The youngest conference in major college football celebrates its 10th year of existence this season, and the time is ripe for the conference to become a BCS contender again. With the exception of the 2005 TCU team, the conference has been dominated by three teams: BYU, Colorado State, and Utah. Still, only once in nine years has the MWC sent a conference champion to the BCS, that being Utah in their undefeated 2004 run. BYU is the frontrunner for the third straight year and has not lost a conference game since 2005, but to make the BCS, the Cougars have many landmines to avoid in this conference in 2008.
1. Is this the year the BCS comes knocking? Four teams (BYU, Utah, TCU, and New Mexico) have a real shot to jump into the Top 14 and earn a BCS berth. Will the competitive nature of the MWC bring them all down or send one to ultimate glory?
2. Will anybody be able to stop the BYU or Utah offense? There are some good defenses in the conference, especially Wyoming and TCU, but can they pull an upset by stopping the crazy spread?
3. How important will home field advantage be? There's definitely a scenario with BYU losing at Utah, Utah losing at New Mexico, and New Mexico losing in Provo to leave each at 7-1. Could anybody make the BCS in these circumstances?
OFFENSE: Only 3 starters return from the strong unit of the 9-4 Falcons last season, and there will certainly be growing pains as every skill position player is replaced. Still, returning lineman Nick Charles and Keith Williams will anchor one side of the line and may open up some running lanes. There will be growing pains here.
DEFENSE: The strength of this team is definitely the defensive line, with strong ends Ben Garland and Ryan Kemp. Look for these guys to continue piling up the sacks in the 3-4 Defense this season. The only question mark is the secondary, with only SS Chris Thomas back.
SPECIAL TEAMS: For all the seniors that moved on last season to start defending our country, the one most influential returning starter may be senior PK Ryan Harrison. Harrison could be an outside contender for the Groza award after hitting 19 of 27 field goals last year. There are plenty of young guns coming in to shore up the return game as well.
COACHING: After struggling the past few seasons, Air Force changed directions in 2007 and hired Troy Calhoun. Calhoun took a senior-laden team to high success last season, second place in the MWC and a bowl bid. Still, this figures to be a rebuilding process starting now for Calhoun, so we may not find out just how good he is until the end of this season or next season.
SCHEDULE: The schedule actually favors the Falcons quite a bit, with the toughest stretch coming in September with Wyoming and Houston on the road and Utah at home. As long as the young Falcons are not too beaten down in September, they can get on a nice roll and perhaps contend for the last bowl berth in the conference. Road wins at SDSU and UNLV are a must for this though.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Sometimes there's just no better choice than the kicker, and the clutch player is PK Ryan Harrison. He will certainly be called upon for more attempts than last season with the inexperienced offense learning the ropes. He will need to convert on a high rate to keep the Falcons competitive, and he'll step up to the challenge.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Absolute best case scenario is fourth place in the MWC and a bowl berth. This would require New Mexico or TCU to falter as well as everything to click early for the Falcons. But it is possible under Calhoun.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... In all reality, a .500 season is the goal this year. Worst case would be not recovering from the tough September stretch, losing the Armed Forces cup to Navy, and stumbling to the cellar of the MWC.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be if the experienced lines can help the new starters grow up in September. The key game is Navy at home on 10/4 after a bye week, as this will set the tone for the back half of the season.
OFFENSE: The good news is, the Cougars return 10 starters from last year's solid offensive unit. QB Max Hall should improve plenty in his second year, especially with all the receiving talent he has coming back.
DEFENSE: The bad news is, expect the offense to need to outscore many opponents, especially early in the year. The defense only returns 3 starters, two of which thankfully anchor the defensive line. There's plenty of talent to jump in the open spots, but things could be dicey if the offense has a bad performance.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both PK Mitch Payne and P C.J. Santiago are back this season, but both need to improve dramatically for BYU to seriously entertain thoughts of an undefeated season. The return game will be solid again.
COACHING: Now in his fourth year, Bronco Mendenhall has gotten used to not losing MWC games. His 21-3 record in three years and three Las Vegas Bowls show that he knows how to get the best out of his players. With the spread offense being tough to stop and all the returning offensive starters, there's no doubt BYU could be in the Fiesta Bowl come January.
