WAC preview: Cracks might not be able to be plugged this time

by | CBSSports.com
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Behind Bryant Moniz's accurate arm, Hawaii is the preseason favorite to win the WAC. (US Presswire)  
Behind Bryant Moniz's accurate arm, Hawaii is the preseason favorite to win the WAC. (US Presswire)  

These are times of uncertainty for the Western Athletic Conference, and it's hard to tell exactly what the future will bring. This isn't the first time you could say that about the WAC, either.

The WAC's history seems to be one of schools leaving.

Since the conference was originally formed in 1962, plenty of schools have come and moved on to what they considered greener pastures. Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were the charter members, and now those schools are in the Pac-12 or Mountain West.

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Those schools were replaced by the likes of Colorado State, UTEP, San Diego State, Hawaii, Air Force, Nevada, TCU, Rice and SMU. Schools that followed the footsteps of the charter members and left the WAC as well.

Still, despite the defections, the WAC has lived on. It found new schools to replace those lost, and moved on.

Now, once again in 2011, the WAC is in familiar territory. After building a respectable football conference once again, the next wave of defections seems to be leaving the conference on its last legs.

Recent years seemed to be among the best in the conference's 50-year history after Boise State grew from some tiny school in the capital of Idaho into a BCS-crashing national powerhouse. Boise might not have been able to win a national title for the WAC as BYU did in 1984, but its numerous trips to the BCS at least gave the WAC more notoriety than it has had since the BYU days.

Boise wasn't the only WAC school to get its hands on that BCS money, either, as Hawaii made a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2007.

Then there were teams at Nevada and Fresno State, that, while never gaining the national prominence of Boise or Hawaii, proved to be formidable opponents for anybody that scheduled them believing otherwise.

In 2011, though, all the momentum the conference had been building is gone. Gone like Boise State to the Mountain West. After this season, Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii will be departing as well.

In their place will be teams like Seattle, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio. Not exactly headliners.

Unlike previous WAC makeovers, when you combine what is taking place in the WAC right now with what is happening across the college football landscape, it's not insane to imagine that 2011 will be the last season the WAC actually exists.

It's possible that the holdovers, teams like Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Utah State, could move on to the Mountain West as well in the near future. If not, the schools could be left behind in a conference that just isn't set up to compete with the 16-school superconferences of tomorrow.

As of now, the WAC plans on playing as a seven-team league in 2012, though commissioner Karl Benson has said that he hopes on increasing that to nine football-playing schools over the next year. Where exactly Benson plans on finding those two schools, nobody knows, but like the three schools already added, they'll likely come from the FCS ranks.

Schools like Lamar, Sam Houston State, Cal Poly, Sacramento State, Montana and Montana State have been mentioned. From the FBS ranks, Sun Belt schools Louisiana Lafayette and North Texas have also been considered. That's something that Louisiana Tech would surely appreciate, as it would finally have conference opponents that don't require flying halfway across the country to play.

It's a plan of attack that makes sense, but it's contingent on the fact that other conferences like the Mountain West don't ransack the WAC for more schools in an effort to expand.

Of course, things aren't all doom and gloom for the schools that remain in the conference.

Should the WAC still be standing, as it fully intends to be, when all the dust settles from Conferencegeddon 2011, the schools that remain will be in much better position for consistent success.

Just having Boise State leave the conference leaves the door open for plenty of teams. In 2011, those teams are likely to be Nevada, Hawaii or Fresno State, but once they move on, Idaho, Utah State and San Jose State can finally get moments in the sun.

Those schools will have a better shot at qualifying for the conference's automatic bowl bids and gaining exposure on a national level. For all anybody knows, one of those schools can be the next Boise State.

That being said, what the future holds for the WAC is a question that nobody can answer with certainty, and that seems to be the theme of the WAC in 2011. For all we know, when 2012 comes around the WAC could cease to exist, or like the phoenix it has been in the past it will be reborn as an entirely new conference and once again rise to produce BCS-caliber teams.

The only thing we can know for sure is that 2011 will be the last year where the conference we've come to appreciate again in recent years looks close to the same.

