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.
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.
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.
Two weeks remain in the regular season, and while we'll need to wait a week to crown a champion with league leader TCU being idle on Saturday, much remains to be settled. Will another week of upsets across the national landscape give new life to Boise State's BCS bowl hopes? Can Air Force come away bowl eligible in its must-win game at Colorado State? Will Wyoming be content with having simply gained bowl eligibility, or will the Cowboys take their game to another level at Boise State? Will San Diego State answer the opening bell at UNLV, or be doomed by another disastrous first half? Pull up a chair and let's talk turkey --- assuming you've yet to get your fill.
Air Force at Colorado State. It's a one-game season for the Falcons, who can become the Academy's first team to win at least seven games for the fifth straight season. Air Force, which has won five straight and six of the last seven in the series, is 12-8 all time in games played in Fort Collins. A knee injury suffered by CSU starting quarterback Pete Thomas two weeks ago is likely to result in a second straight start for true freshman Garrett Grayson. But this game will be decided on the ground, where two of the league's top backs --- Air Force's Asher Clark and CSU's Chris Nwoke --- will square off. The Falcons' defense has pitched a shutout in the second half in three of the last four games. While the Rams are trying to put the brakes on a six-game losing streak, there's too much pride at stake for Air Force's senior class, which would be the first to fail to become bowl eligible during coach Troy Calhoun's five-year tenure.
Mick's pick: Air Force
Did you know? Air Force is 12-4 under Calhoun in the month of November, with three of the four losses coming against nationally-ranked teams, including two on the road.
Wyoming at Boise State. While Broncos quarterback Kellen Moore and Cowboys signal caller Brett Smith rank 1-2, respectively, in total offense in the MW, this battle for second place could well hinge on Boise State's running game. Wyoming enters the contest ranked 116th among the nation's 120 FBS teams in rush defense and will face a running back in Doug Martin who is 115 yards removed from the 1,000-yard plateau. Conversely, the Cowboys' rushing attack, paced by the do-everything Smith, could give the Broncos problems. Boise State struggled in that department against Air Force, which was beaten at home by Wyoming earlier this month. The Cowboys are no fluke, but they must also win on the road against a team they have never beaten (0-5) and one that could still gain access to a BCS bowl, however remote the possibility.
Mick's pick: Boise State.
Did you know? A win over Wyoming would give the Broncos 10 wins for the sixth-consecutive season, tied for the longest active streak in the country (Virginia Tech).
San Diego State at UNLV. The Aztecs are in position post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1995 and 1996. To do so, however, SDSU must first eliminate emerging from the locker room as though just stirred from a prolonged slumber. After allowing 30 points in the first half before pitching a shutout over the final 30 minutes in a loss to Wyoming on Oct. 29, SDSU found itself staring at a 42-14 deficit at the break in last week's 52-35 loss to Boise State. "We say something about that every single day," coach Rocky Long said this week. "Not just the day before the Boise State game, not just the day before the Michigan game, we say it every day. If you have children, you know that they believe what they want to believe. Sooner or later, we'll convince them and then we'll be on our way." UNLV could provide the ideal remedy, given the Rebels have been outscored 201-92 in the first half this season. UNLV, which had 227 yards rushing last week at Air Force, has gained at least 150 yards on the ground in five consecutive games for the first time since 2002.
Mick's pick: San Diego State.
Did you know? SDSU assistant head coach/running backs coach Jeff Horton twice worked at UNLV, serving as an assistant in 1990-91 and then as head coach from 1994-98.
The weeks roll on, the stakes grow higher. While Boise State, San Diego State and TCU are all bowl eligible, two other Mountain West teams --- Air Force and Wyoming --- can ill afford missteps over the course of the season's final three weeks. With the Falcons and Cowboys having played two games this season against FCS opponents, both must win seven games to be included in the bowl picture. Wyoming (6-3) entertains New Mexico this week, while Air Force hosts UNLV. Where the Falcons are concerned, there's no safety net beneath the high wire. Air Force, the only MW team with an open date in the season's final week, is 5-5 and closes out the schedule at Colorado State on Nov. 26. Following its meeting with the Lobos on Saturday, Wyoming has consecutive road dates at Boise State and rival Colorado State. Depending on available slots, should San Diego State, Air Force and Wyoming all garner bowl bids, the league would have five teams taking part in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year.
