January 2, 2009 was supposed to be the day Alabama showed the world why the Mountain West didn't belong. Instead, Utah dismantled the Crimson Tide 31-17 to finish unbeaten...the only one left.
This year, the Utes look to continue their magical run, but it will be difficult. Gone is playmaking QB Brian Johnson, and in could be an inexperienced junior or a redshirt freshman.
In is BYU QB Max Hall. Hall threw 35 TD's last season during the Cougars 10-3 season.
Gary Patterson and TCU have retooled after an impressive 11-2 season, which ended with a win over then unbeaten Boise State.
These appear to be the big dogs in the conference, but do not overlook improving squads from Colorado State, UNLV, and Air Force.
BYU (2008 Record: 10-3, 6-2)
Bronco Mendenhall continues to bring success to this Cougar program.
38-13 with the team entering his fifth season, Bronco has continued the tradition of airing it out in Provo. Leading the attack is All-Conference and Heisman candidate Max Hall. The senior continues to put up big numbers year in and year out. Unfortunately for Hall, several of his top receivers are now gone. Look for TE Dennis Pitta to go for 1,000 yards, at least seven TDs and be in the running for All-American.
Also watch out for McKay Jacobson at wideout. When the Cougars go to the ground, they will do so with Junior Harvey Unga. Unga will look for his third straight 1,000-yard season. Up front, the Cougars have a plethora of 300-pounders to open up holes and protect their All-Conference QB.
On defense, Mountain West career sack leader Jan Jorgensen will look to set the tempo. The Cougars' secondary lacks experience to say the least, returning only Scott Johnson at safety from a unit that had their problems. The strength could be at linebacker where they return three seniors, including Matt Bauman and Shawn Doman.
The bottom line is no one will go unbeaten in the Mountain West this year, including my pick for conference champs. BYU will open with a strong performance at Oklahoma, but will fall short. Look for yet another heart-breaking loss versus Florida State, but all will be forgotten after that. Both games versus TCU and Utah are at home, and look for the Cougars to win both of these games.
My final prediction: 10-2 (8-0) and a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl.
Utah (2008 Record: 13-0, 8-0)
The Utes had quite the run last year and many feel they should have been given a shot at the BCS National Championship. This year, look for Oregon to knock them out of title contention on Sep. 19.
The strength of the Utah offense is their line. Four 300-pounders, including All-American candidate Zane Beadles will have to be a major force in the run-blocking scheme. Utah will have to be able to maintain the run due in part to the loss of every starting receiver and QB Brian Johnson. Look for Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide to have big seasons in the backfield, while whomever they start at quarterback gains some experience.
The Utah defense will again be solid. Anchored by All-American candidate Stevenson Sylvester, this force in the middle had 73 tackles last season, and three sacks in the Sugar Bowl.
Also watch out for Nai Fotu. He may or may not be ready for the season after knee surgery, but if he is, look for the Utes defense to be at the top of the league. The Utes look strong at safety, but the losses of both starting corners could make the secondary vulnerable in the pass defense early.
No one expected Utah to go undefeated last year, and the same can be said about this year's team. But can they defy the experts? I say no chance. Look for the Utes to get off to a 2-0 start. Oregon will defeat them in September, but look for them to roll through conference play until BYU slows them down on Thanksgiving weekend.
My prediction: 10-2 (7-1) with a trip to the Poinsettia Bowl.
TCU (2008 Record: 11-2, 7-1)
The Horned Frogs continue to win each year. This year will be no exception.
Junior QB Andy Dalton will be much improved and ready to take the next step this year, and taking that step with him will be wideout Jimmy Young. Young had 59 catches last year for just under 1,000 yards. Look for him to have a breakout year and be a top candidate for All-Conference.
The O-line is back, which will help aid in the development of this passing tandem. In the running game, Ryan Christian is penciled in to start, but watch out for freshman Waymon James. If given a chance, he could make a name for himself this year.
The Horned Frogs' defense is the strength of the team.
Jerry Hughes, the All-American end, led the nation with 15 sacks last season. Hughes is one of only four starters returning, but look for big things out of MLB Daryl Washington and 300-pound DT Kelly Griffin.
TCU has a very difficult 2009 schedule. An opener in Virgina, trips to Clemson and BYU, plus a game versus Utah.
Those will be their only setbacks, though, as the Horned Frogs finish 8-4 (6-2) and head to the Humanitarian Bowl.
Air Force (2008 Record: 8-5, 5-3)
The Falcons should again be competitive inside the conference. This is mainly due to the veteran line that returns four of its five starters from last year. On the ground, Asher Clark will look to take the majority of the carries, and he may be doing that a lot. QB Tim Jefferson could be at QB, depending on if he can get his grades up to par. If he is, look for this offense to click and improve on their 26.8 points-per-game average.
The defense returns seven starters from a team that gave up 22.2 points per contest. Given that they allowed 38.6 each game in their final three games, says that the talent is there to stop the opponent. Leading the way is linebacker Ken Lamendola. He led the team with 118 tackles last year, and is joined by a returning secondary that had six interceptions in '08.
It won't be easy for the Falcons in 2009, and sometimes it won't be very pretty. Somehow, someway, they will get it done. Look for them to be competitive in road losses to Minnesota, and Navy, but lose decisively to the big three: TCU, BYU, and Utah.
My prediction: 7-5 (5-3) with a trip to the New Mexico Bowl.
UNLV (2008 Record: 5-7, 2-6)
This may be the season that Rebels fans need to get them over the hump.
