The 2009 SB Nation Mountain West Conference college football preview is coming from the Mountain West Connection, Utah blog BlockU, BYU blog Vanquish The Foe, and Mid Major Madness. The Mountain West is trying to put on an encore presentation from the unparalleled success from 2008 which featured Utah winning its second BCS bowl in four years by defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and finishing with a number two ranking in the AP poll.
Then there was TCU who also finished the season in the top 10 with an impressive 11-2 record, and then BYU who completed its third straight 10 wins season and finished the 2009 season in the top 25.
This year the preseason polls are still in love with the Mountain West with the three usual suspects --BYU, Utah, and TCU-- being represented in both top 25 polls. The obvious big question for the league is what team, if any, will make it to a BCS bowl game.
The Mountain West over the summer desperately tried to force the hand by waiting until the elevnth hour to sign the BCS agreement and presenting a playoff proposal to possibly bring on change. None of those seemed to work, so all the Mountain West can do is keep winning games and hope it is enough to garner BCS inclusion when the four year evaluation cycle ends after the 2011 season.
The league also has new coaches with Mike Locksley taking over at New Mexico after serving as offensive coordinator at Illionois, Dave Christensen coming from the offensive coordinator post from Missouri to take over for 'Cowboy' Joe Glenn at Wyoming, and finally Brady Hoke left Ball State after a great season to become the head man at San Diego State.
The league has scheduled big again by facing 14 teams from four of the six BCS leagues with only the SEC and Big 10 off the schedule this year.
The projected order of finish is voted using 9 points for first place through 1 point for ninth place.
1.TCU 34 (2 first place votes)
2.BYU 33 (2 first place votes)
4.Air Force 22
6.Colorado State 14
7.New Mexico 13
7.San Diego State 13
The most likely option would have to be San Diego State or New Mexico, since they bring in new coaches. While I have both finishing with a losing conference record, I don't think it's impossible one of them climbs high enough to break even and receive a bowl bid.
Adam from Vanquish The Foe:
UNLV. Mike Sanford’s club returns 8 starters on defense – including Preseason All-Conference selection Jason Beauchamp at OLB. The Rebels won 5 games in 2008, including the upset of then 15th ranked Arizona State in Tempe. The offense also returns 6 starters – including WR Ryan Wolfe, an All-Conference 1st Team selection last season. With Brian Johnson (Utah) graduated, junior Omar Clayton could be the most versatile quarterback in the conference. UNLV has a real chance of a win at Texas A&M and could very well improve upon last season and become bowl eligible in 2009.
Has to be UNLV and it is not even close. If not for a monumental letdown against San Diego State 41-21 which would have made the Rebels bowl eligible. The Rebels are my super-extreme darkhorse to win the Mountain West, but do not have the guts to put in the preseason rankings. There is rationale behind that and it comes is in their schedule because they get two of the big three at home in Utah and BYU.
Plus remember when UNLV shutout Utah in 2007 at Sam Boyd Stadium, and in 2008 the BYU game at LaVell Edwards stadium came down to the wire with backup quarterback Mark Clausen getting significant snaps while starter Omar Clayton was out with an injury.
Their tough road conference games are at Air Force and TCU. It all starts with QB Omar Clayton who is finally a fit for Mike Sanford's spread attack and toss in potential All-American WR Ryan Wolfe and the Rebels should be much improved, all they need is to find a serviceable running back to replace Frank Summers who went to the NFL.
I think you have to go with quarterback Max Hall at BYU. If he's taken out for even a few games, it could cost them any hope of a decent season. I just don't see their defense carrying the team without Hall and I'm not sold on backup Riley Nelson.
Adam from Vanquish The Foe:
The conventional answer would appear to be Max Hall, BYU’s QB. But I’m going to actually go with a pair of DE’s: BYU’s Jan Jorgensen and TCU’s Jerry Hughes. Without Jorgensen the Cougar’s pass-rush is dramatically reduced, and with an inexperienced secondary and no standout linebacker like Bryan Kehl and David Nixon of previous years, Bronco Mendenhall will be relying heavily on last year’s all-conference first team selection. In fact, without Jorgensen I think BYU finishes behind both TCU and Utah, again.
