|Gary Patterson and TCU won't lack for motivation in their final season in the MWC. (US Presswire)|
There has emerged a singular awkward problem with conference realignment: There's never an easy way to say goodbye.
This is TCU's seventh and final season in the Mountain West Conference. The program's excellence has lifted the league to the brink of possible BCS automatic qualification status for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
If the MWC achieves that goal, it will be without the Horned Frogs, who move to the Big East next year. It's also clear that without TCU (and Utah, since departed for the Pac-12), the Mountain West would be just another mid-major trying to get a sniff of big BCS money.
So what is the Horned Frogs' going-away "present?" The Mountain West presidents voted in January to move the pivotal TCU-Boise State game from Fort Worth to Boise. TCU, considering all it had done for the league, was not amused.
"I understood why the conference did it," TCU AD Chris Del Conte said. "I'm not happy with it."
Boise was set to inherit Utah's 2011 conference schedule when the Utes left. That meant the Broncos would visit TCU this season. That is, until the MWC presidents got involved and got personal. Without saying it, they were saying it: Why help TCU win a third consecutive Mountain West title and fourth overall in its last year in the league?
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Now they've gone and done it. Let it be known that Gary Patterson will latch onto anything as a motivational tool.
"You know me," TCU's coach said wryly, "I never motivate like that."
So although Boise goes into the season ranked fifth and favored to win the Mountain West in its first season after moving from the WAC, do not sleep on these Horned Frogs. No. 14 TCU specializes in opponents who do. It is 16-3 against its past 19 BCS-conference opponents. It completed arguably its best season in history with a January Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
"Today," Patterson said that day, "proved we had just as good players as anybody in the country."
The Frogs will have to prove it again right away in the Sept. 2 opener at Baylor. The two schools used to share space together in the old Southwest Conference. Bad blood still boils from 15 years ago when the SWC broke up. Baylor made the cut into the Big 12 while TCU was cast adrift into mid-major land. Check this postgame altercation from last year's 45-10 TCU win.
"The Baylor game, there is a true hatred, the way the game went last year," Patterson said. "We're going into a place that's trying to improve their program. They truly hate us. You can write this: No matter what they say in the papers, the word on the street is we understand their hatred."
That Nov. 12 game TCU-Boise game should go a long way toward deciding the Mountain West. The Broncos are 69-2 at home since 2000. TCU comes into the season having won 25 consecutive regular-season games and 32 out of the past 34. One of those is to the Broncos. As the teams go in different directions conference-wise, they have developed their own healthy rivalry. This is their third meeting in less than three years.
"I understand the presidents and ADs why they did it, positioning themselves as a conference," Patterson said of schedule change. "I just thought we had earned a little bit more respect from the group because of what we had accomplished."
Both teams have proven BCS chops. Boise wrote the book, that book being Cinderella (Fiesta Bowl wins in 2007 and 2010). TCU has brought money, glory and power to the MWC. It is attempting to reach its third consecutive BCS bowl. It remains the only non-BCS program to go to back-to-back BCS bowls.
Only 15 teams have ever been to at least three BCS bowls. Of those, only four have been to different BCS bowls in three consecutive years. (Florida State, Miami, Ohio State and Oklahoma are the others).
TCU -- coming off Fiesta and Rose appearances -- has all the makings of being the fifth.
Half of Patterson's 2011 starters are new. That includes whoever replaces quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton was a rock, a two-time MWC offensive player of the year who left owning every meaningful TCU passing record. It's suddenly a quarterback battle with redshirt freshman Matt Brown gaining ground on projected starter Casey Pachall.
The Frogs, though, have made their rep on defense. Three consecutive years TCU has led the nation in total defense. Recognizing Wisconsin's obvious size difference in the Rose Bowl, Patterson gambled with strategic blitzes. But it was All-American linebacker Tank Carder who hung back on the game's pivotal play, breaking up a two-point conversion pass to preserve a 21-19 win.
Carder now returns as one of those players as good as anybody in the country. The Rose Bowl defensive MVP was also the MWC defensive player of the year.
The steel-reinforced incubator that is Patterson's defense has produced stars Jerry Hughes and Wayne Daniels at defensive end in recent years. Sophomore Stansly Maponga and senior Braylon Broughton are expected to be the next great ones.
After TCU's departure, Boise State becomes the MWC's glamour team. The opener against Georgia will be an indicator to the BCS whether the MWC gets that temporary automatic qualifier status. In its last visit to Georgia six years ago, Boise was embarrassed, losing by 35 points in Athens. This one is in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, hardly a neutral field.
While the league gave TCU the middle finger as it heads out the door, MWC coaches decided that Boise's blue home jerseys (on the famous blue turf) were a competitive advantage. The Broncos will not be able to wear them in conference home games. That's about as petty as it gets. Using that logic, Colorado State's forest green jerseys (on green turf) provide the same advantage.
Uh, wrong. The Rams have won more than four games once in the past five years.
Maybe that's another thing about conference realignment: There's never an easy way to say hello either.
CBSSports.com's Jerry Hinnen predicts order of finish:
1. Boise State
Last year was supposed to be THE year for the Broncos. But looking at the current version's talent and schedule, is there any reason 2011 can't be their year instead? The passing game is in the extraordinarily efficient hands of Kellen Moore. The running game returns 98 starts on the offensive line and a running back in Doug Martin who averaged 6.3 yards per-carry last season. The front seven allowed a miniscule 2.9 yards a carry in 2010 -- the fourth-best mark in the nation -- and is set to start seniors at all seven positions. The schedule starts off with the proverbial bang against Georgia in Atlanta, but even in their new MWC digs, after that there's no date more challenging than home against a substantially weakened TCU team or on the road at San Diego State. If a handful of new playmakers can be found at wideout and corner, BSU should feel free to set their sights just as high as they were this time last summer.
