The programs in the Mountain West are looking to build upon a strong 2006 season that saw the league win three of its four bowl games in impressive fashion as TCU, BYU, and Utah all rolled to victories. The only loss for the league was New Mexicoís defeat to San Jose State, a game in which the Lobos dominated on the stat sheet, but lost 4 turnovers that they could not overcome. Brigham Young dominated league play in 2006, outscoring their conference opponents by 25.5 points per game, and they were only really challenged in the last game of the season, a 33-31 win over Utah. The Cougars lose a ton a talent, especially at the skill positions, and the rest of the league looks to have caught up to the rejuvenated BYU program.
The 2007 conference race is shaping up to be a good one, as four teams appear to have separated themselves a bit from the rest of the conference in TCU, BYU, Utah, and New Mexico. The Frogs of TCU look to rely on a sensational defense and strong ground attack, as they hope to retake the league title from BYU. After the top four, it appears to be a battle between Wyoming and Colorado State, with both teams being capable of earning a postseason berth, while UNLV, San Diego State, and Air Force look to continue their rebuilding programs. Time for an in-depth look at all the teams in the league and what is in store for the upcoming season.
1. Key #1 is finding offenses good enough to overcome the massive collection of talent that Coach Patterson has collected on his TCU stop troops. The Frogs are projected to have the top unit in all phases of the defense and return three 1st team MWC defenders in DL-Blake, DL-Ortiz, and LB-Phillips. Expect safety Brian Bonner to also join these three on the MWC 1st team roster in 2007. This is by far the top defense in the league, and it is capable of matching last yearís 12.3 scoring average. Best of luck to MWC offensive coordinators.
2. Key #2 is how will the loss of critical skill position talent affect the MWCís flagship program, BYU. The Cougars are the only team in the league that does not return a QB with starting experience, and in fact, the projected starter, Max Hall, has never taken a collegiate snap. In a position so crucial to BYUís success, there is certain to be a decline in production from last yearís powerful unit.
3. Key #3 is whether or not the 18 returning starters from a good 2006 New Mexico team take this group to the next level, as UNM looks to become a player in the conference title chase. The Lobos were on the cusp of breaking through last year, but they struggled early in the season before the pieces began coming together in mid-October as UNM went 4-2 in the their last 6 games, losing only to BYU and TCU. New Mexico is tied with Colorado State in leading the league in returning experience, and with what looks to be an improved defensive unit, the Lobos are likely to be heard loud and clear in 2007.
OFFENSE: Leading the Falcon offense is veteran QB Shaun Carney, who ranks 3rd all time in the school's history with 3,900 passing yards and 2nd all time with 30 touchdowns. Carney will direct a newly installed multiple offense that will be focused on increasing the aerial attack, as the Falcons ranked 118th in the nation in passing yardage last season. In order to open up the passing game, last year's leading rusher, Chad Hall, was moved to wide receiver, and last yearís back-up QB, Jim Ollis, will be shifted to running back.
DEFENSE: The defensive unit needs to be rebuilt after yielding 354.7 yards per game, ranking 78th in the nation. The first area of concern is a defensive line that loses 3 starters and will be switching to a new scheme as the Falcons move to a 3-4 front line in order to utilize the strength of a deep linebacking corps. In charge of the tough LBís is MWC 1st team player Drew Fowler, who led the league in tackles last season. Last yearís line did not generate enough of a pass rush, as the unit suffered through a great deal of injuries and struggled to become a cohesive unit. Improved play is a must this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Returning from a year-long academy suspension is Ryan Harrison, who is expected to handle both the kicking and punting duties. Harrison showed glimpses of his potential in the spring game where he made 6 out of 9 attempts, including a 54-yarder. The Falcons need to find a replacement for punt returner Chris Sutton, who led AF in returns for 2 straight seasons, while kick returner Spencer Armstrong is back after finishing 7th in the MWC at 20.3 yards per return last year.