Jerry Hughes is quite simply the best defensive player in the conference and an excellent NFL prospect. He anchors TCU’s defensive line, but at least Hughes has Daryl Washington behind him at linebacker to create plays. Still, if Gary Patterson’s team wants to reach the BCS they’ll need Hughes healthy – especially for games at Clemson and BYU.
Hard to argue anyone but BYU quarterback Max Hall, the only othe player that might cause his team failuer is Utah running back Matt Asiata just because of the inexperience at quarterback. Back to Hall, who is a senior quarterback and if you back into BYU history they typically win conference titles with senior quarterbacks.
3. Does a team from the MWC make a BCS game?
No. I think TCU and BYU have about an even shot at reaching the BCS but I think they’ll each stumble somewhere, and the conference doesn’t appear as deep as 2008. BYU’s non-conference schedule against Oklahoma and Florida State will not allow them to lose a MWC game if they want to reach the BCS.
I’m not saying Max Hall and Co. have no chance against the Sooners, but with that banged up offensive line it is extremely unlikely. Injuries (Matt Reynolds, Jason Speredon, and Houston Reynolds) could also potentially be a big factor and prevent the Cougars from getting what would be a major win against the Seminoles in Provo. TCU’s non-conference opponents aren’t as tough - but they could have a tough time with Clemson in South Carolina.
I think Utah has a remote possibility, coming off of last season’s success – but don’t expect them to beat Oregon, TCU and BYU all on the road without some of those key players who’ve since graduated.
With BYU's schedule they can make the BCS. Even if they lose a close game to Oklahoma the first week of September, they can then win out and still go to the BCS. Any other loss, and the MWC has no team in the BCS. Utah won't because they plat at TCU and BYU. And TCU plays at BYU which hasn't lost in 18 games in Provo. That leaves BYU as the lone dog at the top.
TCU will be making their first ever BCS bowl game. It could be that I am high on the MWC but their schedule sets up the best for a BCS run (sorry BYU fans when a loss is nearly certain the schedule is not set up for you this year) with their toughest game at BYU in late October.
Clemson is tricky but they always seem to underachive each year, Virigina is nothing special, and the rest of the non-conference is Texas State and SMU. The toughest conference game is at BYU who have won 18 straight entering the season, but last year the biggest problem for BYU was their offensive line stopping TCU's defensive line. TCU does only return four starters on defense, but Gary Patterson always has players in the wings to step up, plus this is the year the offense finally steps it up to the same level as the defense.
Air Force by BlockU:
BYU by BlockU
Asking a Ute fan to preview BYU is a lot like asking Rush Limbaugh to critique President Obama. But I'll try to be as non-partisan as possible, though there are no promises!
Without a doubt, the Cougars return the most potent offense in the conference this season. I don't think I can emphasize enough how big it is to return a senior quarterback, especially one who hasn't lost many games for BYU. Of course, there are some questions that will have to be answered if the Cougars are going to put together that dream season everyone in Provo thought was going to be delivered last season.
For starters, how well is that offensive line going to adjust to not only their inexperience, but the injuries brought on by fall camp? The Cougars' offense is going to live or die based on that line and if they struggle, especially against Oklahoma, it could set the course for a difficult season. I say this because if they can't protect Hall from the probable swarming Sooner defense, he not only faces the prospects of injury, but potential issues with his game.
Hall has not performed at a high-level against very good defenses, as was on full display against TCU, Utah and Arizona last season (all losses) and a blowout loss to start the season could leave him mentally and worse - physically - scarred. If that happens, it could snowball from there and cost BYU crucial games and derail their season.
Of course, that seems overtly critical and it is, but if I were a Cougar fan, this would be my number one concern. However, nothing is set in stone and as John Beck proved, a quarterback can make a gigantic leap mentally and emotionally from his junior season to his senior one.
I mention Beck because in his 2005 season, BYU was fairly average. They had some decent wins and a nice offense, but there were issues against better teams and the lingering doubt Beck just could not get it done. I think we all remember the overtime loss to Utah to end the season and how Beck really crumbled when the Utes' defense pressured him.