New Mexico at Wyoming. No one need remind the Cowboys about last year's meeting with the Lobos, whose only win of the season came in a 34-31 victory over Wyoming in Albuquerque. New Mexico won its first game of the season last week, besting UNLV 21-14. This year's edition of the Cowboys, however, bears little resemblance to that of 2010. With true freshman quarterback Brett Smith playing well beyond his years, and a defense that ranks No. 2 in the nation in turnover margin, Wyoming's success story is no fluke. It's Senior Day at War Memorial Stadium. Let the postseason celebration begin in Laramie.
Mick's pick: Wyoming.
Did you know? The Cowboys' record of 6-3 vs. last year's mark of 3-9 has them tied with Cincinnati and Clemson for the fifth most improved team in the nation and most improved in the MW.
UNLV at Air Force. It's been a maddening season of stops and starts for Air Force, which was picked to finish third in the MW preseason media poll but has won consecutive games only twice this season. Much of the Falcons' woes stem from an inability to stop the run, where key injuries across the defensive front have left Air Force with a ranking of 111th in rush defense among the nation's 120 FBS teams. UNLV has found success running the ball, particularly with the emergence of true freshman Dionza Bradford, who has posted three 100-yard rushing games in his last four outings. Still, the Rebels have lost 14 consecutive MW road games and have not won at the Academy in a decade. It's the final home appearance for Air Force's seniors, who have no intention of becoming the first group to fail to qualify for the postseason during coach Troy Calhoun's five-year tenure.
Mick's pick: Air Force.
Did you know? Bradford, who ranks ninth in the nation among freshmen with 569 yards rushing, needs just 56 yards in the team's final three games to break the UNLV freshman season record of 624 set by James Wofford in 1997.
No. 11/10 Boise State at San Diego State. It's not been the easiest of seasons for Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley, who has frequently had to practice patience with a receiving corps depleted by injury and bereft of experience. Nontheless, much could be riding on the right arm of the Mountain West's career leader in passing yards. SDSU standout running back Ronnie Hillman has been nursing a high ankle sprain suffered last week against Colorado State and could be a game-time decision. Hillman's backup, Walter Kazee, also was injured against CSU, suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Broncos, meanwhile, are expected to be without injured cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Ebo Ma-kinde. They are not, however, without conviction in the wake of last week's loss to TCU. Albeit remote, Boise State still has an opportunity to garner a BCS bowl bid.
Mick's pick: Boise State.
Did you know? Boise State has not lost consecutive games since 2007, when it fell to Hawai'i in its regular-season finale before losing to East Carolina in the Hawaii Bowl.
Colorado State at No. 19 TCU. For the vast majority of freshman quarterbacks, the learning curve is a steep one. For freshman quarterbacks making their first career start against a defense that has ranked as the nation's best each of the past three seasons, steep is the equivalent of scaling Everest in roller skates. With Colorado State starting quarterback Pete Thomas hobbled by a knee injury suffered last week against San Diego State, all indications are the Rams will turn to Garrett Grayson. The true freshman completed 6-of-15 passes for 26 yards in relief of Thomas against the Aztecs. TCU, which is in search of its third straight MW title, has won a league-record 15 straight home games and 24 of its last 25 at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Mick's pick: TCU
Did you know? A victory over Colorado State would be the 45th win in the last four seasons for TCU's seniors, making them the winningest class in school history.
