Mastering The Mountain

MWC looks for a fourth straight undefeated conference champion

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Aug. 7, 2007

By Rhiannon Potkey

Special to CSTV.com

 

CSTV's MWC Preview

The Mountain West Conference debuted in 1999 with a three-way tie atop the standings.

 

But the tide has shifted to pure domination.

 

The last three conference champions have run the table with perfect records. BYU was the latest to complete the sweep behind record-setting quarterback John Beck and a solid defense.

 

But the defending champions have been hit hard by personnel losses on offense, and TCU is this year's preseason pick to capture the crown.

 

With the nation's No. 2 defense returning nearly intact, including defensive ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, the Horned Frogs are hoping to be this year's BCS bowl game busters.

 

While some things around the conference remain the same (Sonny Lubick at Colorado State), some things have changed (Troy Calhoun at Air Force).

 

Calhoun, an Air Force graduate, replaces academy institution Fisher DeBerry, who retired after 23 years at the helm.

 

Calhoun plans to introduce a few tweaks to Air Force's trademark triple-option offense by allowing senior quarterback Shaun Carney to operate more out of the shotgun.

 

The conference finished 3-1 in bowl games last season, but was only 2-9 against BCS schools. It has plenty of chances to improve that record this season with matchups like TCU-Texas, BYU-UCLA, Colorado State-California and Utah facing the three-game juggernaut of Oregon State, UCLA and Louisville. Utah junior quarterback Brian Johnson is one of two marquee players returning from an injury this season, along with Colorado State running back Kyle Bell, who could be the missing element the Rams need to climb back up the standings after a dismal 2006.

 

Texas Christian - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 6-2 MWC --- Horned Frogs The Favorite

Offense

The Horned Frogs will be breaking in a new quarterback after losing reliable starter Jeff Ballard to graduation. Coach Gary Patterson will use fall camp to determine whether sophomore Marcus Jackson or redshirt freshman Andy Dalton gets the start behind center. Jackson has the edge in experience while Dalton was a highly-decorated recruit. Junior tailback Aaron Brown should make the transition easier. A dual-threat, Brown averaged 116.8 all-purpose yards per game last season as TCU's rushing attack ranked No. 9 nationally. Wide receiver Donald Massey demonstrated playmaking abilities last year, and tight end Shae Reagan is a pass-catching threat. TCU lost three linemen from a group that allowed only 15 sacks a year ago, but returns left guard Matty Lindner and center Blake Schlueter.

 

Defense

Far and away the strength of the team, TCU's defense returns nine starters from a unit that ranked No. 2 nationally last season. Leading the way are defensive ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, who form arguably the most talented defensive duo in the nation. Blake is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Lott Trophy. The Horned Frogs have a streak of 20 games without a 100-yard rusher, and allowed only 234.9 yards per game last season. Jason Phillips, the team's top returning tackler, and David Hawthorne headline the linebacking corps while sophomores Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders highlight the secondary. TCU's special teams should be solid again with return man Brian Bonner and senior place kicker Chris Manfredini back for another season.

 

The Skinny

TCU has emerged as the trendy pick as this season's BCS buster. But the Horned Frogs were given the same tag last year only to stumble in early losses to BYU and Utah before winning eight straight to end the season. TCU will need to make it through the state schools - including a key game against Texas on Sept. 8 - before trying to capture its fourth conference title in eight years. The Horned Frogs can handle a loss to Texas, but will likely need to run the table to be this year's Boise State and earn a BCS bowl bid.