Well a year later, in a near-similar situation, he stepped up and found a wide open Jonny Harline for the win. There was so much growth between '05 and '06 and it marked arguably the best season in a decade for the Cougars. Will Hall make that same step and deliver a memorable season? We'll see...
Colorado State by Vanquish the Foe
Last year's Rams finished a satisfactory 7-6 overall. They went to a bowl game for the first time since 2003 (the New Mexico Bowl), beating Fresno State 40-35 in what was also their first bowl win since 2001. However, CSU was still average within the MWC at 4-4. Steve Fairchild's (former Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator) team was able to give both TCU (13-7) and BYU (45-42) very close contests, but came up short each time. 2008 was Fairchild's first season, after taking over from long-time head coach Sonny Lubick.
At the forefront of CSU's success in 2008 was RB Gartrell Johnson who ran for 1,476 yards (including 285 on the ground against Fresno State) and a 1st Team All-MWC selection. Johnson is gone now, but the CSU offense still returns 7 players including WR Rashaun Greer a 2nd Team All-MWC pick in 2008. Last year's QB, Billy Farris has graduated with Johnson, leaving Fairchild to find his starting man under center from the likes of senior Grant Stucker and JC transfer Jon Eastman. Sophomore Klay Kubiak is also in the mix but is coming off shoulder surgery.
TE Kory Sperry also finished his career at CSU with over 1,700 yards receiving. Despite these losses (Johnson, Farris and Sperry) the offense's strengths in 2009 should be in its receivers and lineman. Greer and the other wide-outs should make up for some of the lack of experience at QB while Preseason All-MWC 1st Team selection OG Shelley Smith should provide the QB with some time to throw.
Across the LOS, the Ram's best player is without question sophomore LB Mychal Sisson. Sisson may be undersized (at 5'11", 203 lbs. he was recruited as a safety) but he was second among NCAA freshman last year in tackles with 105. Sisson was a 2008 All-MWC honorable mention and a Sporting News 1st Team All-American. However, CSU's defense lost multiple key contributors to graduation - including three starters on the D-line, and LB Jeff Horinek who started 48 games as a Ram. The new core of LB's consists of junior Alex Williams, former safety Davis Burl, and redshirt freshmen James Skelton and Chris Gipson - and of course Sisson. They were supposed to have last season's second leading tackler Ricky Brewer as well, but he was suspended for all of 2009. The secondary should be in better shape, with returning starters at both field and boundary corner.Overall, Fairchild's Rams have their work cut out for them in order to have as much success as they did in 2008. The losses of Johnson and Farris will be big. But their non-conference schedule is extremely weak and includes Weber State and Nevada coming to Fort Collins and the Rams traveling to Idaho. With as many players returning as they have - including leaders in Sisson, Greer and Shelly - CSU should win those games, but expect the Wolfpack to be trouble. San Diego State, Air Force and Wyoming are all coming to Fort Collins and should be winnable contests as well. The Rams goal this year should be to win seven games again, but realistically they'll probably only win five or six and be stuck in the middle of the MWC yet again.
New Mexico by Mountain West Connection
The Lobos bring in new coach Mike Locklsley from Illinois where he served as their offensive coordinator, and help create what Juice Williams has become. The hope in Albuquerque is that Donovan Porterie --who is coming off of a knee injury-- can become a similar player to Juice Williams.
The Lobos are looking to run a no-huddle offense to increase the tempo and catch defense in an unfavorable set with their lineup. Porterie is a talent and in his last full season in 2007 he passed for over 3,000 yards and is back in the starting role after missing the last eight games in 2008.
New Mexico traditionally has had one of the best running attacks in the nation and have had seven straight years of having a 1,000 yard rusher --which is the longest streak in the nation-- and who knows if the new offense will allow that. Nonetheless, the Lobos are going to have a new starter and there will be some competition between James Wright, A.J. Butler and Desmond Dennis.
There is talent but the 1,000 yard rusher may not happen, because of the offense they run. To cross reference the Illinois offense under Locksley the only year he had a 1,000 yard rusher was when Rashard Mendenhall roamed the backfield in 2007. The other years in 2005-2008 Locksley produced solid run offenses that ranked 47th, 10th, 5th, and 38th respectively in the nation.
