DE Brady Poppinga headlines a defensive line that is legitimately seven or eight men deep, and may turn out to be one of the better defensive lines in BYU history. Last year's LBs are all gone, but the new starters are strong. JC transfer Justin Luettgerodt was a JC All-American, and another transfer, MLB Cameron Jensen, was recruited heavily by Oklahoma. Behind them roams the Cougarback, Aaron Francisco, who had 116 tackles last year. BYU employs an attacking defensive style, similar to New Mexico, filled with disguised blitzes and strange alignments. The most glaring weakness in the cougar defense is depth at cornerback, where Bronco will have to use freshmen or JC transfers to shore up the outside.
Offensively, the Cougars feel that they've improved significantly. They return two quarterbacks, Junior Matt Berry and Sophomore John Beck, who both had significant playing time last year, and both have become healthy and more familiar with the offensive system during the off-season. A recruiting emphasis on receiving talent has landed them several up-and-coming players to get the ball to. One in particular, Junior Todd Watkins, has raised eyebrows repeatedly in practice, as his 6'3" size and 4.28 40 speed allow him to get deep and demand double-coverage. As usual, the cougars are stacked at Tight End, with Sophomore Dan Coates leading the way. Off-season scandals and turmoil led to the departure of several running backs from the program, but Sophomore Curtis Brown and Junior Fahu Tahi should provide plenty of skill at that position. Depth will have to come from freshmen and transfers. BYU also brought in a new coach for the offensive line: Jeff Grimes coached at Arizona State before joining the Cougars this year, and the level of discipline, effort and technique being demanded by him, and employed by the line in practice, is noticeably higher than it was in 2003.
Head Coach Gary Crowton is on the hot seat, and deservedly so. The Cougars have gotten away from being competitive. Part of it is that the MWC has gotten better, and part of it is that BYU has gotten worse. The schedule is demanding, featuring home dates against USC and Notre Dame, as well as road games at Boise State and at Stanford.
BYU will be better this year, the question is whether or not it will be enough to win against this schedule and save Crowton's job. It all starts with the first game. If the Cougars can beat the Irish, it will be an indication that the line play is returning to form and that an MWC contender may have re-emerged. If they lose to the Irish, look for the Cougars to struggle.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: Notre Dame
New Mexico Lobos
Last year was supposed to be the year. The Lobos returned a huge offensive line, some great running backs, and a stingy defense, but it didn't happen. Yes, the Lobos had a strong 5-2 finish in MWC play, yes, they manhandled Utah on the Ute's own field, but road games at Texas Tech and Washington State ended in disappointing defeats, home tilts against lowly conference foes BYU and UNLV resulted in narrow losses, and a season-ending Bowl game ended up being an embarrassing loss.
What happened, or rather, what didn't happen, was offensive balance. RB Dontrell Moore is a fantastic player, but he, QB Casey Kelly, and the other RBs took a beating as teams tended to load up against the run. There were games in which the Lobos broke out and dominated teams with their running attack - such as the Utah game - but there were others - most of their losses in fact, where they were held in the teens or even single digits. In order to break out and get to the next level, the Lobos will need more than just a good rushing attack and a stingy defense. They will need to be able to pass effectively.
Offensively, they have a chance to be good. Moore is a legitimate All-American talent, and several starters return on the offensive line to create holes for him to run through, including Claude Terrell and Center Ryan Cook. There's enough continuity to expect the running game to thrive. The question is whether or not the Lobos will be able to pass.
Defensively, the Lobos are not so much about personnel as they are about a system. Nick Spiegel, LB and Gabriel Fullbright, CB, will anchor the attacking 3-3-5 defensive system employed by Rocky Long. They will take risks and get burned sometimes, but they'll also get in the heads of many young quarterbacks and cause havoc in the backfield.
New Mexico's non-conference schedule is ambitious. They will face Washington State and Texas Tech at home early before going on the road in an attempt to avenge their Vegas Bowl defeat to the Beavers of Oregon State.
In all likelihood, this will be a rebuilding year for the Lobos, but MWC foes should take warning. Rocky Long has led his team to a better record in each of the past several years. He is a program builder. If the Lobos slip this year, it won't be by much, and they will definitely generate an upset or two in conference play.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: Washington State
It's difficult to categorize UNLV. They have lots of speed and talent. They absolutely terrorized Wisconsin in Madison last year. But they lost several games they shouldn't have and self-destruct with more regularity than Palestinian martyrs. Consequently, the Rebels will remain in the longshot category until they prove otherwise.
Defensively, the Rebels should be outstanding. Safety Jamaal Brimmer had 6 interceptions in 2003. He was the defensive leader, blitzing opportunely to sack quarterbacks or stuff rushers and coming up with great plays in the defensive backfield time and time again. He just made big plays. LB Adam Seward is no slouch himself. He finished second in the league in tackles per game, and teammates Joe Miklos and Ryan Claridge weren't far behind. The problem for the Rebel D was that they were on the field far too much because their offense could not control the ball. That's part of how they got so many tackles.
It's not as if the Rebels aren't talented on offense either. WR Earvin Johnson is a terrific talent. Tall and athletic, he managed to catch 60 balls last year. Tight End Greg Estandia is an outstanding target as well, and he looks to be healthy this year. QB Kurt Nantkes was erratic in 2003, but to his credit, he also played hurt. Rebel fans are optimistic that newly-christened offensive coordinate, Bruce Snyder, a former head coach in the Pac-10, will be able to energize the talented Rebel offense, and be less predictable in play-calling than John Robinson has been over the past few years.
The Rebel defense should win a few games by itself. If the offense can put it together, UNLV could move from long-shot to contender quickly. They may be the league's surprise team when all is said and done, but they'll have to stay healthy while visiting Wisconsin and Tennessee on the road early in the season.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: @ Wisconsin
Cowboy coach Joe Glenn has led teams to championships at other levels. Home wins in 2003 against hated rivals BYU and CSU, followed by raucous celebrations in the streets of Laramie, demonstrate that he's been successful at re-energizing a Wyoming program that had lost its shine under its two previous coaches. The 'Boys were more competitive in 2003 than their record showed.
Still, the Cowboys come into 2004 with their six-shooter only half-loaded. Wyoming has only filled 75 of their allotted 85 scholarships, and much of the offensive firepower that made them dangerous last year has graduated.
QB Corey Brammlett has replaced his older brother Casey. His top returning target is Junior WR Jovon Boughknight, who should be able to become a go-to guy. The Cowboys are also banking on JC-transfer RB Joe Harris to provide a running game. A relatively experienced Offensive Line may give them time to grow. Then again, they may not. Brammlett took a lot of hits last year.
Defensively, the Cowboys return several gritty players (something Wyoming always seems to have no end of) who will be led by a senior linebackers Randy Tscharner, Guy Tuell. Each of which were among the MWC leaders in tackles in 2003.
2003 showed that Wyoming has gone from doormat to dangerous. Joe Glenn is a great coach, and he will turn Wyoming around and make them a contender, but he's at least one or two recruiting classes away from doing so.
Best Opportunity to Bloody an Upturned BCS Nose: Ole Miss
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Utah 5-2 (I'll take Utah by virtue of the fact that they host the Rams
* Yes, I know that the definition of a "BCS Conference" has changed, but who are we kidding? It's just a change in semantics. This is still an Orwellian drama wherein some, namely those with auto-bids, are more equal than others.
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