This is College Football News early look at the MWC
Why to get excited: What can Troy Calhoun do for an encore? After turning around a dead program with a sensational 9-4 season, the future is bright with the running game rolling again while getting surprisingly strong play from the defense. Three starters return to the O line along with TE Travis Dekker, while the defensive front comes back intact.
Why to be grouchy: Air Force, like all service academies, always have to retool year by year with seniors always emerging, but replacing key players always stinks. QB Shaun Carney was a four-year starter, RB/WR Chad Hall was the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, and three All-Mountain West defensive performers are gone. The entire offensive backfield has to be replaced along with six starters in the defensive back eight.
The number one thing to work on is: Making Shea Smith comfortable. The likely new starting quarterback is roughly the same size as Carney, and he saw a little bit of action completing four of 12 passes in the loss to Cal in the Armed Forces Bowl, but it's asking a lot for him to be the same leader and conductor. He spent last year preparing himself like a starter, so he should be able to hit the ground running.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Chad Hall
Biggest defensive loss: LB John Rabold
Best returning offensive player: OG Nick Charles, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Hunter Altman, Sr.
Why to get excited: After two straight 11-2 seasons and two straight Mountain West titles, BYU has become the far-and-away class of the league under Bronco Mendenhall. The 2008 team should be the best of the three. QB Max Hall isn't John Beck, but he's an All-Mountain West passer who showed he can both bomb away and come through in the clutch when needed. Nine starters return to the league's best defense and the entire front three, led by pass rushing terror Jan Jorgensen.
Why to be grouchy: Will the defense take a major step back after losing three of the four starting linebackers including all-stars Bryan Kehl and Kelly Poppinga? Three starters, along with co-starting CB Andre Saulsberry, are gone off a strong pass defense. Those losses could be just enough to prevent a good season from being a BCS one.
The number one thing to work on is: Turnover margin. BYU should have the Mountain West's best team, but it could be undone and upset if it keeps losing the turnover battle. Last year the Cougars were 93rd in the nation in turnover margin with 26 giveaways and 20 takeaways with a mere four forced fumbles. Getting more out of a woeful punt return game would be nice.
Biggest offensive loss: C Sele Aulai
Biggest defensive loss: LB Bryan Kehl
Best returning offensive player: OT Dallas Reynolds, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Jan Jorgensen, Jr.
Why to get excited: Sonny Lubick might have been an all-time great coach for CSU, but the program needed a change in a major way. Steve Fairchild should bring in a new, fresh attitude to the team, and while he has to work with a slew of new starters, that might not be a bad thing considering the house cleaning needing to be done. As bad as last year was, ending on a two-game winning streak might be something to build on.
Why to be grouchy: The team underachieved in a big way, but it had some good seniors with three veterans on the defensive line, including all-star Jesse Nading, and three defensive backs off a solid pass defense. QB Caleb Hanie always had his issues, but he was the Mountain West's most efficient passer. WRs Damon Morton and Luke Roberts were good.
The number one thing to work on is: Changing the overall attitude. The team has been pushed around on both sides of the ball for far too long. Better pass protection is a must after giving up 37 sacks, while the defense didn't get into the backfield often enough. The D never allowed fewer than 24 points.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Caleb Hanie
Biggest defensive loss: DE Jesse Nading
Best returning offensive player: RBs Gartrell Johnson & Kyle Bell
Best returning defensive player: LB Jeff Horinek
Why to get excited: Could the New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada be the catalyst for bigger and better things? There was an ugly cloud over Rocky Long and his inability to come up with a post-season victory, but that's gone. The pass defense that finished 20th in the nation gets three starters back in the secondary, while the offense gets the backfield back with QB Donovan Porterie and RB Rodney Ferguson a dangerous veteran duo.
Why to be grouchy: The Lobos won't easily replace the First Team All-Mountain West receiving tandem of Travis Brown and Marcus Smith, while four starters are gone off the offensive line. If that wasn't enough, the defensive line loses ends Michael Tuohy and Tyler Donaldson, while all three linebackers are gone.
The number one thing to work on is: Scoring. Even with all the talent at the skill positions, and even with a huge, veteran line, the offense got worse as the season went on averaging a mere 17.2 points per game over the last five. Take the 58 points against Sacramento State out of the mix, and the Lobos put up only 22 points per outing.
Biggest offensive loss: WRs Marcus Smith & Travis Brown
Biggest defensive loss: DE Tyler Donaldson
Best returning offensive player: RB Rodney Ferguson, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: CB DeAndre Wright, Sr.
San Diego State
Why to get excited: It's year three in the Chuck Long era, and now the team is his. He has his players where he wants them, and for good or bad, this should be as good as the program gets under his reign. At least Aztec fans will no one way or another which way things are going. RB Atiyyah Henderson is a good back to build the offense around for the short term.
Why to be grouchy: The veterans are gone. Nine starters are gone off the offense, including QB Kevin O'Connell, and the best players, LB Ray Bass and DE Nick Osborn are gone. Making matters worse, P Michael Hughes and PK Garrett Palmer, are also done. This is a young, young, young team that might have to fight through some major growing pains.
