The TV networks are taking notice of the big things happening in Mountain West football. The upcoming season will once again feature a bunch of high profile game, including a tilt against the defending national champs. All in all, there's a TV Watch Party waiting to happen every single week of the season. Here are some suggestions for just the first month of what promises to be another thrilling MW season. Remember, it's good to plan ahead! (all times listed are MOUNTAIN time).
Thursday August 29th: UNLV at Minnesota, TBD on Big Ten Network. Likely to be the earliest kick-off of the four MW games on opening night. The Rebels hope to get off to a good start in front of a big audience on BTN. Keep the remote handy so you can also keep an eye on Utah State at Utah, TBD. The Pac 12 Network is sure to be all over this rematch of last season's Aggie upset. Can Chuckie Keeton pull a repeat? Then there's Rutgers at Fresno State, TBD. The Bulldogs were conference tri-champs a season ago, and Derek Carr is back under center to continue his assault on the record books. No TV decided yet, but it's a virtual certainty that this will be the second of four kicks on a great opening night quadruple-header. The final kick off will feature USC at Hawai‘i, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network. The game on the island will feature the improving Warriors of Norm Chow against his former protégé, Lane Kiffin and the Trojans. Expect fireworks.
Saturday August 31st: Boise State at Washington, TBD. Not to worry. The Pac 12 just has to figure out which of its network options will fit best with this dandy re-match from last season's MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. Boise State won, 28-26. Broncos D will have its hands full with an explosive Husky attack...but Bronco offense could have a BIG day. Another game that has yet to get a kick-off time, but will also be featured on the Pac 12 Networks is Nevada at UCLA. Life after Chris Ault begins for the Wolf Pack against a strong Bruins squad.
In the evening, it's Wyoming at Nebraska, 6 p.m. Big Ten Network. After hosting the Cornhuskers in 2011, the Cowboys make the first of two trips to Lincoln to face the Big Red. Head Coach Dave Christensen was a big winner in Lincoln in 2007 as the Offensive Coordinator for Missouri.
Sunday, September 1st: Colorado vs. Colorado State in Denver, 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Former San Jose State Head Coach Mike MacIntrye makes his Colorado debut against a Rams team his Spartans handled easily last season. But the Rams will be looking to make it two in a row over CU, so there's that.
Saturday September 7th: San Diego State at Ohio State. TBD. Big Ten will figure this out shortly and decide which network will showcase the MW against the cream of the Big Ten in what will likely be an early kick-off, setting the stage for another exciting day. Utah State at Air Force, 1:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network will showcase some early season conference play, and San Jose State at Stanford, TBD but surely ticketed for the Pac 12 Networks, will give us a good indication on where the Spartans stand with their new coaching staff.
Friday September 13th, Air Force at Boise State, 6 p.m. ESPN. Conference action takes center stage. Who will be unlucky on this night?
Saturday September 14th Nevada at Florida State, TBD. The Wolf Pack venture across the country to face a perennial powerhouse on their home turf. Count on an early start on TV someplace. New Mexico at Pitt, TBD. The MW takes a shot at the ACC newbie.
Friday September 20th: Boise State at Fresno State, 7 p.m. ESPN. Last season, this game played a part in deciding the tri-championship. Bulldogs will be looking for revenge at home and a shot at an outright conference title.
Saturday September 21st: Colorado State at Alabama, TBD. Networks can't resist the defending national champs, so Ram fans can plan on eyeballing Coach Jim McElwain's return to Tuscaloosa. Later in the day it's Oregon State at San Diego State, 5:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Mike Riley takes his team back to play in the stadium he once coached in as the HC of the Chargers.
It's sure to be a September to remember...and watch closely...for the MW. It will be just the start of a season that promises great excitement and a climatic finish.
With the 2013 NFL Draft a week away, here's my projected order of the first 10 Mountain West selections. The league had 12 players selected in last year's draft, led by first-round picks Shea McClellin and Doug Martin of Boise State.
Overall, the MW has seven first round draft picks since the league's inception in 1999. Last year marked the second time in NFL Draft history in which multiple MW players were selected in the first round (2000). The MW has had at least 12 players selected in three of the last four NFL drafts and seven times since the league's inaugural season in 1999.
1. Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State
An All-MW first team selection, Taylor last season finished with a team-high three interceptions, a mark that tied for fourth in the MW, and led the Broncos with nine pass break-ups. His 47 tackles (29 solo), which included 3.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks, ranked second among Bronco defensive backs and fourth on the squad. Early assessments by some draft analysts suggest Taylor could become the fifth Boise State player to be taken in the first round during coach Chris Petersen's tenure.
2. Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State
Escobar, who opted to enter the draft following his junior season last year, led the Aztecs in receptions (42), receiving yards (543) and touchdown catches (6) while recording 10 receptions of 20 or more yards. Considered one of the most sure-handed tight ends in the nation and boasting superior speed, Escobar was a three-time All-MW selection.
3. Phillip Thomas, S, Fresno State
Thomas, the MW Defensive Player of the Year last season, was selected to the 2012 Associated Press All-America first team after finishing the regular season as the national leader in interceptions with eight (a MW record). He returned three interceptions for touchdowns and led the Bulldogs with 82 tackles. His 12.0 tackles for a loss were the second-most in the MW.
4. Duke Williams, CB, Nevada
A second-team All-MW selection last season, Williams finished as the team's second-leading tackler (106) while tying for team-high honors with 68 solo stops. Highly valued for his leadership qualities, Williams also had 5.5 tackles for loss to go along with eight pass break-ups and an interception.
5. Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego State
McFadden last year became the fifth SDSU player in school history to earn first-team All-MW honors in three consecutive seasons. Having played in every game since arriving on campus as a true freshman in 2009, he set career highs last season for tackles (61), solo stops (46), interceptions (3), forced fumbles (1) and returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
6. John Lotulelei, LB, UNLV
Lotulelei turned heads at the NFL Combine in February, ranking second among 16 linebackers in the 3-cone drill with a time of 6.91 seconds and fourth out of 20 in the vertical jump at 35.5 inches. He also was sixth out of 26 in the bench press with 25 reps of 225 pounds. A first team All-MW selection last season, his 120 tackles ranked 10th-highest in UNLV single-season history.
7. Mike Edwards, CB, Hawai‘i
Edwards, who bypassed his senior season to enter the draft, was named the MW Special Teams Player of the Year last season after ranking sixth nationally with a 30.4 kickoff return average and tying for the national lead with three returns for touchdowns. He also ranked 11th nationally in passes defended (17) and recorded two interceptions.
8. Khalid Wooten, S, Nevada
Wooten finished second in the MW last season with 15 pass break-ups and 17 passes defended while collecting a team-high two interceptions, one of which was returned for a 78-yard touchdown. He led the league with an average of 15.1 yards per punt return and averaged 21.7 yards on three kickoff returns.
9. Stefphon Jefferson, RB, Nevada
A first-team All-MW selection, Jefferson chose to forgo his senior season after finishing as the second-leading rusher in the nation last year with a league record 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns. Jefferson, who averaged 5.0 yards per carry, also eclipsed the MW single-season mark for rushing touchdowns in a season, previously held by Air Force's Chance Harridge (22 in 2002).
10. Lucas Reed, TE, New Mexico
Reed, whose size and speed consistently created match-up problems, concluded his career with the most receptions by a tight end in Lobo history (77). Reed, a first-team All-MW pick in 2010, started 34 of 48 career games in Albuquerque. Reed's older brother, Brooks, was a second-round pick of the Houston Texans two years ago.
Super Bowl time always elicits "best of" lists of all kinds...so let's join the party. After Colin Kaepernick's stellar second half performance in this year's title game, it's time to take a look back at the best players - and their Super performances - from current Mountain West schools.
Head Coach:Joe Gibbs, SDSU/Washington Redskins. Three Super Bowl titles. 'Nuff said. A nod to two other former Aztecs - the bombastic NFL Hall of Famer John Madden and an honorable mention to John Fox, current coach of the Denver Broncos. He's been to one Super Bowl - so far. A cradle of coaches to be sure.
QB - Kaepernick's performance falls just short, since he didn't win the game. So the nod has to go to former Fresno State Bulldog Trent Dilfer, who won his Super Bowl, ironically, with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
RB (2) - Marshall Faulk, SDSU/St. Louis Rams. Headliner in "the Greatest Show on Turf" and maybe the best dual threat back ever; Jim Kiick, Wyoming/Miami Dolphins key part of unbeaten Super Bowl champs in 1972.
WR (3) - James Jones, San Jose State/Green Bay Packers. In Super Bowl XLV against Pittsburgh, Jones caught 5 passes for 50 yards in Green Bay's 31-25 triumph. Golden Richards, Hawai'i/Dallas Cowboys. Super Bowl champ known for his long blonde hair and acrobatic catches. Az-Zahir Hakim, a former SDSU Aztec, was also part of the Greatest Show on Turf for the St. Louis Rams Super Bowl champs. SDSU Alums Isaac Curtis and Haven Moses both had great careers, but were not on Super Bowl winning teams.
TE - Jay Novacek, Wyoming & Dallas Cowboy won three Super Bowl rings.
OL (5) - Jesse Sapolu, Hawai'i/SF 49'ers FOUR time Super Bowl champ; Mark Tuinei, Hawai'i/Dallas Cowboys. Two Super Bowl rings; Adrian Klemm, Hawai'i/New England Patriots. Three-time Super Bowl champ, Barry Sims, Utah State/Oakland played in the 2003 Super Bowl and Logan Mankins, Fresno State/New England. Five time Pro Bowler has played in a pair of Super Bowls, so far...
K - Jason Elam, Hawai'i/Denver Broncos. Two-time Super Bowl champ and record holder for longest FG in NFL history (tied with Tom Dempsey and Sebastian Janikowski at 63 yards.)
P - Mike Saxon, SDSU/Dallas Cowboys was part of the Cowboys dynasty in the early 1990's. He punted for the 1993 champs.
DE (3) - Fred Dwyer, San Diego State/Los Angeles Rams had a great football AND TV career, playing in the 1979 Super Bowl; Clark Haggans, CSU/Pittsburgh and Arizona. He and Rams alum Joey Porter teamed up again to win a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh, and he played in another with Cardinals. Don't forget Utah State product Lionel Aldridge, a Utah State grad and member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. He played for two Super Bowl winning Packers teams.
DT (2) - Kimo von Oelhoffen, Boise State/Pittsburgh. He won a Super Bowl ring in 2005 in his final season as a member of the Steelers. A special nod to Chad Hennings, AFA/Dallas Cowboys. Not many Academy players are even allowed to play pro football, much less get the chance to play in THREE Super Bowl victories.
LB (3) - Brian Urlacher, New Mexico/Chicago Bears. Also a standout in SB XLI, but on the losing side; Robin Cole, New Mexico/Pittsburgh Steelers. Pro Bowler and twice Super Bowl champion with the Steel Curtain D. He was a stand up end/LB, and Joey Porter, Colorado State/Pittsburgh Steelers, went to multiple Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl title.
CB (2) - Cornell Green played basketball, not football at Utah State, but went on to play in a pair of Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and was named to their 25th Anniversary team in 1985. Better known for coaching and TV work, SDSU's Herm Edwards was a great corner as well, playing in the 1981 Super Bowl for Philadelphia.
S (2) - Brock Marion, Nevada/Dallas Cowboys was a two-time Super Bowl champ; John Howell, Colorado State/Tampa Bay & Seattle. Super Bowl winner played in two.
Not a bad team to take into battle, huh? Kaepernick is likely to supplant Dilfer before his career is done, and you never know what the future could hold for guys like Ronnie Hillman, D.J. Harper, Ryan Clady or Kellen Moore. Still more reason to stay tuned.
This is the kind of situation everyone always hopes for. Multiple winners. More than a "win-win" situation. It's a "win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win" situation (that's an even dozen wins if you're counting along...)
The obvious winners in the decisions by Boise State and San Diego State to remain in the (1) Mountain West are the schools themselves. Yet the conference benefits as well from having the Broncos powerhouse football program remain in the league. The Aztecs football program is not yet where Boise State's is, but as defending conference tri-champs, they're certainly an important component to the quest for "elite" conference status. With these "non-subtractions" the league can now potentially hold a conference championship game.
This is a win for conference newcomer (3) Nevada - which can now continue its heated rivalry with the Broncos AND grow its annual battle with UNLV. Part of the reason (4) Fresno State, (5) Utah State and (6) Hawai‘i agreed to move to the MW was a chance to test themselves against the powerhouse program Boise State has become. Now they get to do just that.
There are big winners away from the football field as well. Start with (7) Steve Fisher and his SDSU basketball program - one of the best in the nation. It would have been a major step backward for Fisher's program to be left to compete in the not-all-that-Big West Conference. The path to March Madness is much smoother when you compete in a power conference like the MW. Add in (8) Dave Rice and UNLV and (9) Steve Alford and New Mexico. That threesome represents one of the very best groupings in college basketball. Thankfully, it won't be broken up.
Non-revenue sports also reap a benefit. For instance, SDSU with (10) Tony Gwynn at the helm is working to become one of the Conference's best baseball programs. It already plays a stout California-based non-conference schedule, so staying in a better league is a benefit to its postseason goals as well. And after having lost his nemesis in TCU to the Big 12, New Mexico baseball coach (11) Ray Birmingham certainly didn't want to see Gwynn's Aztecs leave the league too. Ray wants to play the best and SDSU represents that. Plus, no Lobo baseball season would be the same without that loooooong bus ride to The Mesa every spring.
Finally, (12) fans in the region will get to continue to see a geographically-based, super competitive conference that has nothing but upside moving forward. Better bowl game partnerships, the potential for a conference football title game, more and more teams in March Madness - and it won't be long until an MW school is back in the College World Series. It's all good.
Like I said a "win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win" situation for everyone.
It wasn't a banner year for the Mountain West in bowl games; that much we know. What we don't know is what those outcomes - along with the next wave of changes that will take place - will mean for next season and beyond. But it's sure going to be fun to watch...
Along with a not-as-good-as-normal 1-4 record for existing MW teams in the postseason, we need to factor in a pair of wins - and likely Top 25 BCS finishes - for Utah State and San Jose State as well. The Aggies and Spartans will be new members of the conference next fall, and their late-season performances have to be strongly considered when you look at next season's league race. Then again, both those schools - along with Nevada - will be breaking in brand new head coaches too, so there's that to consider.
First, now would be a great time for a tip of the cap to the Wolf Pack's Hall of Fame Coach Chris Ault, the inventor of the "pistol" offense and the school's all-time winningest head coach. All Ault did in Reno during his 40 years as the head coach was win 10 conference titles and go to 10 bowl games, while winning 233 games. Already in the College Football Hall of Fame, Ault is retiring, and turning over a loaded roster to his yet to be named successor.
At SJSU and USU, they'll also be replacing coaches. What none of those guys have to worry about is replacing standout quarterbacks. At the start of the season, the Spartans didn't know what they had in transfer David Fales, but by the end of the year, they had the nation's leader in completion percentage, a guy who threw for over 4,000 yards and was the MVP of the Military Bowl win over Bowling Green. That should make things a little smoother for new coach Ron Caragher.
Aggies new coach Matt Wells will hand the keys to dual threat standout Chuckie Keeton. All Keeton did this year was pass for 3,373 yards and rush for 619 while accounting for 35 touchdowns. Nevada's new head man will be able to count on junior Cody Fajardo, who threw for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. He also rushed for 140 yards in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
And don't sleep on Brett Smith of Wyoming - if he can stay healthy. Smith and the Pokes had a snake-bit kind of season, but the conference's Freshman of the Year from 2011 did his fair share of damage when he was on the field this fall. Fair to expect a big year out of Smith in 2013.
And oh yes, the MW's Offensive Player of the Year will be back under center at Fresno State. Based on the talent (and head coach Tim DeRuyter) returning, you'd probably make the Bulldogs the pre-season MW favorite next season. Their star quarterback David Carr is slated to return to continue his assault on the Bulldogs (and conference) record book, and he'll have some talent receivers to throw to. Can Carr better his 4,104 passing yards and 37 TD's next fall?
If what we saw in 2012 is any indication, there's the potential to see some serious offensive explosions during Mountain West play in 2013.
Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the last in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: Air Force, which finished fourth this season in the MW, earned a bowl bid for a school-record sixth straight year under coach Troy Calhoun. The Falcons are 10-11-1 all-time in the postseason, having posted a mark of 1-2 in three previous appearances in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Air Force and Rice are meeting for the seventh time overall. The Falcons lead the series 5-1, with the most recent meeting culminating in a 22-16 win by the Falcons in 1998. Rice, meanwhile, which won five of its final six games to finish in a tie for second place in the West Division of Conference USA, earned its 10th bowl bid in school history and third in the past seven years. The Owls, whose most recent postseason appearance came in a 38-14 win over Western Michigan in the 2008 Texas Bowl, have an all-time mark of 5-4 in bowl games.
When Air Force Has the Ball: Sixth-year senior quarterback Connor Dietz has completed 67-of-108 passes for 1,127 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He was one of just three players (Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Louisiana Tech's Colby Cameron) to avoid throwing an interception until the ninth game of the season. Dietz's completion percentage of 62.0 percent ranks as the third-best single season mark in school history. He is second on the team in rushing with 658 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Senior running back Cody Getz ranks ninth in school history in single-season rushing yards with 1,213. Ranked No. 20 nationally with an average of 110.3 yards per game, Getz opened the season with five straight 100-yard games. He has topped the 200-yard mark a school-record three times this season and has six 100-yard games, tying the single-season school record. Junior receiver Ty MacArthur, who is averaging 17.1 yards per catch, leads the team with 24 receptions for 411 yards. MacArthur is also fifth on the team in rushing with 419 yards and two touchdowns while averaging a team-best 8.7 yards per carry. Defensively, Rice is paced by first-team All-Conference USA selection Phillip Gaines, a junior cornerback who is tied for the national lead with 18 pass breakups. Defensive tackles Hosam Shahin and Christian Covington have combined for nine sacks this season. Shahin's career-best 5.0 sacks are the most by a Rice interior lineman in 15 years. Shahin and Covington have combined with defensive ends Cody Bauer (5.5) and Jared Williams (5.5) for 20 sacks this season.
When Rice Has the Ball: Junior quarterback Taylor McHargue has had a hand in 22 of the Owls' 46 touchdowns this season. McHargue, who has completed 188-of-317 pass attempts (59.3 percent) with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, also leads the team in both rushing yards (809) and rushing touchdowns (11). Junior running back Charles Ross (763 yards, 4 TDs) averaged 5.7 yards per carry during the regular season. Senior tight end Vance MacDonald, a first-team All-Conference USA selection who has been invited to participate in next month's Senior Bowl, has caught 35 passes for 433 yards and a pair of touchdowns despite missing three games due to injury. He had a combined 16 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown in the team's final two games, finishing with a career-high nine catches in the season finale against UTEP. Air Force senior inside linebacker Austin Niklas and senior outside linebacker Alex Means pace the Air Force defense. Niklas is second in the MW and 28th nationally with an average of 9.5 tackles per game. He has recorded 10 or more tackles five times this season. Means, who ranks second on the team with an average of 7.4 tackles per contest, leads the team and ranks fourth in the league with 11.0 tackles for loss. He also has two interceptions, nine pass breakups and has blocked four kicks in his career.
Special Teams: Rice junior placekicker Chris Boswell leads the nation with six field goals of 50 or more yards this season and tied an NCAA record by kicking three from that distance against SMU on Nov. 17. He is 6-of-7 from 50 or more yards this year and has made his last four from that distance. He has connected on a school-record 21 field goals in 2012 while establishing a Rice scoring record for kickers with 105 points. Air Force senior placekicker Parker Herrington has made 4-of-10 field-goal attempts this season, while the do-everything MacArthur is averaging 19.7 yards on kickoff returns and 7.6 yards per punt return. MacArthur's 965 all-purpose yards rank second on the team. Rice junior Jeremy Eddington preserved the team's spot in the postseason when he returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown with just over six minutes remaining in the season finale at UTEP. Eddington finished with 210 yards on four kick returns, the second-best total in school history.
Analysis: Only one team in the nation --- Army --- averaged more yards rushing per game than Air Force (328.75), which is matched against a Rice squad that ranked tied for 91st in the country against the run (192.75 ypg). Conversely, the Owls, who boasted the second-best ground game in Conference USA (201.25 ypg), will test a Falcons rush defense that endured its own share of struggles, allowing an average of 198.0 yards per contest. In a game where the numbers are relatively even, much could be determined by special teams and Air Force's ability to protect the ball. The Falcons turned it over 26 times during the regular season, seven more than Rice.
Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the fourth in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: Mountain West tri-champion Fresno State enters the game riding a five-game win streak while pocketing its first league championship since 1999. This will be Fresno State's 24th bowl game in program history. The Bulldogs, who are 12-11 all-time in the postseason, are making their 12th bowl appearance in the last 14 seasons. Fresno State's most recent postseason appearance came in a 40-17 loss to Northern Illinois in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl. SMU, under the direction of former Hawai‘i head coach June Jones, has dropped five of its six meetings against Fresno State, the last coming in a 42-0 loss on Oct. 30, 2004. The Mustangs won four of their final six games of the season, capped off by an upset of Conference USA West Division champion Tulsa, to become bowl eligible for the 14th time in program history. SMU, which topped Pittsburgh in last year's BBVA Compass Bowl, is 6-7-1 all-time in the postseason.
When Fresno State Has the Ball: The Bulldogs positively exploded in their first season utilizing offensive coordinator Dave Schramm's spread offense. Fresno State, which ranks first in the MW and 12th nationally in scoring offense (40.2 ppg), scored 40 or more points seven times. During the course of their current five-game win streak, the Bulldogs have scored 40 or more in every game. Paced by junior quarterback David Carr, the MW Offensive Player of the Year, Fresno State ranks first in the league and 12th nationally in passing offense (322.58 ypg) while ranking 14th in the country in total offense (488.50). Carr, the only quarterback in the league to average more than 300 yards passing per game (311.8), has completed 68.1 percent of his passes (311-of-457) this season while throwing just five interceptions. His 36 touchdown passes are nine more than any quarterback in the MW. Senior running back Robbie Rouse, the nation's third-leading active rusher and Fresno State's all-time leader with 4,625 career yards, tied the MW record this season with nine 100-yard games. He ranked third in the league and 13th nationally with an average of 122.3 yards per game. Wide receiver Davante Adams, the MW Freshman of the Year and a unanimous all-league first-team selection, led the conference in every receiving category. His 89 catches are 26 more than any other MW receiver this fall. His 1,168 receiving yards are 314 more and his 13 touchdowns are seven more than any player in the league. None of which bodes terribly well for SMU, which has allowed an average of 271.71 yards passing per game and ranks 103rd nationally in pass defense. The Mustangs, who finished second in the West Division of Conference USA, also ranked last in the league in sacks while allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw 26 touchdown passes.
When SMU Has the Ball: Whereas running the ball was largely considered a gadget play during Jones' run-'n'-shoot tenure at Hawai‘i, such is not the case at SMU where senior Zach Line rushed for 1,207 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Line is the only running back in SMU history with three 1,200-yard seasons. His 4,114 career rushing yards and 46 rushing touchdowns rank sixth and third, respectively, among active players, while his 4,715 career all-purpose yards are second all-time at SMU and his 276 career points are third. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who transferred from Texas last season, has thrown for 2,720 yards and 14 TDs against 13 interceptions. As good as Fresno State's offense has been this season its defense has been no less sparkling. Led by senior strong safety Phillip Thomas, the MW Defensive Player of the Year and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, the Bulldogs ranked first in the MW in pass efficiency defense (100.0), pass defense (163.42 ypg; tied 4th nationally), sacks (35) and tackles for loss (85). Fresno State tied for first in the MW in takeaways (33) and was second in the league in total defense (335.33 ypg) and scoring defense (22.25 ppg). Thomas (82) and junior free safety Derron Smith (72) ranked first and second, respectively, in total tackles while combining for 14 interceptions. Thomas led the nation with eight INTs and took three of those thefts to the end zone. He also accumulated 12.5 tackles for loss on the year.
Special Teams: Fresno State senior Quentin Breshears, who made 11-of-14 field-goal attempts (78.6 percent) during the regular season, led all MW kickers with 89 points. Senior Andrew Shapiro ranked fifth in the league in punting with an average of 42.4 yards. SMU junior placekicker Chase Hover has endured his share of struggles, connecting on just 61.5 percent (16-of-26) of his field-goal attempts. Sophomore Der'Rikk Thompson (25.69 ypr) ranked fifth among kickoff returners in Conference USA this season for the Mustangs, who blocked six kicks during the regular season.
Analysis: It's been a magical ride for first-year coach Tim DeRuyter and Fresno State, whose three losses came against opponents (Oregon, Tulsa and Boise State) with a combined record of 31-6. The Bulldogs head to the islands playing at an extremely high level on both sides of the ball, and there's little reason to believe that an SMU team that allowed an average of 433.2 yards (286.2 passing) in its six losses will be able to slow one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
I know I've outgrown making a list and all, but it never hurts to ask, right? You're never too old for a few presents. So here's wish my list...
First, I want an automatic bowl tie in for the champion of the Mountain West Conference with the Fiesta Bowl, starting with the 2014 season. This just makes sense. The game is being left out of the tie-ins with the soon-to-be-former BCS conferences. The Fiesta will get two "at-large" teams. So I ask: Will a Northern Illinois be a better draw than the MW champ? Of course not. Let the MW champ face an at-large team and watch the conference profile grow.
Before that could happen, I want more "BCS" level schools to come play MW teams on OUR turf. More games like Nebraska at Wyoming (the 2011 game was a great event), Texas at New Mexico (Lobos played both UT and Texas Tech on the road this season), Kansas State at Colorado State, Notre Dame at Air Force (coming fall of 2013!), USC at UNLV (LA vs. Vegas...awesome) and maybe Oregon AT Fresno State. We get games like this way too seldom. The MW teams have to travel 80% of the time, often times for long distances. Make it a 50-50 sort of arrangement and the MW schools would come out on top a lot more often. And the profile will grow.
I want a shiny new on-campus football stadium for Colorado State and a bowl game for Denver's Sports Authority Field. They play lots of bowl games in places with weather worse than Denver, and there's plenty to do in the football crazed Mile High City.
Staying with that theme, I want a holiday college basketball tournament to return to Pepsi Center in Denver. The return of "The Mile High Classic" circa 1989, could feature Colorado, Colorado State (for a possible second meeting each season, the first being their annual on-campus game in early December), Nebraska (now coached by former CSU head man Tim Miles) and say, Oklahoma State. If the atmosphere at the CSU - CU game in Boulder is an indicator, there is an appetite for more quality college hoops along the front range. Add in the fan fervor from Nebraska and the basketball history of Okie State, you'd have a smash hit.
I want pre-season college baseball tournaments in places like Fresno, Las Vegas and Albuquerque that bring some of the nation's best programs west. Entice some of the powerful teams from Florida and the east coast to come to MW territory for some early season tests. If the SEC and ACC schools won't venture out to play MW teams, the conference RPI will never get to where it should be.
I want a trip to Omaha for the College World Series - via bus ride of course - for Ray Birmingham and the New Mexico Lobos baseball team. Come to think of it, I want to see Tony Gwynn take the San Diego State Aztecs to Omaha, too. (My guess is they would fly...) I also want to see Mike Kazlausky and the Air Force Falcons play in the MW tournament. They deserve it.
I want baseball programs brought back at Colorado State and Wyoming. I know, it's about money and weather....but hey, we made it work when I was in school. It could work now, too. It's working at Air Force, by the way.
Finally, I want a period of quiet calm on the realignment front for Commissioner Thompson and everyone in the MW offices. They deserve it, too.
Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the third in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: Mountain West tri-champion Boise State is making its third straight appearance in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos topped Utah 26-3 in the 2010 game before blitzing Arizona 56-24 in last year's contest. One of just 10 teams nationally to play in 10 or more consecutive bowl games, the Broncos, who are 8-4 in FBS bowl games, will be making their 11th straight postseason appearance and 12th in the past 13 years. The game marks the third consecutive postseason appearance for Washington following last season's 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. The Huskies, who finished fourth in the Pac-12 North, have an all-time bowl mark of 16-15-1.
When Boise State Has the Ball: While the loss of four-year starting quarterback Kellen Moore was destined to have a significant impact, the Broncos nonetheless averaged 30.4 points and 390.0 yards per game. Junior Joe Southwick, who assumed Moore's spot behind center, concluded the regular season completing 66.7 percent of his pass attempts (222-of-333) with 17 touchdowns. In his last two games, Southwick has completed 36-of-46 passes for 415 yards. Senior running back D.J. Harper, a second-team All-MW selection, eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in the team's regular-season finale at Nevada and has accounted for 15 of BSU's 42 touchdowns in 2012. The Broncos will be facing a Washington team that ranks 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense (2nd in Pac-12) and 30th in total defense (3rd in Pac-12). Only three teams in the Pac-12 allowed fewer points per game (23.83) than the Huskies during the regular season.
When Washington Has the Ball: Led by dual-threat quarterback Keith Price, the Huskies have endured their share of offensive struggles in 2012, ranking 10th in the Pac-12 and 99th nationally in total offense (347.58 ypg). Washington, which will be facing the nation's No. 9-ranked defense, has been limited to 21 or fewer points seven times this season. Now the Huskies are presented with the challenge of finding the end zone against a Boise State defense that is yielding an average of just 14.92 points (No. 6 nationally) and has not allowed more than 21 points in a game since Week 4. Four BSU players --- DL Mike Atkinson, DE Demarcus Lawrence, LB J.C. Percy and CB Jamar Taylor --- earned first-team All-MW honors, with Percy becoming the program's first player to record more than 100 tackles in a season (101) since 2006. Lawrence's 9.5 sacks led the MW. Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a finalist for the John Mackey Award, presented annually to the nation's top tight end, holds school records for receptions, yards and touchdowns by a tight end. His 63 receptions this season ranks second nationally among tight ends and also represent a single-season school record.
Special Teams: Broncos senior placekicker Michael Frisina has already connected on 12 field goals in 2012, quadrupling his total from all of 2011 (three). The Broncos' average of 25.77 yards per kickoff return ranks 9th nationally, while senior Chris Potter ranks 18th in the country with an average of 11.83 yards per punt return. Washington placekicker/punter Travis Coons has converted 7-of-11 field-goal attempts this season and is averaging 39.5 yards per punt.
Analysis: While Washington does possess its share of weapons in Price, Seferian-Jenkins and sophomore running back Bishop Sankey (102.83 ypg), this is a tall order for the Huskies, who must deal with a team that ranks fourth in the nation in turnovers gained (33) and is tied for fourth in pass defense (163.42 ypg). The Broncos are also sixth in scoring defense, seventh in pass efficiency defense (101.42) and ninth in total defense. Nationally, Washington ranks no higher than 86th (passing offense) in any offensive category.
Ever since the music started and chairs began to get rearranged, and conference realignment became an on-going news story of its own, college football has been not only front and center, but THE center of everything related to realignment. Thoughts about what was best for other sports - even revenue-generating sports like NCAA men's basketball - were cast aside. Consider this: during the first wave of changes, there was a brief period of time when basketball superpower Kansas wasn't sure it was going to have a home in a BCS conference.
Football had dictated every single move in this ongoing saga - until last week. Finally, a group of schools who don't play football and had grown tired of having their athletic futures decided by what was best for other school's football programs, decided to stand up for hoops.
Because DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova carve out much of their athletic identity from their basketball programs, the recent football-fueled expansion moves by their conference, the Big East, left them feeling left out. As a result, a conference that was originally formed to be a basketball power and grew into the best hoops conference in the country - which had over the course of the last couple of years over-extended itself in order to try to keep up with the madness created by football - appears to be mortally wounded. At the very least, the Big East Conference has completely lost its identity, if not much much more.
Considering how popular NCAA basketball and "March Madness" have become, it's always been puzzling why what was best for basketball programs has never really been considered during all the crazy conference shuffling. It's not like the basketball programs are irrelevant and won't be affected, right? There are numerous schools that have changed or will be changing conferences whose basketball teams are better than their football teams. Often times, those powerful basketball teams aren't getting to take a step up in conference, but a good-sized step back. How does this make any sense?
It was their unhappiness with having their conference watered down in hoops that led those seven prominent Big East schools to announce they were breaking away. Who knows if they will be the last to do so.
Meanwhile, the Mountain West is one of those handful of conferences that has had great balance between football and basketball. Over the past eight seasons, MW football teams have posted the best win percentage in bowl games of any conference - better than the Almighty SEC. Yet collectively, hoops might be even better, with the MW's conference RPI ranking in the top five each of the last three seasons. Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada - the schools that have joined the MW in the past three years (with the exception of Hawaii, a football-only member) have all enjoyed a step up in conference affiliation in ALL their sports, not just football. The same will be true for San Jose State and Utah State starting next season.
Realignment isn't finished - not by a long shot. But you have to wonder, now that the soon-to-be former Big East members have seemingly struck the first blow for what's best for basketball, how many other schools might be thinking and rethinking decisions that have been made, to this point, without much thought about the well being of their other sports programs.
Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the second in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: San Diego State, which captured its first league title since 1998 by finishing in a three-way tie atop the Mountain West with Boise State and Fresno State, won the Poinsettia Bowl two years ago with a 35-14 victory over Navy. The game matches a pair of former MW foes, with the teams' last meeting culminating in a 24-21 win by BYU on Oct. 9, 2010. SDSU, which is 2-5 in bowl games, is making its third straight postseason appearance after dropping a 32-30 decision to Louisiana in last year's New Orleans Bowl. BYU, which earlier signed a three-year agreement to play in the Poinsettia Bowl has appeared in seven straight postseason contests, its latest coming in a 24-21 win over Tulsa in the 2011 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. The Cougars, who are 12-17-1 in bowl games, lead the all-time series against SDSU 27-7-1.
When San Diego State Has the Ball: Since losing starting quarterback Ryan Katz to a season-ending ankle injury against Nevada in Week 8, the Aztecs have largely leaned on the running back tandem of sophomore Adam Muema (112.9 ypg) and senior Walter Kazee (68.5). The duo has enabled SDSU to rise to 16th in the nation in rushing offense with an average of 229.17 yards per game. Muema, who has six 100-yard games this season, rushed for a career-high 255 yards in the regular-season finale at Wyoming to post his second career 200-yard game. The 255 yards were the ninth-most in a game in program history and most since Larry Ned had 285 in 2001. Junior Gavin Escobar, a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, annually presented to the nation's top tight end, has six touchdown receptions this season and has multiple receptions in 10 of the team's 12 games. SDSU has outscored opponents by an average of 15 points during its current seven-game win streak. The challenge for the Aztecs will be finding room to run against a BYU defense that ranks second in the nation in rush defense (84.25 ypg).
When BYU Has the Ball: Though seniors Riley Nelson and James Lark will likely split time at quarterback against the Aztecs, Lark made the most of his first start of the season in the regular-season finale at New Mexico State, completing 34-of-50 passes for 384 yards and six touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Cody Hoffman was on the receiving end of five of Lark's TD passes, establishing a BYU single-game record. Hoffman, who ranks 20th nationally with an average of 94.50 receiving yards per game, has seven 100-yard games in 2012. He has caught at least one pass in 31 consecutive contests. Meanwhile, running back Jamaal Williams enters the contest with 744 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on the ground. His rushing total is the highest ever by a BYU true freshman and his 11 scoring runs equal the school record for a true freshman. San Diego State leads the MW in rushing defense, limiting opponents to just 140.25 yards per game. The Aztecs ranked third in the MW in sacks during the regular season, with sophomore linebacker Jake Fely (86 tackles, 11 for loss) registering a team-high seven quarterback sacks.
Special Teams: After enduring some early-season struggles, Aztecs senior placekicker Chance Marden has connected on eight of his last nine field goal attempts. SDSU junior Colin Lockett has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season. BYU, meanwhile, which blocked five kicks during the regular season, possesses a legitimate weapon in senior punter Riley Stephenson, whose average of 47.31 yards ranks No. 2 in the nation.
Analysis: SDSU sophomore quarterback Adam Dingwell has performed admirably in place of injured starter Ryan Katz, setting career highs in completions (19) and completion percentage (79.17 percent) in the regular-season finale at Wyoming. But this figures to be no small test for Dingwell, who will be facing a team that ranks third in the country in total defense (266.33 ypg) and has allowed more than 24 points only once this season (42 vs. Oregon State). Meanwhile, BYU is facing the task of not only winning what is essentially a home game for the Aztecs, but trying to snap the momentum of a team that has won seven straight, its longest streak since winning seven consecutive contests from Nov. 15, 1980-Oct. 10, 1981.
Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games in 2012. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the first in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: The all-time series is tied 1-1-1, but the teams have not met in 72 years, with Arizona claiming a 26-7 decision in the schools' last meeting on Oct. 11, 1941. Nevada has an all-time mark of 4-8 in bowl games after dropping a 24-17 decision to Southern Miss in last year's Sheraton Hawai‘i Bowl. Arizona is bowl-eligible for the fourth time in the last five seasons. The Wildcats' last bowl appearance came in a 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State in the 2010 Alamo Bowl. Overall, Arizona, which finished fourth in the Pac-12 South in 2012, is 6-9-1 in the postseason.
When Nevada Has the Ball: Nevada sophomore quarterback Cody Fajardo, who ranked first in the Mountain West and 11th nationally in total offense during the regular season (319.2 ypg), will take aim at a Wildcat pass defense that has endured more than its share of struggles in 2012, ranking last in the Pac-12 and 116th nationally (295.92 ypg). Meanwhile, senior tailback Stefphon Jefferson, the nation's second-leading rusher (141.92 ypg) and third-leading scorer (23 total TDs), will attempt to exploit an Arizona rush defense that ranked second-to-last this season in the Pac-12 (189.75 ypg).
When Arizona Has the Ball: The only running back in the nation to average more yards per game than Nevada's Jefferson during the regular season was Arizona sophomore Ka'Deem Carey (146.42). Carey, who has 20 rushing touchdowns, will be matched against a Nevada defense that allowed 213.17 rushing yards per game during the regular season. Wildcat senior quarterback Matt Scott (338.45 ypg) ranks seventh nationally and first in the Pac-12 in total offense. Sophomore Austin Hill (99.08 ypg) was the third-leading receiver in the Pac-12 during the regular season. Wolfpack senior linebacker Albert Rosette enters the game as the leading tackler in the MW (10.7 tackles per game). Senior Duke Williams led all MW cornerbacks in tackles during the regular season (100), while sophomore defensive end Brock Hekking ranked second in the league in sacks with eight.
Special Teams: Nevada senior Khalid Wooten averaged 16.4 yards to rank first in the MW in punt return average during the regular season. Wolfpack senior placekicker enters the contest having connected on 7-of-8 field goals (87.5 percent) and 50-of-51 extra-point attempts. Arizona senior kicker John Bonano was 51-of-52 on PATs during the regular season, but missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including three from a distance of 20-29 yards.
Analysis: If you're a fan of offense, this has the potential to be one of the most entertaining games of the bowl season. While Nevada ranks first in the MW and 20th nationally in scoring offense with an average of 37.0 points per game, only 20 teams in the nation have allowed more points per game than Arizona (34.25), which has yielded more than 40 four times. Conversely, Arizona's offense averaged 37.25 points (second in the Pac-12) during the regular season, while Nevada allowed 32.5. Might defense prove paramount? Just a hunch.
Now that the regular season is over, we know where Mountain West tri-champions Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State are going to spend Bowl season. We also know that Nevada and Air Force will be bowling as well, meaning half the conference teams are playing in the postseason.
But what about the other half? What are the prospects for the MW teams whose 2012 seasons are finished? This is important, because when it comes to measuring the over-all strength of a football conference, it's not just what happens at the top that matters. Conference strength can also be measured from the bottom up. There were numerous positive developments for each of these five teams during the 2012 season, and each has reason to look forward to being in bowl contention next season.
In Norm Chow's first year as a head coach, Hawai‘i revamped their offense and started making the shift from the days of the run and shoot to Chow's more traditional offensive approach. The win-loss total wasn't what Chow is aiming for, but the foundation for the future appears to be in place. Chow opted to red shirt many of his best recruits this season, and big things are expected down the road from the likes of quarterbacks Taylor Graham and Ikaika Woolsey.
Chow also came into this season stressing the need for the Warriors to play better defense, signaling an attitude shift: less pure entertainment and more focus on a championship.
Things didn't go exactly has planned for UNLV this season, the Rebels third straight two-win campaign. But Rebels coach Bobby Hauck believes he also has a foundation in place for next season, and getting to a bowl game in his fifth year is his only priority. This season featured four losses by a total of 16 points - an indication that the Rebels are getting much closer to challenging the best teams in the conference.
New Mexico looked like they might make a run at a bowl game in Bob Davie's first season. They jumped out of the gate with a 66-point outburst in a win over Southern, and after dropping a pair to Big 12 opponents, won three of their next four to reach the .500 mark. They faded down the stretch, but Davie's move to the option offense provided a taste of success for a program that had managed only a single win the past two seasons.
"I appreciate these kids effort, I really do," Davie said following the season ending, last second loss at Colorado State. "I love how hard they fight. At the end, they were still standing there swinging. I guess if you look it like that, you can call it a success. They put themselves in a position to win.
"We start our off-season program tomorrow."
The season ending win over New Mexico allowed Colorado State to avoid another 3-9 finish, which would have been their fourth in a row. Instead, they won three of their final five games - all in front of the home fans - and served notice that better days are ahead.
"There's a lot we can build on," said first year CSU Head Coach Jim McElwain after the New Mexico win. "We had some young guys step up and make some plays.
"Three wins at home here at the buzzer, I think this is something that can really help our program moving forward." McElwain added. "There's some good positive things we can take here from this back half of the season. I'm disappointed in our win loss record, but I am not disappointed at all in what we are building, the direction this program is heading. It's not okay not to give your best every day, and that's where this organization is headed."
Wyoming was the one team in this group that expected to challenge for not just a bowl game, but possibly even the 2012 conference title. Among these non-bowl MW teams, the Cowboys have the best prospects for 2013 due mainly to the return of star quarterback Brett Smith. Smith missed significant playing time this season battling concussions, but when he was healthy, he showed the same flashes that earned him Freshman of the Year honors in 2011. If Smith can stay on the field next season, Wyoming should be a factor in the league title race.
2013 should prove to be an equally challenging and exciting year for all the conference teams. Western Athletic Conference champs Utah State and San Jose State replace Boise State and SDSU, but don't expect any drop off. Both the Aggies and Spartans finished the regular season ranked in the BCS Top 25, a sign that the battle for bowl slots will be just as intense next season.
Only once in the 26-year history of the Jim Thorpe Award has a player from a non-BCS school won the Jim Thorpe Award, annually presented to the nation's top defensive back. In fact, Colorado State's Greg Myers, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next week, received the 1995 Thorpe Award to culminate a career that included 295 total tackles and 15 interceptions in a Ram uniform.
While that may seem preposterous enough --- none of the last five winners of the award has ranked higher than 11th nationally in interceptions and two didn't rank among the top 96 --- I'm certain the arguments against Fresno State's Philip Thomas taking home the honor in 2012 will be only slightly more inane.
Thomas, a semifinalist for the award, finished the regular season as the national leader in interceptions with eight, two more than any Thorpe Award winner over the past five seasons. His interception total was the most by a Fresno State player in 27 years and set a new Mountain West single-season record.
Thomas, who on Wednesday was named to the 2012 AFCA FBS Coaches' All-America Team, selected by American Football Coaches Association, returned three interceptions for touchdowns. His nine total takeaways (eight interceptions, one fumble recovery) are both tied for the FBS lead. His three interceptions for touchdowns set a school record, tied the Mountain West single-season record and rank one shy of the NCAA record.
Thomas' four forced fumbles are tied for the seventh-most in the nation. He led the Bulldogs this year with 82 tackles and his 12.0 tackles for a loss were the second-most in the MW.
In 2011 without Thomas, who suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle during the offseason, Fresno State went 4-9 and tied for last nationally in turnovers gained (nine). This season, the Bulldogs went 9-3, claimed a share of their first conference title since 1999 and are currently tied for third nationally with 33 takeaways. Fresno State has registered the biggest turnover turnaround in the FBS this century in becoming the first team to record fewer than 10 takeaways the previous season before amassing more than 30 the following year.
While most consider Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Alabama's Dee Milliner to be Thomas' chief competition for the award, this race --- assuming the award is not limited to SEC membership --- is less of a leaning at the tape than a landslide.
Banks has enjoyed a standout career at Mississippi State, but his totals in 2012 include four interceptions (second on the team), 59 tackles (fifth), two tackles for loss and one fumble recovery. He was also part of a team whose defense surrendered an average of 38.5 points in the Bulldogs' four SEC losses.
Milliner, meanwhile, who will undoubtedly sway voters in that he toils for the top-ranked defense in the country (lest we conveniently forget this is an individual award), doesn't even measure up to Banks. Heading into this weekend's SEC title game against Georgia, Milliner's defensive totals include two interceptions (tied for third on team), 47 tackles (fifth), one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Of the past five Thorpe Award winners --- LSU's Morris Claiborne, LSU's Patrick Peterson, Tennessee's Eric Berry, Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins and Arizona's Antoine Cason --- Thomas returned as many interceptions for touchdowns in 2012 as those five players combined during the seasons in which they won the award. He also averaged four more interceptions, 21.2 more tackles and 3.3 more tackles for loss.
Dispense with the discussion. The polls are closed. Phillip Thomas is in a league of his own --- even if the so-called "Big Five" refuse to acknowledge the existence of other leagues.
A Sign of Things to Come
The Mountain West will be adding two of this season's most successful teams to its football lineup in 2013.
Utah State, currently ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, No. 22 in the USA Today/Coaches' rankings and Harris Interactive poll and No. 24 in the latest BCS Standings, posted its first 10-win season in school history last week with a 45-9 win over Idaho its regular-season finale. The victory gave the WAC champion Aggies (10-2), who have accepted an invitation to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, their first outright league title since 1936.
"These kids have come so far," said fourth-year head coach Gary Andersen. "They put high expectations on themselves at the beginning of the year, starting January 7th. I'll never forget the day when they broke out of this room right here saying WAC champs. They've said it hundreds and hundreds of times since then and now it's true."
Meanwhile, San Jose State, under the direction of coach third-year head coach Mike MacIntyre, posted its first 10-win season since 1987 with a win over Louisiana Tech in the Spartans' regular-season finale. Ranked No. 25 in the latest BCS Standings, San Jose State (10-2) finished WAC play at 5-1, its lone loss coming against Utah State.
Both teams feature dynamic young quarterbacks in Utah State sophomore Chuckie Keaton and San Jose State junior David Fales. Keaton currently ranks 31st among FBS passers, while Fales is 13th.
"We are back on our way up," said MacIntyre, who inherited a team that finished 2-10 in 2009. "We have a lot to do and you can either get better or worse, so we will keep pushing along and keep going. We lose some great seniors this season but we have a good junior class and some redshirts coming in. Our footing is going the right way. We just have to keep going the same direction."
Should Boise State top Nevada in the regular-season finale for both teams on Saturday, it would mark just the second time in league history that tri-champions were crowned in the Mountain West. In the league's inaugural season of 1999, BYU, Colorado State and Utah shared the league crown with identical 5-2 records in MW play. Fresno State and San Diego State each claimed a share of the title last week, marking only the second time in the Conference's 14 years that multiple teams earned the MW championship.
For the first time in league history, six Mountain West running backs have eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark, including Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson (1,564), New Mexico's Kasey Carrier (1,469), Fresno State's Robbie Rouse (1,468), San Diego State's Adam Muema (1,355), UNLV's Tim Cornett (1,232) and Air Force's Cody Getz (1,213). The six 1,000-yard rushers breaks the previous MW single-season record of five set in 2001 (BYU's Luke Staley, San Diego State's Larry Ned, Utah's Dameon Hunter, Air Force's Keith Boyea and UNLV's Joe Haro). The league could have two more reach the 1,000-yard mark before the end of the season, as Boise State RB D.J. Harper currently has 935 rushing yards and Nevada QB Cody Fajardo has 900.
Five Mountain West teams, including Boise State (9-2), Fresno State (9-3), San Diego State (9-3), Nevada (7-4) and Air Force (6-6) have earned bowl eligibility. The MW has boasted five bowl-eligible teams in each of the past eight seasons and nine times overall. Since its inception in 1999, the MW has earned 51 bowl bids and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record.
Over the last eight seasons, the Mountain West has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a mark of 24-12 (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03.
There is no tie breaker for the Mountain West football championship. That means that there's a very real possibility that we could have a three-way tie for the Conference title by the time the final gun goes off in Reno on December 1st. Co-champs are also possibility, but head-to-head then enters into the discussion and a "top-seed" could then be determined.
Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State can each claim a share of the conference crown by winning their final game of the season. The Bulldogs have to take down bowl bound Air Force at home this week, while the rejuvenated Aztecs have a tough one at surging Wyoming. The Broncos will face Nevada on December 1st in one of those "what might have been" kind of games.
As far as co-champs and being able to stake a claim to the top spot via head-to-head results, Fresno State - which beat SDSU and lost to Boise State - needs help in the form of a Nevada win over the Broncos. A two-way tie with SDSU would give the Bulldogs the top spot. The Aztecs need a win in Laramie (no sure thing) and an Air Force win in Fresno to create a two-way tie with Boise State. SDSU holds the head-to-head edge in that one.
A co-championship would be welcomed in both San Diego and Fresno. Both were picked to finish in the upper half of the conference, but neither was thought to have the guns to win the title. For the Bulldogs, it would be quite a statement moving forward, coming in their first year in the league. For the Aztecs, a feather in their cap on the way out the door.
For Boise State, a win over Nevada would give them a 10-2 record - the best in the Conference overall - and a loss by the Aztecs in Laramie would create a two-way tie with a Fresno State team they defeated. But oh, what might have been for these Broncos.
It turns out that a season-opening loss at Michigan State would not have prevented the Broncos from going to a BCS bowl game after all. Even with that defeat, if Boise State had been able to roll through the conference unscathed, they would have been rated in the Top 16 (probably Top 12) of the BCS standings, been the highest rated non-BCS conference champion and gained an automatic BCS berth. Instead, SDSU's shocking win on the blue turf in Boise tossed the Broncos out of the rankings and into a three-way battle for a spot in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas.
Boise State will still likely get that bid if they beat Nevada, based on overall record. But they were this close to something even better.
So now, when we look forward to the postseason, who will be going where?
We know Air Force is going to the Armed Forces Bowl, regardless of what happens in Fresno. That invite has been accepted already. It's also likely that Nevada will end up in the New Mexico Bowl, regardless of what happens against Boise State. The conference has five eligible teams for five bowl slots.
The three destinations in question are Las Vegas, San Diego's Poinsettia and the Sheraton Hawai‘i Bowl. No losers in that deal. Best bets right now? Boise State makes its last trip to Vegas, the Aztecs stay home in the Poinsettia, and Fresno State gets a nice trip to the Islands. A fitting way to cap off a crazy season - before welcoming in WAC champ Utah State and bowl-bound San Jose State for next season. Stay tuned.
Not too often does a game between two teams with a combined three wins generate high emotions on both sides, and a genuine sense of relief for the winner. Welcome to the 2012 Border War between Wyoming and Colorado State.
They play every year for the Bronze Boot, a traveling trophy with significance measured far beyond won-loss record. For the record, Wyoming won this year's game 45-31. Now both teams have two wins on the season. And Cowboy fans can exhale.
There were a lot of people - present company included - who thought Wyoming would be in the thick of the Mountain West championship race in 2012. Coming off a bowl season in 2011, and featuring outstanding young quarterback Brett Smith, the Cowboys were a trendy pick to give Boise State and newcomers Nevada and Fresno State a run for their money.
It hasn't turned out that way. A pair of concussions suffered by Smith - who was the MW Freshman of the Year last season and seemed poised to have an even bigger year this time around - effectively squelched the Cowboys hopes of having a really big year. As far as 2012, it became apparent very early that as Brett Smith goes, so go the Wyoming Cowboys.
After playing well in a loss at Texas in the opener, and locked in a tough battle with Toledo in week two, the Pokes saw the trigger man of their high powered spread offense leave the game with his first concussion mid-way through the fourth quarter. Smith had thrown for 339 yards and two scores before he was helped off the field, and the Pokes fell 34-31. Without Smith at all in game three, Wyoming dropped one to Cal Poly to fall to 0-3.
After beating Idaho and then resting up during a bye week, Smith returned for a highly anticipated match up at Nevada. He suffered a second concussion in what became an overtime loss to the Wolf Pack. After throwing three touchdown passes, the star QB's night ended early and the Pokes hopes of an upset fell short 35-28. Wyo fell to 1-4.
Smith was sidelined for the stomach-churning loss to Air Force. Then came a pair of blowout losses to a very good Fresno State team and even better Boise State squad, and suddenly, Wyoming was sitting there with a 1-7 record.
So the Border War game and all that came with it could not have come at a better time for the Pokes. Smith had returned against the Broncos but wasn't back to his pre-injury form quite yet. He showed early against CSU that he WAS finally 100% healthy, and having Smith at this best was plenty to help Christensen earn his fourth straight Bronze Boot. Wyoming was remarkable on third down, converting their first nine tries, including four "3rd-and-double digits." For the game they produced numbers most people expected them to produce all season: 228 yards rushing, 240 yards passing, 32 first downs, including an amazing 15-for-20 on third down. Smith threw for four scores and ran for another. It was a sparkling performance.
The bad news: It's too late to get bowl eligible again, and the Pokes have discovered the hard way that they probably didn't have a solid enough contingency plan going into the season in the case of an injury to their star quarterback. Consider it a lesson learned. They've begun playing talented back up Jason Thompson a series or two even in games that Smith is healthy, just to keep him ready. An experienced Thompson could be the remedy for what ails the Pokes offense when Smith (who has gotten more than one sideline lecture about the virtues of sliding or ducking out of bounds) misses time.
The good news: Smith will be back next season as a well healed and seasoned junior, when he and everyone in brown and gold will get a fresh start. Expect the Cowboys to be in the thick of the 2013 MW title chase.
Having reached the midpoint in the conference portion of the Mountain West football season, it's time to hand out the hardware, to date, in the following categories:
Offensive Player of the Year: Fresno State junior quarterback Derek Carr has been nothing short of masterful in directing the Bulldogs' newly-installed spread offense, ranking No. 2 (tied with West Virginia's Geno Smith) nationally in the category of touchdown passes (26), No. 5 in passing yards (2,766) and No. 7 in completions per game (27.9). Carr, who has completed 68.4 percent of his passes against just five interceptions (367 attempts), has posted two 400-yard games thus far, tying the MW record for most 400-yard games in a season. He has five games in which he has thrown three or more touchdown passes and has two of the four longest completions in the NCAA this season. His 97-yard scoring pass against Colorado on Sept. 15 is the longest in the FBS in 2012, while his 89-yard touchdown pass against New Mexico last week ranks fourth-longest.
Also considered: Nevada RB Stefphon Jefferson; New Mexico RB Kasey Carrier; AF RB Cody Getz
Defensive Player of the Year: One of 15 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's top defensive player, Fresno State senior safety Phillip Thomas leads the FBS in interceptions (seven) and total takeaways (eight). Thomas, who missed the 2011 season after suffering a severe leg injury, has returned three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns. His interception total, which ties the MW single-season record, is two more than any player in the FBS and the most by a Fresno State player in 27 years. He has also recovered a fumble, forced three fumbles, recorded seven tackles for loss and posted three sacks. His 56 tackles rank third among the Thorpe Award's 15 semifinalists and he is first in the categories of tackles for loss and sacks.
