Previewing the Mountain West
 
 

Aug. 28, 2006

By Jason Owens

Special to CSTV.com

 



JASON OWENS

Jason Owens is a freelance writer for CSTV.com, covering various collegiate sports. E-mail here!

TCU

 

TCU exploded onto the Mountain West scene last season with an 11-1 record that included an 8-0 mark in conference play. Now, in their second season in the conference, the Horned Frogs look poised to make another run at the conference crown, and a possible BCS bowl bid.

 

The good news for TCU starts on offense, where all of its starters return at the skill positions from a unit that set a school record for touchdowns. Quarterback Jeff Ballard leads one of the nation's best backfields after winning the first eight starts of his career in 2005. Robert Merrill and Aaron Brown, the team's top-two rushers from last season, return, as does Lonta Hobbs, who was supposed to be the No. 1 back before suffering a season-ending injury early last season. They're joined by four of the top five receivers from last year's team. The biggest question mark on offense comes on the line, where left tackle Herb Taylor, an All-America candidate, is the only returning starter. The new starters will have to adapt quickly if TCU plans on another perfect conference season.

 

On defense, the Horned Frogs' front seven is the best in the conference, led by All-America candidate Tommy Blake and All-MWC first team selection Chase Ortiz. The defensive bookends finished first and second in the MWC in sacks last season. They'll be joined by a linebacker corps that returns all of its starters from last season, including 2005 freshman 2nd team All-American Jason Phillips, who led the team in tackles. Coaches will depend on the front seven to keep the pressure off of the secondary, which lost both starting cornerbacks to the NFL. However, head coach Gary Patterson is optimistic about his new corners.

"I believe the two redshirt freshmen we have could have the chance to be the best redshirt freshmen we've ever recruited," Patterson said. "I think Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders could be something special, and they're up for the challenge."

They'll get a big test early in Week Three against an always potent passing attack in Texas Tech. A win against the Red Raiders would propel the Horned Frogs into MWC play with visions of a BCS bowl dancing in their heads.

 

2006 TCU Schedule

 

Utah

 

TCU's biggest threat is traditional MWC power Utah, which looks to bounce back from a transition season that saw the Utes finish tied for fourth in the conference in 2005. Head coach Kyle Whittingham leads the Utes in his second year at the helm, and has them in position to make a run for the top.

 

Whittingham recently named Brett Ratliff as the starting quarterback after a three-way battle for the job that was made easier when second-team All-MWC performer Brian Johnson decided to take a redshirt season to completely heal the injured knee that took him out in Week 10 in 2005. Ratliff, who has wins over rival BYU and Georgia Tech on his resume, beat out Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady, a 6-foot-7 athlete who Whittingham says "has the best arm strength" he's ever been around."

 

While the Utes have the quarterback situation settled, they still don't have a primary running back. USC transfer Darryl Poston leads the pack, but he's six years into a college career that's been plagued by knee injuries. He should get pressure from sophomore Darrell Mack and junior Mike Liti. The receiving corps is talented, led by speedster Brian Hernandez, who looks poised for a breakout season. Three starters also return from a capable offensive line.

 

The star and leader of this team is on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive back Eric Weddle, the reigning MWC Defensive Player of the Year and an elite NFL prospect, returns from a season that saw 78 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, four sacks, four interceptions, and 12 pass breakups. With second-team All-MWC honoree Casey Evans helping Weddle in the defensive backfield, the Utes boast one of the best secondaries in the league. Three starters return on the defensive line to help offset an inexperienced crew of linebackers. Look for the 2006 version of the Utah defense to take on more of the attributes former defensive coordinator Whittingham.

 

The Utes open up at UCLA and host TCU on October 5 in two games that should shape their conference title and BCS hopes.

 

2006 Utah Schedule

 

BYU

 

While TCU and Utah garner most of the national attention, BYU brings more than its share of talent and experience to the table, primarily on offense. The Cougars tied TCU with the most players on the preseason All-MWC first team with five, including four on offense.