COACHING: There will be a new face on the Falcon sideline after Fisher DeBerry announced his retirement following 23 years in charge of the Air Force program. Troy Calhoun takes the reins after graduating from the academy in 1989 and spending his most recent seasons in the NFL with the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos. Calhoun will look to install a more varied offensive attack, shifting away from the standard Air Force wishbone.
SCHEDULE: The Falcons open with what appears to be a slam dunk, as 1-AA South Carolina State visits Colorado Springs. After that, the next 3 weeks feature the conference favorites as AF heads to Utah, then returns home to battle TCU, and completes the trifecta at BYU. As always, the non-conference schedule includes Army and Navy, and for the 2nd straight year the Falcons play Notre Dame, this time at South Bend.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Falcons make a return to the postseason after a 5 year absence. The shifting of Chad Hall to WR and Jim Ollis to RB pays off as AF is able to get the most talent on the field at the same time, and the unit improves upon its 23.2 point per game average of 2006. The defensive line remains healthier this season and is able to occupy blockers, allowing the star linebackers to roam free and make plays all over the field.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Air Force struggles to adjust to the newly implemented offensive scheme and is unable to successfully shift away from the established wishbone. The offensive line especially has troubles as a group that rarely was forced to pass block in past seasons. The defense continues to struggle defending against the pass in a league with talented QBís throughout, and Air Force ends the season with their 4th consecutive losing campaign.
MAKE OR BREAK: QB Shaun Carney is critical to the overall success of this yearís team, as he will be relied on heavily for both his arms and legs. Former back-up QB Jim Ollis will need to be a star as he shifts to running back after rushing for 5 yards per carry on only 21 attempts last season. The critical stretch of the schedule starts early as AF plays at Utah and BYU and hosts TCU all by the 4th weekend of action in September.
OFFENSE: The Cougars will look to rebuild an offense that led the MWC by a wide margin, generating 36.8 points per game. The key leaders have all departed, as QB John Beck, RB Curtis Brown, and WR Jonny Harline have taken their games to the next level. ASU transfer Max Hall takes over at QB and will work behind a veteran offensive line that is the best in the league. Manase Tonga and Fui Vakapuna look to be the running back combination and should be a great duo combining speed and power rushing. This unit is likely to suffer a decline due to inexperience at key positions, but this is still remains a potent group.
DEFENSE: BYU ranked 10th in the nation in scoring defense last season, yielding only 14.8 points per game, and 7 starters are back to try and equal last yearís results. The focus of this unit will be an experienced linebacking unit as Kelly Poppinga takes over as the next star of this group, replacing Cameron Jenson. An area of concern is at the cornerback position where the Cougars were their most vulnerable last season, and BYU will look for leadership from Ben Criddle, as he returns the most experience after a 53 tackle and 2 interceptions 2006 season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit is an area of concern as both the kicker and punter must be replaced. Mitch Payne, a redshirt freshman, takes over at both positions, and has a good leg to work with and should be a solid player, but he has no experience heading into the season. The return unit also loses both starters. Especially tough is the loss of Nathan Meikle who ranked 2nd in the MWC in punt return average. Inexperience is everywhere in this group, and it will be tough to match last yearís production.
COACHING: Bronco Mendenhall is beginning his 3rd season on the Provo campus, and he has quickly re-established BYU as a national power, improving the program from 6-6 in his debut season to 11-2 in 2006. Mendenhall is a defensive guru and has been in control of the defense the past few seasons, but he plans to be more hands-off this season, looking to give more control to his defensive assistants.
SCHEDULE: BYU always puts together a tough non-conference schedule, and this season is no different, with games at UCLA and Tulsa and a home game versus Arizona to open the season. In conference action, the Cougars get a huge break by hosting Mountain West heavyweights TCU and Utah in November.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Cougars repeat as MWC champions, capitalizing on having both TCU and Utah paying visits to Provo. Max Hall steps into the large shoes of John Beck, and although unlikely to match last seasonís production, he does well enough to still direct a strong offense. The experienced offensive line provides Hall with plenty of time and gives the new RB combination plenty of running lanes to keep the offense humming. The defense continues it strong play of a year ago with 7 starters providing a nice foundation to build upon.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....BYU opens with two losses before heading to visit a pesky Tulsa team in week #3. Max Hall is not yet ready for prime-time as he enters the season having never taken a snap in collegiate football. The loss of linebacker Cameron Jensen and his 107 tackles is felt throughout the defense and reduces the effectiveness of the unit as the Cougars are unable to repeat last year's strong defensive performance.