Also considered: Colorado State DE Lanston Tanyi; San Diego State CB Leon McFadden; Wyoming LB Ghaali Muhammad
Freshman of the Year: Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams, who leads the MW in receptions per game (7.2) and receiving yards per game (90.4), is on the verge of becoming the first freshman in Bulldog history to amass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. With 814 yards heading into Week 10, Adams has already set a Fresno State freshman record with nine total touchdowns and has caught a touchdown pass in four straight games. He needs one touchdown to become just the seventh receiver in school history to catch 10 or more scoring passes in a season.
Also considered: Colorado State LB Cory James; UNLV DE Lenny Jones and QB Nick Sherry
Special Teams Player of the Year: Colorado State punter Pete Kontodiakos, a candidate for the Ray Guy Award, presented annually to the nation's top punter, ranks first in the MW and fourth in the nation with an average of 47.4 yards. In the Rams' win over Hawai'i last week, Kontodiakos eclipsed the MW single-game record by averaging 61.8 yards per punt on four attempts, tops in the nation this season by a punter with at least three attempts in a game. He recorded punts of 72, 60, 59 and 56 yards, breaking the previous MW single-game record of 58.0, set by BYU's Matt Payne against San Diego State in 2002. Kontodiakos is on pace to break Colorado State's all-time single-season record of 46.1, established by Mike Deutsch in 1976. His 73-yard punt at Air Force earlier this season is tied for fourth-longest in the nation in 2012 and he has produced four of the five longest punts in the league this season (73, 72, 72 and 69 yards).
Also considered: KR Mike Edwards, Hawai‘i; PK Nolan Kohorst, UNLV
Coach of the Year: First-year New Mexico coach Bob Davie, who inherited a team that had won just three of its previous 40 games, has led the Lobos to a mark of 4-5 heading into their Week 10 meeting with UNLV. Despite being presented with a roster that featured fewer than 60 scholarship players in spring drills, Davie's accomplishments to date include ending the Lobos' 24-game road losing streak (18 of them coming against MW opponents); guiding the team to multiple home wins for the first time since 2008; leading the Lobos to their first winning streak since 2008 and first road winning streak since 2007; and surpassing former UNM coaches Rocky Long (San Diego State) and Dennis Franchione (Texas State) for wins by a Lobo coach in his first season.
It was affectionately labeled, "the Year of the Upset" in college football. There's no doubt that 2007 - a mere five seasons ago - was the most unusual season in college football history. What started with Appalachian State upsetting mighty Michigan in the Big House ended with the first and only two-loss national champion (LSU) in the modern era. In between there were 59 occasions where an unranked or lower ranked team knocked off a favorite. A record setting 13 unranked teams defeated top five ranked teams during the regular season. The second-ranked team in the polls alone lost SEVEN times during the regular season.
2007 was also the season that saw the Hawai'i Warriors upset Boise State to win the conference title and advance to a BCS bowl game. Yes, Hawai'i went to a BCS game just five years ago. Led by record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan, the Warriors under head coach June Jones posted a perfect 12-0 regular season, the first undefeated regular season in school history. It was the school's first (and so far, only) outright conference title. Losing to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl did little to dampen the enthusiasm around Jones and the Hawai'i program.
Exactly how long ago does that seem today? "Like an eternity," said a Hawai'i staffer. It's a place the Warrior program longs to return to.
In 2007, Norm Chow, the renowned offensive coordinator who was part of national title teams at BYU and USC, was in his final season as the offensive coordinator of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. The Titans went 10-6 and made the AFC playoffs that season, but it was largely due to an excellent defense, with the offense ranking 21st overall. Chow left the NFL after that season and joined Rick Neuheisel's staff at UCLA before he eventually returned home - to his alma mater, Utah - to coach on Kyle Whittingham's staff as the Utes entered the Pac 12 in 2011.
Meanwhile, Jones left Hawai'i to take over at SMU after the 2008 season. At the time, one of the leading candidates to replace him was supposed to be Norm Chow. Except that Chow - who had interviewed for other head jobs and had already turned down the head job at the University of Kentucky - reportedly did not pursue the Hawai'i gig at the time. Instead, he opted to stay at UCLA for another season before moving back to the mountains. Along with playing his college ball at Utah, Chow first made a name for himself as an assistant coach at BYU. But the fact remained that Chow was a Hawaii native, and many people felt it was meant to be that the first head coaching gig for the venerable long time assistant would be back on the island. Those people were right.
It finally happened just before Christmas 2011. After nearly 40 years as an assistant coach, Chow accepted the opportunity to replace Greg McMackin and become the first Asian-American head coach of a major college football program - in a move that coincided with Hawai'i's move to the Mountain West Conference.
The good Chow inherited: A program that had been to seven bowl games the previous 10 seasons and posted three double-digit win seasons. The bad: A program that had losing seasons in two of the past three years. The difficult: Un-installing the Warriors well known and deeply rooted "run and shoot" offense and inserting Chow's tried and true pro-style system. It was a more dramatic change than most people would think.
"Ya, it was tough. We didn't have any tight ends or fullbacks on the roster. The receivers were all smaller, quicker guys, not pro set guys. We had to move some players over from linebacker and things like that," said former Warrior defensive lineman and current Hawai'i linebackers coach Tony Tuioti, who was the only holdover from McMakin's staff. "But it's going to be fine. Just need some time."
The warm and fuzzy feeling around the time of Chow's hiring is something that remains in place for these Warriors, whose fan base seems willing to give their native son a pass for this season, even after Hawai'i fell for the fifth straight time, losing to Colorado State 42-27 on Saturday. Confidence that Chow can return Hawai'i to the upper echelon of college football seems genuine. Aside from the normal grumbling about who's starting at QB - and every team that struggles hears that from the outside - the Warrior fan base remains firmly in behind their new coach.
We remember where Hawai'i was five seasons ago. The question now is where can the program be five years from now?
Things look a lot like most people thought they'd look in the Mountain West as we squeeze past the halfway point of the season. Pre-season favorite Boise State looks like the team to beat...but the race for second place? Seems more wide open than ever.
Make no mistake, that second place spot could be quite valuable by the time the final BCS standings are announced on December 2nd. As mentioned last week, Boise State's chances of gaining an automatic BCS bid remain strong, even if the talking heads on the four-letter network don't think so. The Broncos moved up just one spot to #21 in the most recent BCS Standings (even after three teams - including Big East member Cincinnati - ranked just ahead of them lost...go figure) but the prospects for eight more of the teams that stand between the Broncos and the coveted #12 spot in the final standings falling (several more than once) remain very good. And if the less than imposing Big East leaders, Rutgers and Louisville both stumble, all the Broncos have to do is reach #16 to get an automatic bid.
So if Boise State wins out, they have a great shot at getting into the BCS.
If that happens, then the league's second place team would get that nice trip to Las Vegas to serve as host for the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas. Not too shabby.
Who will it be? Everyone's smart money was on Nevada - then the Wolf Pack blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead and got ambushed by San Diego State in OT at home on Saturday night. Now Nevada has a conference loss (3-1 in MW play) and still has to play Boise State when they host the Broncos on December 1st. Meanwhile, the Aztecs at 3-1 in conference play also must play at Boise State as well as traveling to Air Force.
What about the Falcons? They found some way to overcome a record-setting 338 rushing yards from New Mexico's Kasey Carrier to hold off Bob Davie's Lobos and also move to 3-1 in conference play. Air Force hosts Nevada this week and still has trips to San Diego State and Fresno State on their flight plan, but they don't play Boise State this season.
Which brings us to Fresno State. The Bulldogs looked powerful in routing Wyoming on Saturday to join the group at 3-1 in the MW, and they've already beaten the Aztecs. Derek Carr and company can't look past New Mexico this weekend in Albuquerque, and they still have Air Force at home as well. That number two spot in the final standings could very well come down to the Fresno State at Nevada game on November 10th.
Including Las Vegas, the Mountain West has some excellent bowl destinations - like San Diego and Honolulu. There will be no "losers" when it comes time to go bowling. If Boise State is able to crack the BCS and give the MW an addition bowl spot, then six MW teams could get a post-season shot. Soon we could be trying to identify which conference teams are most likely to join the five we've already mentioned as a post-season participant. Keep this in mind: At 4-4, New Mexico - as downtrodden as a program could be the past few years - needs three wins in its final five games to get bowl eligible (the Lobos play 13 games this season so they need to win seven games.) Those final five games include dates at Colorado State and UNLV, as well as a home game with Wyoming.
Like we said last week, stay tuned. It's only going to get better.
It's the time of year when we start hearing that dirty little three letter word about a dozen times a day. Already sick of it? Take heart. The countdown has begun to the glorious and timely demise of the BCS following next season. But for now, we're still stuck with the cartel and its annual miscarriages of college football justice. It's just a matter of weeks until some team somewhere gets the shaft from the BCS. The good news? It really CAN'T be a Mountain West team(s) this time. The MW champ will either be in or out, automatically.
A season ago, a Boise State team ranked #7 in the country was bypassed in favor of teams ranked in the mid teens. The Broncos were just one of four top 10 teams to get passed over. (In fairness to the cartel, one of those teams was SEC member Arkansas, who was not eligible because two other SEC teams - Alabama and LSU - were playing in the title game.) This season, following a narrow, season-opening loss at Michigan State, the Broncos were written off for dead in terms of being this year's BCS buster. But is that still the case after the first week of October?
Maybe not. The first BCS standings have the Broncos at #22 - a full 10 spots below where they need to end up to qualify for a big bowl game. But they currently meet the criteria of being the highest ranked non-automatic-qualifying BCS team in the poll, and with half the season left to play, the chance to inch their way up the poll those 10 precious spots over the next month and a half seems to be reasonable.
The Broncos' convincing win over Fresno State - done the old fashioned way with a powerful running game and a stout defense - has placed Boise State back in the picture. The Bulldogs appeared to be a serious road block, but instead, the Broncos defense, led by Demarcus Lawrence , manhandled FS. It was the fourth straight game an opponent has failed to score a point in the first half against the Broncos defense.
Meanwhile, running backs D.J. Harper and Jay Ajayi were powering through what had previously been one of the tougher defenses around. Fresno State entered the game leading the country in turnover margin but walked off the blue turf holding nothing but regret.
So now Boise State's goal of winning their first Mountain West championship appears well within reach. There's still a big game with Nevada on December 1st - a game that will close the regular season, as well as five other league games with a least limited upset potential (remember the trip to New Mexico a couple of weeks ago?) If BSU does win the MW title, and finishes #12 or higher in the final BCS poll, they will automatically qualify for a BCS game. No bias or poll politics could keep them out.
According to the published BCS selection criteria: "The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, or the Western Athletic Conference will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or, if ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls."
The criteria also states: "No more than one such team from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference shall earn an automatic berth in any year."
With WAC member Louisiana Tech's loss to Texas A&M, no other potential non-AQ BCS conference champ-to-be (outside of maybe Ohio) appears to have a legit shot at the BCS. What about the teams ranked ahead of 5-1 Boise State? It stands to reason that three Big East teams (Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati) will not all win the rest of their games, since they have to play each other. At least two of them will lose at some point, and probably all three (meaning the MW champ could finish ranked ahead of the Big East champ yet again. In that case, the Broncos would only need to reach #16 in the final BCS poll...)
It also stands to reason that 5-1 Texas A&M will not stay ranked ahead of the Broncos after they're finished going through the SEC gauntlet, and Texas Tech from the Big 12 still has several tough games in front of them. Stanford has two losses and still has to face Oregon and Oregon State. Mississippi State will drop at least three games before the season ends for the same reason as A&M.
So that's seven slots you can project the Broncos climbing without any real upsets occurring...again, assuming Boise State wins out and claims the MW title. (That remains a big assumption.) The chances of other surprises happening - in the form of Top 25 upsets - are about the same as the chances of snow falling in Laramie in October.
So ironically, in what is the second-to-last season of the BCS cartel, the conference they've worked so hard to keep out could be holding a defacto conference title game on December 1st in Reno with an automatic BCS bid on the line. Will the two teams play another epic as they did in 2010, when the Broncos chances at going to the BCS - even the BCS TITLE game - went wide right...and then wide left...in a heart wrenching overtime loss to Colin Kapernick and the Wolf Pack? It could be the kind of high quality drama that leagues with those automatic bids only wish they could have.
If the risk/reward facet of Robbie Rouse's football future had been based solely on first impression, Rick Jackson might have become the first head coach to give himself the boot.
Literally. Repeatedly. Unceasingly.
Instead, Jackson, as with any football coach worth the weight of the whistle around his neck, opted to rely on a scouting report. It came from his former defensive coordinator, who while overseeing a P.E. class at Madison High in San Diego took note of a newly-arrived freshman who appeared to loom slightly larger than a lawn gnome and bore roughly the bulk of his backpack.
"Robbie didn't play with us as a freshman, because that was a time when freshmen were still allowed to play Pop Warner," said Jackson, who also serves as the school's athletic director. "But after hearing what my defensive coordinator had told me about him, I just randomly called Robbie into my office one day to talk to him.
"I knew he had been a dynamo in youth football, but I'm sure there had also been people throughout his life who told him he couldn't do certain things because of his size. That only served to fuel the fire. He's probably the most competitive kid I've ever coached."
If Rouse's measurables redefined the meaning of meager, his athletic ability underscored the resolve of the underdog. Despite being 5-3 and weighing 130 pounds, he was fast, he was fiery and elusive as a whisper on the wind. He would play anything, and he played it to beat you, be it on a football field, a baseball diamond, a tartan track or a tennis court.
Although relegated to Madison's junior varsity team as a sophomore, Rouse proceeded to run roughshod through the school's record books in his final two seasons. After rushing for 2,055 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, he finished ninth in California as a senior with 2,390 yards while scoring 39 touchdowns. Rarely playing in the second half of games, he averaged a staggering 12.92 yards per carry, the best per carry average of any of California's top 50 backs. He ranked eighth in the state with an average of 199.2 yards per game and topped the 200-yard mark in eight of his final 10 games.
With the second-guessers sufficiently silenced, Rouse drew the interest of former Fresno State coach Pat Hill, who knew well enough not to tarry over the "small" stuff. With a scholarship in hand and having acquired the moniker "Mighty Mouse," Rouse was on his way to play big-time college football. And at Fresno State, the mouse was about to bully his way into Bulldog lore.
"When I first got on campus, we had some great running backs like Ryan Mathews (a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers) and Anthony Harding (a free-agent signee later released by Green Bay), and I was just hoping to come in and get some playing time and help the team win games," Rouse said. "I was fortunate enough to get a chance to play. I always worked hard during the offseason, and here we are today."
"Here" being 3,868 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns later. "Here" being Rouse's final run at Fresno State, where six games into his senior season he ranks 14th in the nation in rushing (118.5 yards per game) and will exit as the Bulldogs' all-time leading rusher, having eclipsed the school record in a 69-14 rout of Colorado in Week 3. Rouse, who erased the mark of 3,473 yards held by Ron Rivers (1991-93), did so in high style, scoring on school record-tying 94-yard run in a game in which he scored four touchdowns --- in the first half.
"Coming into the season, everybody kept asking me, "When are you going to break it? When are you going to break the record?" said Rouse, who entered the team's inaugural season in the Mountain West 317 yards shy of breaking Rivers' record. "I just had to stay focused on helping the team win. It was tough at times, but once I finished that (94-yard touchdown run) and broke the record, it was kind of a relief. At the same time, it was really a great feeling."
And further confirmation that being diminutive need not be linked to being discouraged.
"When I'm out on the field, I feel like I'm 6-2 until I look at the film and see the size difference," said Rouse, who is listed at 5-7, 190. "But when I'm out there, I feel bigger than anybody. I just love the game and I play with a lot of passion. I've always been a competitor and I like to compete at the highest level. I know (breaking the record) is looked at as a big accomplishment, but I'm always going to keep moving forward and give my team everything I've got."
That approach was particularly evident during the offseason, when after 15 seasons Fresno State parted ways with Hill and hired Tim DeRuyter, leaving Rouse to spend his final season under the direction of a new staff. Rather than grumble, however, Rouse encouraged teammates to embrace the transition, throwing his support squarely behind DeRuyter even though the former Air Force and Texas A&M defensive coordinator had never been a head coach.
"When I first met with the team back in December, I thought Robbie was an extremely high-character young man," DeRuyter said. "I just got a great sense from him that even though Coach Hill and his staff had recruited him he was willing to go all-in with this new era of Bulldog football. I really appreciated that. He's got such respect from our entire team, our coaching staff and our administration just because of the way he conducts himself. For someone like him to step up and say, "Guys, this is the new direction we're going," was huge in our transition.
"He's a guy that has an unbelievable heart. He's probably as hard of a worker as anyone we have on our team. He's got tremendous vision, balance and strength and it just happens to be packaged in a 5-foot-6 frame. He's a guy who doesn't mind mixing it up. He doesn't mind running between the tackles and he can make guys miss in space. It's amazing to see what someone with those kind of measurables can do.
"He runs like he's got a chip on his shoulder, like people have been telling him his whole life that he's too small. He's set out to prove everybody wrong and he's done a great job of doing it."
But time grows short, and Rouse, who posted his fifth 100-yard rushing game this season and the 17th of his career with 124 yards in Saturday's 28-7 win at Colorado State (he also caught a career-high nine passes), is acutely aware of the ticking of the clock. With the final season of his college career having reached the midway point, he'd like nothing more than to turn back time, to stave off that day when he'll ultimately bid farewell to Fresno State.
"Every season means a lot, but this one is special because I know these are going to be my last games as a Bulldog," he said. "You're always going to remember your first three years, but it's always your senior year that you look back on. I'll always remember walking on campus as a freshman, and now I'm already going into my (seventh) game as a senior.
"I've played football since the age of 6, so it was always a dream of mine to do what I've done and to be able to play as long as I could. There have always adjustments along the way, going from flag football to Mighty Mites, from Pop Warner to high school and from high school to college. I've just always found a way to adapt to that next level and adjust my game.
"But all I really wanted was the chance to play Division I football. Being smaller, who knows if any other Division I schools are going to be interested in you? But Coach Hill and his staff gave me that opportunity. All I've done is tried to make the most of it and help my team win."
What we're watching unfold in the Mountain West apparently has not yet caught the attention of NFL. Not a single pro scout bothered to show up to see Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr - or standout tailback Robbie Rouse for that matter - perform on a cold, raw Saturday evening in Fort Collins. Perhaps the weather scared them away.
Or maybe they'd already seen what they needed to see? A week earlier in the much more comfortable surroundings of Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Carr and his Fresno State teammates lit up the scoreboard and stamped themselves MW title contenders when they outgunned San Diego State 52-40 behind Carr's 536 yards and five touchdown passes. After throwing four more TD passes in a workman-like 28-7 win over Colorado State, Carr now has 18 scoring strikes on the year. Midway through his junior year, the pre-season MW Offensive Player of the Year is walking the walk: He's averaging more than 300 yards passing per game, has completed 68.5% of his throws and has a QB efficiency rating of 157.3.
Is the NFL taking notice? They've seen this before. Derek's older brother David caught their attention back in 2001 when he was the best quarterback in the country. As a senior, David became just the sixth QB in NCAA history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in a single season on his way to winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That production and immense physical skill helped David become the first pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Fresno State has retired his jersey.
Tough cleats to fill, to be sure. So far, Derek has looked up to the task. He has impressed his coaches, that's for sure.
"I'm biased," said Fresno State secondary coach Tim McDonald, a former six-time NFL All-Pro safety for the San Francisco 49ers. "But I think Derek is better than David. He's not as big - as thick - but he's got better feet and that's really important in the game now."
Coming out of high school in Bakersfield, Derek was recruited by heavyweights like LSU, Texas Tech, USC, Arizona, Utah, Alabama, Notre Dame and Cal. He chose Fresno State because of his connection with David, whom he lists as his favorite athlete. He's also followed his brother's footsteps and gotten married while still in school - and has continued to produce in the classroom, where he's earned Academic All-Conference honors.
So far, the NFL is apparently lukewarm on Derek. The two brothers are different physically. David was more powerfully built - he excelled in the weight room as well as the field. Derek, generously listed at 6"3" (same height as David) is the more elusive runner (he's 20 pounds or so lighter) who can stand and deliver in the pocket but who will also run the zone-read option on occasion. While David is now serving as Eli Manning's back-up with the New York Giants, Derek is not listed in the top ten of anyone's list of top NFL draft prospects. At this point, it seems like almost everyone is expecting him to return to FSU for his senior season, which should greatly improve his NFL draft stock. (You wonder if Derek has ever had the chance to ask Eli what advice he would give a guy about trying to follow in the footsteps of a famous older brother...?)
There is no question that Derek has an NFL arm. He's got a short, quick, "flick of the wrist" release and the arm strength to throw the long out pattern. He's already mastered the new spread offense brought in by new Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter. If he continues at his current pace - and he and his teammates face perhaps their toughest test of the season when the Bulldogs confront a salty Boise State defense this Saturday - he could approach that hallowed "40 TD/4,000 yards" ground by season's end. Wonder if the NFL will decide to take notice his year, or wait until he is a senior. If they wait, Carr his junior season may just be a warm-up for a Heisman campaign in 2013 that could lead to being a top pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
A lot of people smirked when Bob Davie was named the new football coach at New Mexico last December. The former Notre Dame Head coach had been a TV broadcaster for the better part of the last decade. Hadn't tried to recruit a single athlete in all that time. Now he was returning to the sidelines and walking into a situation that had been less than fruitful for his predecessor. He was wading hip deep into a serious rebuilding gig that many thought was more than he could handle.
Five games into his tenure, there's no way to know how this second go 'round running a program will turn out for Davie, but the early returns are very promising. At 2-3, New Mexico has already equaled the last two season's combined win total. UNM also ended a 24-game road losing streak when it beat rival New Mexico State, and followed that up with a near miss against powerful Boise State, a game that was not decided until the Lobo's final play.
Entering his first season in Albuquerque, Davie decided the best way to move his program forward was to look backwards and dust off an old playbook. He brought back the old fashioned triple option offense. Not exactly the new fangled "spread" version where they actually pass the ball a lot. No, this is much more like the old Oklahoma version (other than running out of the shotgun much of the time) where passing the ball is for cowards. Against Boise State, New Mexico completed seven passes in the first half for a paltry 44 yards. They trailed 25-0 at intermission. In the second half, they stuck exclusively to the ground game and outscored the Broncos 29-7. They didn't attempt a single forward pass in the second half until their final play, and it was knocked away, incomplete. Somewhere, Woody Hayes was smiling. Yes, Davie wants his team to throw it better and be more balanced. All coaches SAY they do. Then again, you know what Woody said: "When you pass the ball, three things can happen, and two of them are bad..."
Speaking of bad things that can happen, Broncos head coach Chris Petersen watched his team snag three New Mexico fumbles in the first half, before giving back a pair in the second.
"We slowed them down in the first half but we also had those turnovers," Petersen said. "We capitalized with offensive football and that was little nerve wracking because if they get you out of the gap and if you don't capitalize well, you're going to have issues and that's what happened."
Running the triple option offense has been just what the doctor ordered for numerous programs in situations similar to New Mexico's over the years. After taking over a floundering Colorado program from Chuck Fairbanks in 1982 and enduring three miserable seasons, Coach Bill McCartney shifted to the wishbone in 1985 and rode it all the way to a share of the national championship in 1990. Other programs that rarely compete for the very best recruits, like the service academies, have used it for decades, with the express intention of monopolizing the ball, resting their defense, shortening the game, and giving their team a chance to win games late. This formula very nearly resulted in one of the biggest upsets in New Mexico football history. It's already resulted in rebuilt sprits in Albuquerque.
"The second half shows you what this can be," Davie told reporters after the Boise State game. "The atmosphere in the stadium, to be quite honest, was electric. You could feel it. And when that atmosphere is electric and we play decent to good football, you can see the results of that. It looked like a different team."
While it might (or might not) be a stretch for Davie's team to reach six wins and go bowling this season, it won't be a shock if they pick up a couple more W's before his "rookie" year - Part II - is complete. As for the future, who knows? But for now, welcome Bob Davie.
As the long, drawn out saga of conference realignment has unfolded over the past three years, the national perception has been that the Mountain West has suffered too many defections to remain one of the nation's top football conferences. Boise State sidestepping into the Big East next season is supposed to be another blow.
Umm ... maybe not. Time to get familiar with the Utah State Aggies.
These Aggies will be one of two newcomers to the MW next year, along with the San Jose State Spartans. (The Spartans announced their intentions to be a MW title contender this past week by knocking off a team they'll be replacing, San Diego State.)
Meanwhile, in Fort Collins, the Aggies were also serving notice on their new conference, beating Colorado State 31-19. Known nationally for being team "near miss" over the past couple of seasons, these Aggies have learned how to close games - a last second missed field goal against two-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin that cost them a win in week three notwithstanding. The week after the Rams toppled their in-state rival from the Pac 12, Colorado, the Aggies did the same to their in-state Pac 12 rival, beating Utah in overtime. (FYI: Colorado is 1-0 in Pac 12 play and 0-2 against the MW ... ). After the 16-14 defeat in Madison the following week, it would have been understandable if there was a hangover when USU traveled to Fort Collins. That it didn't turn out that way is a sign of growth for the program. They've now won four of their last five road games.
The loss in Madison was the second time in two seasons that a perennial power walked off its home field totally relieved to have escaped Utah State. In 2011, defending national champion Auburn was nearly knocked off in their season opener before pulling out a 42-38 nail biter. Those Aggies didn't respond as well as this year's version. Before last season was over, USU had played in 10 games decided by one score, going 5-5 (including dropping their first four games) before losing by a single point to Ohio in their bowl game.
The 2012 Aggies have designs on a conference title in the final year of football for that league. Their chances look good. They've proven to be fast starters, not allowing a first half touchdown through the first four games and outscoring their opponents 51-0 in the first quarter this season. Dual threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton has led the way, and standout tailback Kerwynn Williams - who dashed for a game high 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns against CSU - can produce a big play every time he touches the ball.
So the question is, can these Aggies fill the sizeable cleats of Boise State when the Broncos depart the conference? After watching USU play three times early this season, and noting the amount of young talent on their roster, it's tough to say they can't. Of course we'll find out more soon enough. A meeting with rejuvenated UNLV comes up this week in what will be their second and final MW preview. USU also tangles with rival BYU the first week of October. The Broncos and Cougars fought it out in a tight defensive struggle that Boise State captured by a single point this past week.
"This is a big, big victory," USU head coach Gary Andersen said after the CSU game. "I don't know how many times I've come here, but I know I'm not .500 when I've come here."
Looking ahead to his future days in the MW, Andersen smiled.
"We're very excited about the opportunity to play in the Mountain West," he said. "This is a hard place to play. It's always a tough-minded, physical football team. The kids executed and made some big plays when they had to make big plays, especially when Colorado State answered there and we were able to answer right back."
No one questions the fact that all the teams in the new-look MW will have to collectively step up to keep the conference among the nation's best. This year's newcomers, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawai'i look like they will do their part. Colorado State, New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV all seem to be on the uptick, and Air Force remains Air Force. Add in San Jose State and Utah State in 2013, and tangling with a team from MW isn't going to be any easier than it's been in recent years.
There is one very good thing about pre-season prognostications: They have absolutely no bearing on actual championship races. Pre-season polls certainly do afford some team's better starting positions than others even before a single play's been run. But conference champions? Those are determined on the field.
Two or three games do not tell the entire story of a team or what kind of season they'll have. There will be teams that improve and teams that regress. Still, after three weeks of games, it's fair to evaluate to some degree. The verdict after week three: This league might not turn out exactly like we thought.