CBSSports.com's Jerry Hinnen predicts the WAC order of finish

1. Hawaii

There might be more reasons to pick against the Warriors than pick for them -- they lost both their top receiver and rusher to the NFL, there's a single returning starter on the offensive line, and the road schedule (with trips to Nevada and Idaho and the loooooong haul to Lousiana Tech) is daunting. But in a conference sorely lacking in veteran quarterbacks, the deadly accurate arm and steady leadership of Bryant Moniz is reason enough. Add a veteran front seven led by All-WAC linebacker Corey Paredes and the usual cast of talented receivers, and Moniz won't have to do it alone, either. The Warriors won't come out of their conference schedule unscathed, but we like them to come out on top all the same

2. Idaho

Wait, Idaho? Second? Yes, Idaho. Second. The Vandals boast what could be the WAC's best defense, featuring eight returning starters and three of them senior linebackers. (That includes 1st-team All-WAC Robert Siavii and his 13½ tackles for loss). The offense, meanwhile, should get a jolt from Arizona State tailback transfer Ryan Bass running behind bookend senior tackles. Hawaii, Fresno and Louisiana Tech all visit the Kibbie Dome, too. If new quarterback Brian Reader (who has been efficient in his limited appearances to date) can keep the passing game humming and the Vandals can steal a win in the season finale at Nevada (which follows a bye week), Robb Akey could grab a share of his first conference title.

3. Nevada

Did any team in the country lose more in the departure of a single player than the Wolf Pack did when Colin Kapernick graduated? We'll say no, which makes the sting of losing rare defensive star Dontay Moch, running back Vai Taua and receiver Brandon Wimberly (shooting victim) sting all the more. But Nevada still has head coach Chris Ault and his patented Pistol, which should be able to plug-and-play replacements in the backfield without missing too much of a beat. The defensive back seven is as experienced as it has been in years in Reno, and the best news of all for the Wolf Pack is the schedule -- their three away games come against the conference's projected three worst teams.

4. Fresno State

It's one for Ripley: the Bulldogs haven't won so much as a share of the WAC title in 12 long years, believe it or not. And with a schedule that sends them to all three of the teams ranked above them here, and a lineup featuring six lost starters on both sides of the ball, this isn't the year -- on paper -- that streak will finally end. But the Bulldogs remain as talented and dangerous as any team in the league, starting with arguably the WAC's best running back in Robbie Rouse. Derek Carr (yes, the brother of ex-Bulldog and No. 1 overall NFL pick David Carr) could be one of the conference's best quarterbacks even as a first-year starter. Kevin Goessling and Andrew Shapiro give Fresno the best kicker/punter combo this side of Georgia. So the song remains the same for Pat Hill and crew: If the Bulldogs play with the same focus and emotion in their WAC games as they do in their (typically grueling) nonconference slate, the sky's still the limit.

5. Louisiana Tech

These Bulldogs appeared to be the WAC up-and-comer in their eight-win season of 2008, but since then iffy quarterback play (not to mention the departure of coach Derek Dooley) has hamstrung Tech into back-to-back losing seasons. Junior Colby Cameron appeared to take charge of the offense this spring, though, and if Tech finally has some stability under center, look out. Former Tennessee tailback Lennon Creer will no doubt challenge Rouse for all-conference honors; defensive end Matt Broha will be one of the WAC's best pass rushers; the wide receiver, linebacker and secondary units will all feature multiple seniors. Someone in the WAC's upper crust has to finish fifth, but we won't be surprised at all if it's someone other than Tech.

6. San Jose State

Numbers guru Phil Steele mentioned in his preview magazine that according to his computer formulas, the Spartans should be the most improved team in the entire FBS this season. After you've gone 1-11 there's nowhere to go but up, of course. But with all 11 starters returning on defense (including league Freshman of the Year Keith Smith at linebacker) and SJSU plenty due for some better luck -- the Spartans lost four of their final five WAC games by a combined 16 points -- the step forward could be far larger than many expect. Much will depend on head coach Mike MacIntyre's decision at quarterback, where he's picking from three inexperienced candidates.

7. New Mexico State

DeWayne Walker hasn't had it easy in his two years at one of the country's toughest head gigs (are there any tougher?), but the Aggies made some big strides in 2010 despite their 2-10 record, clipping their average yardage deficit in WAC games by nearly 90 yards. NMSU should be able to repeat those strides in 2011, too, thanks in no small part to a veteran running game featuring all five returning starters on the line and senior running back Kenny Turner. If Walker can coax an even halfway respectable performance out of a defense that -- at minimum -- can't get any worse (39.5 points allowed per-game last year), the Aggies should avoid the WAC cellar.

8. Utah State

There's no question the Logan-based Aggies have the defensive talent to finish much higher up the WAC standings. Two-time first-team All-WAC selection Bobby Wagner might be the best linebacker in a league full of great linebackers, end Levi Koskan is due for a breakout season and the secondary added USU's top 2010 receiver in Dontel Watkins. But question marks abound on offense: Who's the quarterback, and can he even come close to replacing Diondre Borel? Is tailback Robert Turbin fully recovered from his ACL tear? Can anyone make up for Watkins' absence in the receiving corps? Given that USU's attack was already a woeful 96th in the country in yards per play (in the WAC, only NMSU was worse), those question marks will need some emphatic answers, and fast.

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