The rebuilt Boise State team remains the favorite in the Mountain West this season -- a show of respect for what coach Chris Petersen has built.
The Broncos received 27 of 30 first-place votes from the Mountain West media and were the informal choice of coaches as well.
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"Boise State has the best team in the league," San Diego State coach Rocky Long said, "and I think it's going to be tough for the rest of us to catch up and maybe beat them, but they're not unbeatable. Now you take the rest of us, put us in a hat and throw it in the air and the first to hit the ground is the winner. That's how I see the rest of us."
It's an intriguing year for the Broncos because they must replace four-year starter Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in college football history, and an array of high-end talent. The list of departures includes two NFL first-round picks, tailback Doug Martin and defensive end Shea McClellin.
Still, the lineup should have a senior flavor -- at least three on the offensive line, three at the skill positions, two at linebacker and two at cornerback.
Petersen said all of his players, seniors included, need to take another step this fall for the team to succeed. But he also senses a hunger.
"We're trying to win this conference, which we couldn't get done last year with a really good team," he said. "Our kids are motivated for a lot of reasons -- one, that we didn't get it done last year; two, that there's a lot to prove with those who left us. They have a lot of pride. I know they'll work their tails off and they'll fight hard."
The Broncos face a challenging schedule that includes trips to Michigan State, Southern Miss and Nevada. They also get BYU at home. All but Nevada are Top 25 contenders.
"We expect to have some pretty tough games," senior cornerback Jerrell Gavins said.
The biggest question mark is who will replace Moore at QB. It will be a four-way race entering fall camp, with junior Joe Southwick holding the edge on experience.
"I think Joe did a great job in spring ball, but I think the other kids did, too," Petersen said. "The other guys are just young in terms of knowing the system. Joe knows it very well. You have to give it ample time to play out in as many situations as possible. We've been lucky and the kids [in the past] have produced when we put them in there. That doesn't mean we always will be that fortunate. That's why you don't want to rush the decision."
HEAD COACH: Chris Petersen, seventh year at Boise State, 73-6 record at Boise State and as a head coach
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB D.J. Harper -- The Broncos are short-handed at tailback, where the backup is untested former walk-on Drew Wright. Beyond that, they're counting on three players who have yet to play a college game -- redshirt freshman Jay Ajayi and true freshmen Jack Fields and Devan Demas. Harper has sustained two torn ACLs in his career and never has been the featured back.
BREAKOUT STAR: S Lee Hightower -- He was impressive as a true freshman, filling in at cornerback when injuries mounted. He moves to free safety this season. The new position should emphasize his knack for the big hit and give him ample opportunities to make plays on the ball.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Demarcus Lawrence -- He impressed in spring ball and in the summer program after transferring from Butler Community College. The three-year player will be part of the rotation, if not a starter, immediately. He chose Boise State over Tennessee.
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KEYS TO SUCCESS: Boise State's offense likely will rely on a strong run game early in the year. The offensive line is talented, experienced and deep. Harper, a sixth-year senior, is a dynamic player with a history of explosive plays and the new quarterback will be a run threat. The pass game will need to contribute, too, but the bigger keys to success likely will be the defense and special teams. The Broncos are rebuilding the defense with two returning starters at cornerback and a bunch of former backups. The special teams units could be young, except for the kick returners, and the kicker situation remains a mess.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Broncos lost huge chunks of their starting lineup, including many players who are in the NFL. The departures include the top five defensive linemen (all in NFL camps), both starting safeties, QB Moore, tailback Martin, record-setting wideout Tyler Shoemaker and All-American left tackle Nate Potter. That's a massive amount of experience, talent and production that must be replaced. Some of the void can be filled by experienced part-time players, but young players will be filling some key roles.
-- CB Jerrell Gavins grabbed three interceptions and broke up three passes in three games last season before sustaining a season-ending injury in practice. The senior considered leaving for the NFL rather than taking a redshirt year but wasn't healthy enough. "It never really goes away," he said of the disappointment. "I won't let go. In some aspects, I can. I was an angry person last year, so this year I'm going to be real mad. I know how to keep it poised. When I get opportunities to be a mad man, I will be a mad man."
-- OG Joe Kellogg and CB Jamar Taylor each have started 22 games, most on the team. No other Bronco has started more than 13 games.
-- Harper enters his sixth season trying to carve out an interesting statistical niche. He has scored at least two touchdowns in five straight years. He's the starter, so if he stays healthy he should extend the streak to six. He was able to redshirt twice after getting injured in the third game of a season.
-- FB Dan Paul was week to week with a groin injury when the 2011 season began. He never played, redshirting instead. And the injury still hasn't fully healed going into fall camp.
-- Two defensive linemen transferred to Big Sky schools after spring ball -- Justin Jungblut and Nick Alexander.
-- Senior Darren Koontz continues to bounce between end and tackle. He was impressive in the spring at end, but may move to tackle because of a lack of depth there.