The national media handed Boise State the Mountain West title back in June, despite heavy losses to graduation. These pundits paid no attention to the newcomers in the conference, nor the teams that would be bringing back more seasoned and experienced squads. Guess what? When the league title chase kicks off this week, the championship IS up for grabs. This is not a one horse race.
Make no mistake - Boise State remains the team to beat, even after the NFL gobbled up much of their premier talent. The Broncos' season-opening loss at Michigan State was certainly not one-sided, and a bounce-back win over Miami of Ohio has put BSU on a collision course with BYU in a battle of almost-ranked teams this week. Can Boise State keep it up? Can BYU get up off the emotional mat?
No MW teams are unbeaten at this point, but that does not mean they haven't been impressive. The list of strong starts begins not in Boise, but in Fresno, where the Bulldogs played powerful Oregon tough, before ransacking another Pac 12 member, Colorado 69-14 (and it could have been a lot worse.) Tailback Robbie Rouse will only play one season in the MW, but the Fresno State senior could still etch his name in the MW record book somehow some way before this season is over. He became the school's all-time rushing leader against CU on just nine carries. And while it's too early to name an all-MW quarterback for the season, Derek Carr's name will be on the ballot. He carved up the Buffs for five TD throws ... in the first half. The Fresno defense under new head coach Tim DeRuyter looks like a fast and aggressive ball-hawking unit. The Bulldogs begin league play in two weeks with San Diego State before a trip to Fort Collins ... and THEN ... THE trip to Boise State on October 13.
Nevada whipped a Cal team in week one that almost knocked off Ohio State in week three, so the Wolf Pack cannot be overlooked, either. It will be mid-November before Nevada and Fresno State face off, and the much anticipated rematch of the Broncos and Wolf Pack happens on December 1. And while no one thought Air Force would be in any title conversations this season, the Falcons will have a say in this thing, if you believe what you saw in Ann Arbor two Saturday's ago. Due to the scheduling rotation in the MW, AFA does not play Boise State this season, but hosts Nevada on October 26th and meets Fresno State the last Saturday in November.
Who doesn't have things going their way so far? It's easily Wyoming, who many of us thought would be a contender in the league race (and could still be of course.) The Pokes have lost a couple of winnable home games after playing pretty well in an opening loss at Texas. If QB Brett Smith is out for any length of time, Wyoming could be digging out of a hole when league play starts. But don't bury Dave Christensen's troops just yet.
The Mountain West doesn't have an official Championship game. Instead, there are about six of them sprinkled throughout the schedule.
No matter which team you're a fan of across the nation, you'd be a-okay with having Troy Calhoun coach that football team.
This is supposed to be a rebuilding year for Calhoun's Air Force Falcons. They have a scant eight returning starters, have to replace all their top playmakers, and on paper at least, figure to finish in the lower half of the Mountain West standings. Yet no team personifies the "the games aren't played on paper" saying better than Air Force.
Even after blowing out Idaho State in their opener, the pundits thought these fresh faced Falcons were supposed to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan and get blown out by the powerful Wolverines in week two. On paper (and in pre-season magazines) Michigan would appear to have a great shot to win the Legends Division of the Big Ten and make it to a second straight BCS game. Yet there they were in week two, locked in a heated battle with rebuilding Air Force that went right down to the wire in the Big House.
However you look at these things, Air Force defies categorization. "Rebuilding" for a team that does not give athletic scholarships is hard to define. Air Force lost a quarterback that had started for four years, their second all-time leading rusher and three of the top four tacklers from last season. Yet fans know very little ahead of time about the players in line to step up as replacements, so there can be equal parts concern and excitement in these kinds of years. It appears after the first two weeks of the season that there is plenty of reason for excitement about this set of newbies.
Calhoun is the constant, and therefore the primary reason for consistency in the face of roster turnover. He's won almost two-thirds of his games as AFA's head coach, counting his "rebuilding" seasons. He's done it without bending or worrying about what's on paper.
An example: I'll be honest. I personally am not in favor of Calhoun's move to the "no huddle" offense. It makes no sense to me. I love option football, and by definition, the triple option offense is designed for ball (and clock) control. It's an equalizer. Three and four yards at a time. Keep the clock moving. Shorten the game. Keep the more talented team's offense on the sidelines. Keep your own under-talented defense well rested. The no-huddle offense creates just the opposite situation, forcing your defense to play a lot more snaps.
So why would a coach whose teams run the option better than anyone in America, and who personify the underdog role, turn his nose up at option tradition? I was befuddled by the move when Calhoun went to it last season. It didn't always work - like against Navy when the Middies' kept the ball for more than 40 minutes and ran an astounding 105 offensive plays. The worn out Air Force defense crumbled in the fourth quarter and gave back an 18-point lead. Yet it DID work. Somehow, the Falcon's won in overtime and captured the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy again. And there they were in their fifth straight bowl game at the end of the season.
This year in Ann Arbor, Calhoun continued against the grain again and stayed with the no-huddle against the bigger, more talented Wolverines. And it worked. Even running plays "at a dizzying pace," Air Force actually held the ball almost 12 minutes longer than Michigan, and trailed by just four at halftime despite Denard Robinson's heroics. (UM's magical signal caller racked up more than 420 yards of total offense and his team needed every one of them.) The Falcons remained in the game until a fourth down pass was batted down with under a minute and a half left to play.
On paper, this game should have been lopsided, and on paper, Calhoun's move to the no-huddle makes no sense. Yet his unconventional approach continues to pay dividends. Coming off the near miss at Michigan, Air Force now has to be considered a contender for the MW title once again, and will certainly NOT be a push-over at any point during this "rebuilding" season.
It won't be remembered as any sort of masterpiece. In fact, there were long stretches of just plain bad football. But Colorado State's season opening 22-17 win over in-state rival Colorado - the first win for new CSU head coach Jim McElwain - will always have a special place in the hearts of Ram fans. It will forever be a moment that provided the program and its supporters with a significant boost - hope for the future - assuming that future unfolds as CSU plans it to.
"Coach Mac" (and the irony here is that former Colorado coach Bill McCartney, who was in the press box for the game, has always been 'Coach Mac' in these parts...) was plucked off the Alabama coaching staff to bring back the school's glory days of former head coach Sonny Lubick. The two men are friends from their days in Montana. They share many of the same experiences and values. Lubick has whole heartedly endorsed McElwain and acts as a confidant. It's all in place. It's now up to Coach Mac to deliver.
He seems to be well aware of the task in front of him. McElwain tweeted (something I don't think Sonny would have ever considered doing) the day before the game that it was "time to change how people see us." It worked exactly that way in the eyes of at least one prominent observer.
"I don't want to disrespect (former) Coach (Steve) Fairchild," said CU coach Jon Embree, "but it just seems like they believe more this year."
That post-game quote should be the single biggest take away from this game. The Rams seemed to play harder. They were more cohesive. With a lead late in the game, they didn't passively sit on the ball and try to run out the clock as they've done in past games against the Buffs. They were the aggressors all the way through the second half. That was a change.
This is not a great CSU team by any stretch. They do have a shot at a six-win season and a bowl game, which would make this rebuilding year a tremendous success. They are not yet close to the level of Lubick's teams of the late 1990's. But it appears that McElwain has those blueprints and is working off them.
Lubick's teams had two things: A strong sense of "family" within the program, and an ability to capture the underdog mentality and ride it for all it was worth. Lubick always deflected the credit to his players, which players appreciate. He took the blame for things that went wrong, which players appreciate even more. McElwain seems to be doing the same. After the big first win, he was quick to credit players.
"I'm excited for our kids. They deserved it. Our guys deserved to know what it is to be successful because of the effort they put in."
Don't underestimate the importance of creating a bond with your college-aged players. Fairchild, who knows as much about football as any coach anywhere, was never able to do that. There always seemed to be a certain amount of disconnect. And unlike his predecessor, McElwain seems to be at least comfortable dealing with the media (and obviously the social media as well.) Part of Lubick's enduring legacy is due to his folksy handling of the media. It's part of the job - and does not have to be a difficult part.
There is plenty of difficult stuff still ahead. As McElwain said after the game, "this is just one win. It means we could go 12-0 or 1-11. We still have a lot of work to do."
1. Boise State has opted to proceed with football despite forecasts of impending doom. The Broncos lost a combined 15 players on offense and defense, but still have more depth and experience than any team in the league. Outscoring opponents by an average of 25.5 points per game --- as Boise State did in 2011 --- affords one the option of emptying the bench with a fair degree of regularity. Many Bronco reserves have played in more games than other MW teams' starters.
2. Contrary to popular opinion, the name of the MW Preseason Offensive Player of the Year is Derek Carr. His brother, David, also played quarterback at Fresno State and was a No. 1 draft pick of the Houston Texans --- 10 years ago. Derek lists David as his favorite athlete, but would likely prefer his brother alter his name to Otis.
3. The next time New Mexico coach Bob Davie sugar-coats anything will be the same time Nick Saban admits he suffers from emotional insecurity. Unlike a majority of his brethren, who paint in pastels to mask a program's shortcomings, Davie doesn't dabble in deception. He acknowledges the problems at hand, lays them open for all to see and refuses to recant remarks that some might perceive as an affront to the program. Honesty will get you everywhere.
4. The Mountain West and Conference USA discussed an alliance, as did the Big Ten and Pac-12. As of July 25, both are off the table.
5. I now know why Colorado State's Chris Nwoke rushed for 1,130 yards despite starting just five games last season. Having seen him up close, you would have a better chance of getting your arms around an upright freezer.
6. San Diego State cornerback Leon McFadden may have been named the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, but his coach, Rocky Long, wasted little time putting things into perspective: "Leon is a good player, but he's not as good as he can be. The better he gets the more money he'll make."
7. The same people who concluded that the addition of Fresno State, Hawai‘i and Nevada would reduce the Mountain West were the same people who voted the Wolf Pack and Bulldogs No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the preseason media poll.
8. I've never met Nevada tight end Zach Sudfeld, but he's already the Comeback Player of the Year. Sudfeld, who has been besieged by injuries throughout his career, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his leg in last year's season opener at Oregon. Despite being told by coach Chris Ault that he had nothing to prove by returning this season, the 6-foot-7, 255-pound Sudfeld merely redoubled his resolve and had an outstanding spring. He has two career catches for 11 yards. "He will be a force in our offense," Ault said. "Fans of this program and fans throughout the community are really pulling for Zach Sudfeld."
9. Air Force senior Parker Herrington, a preseason all-conference pick, became just the second kicker to ever represent a Mountain West institution at media days. Said Falcons coach Troy Calhoun: "When I told him he was coming along, he said, 'Are you sure you want to send a kicker out there?' "
10. The talk is over, the cameras are packed and 2012 MW Football Media Day is done. Pass the pigskin. ASAP.
The "watch" lists are out, the preseason hype is upon us and preparations for a run at the MW title will soon begin in earnest, with fall camps opening the first week of August. In the interim, here's my take on the 2012 Preseason All-MW team, as well as a predicted order of finish among the league's 10 teams. Beg to differ? You can also leave a comment on my blog, email me at Mick@TheMWC.com, or send me a message on Twitter @MWCMick.
Quarterback: Derek Carr, Jr., Fresno State
Carr, named to the 2012 Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award Watch List, ranked 15th in the nation in passing yards (3,544) last season, the most ever by a Fresno State sophomore.
Running back: Robbie Rouse, Sr., Fresno State; D.J. Harper, Sr., Boise State
Rouse, a Maxwell Award candidate, ranked seventh in the nation in rushing yards (1,549) last season, while Harper, who will be operating behind the best offensive line in the league, averaged nearly five yards per carry.
Wide receiver: Matt Miller, So., Boise State; Colin Lockett, Jr., San Diego State
As a freshman last season, Miller, a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, averaged 4.77 receptions per game, the second-highest total in the league. Lockett, a former cornerback who was pressed into action on offense last season due to a rash of injuries at wide receiver, led the Aztecs in receptions (58), receiving yards (970) and touchdown catches (eight).
Tight end: Gavin Escobar, Jr., San Diego State
There are some quality tight ends in the MW, but Escobar gets the nod. A first-team All-MW selection as a sophomore, he had 51 catches for 781 yards and seven TDs in 2011.
Offensive line: Joe Kellogg, Sr., Boise State; Nick Carlson, Sr., Wyoming; Alec Johnson, Sr., San Diego State; Chris Barker, Sr., Nevada; Weston Richburg, Jr., Colorado State
Kellogg is a three-year starter on an offense that has ranked in the top five nationally in scoring each of the last three seasons. Carlson, Johnson and Richburg have all been named to the 2012 Rimington Trophy Watch List, while Barker is an Outland Trophy candidate.
Defensive line: Mike Atkinson, Sr., Boise State; Paipai Falemalu, Sr., Hawai‘i; Reggie Ellis, Sr., New Mexico; Mike Purcell, Sr., Wyoming
Atkinson was a major contributor to a Bronco defense that ranked 12th-nationally in scoring defense (18.69) last season, while Falemalu (50 tackles) tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Twenty-five percent of Ellis' total tackles in 2011 were made in the backfield. Purcell is coming off a junior season in which he finished with 48 tackles, two sacks, two blocked kicks and a safety.
Linebacker: Shaquil Barrett, Jr., Colorado State; Jake Fely, So., San Diego State; Travis Brown, Sr., Fresno State
Barrett could be positioned for MW Defensive Player of the Year honors following a sophomore season in which he led the Rams with 99 tackles and scored a pair of defensive touchdowns. Fely forced a team-high three fumbles in starting all 13 games at middle linebacker last season as a redshirt freshman, while Brown enters his senior season as a Butkus Award candidate and two-time All-WAC selection.
Defensive back: Leon McFadden, Sr., San Diego State; Luke Ruff, Sr., Wyoming; Duke Williams, Sr., Nevada; Jamar Taylor, Sr., Boise State
A two-time All-MW selection named to the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, McFadden led the league and ranked 12th nationally last season with 17 passes defended. Named to the 2012 Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List, Ruff ranked sixth in the MW in tackles last season. Williams, a second-team All-WAC selection in 2011, ranked third on the team with 83 tackles. Taylor's six pass break-ups last season tied for the team high.
Placekicker: Parker Herrington, Jr., Air Force
Ranked first in the MW last season in field-goal percentage (83.3. percent, 15-of-18) and finished second among kickers with 90 points.
Punter: Pete Kontodiakos, Sr., Colorado State
A candidate for the 2012 Ray Guy Award, Kontodiakos ranked second in the MW and 20th nationally in 2011 with an average of 43.6 yards. He had 20 punts of at least 50 yards.
Return specialist: Mitch Burroughs, Sr., Boise State
Ranked eighth nationally and first in the MW as a junior with a punt return average of 13.3 yards.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Robbie Rouse, Fresno State
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Leon McFadden, San Diego State
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Mitch Burroughs, Boise State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Boise State
3. San Diego State
4. Fresno State
6. Air Force
7. Colorado State
10. New Mexico
They are newcomers in name only, their transition marked more by their pre-existing knowledge of the neighborhood than an altering of address.
Hawai'i, Fresno State and Nevada officially become the newest members of the Mountain West on Sunday, but introductions are largely inessential. The Warriors (football only), Bulldogs and Wolf Pack are not only familiar with the MW landscape, they are, in many instances, tethered by well-rooted rivalries and long-standing coaching connections.
First-year Fresno State football coach Tim DeRuyter, an Air Force graduate, not only played for the Falcons but spent a total of seven years at the Academy during two separate stints as a position coach and defensive coordinator.
New Hawai'i football coach Norm Chow spent 27 seasons as an assistant at BYU before the former MW member opted to join the independent ranks last season.
Nevada's Chris Ault, the only active FBS coach in the College Football Hall of Fame, has faced every team represented in the 2011-12 configuration of the MW at least three times since joining the Wolf Pack staff in 1976.
"Today we officially welcome Fresno State, Hawai'i and Nevada as members, ushering in a new era for the Mountain West," said Commissioner Craig Thompson. "The addition of these fine institutions helps position the Conference for a bright future, and we look forward to the contributions that Bulldog, Warrior and Wolf Pack student-athletes, coaches, fans and administrators will make to the success of the Mountain West."
Here's a look at each of the three institutions and a sampling of their athletic successes:
Football: The Bulldogs have failed to garner a bowl bid only twice since 2000. Fresno State went to four straight bowl games from 2007-10, with two of the contests coming against MW members Colorado State and Wyoming. Prior to DeRuyter's hire, the Bulldogs' two previous coaches --- Jim Sweeney and Pat Hill --- posted a combined winning percentage of .607 and won three conference titles.
"We're really excited about our first year in the Mountain West," said DeRuyter, a linebacker at Air Force from 1982-84. "Having some personal history in this conference, I know about the excellent programs and the excellent coaches in this league. We know this is going to be a tremendous challenge, but we're excited about it and we're looking forward to it."
Men's Basketball: The Bulldogs have won two conference titles, participated in one NCAA Tournament and two National Invitational Tournaments since 2000. Many believe second-year coach Rodney Terry has put together one of the program's top recruiting classes in years, a group led by 7-foot, 265-pound incoming freshman center Robert Upshaw, ranked No. 55 nationally in the 2012 ESPNU Top 100.
Women's Basketball: Fresno State is coming off a 2011-12 season in which it won a conference title, earned its fifth straight NCAA Tournament bid and won 28 games for the first time in program history. The Bulldogs started four underclassmen last season, including guard Ki-Ki Moore, the WAC Player of the Year.
Baseball: Fresno State, the 2008 national champion, won its seventh straight WAC title this past year while qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.
Softball: The Bulldogs have participated in 30 of the last 31 NCAA Tournaments and won the 1998 national title. The Bulldogs have played in more NCAA Championships than any other Division I program and rank third all-time in tournament victories with 89.
Men's Tennis: The Bulldogs enter the Mountain West having won two consecutive league titles while earning three straight NCAA Tournament bids.
Football: Hawai'i became just the third non-automatic-qualifying conference team to play in a BCS bowl in 2008 when it faced Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The Warriors were the only FBS team in the nation that year to finish the regular season undefeated. Hawai'i has appeared in a bowl game seven times since 2002, posting six winning seasons and four campaigns with double-digit victories.
"I think (the transition to the MW) is going to be extremely tough and that is what I am trying to impress upon our players, that this is a step up," Chow told the Maui News. "The schedule is extremely challenging, the non-conference games are as tough as the conference games, but if you are in this profession, you get in this profession, you enjoy challenges, and you enjoy the week-by-week work that goes with those challenges, so we are all very excited about it."
Football: The Wolf Pack, who finished the 2010 season ranked No. 11 in the nation, have appeared in seven consecutive bowl games. The program's history includes 14 conference titles and since 2005, Nevada has had one losing season and six campaigns of seven or more wins.
"We're excited to be jumping into the Mountain West and to be part of such an elite group," said football head coach Chris Ault. Ault enters his 28th season with a win percentage of 68.5 percent (226-103-1).
Men's Basketball: The Wolf Pack won the WAC regular-season championship with a mark of 13-1 last season en route to making their fifth appearance in the National Invitation Tournament. Nevada has posted eight 20-win seasons since 2003-04, while earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament four times.
Women's Basketball: Nevada has won at least 17 games five of the last seven seasons, twice advancing to the National Invitation Tournament.
Baseball: The Wolf Pack, who won a share of the regular-season conference title in 2012, have won 30 or more games six times since 2000, while winning two league titles and making two NCAA postseason appearances.
Here's my opinion of the quarterbacks I believe rank as the top six in the MW heading into the 2012 season. Care to weigh in? Think I'm off the mark? Hit me with your best shot and cast your vote below. It's an election year, remember? You can also leave a comment on my blog, email me at Mick@TheMWC.com, or send me a message on Twitter @MWCMick.
1. Brett Smith, So., Wyoming
Smith turned in a spectacular freshman season, completing 61 percent of his passes for 2,622 yards with 20 touchdowns. He was also the Cowboys' leading rusher with 710 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing with 3,332 yards of total offense. The 2011 MW Freshman of the Year ranked second in MW and 33rd nationally in total offense (256.3 yards per game), he was No. 4 in the MW and 36th in the NCAA in passing yards (201.7 yards per game). He set a new MW freshman single-season record for total offense and had a hand in 30 of the team's 46 touchdowns.
2. Derek Carr, Jr., Fresno State
Carr led the WAC in passing yards (3,544) last season, a total that ranks as the third-most in Fresno State history and the most ever by a Bulldog sophomore. His passing yardage led the WAC and ranked 15th nationally, while his 279 completions and 446 attempts were the second-most in the history of the program. Carr threw 26 touchdown passes against nine interceptions while completing 62.6 percent of his passes.
3. Cody Fajardo, So., Nevada
Fajardo earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2011, finishing with 2,401 total yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 games. Fajardo became the starting quarterback for the Wolf Pack in October and threw for 1,707 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 694 yards and 11 more scores. He ranked third in the WAC in passing efficiency with a 138.2 rating and was sixth in the WAC in rushing with 69.4 yards per game.
4. Ryan Katz, Sr., San Diego State
The void left by four-year starter Ryan Lindley is expected to be filled by Katz, a transfer from Oregon State who started every game for the Beavers in 2010, completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,401 yards and 18 touchdowns. Katz played in 18 games for Oregon State from 2008-11, starting 14 games and throwing for 2,722 yards and 19 touchdowns. Katz is eligible to play immediately at SDSU after graduating from Oregon State this spring. He will take graduate courses at SDSU this fall.
5. Joe Southwick, Jr., Boise State
The Kellen Moore era may be over, but there's no evidence of panic in the streets in Boise. The benefit of the Broncos' ability to build large leads in recent seasons has allowed Southwick to play in 16 games the past two years. He's made the most of it, completing 64.8 percent of his passes (35-of-54) for 400 yards with just one interception. In the Broncos' spring game, Southwick finished 14-of-19 for 145 yards and one touchdown. None of the other three quarterbacks bidding to supplant Moore threw more than eight passes.
6. Connor Dietz, Sr., Air Force
While perhaps not possessing the passing skills of former starter Tim Jefferson, Dietz is more than capable of directing the Falcons' complex option attack, having played in 21 career games with three starts. Dietz has completed 30-of-62 passes (53.3 percent) for 392 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception. A fifth-year senior, Dietz compiled a passing efficiency rating of 198.97 as a junior.
Miles Burris may one day discover what Mountain West opponents have known for the past two seasons: the challenge inherent to the tackling of Ronnie Hillman.
Burris, the ex-San Diego State linebacker and former teammate of Hillman's, became the second Aztec selected in the 2012 NFL Draft Saturday when he was taken by the Oakland Raiders with the 34th pick in the fourth round (129th overall).
As such, Burris could be in line to square off at least twice a year against Hillman, who was selected by AFC West rival Denver in Friday's third round.
In 50 career games, the 6-foot-2, 246-pound Burris, a two-time all-MW first-team selection, had 235 tackles, 47 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
During a draft in which Boise State had a record six players selected, eclipsing the Broncos' previous record of four in 2007, San Diego State sent four players to the pro ranks for the first time since 2008 and the fourth time since 1983.
Boise State, which had two players selected in Thursday's first round in defensive end Shea McClellin (Chicago) and running back Doug Martin (Tampa Bay), and a third when defensive end Tyrone Crawford went to Dallas in Friday's third round, added three more names to its list of draftees on Saturday.
Following the selection of safety George Iloka by the Cincinnati Bengals with the 32nd pick in the fifth round, former Broncos defensive tackle Billy Winn went to Cleveland with the 35th pick of the sixth round (205th overall) and offensive tackle Nate Potter was taken by the Arizona Cardinals with the 14th pick of the seventh (221st overall).
Illoka finished the 2011 season as the Broncos second-leading tackler (58). In his four-year career in Boise, he collected 232 tackles (168 solo) and earned first-team all-conference honors following both his junior and senior seasons.
Winn completed his career at Boise State with 132 tackles (63 solo), including 36.5 for-loss and 15.5 sacks. He had 35 tackles (19 solo), including eight tackles for loss and three sacks in 2011 en route to second team all-Mountain West honors.
A consensus All-American following his senior season in 2011, Potter was also named Capital One Academic All-America First Team, the first Boise State football player to earn the honor since 1978. Potter will be joined in Arizona by former San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley, who was selected by the Cardinals with the 15th pick of the sixth round (185th overall). A four-year starter, Lindley had 90 career touchdown passes while throwing for a MW record 12,690 yards. The Aztecs' fourth pick of the draft came when former defensive tackle Jerome Long was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs with the 11th pick of the seventh round (218th overall).
Ex-TCU linebacker Tank Carder, a two-time All-American in addition to being the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year the last two seasons, was taken by the Buffalo Bills with the 12th pick in the fifth round (147th overall). Carder tied for second on the team in 2011 with 70 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and two interceptions. He returned both his picks for scores and is TCU's career leader with three interception returns for touchdowns. Carder becomes the fifth Horned Frog linebacker in the last five seasons to head to the NFL.
Carder's former teammate, Greg McCoy, a cornerback who led the MW and ranked sixth nationally last season in kickoff return average (30.6 yards) went to Chicago with the 13th pick of the seventh round (220th overall). McCoy was named to multiple All-America teams as a return specialist in 2011 and was the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year.
Newcomer Notes: The Cleveland Browns selected Nevada linebacker James-Michael Johnson in the fourth round on Saturday to open up a run on a school-record four draftees for the Wolf Pack, who will join the MW next season along with Fresno State and Hawai‘i (football only). Nevada also had picks in the fifth (linebacker Brandon M. Marshall; Jacksonville) sixth (cornerback Isaiah Frey; Chicago); and seventh rounds (receiver Rishard Matthews; Miami). The previous record for most players drafted from Nevada was three, set in 1998 and equaled last year ... Fresno State wide receiver Devon Wylie was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs with the 107th overall pick in the fourth round. Wylie is the 15th Fresno State wide receiver to be taken in the NFL Draft and the first since Paul Williams in 2007 ... Hawai‘i linebacker Aaron Brown was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round (209th overall). He is the program's 24th draft pick since 2000 and second UH player in as many seasons to be picked by the Rams.
After becoming the third-leading rusher in school history in just two seasons at SDSU, Hillman joined the ranks of the AFC West Friday night when he was selected by the Denver Broncos with the fourth pick in the third round of the NFL Draft.
With future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning now in the fold, Denver traded up to obtain Hillman, giving the Cleveland Browns the 87th and 120th picks in the draft to secure Hillman at No. 67 overall.
In 2010, Hillman set the Mountain West's freshman rushing record with 1,532 yards en route to being tabbed the league's Freshman of the Year. In his sophomore campaign on Montezuma Mesa, Hillman finished as the league's leading rusher in 2011, carrying the ball 311 times for 1,711 yards and a MW-best 19 touchdowns. He is one of six players in MW history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and only the third to do so in his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Having frequently drawn comparisons to former SDSU great and NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, Hillman became the highest Aztec running back selected since Faulk went to the Indianapolis Colts with the second pick of the 1994 draft.
How crucial was Hillman to the Aztecs' recent resurgence? In games in which he rushed for more than 110 yards, San Diego State was 12-2. When he did not, the Aztecs were 5-7. He finished his college career having amassed 3,243 career rushing yards and was the second SDSU player to have multiple 1,500-yard rushing seasons, joining Faulk, who did it three times from 1991-93. Hillman had 15 career 100-yard rushing games in just 26 contests.
"I'm excited," the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Hillman said. "It's been my dream to play in the NFL for a while now and I'm just thankful. I'm just going to come in and try to help win; that's all I can do. I'll just bring my versatility to the team and being able to create more on offense. I'll come in and learn from the best."
Hillman, a two-time first team All-Mountain West selection, was only a sophomore but was eligible for the draft because he was three years removed from high school, as stipulated by the NFL.
Meanwhile, Boise State produced its third pick in this year's draft when the Dallas Cowboys selected defensive end Tyrone Crawford with the 18th pick of the third round (81st overall).
