After winning the conference title in 2000 but dropping the top spot in 2001, the Colorado State Rams reclaimed first place in the Mountain West in 2002 by going 10-4 overall, including a 6-1 conference mark. The Rams appear to again be the class of the league. Eight offensive and seven defensive starters return this season. Included in the offensive returnees is QB Bradlee Van Pelt, a senior. Van Pelt threw for over 2,000 yards and 10 TDs last year while also running for over 800 yards and another 11 touchdowns. The Rams begin the season with the annual matchup against in-state rival Colorado in Denver before hitting the road to California. Four straight home games, all winnable, are up next for CSU. A trip to BYU will be a tough test, as will a home matchup with Air Force. Three of the last four games are on the road, including trips to New Mexico and UNLV.
The Air Force Falcons started off the 2002 season strong by winning their first six games before dropping a one-touchdown decision to Notre Dame at home. AF finished the season 8-5 overall and with a 4-3 conference mark after dropping the bowl game decision to Virginia Tech. QB Chance Harridge returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,200-plus yards in 2002 and 22 TDs. He also threw for another 1,000 yards and another 10 TDs. The Falcons' top three receivers from '02 are back, as are six of the top nine tacklers. The first three games on the schedule are winnable non-conference games. Road trips to BYU and Colorado State in mid-season won't be easy. November becomes complete with back-to-back road trips to New Mexico and San Diego State to end the regular season.
The New Mexico Lobos finished in second place behind the Colorado State Rams in 2002 with a 5-2 conference record as well as a 7-7 overall record. UNM also competed in a bowl game for the first time in five years, though they lost to UCLA by two touchdowns. Leading rusher DonTrell Moore is one of ten returning offensive starters from last season. Moore rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 13 TDs in 2003. Senior QB Casey Kelly threw for almost 2,000 yards in 2002 while throwing 14 touchdown passes. Seven offensive starters return this season; eight of the top nine tacklers for New Mexico are back. A non-conference road trip to Texas Tech will be a tough game in early September. That is followed two weeks later by a trip to Washington State. UNLV, Coloardo State, and Air Force all pay trips to Albuquerque in consecutive weeks to begin November. That three-game stretch could make or break the Lobos' season.
The BYU Cougars got a shot of reality in 2002 by going 5-7 overall. The year before, the Cougars made a great run of 12 straight wins before being blown out at Hawaii to end the regular season. Five offensive and ten defensive starters return to this year's team. FB Marcus Whalen led the team in rushing last year, gathering up nearly 1,000 yards and 6 TDs. Curtis Brown and Lance Pendleton each scored four TDs. QB Brett Eghemann is gone, but sophomore Matt Berry should pick up nicely after finishing up the last half of the 2002 season. The Cougar schedule is rough from the very beginning as a visit from Georgia Tech kicks off the season before road trips to Southern Cal and New Mexico. The final four games could boost the Cougars well above .500 or keep them right around the break-even mark: at UNLV, Boise State, at Notre Dame, Utah.
The UNLV Rebels went 5-7 in 2002 and won just three Mountain West battles. Five offensive and six defensive starters return from that team. QB Jason Thomas is gone, but he never really lived up to hype his final two seasons. The Rebels could move into the top three in the conference with a little luck, but the schedule is no favor from the beginning. A visit from Toledo is not a gimme, and road trips to Kansas and Wisconsin follow. Hawaii then visits to round out September. The conference schedule doesn't begin for UNLV until October 11 at Air Force. Four of the team's seven conference tests are at home, which should only help the Rebels' chances.
The Utah Utes finished the 2002 season 3-4 in the conference for the second time in three years. After a 5-6 losing season, new head coach Urban Meyer was brought in to shape things up in Salt Lake City, but he may not be able to right away. Only five starters return on each side of the ball, but the two leading team rushers, Brandon Warfield and Marty Johnson, and two leading passers, Brett Elliott and Lance Rice, all return. An out-of-conference trip to Texas A&M will be a big test for Utah, as will visits from both California and Oregon. I don't see the Utes winning any of their conference road games: at CSU, at UNLV, at AF, at BYU.
San Diego State and Wyoming round out the 2003 Mountain West. The Aztecs finished 4-9 overall in 2002 and return thirteen starters this season, six on offense and seven on defense. QB Adam Hall returns after throwing for 3,200-plus yards and 17 TDs last year, but the team's leading rusher and receivers are gone. Non-conference road trips to Ohio State and UCLA likely won't help the team's confidence. The Cowboys won only two games last season while losing ten. Fifteen starters are back, seven on offense and eight on defense. All of the leading rushers return as does senior QB Casey Bramlet.