MAKE OR BREAK: One name stands out in QB Max Hall, a major talent with no experience who has to step in for BYUís 2nd all-time leading passer in John Beck. If Hall struggles, this entire offense will struggle, and he is also without last seasonís top 4 pass catchers. The key games in conference action are in November when TCU (11/8) and Utah (11/24) pay visits to BYU in what appear to be the Cougars' main challengers.
OFFENSE: The Rams welcome back 9 starters to this unit, with the most important addition being the return of a 2005 starter, running back Kyle Bell. Bell ran for 1,288 yards in '05 and was named to the MWC 2nd team, as he clearly was the leader of the Ram offense. The strength of this group is a receiving corps that returns its top 2 pass catchers and will provide QB Caleb Hanie with great targets that can stretch the field. This offense is capable of being one of the best units in the MWC.
DEFENSE: The focus this season will be tightening up a group that gave up too much yardage on the ground last season, as opponents ran for 149.1 yards per game. To improve the strength of the line, CSU moved Blake Smith to defensive end to allow him to better utilize his speed and to combine with powerful defensive tackle Erik Sandie. The leader of this unit is free safety Klint Kubiak, who combined with 3 additional returning starters in the secondary, will make it difficult to throw against the Rams in 2007.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Jason Smith struggled last year, hitting on only 8 out of his 15 attempts, although he did connect on a 49 yarder. In his freshman year, Smith hit on 9 out of his 10 kicks, so he is capable of getting the job done. There are no questions with the punting unit as Jimmie Kaylor returns after averaging 43.7 yards per kick last season. The kickoff return unit should improve greatly this season with Damon Morton back after averaging 20.4 per return last year, and he is also the Rams top punt returner.
COACHING: The veteran Sonny Lubick is looking to return the program to where it was just a few years ago, when postseason trips were expected. Lubick is 105-65 in his 14 years and has taken the Rams to 9 bowls and 6 league championships in his successful tenure. The key members of his staff have been around Fort Collins for years, as offensive coordinator Dan Hammerschmidt begins his 12th year and defensive coordinator Steve Stanard will enter his 5th year in the program.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is good and tough, including the standard battle with rival Colorado in Denver. The highlight of their early slate is a visit from Pac-10 power California, and then a week later the Rams travel to Conference USA champion Houston. The conference schedule opens with a tough battle at TCU and then is highlighted by two weeks in November when the Rams head to BYU and then New Mexico.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Rams return to the postseason after a one-year absence. RB Kyle Bell returns to his pre-injury form and re-establishes a strong running game, always a staple of past CSU teams. The offensive line remains healthy after a tough 2006 season with 6 players who have starting experience in this group, and they are able to provide Bell with room to run and Hanie with time to throw. Kicker Jason Smith regains his freshman form and kicks CSU to a couple of close wins.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Rams lose their first 4 games and dig themselves to deep of an early hole to get back to .500. The offensive line, although returning players with experience, does not develop, and the offense remains stagnant after only averaging 16.8 points per game last year. Kyle Bell cannot regain his prior form, and the running game that finished 113th in the nation last year continues to struggle, forcing Hanie to carry the entire load once again.
MAKE OR BREAK: The opener versus a Colorado team that was 2-10 last year is key to getting this team off on the right step before 3 tough contests to follow in California, Houston, and TCU. The entire offensive line is worthy of mention after giving up 41 sacks last year. This group has to improve, otherwise the offense will struggle for a 2nd consecutive season. On the defensive side, Blake Smith and Erik Sandie have the potential to be a super tandem and have shown flashes, and if they step up, this defense can be special.