 

Brigham Young - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 8-0 MWC --- BYU Readies For New Look Offense

Offense

There will be a lot of new faces at the skill positions this year for the Cougars as they lost all-everything quarterback John Beck, all-time leading rusher Curtis Brown and tight end Jonny Harline to graduation. Sophomore Max Hall has big shoes to fill in replacing Beck and trying to keep BYU's prolific offense (465.5 yards per game) on track. A transfer from Arizona State, Hall spent last season running the scout team, and hasn't thrown a pass in a real game since high school in 2003.  Returning starters Michael Reed and Matt Allen will provide targets for Hall at wide receiver while returning missionaries Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta are also big-play threats through the air. Collie was the MWC Freshman of the Year in 2004 before serving his two-year Mormon mission. BYU's strength is its offensive line, and the experienced unit should help Hall as he gains comfort. Sete Aulai leads the way at center and Ray Feinga and Travis Bright return as guards. Fui Vakapuna, Manase Tonga and Harvey Unga are expected to share carries in the backfield and incoming freshman J.J. DiLuigi could join the fray if he doesn't redshirt.

 

Defense

Switching to a 3-4 last season allowed BYU to play to its strength at linebacker, and the same strategy should apply this year. The Cougars return seven starters from a defense that surrendered only 14.7 points per game. Although BYU lost captain Cameron Jensen, the returning linebackers have more experience. Kelly Poppinga will shift to the middle to replace Jensen, while senior Bryan Kehl and junior David Nixon will man the outside. BYU's secondary is led by safety Quinn Gooch and Dustin Gabriel, while last season's surprise, cornerback Ben Criddle, is working his way back from a foot injury.

 

The Skinny

The Cougars expect to defend their conference title, and their fate will rest on how quickly the new players get up to speed. BYU enters the season with a 10-game winning streak and receives early tests in Pac-10 opponents Arizona and UCLA. But the Cougars have a favorable conference schedule with home games against TCU and Utah late in the year. Last season, BYU dominated at home, beating opponents by an NCAA-best 35.2 point margin. Entering his third season, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall believes this year will test the program's maturity and show whether the Cougars have returned to their consistent contending status.

 

Utah - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 5-3 MWC --- Utah Looking For Upsets

Offense

The Utes return nine starters and welcome back junior quarterback Brian Johnson. Johnson redshirted last season after suffering a knee injury and brings plenty of starting experience. As a sophomore in 2005, he threw for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns for a team that ranked No. 4 in the nation in total offense. The Utes possess a deep receiving corps that accounted for 90 percent of the team's receiving yardage last year. Derreck Richards, Brent Casteel and Brian Hernandez should help ease Johnson's transition. The running back job is up for grabs despite the return of starter Darryl Poston. Ray Stowers, Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata will compete to take the title away from Poston this season. Asiata, a junior college transfer, created the most buzz in the backfield during the preseason. The offensive line will be a strength again, returning four of its five starters.

 

Defense

Utah must replace six starters on defense, including All-American Eric Weddle, a rookie with the San Diego Chargers. The secondary suffered the most hits, losing a strong safety and three of its top four cornerbacks. Returning starters Steve Tate and Brice McCain will lead a young group through any growing pains. But the Utes have experience at the middle linebacker position in senior Joe Jiannoni, a second-team all-conference selection, and Malakai Mokofisi returns at Utah's "stud" linebacker spot. The Utes lost their two tackles, and will turn to Gabe Long and Kenape Eliapo to fill the holes.

 

Utah won't have to worry about its kicking game. Junior Louie Sakoda, the MWC Special Teams Co-Player of the Year, returns as a Lou Groza candidate. Sakoda converted 80 percent of his field goals last season and averaged 44 yards per punt.

 

The Skinny

If Johnson can return to his 2005 form, Utah has the ability to challenge for the conference title. But the Utes must navigate a daunting schedule that includes non-conference games against Oregon State, UCLA and Louisville and conference road games against TCU and BYU. If the Utes somehow make it through unscathed, there is no question they deserve a BCS bowl bid just like their 2004 team.