There's a lot of reasons to think the Horned Frogs' follow-up to their Rose Bowl season might be nearly as impressive as, well, their Rose Bowl season. For starters, Gary Patterson is still the head coach and Dick Bumpas is still his defensive coordinator. Tank Carder is still around to lead what might the nation's best linebacking unit. The loss of Andy Dalton may not be such a savage blow with the talented Casey Pachall set to inherit the quarterbacking throne. And in tailback Ed Wesley and wideout Josh Boyce, they return their leading rusher and receiver. But Wesley and Boyce are two of just three offensive starters back, and Carder is one of just five on defense. The lines are particularly gutted, with just one returning starter on each. If the Frogs survive the first two weeks of the season (at Baylor and Air Force), the road trip to Boise stacks up to be for all the MWC marbles -- and maybe more. Could a lineup this green really snatch away the league title on Boise's own impregnable Smurf Turf? We'll likely find out.
It hasn't been the best of offseasons for the up-and-coming Aztecs. Watching head coach Brady Hoke defect to Michigan and take offensive coordinator Al Borges with him was bad enough; seeing a wide receiving corps already reeling from the graduation of NFL-bound stars Vincent Brown and Demarco Sampson lose two projected starters for the year was adding insult to their injuries. But Hoke left the cupboard plenty stocked enough to continue SDSU's upward trajectory, starting with senior 3,800-yard passer Ryan Lindley and 2010 freshman All-American running back Ronnie Hillman -- the best QB/RB combo in the MWC, and one of the top four or five in the nation. They'll operate behind a line with four returning starters, too. The defense will be less experienced that the 2010 version with just five starters back, but two of those starters are all-league stars Miles Burris at linebacker and Leon McFadden at corner. If the Aztecs can find anyone at all for Lindley to throw to and new head coach Rocky Long can work his usual magic with his 3-3-5 defensive scheme, SDSU's home dates with the Broncos and Frogs could make the league race very, very interesting.
4. Air Force Troy Calhoun has quietly pulled off one of the nation's best coaching jobs during his four seasons in Colorado Springs, taking a service academy program that had won 13 games total the three years prior to his arrival and winning 34 since. Now Calhoun has what should be his best team yet, with the Falcons' loaded offense returning their leading rusher (Asher Clark), receiver (Jonathan Warzeka) and passer (Tim Jefferson), not to mention a pair of all-conference linemen. The front seven projects to start as many as six seniors, five of them returning starters. And remember, the Falcons were hardly pushovers last season -- they outgained Oklahoma 458-367 in what could have easily been a massive upset, crushed bowl-bound opponents like BYU and Army, and won the Commander-in-Chief's trophy for the first time in eight years. With home dates against TCU and SDSU, fourth may be too low.
No matter how well you perform, it's difficult to garner much attention playing for a team that's gone 3-9 in back-to-back seasons. Which is why almost no one outside of Fort Collins noticed the outstanding true freshman season put together last year by quarterback Pete Thomas, whose completion percentage of nearly 65 percent broke Peyton Manning's 16-year old record for FBS freshmen. Much of Thomas' supporting cast is back, too, including leading receiver Lou Greenwood, freshman All-American center Weston Richburg, and five other offensive starters. A defense that ranked 104th in FBS scoring allowed means the Rams' ceiling won't rise too high, but Thomas's ascension and a cushy nonconference slate could give CSU as many wins in 2011 as the past two seasons combined.
One question towers above all others where the Cowboys are concerned: Can they find a quarterback? Because everywhere else (save for a depleted secondary), Dave Christensen would seem to have the pieces to make a run at a .500 season. At running back, there's the powerful Alvester Alexander. Across the two lines, there's eight returning starters, including disruptive senior end (and all-MWC candidate) Josh Biezuns. Though the linebackers and receivers have lost productive starters, veteran replacements are available. But at quarterback? Transfers have left the Cowboys with just two scholarship players at the position -- Adam Pittser and Brett Smith -- and both are true freshmen. Wyoming likely won't go 3-9 again, but unless one of Pittser or Smith is a prodigy-in-waiting, another bowl game is still at least a year away.
Is the grass always greener on the FBS side? Runnin' Rebel head coach Bobby Hauck has to be wondering after leaving FCS powerhouse Montana for the Vegas rebuilding job -- one that ended in a 2-11 record in year one and doesn't project to get a whole lot better in 2011. Just four starters return to a defense that already finished 109th in total D a year ago, and the conference schedule does the Rebels no favors; both of their most winnable MWC games, Wyoming and New Mexico, are on the road. But there's talent available at the skill positions, with sophomore running back Tim Cornett and receiver Phillip Payne each boasting all-conference potential. And then there's Hauck and his coaching staff, who proved themselves more than capable during their tenure with the Grizzlies. It's not much -- even getting back to two wins may be a chore -- but we think it's enough to avoid the MWC cellar.
8. New Mexico
There's a hundred different ways to illustrate the futility and sadness of the Mike Locksley era in Albuquerque, now entering its third season. But we'll go with this one: the average margin of defeat in Locksley's 12 MWC losses has been a whopping 30.3 points. The average margin of victory in his two wins? Less than a field goal. There's easily enough potential here to escape the MWC basement, enough to double or even triple the Lobos' win total (i.e., one) of a year ago; tight end Lucas Reed has pro potential, and the tag-team of senior Carmen Messina and Maryland transfer Javarie Johnson at linebacker is a good one. But until the program shows some sort of life under Locksley, it's tough to project that potential to be capitalized on in even seventh-place fashion.