While the TCU-Boise State showdown takes the spotlight in this week's lineup of Mountain West games, there's plenty to be gained by the winners of other contests around the league in Week 11. With a victory at Colorado State, San Diego State becomes bowl eligible for the second straight season after going 12 years without a postseason invite. A victory at Air Force would give Wyoming six wins. The Cowboys, who close out the season with New Mexico, Boise State and Colorado State, need seven wins to become bowl eligible due to a schedule that includes two FCS teams. Meanwhile, something's got to give in Albuquerque, where New Mexico is trying to snap the longest active losing streak in the FBS (12 games) and UNLV is attempting to put the brakes on a 13-game road losing streak against MW opponents.
TCU at Boise State. With the winner almost certain to take home the MW title, the No. 24-ranked Horned Frogs and No. 5-ranked Broncos will settle matters in a regular-season game for the first time. This is the very definition of push coming to shove. Boise State is 72-2 at home and hasn't lost a conference game at Bronco Stadium since 1998, a streak of 47 games. Overall, the Broncos have won 35 straight home games, the longest active streak in the nation. TCU, meanwhile, has won a record 21 straight Mountain West games while tying the conference mark for consecutive league road wins at 11 (BYU, 2005-07). The Horned Frogs are improving, but they've found themselves in tight spots this season against league opponents far less talented than Boise State. The Broncos, who have a BCS bowl game in their sights, roll on.
Mick's pick: Boise State.
Did you know? TCU is the only team Kellen Moore has faced that has prevented him from throwing a touchdown pass (45-of-74, 433 yards, INT).
Wyoming at Air Force. The Cowboys have not beaten the Falcons since posting a 29-28 win in Colorado Springs in 2005. Nonetheless, Air Force has hardly overwhelmed Wyoming during its five-game win streak in the series, with four of the games being decided by 10 or fewer points. For the Cowboys, much will depend on the effectiveness of true freshman quarterback Brett Smith, who was knocked out of last week's game against TCU following a big hit by Horned Frogs linebacker Tank Carder. Equally important, however, will be the performance of Wyoming's defense, which is surrendering 231.5 yards on the ground after yielding 390 rushing yards against TCU. Air Force, which must win two of its final three to gain bowl eligibility, enters the game with the No. 4 rushing attack in the country at 310.4 yards per game. In short, the surprising Pokes are about to find out how far they've really come.
Mick's pick: Air Force.
Did you know? Air Force is 11-3 under coach Troy Calhoun in the month of November. The Falcons were 3-0 last season and have won four straight overall in November. All three losses have come against nationally-ranked teams.
San Diego State at Colorado State. The hosts have much to prove after losing four straight, the latest being a 38-35 setback at UNLV before last week's open date. CSU believes it has found an answer to the inconsistencies in its running game with sophomore Chris Nwoke, who is coming off his first career 100-yard performance. The trouble for the Rams, however, has not only been establishing the run, but stopping it. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, enters the game as the second-leading rusher in the nation at 149.8 yards per game. And while the Aztecs' trademark passing attack has been hamstrung by injury and inexperience this season, CSU can ill afford to make Hillman its main focus. SDSU's Ryan Lindley is still one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
Mick's pick: San Diego State.
Did you know? San Diego State is looking to go to bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in the Division I era and first time overall since 1966 and 1967.
UNLV at New Mexico. The streak stops here, one way or another. UNLV has not won a league road game since besting the Lobos in Albuquerque 34-17 on Oct. 24, 2009. New Mexico, meanwhile, would be delighted with a win regardless of location. UNLV has found something to hang its hat on in the running game, rushing for 182 yards last week against Boise State, the third consecutive game in which the Rebels finished with more than 150 on the ground. This is unlikely to arrive as welcome news for the Lobos, who rank 119th in rushing defense among the nation's 120 FBS teams. While NewMexico may well have played its best football of the season in the first half of last week's game at San Diego State, snapping a MW-record streak of nine consecutive scoreless quarters, sustaining such effort has been problematic at best. The Rebels, who have won three in a row against the Lobos, are about to make it four.
Mick's pick: UNLV
Did you know? UNLV has never won consecutive games in Albuquerque.
Since today is National College Football Day, let's look at some key questions that surround the Mountain West's matchups heading into Week 10.
