The WAC has been watching as a dominant dynasty Boise State has walked all over the conference this decade. However, Boise State needs everyone else to get better or else they will continue to be passed up like 2008, where an undefeated record and a win on the road at Oregon was not enough apparently to make the BCS. Still, the lower tier of programs have some fresh start coaches and appear to be headed in a better direction, and the contenders to Boise State actually have a chance to make this a legitimate race. Conference USA has struggled to find a national contender presence, and this is what they need now that the league is very good across the board. As for the Mountain West, the time is now to continue showing off at least the three regular ranked contenders. If these three conferences want to bash down the doors of the BCS, each has to improve considerably on these aspects of top contenders and overall quality to be successful in 3-4 years.
Boise State Broncos
The most successful program of the decade is actually not the USC Trojans but these Boise State Broncos. Of course the competition in the WAC is a bit lighter, but Boise State continues to prove themselves on the big stage, and being passed over by the BCS was a real shame in 2008. Coach Petersen has a fair amount of talent coming into Boise, but there are a lot of holes to fill this year that the usual undefeated season might be asking too much. The offensive line needs completely rebuilt, which will not help QB Kellen Moore, who has little speed to escape a rush. The defensive backfield will be solid and should keep the Broncos in the tougher games on the schedule. The schedule is the toughest part, with a home game against Oregon to start off when Boise State needs time to develop their talent. The BCS remains the goal though.
It is very rare for a coach to stay at a program like Nevada for a quarter-century, but Chris Ault has done just that. The Wolfpack almost got the big dog down last year to ruin Boise State's undefeated season, and there's no reason this team cannot compete again in 2009. the defense is nothing special, but the line will probably continue to stop most rushing attacks in conference. The offense is what has fans excited with dual-threat QB Colin Kaepernick being a perfect fit for the pistol offense. As long as Nevada can get enough of a running game going to rest the defense and prevent shootouts, there is a good chance the game in Boise will be for a conference championship. Look for early games at Notre Dame and against Missouri to be chances at national recognition for a non-Boise WAC program.
Now this should be a fun team to watch in the 2009 WAC title chase. For the first time in a few years, Boise State will have more than one primary threat to their title defense thanks to Tech joining the chase. The Bulldogs return every single starting lineman on both sides of the ball, and these lines were the primary pushing force behind a solid eight win campaign last year. Tech will have their work cut out for them on the road, with games at Auburn, Nevada, LSU, and Fresno State. Despite the rough schedule, Tech has enough talent on offense such as WR Philip Livas and RB Daniel Porter to make up for the weak defensive backfield. Tech could buckle under the schedule or they could rise to the occasion, and 8-4 with this schedule will be a massive success for this program. a WAC title would be a bigger coup.
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San Jose State was decimated by injuries and struggled with inexperience in 2008 to close the deal for a bowl berth, but the Spartans now have more than they've had in five seasons. Considering USC will be looking ahead to the Ohio State roadtrip, look for San Jose State to make a huge statement by sticking with USC into the second half and taking confidence from that performance to a successful season. Fresno State continues to fail to lve up to potential, and this season is critical for Pat Hill to keep his job at the helm. If Fresno State is to make any noise, look for three wins in September against a tough slate including Wisconsin and Cincinnati on the road and Boise State at home. Hawaii should squeak into the middle class of the conference based on experience alone, but there's still a lot of rebuilding to do in the Pacific. Still, the Warriors are incredibly tough at home and could surprise LTU or Boise State out there.
The bottom three in the conference are in dire straits for 2009. On the bright side, New Mexico State and Utah State each welcome in quality new coaches who will be looking to turn these programs around quickly if they want to advance in their coaching careers. At least the new coaches there can bring a new attitude, while Idaho has been as bad in the decade as Boise State has been good. There's really no hope for the Vandals to come out of it anytime soon, so do not expect much from this team in 2009.