 

Senior quarterback John Beck leads the way as the preseason MWC Offensive Player of the Year. He enters the season ranked second in the all-time MWC record book in attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns thrown. He threw for 3,679 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2005. His top target is tight end Jonny Harline, who earned all-conference honors after nabbing 63 receptions for 853 yards and five touchdowns last season. The Cougars have more than just a passing game, though, as senior Curtis Brown returns from a season with 1,123 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns. Three starters are back on an offensive line that laid the groundwork for 33 points and 462.4 yards per game last season.

 

If the Cougars defense were remotely as proven as the offense, BYU would likely be the conference favorite. But it's not. Just four starters return from a middling defense that surrendered 29.2 points per game last year. The defensive line needs a complete overhaul, with the top six linemen gone.

 

"The entire front is unproven," Mendenhall said. "There's potential for us to be very good up front, but there are a lot of unknowns."

 

Cameron Jensen is the only returning starter at linebacker after leading the team in tackles, and is one of the few bright spots on defense. There's a fair amount of experience returning in the secondary, but no big-time players to note.

 

Look for the Cougars to be involved in some high-scoring affairs this year. If the defense can develop and improve, the offense should keep them toward the top of the conference standings and bowl-bound.

 

2006 BYU Schedule

 

Colorado State

 

After posting a 27-11 record from 2000-02, Colorado State has fallen into the middle of the pack with a 17-19 record over the past three seasons. Look for the Rams to make progress toward their old form this season, but a conference crown would be a big stretch.

 

A great deal of the Rams' success will lie on the shoulders preseason All-MWC running back Kyle Bell, who is coming of a 1,288-yard, 10-touchdown performance in 2005.  Bell will have to put up big numbers again to keep pressure off of the new starting quarterback Caleb Hanie, who takes over for the departed Justin Holland. Hanie saw some playing time in 2004, but watched Holland from the bench in 2005. Hanie will have a safety net in receiver Johnny Walker, who takes over as the top receiving option after posting 43 receptions for 663 yards last season.

 

Seven starters return from a defense that should improve on last year's unit that finished last in the MWC in rushing defense, and seventh in scoring defense. Defensive end Jesse Nading anchors the unit after posting 56 tackles, including nine for a loss in '05. The secondary is boosted by the return of safety Ben Stratton, who looked poised for a big season before injuring his knee in 2005.

 

If Hanie can handle the reins of the offense and the defense makes its expected improvements, the Rams should compete for a bowl bid.

 

2006 Colorado State Schedule

 

San Diego State

 

Hopes are high in San Diego now that former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long has taken over for the underachieving Tom Craft as head coach. The Aztecs have talent on both sides of the ball; it's just a matter of bringing it together.

 

The offense will focus on tailback Lynell Hamilton, who recovered from a broken ankle that saw him redshirt in 2004 to tally 870 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Look for those numbers

to increase this year if his three straight 100-yard performances to close last season are a good indicator. The passing game should improve as well, with quarterback Kevin O'Connell entering his second year as the full-time starter. He threw for 2,663 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions in his first campaign. Though he'll lose the services of Jeff Webb, who tallied 92 receptions for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, there are capable receivers at O'Connell's disposal.

 

On defense, the key will be stopping the run. Only four starters return from a unit that finished next to last in the MWC in rushing defense last season. In contrast, the secondary gave up only 10 touchdowns through the air, which was tops in the conference. Three starters return in the secondary, leaving the onus again on rushing defense. It will be up to an inexperienced linebacker corps to step up big.

 

If Hamilton continues his progress and the defense improves against the run, the Aztecs could be in for a winning season.

 

2006 San Diego State Schedule

 

Air Force

 

The bottom tier of the MWC starts with Air Force, which will likely continue its recent struggles under Fisher DeBerry. The Falcons are coming off an uncharacteristic 4-7 season and don't show much sign of improvement for 2006.