SCHEDULE: Early tests at Washington and hosting UCLA will be a nice barometer for the defense. Assuming BYU sneaks past Jake Locker and company in Seattle, the only other worrisome two game stretch is 10/11 vs. New Mexico and five days later at TCU. The big finale at Utah could be for a BCS berth.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... DL Jan Jorgensen stood out on the defense as a sophomore last season, and he will need to lead a bunch of new starters in order for this team to live up to the super-high expectations.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Clearly the best case scenario is 12-0, but the schedule strength is too weak to seriously consider BCS Championship hopes. Still, 12-0 is a lock for the Fiesta Bowl, and maybe BYU will be lucky enough to draw Oklahoma.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Anything less than a share of the conference title would be a colossal disaster. The quick turnaround could be deadly in losses at TCU and later at Utah. Worst case is 9-3 and another bowl bid.
MAKE OR BREAK: Can the defense grow up enough to handle tough road games at Washington, TCU, and Utah? This will be the story of the 2008 BYU Cougars.
OFFENSE: With new coach Steve Fairchild, expect him to fully utilize the four returning linemen and three returning running backs to carry most of the load as a new quarterback is broken in. The problem is that even with the synergy between coach philosophy and returning talent, MWC teams will know to sit 8 guys in the box against the trio of Gartrell Johnson, Kyle Bell, and Michael Meyers. The key will be how fast a starting QB emerges.
DEFENSE: The only strength on the defense is returning LB Ricky Brewer, Jeff Horinek, and Jake Pottorff. The defense struggled to get any pass rush last year, and a new D-line will not help things.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A new punter will be needed this season, which may be very important with the likely offensive struggles. Fourth-year kicker Jason Smith should have a solid final year and is one to watch.
COACHING: It's always hard to replace a legend, but after a couple rough seasons the time was ripe for Sonny Lubick to give way to new coach Steve Fairchild. Fairchild ran some rush-heavy NFL offenses at Buffalo and St. Louis the past few years, so the only real question mark is how he will run the defense in his first year.
SCHEDULE: The out-of-conference games will provide an early test for the Rams with the Colorado game in Denver and at California. Their best shot at a MWC win is likely 10/4 hosting UNLV, but the Rams could sneak a win or two in November.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... senior LB Jeff Horinek will lead the defense this season and had the most tackles for a CSU defender in 4 years last season. Expect him to break that record this year with the holes in the new D-line.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Rams could be revitalized by their new coach and maybe with some luck, push to a 4-4 MWC record.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... No doubt about it, this season could be rough. 1-11 with no wins in MWC play is possible.
MAKE OR BREAK: How quickly the new quarterback is found from the stable of four contenders and how quickly that guy gets it together to become a valid threat. If this happens in October, Colorado State will be somewhat successful.
OFFENSE: The offense was not the unit that led the Lobos to their first bowl win and their 5th bowl appearance in 6 years last season, and now they have to replace the entire line. But still, returning QB Donovan Porterie and RB Rodney Ferguson are both solid guys to build a new offense around. They should lead the unit admirably.
DEFENSE: The defense is what makes New Mexico tick, and they unfortunately lost a lot of talent from last year's 13th ranked defense (nationally). Cornerback DeAndre Wright leads perhaps the best secondary in the conference, so expect a lot of game changing plays back there. The key is how the new guys up front do.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Well there's no returning starters in the kicking game, and the return game needs new help as well. Nobody really stepped up in spring, so this is a big question mark going into the season.
COACHING: Rocky Long enters his 11th year in New Mexico with an even 61-61 record overall. His defensive-minded teams have never won a league title, but have no doubt that Rocky can get these guys up there after his first bowl win last season.
SCHEDULE: Part of the reason New Mexico exceeds expectations in the MWC is the tough out-of-conference schedule every year. This season starts with a critical MWC game against TCU, then Texas A&M and Arizona at home before a roadtrip to Tulsa. There's only 3 home games in the final nine, which may hurt come November.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB Rodney Ferguson has gained over 1000 yards the past two seasons and will be the primary weapon this year. Who knows how many yards he could rack up?
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Best case is probably 11-1, with a loss to BYU and a win over Utah to hope for a three-way tie for their first MWC crown.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The defense struggles up front mightily, and the offense cannot pick up the pace enough to keep New Mexico more than an also-ran. Certainly should stay bowl-eligible, but could drop to 4-4 in the league.
MAKE OR BREAK: Really it's how this team handles the first three games, as that will be the only time they get the luxury of being at home. The big opener against TCU will set the tone for the conference title aspirations, as New Mexico should not come out of BYU with a win.