With the spread attack that will be implemented many a players will get to touch the ball and the eighth straight season of a 1,000 rusher may not happen, but the rushing attach as a whole should be pretty good. Porterie is a much better passer then Locksley had at Illinois, and this could be the thing that makes the Lobo no-huddle attack that much more dangerous.
The receiving corp is very important to the offense and even though the top three receivers are back they are either undersized or not that fast. Those wide outs will be getting a lot of balls thrown their way and will need to make plays to make this offense work.
The main problem for New Mexico last year was their defense --which is changing from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 -- the teams that beat the Lobos all had a decent to really good offense and averaged at least 25 points per game. The hope is that the move to the traditional 4-3 will put less strain on having to find five defenisve backs that are good enough to defend the pass and the rush.
Surprisingly New Mexico ranked in the top third in scoring and total defense, even though they suffered eight losses on the year, so there is some talent on the defensive side of the ball. They did lose their top two corners to the NFL last year and experienced corners are hard to replace. New defensive coordinator Doug Mallory who was previously the LSU co-defensive coordinator is taking over the defense and should get them to adjust nicely to the new defense.
Former coach Rock Long did not leave the cupboard bear and the main reason the Lobos suffered such a drop off in production from their bowl season in 2007 was because of injuries, so Locksley will have talent to work with and the Lobos will be competitive in 2009 and jumping point for the future. Their first five of seven games are against teams that went bowling last year so do not look for them to get off to a fast start.
San Diego State by Mid Major Madness
The Aztecs are coming off an extremely disappointing season in ’08 with a 2-10 record, with a lack luster defense who is not returning there star linebacker and safety for the ’09 season. Newly acquired coach Brady Hoke will be looked upon this season to turn around the last place Aztecs. Hoke is coming off a 12-2 season at Ball State and has his work cut out for him with a team who just suffered their first 10 loss season and has not had a winning season since 1998.
Although inexperienced, the Aztecs did have talent on the offensive side of the ball and with the addition of an offensive minded coach in Hoke, this could lead to great success through the air and on the ground. The offense is returning leading rusher, Atiy Henderson, reception leader Vincent Brown and Ryan Lindley at quarterback. Last year as freshman Lindley completed over 50% of his passes and threw for 16 TD’s.
If he can grow and learn under Hoke’s system, Lindley can be dangerous this year especially with the talent that surrounds him. Henderson rushed for over 500 yards last season and if linemen Ikaika Moleta, Trask Iosefa, and Peter Nelson can improve on opening up holes from last season, Henderson will hope to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark this season.
Again, if the linemen can supply time and protection to Lindley he has a couple of solid targets to throw to. Brown led the team with over 60 receptions and accumulated over 600 yards receiving. With Darren Mougey 2ot returning, veteran Robert Wallace will have to step up to be a constant number two receiver.
The defense was definitely the low point of the Aztecs team last season. They finished last in a majority of the conference defensive statistical categories, giving up on average 450 yards a game. Although the defense lost two of its stars, they are returning seven starters so the experience is in place. The question is if the defense can learn from their mistakes last season and improve upon what was an embarrassing display.
Although I do not see the Aztecs being bowl eligible this year I do believe they will improve. They have some tough road games at UCLA, Utah and Air Force, which will tell coach Hoke where this team stands in its maturing process.
TCU by Mountain West Connection
The Horned Frogs finally looked poised to get to a BCS game for the first time in school history. The schedule plays out nice with their non-conference not terribly difficult with the two big games on the road against Virginia and Clemson, and then the conference slate only has two tough games at BYU and at Air Force beyond that the games are manageable. The touted defense only returns four starters, but that defense is lead by All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes and Gary Patterson always has a good defense on his hands.
The biggest concern on defense is that the front line needs to replace three starters, with only Jerry Hughes the returning along that line. TCU also lost to all-league safeties but they do bring in junior college transfer Malcolm Williams fill one of those positions. Williams originally was an Oklahoma signee before heading to a junior college. The player to emerge as the next star for TCU is linebacker Daryl Washington who in his first start in the Poinsettia Bowl recorded six solo tackles, and is the best athlete on defense which is saying a lot since Gary Patterson puts athletes on defense.