1. Can Wyoming continue to work its magic against TCU? With a 60 percent chance of rain/snow in the forecast for Laramie on Saturday, one might think the Cowboys have the Horned Frogs right where they want them. But in a game where the winner will hold onto a share of first place and remain unbeaten in league play, it could be the hosts who find themselves on thin ice. As much as Wyoming's tale has been storybook thus far, the Cowboys are still striving for consistency on both sides of the ball. While Wyoming was virtually unstoppable in the first half of last week's 30-27 win at San Diego State, rolling up 396 yards, it was shut out in the final 30 minutes and nearly surrendered a 30-13 lead. What TCU possesses that the Aztecs do not is experienced wide receivers. The Frogs will also pit the league's second-best rushing attack against a defense that has struggled against quality backs (see Ronnie Hillman's 224 yards rushing last week). TCU is thriving on turnovers, having forced 10 during the course of its three-game winning streak.
2. Can Air Force claim its second straight Commander-In-Chief's Trophy? At long last, the Falcons can unpack their bags after having played four of their last five games on the road. This is the beginning of a three-game homestand for Air Force, which has won five straight against Army, a team that has lost 21 of the past 23 meetings against the Falcons and has dropped four consecutive road games. More troublesome to the Black Knights, however, is the health of junior quarterback Trent Steelman, who sat out last week's win over Fordham with a high ankle sprain. Steelman made the trip to Air Force, but coach Rich Ellerson said earlier this week that his quarterback's status for Saturday was questionable. Meanwhile, Falcons quarterback Tim Jefferson, who left last week's game at New Mexico with a broken nose, has been practicing and is likely to start. The game matches two of the top three rushing teams in the country. The Black Knights, led by sophomore running back Raymond Maples, lead the nation with an average of 369 yards per game on the ground. Air Force counters with the country's No. 3 rushing attack (326.88 ypg).
3. Can San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman reach the 2,000-yard mark? Only 14 players in the history of college football have accomplished the feat, the most recent being the trio of Central Florida's Kevin Smith (2,567), Tulane's Matt Forte (2,127) and Rutgers' Ray Rice (2,012) in 2007. With a minimum of five games remaining, Hillman, the nation's leading rusher, is averaging 151 yards per contest. After scorching Wyoming for 224 yards last week, Hillman this week takes aim at a New Mexico defense that ranks last in the FBS against the rush (260.1 ypg). In the last two games, the Aztecs have rushed for 493 yards, 396 of which have come from Hillman. He has 12 100-yard
games, 10 150-yard games and three 200-yard games.
4. Can UNLV use its running game to play keep-away against Boise State? In their 38-35 win over Colorado State last week, the Rebels rushed for 224 yards, their highest total since gaining 275 in a game against San Diego State in 2007. In addition, true freshman Dionza Bradford became the first UNLV running back since 2008 to post consecutive 100-yard games. In a 37-26 loss to Boise State two weeks ago, Air Force rushed for 265 yards while holding a time of possession advantage of nearly 13 minutes. And, indeed, the Rebels' average time of possession this season is actually better than that of Air Force (31:09-29:01). Trouble is, Boise State's rush defense is substantially stronger (No. 2 in MW) than that of Colorado State, and anything you can do the Broncos do better. While Boise State is outscoring its opponents by an average of nearly four touchdowns per game, UNLV's average margin of defeat is almost 22 points.
5. Can New Mexico's Carmen Messina lead the MW in tackles for the third straight year? In a league teeming with talented linebackers, Messina is constancy personified. Playing for a program that has endured a mountain of upheaval and uncertainty in recent seasons, the Lobos' senior seems oblivious to it all. Heading into Saturday's San Diego State game, Messina leads the league with 81 total tackles, an average of 10.1 per contest. Hot on Messina's heels is Air Force linebacker Brady Amack (80, 10.0). Messina, who is coming off a season-high 15 tackle-performance against Air Force last week, has recorded double-digit tackles in five of his last six games and has 23 for his career. He is the active leader among MW players in career tackles with 393 and ranks fourth among active players in the FBS in career tackles.