"Boy, is that a good pick," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "Crawford is the prototypical five technique --- that's the defensive end in the 3-4. Fell in love with him at the (East-West Shrine Game). He's stout vs. the run. He can push the pocket. And with what Dallas' situation is, he provides tremendous depth day one."
A first-team All-Mountain West performer last year, Crawford combined for 76 tackles in his two seasons at Boise State after registering 44 in 2011 and 32 in 2010. He led the team with 27.0 tackles for loss during his career at BSU, including 13.5 last season. He also recorded 13.5 sacks (seven in 2011, 6.5 in 2010) and combined for four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
The Broncos hadn't had a defensive lineman drafted since 1994, but can tout two defensive ends going in the first three rounds of the 2012 draft. Shea McClellin was selected by the Chicago Bears on Thursday with the 19th overall pick.
Crawford and McClellin were joined by fellow teammate Doug Martin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31st overall) in the first three rounds of the 2012 draft. Boise State's three selections in the first three rounds are the most in school history, eclipsing last year's draft when Titus Young and Austin Pettis were selected in the second and third rounds, respectively. In the last five years, Boise State has had four first-round draft selections, including McClellin and Martin in 2012, CB Kyle Wilson in 2010 and OL Ryan Clady in 2008).
Click HERE to watch as the Chicago Bears select Shea McClellin 19th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Click HERE to watch as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Doug Martin 31st overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
If it was the ultimate compliment, it was no less a definitive description.
"Shea McClellin is a trained assassin on the football field," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said this week. "That guy has been such an unbelievable player for a long time for us and completely and totally underrated, I think, in the public eye. I don't think so much in our opponents' eyes and certainly not in our coaches' eyes. I just think all that's coming to light right now."
The Chicago Bears apparently shared Petersen's sentiments.
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound product of Marsing, Idaho, became the first Mountain West player selected in the 2012 NFL Draft Thursday night when he was taken by the Bears with the 19th overall pick.
McClellin, who played defensive end, outside linebacker, nickel rusher and middle linebacker for the Broncos, is expected to be positioned at defensive end in the Bears' 4-3 alignment, opposite seven-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. The third first-round pick in Boise State history, he concluded his collegiate career with 130 tackles (64 solo), 33 tackles for loss, 20.5 sacks, four interceptions, five forced fumbles and two touchdowns. He is also the second-highest draft pick in school history. Offensive tackle Ryan Clady was taken by the Denver Broncos with the 12th pick in 2008, while cornerback Kyle Wilson was selected at No. 29 by the New York Jets in 2010.
A first-team All-MW pick as a senior, McClellin was the second outside linebacker selected in the first round, after the Seattle Seahawks took West Virginia's Bruce Irvin with the 15th pick.
"It finally came to an end now," said McClellin, who had 50 tackles (30 solo), seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last season. "I know where I'm going and it's going to be awesome."
Awesome? Consider: Boise State, which has gone 50-3 over the past four seasons, produced its second first-round pick of the draft when running back Doug Martin was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 31st selection in a trade with the Denver Broncos.
It's not only the first time two Bronco players have been selected in the first round of the same draft, but also the first time two MW players from same team have been chosen in the first round. It is also the first time since 2000 and second time in league history that two MW players have been selected in the opening round. Not to mention that Boise State is the first team from a non-automatic-qualifying conference to have two first round picks since Jackson State in 2000.
Martin, the second-leading rusher in the Mountain West last season with 1,299 yards and a career-high 16 rushing touchdowns, finished his Boise State career with 3,431 rushing yards, 17 100-yard games and 43 TDs. The product of Stockton, Calif., is just the seventh player in BSU history to eclipse 4,000-career all-purpose yards, finishing his Bronco career with 4,885, the fifth-most in school history. His 1,892 all-purpose yards in 2011 - including his school-record 301 against Arizona State en route to most valuable player honors in MAACO Bowl Las Vegas - ranked sixth on the all-time Boise State list. Martin, who joined McClellin as a first-team All-Mountain West selection in 2011, was one of only two running backs selected in the first round, after the Cleveland Browns took Alabama's Trent Richardson with the third pick of the night.
If the Wolf Pack's initial spring practice was as much get-cracking as it was meet-and-greet, there was ample reason. On the heels of making its seventh consecutive bowl appearance, Nevada hired a new offensive coordinator in Nick Rolovich, a new running backs coach in Larry Lewis, a new offensive line coach in Darren Hiller and moved Mike Bradeson from secondary coach to defensive coordinator. The Wolf Pack returns six starters on both sides of the ball, and has the potential to make a splash in its inaugural season in the Mountain West. But there are issues to address, the most glaring being the fact that none of the backup quarterbacks has ever taken a college snap. The defensive line is absent last season's four starters and the team lost five of its top seven receivers from 2011. Nonetheless, there is a reason why head coach Chris Ault has a career winning percentage of nearly .700. One of only two active coaches to have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he is an astute job of talent whose no-nonsense approach may suggest old school, but whose introduction of the pistol offense has become the game's latest rage.
Wolf Pack Offense
Sophomore quarterback Cody Fajardo earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2011, finishing with 2,401 total yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 games. Behind Fajardo, however, is chasm of inexperience: three freshmen and a sophomore transfer, none of whom has lined up behind center anywhere but on a scout team. The Wolf Pack, who must replace their top two backs in Lampford Mark and Mike Ball, also felt the effects of attrition at the wide receiver spot. The return of Brandon Wemberly (94 career catches, 1,215 yards), who did not play last season, will be crucial to a unit that features only one other player (sophomore Aaron Bradley) to have caught a pass in a college game. Junior Stefphon Jefferson is the projected starter at running back after carrying 70 times for 429 yards last year, while talented junior college transfer Nigel Westbrooks possesses the talent to significantly bolster the receiving corps.
Wolf Pack Defense
Bradeson's new assignment as defensive coordinator is hardly free of challenges. The defensive front will feature four new faces after the lone returning starter, Albert Rosette, moved back to middle linebacker. Junior Jack Reynoso started eight games in 2011 but is not participating in spring practice after suffering a broken leg last season. The strength of the defense is in the secondary, where Nevada returns no fewer than five seniors in Duke Williams, Khalid Wooten, Marlon Johnson, Jeremiah Green and Thaddeus Brown.
Wolf Pack Special Teams
Nevada employed three field goal kickers last season, largely due to injuries suffered by freshman Anthony Martinez. Senior-to-be Allen Hardison stepped into the breach to hit 7-of-11 attempts, while punter Jake Hurst was 3-of-4. Hurst has graduated, as has former standout receiver Rishard Matthews, who was also a threat as a return specialist.
Hawai‘i moves into the Mountain West under the direction of new head coach Norm Chow, a native of Honolulu. Chow's resume includes 39 years of coaching experience collegiately and in the National Football League. Among his 36 years as a college coach, Chow, a three-time national Assistant Coach of the Year, spent 27 seasons at BYU, one year at North Carolina State, four years at USC, three years at UCLA and one year at Utah. Chow also spent three years as offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. This is his first head coaching job. The Warriors, whose seven losses last season were all decided by eight or fewer points, return seven starters on offense and four on defense.
Quarterback Bryant Moniz has moved on after becoming the third quarterback in UH history to throw for more than 10,000 yards, but junior David Graves is a capable successor. Graves, who started two games in place of injured Moniz in 2011, completed 63-of-110 passes for 768 yards and five touchdowns for a team that ranked first in the WAC and 12th in the nation in passing offense. And Graves won't lack for players with whom to play catch. The Warriors return nearly their entire receiving corps, including junior Billy Ray Stutzmann, who finished as the team leader last season with 78 catches for 901 yards and four touchdowns. Also back are part-time starters Jeremiah Ostrowski, Justin Clapp and Trevor Davis, who combined for 131 receptions for 1,409 yards and 12 TDs. Sophomore running back Joey Iosefa, who led the team in rushing last season with 548 yards (seven TDs), will be running behind an offensive line that returns left guard Dave Lefotu and left tackle Levi Legay.
The Warriors enter 2012 having lost seven starters from last year's defense, including first-team all-conference linebacker Aaron Brown. Also gone are defensive linemen Vaughn Meatoga and Kaniela Tuipulotu, linebacker Corey Peredes (team-high 107 tackles) and defensive back Richard Torres, all of whom were named to the all-conference second team. Among the returning starters are junior defensive backs Mike Edwards and John Hardy-Tuliau, senior defensive lineman Paipai Falemalu and junior linebacker Art Laurel, who finished fourth on the team with 61 tackles.
Warrior Special Teams
Sophomore returner Scott Harding became one of the more intriguing stories in college football last season. As a 25-year-old true freshman, Harding, a native of Brisbane, Australia, was named to a pair of Freshman All-America teams after averaging 22.0 yards on kickoff returns and 7.4 yards on punt returns. Senior Alex Dunnachie, who had seven punts in excess of 50 yards, allowed opponents to return only four punts, fewest in the nation. Sophomore placekicker Tyler Hadden also returns for a team that ranked sixth nationally last season in kickoff coverage.
Head coach Bob Davie, who spent seven seasons at Notre Dame before moving into a television analyst role for the past decade, was only being slightly less than candid last month when he said that the Lobos could be the first team in NCAA history not to use a football during spring practice. The reason? Numbers. New Mexico, which will not stage its annual Cherry & Silver game, can ill afford injuries with a roster that features just 56 scholarship players and 20 walk-ons. Eight starters return on offense and six on defense, but all will begin from square one with the implementation of a pistol offense and the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. "Our deal is about identifying the guys that will compete, the work ethic, all those things," Davie told the Albuquerque Journal. "It's really starting from scratch."
New offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse comes to Albuquerque from Sam Houston State, where the Bearkats last season averaged nearly 37.0 points and featured a running back tandem that combined for 2,623 yards, as well as a 2,000-yard passer. Lobos senior quarterback B.R. Holbrook, who has made 20 career starts, is expected to be under center for the season opener against Southern University on Sept. 1. Junior Demarcus Rogers emerged as the starting running back late last season and finished as the team's second-leading rusher. The running game should also get a boost from the return of junior Kasey Carrier, who redshirted last season after suffering an ankle injury in fall camp. Carrier was the team's leading rusher as a sophomore in 2010. Despite the transfer of Deon Long, the league's leading receiver last season, the Lobos are deep at the position, where senior Ty Kirk led the MW in receptions per game in 2011. Also back is senior Lamar Thomas, a transfer from Ohio State who was limited by injuries last season, and senior Quintell Solomon. Senior Lucas Reed is one of the top tight ends in the league. But there are significant issues up front, where attrition has left New Mexico with only eight offensive linemen during spring practice. Center LaMar Bratton started all 12 games last season.
A half dozen starters return on defense for the Lobos. Unfortunately, one of them is not named Carmen Messina, who as a four-year starting linebacker set the school record for career tackles with 454 and led the MW in tackles three consecutive seasons. Among the returnees are linebacker Dallas Bollema, the team's third-leading tackler in 2011, and defensive end Joseph Harris, who started all 12 games last year. Senior Reggie Ellis is likely to assume the nose tackle spot in the new 3-4 alignment, though the Lobos are excited about the potential of Gerron Borne, a highly touted true freshman who was arguably the team's top signee. With eight starts last season, senior cornerback Destry Berry is the most experienced player in the secondary.
Lobo Special Teams
Junior punter Ben Skaer, a two-year starter, returns to handle the punting duties, but there is competition at placekicker where James Aho was a four-starter and finished second all-time on the school's made field-goals list. The candidates include junior Justus Adams, who handled kickoffs last season, junior Jason Allen and senior Greg Rivara.
When Tim DeRuyter, who played at Air Force and served as the Falcons' defensive coordinator from 2007-09, was announced as the successor to Pat Hill in December, talk immediately turned to getting the Bulldogs up to speed --- literally. DeRuyter, who spent the past two seasons as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, is an ardent advocate of playing with fanaticism and fervor while underscoring passion and pride. He has placed a priority on offseason conditioning for a team that is hardly bereft of talent. Fresno State, which concluded spring drills on March 25, returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense.
Under offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, who spent 12 years at San Diego State and the last three seasons at Utah, the Bulldogs are transitioning from a pro-style offense to the spread to take advantage of two of the most talented players in the league, quarterback Derek Carr and running back Robbie Rouse. Carr led the WAC in passing yards (3,544) last season, while Rouse was the conference's leading rusher with 1,549 yards. Fresno State also returns a trio of accomplished receivers in senior Rashad Evans, who caught 44 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns in 2011; junior Isaiah Burse (40-436-1); and sophomore Josh Harper (35-497-5).
The Bulldogs are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, a move that comes on the heels of Fresno State allowing an average of 435.85 yards and 35.15 points last season. The unit should receive a substantial boost from the return of talented strong safety Phillip Thomas, who missed the 2011 season after suffering a leg injury in fall camp. Nose tackle Tyeler Davison, who is stepping into the sizable shoes left by Logan Harrell, had a strong spring, while the linebacking corps of two-time all-WAC selection Travis Brown, Donavon Lewis, Patrick Su'a and Jeremiah Toma could prove formidable in defensive coordinator Nick Toth's new scheme.
Bulldog Special Teams
While Fresno State has been without peer over the last decade in the area of blocking kicks, it was kicking the ball that proved problematic in 2011. In the eight-team WAC, the Bulldogs ranked seventh in punting average (35.8 yards) and sixth in field-goal percentage (58.8).
The loss of four-year starting quarterback Ryan Lindley and standout running back Ronnie Hillman is compounded by the fact that across the offensive line, the top 10 active players have combined for just one career start, although senior center Alec Johnson (foot) and senior guard Nik Embernate (shoulder) are expected to return from injuries. In an attempt to address the inexperience factor, the Aztecs, who wrapped up spring drills on March 17, have moved former tight end Bryce Quigley left tackle. Quigley, a junior, started 10 games last season at tight end.
In an attempt to replace Lindley, the quarterback competition during spring drills featured no fewer than five candidates. The leader in the clubhouse heading into fall camp appears to be senior Ryan Katz, a transfer from Oregon State who started all 12 games for the Beavers in 2010 and the first two games of the 2011 season. While San Diego State's receiving corps was decimated by injury prior to the start of the 2011 season, things should get a lot better in 2012, particularly with the addition of talented USC transfer Brice Butler. The senior suffered a torn labrum during spring practice, but is expected to forego surgery until after the season. The void left by Hillman, who opted to leave school early for the NFL draft, is likely to be filled by either sophomore Adam Muema, who rushed for 242 yards in a backup role last season, or senior Walter Kazee, who is recovering from knee surgery and did not participate in spring drills. The other candidates are redshirt freshmen Brandon Wright, Chase Price and De'Saan Hardwick.
As is the case with the offense, the Aztecs are largely inexperienced up front, though sophomore nose tackle Sam Meredith (shoulder) and junior defensive end Jordan Thomas (Achilles), both of whom missed spring practice, are expected to be ready for fall camp. Linebacker Rob Andrews (foot) missed spring practice due to injuries, but is also expected to be ready come August. The loss of first-team all-MW linebacker Miles Burris is significant, but the linebacker position is deep and talented, led by returning starter Jake Fely, a sophomore. Also returning is senior defensive back Leon McFadden, a first-team all-MW pick who led the league in passes defended.
Aztec Special Teams
One of SDSU's biggest losses came with the graduation of punter Brian Stahovich, who led the MW last season with an average of 43.8 yards. The Aztecs must also identify a successor to placekicker Abelardo Perez, who struggled through the 2011 campaign by connecting on just 6-of-15 field goal attempts.
Less than three weeks before the start of spring practice, Colorado State's football office posted a notice that it was looking to add depth to its lines by attracting potential players from the student population. If the Rams' first scrimmage was any indication, the defense is in little need of bolstering after posting 27 sacks and 30 tackles for loss. "It tells me one of two things," said head coach Jim McElwain. "You either can't protect or you have pretty decent rushers." Know this: It won't take McElwain long to find out. The former Alabama offensive coordinator has wiped the slate clean in terms of prioritizing starters over subs, emphasizing that past accomplishments will have no bearing on which players ultimately surface as No. 1s on the depth chart.
While the Rams entered spring practice with five quarterbacks on the roster, sophomore Garrett Grayson, who started the final three games last season, is the only one to have played in a college game. Grayson, who also poses a threat as a runner, averaged 48.2 yards on the ground last season while completing 43-of-77 passes for 542 yards. Junior running back Chris Nwoke, who didn't start until the seventh game of the season, became the team's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2008. Along with Oregon's LaMichael James, Nwoke became one of only two backs in the nation to rush for more than 230 yards in a game, finishing with 232 against San Diego State and 269 versus Air Force. Crockett Gillmore, a defensive end as a freshman, emerged as one of the top tight ends in the MW after making a position switch prior to the start of last season. Gillmore, who caught 45 passes for 468 yards, was on the receiving end of four of the Rams' 12 touchdown receptions. CSU must still address its depth issues across the offensive front, but does have experience in place with junior center Weston Richburg and junior guard Jordan Graggert, both of whom started every game last season. Also back is senior left tackle Joe Capriglio, who started the first three games of 2011 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
While the Rams did not lack for a pass rush last season, ranking No. 2 in the MW with 26 sacks, they struggled against the run, allowing an average of 233.7 yards on the ground. Senior defensive end C.J. James finished second on the team in both sacks (five) and tackles for loss (eight). CSU, which returns a pair of starters at linebacker in junior Shaq Barrett and senior James Skelton, also boasts three returning starters in the secondary, including all-MW performer Momo Thomas. Barrett flashed big-time potential last season, finishing third in the MW with an average of 8.2 tackles per game. He led the team with 99 tackles (45 solo), while recording 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one forced fumble and an interception and fumble recovery, both of which he returned for touchdowns
Ram Special Teams
Senior Pete Kontodiakos returns to handle the punting duties after earning second-team all-league honors with an average of 43.6 yards last season. In addition to handling his duties in the secondary, Thomas was all-MW honorable mention as a punt returner in 2011.
Growing pains are a grind, and perhaps no coach in the MW is more acutely aware of that than head coach Bobby Hauck. And while the majority of those currently listed as No. 1s on the Rebels' spring depth chart have at least a year of experience to draw from, it's a group currently populated by just two seniors on offense (right guard Doug Zismann and right tackle Yusef Rodgers) and one on defense (weakside linebacker John Lotulelei). There are also two new coordinators in place. Third-year assistant Brent Myers will serve as the offensive coordinator while continuing to work with the team's tight ends. The new defensive coordinator is third-year assistant J.D. Williams, who will also continue coaching the secondary.
Although there is no No. 1 listed on the depth chart in the quarterback competition between juniors Caleb Herring and Sean Reilly and redshirt freshman Nick Sherry, Herring made eight starts last season while Reilly made two. Junior transfer James Boyd, who formerly played at USC, is not listed and could be moving to defensive end, a position he auditioned for in 2010 with the Trojans. Junior Tim Cornett returns as the team's leading rusher, but the Rebels must offset the loss of Dionza Bradford, who left the program after rushing for 640 yards last season as a true freshman. Sophomore Marcus Sullivan, who did not play last season, has big-play capabilities as both a receiver and kick returner. With the exception of Zismann and Rodgers, UNLV remains young up front, though redshirt freshmen Brett Boyko (left tackle) and Robert Waterman (center) started every game last season. Myers believes redshirt freshman Jake Phillips has the potential to become one of the league's top talents at tight end.
Williams' new assignment as defensive coordinator is not without challenges. The Rebels frequently found themselves on their heels last season because of a defense that yielded averages of 40.4 points and 443.2 yards. UNLV must address some key losses in defensive end James Dunlap, linebacker Nate Carter and defensive backs Quinton Pointer and Daniel Harper, but there is talent from which to build in junior tackles Tyler Gaston and Nate Holloway, senior linebacker Princeton Jackson, junior linebacker Tani Maka and junior cornerback Sidney Hodge. The Rebels are also excited about the prospects of defensive end Parker Holloway, who signed with UNLV in December. Holloway was also offered scholarships by North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Syracuse, Miami and Mississippi. The defense could also get a boost from the return of talented senior free safety Dre Crawford, who did not play last season. Crawford originally signed with Minnesota.
Rebel Special Teams
The Rebels return two of the top specialists in the MW last season in junior placekicker Nolan Kohorst and senior punter Chase Lansford. Kohorst, who was the only kicker in the MW in 2011 to make all of' his extra-point attempts (24-of-24), also hit 9-of-14 field goals. Lansford was the league's third-leading punter, averaging 41.2 yards. UNLV also figures to greatly benefit from the return of Sullivan, who averaged 27.9 yards on kick returns in 2010. Seven of Sullivan's 35 returns went for at least 37 yards, while five went for 50 or more.
While Kellen Moore was unquestionably the face of Boise State football, he was far from the sum of its parts. In 2012, the Broncos will be faced with replacing no fewer than seven players who earned first-team all-MW honors in 2011, including consensus All-American left tackle Nate Potter. In all, Boise State is absent 15 starters from a year ago (six on offense, nine on defense). Not only must the Broncos identify a successor to Moore, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, they must also replace leading rusher Doug Martin, leading receiver Tyler Shoemaker and six of their top seven tacklers on defense before opening the season at Michigan State on Aug. 31.
During the course of his star-studded career, Moore threw 140 touchdown passes. Enter backup Joe Southwick, who needs only 138 to match Moore's total. Three others are also competing for the starting job this spring, including sophomore Grant Hedrick, redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea and highly touted true freshman Nick Patti. The Broncos are hoping senior D.J. Harper can fill the void left by Martin. Harper was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA due after suffering season-ending knee injuries in 2009 and 2010. Shoemaker's departure, though significant, is tempered by the return of sophomore Matt Miller and senior Mitch Burroughs, who combined for 113 receptions and 1,179 yards last season. The loss of Potter, whose spot is expected to be assumed by senior Faraji Wright, can't be understated. But Boise State has experience to build around in right tackle Charles Leno Jr., guards Joe Kellogg and Jake Broyles and center Cory Yriarte.
All four starting defensive linemen --- Shea McClellin, Billy Winn, Tyrone Crawford and Chase Baker --- are gone after accounting for 16.5 of the Broncos' 24 sacks in 2011. Look for senior Mike Atkinson (31 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) and junior Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe (15 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks in seven games) to fill the vacancies inside, while junior college transfer Demarcus Lawrence and redshirt freshman Sam Ukwuachu battle for the outside linebacker/end hybrid spot formerly occupied by McClellin. Both have been impressive in spring drills. Also gone are linebacker Byron Hout and safety George Iloka, who ranked first and second, respectively, in tackles last season for Boise State. Jerrell Gavins and Jamar Taylor will be the cornerstones of a secondary that also lost Cedric Febis, Travis Stanaway and Hunter White.
Bronco Special Teams
Burroughs led the league in punt return average (13.3 yards) last season, but the Broncos must replace punter Brad Elkin and settle the placekicking competition between sophomore Dan Goodale and senior Michael Frisina.
Some thought there was little reason to expect big things from the Cowboys in 2011, particularly when head coach Dave Christensen announced that the starting quarterback duties would be handled by a true freshman. If fans were wont to raise an eyebrow at the time, they were ultimately rewarded with the team's first eight-win season in 13 years, as Christensen went on to be named the MW Coach of the Year and quarterback Brett Smith was tabbed the league's Freshman of the Year. The Cowboys' five league wins and third-place finish matched the team's best performance since 2006. Wyoming earned a bid to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, marking the first time since 1988-90 that it played in a postseason game twice in a three-year span. The biggest challenge will be identifying capable replacements for starting offensive tackles John Hutchins and Clayton Kirven, along with starting defensive ends Josh Biezuns and Gabe Knapton.
While Smith is participating in spring practices, he is not taking part in any live action after undergoing offseason surgery on the thumb of his right throwing hand. Smith turned in a spectacular freshman season, completing 61 percent of his passes for 2,622 yards with 20 touchdowns. He was also the Cowboys' leading rusher with 710 yards and 10 touchdowns and finished with 3,332 yards of total offense. Junior wide Josh Leonard, who has made 13 career starts, and sophomore Daniel Fleischman have emerged as the early candidates to replace Hutchins and Kirven. The Cowboys entered spring drills with just two proven running backs on scholarship in senior Brandon Miller and sophomore Kody Sutton. Wyoming returns its top two receivers in sophomore Dominic Rufran (44 catches, 402 yards, two touchdowns) and junior Robert Herron (43 catches, 379 yards, three touchdowns).
Despite the losses of Biezuns and Knapton, the Cowboys are not without experience. Senior tackle Mike Purcell will be a four-year starter when the season begins, while senior end Ben Durbin and tackle Kurt Taufa'asau both started games last season. Also back is junior tackle Patrick Mertens, who missed the 2011 season with an undisclosed illness. Opposite Durbin at right defensive end is Sonny Puletasi, who played behind Knapton last season. Senior Ghaali Muhammad, who was moved to running back last season, returns to a seasoned linebacking corps that includes 2011 starters Devyn Harris and Korey Jones. Also back in the fold is senior Oliver Schober, who was sidelined with an injury last season. Senior strong safety Luke Ruff, a second-team all-MW pick in 2011, is the leader in the secondary.
Cowboy Special Teams
Australian native Tim Gleeson has taken over the punting duties and averaged more than 50 yards during a recent scrimmage. Sophomore Daniel Sullivan returns as the team's placekicker, while cornerback Blair Burns, who earned MW honorable mention last season, will once again return punts.
Key injuries on defense, particularly up front, had the Falcons on their heels from the outset last season, a disadvantage reflected in opponents' ability to often run the ball with a large measure of success. Finding a remedy will be no small feat, particularly given that Air Force lost nine defensive starters, among them defensive linemen Harry Kehs, Ryan Gardner and Ross Fleming, and inside linebackers Brady Amack and Jordan Waiwaiole. To that end, head coach Troy Calhoun staged one of the competitive (read physical) springs of his tenure, with more than a few players limited by various bumps and bruises when practices concluded on March 20. Yet with fall camp only four months removed for a team returning just six starters, the Falcons don't enjoy the luxury of spending unlimited time on auditions.
Make no mistake: While filling the void left by quarterback Tim Jefferson will be a challenge, Air Force has the ideal candidate in fifth-year senior Connor Dietz. Though perhaps not possessing the passing skills of Jefferson, Dietz is more than capable of directing the Falcons' complex option attack, having played in 21 career games with three starts. Last year's starting fullback, Wes Cobb, has moved to tailback to offset the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Asher Clark, while Ty MacArthur figures to be the leading candidate to supplant that multi-talented Jonathan Warzeka at the "Z" receiver spot, a hybrid wide receiver/running back position. The offensive line will be absent three starters from last season, but the foundation is in place to begin anew with the return of Jason Kons and Jordan Eason.
In addition to filling the aforementioned vacancies up front, a team that ranked sixth in the nation last year against the pass must also find a way to replace the likes of Anthony Wright, Jr., Jon Davis and Josh Hall in the secondary. The linebacking corps took a hit with the losses of Amack and Waiwaiole, but the return of starter Alex Means (77 tackles, six sacks) and the potential of Jamil Cooks should lessen the blow.
Falcon Special Teams
Placekicker Parker Harrington earned first-team all-MW honors in 2011, connecting on 15-of-18 field goals and 45-of-48 extra-point attempts. Punter David Baska also returns after averaging 40.8 yards last season.
I've never had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of LaMond Pope. For all I know, LaMond is fond of fuzzy puppies, long walks in the woods, papaya popsicles and bungee-jumping into remote gorges of indeterminate depths.
And while I'm certain that the two of us would find a common bond, perhaps going so far as to form our own mutual admiration society, I fear I would far too often find myself lecturing on the ABCs of the BCS.
Now, let me make it clear that LaMond, who writes for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette, is far from alone in his confusion. Countless others have come before him, all utilizing the term "BCS" as though every university in America were picnicking together under the same smiley-face umbrella.