 

Wyoming - 2006: 6-6 Overall, 5-3 MWC --- Wyoming's Forward Thinking

Offense

The reason for the team's optimism this season can be found behind center. Sophomore quarterback Karsten Sween opened eyes last year once he took over the reins of the Cowboy offense. With Sween starting, Wyoming ended the season 5-2 to finish 6-6 overall and place third in conference. But Sween isn't the only offensive threat returning for another year. Wyoming also brings back its top two running backs and six of its top seven receivers. Wynel Seldon and Devin Moore combined to rush for 1,184 yards last year while seniors Michael Ford and Hoost Marsh will be reliable targets for Sween. The vulnerable part of Wyoming's offense is its line. The Cowboys lost three starters and will turn to a redshirt freshman and a pair of sophomores to fill the voids.

 

Defense

Wyoming ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense last year and returns with depth at linebacker and cornerback. The Cowboys bring back three starting linebackers, led by all-conference second-teamer Ward Dobbs and Sean Claffey on the outside and Luke Chase on the inside. Although Wyoming lost safety John Wendling, the secondary returns senior cornerbacks Michael Medina and Julius Stinson. The duo combined for 88 tackles and four interceptions last season. At safety, Michael Ray and Quincy Rogers will get their first shot at starting. Like the offense, the defensive line will be a question. The depth chart heading into camp featured three sophomores as starters. Strong-legged senior punter Billy Vinnedge averaged 50.1 yards per punt in the team's final spring scrimmage.

 

The Skinny

The continued development of Sween will be the key to what has the potential to be an explosive offense. The sophomore demonstrated uncanny maturity last season as a freshman, and with an added year of experience under his belt, he should be even better. The Cowboys started last year 1-4, but many of the losses were close and could have gone either way. Wyoming plays last year's BCS darling Boise State on the road in a non-conference game, but has a favorable conference schedule in hosting TCU and BYU.

 

New Mexico - 2006: 6-7 Overall, 4-4 MWC --- New Mexico Bowl-Bound?

Offense

The only constant about New Mexico's offense in recent years has been change. The Lobos will debut a new offensive coordinator for the third consecutive year and a new system for the fourth consecutive year. Former Michigan State coordinator Dave Baldwin replaces Bob Toledo, who accepted the head coaching job at Tulane. Baldwin will be joined by three new position coaches. The Lobos return eight starters, including junior tailback Rodney Ferguson - the conference's leading rusher last season. Junior fullback Matt Quillen will help pave the way for Ferguson again. Sophomore Donovan Porterie will get the start at quarterback. Porterie began last season third on the depth chart, but finished as an honorable mention all-MWC pick. Seniors Travis Brown and Marcus Smith are coming off breakout seasons at wide receiver while three senior starters return on the offensive line, led by tackle Devin Clark and guard Anthony Kilby.

 

Defense

With 10 returning starters, New Mexico has experience and depth at nearly every position of its 3-3-5 scheme. The defensive line is bolstered by senior end Tyler Donaldson and former walk-on nose tackle Wesley Beck. Cody Kase, Major Mosley and George Carter lead the linebacking corps. Kase, a two-time team captain, will take over at middle linebacker after a productive spring. The secondary is highlighted by the junior cornerback tandem of DeAndre Wright and Glover Quin while the team's top returning tackler O.J. Swift returns at safety. The Lobos are searching for a replacement for kicker Kenny Byrd, the MWC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year. Seniors Eric Garrison and John Sullivan will stage a competition during camp.

 

The Skinny

New Mexico (6-7) is coming off its first losing season in seven years. The 18 returning starters are the most in coach Rocky Long's 10 years at New Mexico. But will that be enough to end the Lobos' bowl victory drought? New Mexico has lost its last five bowl appearances dating back to 1997. Long's teams have been known for their finishing kicks, but New Mexico will need a fast start to challenge for the MWC title. The Lobos begin conference play against defending champion BYU and Wyoming. Protecting the ball could be the key after New Mexico led the conference in fumbles last year.

 

 

Colorado State - 4-8 Overall, 1-7 MWC --- Will CSU Win The Battle of Colorado?

