Mountain West: TCU ramps up as Utah bows out

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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So close.

One second close? Maybe.

But most won't remember that crucial second from the Big 12 Championship Game and the impact it had on the Horned Frogs.

"That's something that wasn't in our control," said quarterback Andy Dalton. "We were close, who knows what would have happened if Nebraska would have beaten Texas, but that's not in our control."

Heading into the final week of the season, Cincinnati and TCU were basically locked for the No. 3 spot in the BCS (Cincinnati was at .887 and TCU at .883). TCU was ahead of Cincinnati in both the Coaches and Harris polls.

Nebraska rushed the field after it thought it pulled off the 12-10 upset in the Big 12 title game, but video replay showed Texas still had one second left. Hunter Lawrence came on to hit a 46-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Longhorns a 13-12 victory and pushing them into the title game.

If time did expire and Nebraska won, TCU would have likely moved to No. 2 in all the polls, giving it enough push to become the first non-BCS school to play for a national championship.

Instead TCU went to the Fiesta Bowl, losing to Boise State.

"What we took away from the Fiesta Bowl was that we didn't finish the season the way we wanted to," said head coach Gary Patterson. "It's hard to repeat and we are going to see if we have the capabilities to do that, because obviously we have the talent. We'll see how it all unfolds."

Jeremy Kerley and Andy Dalton return to give TCU one of the best offenses in the nation. (Getty Images)  
Jeremy Kerley and Andy Dalton return to give TCU one of the best offenses in the nation. (Getty Images)  
Talent won't be a problem as the Horned Frogs have nine starters back from an offense that was fifth in the nation in scoring and seven starters back on a defense ranked sixth in points allowed. Tons of all-conference players are on the roster, including Dalton, defensive end Wayne Daniels, linebacker Tank Carder and safety Tejay Johnson.

"Personally, I don't see how you can't choose TCU as the favorite," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "What they accomplished last year and what they have coming back, that's a no-brainer."

Getting through the Mountain West is no easy task as the conference has turned into the best non-BCS league and one of the most competitive leagues in the nation.

BYU and Utah will once again be in the thick of the conference race as the trio has defined the league over the past few years.

But this will be the last chance for the Utes to win the conference as they will be off to join the new Pac-12 in 2011. Boise State will come in and the conference won't miss a beat, but the battles the threesome had over the past years will be hard to replace.

"I'm sad to see Utah leave. We've had great games. It's been a great rivalry," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "I think they brought a lot to the conference." The Utes were the most successful over the past seven seasons, winning 69 games, including two BCS bowl games (Fiesta and Sugar).

Meanwhile, TCU and BYU aren't far behind. BYU had undefeated conference records in 2006 and 2007, while posting 10-win seasons in four consecutive years. TCU had four 11-win seasons and finally got a BCS bid last season, losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. If you add up all the records since 2003 (and TCU since 2005), the trio has won 75 percent of their games, going 180-59.

"All three have contributed to reshaping the perception of the Mountain West Conference by each finishing in the final Top 25 for the past two seasons," said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. "Actually, most of the western media have now anointed them the big three when discussing the league."

But this will still be TCU's conference to lose. And if the Horned Frogs can beat Oregon State in the season opener, along with Tennessee Tech, Baylor and SMU, the undefeated watch will be on, including a chance to get to the BCS National Championship Game.

Mountain West Quick Hits
Best offense: TCU
Best defense: TCU
Sleeper team: Wyoming
Coach of the year: Gary Patterson, TCU
Offensive player: Andy Dalton, TCU
Defensive player: Tejay Johnson, TCU
Game of the Year: TCU at Utah, Nov. 6
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"I don't think there's any doubt that if they run the table, it's more than likely that they'll get a shot at the national championship," Whittingham added. "Now, they're still going to have to get some help if there are three or four undefeated teams along with them."

Maybe this time, those games won't come down to the last second.

Offensive Player of the Year

Andy Dalton, QB, TCU: The reigning MWC Offensive Player of the Year is back for his final season. Dalton will be looking to improve on last year's tremendous season where he picked up a few Heisman votes after finishing eighth in the nation in passing efficiency and throwing for 2,756 yards with 23 touchdowns. He currently has 29 victories as a starter, tied with Sammy Baugh on the school's all-time list. Dalton is also second on TCU's career list for completions (603) and touchdowns (44).

Defensive Player of the Year

Tejay Johnson, S, TCU: After earning second-team All-Conference last season, look for Johnson to have a huge year. The senior is the leader of the secondary, which ranked sixth in the nation against the pass. Johnson led the team with three interceptions, but also was fourth with 59 tackles. He had a career-best 14 tackles in the 38-7 victory over BYU. In the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State, he had eight stops, including seven solo.