OFFENSE: Expect more excitement out of this group this year as the attack will be focused on fully utilizing the skills of QB Donovan Porterie, WR Travis Brown, and RB Rodney Ferguson. Ferguson was named 1st team MWC last year, rushing for 1,234 yards and 7 touchdowns, and he will be pounding away behind a strong offensive line that is experienced, but struggled with injuries in the spring and needs to stay healthy. Brown was also a 1st team conference performer as he recorded 64 receptions for 867 yards. The talent is in place to make this one of the MWCís best units.
DEFENSE: The Lobos return 10 starters but will need major improvement from a group that yielded 355.5 yards per game and finished last in the conference in pass defense. New Mexico plays a 3-3-5 defense and will be led by a pair of strong cornerbacks in Glover Quin (MWC-HM) and DeAndre Wright (MWC-2nd Team). The Lobos will look to generate additional QB pressure by utilizing a strong group of linebackers with 3 returning starters, led by Cody Kase, who will shift inside and should be tackling machine. This is the leagueís most experienced unit and has the talent in place to take a huge step forward in 2007.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The loss of MWC 1st team kicker Kenny Byrd hurts and expected to fill his shoes are either Eric Garrison or John Sullivan, both inexperienced kickers. There's no question in the punt game as Jordan Scott returns after averaging 40.2 yards per kick and placing 19 kicks inside the 20 yard line. The punt return game was a problem last year, only averaging 6.4 per return, and Ian Clark will be counted on for improvement in 2007. Overall, this unit has some questions that still need to be answered heading into the fall semester if UNM is to be a conference contender.
COACHING: Head Coach Rocky Long has firmly established this New Mexico program on the national stage. As he enters his 10th year in Albuquerque, he is already the Lobos' leader in wins with 52, and he has led the program to 6 consecutive seasons of at least 6 wins, the only school in the MWC to achieve that mark. A new addition to the staff is offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, who joins the Lobos after 4 years running the successful offense at Michigan State.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is manageable, with the toughest game in week #3 when the Lobos visit Arizona. Other games include a trip to UTEP and home contests versus New Mexico State and Sacramento State. A key stretch for New Mexico will be in October with visits to Wyoming, San Diego State, and then a visit from Air Force. The Lobos need to win these three before heading into their toughest contest at TCU.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....New Mexico will make noise in the Mountain West race and head back to the postseason for a 2nd consecutive year with a team composed of the most returning starters ever during Rocky Longís tenure. Donovan Porterie takes command of the offense in his 2nd season, and combined with the power of Rodney Ferguson, this offense has too many weapons to slow down.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....New Mexico gets tripped up in both of their road non-conference games and still remains a step behind the big 3 of the league in TCU, BYU, and Utah. Porterie does not improve upon his 53% accuracy, and teams can focus their defensive efforts on slowing down Ferguson as the Lobo passing attack does not pose enough of a threat to concern opponents. The Lobos do not improve in pass defense and continue to give up yards in large chunks.
MAKE OR BREAK: The conference opener at home versus BYU will be a huge game for this Lobo team if they want to make noise in the conference race. Last season, BYU demolished New Mexico 42-17, so revenge is on the minds of the Lobo faithful this season. If Porterie outgrows some of the mistakes he made last season and begins to click with his major talent at wide receiver in Travis Brown and Marcus Smith, this offense will keep defensive coordinators up at night.
San Diego State
OFFENSE: The good news is that 10 starters return to this unit; the bad news is that the current group averaged only 14.2 points per game, ranking last in the MWC and 113th in the nation. To be fair, injuries decimated this unit last season as key contributors QB Kevin OíConnell and RB Lynell Hamilton both missed significant time. The Aztecs will rely heavily on the running game this year and have nice talent to count on in Hamilton and last yearís leading rusher Atiyyah Henderson. OíConnell is a major talent with a big arm, and he has his top 2 pass catchers from last season returning to help increase this unitís production.