BYU was poised for a run to the BCS in 2008, yet faltering in games at TCU and Utah forced the Cougars to watch the other two perennial powers in the conference enjoy high-profile bowl games. This season there are a handful of holes to fill on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary, but overall, this season has as much promise as 2008. In fact, getting three of the toughest games of the season in Provo could make all the difference this time around. QB Max Hall comes back to lead the prolific passing offense, which will be sorely tested in a neutral-site opener against Oklahoma. If the Cougars could pull that upset, there's nothing that would stop the Cougars from the national championship chance the conference so desperately wants. The key to success this season will be developing the raw talent in the defensive backfield to be better against opposing passing games. If this happens, a conference title will be in the works.
TCU Horned Frogs
The Horned Frogs just keep on trucking as the best program in the MWC, despite being outshined by Utah's two BCS appearances and wins and BYU's history. Although coach Gary Patterson has more holes to fill this year than the other two conference powers, the program is better at reloading because of better recruiting than their competitors. The defense will be the star feature as usual, led by all-american lineman Jerry Hughes and cornerbacks Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders. While TCU may look like a program set for greatness in 2010, there are a lot of seniors who do not want to lose this opportunity at the BCS. The schedule is fairly forgiving, and the home game against BYU could be for all the conference and BCS marbles if TCU survives Virginia and Clemson in September. Look for a surprising season out of the Horned Frogs and perhaps even an overdue BCS appearance.
Utah needed a miracle missed kick from TCU and a drive down the field for the ages to make the BCS, but the Utes again made the most of the opportunity by throttling Alabama for their second straight BCS win. Utah is a program that really seems to come together for a big season every three or four years, and coach Wittingham has a lot of holes to fill to rebuild the Utes back to the BCS. Nevertheless, the early reports of Utah's demise are too far-fetched, as this team has more than enough returning experience to stay competitive. If Utah can figure out whether Terrance Cain or Corbin Louks is better-suited to running the offense before the conference opener in October at Colorado State, Utah could be a factor in the race in late November.
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Air Force is in the sweet spot for a service academy school, being competitive every year in a legitimately tough conference. If the Falcons improve on defense, the offense is more than strong enough to talk about improving to double-digit wins and giving the big three a true run for their money in 2009. Colorado State surprised everyone with seven wins and a bowl appearance last year, but there's still a lot of growth and recruiting to be done on the defensive side to make the Rams join the conference elite. Look for the veteran offensive line to drive Colorado State through a few successful shootouts in conference play to return to a bowl game. New Mexico may be a couple of years and recruiting classes away from true competitiveness, but new coach Mike Locksley turned around Illinois and he will turn around NMU. Look for the Lobos to steal a game or two that they really should not with a defense full of effort-players. There's potential for this group to make their way into the conference elite in the next three years, which would strengthen the case for the MWC to become a full-fledged BCS member.
The bottom third of the conference still has a lot of work to do, but there are signs of hope. San Diego State continues to struggle despite having California recruiting grounds and good coaching staffs. However, look for Brady Hoke, who turned around Ball State last year, to take San Diego State to similar places in a few seasons. UNLV finally broke through to five wins last year, but the Rebels were still statistically among the worst in the conference in most categories. Look for another season towards four or five wins, but Mike Sanford may be wearing out his welcome if the program does not continue some upward momentum from 2008. Wyoming also welcomes a new coaching staff and a spread offense attack which will hopefully turn around the most moribund of college football offenses the past few years. Look for the Cowboys to surprise a team or two, but nothing more at this point.
East Carolina Pirates
Last year around this time I made the bold prediction that East Carolina would shock the world, go undefeated, and make the BCS. Well after upsets against West Virginia and Virginia Tech that theory looked good, but it fell apart in three straight losses. However, ECU is the class of the conference and recovered for a conference championship. The best news for Pirates fans is that ECU should be even better this year. QB Patrick Pinkney will have tons of talent on the line to protect him and at wideout to throw to, so look for an more wide open offense. The defense has quality guys all over, but the corps are very thin and could fall apart if any injuries happen. Getting East division rivals Southern Miss and UCF at home this season should make the road to the conference championship smooth.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Coach Larry Fedora brought a little bit of Oklahoma State with him and it started to pay off in five straight wins to end the 2008 season. Look for the offense to continue to exploit the weak defenses of the conference with the spread attack, led by QB Austin Davis and WR DeAndre Brown. On the defensive front, the Golden Eagles have a lot of growing to do, yet should still be one of the better units in the league. If the defense steps up like they did in the back half of 2008, there's no doubt that Southern Miss can roll into East Carolina on the final week of the season and steal the division title. Bowl eligibility should be a no-brainer for this team though.