Correct: "Alabama beat LSU 21-0 to win the BCS national championship, even though you couldn't have awoken me for the second half with a gong and a bevy of blacksmiths pounding out Kenny Gee songs on anvils."
Incorrect: "College basketball's old guard has grown so weary of routinely being beaten by non-BCS schools that it has retained legal counsel for purposes of obtaining a restraining order."
In the first instance, the term "BCS" refers to football (though that application, too, may soon be rendered passé).
In the second, the term "non-BCS" has no relationship to the BCS whatsoever.
To wit: At this very moment, both of college basketball's top-25 polls --- the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN Coaches --- include Murray State, Creighton, Saint Mary's, Marquette and Harvard. Given that none of the five is a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision and only Murray State and Harvard actually field football teams, how can they possibly be classified as non-BCS schools?
Meanwhile, the Mountain West remains No. 5 in the latest RPI poll. The MW was ranked ahead of the Pac-10 last year and is once again ranked ahead of the Pac-12 in 2012. By that score, is the Pac-12 now "non-BCS" in terms of basketball?
Don't get me wrong, LaMond. I know your Jan. 31 article entitled "3 Non-BCS Contenders," touting the talents of Murray State, San Diego State and UNLV, wasn't meant to rattle my chain. It's just that I get a little testy when folks misconstrue the ABCs of the BCS.
The following is a breakdown of how each Mountain West team addressed its football recruiting needs during Wednesday's National Letter of Intent Day.
Air Force Areas of Need: Defensive Line, Linebacker, Running Back
Key Losses: Tim Jefferson, QB; Asher Clark, RB; Michael Hester, OL; A.J. Wallerstein, OL; Zach Payne, DL; Ryan Gardner, DL; Brady Amack, LB; Jordan Waiwaiole, LB; Patrick Hennessey, LB; Anthony Wright, DB; Jon Davis, DB.
Recruiting Highlights: Due to the Air Force Academy appointment process, names of recruited student-athletes are not released until they arrive on campus in the summer.
That said, the Falcons need to address several spots on a defense that endured its share of struggles last season, largely due to injuries across the defensive front. "I think you can find a little bigger players and still understand they'll have to complete basic training and aerobically be physically fit," coach Troy Calhoun recently told the Colorado Springs Gazette. "That's part of the Air Force Academy. You have to keep digging and digging. When you get the right mix of size and experience, you're going to have winning football teams here."
Boise State Areas of Need: Defensive Line, Running Back
Key Losses: Tyler Shoemaker, WR; Nate Potter, OL; Thomas Byrd, OL; Kyle Efaw, TE; Kellen Moore, QB; Doug Martin, RB; Billy Winn, DL; Chase Baker, DL; Shea McClellin, DE; Byron Hout, LB; Aaron Tevis, LB; George Iloka, S.
Recruiting Highlights: The Broncos addressed their needs across the defensive front by signing Butler (Kan.) Community College defensive tackle Demarcus Lawrence and Sam McCaskill, a defensive end from Sheldon High in Eugene, Ore., who led the state in tackles (115) and sacks (16) as a senior. Darien Barrett, a defensive end from Inglewood High in Inglewood, Calif., had 10 sacks and 42 total tackles in his senior season. At running back, BSU, which learned earlier this week that senior D.J. Harper has been granted a sixth year of eligibility, added Devan Demas, who amassed 2,114 all-purpose yards and 26 total touchdowns as a senior at Houston's Cypress Creek High, and Jack Fields, a product of El Paso's Americas High who carried 280 times for 2,478 yards and 25 touchdowns in his senior season.
Other Signees of Note: Chaz Anderson, DB; Travis Averill, OL; Chancellor James, DB; Nick Patti, QB; Connor Peters, TE; Shane Rhodes, WR; Chris Santini, DB; Ben Weaver, LB.
Colorado State Areas of Need: Quarterback, Offensive Line.
Key Losses: Pete Thomas, QB; Paul Madsen, OL; Jake Gdowski, OL.
Recruiting Highlights: With quarterback Pete Thomas, once considered the cornerstone of the offense, having transferred to North Carolina State, the Rams added Craig Leonard to compete with sophomore incumbent Garrett Grayson. Leonard, a 2011 graduate of Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, signed a financial-aid agreement Dec. 6, 2011, enrolled in time for January 2012 classes and will practice with the Rams this spring after spending last season at Jireh Prep School in Monroe, N.C. Leonard played just one varsity season at Fossil Ridge, but led Colorado's largest classification, 5A, in both passing yards (2,558) and passing TDs (26). The Rams signed five offensive lineman including Nick Callender (6-5, 285) from St. Mary's College High School in Hayward, Calif.; A.J. Frieler (6-5, 295) from West High School in Greeley, Colo.; Chuck Ragland (6-7, 295) from College of San Mateo in Denver; Tomas Rivera (6-6, 315) from Poly High in Long Beach, Calif.; and Fred Zerblis (6-3, 295) from Grayson High School in Grayson, Ga. Four signees were part of state championships in their senior years of high school (Danny Nwosu in Maryland, Johnny Schupp in California, Fred Zerblis in Georgia and Chuck Ragland in Colorado). Kevin Davis, a LB from Fountain-Fort Carson high school located south of Colorado Springs was a Parade All-American his senior year.
Other Signees of Note: Brett Jordan, TE; Calvin Tonga, LB.
Fresno State Areas of Need: Defensive Line, Wide Receiver
Recruiting Highlights: With the emergence of quarterback Derek Carr, Fresno State added to its wide receiver depth with the signing of Aaron Peck and Justin Johnson. As a senior at JW North High in Moreno Valley, Calif., the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Peck caught 38 passes for 769 yards (20.2 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns while recording three 100-yard receiving games. While Johnson missed most of his senior season with a knee injury, he nonetheless qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation state track championships, where he qualified for the finals in both the long jump and triple jump, With the defense switching to a 3-4 scheme next season under new head coach Tim DeRuyter, the Bulldogs went after defensive lineman Jean-Marc Brierre (Pauma Valley, Calif./Valley Center High), who at 6-4, 275 can play both defensive end and nose guard.
Other Signees of Note: Quarterback Myles Carr (Arcadia High, Arcadia, Ca), who is no relation to Derek Carr, was the Pacific League Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 2,484 yards and 30 touchdowns against six interceptions as a senior.
Recruiting Highlights: The Warriors signed three of the state's top prospects in linebacker Benetton Fonua (Kahuku HS), running back Steven Lakalaka (Punahou School) and offensive lineman Kiha Sai (Kamehameha Schools-Kapālama). Fonua was the state's Defensive Player of the Year last season, while Sai was rated as the No. 3 recruit in the state. Lakalaka was selected as the Gatorade Hawaii Football Player of the Year and was rated as the No. 3 recruit in the state, and 36th-best running back nationally by Rivals.com. New head coach Norm Chow was also able to land a number of other players being pursued by FBS schools, including defensive lineman Dejon Allen of Dominguez High School in California, who picked UH over Arizona State; offensive tackle Leo Koloamatangi of Sacred Heart Prep in California, who turned down Purdue; defensive back Ronald Fields of the College of San Mateo, who was recruited heavily by Washington; and Lakalaka, who picked the Warriors over UCLA.
Other Signees of Note: Clark Evans, TE
Nevada Areas of Need: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Wide Receiver.
Recruiting Highlights: Fifteen of the 18 players who will join the team in the fall will come directly from the high school ranks. Nevada signed five junior college transfers, with two - defensive backs Markus Smith, and Nigel Haikins - having already enrolled. The remaining three JC players --- WR Nigel Westbrooks, defensive linemen Shane Pennix and Cortez Woods (a junior college All-American) --- should help fill areas of need. The Wolf Pack signed a pair of quarterbacks in Tyler Stewart (Simi Valley, Calif.), the California State Player of the Year (Division IV) by MaxPreps), and Hasaan Henderson (Las Vegas, Nev.) to go along with a pair of running backs in Chris Solomon (West Covina, Calif.) and Xavier Stephens (Tulare, Calif.). Including Westbrooks, Nevada signed four wide receivers and a tight end in this year's class.
Other Signees of Note: Cody Tuttle, WR; Randy Uzoma, WR
New Mexico Areas of Need: Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Running Back.
Key Losses: Jaymar Latchison, DL; Carmen Messina, LB; Crusoe Gongbay, RB; Deon Long, WR; Anthony Hooks, CB; Bubba Forrest, S; James Aho, K.
Recruiting Highlights: New coach Bob Davie, who spent nine years as an assistant at Texas A&M, dug deep into the Lone Star State, with half of the team's 24 recruits hailing from Texas. But the nugget was Gerron Borne, a 6-2, 275-pound defensive tackle from East St. John High in Reserve, La. Borne, who was also being courted by Illinois, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Borne finished with 49 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, six sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery as a senior. He is said to bench press 330 pounds, squat 485 and have a 27-inch vertical leap. The Lobos also addressed a largely unsettled quarterback situation by signing Cole Gautsche, the New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year in 2011. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Gautsche, a product of Cleveland High in Rio Rancho, threw for 3,085 yards and 39 touchdowns with just four interceptions last season. With New Mexico moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive alignment this year, the Lobos signed three defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs. Defensive lineman Darian Allen of W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas, Texas played in the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Game after finishing his senior year with with 60 tackles, five sacks and three tackles for loss.
Other Signees of Note: Cranston James, DB; Ryan Santos, DB.
San Diego State Areas of Need: Quarterback, Offensive Line
Key Losses: Ryan Lindley, QB; Ronnie Hillman, RB; Tommie Draheim, OL; Kurtis Gunther, OL; Jerome Long, DL; Miles Burris, LB: Logan Ketchum, LB; Abelardo Perez, K; Brian Stahovich, P.
Recruiting Highlights: The Aztecs addressed their depleted offensive and defensive fronts by signing a combined 11 linemen (six offensive, five defensive). But the buzz around San Diego State has more to do with mid-year transfers, a group that includes senior wide receiver Brice Butler, a former standout at USC; senior quarterback Ryan Katz, who transferred from Oregon State; junior running back and former USC recruit Dillon Baxter; and sophomore tight end Aaron Boesch. Butler, Katz and Boesch are eligible to play for the Aztecs this coming fall, while Baxter must redshirt the 2012 season due to NCAA guidelines. Butler, who arrived at USC as a four-star recruit in 2008, had 31 catches for 554 yards and three TDs with the Trojans. As a prep, Rivals.com rated him the No. 13 wideout in the country. Katz played in 18 games for Oregon State from 2008-11, starting 14 contests and throwing for 2,722 yards and 19 touchdowns. Baxter, a former standout at San Diego's Mission Bay High, was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and was rated the No. 1 all-purpose back in the country. Boesch arrives from Santa Monica College, where he caught 26 passes last season for 388 yards and five touchdowns. With the departure of Lindley, a four-year starter, the Aztecs currently have six quarterbacks on the roster, five of whom will be participating in spring drills starting Feb. 21.
Other Signees of Note: Austin Maass, OL; Kwayde Miller, OL; Matt Morin, QB; Teddy Queen, DE; Nico Siragusa, OL.
UNLV Areas of Need: Wide Receiver, Quarterback, DL
Key Losses: Phillip Payne, WR; Michael Johnson, WR; Anthony Vidal, TE; B.J. Bell, DL; James Dunlap, DL; Will Chandler, DB
Recruiting Highlights: With both Phillip Payne, the school's all-time leader in touchdown receptions, and Michael Johnson gone, the Rebels signed a pair of wide receivers in Michael Thomas (A three-star recruit according to Scout.com, which ranked him the No. 155 receiver in the class) and Anthony Williams. Thomas, who comes from Cosumnes Oaks High in Elk Grove, Ca., caught 38 passes for 400 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. He was also a punter who averaged 39.0 yards per punt his senior year. A sprinter on the school's track team, Thomas has run a 10.6 100 meters. Williams comes from storied Concord De La Salle High in Brentwood, Calif., where as a senior he finished with 42 receptions for 985 yards and 10 touchdowns. His high school team was ranked No. 1 in California and was ranked in the top-10 nationally in several different polls in 2011. UNLV, which was largely unsettled at quarterback for the duration of the 2011 season, is also hoping for big things from quarterback James Boyd, a mid-year JC signee who played at West Los Angeles College last year after initially signing with USC. Boyd is the third former Trojan QB to make his way to Las Vegas, following Jason Thomas (2000-02) and Rocky Hinds (2006). Out of high school in 2008, Boyd's accolades included SuperPrep All-American, PrepStar All-American, USA Today All-USA second team, EA Sports All-American second team, Max Preps All-American second team, SuperPrep All-Farwest and PrepStar All-West.
Other Signees of Note: David Greene, RB; Parker Holloway, DE; Marc Philippi, DB; Ron Scroggins, OL.
Wyoming Areas of Need: Offensive Line, Running Back, Defensive Line, Punter
Key Losses: Alvester Alexander, RB; John Hutchins, OL; Clayton Kirven, OL; Josh Biezuns, DL; Tashaun Gipson, DB; Brian Hendricks, LB; Gabe Knapton, DL; Austin McCoy, P
Recruiting Highlights: While head coach Dave Christensen has never signed a large number of junior college players, he feels like the three student-athletes he signed this year can provide some immediate help in two areas -- the offensive and defensive lines -- where the Cowboys lost longtime starters to graduation. Among the top-rated individual players in Wyoming's class are junior college transfers Justin Bernthaler from Fullerton Community College in California and Connor Rains from American River Community College in California. JCGridiron.Rivals.com ranked Bernthaler No. 2 in the nation in its rankings of junior college weakside defensive ends, and ranked Rains as the No. 17 best junior college offensive tackle in the country. Rains earned 2011 California Community College All-America honors. Trent Sewell, a wide receiver from Bothell, Wash., was ranked by Rivals.com as the eighth- best recruit in the state of Washington at all positions. Both Rivals and ESPN ranked Sewell as the No. 1 wide receiver recruit in Washington. Though he was also a standout defensive back as a senior at Federal Way High in Federal Way, Wash. (earning first-team Associated Press Class 4A All-State honors), D.J. May is projected as a running back for the Cowboys after rushing for 1,320 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Tim Gleeson, a native of Melbourne, Australia, gets a shot at taking over the punting duties from Austin McCoy. Gleeson comes to Wyoming after training at Prokick Australia. He was trained by Nathan Chapman, a former Australian Football League player who also punted briefly for the Green Bay Packers. Of the 23 signees announced, over fifty percent of the recruits -- 12 total -- hail from the states of California, Washington and Oregon. In addition, the Cowboys signed one player each from Hawai'i and Arizona.
While I've grown increasingly numb to overzealous parents who envision their sons or daughters as superstars, I've hit the end of my tether with agents who convince unwitting and ill-informed college athletes to abandon their books in favor of blind faith.
Is former San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman making the right decision to enter the NFL Draft? Who am I to say? This much I do know: Hillman's limitations are, well, not exactly limited.
A player who struggled to stay healthy at the college level, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Hillman is not cut out to run between the tackles in the NFL just yet. His ability to get to the corner will be checked by NFL linebackers and cornerbacks who are equally fast. He was a minimal factor in the passing game and did not return kicks his first two years, an assignment he should have asked to take on next season with the Aztecs had he wanted to find a legitimate spot in the NFL.
Instead, a player that was garnering attention as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate next season has likely become another victim of questionable advice from someone who has placed Hillman's net worth ahead of his best interest.
And then there's the case of Wyoming running back Alvester Alexander, who has convinced himself that he, too, is ready for the next level...
The four new football coaches in the Mountain West --- Norm Chow (Hawai'i), Bob Davie (New Mexico), Tim DeRuyter (Fresno State) and Jim McElwain (Colorado State) ---- have a combined 108 years in the business. All four coaches have great pedigrees and are certain to bring the excitement back to their respective campuses. I have a hunch that McElwain has the makings of a monster in Fort Collins, where the Rams have more --- and better --- young talent than any team in the league.
More than once in the past week, UNLV men's basketball coach Dave Rice has said that he'd have a hard time believing that any guard in the country is playing better than Rebels junior Anthony Marshall. Having witnessed Marshall's performance at San Diego State, where he finished with a game-high 26 points before scoring a career-high 27 four nights later against TCU, who's to argue? Marshall, who averaged 7.5 points his first two seasons, is currently averaging 12.0 points. Topping it off, he's averaging 4.7 rebounds. From a guard?
Nineteen Division I players are currently averaging double-doubles. The Mountain West is one of only two leagues (Colonial League) in the nation to feature more than one --- UNLV's Mike Moser and New Mexico's Drew Gordon.
So, the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee can't find an agreeable time for its members to meet and provide the MW with an answer to its request for a two-year exemption from the BCS? I can never reach my wife on her cell phone, either.
And speaking of the advancement of civilization (no, not the BCS), how does one charter a jet in San Diego for purposes of flying to Laramie, Wyoming, and find it necessary to refuel in Cedar City, Utah and Grand Junction, Colo.? The next time San Diego State's men's basketball team opts to charter, which it will later this season when it visits Boise State, it may first want to taxi over to the Shell station at the corner of Laurel Street and Pacific Highway.
Does the MW deserve to be rated above the hallowed ACC in the latest RPI rankings? Other than holding a 3-1 advantage in head-to-head meetings, a better winning percentage against non-conference opponents and having two teams ranked in the top 15, no. ☺
Former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore will take part in the 14th annual All-Star Football Challenge, an event staged in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 as part of Super Bowl week. No word on whether competition in something called the FRS Healthy Performance QB Scramble dictates that invitees be at least 6-foot-4 and weigh a minimum of 235. The word prototypical should be stricken from the English language, particularly when it comes to defining athletes.
The San Diego State men's and women's basketball teams, both undefeated in MW play, have won a combined 22 straight, with each having won 11 in a row. I realize that current men's assistant Brian Dutcher has been designated the "head-coach-in-waiting" by current head coach Steve Fisher, but Dutcher may want to consider filling his own spot with women's coach Beth Burns. Trust me, Burns is not someone with whom you'd care to go one-on-one, be it in a basketball game or an interview session. When a former colleague of mine asked for a sit-down with Burns some years ago, she replied, "Bring a change of clothes."
I don't know if hoops guru Jerry Palm uses bats' wings and eye of newt in his bracketology formula, but his latest NCAA Tournament pairings have UNLV as a No. 3 seed in Albuquerque and San Diego State as a No. 4 seed in Portland, Ore. Palm also has New Mexico as being one of the first four teams out. Don't count on it, Jerry. I've seen the Lobos in this position before.
It's been nearly six weeks since the Mountain West requested a two-year exemption from the BCS, and Brian Murphy of the Idaho Statesman says it's time for the BCS to respond. Now. An exemption would give the league an automatic spot in one of the five BCS bowls.
Former Boise State standout Kellen Moore, the NCAA's winningest quarterback, figures to be under the microscope at Saturday's Senior Bowl. Former San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley will also put his talents on display.
MEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
Taylor Stewart's older sister may be competing in a riding ring these days instead of on a basketball court, but she keeps his competitive fires burning at Air Force.
ESPN's basketball rankings were altered a bit this week when a new league moved into the top five. Which league was it? Here's a hint: It wasn't the ACC.
Patience may be a virtue, but for UNLV sophomore point guard Reggie Smith, it's not a virtue that's easy to practice.
With ex-UNLV players Dave Rice and Stacey Augmon now leading from the sideline, the Rebels are runnin' once again.
WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
Colorado State's 'X factors' playing significant role in formula for the team's fast start in league play.
San Diego State's Chelsea Hopkins healthy and happy after transferring from Duke.
Colorado State eliminating giveaways in MW play and thriving.
Have you seen a news article on the Mountain West, its teams and its players to share with fellow fans? E-mail them to Webmaster@TheMWC.com!
Eleven Mountain West football student-athletes have been granted initial invitations to the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, scheduled for Feb. 22-28 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind.
Boise State paces the MW with seven student-athletes on the initial list of 231 college prospects set to attend the event. BSU defensive end Tyrone Crawford, safety George Iloka, running back Doug Martin, defensive end Shea McClellin, quarterback Kellen Moore, offensive lineman Nate Potter and defensive tackle Billy Winn all received invitations to the combine. San Diego State linebacker Miles Burris, quarterback Ryan Lindley and punter Brian Stahovich and TCU linebacker Tank Carder join those six Broncos on the combine's initial list, which includes only senior prospects.
Underclassmen have until Sunday, Jan. 22 to petition the NFL for early entry into the draft. Once the league has compiled this list of underclassmen, a new expanded list will be sent out including the aforementioned players, as well as a handful of senior prospects who impressed scouts during senior all-star games.
Mountain West Student-Athletes Invited to 2012 NFL Combine
Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State
George Iloka, S, Boise State
Doug Martin, RB, Boise State
Shea McClellin, DE, Boise State
Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State
Nate Potter, OL, Boise State
Billy Winn, DT, Boise State
Miles Burris, LB, San Diego State
Ryan Lindley, QB, San Diego State
Brian Stahovich, P, San Diego State
Tank Carder, LB, TCU
Homecoming for Fairchild
Best of luck to former Colorado State football coach Steve Fairchild, who is returning to San Diego to take the position of senior offensive assistant/special assignments with the NFL's Chargers. Fairchild, who went to high school and junior college in San Diego, previously worked in the NFL as the running backs coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2001-020), served as assistant offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams in 2003-05 and was the offensive coordinator for the Bills in 2006-07.
Colorado State quarterback Pete Thomas has been released from his scholarship. Thomas is eligible for a redshirt season and has two years of eligibility remaining ... The Denver Post is reporting that Don "Wink" Martindale, who served as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator in 2010, could be in line to join Jim McElwain's staff as the new defensive coordinator at Colorado State. McElwain and Martindale were assistants with the Oakland Raiders under coach Art Shell in 2006 ... Wyoming junior running back Alvester Alexander has joined San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman in announcing that he will forego his senior season and declare for the 2012 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, four other Wyoming scholarship players, including freshman wide receiver Josh Doctson, redshirt freshman wide receiver C.J. Morgan, freshman quarterback Adam Pittser and freshman wide receiver Kevin Robertson will not return to the team next season ... Freshman wide receiver Deon Long is leaving New Mexico and will enroll at Iowa Western Community College.
Regardless of who wins Saturday's men's basketball showdown between No. 12 UNLV and No. 22 San Diego State, the outcome will not affect the bond forged between Rebels' assistant Justin Hutson and Aztecs' assistant Tony Bland.
Two former San Diego State men's basketball players are reunited in San Antonio as Malcolm Thomas signs with the NBA's Spurs. Former Aztec Kawhi Leonard was acquired by San Antonio after being selected by Indiana in the first round of this year's NBA draft.
Colorado State football coach Jim McElwain continues to build his staff by adding former Alabama and Clemson assistant Billy Napier.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen promotes assistant Robert Prince to serve as the team's offensive coordinator following the departure of Brent Pease.
University of Hawai'i football coach Norm Chow has tabbed former San Diego State assistant Thom Kaumeyer to serve as the team's defensive coordinator. Kaumeyer orchestrated the biggest defensive improvement in the country as San Diego State leaped from 95th in total defense in 2002 to eighth in 2003.
Hawai'i punt returner Scott Harding, a 25-year-old true freshman, is named to the Football Writers Association of America's Freshman All-America team. Harding hails from Brisbane, Australia. Hawai'i will join the Mountain West next season as a football-only member.
UNLV's football team will play seven home games next season after adding Northern Arizona to its 2012 schedule.
Rebel baseball team shows eagerness to get the 2012 season started.
Have you seen a news article on the Mountain West, its teams and its players to share with fellow fans? E-mail them to Webmaster@TheMWC.com!
If Troy Calhoun is a free-wheeling gambler at heart, he's a master at concealing his cards. Despite falling 42-41 to Toledo on a fumbled fake extra point call that could have won the game for the Falcons, the courage to make the decision and show his players how much he trusted them once again shows the leadership by one of the best coaches in college football.
Never one given to tipping his hand, Air Force's fifth-year football coach is a reflection of the very institution that employs him: disciplined, dogged, determined to wring every ounce of effort out of a football program that more than makes up for in tenacity what it may lack in talent.
So when Calhoun was faced with a decision in Wednesday's Northrop Grumman Military Bowl of playing it safe or playing to win, safe never entered the equation.
And for that, Calhoun, who could make an airtight case for being tabbed Coach of the Year in the Mountain West on an annual basis, is to be congratulated.
Once upon a time, bowl games were more about fun than win-at-all-cost affairs that serve to pad popularity in the polls. They weren't button-down business trips arranged by a corrupt cartel (read BCS) that has taken away the magic and made it all about the money.
To be sure, many will question Calhoun's decision to roll the dice. Rather than kick an extra point and take his chances in overtime, Calhoun took a peek at the odds and realized the future wasn't exactly flush with fortune. Air Force, which had allowed an average of just 15.8 points in its last five games, had surrendered 42 against the Rockets and given little indication that the barrage would soon abate.
With 52 seconds left, Calhoun opted to go for two. That he came away with none, while certainly inducing dismay, was no less worthy of laud. In a situation where most coaches would take the easy way out rather than risk their reputation, Calhoun threw caution to the wind and let the chips fall where they would.
In a game in which the Falcons converted on fourth down on five of six attempts, twice scoring touchdowns in the process, Calhoun conveyed a message that he had every confidence in his players.
If it was a calculated risk, it was no less commendable --- and a comfort to know that college football hasn't entirely been fleeced of fun.
Air Force wrapped up the 2011 campaign with a 7-5 regular-season record, including a 3-4 mark in Mountain West play. The Falcons, who are making a program-record fifth-straight and 22nd bowl appearance overall, will face Toledo (8-4, 7-1) out of the Mid-American Conference. AFA is coming off back-to-back bowl wins over Houston (2009 Armed Forces Bowl) and Georgia Tech (2010 Independence Bowl), and will be making its first-ever appearance in the Military Bowl.
Did you know?
Air Force has allowed an average of just 15.8 points in its last five games. The Falcons have yielded only 6.8 points in the second half of those games. Toledo ranks No. 8 in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 42.25 points per game.
The Series - First meeting.
Difference Makers (Air Force - 7-5 Overall, 3-4 MW)
Offense: Senior quarterback Tim Jefferson completed 98-of-161 passes for a career-high 1,478 yards during the regular season, with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 60.9 completion percentage ranks fourth-best on the Academy's single-season list and is the best since Shaun Carney posted a .642 mark in 2007. Jefferson's 146.36 career quarterback rating is the second best in school history. He became the first player in school history to have consecutive seasons with 10 or more touchdown passes and just the third player at Air Force to have 30 or more career TD passes (32).
Defense: Senior linebacker Brady Amack ranks second in the Mountain West and 15th nationally in tackles with an average of 10.4 per game. Amack has led the team in tackles in eight of the last 10 games, posting double-digit totals in six of the last nine. Amack is also fourth in the MW and 19th nationally with four forced fumbles. His 125 stops are the most in a season since Air Force All-American Chris Gizzi had 179 in 1997.
Special Teams: Senior Jonathan Warzeka set the Air Force career record for kick return yards in the Falcons' win over Army in Week 10. He has 58 career returns for 1,477 yards and ranks third in school history with a career average of 25.5 yards.
Quote of Note
"It's pretty amazing, and nothing short of astounding when you look at the schedule we've played, it's very, very impressive. He's just one of those guys that makes his teammates better, which leaders do." --- Coach Troy Calhoun on senior Tim Jefferson, the winningest quarterback in Air Force history
Difference Makers (Toledo - 8-4 Overall, 5-3 MAC)
Offense: Eric Page, a first-team all-MAC selection as a receiver, kick returner and punt returner, ranks third in the nation with an average of 9.3 receptions per game. The junior also ranks sixth in the country with an average of 169.3 all-purpose yards per contest and is 22nd in receiving yards per game at 93.6.
Defense: Senior cornerback Desmond Marrow leads the Rockets in tackles with 78 this year. Marrow, who has three interceptions, ranks second in the MAC and 14th in the nation with 14 passes defensed.
