|Returning WR Matt Miller, who had 9 TDs last year, will likely field catches from Joe Southwick. (US Presswire)|
The most recent wave of conference realignment has caused some growing pains for the youngest league in FBS play. The Mountain West Conference is 14 years old, and the teenage years have proven to be anything but stable.
Since announcing the addition of Boise State in June 2010, the conference has added six schools, said goodbye to five, proposed a merger with Conference USA (now "unlikely"), and last month, commissioner Craig Thompson pleaded his case for an automatic qualifier exemption to the BCS presidential oversight committee for these last years in the old postseason system.
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"We made a very compelling case on behalf of the Mountain West," Thompson said in a statement last month. "It was based on clear performance metrics and prior precedent established by the BCS in awarding automatic qualification. Unfortunately, the presidential oversight committee decided against granting us the AQ exemption."
The league that Thompson presented to the committee no longer included Utah, BYU or TCU, and Boise State was days away from reaffirming their commitment to the Big East. The Broncos were the beginning of the MWC's movement toward automatic qualifying status, and in 2012, their second season as a member will be their last.
Boise State will be competing for a conference title on its way out the door, just like TCU before it. It was the Horned Frogs' 36-35 upset of the Broncos that kept Boise State and Kellen Moore, college football's winningest quarterback, from the undefeated season so many predicted. It seems fitting that the best revenge would be a similar farewell tour through the league.
Luckily for Chris Petersen and the Broncos, a first -- and last -- Mountain West title is not out of reach.
While the starter under center is yet to be determined, Boise State returns four offensive lineman, sixth-year senior running back D.J. Harper (568 yards, nine touchdowns in 2011), and three of Moore's top four receivers from a season ago. The defense features only a couple of returning starters from the unit that led the Mountain West in scoring defense, giving up only 18.7 points per game. However, with eight seniors in the two-deep, it is unlikely there will be a huge dropoff from 2011's performance in conference play.
|Fresno State's Robbie Rouse ran for 1,549 yards last season in the WAC. (US Presswire)|
Nevada should feature more of the same pistol attack we've come to know from Chris Ault, but Mountain West defenses must prepare for another year of maturation for WAC Freshman of the Year Cody Fajardo. Ault hired former Hawaii assistant Nick Rolovich as Nevada's new offensive coordinator in the offseason, and the unit will have an opportunity to surprise unfamiliar defenses early in the season.
With all the off-field turmoil and transition in the league, it seems fitting that the battle for the Mountain West crown in 2012 will likely come down to the league's newest and soon-to-be former members. Boise State, never a program to dwell on the noise outside of Idaho, will enter the season focused on the same annual goal: winning a conference title. If they can accomplish that goal, the celebration will be brief. If they do accomplish that goal, the Broncos will be ordering their title to-go.
Jerry Hinnen's predicted order of finish:
1. Boise State: The Broncos have their least-experienced team since 2004, have few proven stars on either side of the ball, and have to travel to take on Nevada in what could be a winner-take-all game Dec. 1. If 2010's and 2011's Kellen Moore-led Broncos couldn't get over the outright conference title hump, will the watered-down 2012 version manage it? We're saying yes, since that Chris Petersen guy is still in charge. And the Broncos still have the kind of talent most MWC teams can only dream of: guard Joe Kellogg, corner Jamar Taylor, receivers Matt Miller and Geraldo Boldewijn, defensive tackle Ricky Tjong-a-tjoe, right tackle Charles Leno. If likely quarterback Joe Southwick's Moore impression is remotely accurate, this should be the best team in the league.
2. Nevada: No Colin Kaepernick, no problem? In their first season without one of the most statistically dominant dual-threat quarterbacks of all time, the Wolf Pack slipped from 4th in FBS total offense all the way to ... 6th. So why did the record plummet from 13-1 to 7-6? Traveling to Oregon, Texas Tech, and Boise had a lot to do with it, as did blowing back-to-back games to Louisana Tech and Utah St. in which Nevada outgained those two opponents by a combined 180 yards. The good news is that with Cody Fajardo now in firm control of the quarterback position and a veteran line in place, the offense should be its usual top-10 self, and the schedule reverts back to something like the 2010 version. If the inexperienced front seven hangs in there -- which is all it's ever asked to do for such an offense-driven program -- the Wolf Pack could win the MWC at the first attempt.
3. Air Force: The first positive for the Falcons: Boise's not on the schedule. The second: despite another offseason of alleged flirtation with other jobs, Troy Calhoun is still in Colorado Springs. And even for one of the least-experienced teams in the FBS -- the Falcons return just six starters after fielding their most veteran team in years in 2011 -- that should be enough to keep Air Force atop the gaggle of teams in the middle of the MWC. Well, that and senior quarterback Connor Dietz, who won't be Tim Jefferson but has three years of tutelage under Calhoun under his belt and should make the transition seamless. The bottom line is that the Falcons underachieved in 2011, and we have a hard time seeing that happen a second season in a row on Calhoun's watch.