The offense is finally in a position to potentially outshine the defense, or at least be on par with them. Andy Dalton returns for his third year as the starting quarterback. Dalton is a good quarterback but not a great quarterback, but improve his accuracy from year one to year two by decreasing his interceptions from 11 to 5. Dalton is not just a manager of the game but makes plays with his arm and his feet by having five games by passing over 200 yards in those games, and knows how to win games.
The running game for TCU does lose Aaron Brown, but they do return Joseph Turner and touted freshman Ed Wesley. Last season when Turner took the starting job while Brown was out on suspension he emerged just as good for Brown and even better in the touchdown department where Turner had 11 scores. Besides the running game being a plus for 2009 the receving corp is near the top of the Mountain West, and Jimmy Young is the star who had 988 yards last year, which was second most in school history.
Antoine Hicks originally signed with the Texas Longhorns and transferred before he ever played, and last year played in only the last two games and garnared only seven catches. 2009 should provide an increase in his production and help the team get closer to their BCS goal. Then there is do everything wide out Jeremy Kerley who takes snaps from shotgun and is an all around play maker who was able to cause havic on opposing defenses.
This TCU team is the most balananced in a long time and their offense looks to be in the upper tier of the Mountain West and with their defense as good as it usually is should be able to lead the Horned Frogs to a potential BCS bowl.
UNLV by Mountain West Connection
UNLV looks to improve of last years three win improvement and make the next step to a bowl game. It all starts with quarterback Omar Clayton who is not a Pac-10 or JUCO transfer but is rather a quarterback who came through the UNLV system. Clayton is the perfect quarterback to run Mike Sanford's spread option attack, and even though Clayton did not run too much last year he is capable of running at the correct times. Also, for a first year starter Clayton threw 18 touchdowns and only four picks.
To go along with Omary Clayton is all-world wide receiver Ryan Wolfe who last year caught 88 passes for over 1,000 yards, and six scores. 2009 will make Wolfe more of a target because the other star receiver from 2008 Casey Flair has graduated making Wolfe the man. It may be hard to improve too much off of Wolfe's number except that his touchdowns could increase.
The second receiver to take over for Casey Flair is most likely going to come from either Phillip Payne, Jerriman Robinson, and Rodelin Anthony all who played last year and it could be Payne who pulled in seven touchdowns last year. Payne could have had more production but missed the last three games because of a concussion he suffered, so if he is back and fully healthy then look for Payne to take full control over the second receiver spot.
The running back position is the biggest question mark on offense, because Frank Summers was drafted in the NFL and the early replacemnt looks to be CJ Cox who was the primary back to Summers last season. Cox only had 54 carries all year and rushed for under 191 yards, also Summer was a larger back and just ran through defenses while CJ Cox is only 5-11 and 195 pounds and is more of a speed back.
Defensively the Rebels were 104th nationally in total defense and 101st in scoring defense by allowing 32.6 points per game. So, if the defense even makes improvements to be in the top 50 defensively UNLV has the chance to continue their improvement. The secondary which was a problem last year and this year UNLV brought in four JUCO transfers and converted two quarterbacks to help shore up the safety position.
The front seven was not much better as they were 115th nationally in rush defense, and the only play maker is linebacker Jason Beauchamp and tackle Malo Taumua besides that there is nothing much on the front seven. The thinking is that the experience from last years team or the JUCO transfers will be enough to make the defense at least average.
Even with the defensive short falls the Rebels should make a bowl game and have a good chance at seven or eight wins.
Utah by Mid Major Madness
Unfortunately the Utes will have several major obstacles coming into the 2009-10 season. The first is they took a major blow during the offseason from players declaring for the NFL Draft as well as graduating seniors. The team lost Paul Kruger, Sean Smith, Brice McCain, and Freddie Brown to the pro’s meaning head coach Kyle Whittingham will have his hands full trying to find suitable replacements.
In addition to players going to the NFL Utah lost defensive coordinator Gary Andersen to become the head coach at Utah State, and then offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig who left to go to Kansas State and then ended up at Cal before the summer even ended to take the same offensive coordinator position.
The offense was hit the hardest with all of the departures. The loss of quarterback Brian Johnson and wide outs Freddie Brown and Bradon Godfrey will put a big dent in the electrifying passing game which was the key to their success just a season ago.
