The Mountain West was no stranger to the fallout from the offseason realignment, and the conference made a huge splash a few days ago as Nevada and Fresno State will follow Boise State to join this conference next year. However, it appears that BYU will be bowing out to be independent while Utah is also in their last season here before defecting to the Pac-12. So this is indeed the last chance for TCU and the bottom six in the conference to get in parting shots at the Utah schools before they leave. Next year the conference may look different, but TCU will be back and could be coming off a second straight conference championship if all goes to plan. The lower half of the conference is much improved though, so there could be some surprises along the way.
TCU Horned Frogs
With the exception of a couple oddball years, the Horned Frogs can almost book double digit wins every single year just by having Gary Patterson on the sideline. After making the Fiesta Bowl last year, this year things could be even greater as TCU brings back a whopping 16 starters. The offense has exploded the past two seasons, reaching almost 40 points per game last season. Nine starters return and the only notable loss is left tackle Marshall Newhouse, but there are some talented freshmen like John Wooldridge ready to fit right in. Andy Dalton has a fantastic group of senior receivers to throw to and could top 3000 yards, which would only add to his school record passing total after three years of starting. The defense does need to plug in four new starters, but TCU has held teams under 250 yards per game three of the past four years and will definitely be fine as long as the new cornerbacks fit in well. Greg McCoy and Jason Teague appear to have the starting spots, but do not count out Malcolm Williams. The Horned Frogs have a tough opener in Dallas against Oregon State, but after that the only real stumbling block on the schedule could be the November roadtrip to Utah. TCU will expect nothing less than another BCS bowl year with this team.
BYU may want to take out Utah more than ever before at the end of this season for leaving them behind, but the real key to the Cougars season is the roadtrip to TCU. The offense may not be quite as good on paper as TCU's defense, but RB Harvey Unga and a nearly intact returning offensive line will make sure BYU stays in the game against tougher competition. One of the best quarterback recruits in the country steps in for Max Hall this year, and expect Jake Heaps to be a household name in a couple of seasons. WR Ross Apo will likely start alongside Heaps for four seasons and is talented enough to threaten the top 3 school leaders of all time in receiving (3000+ yards). the defense must do a little reloading, but Bronco Mendenhall has somehow managed to keep the Cougars about the same on defense every year for the past 5 years. The defense is a true mix of the old hat and the new kids, with five seniors alongside 4 freshman starters coming into the season. Look for linebackers Zac Stout and Kyle Van Noy to pick up quickly against the high level September opponents including Washington and Air Force. BYU should be in the top 3 again, but a three loss conference season could happen with all the nasty roadtrips.
With the exception of 2008's perfect season, Kyle Wittingham has failed to guide the Utes to a top 2 finish in the league anytime in his five year tenure. This year Utah will again be right in the mix as BYU and TCU have to come through Salt Lake City, making the toughest road game at Air Force. The Utes offense brings back 8 starters and the key will be how mature sophomore Jordan Wynn is after splitting time with Terrance Cain in 2009. The running game will be solid as always with the best rushing duo in the conference in Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata back for their senior seasons. The wide receivers are new, which could cause some problems for Wynn. The only snag this year may be the defense, which only returns 4 starters. Although most of the defensive line returns and adds a great junior college lineman in James Aiono, the entire defensive backfield and linebacker crew is gone sans CB Brandon Burton. In a league with good quarterbacks like Tim Jefferson and Andy Dalton, the inexperience in the back will be very brutal unless Utah comes together better than expected before November. The November slate also includes Notre Dame, so we many not know anything about this team until November 6.
IN THE MIX
Air Force Falcons
Like the other service academies, Air Force is always hard to keep up with as the recruits come and go for service in bunches. This year 11 starters return including every single non-lineman on the offensive side. QB Tim Jefferson and RB duo Jared Tew and Asher Clark should improve on their 30 points per game from a year ago, assuming the offensive line works well with five new starters. On a non-service academy school this would be a huge problem, but I believe the spread option will thrive no matter who starts up front. The defense returns four starters who racked up more than fifty tackles a year ago, including LB Andre Morris, DE Rick Ricketts, FS Jon Davis, and CB Anthony Wright. These four anchors of the defense are well spread out among 5 new starters and should be nearly as good as a unit as the Falcons were a season ago. Kicker Erik Soderberg hit 22 out of 30 field goals a year ago, and one would expect those numebrs to improve even further for perhaps the best kicker in the conference. Despite the heavy turnover, expect Air Force to be right in the mix as they host a relatively inexperienced BYU early and Utah in late October.
The Cowboys snuck their way to 6-6 and a bowl victory in coach Dave Christensen's first year, and 15 starters coming back means Wyoming could find themselves in back to back bowls. The offense welcomes back all the stellar freshman starters from a year ago, including QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Alvester Alexander, and WR Chris Mcneill. The offense will need more production now that the skill players are all returning as being outgained by 100 yards per game is not the recipe for a bowl game, despite last year's results. Defenses cannot sleep on Carta-Samuels taking off when nobody is open, and that skill may be crucial if the new starters along the offensive line don't hold defenders out of the pocket long enough. As long as the offense sustains few injuries, the Cowboys will be much better this year. The defense allowed well over 200 yards through the air last season but four returning starters in the backfield should help lower that number this year. Opposing offenses always seemed to find balance against the Cowboys, so one point of growth may be forcing opponents into one-dimension this year. A brutal stretch of six games in seven weeks against the top four teams in the MWC and Texas and Boise State could derail the bowl hopes, but Wyoming could very well sweep the rest with this team.