4. Fresno State: If contending for the MWC title was as simple as finding a quarterback and running back, the Bulldogs would be heavy favorites; in junior signal-caller Derek Carr and senior sparkplug tailback Robbie Rouse, first-year head coach Tim DeRuyter inherits the best tandem at those positions in the league. There's plenty of experience along the offensive line and in the secondary, too, where one-time All-WAC safety Phillip Thomas returns after missing 2011 with a broken leg. But there are also jarring scheme changes on both sides of the ball, with DeRuyter installing his patented 3-4 on defense and hiring former Utah coordinator Dave Schramm to run a no-huddle spread on offense. Carr and Rouse will no doubt pile up the yards, and the Bulldogs don't lack for overall talent, but with so many adjustments to make for both coaches and players -- and, oh yeah, trips to both Boise and Nevada -- we expect Fresno to finish a game or two shy of the MWC elite.
5. San Diego State: 2012 should be the season we see exactly what Rocky Long can do in San Diego, with nearly all the recognizable vestiges of the Brady Hoke era -- quarterback Ryan Lindley, running back Ronnie Hillman, Al Borges, Hoke himself -- now departed and the program solely in Long's hands. The long-time New Mexico coach will have some tools to work with, starting with future NFL corner Leon McFadden and arguably the MWC's best secondary, and continuing through Oregon State quarterback transfer Ryan Katz and tight end Gavin Escobar. But Long's trademark 3-3-5 didn't have the sort of success he's accustomed to in 2011 (finishing 78th vs. the run), and the departures of several linemen and linebacker Miles Burris won't help. So no, the Aztecs don't shape up as a title contender, but assuming Long can engineer a step forward on the defensive front, 2012 should still yield a top-half finish.
6. Colorado State: Steve Fairchild went 3-9 in what would prove to be his final season in Fort Collins. But the foundation was laid for improvement under new head coach Jim McElwain. Running back Chris Nwoke broke out with 1,130 yards as a sophomore and should do even bigger things in McElwain's Alabama-honed ground-pound attack; All-MWC center Weston Richburg anchors a line that's taken some lumps but still has plenty of growth ahead of it; and top two tacklers Shaquil Barrett and James Skelton return to spearhead a productive linebacking corps. The Rams also host Hawaii, New Mexico and UNLV. A bowl might still be a year away after the departures of star defenders Nordly Capi and Mike Orakpo, but after going exactly 3-9 four of the last five years, McElwain should get them a couple games closer.
7. Wyoming: We've seen this movie before. In 2010, Wyoming was coming off a stunning winning season propelled by death-defying escapes, healthy turnover margin, and a prodigal freshman quarterback. They finished 3-9. In 2012, Wyoming is coming off a stunning winning season propelled by death-defying escapes, healthy turnover margin, and a prodigal freshman quarterback. That's not to say we're expecting the bottom to fall out again; Dave Christensen has his systems more fully installed, Brett Smith might be even better than previous prodigy Austyn Carta-Samuels, and a defense with seven returning starters should drastically better the 2010 effort. But having posted a perfect 4-0 record in games decided by three points or less and finishing plus-12 in turnovers, those positives will have to be positive indeed to ward off the lack of breaks due the Cowboys in 2012.
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8. Hawaii: Norm Chow at long last has his head coaching gig, and if the cultural fit couldn't be better for the Honolulu native and dean of West Coast offensive gurus, the personnel fit certainly could be; where Chow traditionally prefers big-armed pocket-passers, tight ends, and powerful backs (a la his legendary USC offenses), Hawaii's run-and-shoot roster offers him wideouts galore, spread quarterbacks valued for their short-range accuracy, and no tailback with more than 275 yards last year. He can't expect the defense to take up the slack while he works out the kinks on offense, either, not with just four returning starters, and only two in the front seven. As usual, the Warriors have more than sufficient talent when the ball is in the air -- wide receiver Billy Ray Stutzman, corner Mike Edwards -- but on paper this is a rebuilding season.
9. UNLV: At least Bobby Hauck can say his team improved on their 2-11 2010 record in his second season in Las Vegas ... all the way to 2-10. The principal culprit was a cover-your-eyes awful passing attack that finished below every non-service academy school in the FBS in yardage and was 114th in passer rating. The defense, at least, took a big step up from 109th nationally in total defense to ... 105th. In short, Hauck still has a mountain to climb in just about every aspect other than his running game, which returns all five offensive linemen and rugged junior tailback Tim Cornett. But unless possible starting quarterbacks Nick Sherry and Caleb Herring take a gigantic step with them and bring the defense along for the ride, even that running game will only take the Runnin' Rebels so far.
10. New Mexico: It doesn't seem possible that an FBS program -- one that played in five bowls in six years from 2002 to 2007, no less -- could contrive to go 1-11 for three consecutive seasons. Take a bow, Mike Locksley: you managed it with the Lobos, or managed it for all but the final eight games of that stretch before being unceremoniously dumped over his biggest off-field embarrassment yet. In Locksley's place steps the single weirdest hire of the 2012 offseason, Bob Davie, who hasn't been seen on a college football sideline since 2001. Davie will have 14 returning starters to work with, a veteran quarterback/survivor in B.R. Holbrook, and a roster dotted with BCS refugees corralled by Locksley. With even semi-competent coaching, the Lobos should be able to find a second win somewhere. But we're sure not putting any money on it just yet.