San Diego State
OFFENSE: Oh my, normally one would think year three of a head coach's career is where things turn around, but this could be tough with nine starters gone. RB Brandon Sullivan and Atiyah Henderson will need to carry most of the load for the Aztecs this season.
DEFENSE: The defense was the worst in the conference in 2007, but most of the starters return and they should grow up quickly this season. LB Russell Allen is the leader of the pack this season, a solid anchor in the middle of the defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is another team that will suffer through two new kickers this season. Look for the return game to be strong this season though as the Aztecs have some speedsters on the roster.
COACHING: Chuck Long enters a third year at SDSU and may take a step back in record this season with such an inexperienced team. Still, his defense remains young and an explosive return to the bowl season is the goal for 2009. This season, just stay the course.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is not so bad actually, as the Aztecs have Cal Poly and Idaho at home as well as winnable road games at Notre Dame and San Jose State early. The three team the Aztecs have a reasonable chance of beating in conference all come at home in Air Force, Colorado State, and UNLV.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... No doubt about it, the leader of the defense is LB Russell Allen, who has a chance to shine in that leadership role this season. How he leads the unit will largely determine the success of the Aztecs.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Really, 6-6 is possible if all breaks go right, but a good season would be winning three home games in conference.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The defense stays ineffective and the offense sputters. No help from special teams, and SDSU goes winless in conference and 1-11 overall.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be how well the experienced players on defense play, and they should improve enough to make a substantial contribution in this year where the Aztecs need them.
OFFENSE: Normally the defense has carried the Horned Frogs the past few years, but now the offense is the highly experienced unit. QB Andy Dalton has a lot of field awareness and RB Aaron Brown will eat up plenty of yards behind a strong O-line. This could be the best offense in a long time for TCU.
DEFENSE: The defense reloads at every level, but the line will be breaking in the most new players. James Vees is back from a one year suspension and LB Kelly Griffin should be a strong inside presence up front.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While the punter and kicker are gone, K Drew Combs has had the kickoff duties for a year and will lead the special teams as a placekicker this season. The return game is OK as well.
COACHING: Gary Patterson enters an eighth year at TCU and he's had four very solid 10+ win years so far. Although last year was the first disappointing MWC performance, don't expect Patterson to suffer two straight years in the middle of the conference.
SCHEDULE: A very tough league opener at New Mexico will be a chance for TCU to establish league contender status. The September schedule is easy outside of a 9/27 trip to Oklahoma, but TCU has two weeks of easy games following that one. TCU is one of the two contenders to get BYU at home, so look for that game to be the most important.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... 2007 Preseason player of the year RB Aaron Brown will hopefully not miss half a season this time around, and if that happens, he has a chance at league MVP.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... TCU is not winning at Oklahoma, but an opener win at New Mexico and a midseason win hosting BYU could make TCU the co-league champion at 7-1 and 10-2.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... TCU's offense is not as good as advertised, and that could drop them to .500 in league play if things go poorly.
MAKE OR BREAK: The home game versus BYU is this team's season. Even with losses at New Mexico and Oklahoma, a win over BYU could launch TCU back into league contention with only a road game at Utah in November standing between them and 7-1.
OFFENSE: Three years of the Sanford regime, three two-win seasons and 1-7 MWC finishes. The offense should have been better every year, but this year you have to figure they will carry the team. The spread offense with QB Travis Dixon and Omar Clayton has a lot of punch, and WR duo Casey Flair and Ryan Wolfe will keep defenses confused.
DEFENSE: Lots of holes abound in the defense, but the unit should be serviceable with D-Line veterans Jacob Hales and Malo Taumua back. They will need to keep up the good play to make UNLV competitive.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Replacing both kickers is no treat, but UNLV is clearly not alone in that department in the MWC. Still, expect a game or two to turn on the lack of special teams expertise.
COACHING: Now it is put up or shut up time for Mike Sanford in his fourth year. 6-29 is not a record that gets contract extensions, and you have to figure this former offensive coordinator is going to do something special with this offense.
SCHEDULE: The schedule only has one real rough spot, that being a late three game stretch at BYU and hosting TCU and New Mexico over 3 weeks. Still, by then UNLV's season will be determined.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... WR Casey Flair will set a lot of school records within a few games in 2008, and he's also a threat in the return game. This burner will make waves in 2008.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The offense puts a nice season together and UNLV could end up in a bowl game after all the struggles of the past three years. 7-5 is not out of the question with that offense.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Well, let's just say another bad year is possible with this team. It could be an ugly offseason, but 1-11 and 0-8 in the MWC is possible.