Offense

Injuries sent the offense into a downward spiral last season, but a healthier unit should provide a healthier outlook. The biggest boost is the return of running back Kyle Bell. The junior injured his knee just days before last season's opener and redshirted the entire season. In 2005, Bell set the program's sophomore rushing record with 1,288 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Bell's absence was noticeable last year as CSU ranked 113th in the nation in rushing. Senior quarterback Caleb Hanie will likely benefit from Bell's presence in the backfield to balance the ledger. Hanie threw for 2,427 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and will have familiar targets in senior wide receiver Johnny Walker and tight end Kory Sperry. Walker led the team in receptions last year and finished second in receiving yards and all-purpose yards.

 

Defense

Like the offense, the defense returns nine starters led by defensive end Jesse Nading and tackle Blake Smith. Junior Jeff Horinek mans the middle linebacker spot while sophomores Jake Pottorff and Sedric Patterson are on the outside. The secondary has experience returning in seniors Darryl Williams and Joey Rucks at corner and juniors Klint Kubiak and Mike Pagnotta at safety. Special teams should be a CSU strength with senior Jim Kaylor already ranking atop the school's career list in punting average and senior Damon Morton back as the return man.

 

The Skinny

The Rams are hoping not to sustain any momentum from last year when they ended the season on a seven-game losing streak to finish 4-8 and 1-7 in conference. CSU's 70-year-old coach Sonny Lubick says he has no plans for retirement, but a repeat of last year could age him another few years. During conference media days in Las Vegas, Hanie came up big playing craps and Lubick hoped it was an omen of good fortune. Although the Rams will need more than a gambler's mentality to reach the top of the conference standings, with 20 returning starters, a move up from the bottom is a safe bet. They will need to be ready right out of the gate with games against rival Colorado at Invesco Field followed by Cal, Houston and TCU.

 

Air Force - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 MWC --- Air Force Hoping To Soar Ahead

Offense

With Troy Calhoun taking over for retired Fisher DeBerry, Air Force is poised to finally live up to its name and air it out more. Although the Falcons won't completely abandon their trademark option offense, Calhoun plans to allow senior quarterback Shaun Carney to operate more out of the shotgun and provide a more balanced attack. The Falcons finished 118th in passing offense last season. Entering his fourth season as the starter, Carney is closing in on several program records. His main target will be senior wide receiver Mark Roof, the team's top returning pass catcher. Chad Hall moves from halfback to wide receiver, and senior Chad Smith will take Hall's place in the backfield. The only other returning offensive starters are tight end Travis Dekker and lineman Blaine Guenther.

 

Defense

The Air Force defense is the team's most experienced unit. Senior linebacker Drew Fowler led the conference and ranked No. 10 nationally last season in total tackles (10.2 per game). Aaron Shanor will man the other inside linebacker spot after sitting out last season and John Rabold and Hunter Altman will start on the outside. Two starters return in the secondary in senior cornerback Garret Ryback and senior free safety Bobby Giannini. With Jake Paulson as the lone returning starter, the line will be Air Force's biggest defensive question mark. On special teams, junior Ryan Harrison returns from an academy suspension to kick and punt.

 

The Skinny

An Air Force graduate and former Falcons quarterback, Calhoun understands the challenges his players face on and off the field. That aspect alone should significantly ease the transition from the DeBerry era. Calhoun brings four years of NFL coaching experience, including a stint last season as the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans. Air Force's success this year will depend on how quickly the offense can adapt to the changed schemes. The Falcons have posted three straight losing seasons, and even if they endure a fourth, it should be only a matter a time before Calhoun has them flying back up the standings.

 

San Diego State - 2006: 1-11 Overall, 1-7 MWC --- Can The Aztecs Contend?

