The Western Athletic Conference last lost four teams in 2005 to Conference USA, but those losses were middling programs in the conference. In contrast, this will be the final year with the most dominant program Boise State, which has lost 2 conference games in 8 years. While the remainder of the conference has enjoyed the legitimacy the Broncos have brought them, 2010 will be their last chance to knock off the blue turf boys. Especially in a season where Boise State has a real shot at a BCS Championship Game, expect many closer games than Boise would like before they bolt to the Mountain West. Will the WAC win a national title, or will Boise get a rude goodbye?
Boise State Broncos
Where to begin with the Broncos? The blue turf dominance, the two Fiesta Bowl victories, the 49 wins in Chris Petersen's four seasons, or the TWENTY returning starters from a 14-0 season? Although BSU will be getting everyone's best shot one last time in the WAC, that may not matter with this team. The offense will be led again by QB Kellen Moore, but look for more production from RB Jeremy Avery this season. The only significant loss was CB Kyle Wilson, and this could be a key against teams who can exploit weakness at the corner as it is unclear if Brandyn Thompson is ready to be the number one stopper. The schedule comes down to two key games for the Broncos, a "neutral" site opener against Virginia Tech in Maryland and the day after thanksgiving at Nevada. Neither of these teams has an overpowering spread offense, although I expect both to move the ball against the Broncos. However, merely moving the ball is not enough as TCU learned last January. It will be hard to believe if BSU loses a game, but it is certainly possible when expectations are so high. If there are no BCS conference schools undefeated, this is the year Boise plays for the BCS Title, in their favorite place (Glendale, AZ).
Fresno State Bulldogs
Although Boise State has been the top dog in the WAC for a decade, the most dangerous team may be Fresno State, which always seems to sneak up on the BCS conference schools. Last season was no different as FSU beat Illinois and outplayed Wisconsin and Cincinnati, and now the Bulldogs have 15 returning starters. Although a new running back will take over in Robbie Rouse, the offensive balance should remain intact with all the starters back on the offensive line. Senior QB Ryan Colburn will likely be the starter, although sophomore Derek Carr may steal the starting job if things do not start well in the first three games. Fresno State has all season to get everything tuned before back-to-back November showdowns with Nevada and BSU, which will determine the WAC Champion. The defense has seven returning starters but the primary key will be health, as injuries decimated the front seven a year ago. Kicker Kevin Goessling and the always-strong punt block team will certainly make a difference as FSU has a real chance to at least tie for a league championship.
The Wolfpack had a shot at Boise State last season on the blue field after ripping off 8 straight wins, but Nevada's offense fell short in Boise. Nevertheless, the offense returns 9 starters from a group that has averaged over 500 yards per game each of the last two years. The Wolfpack run opponents ragged when things are going well, and this season will be no different with QB Colin Kaepernick only 94 yards away from 3000 career rushing yards and RB Vai Taua already over 3000 yards for his career. The defense has to replace 5 starters, but the only real weakness in the defense this year should be the linebackers. The special teams units also help carry this team to success, and senior kicker Ricky Drake and senior punter Brad Langley will make this unit one of the best in the conference in 2010. Although the schedule does include tough road games at Hawaii and Fresno State, this is the only contender that pulls Boise off the blue turf. Thus, Nevada is the trendy pick to knock off the Broncos in the WAC if anyone.
IN THE MIX
The Warriors suffered through only the second losing season since 2000 last year, but a lot of injuries and a completely new defense led to those struggles. Although Hawaii only brings back 12 starters this season, the most important pieces of the spread offense return with QB Bryant Moniz and three of his receivers back. Four linemen need replaced on offense, but spring practice revealed that there are at least 12 people in the mix for those starting positions. Thus, the Warriors should be fine. The defense is never the focus for Hawaii, but the Warriors will be solid in the backfield with four senior starters returning for one more round. While there is a lot of turnover in the defensive front, that part of the defense looks to be improved as well. Hawaii could easily jump into the conference race, but it is hard to believe the Warriors can escape Fresno and Boise with road wins this year. However, a bowl should be in the works once again.