Special Teams: The do-everything Page ranks 17th in the nation and third in the MAC with an average of 10.9 yards per punt return and is averaging 23.4 yards on kickoffs. He was a first-team All-America selection by the Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation as a kick returner in 2010 when he averaged 31.1 yards per return and scored three TDs.
Quote of Note
"It's going to be a great challenge for us. Their style of offense is something we haven't seen before. It's going to be exciting just to prepare for it and have a different kind of game plan than we're used to." --- Junior linebacker Danny Molls on Air Force's triple option attack
In its ongoing quest to find the perfect gag gift for Boise State, sticking the Broncos with another stiff to stuff their Christmas stocking, the BCS outdid itself this time.
As if further evidence were required to condemn a system soiled by greed and the pervasive air of pomposity, it came wrapped with a ribbon at Thursday night's MAACO Las Vegas Bowl.
In a game that was less about football than a full-blown farce, Boise State, which should have been gearing up for a Sugar Bowl date with Michigan, was instead left with the leftovers.
This time, the consolation prize was Arizona State, which made its case for the postseason by firing its head coach three weeks ago weeks ago and losing its final five games.
This is what Boise State gets for finishing No. 7 in the BCS standings? This is what Kellen Moore gets for winning an NCAA-record 50 games and going 7-0 against BCS teams? This is what a group of seniors is left with after losing three times in four years?
"Everybody is just very tired of the BCS," Broncos coach Chris Petersen said earlier this month. "I think that's the bottom line. Everybody is frustrated. Everybody doesn't really know what do anymore. It doesn't make sense to anybody. I don't think anybody is happy anywhere."
Oh, but they are in Blacksburg, Va., where Virginia Tech, having made its argument for a BCS bowl by suffering its worst loss ever to an ACC opponent in the league's championship game, will meet Michigan in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.
Never mind that Boise State already numbers Virginia Tech among its victims from the so-called "power conferences." Forget the fact that being assigned to the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl marked the fourth time in eight years that the BCS bowl-worthy Broncos were bypassed in favor of a substandard stand-in.
This is the realm of the BCS, a gated community where the have-nots would do well to keep their dirty feet off the well-manicured lawn, where the well-heeled while away the hours goading the golden goose.
It was a question asked of TCU coach Gary Patterson so many times during the course of the season that he could have rattled off a response while juggling bowling balls on a high wire in the midst of a Texas twister.
Ah, the quarterback question. The passing of the mantel from Andy Dalton to Casey Pachall. Exchanging a legend for a leap of faith, supplanting a proven winner with a suspect sophomore whose game experience consisted of a cap, a clipboard and six completions.
You do remember Andy Dalton, don't you? Because in the eyes of Frog fans, the memory has likely grown a bit murky.
Pachall, who in Week 11 laid waste to Boise State's 35-game home win streak, capped his 2011 coming out party on Wednesday with a 31-24 win over Louisiana Tech in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
In the process, Pachall not only led TCU its sixth victory in its last seven bowl games, he also broke Dalton's single-season record for completions (228) and yards (2,921) while yanking the Frogs out of the fire in the fourth quarter.
Pachall, whose reaction to pressure is accompanied by all the anxiety of someone hauling themselves out of hammock, was nothing if not a study in steady. With TCU trailing 24-17 with just over two minutes left in the third quarter, he proceeded to direct a scoring drive that spanned 18 plays (the team's longest of the season) and consumed more than seven minutes.
But the kicker was yet to come. On a night when he was admittedly more pedestrian (15-of-29, 206 yards) than a picture of perfection, Pachall officially distanced himself from Dalton by tossing a game-winning 42-yard touchdown pass to Skye Dawson with 4:26 to play.
In Cincinnati, as the Bengals' starting quarterback, Andy Dalton is being discussed as a candidate for NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Who knows? At some point, the news might even reach Fort Worth.
Former Broncos' Walk-On Will Walk Off With Myriad Memories
Boise State wide receiver Tyler Shoemaker dared to dream --- and came away with a school-record 15 touchdown catches this season. The former walk-on needs 41 yards in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
Boise State All-American Continues to Master His Craft
Nate Potter's pursuit of perfection will serve him well in the NFL. The Broncos' senior All-American tackle will make his 35th straight start in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl.
It's Not About the Bottom Line for Air Force WR Warzeka
The numbers may not add up, but Air Force senior wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka remains focused on the final goal as the Falcons continue preparations for the Northrop-Grumman Military Bowl.
With Attrition Taking its Toll, Cowboys are Looking for Leaders
Wyoming's football team is hardly bereft of young talent, but coach Dave Christensen is more concerned with identifying players who can fill leadership roles.
MEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
After Ho-Hum Start, Rams Hope to Make Hay During Holidays
A year ago, the Colorado State men's basketball team made the most of the holiday break, winning six of seven games to take a 10-3 record into MW play. After starting 5-4 this season, the Rams are going to need to replicate that effort.
Opponents Find Boise State's Taco Bell Arena too Hot to Handle
Picked to finish last by MW media members this year in its inaugural season in the league, Boise State is 8-0 at home, its best mark since 1997-98. Now all the Broncos need do is get word to their fans, who aren't exactly making a mad dash for the ticket office.
Have you seen a news article on the Mountain West, its teams and its players to share with fellow fans? E-mail them to Webmaster@TheMWC.com!
The Salt Lake Tribune reported Wednesday that Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow has accepted a five-year deal to become Hawai'i's next head football coach.
Hawai'i will join the Mountain West next season as a football-only member.
Chow, 65, has 38 years of coaching experience but has never been a head coach. A native of Honolulu, he has served as the offensive coordinator for three national championship teams, including BYU in 1984 and USC in 2003 and 2004.
The No. 7 Boise State Broncos finished their inaugural campaign in the Mountain West with an 11-1 regular season record, including a 6-1 mark in the Conference. Boise State will face Arizona State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas on Thursday, Dec. 22 at 5 p.m. on ESPN. The Sun Devils posted an over record of 6-6 this year and went 4-5 in the Pac-12.
Did you know?
Boise State boasts a three-game win streak against teams from the Pac-12, defeating a ranked Oregon squad in both 2008 (37-32) and 2009 (19-8), and defeating No. 24 Oregon State in 2010 (37-24).
The Series - Arizona State leads 1-0
The Sun Devils, then ranked No. 5 in the country, beat the Broncos 56-7 in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 5, 1996.
Difference Makers (Boise State - 11-1 Overall, 6-1 MW)
Offense: Senior Kellen Moore, the MW Offensive Player of the Year and the winningest quarterback in NCCA history (49), is the first player in the history of the NCAA to record four seasons with both 3,000 yards of total offense and 3,000 passing yards. Moore has thrown multiple touchdown passes in every game the last two seasons, a streak of 25-consecutive games - the longest active streak in the country. He has also thrown multiple touchdowns in 45 of 52 career games. He currently ranks as the nation's active career leader in passing efficiency (169.24), completion percentage (69.64) and is second in passing yards (14,374), passing touchdowns (140) and completions (1,131).
Defense: Senior defensive end Shea McClellin's 19.5 career sacks are tied for 17th among the nation's active career leaders. The total ranks seventh all-time on Boise State's career list. McClellin has two of the Broncos' seven non-offensive touchdowns over the course of the past two seasons.
Special Teams: Junior wide receiver Mitch Burroughs ranks first in the MW and seventh in the nation with an average of 13.28 yards per punt return.
Quote of Note
"Everybody is just very tired of the BCS. I think that's the bottom line. Everybody is frustrated. Everybody doesn't really know what to do anymore. It doesn't make sense to anybody. I don't think anybody is happy anywhere." --- Boise State coach Chris Petersen, after the Broncos were snubbed for a spot in a BCS bowl for the fourth time in eight years
Difference Makers (Arizona State - 6-6 Overall, 4-5 Pac-12)
Offense: Sun Devil RB Cameron Marshall has posted 29 career rushing touchdowns, making him one of only 11 Arizona State players all time to score at least 20 touchdowns on the ground. The 29 TDs put him in fourth place all-time in ASU history. Marshall, who rushed for 1,038 yards this season, is the first Sun Devil to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since Ryan Torain (1,229) in 2006.
Defense: Senior safety Clint Floyd, a second-team all-Pac-12 selection, led the Sun Devils in total takeaways, forcing two fumbles and intercepting three passes. Floyd is also fourth on the team in total tackles with 62.
Special Teams: As if ending the season on a four-game skid weren't enough, the Sun Devils are expected to be without one of their top players in return specialist Jamal Miles, a second-team all-Pac-12 selection who did not make the trip because of personal reasons. Miles had 1,020 return yards for ASU during the regular season, returning two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns.
Quote of Note
"It hurts a lot, just because we as a team worked so hard this off-season. I mean, there was a group of guys who didn't even go home for Christmas (last year) to stay here, to make sure that this stuff didn't happen ever again in this program, and to have that happen, it hurts." --- Quarterback Brock Osweiler on the team starting 6-2 before losing its final four games.
2011 Mountain West Champion TCU faces WAC champion Louisiana Tech in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. PT on ESPN. The 18th-ranked Horned Frogs finished the regular season with an overall record of 10-2, including a perfect 7-0 mark in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs went 8-4 overall and posted a 6-1 record in the WAC.
Did you know?
TCU will be making its second appearance this season at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, having defeated San Diego State 27-14 on Oct. 8. The Poinsettia Bowl will also mark the seventh time in seven years the Frogs will have played at Snapdragon Stadium. TCU is 6-0 in that stretch. The Frogs had four regular-season wins over the Aztecs while posting Poinsettia Bowl victories over Northern Illinois (2006) and Boise State (2008).
The Series - First meeting
Difference Makers (TCU - 10-2 Overall, 7-0 MW)
Offense: Sophomore quarterback Casey Pachall, a second-team All-Mountain West selection, is closing in on a number of TCU single-season records, including completions, completion percentage, passing yards and touchdown passes. Pachall ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency with a 161.87 rating (the highest ranked non-senior or junior), having completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He has thrown for at least one touchdown in nine of 12 games, including multiple scores in eight contests.
Defense: Senior linebacker Tank Carder, the two-time MW Defensive Player of the Year, posted 66 tackles during the regular season, second only to fellow linebacker Kenny Cain. Carder's 224 career tackles rank first among active TCU players. He has returned three interceptions for touchdowns, more than any other player in TCU history.
Special Teams: Senior defensive back Greg McCoy, the MW Special Teams Player of the Year, leads the league and ranks fourth nationally in kickoff return average at 31.6 yards. McCoy, who returned a kick 94 yards for a touchdown in Week 3 against Louisiana-Monroe, also had 99-yard return for a score against UNLV in Week 14. He totaled a TCU single-game record 229 kickoff return yards on six attempts (38.2 avg.) in Week 1 against Baylor, highlighted by 73- and 68-yard efforts to set up TCU touchdowns.
Quote of Note
"(Louisiana Tech) won at Ole Miss and fell to Mississippi State in overtime. They took barely lost at (Conference USA champion) Southern Miss. They got beat 35-34 by Houston. They are a really good football team. They are right there with Boise State and Baylor as far as skill players. They are all over the place with their wide receivers. They've got a good quarterback and a great running back with a big offensive front. Defensively, they've shown they can hold an SEC team to seven points." --- TCU coach Gary Patterson
Offense: Junior wide receiver Quinton Patton, a first-team all-WAC selection, led the Bulldogs with 74 catches for 1,135 yards and 10 touchdowns. Patton ranks 20th in the nation with an average of 94.6 yards per game.
Defense: Senior linebacker Adrien Cole, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year, led the Bulldogs with 121 tackles. On the season, Cole recorded one interception for a touchdown (46 yards), two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He also led Louisiana Tech with 12 tackles for loss.
Special Teams: Junior punter Ryan Allen became only the second player in team history to earn national distinction when he was named the winner of this year's Ray Guy Award. Allen finished the regular season ranked first in the nation in punts inside the 20 (37), punts inside the 10 (20) and third in punting average (46.31 yards per punt). He has 29 punts of over 50 yards this season, with four ranking in the top 10 in school history.
Quote of Note
"We're a blue-collar team. I appreciate that more than anything ... we're kind of like the ugly fat kid that sits alone at lunch. It's who we are, but we enjoy that role and have relished it." --- Bulldogs coach Sonny Dykes, the WAC Coach of the Year
For the San Diego State fan who continues to fidget over the possible flight of Ronnie Hillman to the NFL, brace yourself.
While your worry is warranted, it doesn't even begin to compare to the conundrum forthcoming at quarterback.
You see, while Hillman is eligible for the NFL draft, being three years removed from high school, Ryan Lindley is not only eligible, he's already out the door.
Concluding a career in which he became the Mountain West's all-time passing leader, Lindley's curtain call at Saturday's R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, while not triumphant, was nonetheless a final scene suitable for framing.
A fifth-year senior who was making his 49th career start, Lindley exited with aplomb, completing 28-of-49 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns. The performance marked his highest passing total since throwing for 528 yards against Utah in 2010.
In the process, it also served as a startling reminder of just how understudied his understudies truly are. While an early exit by Hillman, the MW's all-time single-season rushing leader, has the potential to leave less a void than an abyss, consider:
Since installing Lindley as the starting quarterback in 2008, the Aztecs have thrown 1,812 passes. Of those, fewer than five percent have been thrown by someone other than Lindley. In 2011, Lindley, who leaves as the school's career leader in starts, attempts, completions and touchdowns passes, accounted for all but two of the team's 449 pass attempts, one of which came from punter Brian Stahovich.
Indeed, in the past two years, only two other SDSU quarterbacks have attempted passes. Sophomore Jake Bernards is 1-for-1, while redshirt freshman Adam Dingwell is 0-for-1. When the Aztecs reconvene for spring drills in a few months, the quarterback position will be less about auditions than introductions.
Granted, a bolt by Hillman to the NFL would be a staggering blow. But those fretting over unconfirmed fears would be better served by hoping that the vacancy left by Lindley doesn't portend a knockout punch.
If it was a collective collapse, it was no less an opportunity to define deficiencies.
While almost nothing Wyoming did during Saturday's 35-17 loss to Temple in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl resembled its respectable run through the Mountain West this season, one disquieting characteristic remained.
The Cowboys, who struggled to slow quality backs during the regular season, were again undone by that debility against the Owls, surrendering 255 yards on the ground, 100 of them coming from the nation's seventh-best running back, Bernard Pierce.
Whether it be scheme or lack of productive personnel, Wyoming will head into the offseason knowing that while true freshman quarterback Brett Smith can virtually do it all on offense, asking him chase down opposing tailbacks might be a tad over the top.
The Cowboys entered their second bowl game in three seasons allowing 230.1 rushing yards per game, a total that fixed them at 115th among the nation's 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. It was too tempting for Temple, whose average of 256.7 rushing yards per game ranked seventh-best in the country.
In nine of its 13 games this season, Wyoming yielded 200 or more rushing yards. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys' generosity in those nine games produced a mark of 4-5. Also not surprisingly, 51 of Temple's 63 plays were runs.
"They just played physically better than us," said Wyoming coach Dave Christensen. "My hat's off to them. They're a good running team. They're a good football team."
So is Wyoming, a team that will be a whole lot better when the dents in its defense are the result of collisions, not collapses.
San Diego State (8-4, 4-3) takes on Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns (8-4, 6-1) out of the Sun Belt Conference in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. CT on ESPN.
Did you know?
San Diego State, which beat Navy (35-14) in last year's San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, is playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time in its 43-year Division I history. The Aztecs are playing in their seventh bowl game in program history and are looking for the second consecutive bowl victory for the first time.
The Series - First meeting
Difference Makers (San Diego State - 8-4 Overall, 4-3 MW)
Offense: Sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman, who was named to the Associated Press All-America third team this week, broke the MW single-season rushing record with 1,656 yards. He ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game (138.0), 11th in all-purpose yards per game (156.4) and 12th in points per game (12.00). Hillman's 1,656 rushing yards are the second most in school history, eclipsing each of NFL Hall of Famer and former Aztec Marshall Faulk's three seasons, and trail only George Jones' 1,842 set in 1995. Hillman has nine, 100-yard rushing games and six, 150-yard contests, both which have tied a school record. Additionally, his 19 rushing touchdowns are fourth most in a season in school history.
Defense: Senior cornerback Larry Parker, a first-team All-MW selection, established career highs in every category this season, including tackles (56), tackles for loss (2.5), interceptions (7), pass breakups (7), forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (1). Parker's seven interceptions are tied with two others for second-most in the nation and are the most by a San Diego State player since 1969. His 14 pass break-ups are tied for 24th (1.17 per game) in the country.
Special Teams: Senior punter Brian Stahovich ranks 24th nationally in punting average at 43.37. Of his 57 punts this season, Stahovich has landed 17 inside the 20-yard line. Additionally, 44 of his 57 punts have not been returned. He has had 16 punts this season of 50 or more yards.
Quote of Note
"It makes me nervous, but they remind me of Wyoming. They run the same offense. They're a team that wasn't expected to be any good. Wyoming wasn't expected to be any good, but Wyoming turned into a really good football team by the end of the year and they're going to a bowl game, too. (Louisiana) has turned into a really good football team as the season has gone along. Not as many (trick plays) as Wyoming. They are very skilled; they have a lot of seniors on their team so they've got great leadership. They've got really good speed, they're very physical and it's going to be a great football game. I think that the two teams match each other very well. We think we're fast, we think we're tough; they think they're fast, they think they're tough. That's what a bowl game should be." --- San Diego State coach Rocky Long
Difference Makers (Louisiana - 8-4 Overall, 6-2 Sun Belt)
Offense: Junior quarterback Blaine Gautier has thrown for 2,488 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, completing a career-best 63.2 percent of his passes. Gautier, who has thrown for more than 300 yards on four occasions this year, is tied with former Louisiana and current Houston Texans quarterback Jake Delhomme for the school's single-season record for touchdown passes.
Defense: Defensive backs Jemarlous Moten and Dwight Bentley both have returned two interceptions for touchdowns as part of a Ragin' Cajun defense that has returned an astounding seven interceptions for scores in 2011. The mark ties the NCAA single-season record set by Tennessee in 1971.
Special Teams: Sophomore Darryl Surgent ranks second in the Sun Belt Conference and 29th nationally with an average of 9.24 yards per punt return.
Quote of Note
"This is a tremendous day for the Ragin' Cajuns and our football program. I think it's one of the biggest days in the history of our athletic department. It's a great testament to our fans that have been with us for the past 41 years. It's been so long, and there are a lot of people who have put a lot of sweat and a lot of tears into making this day happen." --- UL Athletic Director Scott Farmer, on the team receiving its first bowl invitation since 1970
The Wyoming Cowboys and Temple Owls kick off the 2011 college bowl season on Saturday, Dec. 17 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl at noon MT on ESPN. Wyoming enters the contest with an 8-4 overall record and a 5-2 mark in the Mountain West. Temple is also 8-4 overall and finished 5-3 in the Eastern Division of the Mid-American Conference.
Did you know?
This season marks the first time Wyoming has appeared in two bowl games in a three-year span since 1988-90. Overall, it will be the Cowboy's 13th bowl trip. Wyoming is returning to the site of its most recent bowl victory in 2009, 35-28 double-overtime victory over Fresno State. Mid-American Conference member Temple has appeared in a bowl game just three times, with two of those appearances coming in the last three years. The Owls lost to UCLA in the Eagle Bank Bowl in Washington, D.C., in 2009, 21-30.
The Series - Wyoming leads 1-0
The Cowboys beat the Owls 38-23 in their season opener in Laramie on Sept. 1, 1990.
Difference Makers (Wyoming - 8-4 Overall, 5-2 MW)
Offense: True freshman quarterback Brett Smith, the Mountain West Freshman of the Year, was named to both the College FootballNews.com and Yahoo! Sports Freshman All-American teams. Smith leads all FBS freshmen in total offense with 3,140 yards. He set the MW record for total offense by a freshman, eclipsing the previous mark of 2,691 yards set by TCU's Andy Dalton in 2007. His 3,140 yards of total offense is the fifth best single-season total in Wyoming history. Smith has thrown for 2,495 yards in 2011, placing him third on the MW freshman list for passing yards in a single season. He needs 168 passing yards against Temple to set the MW freshman record.
Defense: Senior defensive end Gabe Knapton ranks No. 5 in school history with 361 career tackles. Knapton's career tackle total places him 10th among active players in the FBS. He also ranks sixth in total tackles in MW history.
Special Teams: True freshman placekicker Daniel Sullivan connected on 70 percent of his field goals (7-for-10) and made 29-of-33 PATs during the regular season. He was the only freshman and one of four MW placekickers with a field-goal percentage of better than 50 percent.
Quote of Note
"It's great exposure. Everyone that is a college football junkie has taken two weeks off and can't wait for it to come back. So, by 12 o'clock on ESPN, we will be that game. I know the exposure we got (at the New Mexico Bowl) in 2009. I walked into the locker room and grabbed my phone and had over 70 text messages. I haven't had more than 20 text messages for any other game. The exposure is tremendous. It's from coast to coast and goes to every household and sports bar. It's huge." --- Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, the MW Coach of the Year
Difference Makers (Temple - 8-4 Overall, 5-3 MAC)
Offense: Junior running back Bernard Pierce has turned in six 100-yard rushing performances this season and ranks seventh in the nation with an average of 125.5 yards per game. Pierce, who has 25 rushing touchdowns in 2011, ranks No. 2 in the nation in scoring with an average of 13.6 points per game.
Defense: Senior defensive end Adrian Robinson, a two-time first-team All-MAC selection and the 2009 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, has started 31 consecutive games. In 12 games this season, Robinson has 47 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss. He has a team-best six sacks, an interception and a blocked kick.
Special Teams: Junior Brandon McManus, who handles both the placekicking and punting duties, leads the MAC with a perfect 46-of-46 on PATs. In his first season as the team's punter, McManus has averaged 45.8 yards per punt, with 15 of his kicks landing inside the 20. Sixteen of his punts have exceeded 50 yards.
Quote of Note
"We're playing a great team in Wyoming. Coach Christensen has done a phenomenal job there. I've watched their team on film. They play really, really hard on both sides of the ball, and they're really well coached. They play in the Mountain West Conference, which is a great football conference, a lot like the MAC-- two strong football conferences with great tradition." --- Temple coach Steve Addazio
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting that Georgia Tech wide receivers coach Al "Buzz" Preston has applied to become the next head football coach at Hawai'i, which will join the Mountain West next year as a football-only member. Preston, who played at Hawai'i, also spent seven seasons with the Warriors as an assistant coach under Paul Johnson, now the head coach at Georgia Tech. Preston has also been an assistant in the Mountain West, serving as New Mexico's running backs coach under current San Diego State head coach Rocky Long in 2007, as well as serving as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at UNLV in 1998.
Fresno State, which is joining Mountain West next season, announced Wednesday that it has hired Tim DeRuyter as its new head football coach.
DeRuyter, who formerly served as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, is the second coach to be hired by a Mountain West school in as many days. Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was appointed as head coach at Colorado State on Tuesday. DeRuyter will join the Bulldogs following Texas A&M's game against Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 31.
A graduate of the Air Force Academy who played linebacker for the Falcons in the early '80s and later served as the the team's defensive coordinator (2007-09), DeRuyter comes to Fresno State with 22 years of experience as a college coach, 16 of which have been spent as a defensive coordinator. He has spent the past two seasons as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
All three of DeRuyter's defenses at Air Force ranked in the top 25 nationally in takeaways. The Falcons' 2009 defensive unit ranked fifth in the country with 34 turnovers gained. Over the past seven seasons, DeRuyter's defenses have averaged 32 sacks per year. Texas A&M's 43 sacks this season tied for most in the FBS.
Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that a second Utah assistant --- defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake --- has been contacted by Hawai'i about its head-coaching vacancy, but that Sitake has not applied for the job. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported earlier this week that Utes' offensive coordinator Norm Chow was among 30 applicants to replace Greg McMackin, who announced his retirement at season's end. Hawai'i will join the Mountain West next season as a football-only member.
Colorado State has Montana native Jim McElwain, 49, currently the offensive coordinator at Alabama, was named Colorado State's head football coach on Tuesday. McElwain has spent the past four seasons with the Crimson Tide, helping direct Alabama to a victory in the national title against Texas in 2010. The Crimson Tide, which is averaging 36 points and 433 total yards per game, will meet LSU in the national title game next month.
The Fresno Bee reports that Texas A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has emerged as a possible candidate to replace Pat Hill as head football coach at Fresno State. DeRuyter served as defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Air Force from 2007-09, and was defensive coordinator at Nevada from 2005-06. He also served as an assistant on two different occasions at Ohio, where Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh spent his previous 10 years before joining the Bulldogs in 2005. Fresno State is expected to join the Mountain West next year as one of three new members, along with Hawai'i (football only) and Nevada.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that at the end of business hours on Monday, the University of Hawai'i had 30 applicants for its head-coaching vacancy in football, including Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow, a native Hawaiian. The Warriors are expected to join the Mountain West next season as a football-only member.
The Denver Post is reporting that the hiring of a new football coach at Colorado State could take place this week. The newspaper said that candidates known to be interested in the position include former CSU player and current Notre Dame receivers coach Tony Alford; LSU wide receivers coach Billy Gonzalez; former Colorado head coach Gary Barnett; Maryland offensive coordinator and former BYU head coach Gary Crowton; and Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.
The Fresno Bee reported over the weekend that former Fresno State and current Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has withdrawn his name as a candidate to replace Pat Hill as the Bulldogs' head coach. Fresno State is expected to join the Mountain West next year as one of three new members, along with Hawai'i and Nevada.
The Oregonian newspaper is reporting that Oregon State defensive coordinator Mark Banker has surfaced as a candidate to replace Greg McMackin as head football coach at Hawai'i. The Warriors are expected to join the MW as a football-only member next season.
With the Mountain West 2011 regular season behind us, we look ahead to next year, when three new schools --- Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada --- will join the league's current lineup (sans TCU). There are some monster holes to fill (read quarterbacks Kellen Moore and Ryan Lindley), yet there are some highly-talented younger players ready to assume center stage in the new 10-team MW.
Air Force 2011 record: 7-5 overall, 3-4 MW MW finish: 5th Next game: Military Bowl vs. Toledo, Dec. 28 All-MW players returning*: PK Parker Herrington, Jr.; LB Alex Means, Jr. Comment: The loss of senior quarterback Tim Jefferson, the winningest QB in Falcons' history, leaves a sizable void. However, the return of current senior Connor Dietz, who will be back for a ninth semester next fall and has ample experience, should make for a smooth transition.
Boise State 2011 record: 11-1 overall, 6-1 MW MW finish: 2nd Next game: MAACO Las Vegas Bowl vs. Arizona State, Dec. 22 All-MW players returning: None Comment: The Broncos will need to develop experience in a hurry. The team's 11 players receiving All-MW honors this year were all seniors.
Colorado State 2011 record: 3-9 overall, 1-6 MW MW finish: 6th Next game: None All-MW players returning*: RB Chris Nwoke, So.; TE Crockett Gilmore, So.; OL Weston Richburg, So.; P Pete Kontodiakos, Jr.; DE Nordly Capi, So.; LB Shaquil Barrett, So.; LB James Skelton, Jr.; DB Momo Thomas, Jr. Comment: The Rams are hardly bereft of talented young players, including quarterbacks Pete Thomas (sophomore) and Garrett Grayson (true freshman). All that awaits is the appointment of a new head coach, who could do considerably worse than inheriting this roster.
Fresno State 2011 record: 4-9 overall, 3-4 WAC WAC finish: 6th Next game: None All-WAC players returning: RB Robbie Rouse, Jr.; WR Jalen Saunders, So.; OL Bryce Harris, Jr.; LB Travis Brown, Jr. Comment: Rouse, the WAC's leading rusher, finished the season ranked ninth in the nation in rushing with an average of 119.2 yards per game. Saunders averaged a WAC-best 21.3 yards per catch with a league-high 12 TD receptions. As with Colorado State, the Bulldogs are in the process of identifying a new head coach.