MAKE OR BREAK: It all comes down to whether the offensive-minded head coach can take a team that looks like the second or third best offense in the conference and does something with it. Wins against BYU and Utah are probably too much to ask, but they have to step up on the offensive side.
OFFENSE: Bringing the best offensive line in the conference will only be the start of this dynamic unit. Only BYU should contend with the likes of dual-threat QB Brian Johnson and RB duo Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata. There will be a lot of points in Utah this season.
DEFENSE: There's a lot to prove on this side of the ball, and this unit will likely determine how far the Utes go this season. Stevenson Sylvester has the best name in the league and will lead the linebacking corps.
SPECIAL TEAMS: One man does all the kicking in Louie Sakoda, and he's back for another run this season. He should be a solid cog in the Ute mix.
COACHING: Fourth-year man Kyle Whittingham is really showing his skill at coaching the Utes after taking over a reloading team following the Utes lone BCS appearance. This is the year if another BCS appearance in in the near future.
SCHEDULE: Watch out Michigan, that opener in the Big House may be another tough day this year. Utah will be hard pressed to win both that and the early October game against Oregon State, but the rest of the schedule is pretty much a breeze until November. Then within 5 days of a road game at New Mexico, the Utes host TCU. Assuming a split or better, Utah will be playing BYU at home for the title in the finale.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... QB Brian Johnson leads the team and should be better than last year, when he broke out despite a shoulder injury.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Actually, this team could repeat the undefeated run from a few years ago and end up in the Fiesta Bowl again.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Really, it's hard to believe a team this talented could lose four games and three in conference, but the opener at Michigan and the November gauntlet could go poorly, especially if injuries affect the defense.
MAKE OR BREAK: There's a likelihood that Utah could be undefeated going into November. If that's the case, then the back four will determine whether Utah wins the conference and goes to the BCS or suffers a terrible fate.
OFFENSE: This unit really brought the team down last year, but 8 returning starters hope to cut the turnovers and mistakes down this year. QB Karsten Sween has a lot of competition for the job after a sophomore slump, but he may still have the reins. All of the line is back, so that should help the passing game.
DEFENSE: Seven starters return from one of the best defenses statistically in the country in 2007, and if the offense helps just a bit this time around, this unit will carry the load. The line of John Fletcher, Mitch Unrein, and Fred Givens should dominate most O-lines in the MWC.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Here's another team replacing one go to guy for both punting and kicking in Billy Vinnedge. The spring practice showed there should be some competition for both jobs this season, and competition always makes players better.
COACHING: Joe Glenn is entering his sixth year at Wyoming, and he's the only real veteran head coach left in the MWC. His three national titles between D-II Northern Colorado and D-IAA Montana shows he knows how to coach, but the results at Wyoming have been poor. Expect him to step up and lead this team to a much-needed bowl game.
SCHEDULE: The Cowboys need to hit the ground running, with three home games to open the season. The first three road games are all very rough at BYU, New Mexico, and TCU. The November schedule is all winnable, except for the 11/8 out-of-conference game at Tennessee.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... As good as the defensive line is, LB Ward Dobbs really is the centerpiece of the 3-4 defense. Look for Dobbs to jump into the national spotlight if Wyoming surprises.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... With such a good defense, this team can go as far as the offense can take it. Unfortunately, the glass ceiling is probably 9-3 and a third-place MWC finish. Still, that would be good for this program.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The offense brings the team down again, leading to the likely firing of Coach Glenn. They could drop all the way to 3-9 and 1-7 in MWC play.
MAKE OR BREAK: I think it's clear from the above paragraphs that this team is relying on the offense and specifically the passing game to do something relevant this season. The home schedule is winnable, and there's the seven games needed for the bowl this program needs.
For the sake of Wyoming fans, they will definitely be cheering for a BCS berth as they sit in likely 5th place in the conference. There's only 4 bowl tie-ins, so the Cowboys need help. BYU has dominated the past three years, but Utah has more than enough to upset them in the finale. Still, expect New Mexico and TCU to make their voices heard before it's all said and done. I project BYU goes to the BCS despite a close loss at Utah at the end of the year.