Dan Hawkins has left town, making room for Chris Petersen to take over the reins in Boise. He inherits a team with an impressive 18 starters returning from last year's squad, nine on each side of the ball. QB Jared Zabransky is back to lead the offense after a somewhat disappointing '05 season that saw him turn the ball over more than he'd like to. However, few people expect that problem to rear its head again this fall, especially since the signal-caller's top three targets are all back on campus again this season.
Non-conference showdowns with Oregon State at home and Utah on the road will be interesting to watch in September, but the 2006 WAC crown is likely to come down to a pair of games taking place in November. BSU will welcome in Fresno State early in the month before wrapping up the regular season on the road at Nevada.
Projected Wins: SacSt, at WYO, HAW, LT, at NMSU, at ID, at SJSU, USU
Much like Hawkins did in Boise, Pat Hill has built a consistent winner in the Valley. The squad has averaged nearly nine wins per year since 2001 and gone bowling in each of the past seven seasons. With fourteen starters back this fall, another WAC title run is expected even though the team is looking to replace two top tailbacks as well as QB Paul Pinegar. A defensive unit that returns eight starters will have to carry the load early on as the offense tries to find itself early in the season.
The schedule doesn't lend any help towards such a strategy, however. FSU welcomes in both Nevada and Oregon to open the season before traveling to Washington, all in September. Consider mid-season trips to LSU and Boise State, and it's obvious this team will have its work cut out for it on the road to a possible 2006 WAC title.
Projected Wins: CSU, at USU, HAW, NMSU, ID, at LT, at SJSU
While the Broncos and Bulldogs get much of the attention in the WAC, this squad has quietly made its move in recent years, hovering near the .500 mark in league play in both 2003 and 2004 before taking home seven conference wins and a share of the title last fall. QB Jeff Rowe threw for nearly 3000 yards and 21 TDs last season and is back to lead the offense in 2006. Though RB B.J. Mitchell has departed, six of the squad's top seven wideouts return this fall, as do seven starters on the defensive side of the ball.
The season opener on the road at Fresno State will tell a lot about both teams. Matchups at Arizona State, vs Colorado State, and vs Northwestern the following three weeks will be huge tests as well. If the Pack can stay in the running, the season finale is at home against Boise State, and it could have title implications.
Projected Wins: CSU, at UNLV, SJSU, NMSU, at ID, USU
There's one thing you can almost always count on when you watch Hawaii: offense. The Warriors have averaged at least 35 points per game four of the last five seasons, and with QB Colt Brennan returning this fall, there's no reason to expect that trend to stop in 2006. The junior signal-caller threw for more than 4300 yards and 35 scores in '05. Consider that all of the squad's backs and every one of the team's wideouts return, and it becomes easy to understand why this offensive unit will be feared on the west coast this season.
The season opener at Alabama will be a good gauge of Hawaii's offensive prowess before a trip to Boise State later in September. A back-to-back stretch vs Nevada and at Fresno State in early October will be crucial in determining if UH is still in the running when the schedule gets a bit easier later in the season.
Projected Wins: UNLV, E.ILL, at NMSU, ID, at USU, SJSU
The Bulldogs have had a good deal of success the past two seasons, winning 11 conference games and stepping up into the top half of the WAC standings both years. However, with just 10 total starters returning from last year's squad, matching that success will not be an easy task in 2006. The squad will be led by an offensive unit with 8 returning starters, including top RB Mark Dillard (700 yards, 8 TD) and team-leading WR Eric Newman (550 yards, 8 TD).
Four of LA Tech's first five games of the season are on the road at Nebraska, Texas A&M, Clemson, and Boise State, which doesn't set up for a good start to the 2006 campaign. If the 'Dawgs can survive that stretch both mentally and physically, they could stay in the hunt until Nevada and Fresno State come to Ruston in mid-November.
Projected Wins: Nicholls, ID, USU
The Vandals will be one of the more intriguing stories to watch this season as legendary head coach Dennis Erickson returns to his old stomping grounds in an effort to turn around a program that has won just 11 total games over the past five seasons. Eighteen starters return for the 2006 campaign, including QB Steven Wichman who threw for nearly 2750 yards a season ago. However, 1000-yard receiver Daniel Smith is gone, and four starters on defense will need replacing this fall.
Idaho opens the season with three of their first four on the road at Michigan State, Washington State, and Oregon State. At this point, the schedule is far too difficult to project this team winning more than four games overall or more than three in the conference, but they've got a capable man in charge to get things going in the right direction.
Projected Wins: IDSt, NMSU
SAN JOSE STATE
Dick Tomey is hoping to move things forward in year two as the head man for SJSU. The squad won just three times last fall, but seven starters are back on offense to help lead the way, including RB Yonus Davis. The junior ball carrier dashed for nearly 700 yards and 4 scores last fall. If QB Adam Tafralis can work on his 11:10 touchdown to interception ratio, the offense could improve enough to help hide a shaky defensive unit that returns only two starters.
The first two games on the schedule (at WA, vs Stanford), though against Pac-10 teams, are not overwhelming, and a 3-2 start to the season is possible. That will be crucial as the slate gets much tougher in November when the team takes on Boise State, Hawaii, and Fresno State in a period of about 21 days.
Projected Wins: CalPoly
The Aggies' entry into the WAC didn't get off to a great start last season, but this squad has enough scoring ability to step up the pace some in 2006. QB Leon Jackson III is a threat both through the air and on the ground, while WR duo Tony Pennyman and Kevin Robinson can beat you both on offense and on special teams. That pair combined for 17 scores a season ago and did so in a variety of ways, whether catching passes, running the football, or taking home punts or kickoffs.
The season opener at Wyoming will tell exactly where this team stands. If the squad can somehow come out of September with a 3-2 record, they could make a run at 5 wins this fall. That run, however, may still be at least a year away.
Projected Wins: NMSU
NEW MEXICO STATE
To say the 2005 season was a disappointment for the boys from Las Cruces would be quite an understatement. The Aggies did not win a single game last season under first year head coach Hal Mumme, but the good news is that a dozen starters return this fall in an attempt to get things moving in the right direction. RB Justin Buries is the squad's most talented offensive player. The junior ran for over 800 yards and five scores in 2006 and will be key for an offense that averaged less than 17 points per game last year.
Four of NMSU's first five games of the season are winnable before a rough mid-October stretch against Boise State, Hawaii, and Nevada. Early-season success will be crucial to help build morale and keep this team in the running when the schedule gets a bit easier over the final month of the season.
Projected Wins: SELA, TXSou
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