Slowly but surely, the Mountain West Conference is establishing itself as the best conference outside of the BCS coalition. It boasts some of the most highly regarded coaches in the country, led by Sonny Lubick at CSU, Fisher DeBerry at Air Force, and Urban Meyer at Utah. Throw in Rocky Long at UNM, Tom Craft at SDSU, John Robinson at UNLV, and up-and-coming Joe Glenn at Wyoming, and you have potentially one of the best groups of coaches top-to-bottom in the country.
This year, the conference may be the most balanced it’s ever been. Utah is clearly the top dog, with 17 returning starters from a 10-2 season that included a conference championship. San Diego State, New Mexico, and Colorado State are the other top contenders most likely to vie for the title. However, UNLV and Air Force have been known to pull an upset or two each year, and Wyoming seems to finally be headed in the right direction under Joe Glenn. About the only team that probably will not see improvement over last year is BYU, where Gary Crowton is on the hot seat.
2004 Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Utah 9-2 (5-2)
In Urban Meyer’s first year, he turned the Utes into conference champions and brought home Coach of the Year honors. His team returns 17 starters, including the most accurate and experienced QB in the league in Alex Smith. Utah is easily the most balanced team, with a fairly productive offense and a solid defense. Paris Warren and Steve Savoy lead a talented group of receivers, and the only question on offense is which back will step up to replace Brandon Warfield – Mike Liti, Joe Johnson, Quinton Ganther or the oft-troubled Marty Johnson.
Sonny Lubick’s squad is coming off a disappointing 7-6 finish last year after they were picked to win the conference and possibly contend for a shot at a BCS bowl game. In addition, they lost two-time MWC Offensive Player of the Year Bradlee Van Pelt. The good news is that they return a number of promising young stars on offense including QB Justin Holland, WR David Anderson, and TE/HB Joel Dreessen. The questions facing the Rams offense will be whether or not they can cut down on their turnovers and if they can get solid production out of their running back rotation that likely will feature Jimmy Green, Marcus Houston, Tristan Walker, and possibly even a true freshman. On defense, the Rams only return two full-time starters in DE Patrick Goodpaster and S Ben Stratton. They have some speed and talent on D, but they need their young players to step up. They also have one of the most daunting OOC schedules in the country with Colorado, USC, and Minnesota to open the season.
SAN DIEGO STATE:
Tom Craft’s “Dark Side Defense,” which gave up only 17 TDs last year, is led by MWC Defensive Player of the Year LB Kirk Morrison. Add in linebackers Matt McCoy and Stephen Larsen and shut-down corner Jacob Elimimian, and the Aztecs will again provide a daunting challenge to opposing offenses. On offense, it will most likely be the Lynell Hamilton show, who has provided glimpses of former SDSU star Marshall Faulk.
Rocky Long’s Lobos have improved one game every year since 1998. Last year they won eight. Could they win nine this year? It’s possible, but it will be tough. On offense, All-MWC RB DonTrell Moore and backup D.D. Cox will continue to rack up yards behind the league’s best offensive line, led by center Ryan Cook and guard Claude Terrell. On defense, the Lobo’s patented 3-3-5 scheme has proved so successful that it has been copied by half the teams in the conference. Look for their blitzing style to throw a wrench into opposing team’s game plans.
Joe Glenn has instilled the Cowboys and their fans with hope for the first winning season in a number of years. The Cowboys lost QB Casey Bramlet and two of their top receivers to the NFL, but Corey Bramlet, Casey’s brother, looks primed to step in and assume the QB position, while Jovon Bouknight leads the receivers. On defense, Zach Morris and John Flora anchor the line, but the rest of the defense must improve if Wyoming is to take the next step.
This may be John Robinson’s last year, and he’d like to go out with a winning season and a bowl game. His vaunted defense is led by 2002 MWC Defensive Player of the Year Jamaal Brimmer at safety, and Adam Seward, Ryan Claridge and John Andrews at linebacker. On offense, Kurt Nantkes and Shane Steichen will battle for the starting QB spot, and Dominique Dorsey, Alvin Marshall, and Ohio State transfer Ja Ja Riley will lead their ground game. UNLV has the talent to surprise, but they have a tendency to underachieve. Look for that to be the case again this year.
Fisher DeBerry only returns 6 starters and must replace talented option QB Chance Harridge who manned the helm for the Falcons the last few years. Adam Fitch and Andy Gray will vie for the QB job, while Darnell Stephens and Adam Cole will carry the load for the running backs. As they do every year, the Falcons will rely on their ground game again. But Alec Messerall is a talented receiver who could help their offense as well. On defense, AFA has a lot of holes to fill. Talented LB Anthony Schlegel bolted for Ohio State, but John Rudzinski succeeded in filling the void left by Schlegel’s departure. As always, AFA will have to play beyond its potential to compete with the top teams in the league, but don’t be surprised if they do just that.
Gary Crowton’s biggest challenge is to kickstart his offense, which averaged just 16.3 points per game last year. BYU’s lack of offense last year is serious cause for concern in Provo, where they are used to high-octane scoring machines and competing for conference championships. John Beck and Matt Berry will compete for the QB spot, and Todd Watkins could rekindle hope with his 4.4 speed at the WR position. The BYU defense was surprisingly strong last year, and should be fairly competent this year. Brady Poppinga and Aaron Francisco lead the talented defensive corps, but it will not be enough. In addition to BYU’s offensive woes, the team faces a daunting schedule with OOC games against USC and Notre Dame. Look for Crowton to be passing his resume around in December.
Preseason Mountain West All-Conference Team:
BEST OF THE MOUNTAIN WEST
Best Team: Utah – Urban Meyer has 17 starters returning from a team that went 10-2.
Best Coach: Tie – Sonny Lubick/Fisher DeBerry. Two All-Time greats head a conference full of great coaches.
Best Player: DonTrell Moore, New Mexico – Moore edges out Lynell Hamilton, Kirk Morrison, Jamaal Brimmer, and David Anderson.
Best Stadium: BYU – 60,000+ pack LaVell Edwards Stadium at the base of the Rockies.
Best Game: Colorado State vs. Utah, November 6 – The game may determine the conference championship.
Best Fans: AFA Cadets – These guys and gals attend a wickedly hard institution, defend our country, and always show up to cheer on the AFA.
Best team to Overachieve: Wyoming – Joe Glenn has the ship headed in the right direction.
Best Team to Underachieve: BYU – Gary Crowton will be looking for a new job in December.
Best Tradition: AFA Flyovers before the game – Who doesn’t love an F-15, F-16 or Stealth Bomber roaring overhead?
The MWC may be one of the most balanced conferences top-to-bottom. The preseason second-place favorite could finish seventh and vice-versa. Many of the teams play very difficult non-conference schedules that include some of the top teams in the country like USC, Minnesota, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Michigan, California and Tennessee. Look for Utah to repeat as champs, but CSU, SDSU or New Mexico could surprise some people and take the title.
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