The Vandals surprised the nation with a 6-1 start last year, and coach Robb Akey kept the Vandals flawless in bowls with a gutsy two-point conversion against BGSU in the Humanitarian Bowl. The offense only brings back four starters from an efficient unit, but three of those starters are QB Nathan Enderle and his favorite targets Preston Davis and Maurice Shaw. The key to continued success will be in the trenches as the offensive line is completely starting from scratch. The line does have a great anchor in center Sam Tupua. The defense does bring back 10 of 11 starters and should be the best defense the Vandals have had in a decade. That being said, the defense will still have some lapses and will not be a dominating unit, especially against the upper echelon of the conference. If bowl eligibility is to be determined again this year, it will be in the first seven games again as November is brutal with Nevada, Boise State, and Fresno State sandwiched around a trip to Utah State. Look for another year of flirting with bowl eligibility.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
The Bulldogs had great balance last season between rushing and passing, but new coach Sonny Dykes will bring the full-on spread to Ruston from his days at Texas Tech. The good news for Bulldogs fans is that Steven Ensminger will move back from TE to QB and will fit in perfectly with the new offense, holding the fort until a new spread quarterback can be brought in. A pair of spectacular sophomore receivers Ahmad Paige and Cruz Williams will thrive in the new system and could put together monster career numbers starting this year. The defense will need to replace three of four starters on the line and that could open the door for many teams to dominate the Bulldog defense. LTU pulls a moderately favorable schedule with the only really tough road game in Boise, so the Bulldogs could win as many as seven or as few as 1-2 league games. While I expect big things in the future from this spread offense, this year will still be an adjustment and will likely prevent LTU from going to a bowl.
ALL THE REST
Utah State Aggies
For the first time in many seasons, USU does not play Utah and perhaps that will be a blessing in disguise at the Utes have dominated that series recently. The Aggies bring back 8 starters on offense and defense apiece, which points to an improvement from a four win season a year ago. The offense averaged over 400 yards per game last season and look for that to stay the same with QB Diondre Borel throwing to super-fast new WR Dontel Watkins. One big question mark for this season is whether returning RB Robert Turbin will be able to go after tearing his ACL in February. Signs look good for his return later in the season, which bodes well for the Aggies. The defense shifts Junior Keiaho from the line to linebacker, but his open spot will be the only new face in the front seven. One huge key to the defense will be whether the defensive backs can produce more pressure and more turnovers than they did a year ago. The schedule does have six or seven very winnable games, but USU will need to be perfect in those games or else there will be another losing season.
New Mexico State Aggies
The Aggies ended 2009 with seven straight losses and rookie coach Dewayne Walker had no choice but to fire his first offensive coordinator after the offense averaged a pathetic 229 yards per game. The offense does return 8 starters, but there's a lot of growing that needs to be done before NMSU becomes truly competitive again in the conference race. The best athlete on the offense is one of these new starters, Texas transfer lineman Aundre McGaskey. If Jeff Fleming can buy more time in the pocket, expect his numbers to improve. The defense returns their entire defensive back crew, the front 7 are nearly all new. Expect slight improvement from last year's team but there's still a lot of work to do on that side of the ball. Kyle Hughes will again handle kicking, punting, hydration, and all other jobs he can get his feet into. I suspect the Aggies will be better in 2010 but they really need to look towards 2011 or 2012 once the league becomes a little less top heavy.
San Jose State Spartans
San Jose State was able to send former coach Dick Tomey out with a final home win on senior day, but the Spartans now turn the page with new coach Mike Macintyre from Duke. 8 starters return on offense including senior RB Lamon Muldrow, who hopes to finally get the Spartans over the 100 yard per game average (which has not happened since 2006). The offensive line is packed with seniors and QB Jordan La Secla should win the starting role this season. The Spartans will be moving away from their always wide-open passing attack, which will help La Secia overall. The defense also returns seven starters but most of these starters are learning a new 4-3 scheme and changing positions. Thus, expect SJSU to take a lot of lumps from opposing offenses until coach Macintyre can get some of his guys in the program. With a trip to New Mexica State on the docket, it would be suprising if the Spartans steal more than one conference win again this season. Hopefully the Spartans can pull together and improve as the year goes on.
With Chris Petersen's track record at taking care of business in the regular season and in Glendale, one would not look silly putting a bet on BSU as a "darkhorse" BCS Champion this year. It is very rare for a team of this caliber to bring back 20 starters and a special teams genius like Kyle Brotzman, but then again, college football has a crazy way with expectations. At the end of the year, this will either be a crowning achievement for Boise State in their last WAC hurrah or a huge disappointment as Nevada, Hawaii, or Fresno State crushes the BCS dreams in Boise. The WAC championship and perhaps the BCS championship go through the blue turf, so enjoy this final "David vs. Goliath" season in the WAC.