DEFENSE: Much like the offense, this unit struggled all of last season, giving up 351.8 yards and 27.1 points per game. The 1st key is to find a pass rush after last seasonís miniscule 15 sack total, making the returning defensive line a major concern with little experience. The strength of the group looks to be a linebacking corps led by veterans Russell Allen and Brett Martin, and both will be needed to assist the still developing defensive line. There are questions all over this group, and this looks to be another long season for an inexperienced unit that is still rebuilding.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will again be handled by Garrett Palmer, who was 8 out of 13 last year, but struggled with kicks over 40 yards, where 4 of his 5 misses occurred. Punter Michael Hughes will look to regain the form of his sophomore season when he averaged 44.8 yards per kick, as he slipped to 41.1 yards last year. Both return games were disastrous in 2006, finishing last in the MWC in both categories. Ray Bass is expected to provide more production in the return game after returning 13 kicks for a 20.5 yard average last season.
COACHING: Chuck Long returns for his 2nd season at the helm and looks to build on last year's 3-8 campaign. Long came to SDSU after being a key member of the Oklahoma staff where he was part of the Sooner team during their national championship season. Long will rely heavily on the experience of his coordinators, Bob Elliot (DC) who has 29 years of collegiate coaching experience and Del Miller (OC) who has 25 years of coaching experience.
SCHEDULE: SDSU has put together an interesting combination of out-of-conference opponents, as they open with Washington State in Seattle, then head to Arizona State, before returning home to host Portland State and then Cincinnati, the schools' 1st ever meeting. A key stretch for a team looking to rebuild begins on 11/3 when Wyoming visits, then follows with trips to UNLV (11/10) and Air Force (11/17).
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Aztecs stay healthy and improve on their win total from a year ago. The offense makes huge improvements, as the running back combination of Hamilton and Henderson finds room to run and open up the field for OíConnell. The defense finds a pass rush, and the unit demonstrates an ability to slow down opposing offenses after being thoroughly dominated in 2006.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....A repeat of last year's 3 win campaign occurs as the defense continues to struggle with inexperience and lack of playmakers. With only 4 starters returning on the defensive side of the ball, a repeat of last year's struggles is within reason. The improved offense is still only good enough for SDSU to lose high scoring games.
MAKE OR BREAK: A key game for this team is scheduled for September 29th when Cincinnati ventures cross-country to battle the Aztecs. A win in that game could have SDSU on a two game winning streak before a tough stretch where they begin conference play on the road at Colorado State and Utah. The health of Lynell Hamilton is critical, as his talent is tremendous, but he has been incapable of staying healthy in his career. When on the field, he has the potential to be the best back in the league.
OFFENSE: The Frogs will look to pound, pound, and pound some more with one of the best stables of running backs in the league. Leading the charge is last yearís leading rusher Aaron Brown, who ran for 801 yards and 9 touchdowns. Joseph Turner is the back-up after averaging 6.9 yards per carry on 24 attempts, but he may have to fend off the challenge of incoming talents Jai Cavness and Joseph Banyard. The stable of backs will run behind of the top offensive lines in the league, as 8 of last year's top 10 return.
DEFENSE: This unit returns 9 starters from a group that dominated the league last season, finishing 1st in rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense. The Frogs not only have the best defensive line in the league, but this is one of the best groups in the nation, led by all-star defensive ends Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake. The linebackers and secondary are also loaded with talent with safety Brian Bonner and linebacker David Hawthorne highlighting the units. As expected, this is the leagueís best collection of talent and is capable of matching last yearís stellar results.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Chris Manfredini was solid last year, hitting 12 of his 14 attempts, with the only question being his range, as for the most part he did not handle the long kicking duties. Punting is a concern with Derek Wash taking over after averaging 37.5 yards on his 13 punts in 2006. Punt and kick returns were above average last year, and both areas return their starters and should show improvement.
COACHING: Gary Patterson has turned down offers from BCS programs to remain at TCU as he looks to build upon his 54-20 career record after 6 years. Patterson was named the MWC coach of the year in 2005 after winning the same award in 2002 when the Frogs were members of Conference USA. Mike Schultz returns for his 10th year as offensive coordinator, while Dick Bumpus is back for his 4th year at the helm of the defense.