Offense

After finishing 108th in total offense and throwing only eight touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions, San Diego State's passing attack can only improve. Some of those paltry numbers can be attributed to health of Kevin O'Connell. The senior quarterback was limited to just six games last season after suffering a thumb injury. But with O'Connell back and healthy, the Aztecs hope to reinvigorate their offense. Sophomore running back Atiyyah Henderson was a bright spot in the backfield for the Aztecs last season, and senior Brandon Bornes could challenge for more carries. Once-hyped tailback Lynell Hamilton has been switched to fullback. Chaz Schilens, Brett Swain and sophomore DeMarco Sampson comprise the receiving corps, and three seniors return on the line in Brandyn Dombrowski, Will Robinson and Mike Kravetz.

 

Defense

The Aztecs registered only 15 sacks last season, and seven of those came from Antwan Applewhite, who skipped his senior season for the NFL. The line will need a significant upgrade but it may not come this year. Nick Osborn and Oman Nwansi are the only returning starters. Linebacker is the position of strength for San Diego State's defense, led by strong side linebacker Russell Allen and weak side linebacker Brett Martin. Luke Laolagi will get the start in the middle. The secondary features four new starters with safety Ray Bass as the only returner with extensive experience. For the special teams to have success, senior punter Michael Hughes needs to return to his sophomore form. Battling an injury last year, Hughes' yards per punt decreased from 44.8 to 41.1. San Diego State's return unit was among the worst in the country, ranking 110th in kickoffs (17.5 yards) and 101st in punts (5.76).

 

The Skinny

Chuck Long's first season in sunny San Diego didn't go quite as planned. Dark clouds hovered over the program all year, and Long was left searching for answers just like most of his predecessors. It's been eight years since San Diego State posted a winning record, and its last bowl game appearance was way back in 1991. A breakthrough will be tough this season. The Aztecs face a challenging schedule with four of their first six games on the road against Washington State, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. If O'Connell can remain healthy and Hamilton can flash some of his athletic potential, the Aztecs may spring a few surprises. But gradually starting to climb the conference ladder may be a more reasonable sign of success.

 

UNLV - 2006: 2-10 Overall, 1-7 MWC --- Turnovers Could Be Key To UNLV Season

Offense

UNLV's offense has the potential to be explosive, but much of it depends on the health of Rocky Hinds. The junior quarterback played most of last season with a torn ACL and rarely displayed the abilities that made him a top prospect coming out of high school. If Hinds can flash those skills he has a talented receiving corps waiting to take full advantage. The group is highlighted by sophomore Ryan Wolfe and junior Casey Flair. Wolfe led the conference in receiving yards per game (75.9) last season while Flair was tops in receptions (67). Aaron Straiten could be the next receiver on tap for a breakout season. Cal transfer Frank Summers will be a quality addition in the backfield, and could overtake David Peeples as the starter. The line returns two starters in Tim Goins and Mike McKiski, and sophomore Joe Hawley is a potential rising star at center.

 

Defense

The secondary is a big concern for UNLV after cornerback Eric Wright decided to leave early for the NFL. Mil'Von James will replace Wright and safeties Tony Cade and Daryl Forte will try to help improve a unit that surrendered 226 yards per game last year. The linebackers are the strength of UNLV's defense, and they all hope to remain healthy after an injury-plagued season last year. Seniors Beau Bell and Bradley Niles will be the guiding forces of the group. On the line, junior defensive end Jeremy Geathers will be one to watch and Oregon transfer Thor Pili will complement Geathers on the other side. The kicking game should be solid with senior place-kicker Sergio Aguayo returning and Brian Pacheco handling the punting duties.

 

The Skinny

Mike Sanford arrived in Las Vegas with the promise of building UNLV into a legitimate contender, but Sanford is just 4-19 in three seasons. Although UNLV should be an improved team this year, the final record may not show it. After opening against Utah State, UNLV faces a challenging three-game gauntlet in Wisconsin, Hawai'i and Utah. In order to remain in contention for victories this season, UNLV must improve its turnover margin - which ranked 112th last year.


 

 

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