Key questions surrounding this week's matchups in the MW as we head into the second half of the season.
1. Can Wyoming stop San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman? The Cowboys, who have struggled against quality backs, will be facing the nation's leading rusher when they visit San Diego State on Saturday night. Wyoming, which ranks 100th nationally in rush defense, yielded 170 yards to Nebraska's Rex Burkhead in a 38-14 loss on Sept. 24, and 111 yards to Utah State's Robert Turbin two weeks later as the Aggies cruised to a 63-19 win. The Cowboys did limit UNLV to 257 total yards in a 41-14 victory two weeks ago, but Rebels true freshman running back Dionza Bradford had a career day with 22 carries for 104 yards. Hillman, who is averaging 138 yards per game, was held to 44 yards rushing in the teams' meeting last season in Laramie. Of course, the Aztecs then featured a pair of current NFL receivers in Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, lessening the load for Hillman, who is coming off a 172-yard performance at Air Force on Oct. 13.
2. Can Colorado State find a remedy for its recent struggles? The Rams, who at the end of September were positioned for their best start in five years, visit UNLV mired in a three-game losing streak. The reasons are myriad and equally perplexing. Quarterback Pete Thomas, so efficient as a true freshman last year when he set a school record for completion percentage (64.7), has thrown a league-high seven interceptions. While Thomas clearly has the potential to excel under the tutelage of his head coach, Steve Fairchild, himself a former CSU quarterback, he has found the going considerably tougher in Year 2, some of which can be attributed to key injuries up front. But if Thomas is struggling to find the mark, it's been no less challenging in the running game. The Rams, who were thought to be returning one of the deepest backfields in the league, rank last in the MW in rushing offense. Meanwhile, the defense, which had been the team's strong suit early on, has yielded 1,648 yards and 132 points during the losing streak. This may well be a make-or-break game for CSU, whose remaining schedule includes San Diego State, TCU, Air Force and Wyoming.
3. Can Air Force endure one more road test? During a month in which the Falcons will have played four of five games away from home, the road comes to an end on Saturday at New Mexico. It began with an emotional 35-34 overtime win at Navy on Oct. 1. The following week, Air Force was rewarded with a trip to Notre Dame, returned home on short rest to face San Diego State in a Thursday night game, then served as No. 5 Boise State's first MW opponent in another road game last week. The end result was a mark of 1-3. The Falcons (3-4) have an opportunity against the winless Lobos to get back to .500 this week before playing three straight at home. The last road trip will be by bus when Air Force closes out the regular season at Colorado State. The Falcons will not lose another game.
4. Can UNLV use its running game as an advantage this week? While Sean Reilly and Caleb Herring continue to rotate at quarterback, the Rebels appear to have identified a running back in true freshman Dionza Bradford, who had 79 yards against Nevada on Oct 8 before finishing with 104 in his first career start at Wyoming two weeks ago. The Rams have had issues stopping the run, as evidenced by their ranking of 116th nationally in rush defense. It's become easy to lay the bulk of the blame for UNLV's lack of production at the feet of its young offensive line, but Bradford isn't blocking for himself. At a time when the quarterback position is unsettled, why not let the football team become the Runnin' Rebels, as well? Besides, offensive linemen simply thrive on run-blocking.
5. Will San Diego State's offense continue to overshadow its defense? Ronnie Hillman may be the leading rusher in college football and Ryan Lindley may rank as one of the top quarterbacks in the MW, but the Aztecs can also play a little defense. With head coach Rocky Long now in his third season of also serving as the team's defensive coordinator, SDSU's defense was more than impressive in its last outing against Air Force, limiting a rushing offense that then ranked second in the nation (364.2 yards per game) to 195 yards. Heading into Saturday night's game against Wyoming, the Aztecs rank sixth in the nation in turnover margin at plus-1.5 per game. No team in the country has forced more fumbles (14). SDSU ranks third nationally in fumbles recovered (11) and eighth in turnovers gained (19).
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.