SCHEDULE: The Frogs have their sites set on their September 8th battle at Texas, as TCU hopes to showcase to the nation that this program has arrived. TCU looks to be favored in the rest of their non-conference games, as they host Baylor and Southern Methodist and make a mid-October visit to Stanford. The MWC could be on the line when the Frogs visit BYU on November 8th.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....TCU wins the MWC and finishes the year with at least 11 wins. This team is the most talented in the league, and anything less than a championship trophy will result in disappointment. The defense repeats last year's results with experience throughout the line-up as opponents are unable to find any weakness in one of the nationís best units. The offensive line paves the way for a strong combination of running backs, providing the Frogs with a ball control offense that dominates the time of possession.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....TCU suffers a big loss at Texas and again comes up short in the quest for the conference title. QB Marcus Jackson does not develop in his sophomore season, making too many mistakes, and not allowing the passing game to be enough of a threat to concern opposing defenses. The receiving corps is less experienced and lacks a known play maker, further slowing Jacksonís development.
MAKE OR BREAK: Even though the game at Texas is huge for the program, the key game occurs on November 8th when TCU travels to BYU. With all the publicity this team will get this year, a loss at BYU is likely to eliminate hopes for a conference title. RB Aaron Brown will be relied on heavily to assist the young QB Jackson, and he must be able to run the ball successfully to keep this offense humming.
OFFENSE: QB Rocky Hinds will be relied upon heavily to improve an offense that struggled to put up points last season, averaging 19.8 points per game. Hinds tore his ACL in the 2nd game last season, continued to play, and struggled on the year as he tossed 8 touchdowns versus 13 interceptions. UNLV employs a shotgun spread offense and has the potential to achieve a huge improvement in point production, especially with a healthy Hinds and one of the top receiving corps in the league. Leading the wideouts are Casey Flair and Ryan Wolfe, as both combined for 122 receptions and 9 touchdowns last year and look capable of putting up even better numbers in 2007.
DEFENSE: This unit struggled in every aspect last season, finishing last in the league, yielding 387.3 yards and 31.8 points per game. The linebackers will be relied upon to increase the toughness of this unit, especially with the expected return of Beau Bell from injury, who was lost after just 7 starts last season. There are major concerns in a secondary that lost its best player to the NFL in cornerback Eric Wright, forcing MilíVon James to play much bigger this season. An area of focus in spring ball was forcing turnovers, as the Rebels only secured 18 on defense last year, and the team was -11 overall on the season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Sergio Aguayo returns after hitting on 8 of 16 kicks last season, including a long of 52 yards. It should be noted that Aguayo kicked the majority of last season with a serious knee injury, suffered while making a tackle on a return. Sergio is capable of having a big 2007 season now that he is healthy. Punter Brian Pacheco takes over for 1st team MWC Kip Facer, after Pacheco averaged 46 yards in junior college before coming to UNLV. Ronnie Smith takes over for Eric Wright, after averaging 22.6 yards per return on kickoffs.
COACHING: Head coach Mike Sanford enters his 3rd season in his rebuilding program and needs to get the Rebels moving in the right direction after going 4-19 in his 1st two seasons. Sanford came to the Vegas desert from Utah where he served as offensive coordinator the prior two seasons, directing the potent Ute attack, and he is still in process of installing that same offense for UNLV. A new offensive coordinator, Todd Berry, joins the staff after he spent last season as the QB coach at Miami, Florida.
SCHEDULE: It's a tough slate for a team looking to regain confidence as UNLV hosts Wisconsin and Hawaii and travels to Nevada in non-conference action. The opener is a must win as the Rebels have dropped 15 straight road games and need to get the season off on the right track away from home against a struggling Utah State program. The schedule ends with a tough combination with trips to TCU and New Mexico to complete the year.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Rebels are capable of at least doubling their win total from a year ago when they went 2-10. Rocky Hinds returns at 100% and is provided the time to survey the field and find his talented group of receivers. The defensive line has talent and is able to get to the opposing QB at a much greater rate this season, freeing up Bell to make plays all over the field, his specialty.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....A repeat of last season is possible, and UNLV returns to the basement of the Mountain West. The running game continues to struggle in finding room to run and is a non-factor in the offensive game plan, as Hinds is forced to carry the entire load yet again. The defense remains a sieve against the run as the interior of the line is unable to get any push and opponents slam the ball down the Rebel throats all game long.