Predicted order of finish

1. TCU: The offense will be strong with the return of nine starters, including Dalton and all three wide receivers -- Jeremy Kerley (44 catches), Jimmy Young (33 catches) and Antoine Hicks (team-leading 6 TDs). The one question mark will be the running game, but Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley look to step right in. On defense, it will be tough to replace All-American Jerry Hughes, but the defensive line will still be strong with Daniels and DT Cory Grant back. Linebacker Tank Carder is one of the best in the conference, as is safety Tejay Johnson. Must-see game: Nov. 6 at Utah. This game will no doubt decide who wins the conference.

2. Utah: With seven starters back on offense, including four offensive lineman and running backs Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, the Utes will be right there in terms of the best offense in the Mountain West. Quarterback Jordan Wynn had a strong year after starting only five games, capping off the season by earning MVP in the Poinsettia Bowl (338 yards passing). The defense is going through a rebuilding process as just three starters return. Cornerback Brandon Burton is one of the best in the conference, but stopping the run will be the team's biggest challenge. Must-see game: Nov. 6 vs. TCU. See above.

3. BYU: With the departure of quarterback Max Hall (graduation) and running back Harvey Unga (left school) the Cougars should see a bit of a drop-off. J.J. Di Luigi looks to take over at running back, but the quarterback situation is uncertain with junior Riley Nelson and freshman Jake Heaps battling for the job. One thing for sure is the strength of the offense will be the offensive line, led by Matt Reynolds. On defense, the Cougars should be in pretty good shape, especially in the secondary with the return of CB Brian Logan and safety Andrew Rich. Must-see game: Nov. 27 at Utah. One of the best rivalries in sports might come to an end with Utah joining the Pac-12 next year.

4. Wyoming: The sleeper of the conference. After winning the New Mexico Bowl last season, expect the Cowboys to improve and post another winning season. Seven starters are back on both offense and defense, including quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who is coming off an MVP performance in the New Mexico Bowl. He'll have three receivers back, including David Leonard (77 catches). Linebacker Brian Hendricks anchors the defense, but look for cornerbacks Marcell Gipson and Tashaun Gipson to have strong seasons. Must-see game: Sept. 25 vs. Air Force. The battle for fourth pace is on. Air Force won ugly last year 10-0.

5. Air Force: The Falcons are always known for their strong rushing attack, but the secondary will be the best in the conference. Cornerbacks Anthony Wright and Reggie Rembert both return for a pass defense that ranked fifth in the nation, allowing only 154 yards per game. Not only that, but Wright is one of the conference's best punt returners, while Rembert is a great kick returner. The offense will be good again with the return of quarterback Tim Jefferson and running back Jared Tew (970 yards, 9 TDs). How they will perform depends on the offensive line, which will shuffle in five new starters. Must-see game: Sept. 25 at Wyoming. See above.

6. San Diego State: As Brady Hoke enters his second year, look for the Aztecs to be a team on the rise. Quarterback Ryan Lindley is back for his junior season and will have his top two receivers back in Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. The running game must get better after gaining just 78 yards per game on the ground (116th in the nation). On defense, seven starters are back, including three players in the secondary. DE B.J. Williams is back and anchors the front seven. Must-see game: Oct. 30 at Wyoming. Big game for the Aztecs as they try to move up the Mountain West.

7. UNLV: The Rebels are a team that could also surprise if everything falls into place. DT Isaako Aaitui is one of the best in the conference and will be one of five starters back on defense. LBs Starr Fuimaono and Ronnie Paulo are solid and anchor the middle. On offense, quarterback Omar Clayton returns for his senior season after throwing for 2,230 yards with 13 TDs and 12 INTs. He'll have one of the best receivers in the conference back in Phillip Payne. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at Idaho. Would be a good victory for the Rebels on the road.

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8. Colorado State: The Rams could be in for another rough season after going 0-8 in the conference last year. The offense could have a bright future as highly-recruited freshman Pete Thomas will start the season at quarterback. On defense, seven starters are back, including linebacker Mychal Sisson, who will challenge for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Sisson had 91 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss last season. Must-see game: Oct. 30 vs. New Mexico. The one game Colorado State almost won last year in the conference. Maybe this year.

9. New Mexico: The Lobos are a lot like Colorado State, but worse. The offense is a mess, and with only four starters back don't expect it to improve. Running back Demond Dennis should see most of the work and improve on his 427 yards rushing from last season. B.R. Holbrook or Stump Godfrey will be the starter at quarterback and have WR Ty Kirk back for his sophomore season. The defense was one of the worst in the nation but does have LB Carmen Messina back after he recorded an amazing 162 tackles last season. Must-see game: Oct. 9 at New Mexico State. The last four games provided scores of 34-28, 44-34, 35-24 and 20-17. Expect another good one.

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