Omar Clayton is electric at quarterback and is 100 percent healthy after a knee injury ended his '08 campaign. Clayton has big play target to throw to as well. Leading the way is Ryan Wolfe, who had 88 catches last season. An experienced line should give Clayton all the time he needs to throw or run out of the pocket, and that may be a good thing, since they are looking for someone to step in and play tailback.
The front seven on defense will be solid.
Returning linebacker Starr Fuimaono looks to regain his 2007 form. Starr missed all, but two games last season with a knee injury. Also helping him out will be big End Isaako Aaitui, who weighs in at 300 lbs. The secondary is where they must improve if they are to take the next step. Look for JC transfer Kenny Brown to provide a spark and help improve a young, but improving secondary.
From five wins, you would like six or seven. I can see six as a realistic chance. Wins over Sacramento State, Hawaii, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado state, and San Diego State will get them there.
My prediction: 6-6 (4-4) with a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl.
Colorado State (2008 Record: 7-6, 4-4)
Steve Fairchild orchestrated the biggest turnaround in the Mountain West with a four-win improvement and a Bowl trip in 2008.
The guy taking the snaps in Ft. Collins is a mystery. Three young guns with limited experience look to make a name for themselves in fall practices. Whoever wins the job will have Rashaun Greer to catch the ball. Greer, a second team All-Conference wideout led the team with 63 catches. An experienced line will help lead the way for tailback John Mosure, who finally gets his chance to step in.
They say defense wins championships.
Giving up over 30 points a game as they did last year will not help the Rams ascend to the top. Ricky Brewer and Mychal Sisson return at linebacker and look to provide leadership, as well as big plays. Watch for a revamped secondary which includes two sophomores coming into the mix.
In many ways you can say that the Colorado State program is heading in the right direction. All they need is stability at the quarterback position and on defense.
That will not happen this year, though, as I see the Rams winning just five, with wins over Weber State, Idaho, San Diego State, New Mexico, and Wyoming; finishing 5-7 (3-5).
But, on the bright side they will win their last two, gaining some momentum for 2010.
San Diego State (2008 Record: 2-10, 1-7)
New coach Brady Hoke will not have as good of a team as he did last year, when his Ball State Cardinals were headed towards uncharted territories, before Hoke resigned to come West.
Now he is here, and he has little in the cupboard. Ryan Lindley will be taking snaps, and looking to stay off of his back. If he can avoid the rush, he will have a solid receiver in Vincent Brown to throw to. The offensive line needs much improvement if they are going to win more than two games, and senior tailback Atiyyah Henderson needs to average more than 45 yards a game on the ground if they are to move the ball.
On defense, it's more of the same.
The Aztecs look to improve on their fourth quarter performances. They gave up 146 points in the final quarter, or an average of 12 per game. Hoping to stop the opposing offense is NT Jonathan Soto. The 370-pounder has All-Conference written all over him if he steps up and plays to his potential.
Aztec football will rely on the recruiting of Brady Hoke.
Not recruiting any lineman or any JC transfer players is not a good start. Plus, playing in a conference loaded with solid teams will not help Hoke and the Aztecs get off to a good start. Look for squeaker wins over Southern Utah and Idaho, a win over New Mexico State, and conference squeakers over New Mexico and Wyoming at home.
My Prediction: 5-7 (2-6) with a better future ahead, hopefully.
Wyoming (2008 Record: 4-8, 1-7)
The Cowboys will struggle again this year, trying to win a game in the conference.
Former Missouri offensive Coordinator Dave Christensen will take a stab at turning the Cowboys back 15 years to the Joe Tiller days.
Who will start at QB remains a mystery. Many feel that it will one of the newcomers, Robert Benjamin or Austyn Carta-Samuels. Running the ball and catching it out of the backfield should be Darius Terry. Terry could have a breakthrough year, but it all depends on how fast the everyone picks up the new offense.
A lot of pressure will be on the defense.
This is a unit that returns eight starters including All-Conference tackle John Fletcher and honorable mention candidate Mitch Unrein. This should stabilize the run defense. In the secondary, look for Tashaun and Marcell Gipson to lock down the corner spots. If this unit can come together, watch out, the Cowboys could be the surprise team this year.
Not much is expected in Laramie this year. They do get the Longhorns at the War, but Colt McCoy will probably go for 300 yards and 4 TDs in the first half. Look for the 'Boys to beat Weber State and New Mexico.
They will play tough though, and stay close in more games than they are blown out in: 2-10 (1-7).
New Mexico (2008 Record: 4-8, 2-6)
Former Illini coordinator Mike Locksley will look to revive a Lobo program that has struggled the last several years.
Locksley has a young QB in Brad Gruner, who looks to pick up the new offensive system that will be out of the spread. A trio of wideouts, led by Bryant Williams will try to take advantage of this new system.
Only three starters return on defense from last year's team.
The Lobos also will go to a 4-3 base this year, with a lot of blitzes called to help add to the only 21 sacks it scored last year. Look for senior end DeAndre Davis to have a big year and hit double-digit sacks because of this. Also watch out for some of the Locksley recruits to step up in the secondary. The new head coach wants become quicker and more athletic in this area.
"New Era, New Energy, New Mexico," was the catchy slogan created by the athletic department after Locksley's hire. Unfortunately, there isn't much there, and they have a brutal schedule. Trips to Texas A&M and Texas Tech, with a home game versus Tulsa will not help.
Look for a win over New Mexico State to be the lone win. 1-11 (0-8)