Like Southern Miss, Houston came together at the back half of 2008 to become a top contender coming into this season. All the underclassmen young guns on offense return for another season, led by superstar-in-the-making QB Case Keenum and RB Bryce Beall. Although the Cougars were one of the most prolific offenses in the country last season, the one thing that could hold them back is rebuilding the offensive line. On the defense, the line also needs reworking to keep a solid pass rush going. Watch for a lot of shootouts with this talented offense and the mediocre defense, but Houston should survive most shootouts this campaign. If Houston steals one of the September games against Oklahoma State or Texas Tech, watch out for some serious national attention.
Despite being a heavy favorite in the past two conference championship games, Tulsa has fallen short each time to better rushing attacks and defenses. Coach Todd Graham wants to finally take the next step, but the defense will have to improve considerably over the past efforts. If the best defense is a good offense, then Tulsa has that down pat with a spread offense that has befuddled the weak defenses in Conference USA. Although a new quarterback will take the reins, the offensive line and slew of wide receivers will cover up any weaknesses on that side of the ball. If the defensive linemen can create a legitimate pass rush this season, the Hurricane will have a chance to knock off Houston at home in November and go on to a third consecutive conference championship game.
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Marshall has been a huge underachiever in the Mark Snyder era, but 2009 should be the year the Thundering Herd finally puts together a bowl berth and a decent season. Expect Marshall to continue to be one of the better ball-control offenses as long as the talented runners get some hint of a threat from the passing game. It may seem like a broken record already, but Memphis is another team that will compete for a division title if the defense shows any semblence of improvement. At least for Memphis, they have brought in tons of transfer talent from other schools, nabbing 7 fairly good players who will be starters for Memphis. UAB will be better after returning all starters on offense, but the defense is in shambles and needs to replace people on top of that. The Blazers have tough road games out of conference, so bowl eligibility might be a pipe dream this year.
Central Florida always seems to be on a two-yeasr cycle of terrible and good, following the 2007 conference championship with only four wins last year. The defense will be one of the stronger units in the league as long as the new backfield comes together quickly. UCF should be back to bowling in 2009. Rice has made great strides the past two years and stunned the world with 10 wins in 2008, but a new quarterback and a rebuilt offense will likely drop the Owls back to earth this year. The brutal schedule will not help Rice. Tulane is in the worst shape in the conference, even though coach Bob Toledo has had three seasons of recruiting to rebuild the program. Look for new starting QB Joe Kemp to try and win over the Green Wave fans early with some heroics.
The rebuilding process with June Jones at SMU enters year two with a lot of young players having earned experience quickly in the new scheme last year. Look for talented WR's Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson to give opposing defense fits this year as the process continues. UTEP needs to find a defense under Mike Price or else the coach will quickly be headed out of town after three straight losing seasons. The Miners do have a great quarterback in Trevor Vittatoe, but he'll need to score in bunches to overcome the defense.
So while there are promising signs that these three conferences will continue to break into the BCS year in and year out, they still want a guaranteed piece of the pie. The only way that will happen is if the leagues get deeper overall and have more consistent national caliber programs emerge. It's a tall order, but with good coaches in the rebuilding locations right now, the unthinkable may just happen. The BCS may come to the negotiating table in 2012-2013. Look for some competitve battles at least among the better teams in these conference, as the likes of Boise state, Utah, and Tulsa reload for another run. Join us Wednesday for a look at the wild Big XII conference.