UNLV has finished one game short of a bowl the past two seasons, and the opportunities have been right there for the taking late in the season. Now that new coach Bobby Hauck takes over, he finds the Rebel program in a good position with a very experienced team coming back for another shot at bowl glory. QB Omar Clayton will again lead the offense, but he will be looking to improve quite a bit on a 13-12 touchdown-interception ratio from a season ago. Clayton will certainly be helped by all three of his top running backs coming back, and CJ Cox will likely take the starting job away from Channing Trotter this year. Look for the offense to find more balance under new coordinator Rob Phenicie who led Montana to the #2 offense in FCS football last year. The defense has progressively become worse and worse agaisnt the run the past few seasons, but they should turn it around this year with a couple big run blocking linemen in the middle with Ramsey Feagai and Isaako Aaitui. The schedule does not favor UNLV as they must win 7 to get to a bowl and have the likes of Wisconsin, WVU, and Hawaii on the schedule. However, this team has enough returning talent to be in the mix if an upset or two happens.
ALL THE REST
San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs seek their first winning season since 1998, and this may be a great opportunity in Brady Hoke's second season at the helm. Hoke brings back 16 starters from a team that went 4-8 last year and lost a couple close games against middling teams in the conference. The offense returns both leading rushers from last season but will likely welcome freshman Ronnie Hillman as the new starter at running back. QB Ryan Lindley passed for over 3000 yards last year and could do so again with all of his top receivers back. The key to stopping the Aztec offense is making sure the third and fourth receivers are covered, as Lindley makes a killing on the check off passes. The defense should be much improved in Rocky Long's second seasno at coordinator, but the one possible problem is replacing three of the four linebackers in the 3-4 defense. The defense is nevertheless stacked with juniors and seniors who have had a year to leanr the program and improve their skills. If all the breaks go in the Aztecs' favor, this will be a bowl season and maybe even a 7-5 season. However, winning more than one road conference game will be tough, and that may be what is necessary to get there.
Colorado State Rams
Colorado State went from a bowl season to a shocking 0-8 in MWC play a year ago. Thankfully this does not look like a team that will go winless in the conference again, but it also does not look like a bowl year. The Rams bring back only 4 players on offense, of which RB Leonard Mason and backup RB Raymond Carter are the best returning ahtletesMason and Carter may struggle behind a line replacing four starters from a year ago. The biggest snag for the Rams on the recruiting trail was QB Pete Thomas, who will almost certainly take over as a freshman for the departed Zac Pauga. There will be a long learning curve for all these new faces on offense, so expect CSU to be much better toward the end of the season. The defense does bring back 8 starters, which may lead the Rams to their best defensive finish since 2006. Two of the three new starters are seniors who have seen a lot of playing time in CB Deangelo Wilkinson and DL Ty Whittier. LB Mychal Sisson will again lead the team in tackles and will be the driving force which could lead the Rams to multiple wins on conference play. Two of the out of conference games are winnable, so look for 4 to 5 wins in 2010.
New Mexico Lobos
Although a few seniors will be playing for the Lobos this season, second-year coach Mike Locksley has put his fingerprints all over the program already with many of his own younger guys stepping into starting roles. During the transition year last year, New Mexico struggled mightily last season outside of a competitive game against their rival NMSU and a win against Colorado State. The Lobos will be much imrpoved this season, but that may not be enough to spare them from the basement. True freshman QB Tarean Austin appears to have won the starting job over BR Holbrook, but he will be helped by sophomore RB Demond Dennis taking the pressure off. Dennis only had 427 yards of rushing a year ago, but expect that number to approach 800-1000 this season. The defense had a historically bad year last year with only 3 starters back. This year the group will be better, but they lose four of the top five tacklers. Carmen Messina nabbed a monster 162 tackles from his MLB slot last year, but you have to hope that doesn't happen to him again. Messina needs some help, and I think he will get it as New Mexico wins a couple more games this year.
Whether or not BYU actually ends up leaving the league (at press time, this does seem less likely than when this article was started), the teams from Utah will have a struggle against all the remaining teams out for blood and of course the team well above both of them at the top in TCU. The Horned Frogs have a lot of focus removed by Boise State, but the comparisons will be heavy early as both of them play Oregon State as a premier out of conference game in September. If both end up undefeated, one of them (and only one) will head to the BCS. TCU has an uphill battle with Boise State starting well ahead in the polls to begin the season. However, defense wins championships and if TCU survives the opener, one would have to assume 12-0 will be well within their sights. Look for improvement from the bottom of the league, which may knock the middling teams like Wyoming out of bowl contention with a poorly timed upset or two. In the final year with the Big Three, all of them will be right there fighting it out again, and the Holy War will be an entertaining one in 2010.