MAKE OR BREAK: The 1st game of the season against Utah State is an absolute must win, otherwise this team could easily be staring at a 0-5 start. Rocky Hinds will be the focal point of the offense, and if he struggles, the entire offense will struggle as evidenced by last yearís results. Rocky had a huge finale against Air Force last year, and if he can make better decisions with a year of experience under his belt, his improvement could be tremendous as the talent is there.
OFFENSE: The return of QB Brian Johnson should provide a huge spark to the Ute offense. Johnson redshirted last season as he recovered from knee surgery after being the starter in 2005, when he completed 63.6% of his passes for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns. The big question for Johnson is who will he hand the ball off to after last yearís rushing leader Daryl Poston broke his foot in spring practice, yet another setback in Postonís injury filled career, which now enters its 7th season after the NCAA granted him yet another season. The answer may arrive in the fall when junior college transfer Matt Asiata joins the Ute program after rushing for 1,365 yards last season. The offensive line is solid, and if a running back emerges, this looks to be one of the conference's best units.
DEFENSE: Utah will rely on a top-notch linebacking corps, led by Joe Jiannoni who had 92 tackles last season and 4 sacks. Malakai Mokofisi and Kyle Brady fill out one of the Mountain Westís best units. The main concern for the Utah staff is trying to replace All-American Eric Weddle and how to address the defensive tackle position that loses both of last yearís starters. Trying to step into the shoes of Weddle will be Sean Smith, who began his Ute career as a wide receiver and now must try to take over for one of Utahís all-time greats.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is an area of strength, as Louie Sakoda handles both the punting and kicking duties. Sakoda helped Utah finish 1st in the nation in net punting, averaging 41.6 yards per kick, and also connected on 16 out of his 20 field goal attempts. The return game is also top-notch led by Brice McCain on kick returns, as he averaged 22.4 yards per return helping Utah to rank 1st in the league in that category.
COACHING: Kyle Whittingham had big shoes to fill when he took over 3 years ago from Urban Meyer. In his 2 seasons at the helm of the program after serving as the school's defensive coordinator since 1995, Whittingham has registered a 15-10 overall mark, including 2 bowl victories. One of his top hires was bringing Andy Ludwig on board as offensive coordinator, as he had great success in the same capacity at Oregon and Fresno State before heading to Salt Lake City.
SCHEDULE: The Utes have themselves a major challenge in a schedule loaded with top teams. The non-conference schedule is brutal, led by the opener at Oregon State, followed two weeks later by a visit from UCLA, and then an October 5th battle at Louisville. The Mountain West schedule does not provide a break as Utah goes on the road versus league favorite TCU and ends the season at BYU.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Utah remains in the Mountain West title chase into November and earns a split of their non-conference schedule. Brian Johnson returns to his 2005 form, and running back Matt Asiata reaches his potential as Utah unleashes one of the best offenses in the conference. The kicking of Louie Sakoda gives Utah an edge in close contests.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The tough non-conference schedule overwhelms Utah, and this team still remains a step behind the top teams in the league. The passing defense declines further after ranking 80th in the nation in yards allowed last year, and that was with All-American Eric Weddle manning one corner position. The loss of the star defensive tackles diminishes a tough run defense, and Utah falls short in a lot of high scoring affairs.
MAKE OR BREAK: The running of Matt Asiata is huge to the success of this year's team, and if he reaches his potential, the lack of a great defense may not be a problem as this offense will be potent. Asiata can spread the defense, and Brian Johnson is more than capable of taking advantage with both his arm and his legs. The October 18th trip to Fort Worth to battle TCU looms large, and without a win in this one, Utah will likely be on the outside of the Mountain West title chase.