The number one thing to work on is: Defense, defense, defense, defense and defense. The O wasn't all that bad, mostly because O'Connell did everything, but it didn't matter thanks to a defense that got progressively worse. Against three of the Mountain West big boys, Air Force, TCU and BYU, in the final three games, the Aztecs allowed a total of 148 points.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Kevin O'Connell
Biggest defensive loss: DE Nick Osborn
Best returning offensive player: RB Atiyyah Henderson, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Russell Allen, Sr.
Why to get excited: The offense that struggled so much with its consistency should be far better with everyone coming back. There's only one loss off the line, and receivers Ervin Dickerson and Marcus Brock are gone, but the backfield is loaded with RB Aaron Brown coming back from a broken ankle and QB Andy Dalton experienced after being thrown to the wolves early on. The corner tandem of Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest should grow into one of the Mountain West's best.
Why to be grouchy: The rest of the league should be improved while TCU should be a little worse. O will be better, but the D will likely take a step back. DE Tommy Blake didn't get into the mix until the end, but he'll still be missed, while there's no replacing Chase Ortiz on the other side. Losing safeties David Roach and Brian Bonner, a top kick returner, will be a problem, and replacing PK Chris Manfredini will be tough.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting the defensive attitude back. When TCU is really humming, the defense is crushing and killing everyone, and while it was fine, it wasn't the brick wall it was expected to be. Making things worse was the lack of takeaways to make up for the offense's problems. Last year, everyone had TCU as a possible BCS buster. This year, most will pick the Horned Frogs to finish in the middle of the pack. Head coach Gary Patterson has to use this to have his team flying under the radar.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Ervin Dickerson
Biggest defensive loss: DE Chase Ortiz
Best returning offensive player: C Blake Schlueter, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Jason Phillips, Sr.
Why to get excited: Last year was supposed to be a step back to hopefully take a big leap forward. The offense went to a youth movement in some areas, mostly at quarterback, and now it should pay off with experience just about everywhere. Only one starter is gone off the offense and just enough talent returns on defense to hope for an improvement. This needs to finally be the year the Mike Sanford spread offense finally gets going.
Why to be grouchy: Is Omar Clayton going to be ready to go at quarterback? How much of a challenge will Travis Dixon pose for the job, and will Rocky Hinds be back in the mix? The quarterback situation is the biggest call of the off-season for a team that desperately needs this to be a rock-steady area for a full season. Considering everyone seems to be able to put up big numbers using the spread attack, if Sanford's team is last in the Mountain West, and around 111th in the nation in scoring offense again, there will be a new era in Rebel football next year at this time.
The number one thing to work on is: Better line play. The passing game was inefficient partly because the O line gave up way too many sacks. Sure, the stats might be a bit skewed since running quarterbacks will tend to get dropped for losses more than most, but the line wasn't a positive. The defensive line got a few sacks, but didn't make nearly enough plays in the backfield.
Biggest offensive loss: OG Tim Goins
Biggest defensive loss: LB Beau Bell
Best returning offensive player: RB Frank Summers, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Jeremy Geathers, Sr.
Why to get excited: If it wasn't for a 4th-and-forever play by BYU, the Utes would've gone been on a nine-game winning streak to go into the off-season. Now the team is back loaded with the league's best offensive line, a fantastic backfield with QB Brian Johnson and RB Darrell Mack returning, and the defense welcoming back three of the four starting defensive backs from the league's best pass defense. Considering the talent and experience returning, a win at Michigan to start the season isn't far-fetched. That would set a big tone for the rest of the year.
Why to be grouchy: The defensive line loses two excellent all-around players in Martail Burnett on the end and Gabe Long on the nose, and loses All-Mountain West SS Steve Tate and starting linebackers Joe Jiannoni and Malakai Mokofisi. Losing receivers Derrek Richards and Brian Hernandez won't sting too much, but they were reliable veterans.
The number one thing to work on is: Making Brian Johnson the Brian Johnson who dominated the league two years ago. Never healthy after the opening game loss to Oregon State, he later came back and was efficient, but he wasn't the same weapon who looked like Mountain West Player of the Year material. If he's back to form, Utah could be unstoppable.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Derrick Richards
Biggest defensive loss: DE Martail Burnett
Best returning offensive player: RB Darrell Mack, Sr. & QB Brian Johnson, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: CB Brice McCain, Sr.
Why to get excited: The offensive line might have struggled, but at least it comes back experienced with all five starters returning along with all the backups. The backfield has no excuse not to be tremendous with QB Karsten Sween back for his third year under center, and the running back combo of Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon good enough to be considered among the Mountain West's best. The entire defensive front three also returns intact.
Why to be grouchy: There are just enough defensive losses to take a step back after a strong season (outside of the final three games). The excellent corner tandem of Julius Stinson and Michael Medina is gone along with linebackers Jon Prater and Sean Claffey. While the offense should be fine, the already anemic passing game will have to go on without Michael Ford and Hoost Marsh. Finding consistent replacements for P/PK Billy Vinnedge won't be easy.
The number one thing to work on is: Scoring. Wyoming only went over the 30 point mark twice and averaged an anemic 16.25 points per game in Mountain West play. Nothing worked with the attack equally balanced and equally bad. With so much experience returning on the line and in the backfield, there's no excuse to not be able to do something right on a consistent basis.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Michael Ford
Biggest defensive loss: CB Julius Stinson
Best returning offensive player: RBs Devin Moore, Sr. & Wynel Seldon, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DT John Fletcher, Jr.