Hawai'i 2011 record: 6-7 overall, 3-4 WAC WAC finish: 4th Next game: None All-WAC players returning: DL KanielaTuipuloto, Jr. Comment: Quarterback Bryant Moniz concluded the season as the No. 15 passer in the nation, but a team that throws the ball as much as Hawai'i can ill afford to rank 114th among 120 FBS teams in sacks allowed. The Warriors are also in search of a head coach after Greg McMackin announced his retirement this week.
Nevada 2011 record: 7-5 overall, 5-2 WAC WAC finish: T2 Next game: Sheraton Hawai'I Bowl vs. Southern Mississippi, Dec. 24 All-WAC players returning: OL Chris Barker, Jr.; OL Jeff Nady, Jr.; DB Duke Williams, Jr. Comment: With the makings of a solid offensive line and the return of junior running back Mike Ball, the Wolf Pack doesn't lack for offense, particularly with the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Fajardo. In nine games this season, Fajardo has completed 71.4 percent of his passes (142-of-199) for 1,647 yards and six TDs.
New Mexico 2011 record: 1-11 overall, 1-6 MW MW finish: 8th Next game: None All-MW players returning*: WR Deon Long, Fr. Comment: Plain and simple, the Lobos are in desperate need of continuity and productive recruiting, something they hope they've found with the recent hiring of new head coach Bob Davie. Long is a star in the making, having concluded his first season as the leading receiver in the MW.
San Diego State 2011 record: 8-4 overall, 4-3 MW MW finish: 4th Next game: R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, Dec.17 All-MW players returning*: RB Ronnie Hillman So.; TE Gavin Escobar, So.; DB Leon McFadden, Jr.; OL Alec Johnson, Jr.; DB Nate Berhe, So. Comment: Hillman heads into the postseason as the third-leading rusher in the nation at 138 yards per game. Yet being three years removed from high school, he is also eligible for the NFL Draft. The only quarterback to throw a pass for the Aztecs this season other than Ryan Lindley, the league's all-time leading passer, was freshman Adam Dingwell, who had one attempt.
UNLV 2011 record: 2-10 overall, 1-6 MW MW finish: 7th Next game: None All-MW players returning*: OL Brett Boyko, Fr.; DB Sidney Hodge, So.; OL Robert Waterman, Fr. Comment: The Rebels have some talented young players across the offensive front, a group that began to assert itself in the second half of the season as evidenced by the productivity of running backs Tim Cornett and Dionza Bradford. The No. 1 priority in the offseason must be to identify a capable quarterback and to shore up a defense that allowed more than 40 points a game.
Wyoming 2011 record: 8-4 overall, 5-2 MW MW finish: 3rd Next game: Gildan New Mexico Bowl vs. Temple, Dec. 17 All-MW players returning*: QB Brett Smith, Fr.; WR Chris McNeill, Jr.; OL Nick Carlson, Jr.; DB Luke Ruff, Jr.; DB Blair Burns, Fr.; OL Tyler Strong, So. Comment: Few players did more for their team this season than Smith, the MW Freshman of the Year, who enters the postseason ranked 31st in the nation and second in the MW behind Kellen Moore in total offense. Dave Christensen, who earned MW Coach of the Year honors, has a foundation in place that could pay dividends for a long time to come in Laramie.
*Indicates 2011 MW first or second team and honorable mention honorees.
Former BYU head coach Gary Crowton, who played at Colorado State in the late 1970s, told the Denver Post he's interested in the school's head-coaching vacancy in football. In an interview with Post columnist Dave Krieger, Crowton, who is currently the offensive coordinator at Maryland, said he's contacted the school but has not heard back. Crowton, 54, has served as an offensive coordinator at Oregon and LSU, where in 2007 he was part of a national championship while on the staff of head coach Les Miles. He was also an offensive coordinator with the NFL's Chicago Bears and head coach at Louisiana Tech. Crowton led BYU to the Mountain West championship in 2001 during four seasons with the Cougars.
In the Land of Enchantment, the Albuquerque Journal reports that Florida assistant Coleman Hutzler, a football intern for special teams, has been hired by recently-appointed New Mexico coach Bob Davie. According to the newspaper, a Florida media spokesman confirmed on Thursday that Hutzler was taking a position at UNM. Hutzler has also served as a defensive assistant at Stanford. Davie previously hired former Lobos player and New Mexico State assistant Jason Lenzmeier as offensive line coach.
Even though Fresno State doesn't join the Mountain West until July 1, 2012, we're all still interested in who will roam the sidelines for the Bulldogs next football season.
The Fresno Bee reports that former Fresno State offensive coordinator Jim McElwain is drawing strong support from boosters to become the Bulldogs' next head football coach. McElwain, who coached at Fresno State in 2007, has spent the past four seasons as offensive coordinator at Alabama. A former assistant at Louisville, Michigan State and with the NFL's Oakland Raiders, McElwain's Fresno State offense in 2007 averaged 419.5 total yards and 32.9 points.
Whither the Cowboys? Far be it from me to question the voice of the voters, but is anyone else surprised that Wyoming, which pulled off one of the most successful turnarounds in the nation this season, did not place a single player on the All-MW first team? Granted, Cowboys' coach Dave Christensen was a slam dunk as Coach of the Year, and quarterback Brett Smith had no equal in the Freshman of the Year voting, but I gotta believe there's something more to a team that went from 3-9 last season to winning eight games for the first time since 1998. I know Smith accomplished much this season, arguably as much as any player in the league. But for a team that posted a third-place finish after being picked sixth in the preseason media poll, the first-team honors are a tad lean, no?
Bowl bytes: Of all the pending MW bowl matchups, I'm most intrigued by the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, which will pit three-time defending league champion TCU against WAC champion Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs, who lost to Houston by a point and dropped a two-point decision to Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi, are capable on both sides of the ball. Louisiana Tech will enter the Dec. 21 game in San Diego with the nation's No. 11-ranked passing attack and is ranked among the top 30 in both rush and pass defense. Only 16 teams in the country have more sacks. This is one of only four bowl games this year matching conference champions. TCU will be making its second appearance this season at Qualcomm Stadium, having defeated San Diego State 27-14 in Week 6. The Poinsettia Bowl will also mark the seventh time in seven years the Horned Frogs will have played at Qualcomm. TCU is 6-0 in that stretch.
Youth Movement: Aside from the dearth of Wyoming players earning first-team honors, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this year's all-league team is that more than one-third of the players (8) on the first team are underclassmen and five (20 percent) are sophomores. Indeed, very talented sophomores. Among the five are TCU wide receiver Josh Boyce; San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman; San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar; Colorado State defensive end Nordly Capi; and TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga. Boyce finished second in the league with nine touchdown catches, while Hillman set the MW single-season career rushing record with 1,656 yards and led the league in scoring. Escobar was the only tight end in the league to rank among the top 10 receivers (No. 5) in yards per game. Defensively, Capi and Maponga ranked 1-2, respectively, in both sacks and forced fumbles.
Passing Fancy: Two of the most prolific passers in the history of the league --- Boise State's Kellen Moore and San Diego State's Ryan Lindley --- will make their final curtain calls over the course of the next 15 days. Lindley will lead the Aztecs against Louisiana-Lafayette in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 17, while Moore will make his last appearance in the Broncos' meeting with Arizona State in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22. Lindley is the leading passer in MW history, while Moore is the winningest quarterback in NCAA annals. Together, the two have combined to throw for 227 touchdowns and more than 15 miles of passing yards (26,651).
Rare Encounters: Of the five MW teams making bowl appearances, only two --- Boise State and Wyoming --- have previously faced their opponent. Even at that, the Broncos and Arizona State, as well as the Cowboys and Temple, have met only once. Wyoming topped Temple 38-23 in its season opener in 1990, while Boise State fell to then No. 5-ranked Arizona State 56-7 in 1996.
We've reached the end of 2011 Mountain West football regular season, with champion TCU having concluded its third straight unbeaten season in league play. The Horned Frogs, who will face WAC champion Louisiana Tech in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21, will be joined in the postseason by Air Force (Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman), Boise State (MAACO Bowl Las Vegas), San Diego State (R+L Carries New Orleans Bowl) and Wyoming (Gildan New Mexico Bowl). It's the fifth straight year the MW has sent five teams to bowl games. But before any postseason prognosticating, let's rewind to the best of the Mountain West in Week 14.
Player of the Week: Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State. It somehow seems fitting that the Aztecs would wind up in the New Orleans Bowl. Some 20 years ago, a running back out of New Orleans' Carver High signed with SDSU and went on to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. The majority of schools that recruited Marshall Faulk envisioned him as a defensive back. At least one school, Fresno State, saw Ronnie Hillman as a wide receiver. The Bulldogs are likely ruing that assessment now, particularly after Hillman scored four of his team's five touchdowns and rushed for 178 yards in a 35-28 win over Fresno State on Saturday. In the process, Hillman joined Faulk as the only player in SDSU history to post consecutive 1,500-yard seasons. He also set the MW single-season rushing record with 1,656 yards, eclipsing the previous mark of 1,601 set by Colorado State's Cecil Sapp in 2002. In 25 career contests, Hillman now has 15 100-yard games and 12 150-yard games.
Player of the Week Part Deux: Brett Smith, Wyoming. When Brett Smith was asked what he thought of the team's invitation to face Temple in the New Mexico Bowl, the quarterback's response was typical of a true freshman. "Just the thought of going to a bowl game is crazy to me," Smith said. What's really crazy, however, is what Smith has done over the course of 12 career games. In Saturday's regular-season finale against Colorado State, he accounted for 281 yards of Wyoming's 416 yards of total offense, finishing with 191 yards passing and 90 rushing. His 3,140 yards of total offense this season rank as fifth-best single-season mark in Wyoming history. Crazy, alright. And it's only just begun.
Take of the Week: You have to appreciate TCU coach Gary Patterson's reaction to his team being bypassed for BCS bowl game, saying the Horned Frogs have no one but themselves to blame for being snubbed. Had TCU taken care of business against either Baylor or SMU, the argument would be moot. Nonetheless, and at the risk of further damaging my skull while pounding my head against the wall, Virginia Tech has absolutely no business being in the Sugar Bowl. This is a team that is coming off a 38-10 loss to a pedestrian Clemson squad in a game that marked Virginia Tech's most lopsided defeat ever against an ACC team in a league hardly teeming with talent. Topping it off, executive director Paul Hoolihan said that the Hokies' fan base was vital to the Sugar Bowl committee's decision to invite Virginia Tech. Oh, and TCU fans would have stayed away in droves, particularly being within driving distance. No way Boise State gets any fan support if the Broncos are invited to the Sugar Bowl. Give me a break. This is only more of same bombastic BCS drivel that we're subjected to year after year. Rich fat cats getting richer. Ex-San Diego State coach Brady Hoke has had a fabulous first year at Michigan, one that for my money will be made only sweeter by exposing a fraud.
Take of the Week II: A fond farewell to Steve Fairchild, one of the class guys of the MW who will not be back as head coach at Colorado State. Whoever Fairchild's successor may be, he'll inherit some of the finest young talent in the league. And while wins and losses are the bottom line in college football, the new hire will also need to rein in a team that was undone by far too many issues off the field this season. The Rams are not without gifted athletes. What they're lacking is the discipline to put that talent into play. Successful teams are built on character, not a few characters bent on undermining the common goal.
Stars and Stats of the Week
Kellen Moore completed 28-of-33 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in Boise State's 45-0 win over New Mexico. Moore's efficiency rating for the game was 194.52 and his completion percentage of .849 was the sixth best-single performance in school history. Moore set the school record for completions in a season with 300, which is also the third-most in Mountain West history. He also set the MW and Boise State single-season record for touchdown passes with 41. Moore, who moved into fifth place on the NCAA's career passing yards list with 14,347, has thrown multiple touchdown passes in 25 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the country.
Wyoming wide receiver Josh Doctson had three catches for a career-high 129 yards to go along with touchdown receptions of 80 and 35 yards in Saturday's win at Colorado State. As with Cowboys quarterback Brett Smith, Doctson is a true freshman.
TCU senior kick returner Greg McCoy's 99-yard kickoff return against UNLV made him the first Horned Frog since Cory Rodgers in 2005 to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same season. McCoy also had a 94-yard return for a touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe in Week 3. His 99-yarder was the second longest in the team's 11 seasons under head coach Gary Patterson, surpassed only by Rodgers' 100-yard return at BYU in 2005.
San Diego State senior linebacker Miles Burris had six tackles (five solo), including two sacks, in the Aztecs' win over Fresno State. Burris now has 19 career sacks, fourth in SDSU history and the most all time by an Aztec linebacker. He ranks third in school history with 46.5 tackles for loss, a category in which he ranks first in the MW for the second consecutive year.
Quotes of the Week
"We had a lot riding on this game because nothing was promised to us in terms of the postseason. We knew the importance of playing four quarters. At the end we (bore down) and played football." --- Wyoming senior cornerback Tashaun Gipson on the Cowboys' third straight win over Colorado State, the first time it's happened since 1987-89.
"Only a certain number of teams get the opportunity to go (to BCS bowls), and you have to be very lucky. We were fortunate a year ago that Boise State got beat. The key to it is you've got to be good, and you have to be a little bit lucky. I believe the football gods make sure things happen the way they are supposed to happen. We had our two losses. It's a compliment to the program, just where we've come in three years to be considered an outside shot to a BCS game with two losses." --- TCU coach Gary Patterson
"We're ecstatic. The Military Bowl in Washington D.C. is us. That's who we are. When the door came open, you thought, what a perfect fit." --- Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose team will face Toledo on Dec. 28
"I do like jambalaya." --- San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley on the team's invitation to face Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl
"This team's as good as any of the teams we've had. We lost a one-point, hard-fought game to a really good TCU team that continually got better throughout the year. I think it's our most difficult schedule that we've played, but that's as far as it goes for us. We don't have anything else to say....Look at the record, it speaks for itself." --- Boise State coach Chris Petersen
It seems like only yesterday that we were asking whether Casey Pachall could fill the shoes left by Andy Dalton at TCU and wondering if Boise State could once again take down a BCS opponent in its season opener against Georgia. We speculated on whether Air Force or San Diego State could pose a potential threat to either the Frogs or Broncos in the race for the MW title, and raised an eyebrow when Wyoming coach Dave Christensen announced that his starting quarterback would be a true freshman. Fourteen weeks later, we've reached the end of the regular season, with all of the aforementioned questions answered, some of them resoundingly. All that remains is the crowning of a league champion, with UNLV serving as the final hurdle to TCU's bid for a third straight unbeaten MW season. For some, there are bowl bids waiting; for others, the specter of another offseason of what-ifs and might-have-beens looms. In the interim, there's unfinished business. It's the fourth quarter, and the clock is ticking.
Wyoming at Colorado State. Despite Wyoming coach Dave Christensen unleashing the "you can throw the records out the window" cliché earlier this week, it nonetheless carried with it more than an ounce of truth. Since the Cowboys and Rams began their tussle for the Bronze Boot in 1968, the game known as the Border War stands at 22-21 in favor of Wyoming. While this year's contest figures to match a pair of talented true freshmen quarterbacks in Wyoming's Brett Smith and CSU's Garrett Grayson, it's the running game that will likely dictate the outcome. Rams sophomore running back Chris Nwoke has been phenomenal of late, rushing for 269 yards last week against Air Force, the third-highest single-game total in school history. The Cowboys have allowed an opposing back to run for more than 100 yards seven times this season, going 4-3 in the process. Conversely, only four other FBS teams are allowing more rushing yards than the Rams. Wyoming, which can post its first eight-win season since 1998, took a one-game lead in the battle for the boot last year with a 44-0 win in Laramie.
Mick's pick: Wyoming.
Did you know? Wyoming is bidding for its third straight win over CSU for the first time since the 1987-89 seasons.
UNLV at TCU. It's probably safe to say that TCU did not need a bye week to prepare for an opponent it has beaten by an average of 30 points in the teams' four meetings in Fort Worth. It's also probably safe to say that if it doesn't happen again, Frogs coach Gary Patterson might spontaneously combust. TCU is averaging 40.36 points per game, while the Rebels come in averaging 18. Only three FBS teams in the nation are allowing more points per game (39) than UNLV. And while the Rebels have had success running the ball of late, they'll be sorely tested against Frogs' run defense that is allowing just 127 yards per game. TCU still has an outside shot at a BCS bowl should Houston stumble against Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game.
Mick's pick: TCU.
Did you know? A win over UNLV would give TCU at least 10 wins for the fourth straight year and eighth time in the last 10 seasons under Patterson. Prior to his arrival in 1998, the Frogs had four 10-win seasons in their history.
New Mexico at Boise State. When your team is trying to put the brakes on a 20-game road losing streak, as is the case with the Lobos, there are likely better places to do so than at Boise State, which had won 35 straight home games before falling 36-35 to TCU on Nov. 12. It's the final time that Boise State senior quarterback Kellen Moore, the NCAA's winningest quarterback with 48 career victories, will take the field at Bronco Stadium. Moore will be directing the top offense in the MW against a New Mexico defense that ranks 117th among the nation's 120 FBS teams. The Lobos, who will be under the direction of former Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie next season, are trying to avoid finishing 1-11 for the third straight year. Although remote, the Broncos still have a shot at gaining an at-large BCS bowl bid, and should over a lower-ranked Michigan team if BSU finishes in the top 7 and the Wolverines right on the cusp of worthiness at No. 14.
Mick's pick: Boise State.
Did you know? With a win over New Mexico, Chris Petersen would become the winningest head coach in Boise State history, surpassing Tony Knapp, who went 71-6 from 1968-75.
Fresno State at San Diego State. As the only California school in the Mountain West, it's been some time since San Diego State could boast of a Border War ala Colorado State-Wyoming, or play for a treasured piece of hardware like the Ram-Falcon Trophy, annually presented to the winner of Colorado State-Air Force. Rivalry is a term seldom tossed about at SDSU, simply because a rivalry would dictate that the Aztecs face a team within the state, or at least one closer than UNLV, nearly 350 miles distant. Enter future MW member Fresno State, a team the Aztecs have faced more than any other (50 times) in a series that began in 1923. The contest marks the final appearance at Qualcomm Stadium for senior quarterback Ryan Lindley, the league's all-time passing leader. In addition, two of the top running backs in the nation --- SDSU's Ronnie Hillman and the Bulldogs' Robbie Rouse --- will match talents. Hillman is currently the No. 4 rusher in the nation with an average of 134.4 yards per game, while Rouse, a former San Diego prep standout, ranks No. 8 at 124.4.
Mick's pick: San Diego State
Did you know? Over a span of 50 games, a mere six points separate the teams in the series, with the Aztecs having outscored Fresno State 1,017-1,011.
Game of the Week: Wyoming at Colorado State. The Border War. The Bronze Boot. Two schools separated by 65 miles. A rivalry that began in 1899. Never mind that Wyoming is bowl eligible while Colorado State is headed home for the postseason. Pride has a funny way of leveling the playing field. In the 43 years that the Bronze Boot has been at stake, the series stands at 22-21, the Cowboys having gained the upper hand with wins in each of the last two seasons. What CSU desperately wants to avoid is a repeat of last year, when a then 2-9 Wyoming team sent the Rams back to Fort Collins lugging the offseason burden of a 44-0 loss. While the Cowboys have proven they can win away from War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, having beaten both San Diego State and Air Force on the road, CSU has struggled mightily at home. The Rams have not won at Hughes Stadium since defeating Northern Colorado in Week 2.
Trophy of the Week Part 2: While Wyoming and Colorado State will square off for the Bronze Boot, San Diego State will renew acquaintances with former rival and future MW member Fresno State. The game has been billed as the "Battle for the Oil Can," a reference to fans who needed a can of oil for their thirsty cars when making the trip between San Diego and Fresno during the rivalry's early years. The "Battle for the Oil Can" was coined as the result of a contest that was run jointly by the Fresno State and San Diego State Alumni Associations this fall. Entrants were asked to suggest a name for the game as well as a commemorative trophy. Of the 65 entries received, one told of the discovery of an oil can from Fresno (circa 1935) that was supposedly recovered during a San Diego State campus building project. Though the series has been interrupted by changes in conference membership, it dates back to 1923, with the Aztecs holding a 26-20-4 lead. This is the first meeting between SDSU and Fresno State since 2002.
Take of the Week: When New Mexico concludes its season at Boise State on Saturday, Lobos interim head coach George Barlow will step aside for Bob Davie, who was announced as the school's 31st head coach two weeks ago. Barlow, who took over when Mike Locksley's position was terminated in September, has been nothing if not the epitome of integrity during his time at the helm. The team's former defensive coordinator, Barlow inherited a job rife with turmoil, low on morale and one strained by persistent struggle. And while he may not have achieved the desired result, he certainly gained the admiration of his players and peers, doing what he could to mend a program dogged by far too many desultory days. Here's hoping Davie at least gives Barlow ample consideration for a staff position. Nice guys don't always have to finish last.
Quarterback Matchup of Week: Wyoming's Brett Smith vs. Colorado State's Garrett Grayson. While there's little question that Smith is the future of Wyoming football, Grayson, who has started two straight games, has provided evidence that these two true freshmen could be doing battle for a long time to come. Both are multi-dimensional, with the ability to hurt opposing defenses with their feet as well as their arm. Despite enduring his share of struggles in last week's loss at Boise State, Smith has a combined 15 touchdowns over the past six games (nine passing, six rushing). Grayson, in his two starts, has completed 22-of-41 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns. He has also rushed 23 times for 96 yards.
Keep an Eye on: San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman. While 21 seniors will be playing in their final home game for San Diego State this weekend, Hillman could also be making his final appearance at Qualcomm Stadium. A sophomore, Hillman is eligible for the NFL Draft in April because he is three years removed from high school. He signed with SDSU in 2009, but his admission to the university was delayed while an entrance requirement issue was being resolved. The fourth SDSU player to break the 3,000-yard rushing mark and the fifth player to do so in MW history, Hillman has 14 100-yard performances in 24 games and has rushed for more than 150 yards in a game 11 times.
Player of the Week: Tim Jefferson, Air Force. For those needing additional evidence as to why Jefferson is the winningest quarterback in Air Force history, look no farther than Saturday's game at Colorado State. In a game the Falcons had to win to avoid becoming the first team in coach Troy Calhoun's five seasons to fail to become bowl eligible, Jefferson was masterful, completing 9-of-12 passes for 221 yards and matching a career high with three touchdown passes. Eight of his nine completions resulted in first downs, as did two of his four rushes, as he averaged 9.5 yards per carry. He completed 3-of-6 passes for 131 yards in a second quarter that culminated in a 31-point outburst, the third-highest scoring quarter in Air Force history. Oh, and he punted once for 43 yards. Football may be a team game, and perhaps no more so than at the Academy, but the Falcons better have someone awfully special waiting in the wings when Jefferson's playing days conclude next month.
Player of the Week Part Deux: Chris Nwoke, Colorado State. While the Rams have been eliminated from the bowl picture for the third straight season and have little on the line but pride in this week's Border War game against Wyoming, Nwoke is playing as though every snap might be his last. Having secured the starting tailback job at a position that has been in flux far too long, Nwoke will head into the 2012 season as one of the league's top talents. His 269 yards rushing against Air Force on Saturday represented the fourth highest single-game total in MW history and established a Hughes Stadium record that spanned 227 games since the venue's opening in 1968. Since breaking into the starting lineup in Week 8 against UTEP, Nwoke has averaged an eye-popping 162 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry. When coaches talk about players they can build around, this is what they mean.
Team of the Week: Air Force. When it mattered most, the Falcons were at their best. While a 3-4 record in league play was far from the forecast of a third-place finish in the league's preseason media poll, Air Force regrouped to win four of its final five games and pocket seven or more wins in five straight seasons for the first time in school history. The resurgence came despite a season-long rash of key injuries and was made all the more gratifying by a schedule that from Week 5 through Week 9 saw the Falcons play four of five games on the road.
Take of the Week: With the final week of the regular season upon us, one thing is certain: where MW football is concerned, the future is flush with talent. From Nwoke, a sophomore, to Wyoming true freshman quarterback Brett Smith, hardly a week has gone by when at least one underclassman hasn't had a dramatic impact on his team's performance. Statistically, six of the league's 16 offensive categories feature sophomores at the top of heap. If not for Boise State senior quarterback Kellen Moore, who leads the MW in passing, pass efficiency and total offense, every category in the league save scoring (kick) and kick return average would be led by an underclassman. Defensively, five of the league's 10 statistical categories are paced by non-seniors.
Stars and Stats of the Week
With his 272 yards of total offense against Wyoming, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore eclipsed 3,000 yards for the fourth-consecutive season (3,137). He is just the second player in NCAA history to amass 3,000 yards of total offense four times in his career (Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan; 2006-09). Moore also became the second player in NCAA history to surpass 3,000 yards passing in four different seasons (Timmy Chang, Hawai'i; 2000, 2002-04).
Air Force senior running back Asher Clark rushed for 115 yards against Colorado State to post his second straight 1,000-yard season. He is just the third Falcon ever to have two 1,000-yard seasons and just the second to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
UNLV sophomore running back Tim Cornett finished with a career-high 136 yards on 15 carries against San Diego State to mark his third 100-yard game of the season. Cornett's effort marked the sixth 100-yard game of the year for UNLV (three by Cornett and three by true freshman Dionza Bradford), the most for the program since posting the same number in 2007.
After missing the majority of the last game and a half with an ankle injury, San Diego State sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman rushed for 192 yards on 32 carries against UNLV. Hillman recorded his eighth 100-yard rushing game of the year, which is tied for second most in school history with Marshal Faulk (1991 and 1992) and broke former BYU receiver Austin Collie's Mountain West record (1,688) for most all-purpose yards in a single season by a sophomore with 1,699. He also broke the MW sophomore record for most rushing yards in a season with 1,478, previously held by New Mexico'sDonTrell Moore (1,450).
Quotes of the Week
"This senior class has been nothing short of remarkable in all ways. I've never been around a group of kids that has been able to get more out of their talents, out of their abilities, than those guys." --- Air Force coach Troy Calhoun
"I think I've been lucky and blessed to be in the right situation at the right time. We've had, obviously, tremendous players. I think one thing is the coaches we've had around here and been able to keep around here and the continuity. All those things add up." --- Boise State coach Chris Petersen, on tying the school record for career coaching wins
"We knew we were in for a battle. We didn't play worth a darn in the first half, on offense or defense. We gave up two long runs on defense and our offense couldn't put the ball in the end zone except for one long run by Ronnie [Hillman]. So, we didn't play again in the first half, but we were good enough in the second half, and showed enough character that we found a way to win." ---- San Diego State coach Rocky Long, on his team's win at UNLV
Mick McGrane has covered the Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999. He spent 12 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he served as the beat writer for San Diego State football and men's basketball. He currently represents the MW as a member of the Football Writers Association of America All-America Committee and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. McGrane serves as senior writer to the Mountain West, providing readers with exclusive, in-depth information about the Conference by highlighting its 10 member institutions and contributing feature stories on student-athletes that participate in the league's 18 sponsored sports.
Mark Knudson is a Colorado State journalism school graduate and a 12-year veteran of professional baseball. During his playing career, Mark pitched for three major league teams, including the Colorado Rockies, where he was the first Colorado native to play for the hometown team. He recorded wins over three of the four legendary pitchers who make up the 4,000 strikeout club: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. His win over Ryan came for the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day in 1991.
Since his retirement, Mark has been a feature writer and columnist for Mile High Sports, a radio talk show host and TV analyst for numerous sports media outlets. For the past six years, he was a columnist and baseball analyst for The Mtn., along with being one of Colorado's six Heisman Trophy voters.