OFFENSE: The Cowboys had a nice surprise last year as QB Karsten Sween put together a solid freshman season and looks to have a great deal of upside potential. Assisting in Sweenís further development is the return of the running back duo of Wynel Seldon and Devin Moore, who combined for 1,184 yards last season and look to be one of the leagueís top running combinations. A concern for this unit is an offensive line that returns only 2 starters from a group that struggled last season in allowing 40 sacks. Major improvement is needed in line play if Wyoming hopes to be a major factor in the Mountain West title chase.
DEFENSE: Only 5 starters return to a unit that ranked 2nd in the MWC and 9th in the nation in yards per game allowed at 262.9. The Cowboys will rely on an excellent set of linebackers as the defensive line is inexperienced and filled with question marks. Leading the backers is Ward Dobbs, who recorded 69 tackles and 3 sacks last season and will be asked to do more in 2007. The secondary must replace 1st team MWC safety in John Wendling in addition to free safety Dorsey Golston. This unit appears to have lost too much talent to equal last yearís exceptional production, but this remains one of the conference's better groups.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Aric Goodman was supposed to handle the place kicking duties after handling that role last season, but abruptly left school and will be transferring. The job now belongs to Jake Scott, who has connected on 2 of his 4 attempts in limited action. Billy Vinnedge also returns to lead the punting game and will look to improve upon his strong 43.2 average. The Cowboys will look for major improvement out of Hoost Marsh this season as he is expected to handle both the punt and kick return duties. Wyoming ranked 6th in the league in both punt and kickoff returns last year.
COACHING: Head coach Joe Glenn is entering his 5th season at Wyoming, and this is a big season for him and his staff after only reaching one bowl game in his 1st 4 years at the helm. Overall, Glenn is 21-26 since he joined Wyoming from Montana as he looks to build upon his 6-6 mark of a year ago. The staff is relatively stable, as his offensive coordinator Bill Cockhill and defensive coordinator Mike Breske were both on Glennís staff at Montana.
SCHEDULE: Wyoming usually puts together an interesting set of non-conference opponents, and this year is no different with games at Boise State and Ohio and home games versus Virginia and Utah State. A key stretch for the Cowboys begins on October 20th when Wyoming travels to Air Force, then returns home to face UNLV before traveling to San Diego State on November 3rd. A sweep of these three games is likely required to keep the Cowboys' postseason hopes alive.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Cowboys make reservations for the postseason for the 1st time since 2004. QB Karsten Sween continues to build on his loads of potential and doubles his touchdown production with the help of an experienced receiving corps. The linebacking corps takes control of the defensive unit and combines with a strong secondary to continue the top-notch defensive play of last season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Cowboys lose 3 out of their 1st 4 games and are unable to regroup, falling short of the postseason yet again. The major question on defense, the line, does not develop, and the stout run defense of a year ago turns into a sieve as the talented linebackers spend time making tackles 5-10 yards down the field instead of in the opponentís backfield. Same story on the offensive side of the ball, as the inexperienced line cannot generate any push, negating the threat of a Cowboy rushing attack.
MAKE OR BREAK: A huge game for Wyoming occurs on October 13th as New Mexico pays a visit to Laramie for homecoming. The Cowboys snuck out of New Mexico with a 14-10 win last season, and this game can get the momentum rolling for a nice win streak in the following weeks. Again worthy of mention is the offensive line, a unit that will have 3 new faces and the 2 returning starters in new positions. Two freshmen are expected to start, and this group has to develop quickly as a unit or the talents of QB Sween, RB Seldon, and WR Ford will be wasted without room to work down the field.
BYU absolutely dominated the Mountain West last season, but this year it looks to be a much better race in the battle for a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl. TCU enters the 2007 campaign as the favorite and the projected champion, led by its powerful defensive unit, as the Frogs are not only capable of winning the conference, but this team has BCS bowl aspirations. Their 2nd week meeting at Texas will let the nation know how real these Horned Frogs are on the national scene. The next teams right behind TCU in the MWC chase are BYU and Utah, as both programs are clearly capable of making a run at the conference championship. Also keep an eye on New Mexico and Colorado State, both squads that return a great deal of experience and have the potential to play the spoiler role in conference play.