Conference Breakdown: Ranking the MWC

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Conference Breakdown: Ranking the MWC
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.

In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last year’s W-L record and my predictions for each team’s 2009 W-L record.

Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree, whatever.

Part Eight: The poor old Mountain West




9. New Mexico Lobos | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 1-11

Rocky Long, HC at NM for the past 11 seasons, has moved on to become DC at San Diego St? Did I just read that correctly? We’re talking about the San Diego St team that has had neither a winning season, nor a bowl appearance in more than a decade? Wow. 
Well, now new HC Mike Locksley has a whole lot of new to deal with, including replacing the entire coaching staff, a new DEF scheme, new OFF scheme, as well as just 9 returning starters to work with. 
The Lobos will be utilizing a new no-huddle, high-tempo spread OFF in an attempt to essentially do what every team running a spread aims to do, which is level the playing field. 
The OFF will be lead by SR QB Donovan Porterie, who threw for more than 3000 yards in ‘07, but missed the final eight games last year with a torn ACL. Porterie will have his top 3 targets back to throw to as well, but loses the top two RB’s. 
The DEF returns three and will suffer at the D-line and at the CB position where they have next to no experience. It will certainly take time to implement everything correctly, however even if they finally get it all together towards the end of the season, they meet Utah, BYU and TCU in three of the final four games.
Not that there’s too much to rebuild from after a 4-8 season, but with so much newness to get used to (new coaches, new players and new schemes), New Mexico is definitely at the start of a rebuilding process.



8. Wyoming Cowboys | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 3-9

Wyoming is the another of three teams replacing their HC this season (partly the reason all three sit at the bottom of my rankings).
Dave Christensen, former OC at Missouri, becomes the new head man, but isn’t looking to implement quite the change NM is undergoing. Christensen will bring his success with the spread and try to duplicate the results with his new Cowboys team, minus one Chase Daniel of course. 
A starter at QB has yet to be named, but regardless of who it will be, the change on OFF can only help as the Cowboys tied Washington St for dead last nationally in scoring at 12.7 points/game.
Without anything else, the OFF will be improved just by doing a better job of protecting the ball as they were dead last in the conference by a lot with –22 in turnover margin (second to last was –6). 
The Cowboys return 16 starters, half of which to the DEF that contains one of the most veteran lines in the MWC if not the nation as all 3 starters are seniors (3-4 DEF). The secondary should also be very solid and overall, the DEF will be a strength of the team. 
The schedule will certainly bring the program some attention with games against TX and CO from the Big 12, as well as home games against BYU and TCU, the 2 MWC favorites. 
Despite the number of returning starters, new coaching and new schemes take time to implement properly, coupled with a fairly difficult schedule and the Cowboys will be fortunate to match last year’s four win total. Don’t be surprised, however, if they upset a team or two this season.


7. San Diego St Aztecs | Last Year: 2-10 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

The Aztecs are the third and final team to welcome a new HC in the MWC, their fourth in nine seasons. The Aztecs' new HC is Brady Hoke, who took Ball St to a 12-0 start last season, but isn’t going to come anywhere near that with his new school any time soon.
San Diego State needs to do something to show improvement as they have been so terrible of a program that it’s been suggested they drop to the FCS level to be more competitive and lessen the financial burden on the school’s athletic department. 
I might rank the Aztecs behind Wyoming, but all things being equal, I feel more confident in the team with the better passer, which is what the Aztecs have in QB Ryan Lindley, who wasn’t great last year, but wasn’t exactly terrible either throwing for 2653 yards with at 16-9 TD-INT ratio. 
The Aztecs rushed for a miserable 73 yards/game, which was worst in the MWC and third from the bottom nationally. Their rush DEF was equally horrific ranking next to last nationally with 247.5 rush yards allowed/game (just ahead of Washington State’s 247.6). 
The Aztecs return 15 starters and lose just 18 lettermen, lowest in the MWC, so they certainly have the experience, not to mention a conducive schedule, to allow them an improvement on last year’s two win total.
If the new coaching staff has the impact I think they will, the Aztecs also have the potential to make their first bowl appearance in more than a decade.



6. Colorado State Rams | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

Colorado State is one year ahead of the bottom three in the MWC in their rebuilding efforts as HC Steve Fairchild starts year two. Year one went as well as could be hoped for with their first winning season in six tries and their first bowl win since ‘01. 
The Rams’ OFF returns seven, including their 1100+ yard WR Rashaun Greer and their second leading receiver Dion Morton, who posted 859 yards and 10 scores with two more rushing.
The OFF loses their top two RB’s as well as their starting QB, although the likely replacement at QB, SR Grant Stucker, is much more mobile and will add another facet offensively. Whomever the starter at QB, he’ll benefit from an experienced O-line that returns all five starters, which should also help the unsettled backfield situation. 
The Rams return five on DEF, and even though they lose five of their front seven, they should be able to improve on their conference-low 10 sacks. 
I’ve been pretty high on the Rams the last few seasons as they always seem to play competitive football no matter the opponent. I would definitely rank the Rams higher if not for the lack of proven stars on OFF. This year, I still like their potential and think they’ll be underestimated just long enough to spoil someone’s season.