 

The problems begin on defense. Just five starters return from last year's unit, which finished in the bottom third of all major team defensive rankings in the MWC last season. The Falcons scored 30 points per game, but yielded 31.7 per game to the competition. The linebackers are green and there's no improvement in sight with a defensive line that helped produce a league-low 13 sacks on the season. There is experience in the secondary, but that may not be a good thing.

 

The good news for the Falcons is the return of quarterback Shaun Carney, who posted a 149.4 efficiency rating in Air Force's conservative passing attack last season. He also led the team in rushing with 710 yards and 11 touchdowns. Carney will work behind a solid offensive line and have some help out of the backfield. His passing options are slim to none, though.

 

The Falcons will likely hover around their 4-7 record of last year. The dreadful defense might even be worse, but the offense should be enough to keep them in some games.

 

2006 Air Force Schedule

 

UNLV

 

The hopes of the Rebel faithful this season lie on new quarterback Rocky Hinds. The USC transfer takes over the job after leaving Los Angeles. Expectations are high for the unproven Hinds, who was once a highly-touted recruit for the Trojans, but has yet to play in a college game. If he comes through, UNLV should improve on its putrid cellar-dwelling rate of 18.8 points per game from last season. With Casey Flair back, he has a capable receiver, but a consistent running game is nowhere to be found. Erick Jackson is the top returning back after gaining 673 yards on just 3.9 yards per carry last season from a unit that finished last in the conference in rushing.

 

The league's worst scoring defense (34.6 points per game) should see a significant improvement in the secondary with the addition of former USC starting cornerback Eric Wright and Oklahoma transfer Tony Cade at safety. Preseason All-MWC selection Beau Bell anchors an otherwise unspectacular linebacker unit after leading the team with 92 tackles last season. The defensive line isn't much better.

 

While 2006 doesn't look like a breakthrough year for the Rebels, they are showing signs of improvement. Mike Sanford's unit should be better than last season's 2-9 team.

 

2006 UNLV Schedule

 

New Mexico

 

Things don't look good for New Mexico, as the Lobos lost the bulk of their talent from a team that finished 6-5 in 2005. Quarterback Kole McKamey returns, but loses the services of top rusher DonTrelle Moore and top receiver Hank Baskett. McKamey managed just 1,682 passing yards last season, with Baskett on the receiving end of 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns. There's not another legitimate receiving threat in sight. With Moore gone, McKamey also inherits the role of leading returning rusher. The offensive line is solid, but that won't make much difference with the thin ranks at the skill positions.

 

On defense, things don't look much better. Eight of the team's top 12 tacklers are gone, including the top two. Cody Kase looks to be the top returning defender after posting 62 tackles, including 11 1/2 for a loss and 5 1/2 sacks.

 

This is clearly a rebuilding year for the Lobos, who just don't have the talent to compete in the MWC.

 

2006 New Mexico Schedule

 

Wyoming

 

After Wyoming finished 7-5 in 2004, things were looking up for Joe Glenn's Cowboys. Six consecutive losses to cap a 4-7 record in 2005 was a big disappointment. Things don't look much better this year.

 

Jacob Doss gets the nod at quarterback after throwing just 13 passes in six games last season, replacing the departed Corey Bramlet. He won't have the services of Bramlet's favorite receiver, Jovon Bouknight, who caught 77 passes for 1,116 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Michael Ford, who caught 29 passes - none for a touchdown - is the leading returning receiver. The good news is the return of top rusher Wynel Seldon, who should get the bulk of the carries after logging 871 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He'll get help out of the backfield from Devin Moore, who will likely be a top passing target.

 

On defense, the Cowboys will miss leading tackler Ron Rockett in the secondary, which could struggle this season after being the second-rated unit against the pass last year. An average defensive line and linebacker unit will have to step up to keep Wyoming competitive.

 

2006 Wyoming Schedule


 

 


 
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