The group connected for a combined 1456 yards and 11 TDs. The loss of Johnson sets up a quarterback competition between Corbin Louks, Terrance Cain and Jordan Wynn, all of whom Whittingham has the out most confidence are capable of leading the team to its second perfect season in a row. Louks ended up transfering to Nevada-Reno and the current depth chart has true freshman Jordan Wynn as the number one and JUCO transfer Terrance Cain as the number two. However coach Whittingham
Another problem the offense will face is the loss of three of their linemen. This could pose as a major setback because without sufficient protection it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Utes to establish a run game or give ample time for their new quarterback to find his open target downfield.
The defensive side will undoubtedly be able to cope with the losses of key players such as Kruger, McCain, and Smith. Defense has be the staple point during Whittingham’s time in Salt Lake City. He has established one of the most respected defensive programs in the nation, which allows him to have the luxury of swapping in a new defender to take over instead of rebuilding the entire team.
The strength in the defense for the 2009-10 looks to be the linebacker core that showcases Stevenson Sylvester who led the team with 4 sacks and finished second with 73 total tackles.
Utah’s defense is a powerhouse and there is no argument about that. However the primary reason for the team’s great success last season was because the offensive production finally reached an equilibrium point with that of the defense.
This is going to be difficult to repeat in the upcoming season but it is very feasible. In order to do so they will have to beat some tough out-of-conference teams such as Oregon and Louisville as well as an even tougher in-conference schedule in which they play TCU and BYU, both of whom are ranked in the preseason top 25.
Whittingham’s standpoint on the upcoming season is to stay positive and use last year’s finish of No. 2 in the nation to help motivate his team. Although another undefeated season is unlikely, it would not surprise me at all if the team will be able to overcome the adversity and do so.
Wyoming by Vanquish the FoeThe 2008 Cowboys finished below .500 for the seventh time in the past nine years. They won only one conference game - and finished 4-8 overall. This led to the school dismissing head coach Joe Glenn after six years and hiring Dave Christensen as a replacement. Christensen was the offensive coordinator at Missouri and there oversaw the recent offensive success the Tigers had with QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Martin Rucker - playing in back-to-back Big 12 championships. Now, Christensen inherits a Wyoming offense that was among the worst in college football last season.
Last season the Wyoming offense averaged only 117 yards a game and had terrible inconsistency at the QB position. Three QB's - Chris Stutzriem, Dax Crum, and Karsten Sween - combined to throw 17 interceptions and just eight touchdowns, a miserable 91.7 passer rating overall. Needless to say, the QB position in Laramie has been there for the taking in 2009. ESPN's Graham Watson reported this week that JC-transfer Robert Benjamin is the current QB getting reps with the first unit in camp. Benjamin was a NJCAA Region I Offensive Player of the Year at Phoenix College last season. Sween still has a shot apparently, but look for Benjamin to start the season as the Cowboy's starter at QB.
Wyoming returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense. However, the biggest loss to the offense will be RB's Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon - each among the best rushers ever at Wyoming. Moore finished with over 1,300 yards rushing in 2008 and leaves the biggest void. On the other side of the ball the biggest loss is certainly LB Ward Dobbs. Dobbs started 40 games as a Cowboy and was All-MWC in 2008.
Defense was the team's strong suit last year and should remain so in 2009. The D-Line returns three players that have started a combined 24 games together. Two of those lineman - John Fletcher and Mitch Unrein earned MWC honors last season and are a legit force against the run. LB Weston Johnson (78 tackles in 2008) and All-MWC honorable mention free safety Chris Prosinski return also.
Wyoming has a more difficult non-conference schedule than most in the conference: they host the Texas Lonhorns on September 12th, and travel to Colorado and Florida Atlantic (tougher than it sounds). In conference play the Cowboys also have to travel to UNLV, BYU and TCU. It could be a long first year for Dave Christensen and his staff. Expect Wyoming to lose all of the above mentioned matchups. However, they should beat Weber State, and play New Mexico at home. Overall this team could wind up winning just two contests. A solid goal would be to equal the four wins of 2008. Expect them to win 3 or 4 games but for the passing game under Christensen to improve dramatically as the season progresses.