5. UNLV Rebels | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

Expectations are awfully high for a team that has won a total 13 games the past five seasons, four seasons of which being under current HC Mike Sanford. The Rebels return seven starters on both sides of the ball and lose 20 lettermen. 
Last year, the total yards/game went down slightly, but the Rebels were more effective increasing their points/game from 18.2 to 25.6.
The production should continue to increase this year as most of the OFF weapons return, including QB Omar Clayton, who despite missing the final three games due to injury, was able to post decent numbers with a solid 18-4 TD-INT ratio. Another OFF weapon back is the leading returning WR in the conference, Ryan Wolfe, who posted over 1000 yards and 86.7 yards/game. 
The O-line should be okay, despite losing their top two linemen, as four starters each have 8+ starts with the lone exception being at the LG position. The biggest OFF void is the loss of their most capable RB, Frank “The Tank” Summers, who carried the ball at a four yards/carry average last year. 
The biggest question mark on DEF is the secondary, where last year they were tied with NM for last in the conference giving up 24 TD passes. Both the D-line and LB’s look to be strengths of the team spearheaded by LB Jason Beauchamp, who led the MWC in tackles last year with 127. 
The schedule isn’t too bad with seven home games, and, other than TCU, the road games are all very winnable. It looks like UNLV finally has all the pieces in place to finish with their first winning season and bowl appearance since 2000.



4. Air Force Falcons | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5

In the last two year, HC Troy Calhoun has had very good results with less experienced groups than the one he has returning this year.
There are only six starters on both sides, however there are a total of 44 lettermen returning with plenty of game experience. 
The O-line has the opportunity to start five seniors, although a sophomore may be used at the LT spot instead. This unit gave up a conference-best five sacks last year, which isn’t as impressive when you consider the Falcons run a triple option OFF and attempt very few passes meaning the QB isn’t in the backfield for long.
The RB’s are all undersized but make up for it with speed and athleticism, which again is suitable for the type of OFF the Falcons run. 
The DEF will be lead by a pair of outstanding veterans in SS Chris Thomas and LB Ken Lamendola, the teams leading tacklers from last year with 107 and 118 respectively. 
The schedule is not bad although I don’t think they have enough to compete with the top three in the conference, and I also predict losses at Minnesota and at Navy. Going 7-5 and earning their third straight bowl would be a great season for the Falcons and up to expectations. Anything over and above that would be truly impressive.



3. Utah Utes | Last Year: 13-0 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Other than an improbable national championship appearance, it’s next to impossible for Utah to improve upon last year’s No. 2 AP finish and perfect 13-0 season, which included a 31-17 whooping of a 12-1 Alabama team.
The last time Utah had a season this good, in 2004 when they went 12-0, they followed it up by just barely squeaking out a winning season and a bowl win to finish 7-5. 
This year I don’t expect the step back to be as drastic, but they won’t be going undefeated either—not without Brian Johnson who is now the winningest QB in school history and led the Utes to 21 victories in the last 22 games. 
Also gone are the top three WR’s and P/K Louie Sakoda who was clutch last year hitting an incredible 22 of 24 field goals. RB Matt Asiata is back and should have an improved season stat-wise as he’ll get more carries now that the team’s second leading RB, Darrell Mack, has departed. 
The DEF returns seven starters including their top four tacklers, but loses two NFL draft picks in DE Paul Kruger and CB Sean Smith. Last year’s schedule completed the perfect storm for Utah as they got both TCU and BYU at home. This year, they play both those games on the road as well as Oregon from the PAC-10. 
With arguably a perfect season and several quality departures, including some in the coaching staff, the Utes unfortunately have nowhere to go but down this year.



2. TCU Horned Frogs | Last Year: 11-2 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

The Horned Frogs were a mere three points away from spoiling Utah’s perfect season last year and reaching their first 12-win seasons since 1935.
From that team, six starters return on OFF including their top weapons of QB Andy Dalton, RB Joseph Turner and their top two WR’s. 
The O-line loses some experience including their C, Blake Schlueter, who was drafted in the NFL by Denver. 
The DEF will definitely not of the same caliber as last year considering they only return four, but they do get back two of their stars, including DE Jerry Hughes, who led the nation with 15 sacks, and CB Nick Sanders who is the leading returning MWC pass defender with 12 passes broken up and 2 INT’s. 
The LB unit will also be down a bit as they lose three first Team All-MWC players to the NFL. With three first-time starters, the D-line will certainly be less experienced and may not be able to post the ridiculous 47 rush yards allowed/game they posted last year. 
The schedule looks pretty weak with only two real tests to speak of, which are both on the road at Clemson and at BYU (assuming Utah taking a major step back this year as a given). 
The Horned Frogs will be good, but will not have the same DEF they relied on last year which enabled them to shorten the game with a heavy dose of the run. The schedule is just weak enough to easily go 9-3 or 10-2 on cruise control, but they still need to be careful along the way as there are a few teams on the agenda with the potential to upset.



1. BYU Cougars | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

One reason BYU is at the top of my list this year in the MWC is because of QB Max Hall, who was outstanding last year completing an amazing 69.2 percent of his passes for nearly 4000 yards with 35 scores and just 14 INT’s in 477 pass attempts.
The biggest loss in the OFF weaponry is WR Austin Collie, who led the conference in receptions (103), yards (1538), TD’s (15) and yards/game (118.3). 
Hall will get back his second leading target, TE Dennis Pitta, who had 83 receptions with 1083 yards last year, as well as the team’s leading rusher, Harvey Unga, who netted over 1100 rush yards with 11 scores. 
The biggest question mark on OFF, and maybe on the team, is at the O-line where they lose a combined 154 career starts and return just 23 combined career starts, so although the OFF weapons are still in place, it remains to be seen if they’ll enjoy the same kind of protection and time to operate. 
The DEF is in much better shape with eight returning starters and will be led by the MWC’s career sack leader, DE Jan Jorgensen. 
This year’s schedule includes two of the three teams that beat them last year, Utah and TCU, but this year the Cougars get them in their own house.
The rest of the schedule is slightly more difficult than other’s in the MWC with games against Oklahoma to kick off the season and FSU, but all of the road games (UNLV, San Diego St, Wyoming, NM, Tulane) should be no problem. 
I expect another fantastic season, with a Heisman campaign by Max Hall, but one loss to Oklahoma.
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