A Wide Open Mountain West Conference

Picking the Mountain West Conference Champion for the 2006 season could be riskier than riding shotgun with Mel Gibson on a Friday night. Whatever team does finish first in the Mountain West this year, they very well should expand the respect the conference has gained with the success of Utah in 2004 and last year with Texas Christian University.

TCU’s 8-0 conference record, 11-1 overall, was definitely a shocker considering the Horned Frogs were picked to finish fifth by most prognosticators. Ya’ think the MWC teams should have noticed something when TCU knocked off Oklahoma in Norman in their opening game last year?

I am looking at the MWC as a three-team race this year between the afore-mentioned reptiles along with Joe Pesci’s favorite team, the Utah Utes, and Donny Osmond’s preferred school, BYU. San Diego State is the Rip Van Winkle of the league.

I believe Utah is going to win the race to the top of the MWC. First, they play both TCU & BYU at home. The Utes have a very efficient quarterback in Brian Johnson, who was fourth in the nation last year in total offense. This will be the second year under head coach Kyle Whittingham after Urban Meyer went south to work on his tan. Whittingham should be more comfortable in the head role this year.

Utah had the best recruiting class in the MWC and could have some real beasts in the defensive line with JUCO transfer Aaron Tonga and freshman Joe Faifili. The defense will be led by all-MWC cornerback Eric Weddle in a strong secondary. The biggest question mark is at running back, where there are a lot of young candidates.

BYU has the quarterback with the best chance of moving to the next level, John Beck. BYU ranked sixth in the nation last year in passing offense scoring 33 points per game. This year, with eight starters returning on the offensive side, the Cougars are going to be even more explosive, especially after getting a year under their belt with offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s spread system. Yep, BYU lost star WR Todd Watkins, but they have true frosh speedster McKay Jacobson for Beck to hit deep. The running attack should improve with a quality veteran offensive line.

BYU has a strong revenge motive as they lost to TCU last year after leading 41-29 but suffered 9 defensive starter injuries during the game. An unlikely Frog late comeback spelled defeat for the men from Salt Lake. If the Cougars can survive their first three non-conference games against Arizona in Tucson, Tulsa, and a long trip to Boston College, they should have the fortitude and confidence to battle for the championship.

I don’t think 2006 is going to be the “Year of the Lizard” in the Mountain West. Even though the pigskin is an oblong shape, it sure bounced in the right direction for TCU last year. Luck was definitely TCU’s lady last year as they had four regular season wins of seven-points or less along with a net gain of 21 turnovers. It will be hard to maintain those numbers again this year.

TCU has one of the best coaches in the nation nobody knows about except his wife and Frog fans, Gary Patterson. Last year TCU was an unknown team, this year they have a bullseye on them bigger than a Target store sign.

TCU has inexperience at the offensive line and has two new starting cornerbacks. They also have to replace WR playmaker Cory Rodgers. Strong special teams and excellent pass rushing defensive ends will help keep TCU a threat to win it all in the Mountain West.

San Diego State hired the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator and Iowa University quarterback, Chuck Long, as their new head coach. There is even more of a Big 12 look to the Aztecs this year with new DC Bob Elliott and OC Del Miller, both from Kansas State. Yes, having a new coaching staff is strike one against them for over-achieving this year. But, it could be time for this historical under-achieving team to do a flip-flop. A new ball-control offense should help.

Even though the offense lost high-quality WR Jeff Webb to graduation (yes, they do have some graduates at SDS), they have a quality QB in Kevin O’Connell and somebody to handle Long’s desired run-first offense in future NFL’er RB Lynell Hamilton. Eight returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, including a stalwart secondary, should show strong improvement from their middle of the road quality last year.

Okay, who are the guys treading water in the Mountain West? Start with Sonny Lubick’s Colorado State who have a new quarterback coming in to lead the power-running offense. The Rams have the back, Kyle Bell, to hand off to, but should take a step down in passing efficiency from last year’s Justin Holland.

While CSU should be greatly improved on defense with seven returning starters, they still have the scarlet letter of being 115th in the nation in rushing defense last year. I believe this to be a “play-on” team, but they just don’t have the playmakers to make it a special team. A tough non-conference schedule with their traditional Colorado game and trips to WAC powers Nevada and Fresno State will help spell out the Ram’s MWC fate.

Next, we have the crowd of teams wanting to move up to conference respectability. So many questions exist for each of the teams that any of them could finish sixth or ninth. The proud New Mexico Lobos led by coach Rocky Long should finish at the top of the second-division heap.

The Lobos have tradition and a new offensive coordinator, Bob Toledo, former HC of the UCLA Bruins. Expect a different style offense to be put in by Toledo, normally not a good sign for success. However, New Mexico does have the type of QB Toledo needs to run his offense, Kole McCamey. He can run and he can pass. Unfortunately, he no longer will be passing to star WR Hank Baskett nor handing off to primo conference back Dontrell Moore.

New Mexico has a good schedule with no back to back conference road games. However, the Lobos have a lot of unproven players and a lack of playmakers in an offense needing them.

I must confess, I have been a season-ticket holder for UNLV football for six years straight. It is not that I am into punishing myself, you just don’t get the chance to see much “big-league” sports in Las Vegas. Plus, we have really good seats and you don’t have to worry about getting a good parking space!

UNLV has a coach from a winning Utah program who appears to be a good recruiter. Well, at least he is landing the “problem cases” from some major Pac-10 schools. I don’t know if the UNLV athletic department needs a good counselor or a good probation officer. Regardless, UNLV has some players who could be All-MWC with the most important one being QB Rocky Hinds, a transfer from USC.

Not only was the UNLV defense last in the Mountain West last year by a huge margin there is again a significant lack of depth which could bury the Rebels if the injury bug hits them again. A secondary is bolstered by a number of Pac-10 transfers, but is still thinner than Kate Moss during her “wild days”.

Air Force is not flying high and it is not due to high fuel costs. There is a lot of talk that head coach Fisher DeBerry’s time has come, regardless of 23 years of being in charge of a very proud program. However, just as in TCU’s case where they won a number of very close games, the Falcons lost four games by a total of ten points. While they were blown out by BYU & TCU, in all fairness they had a number of injuries, especially in their mind-numbing loss to Army.

While back-to-back losing seasons should not portend a gloomy Air Force future, it does raise dark clouds. To keep his job, DeBerry needs to beat Navy and Army at the minimum. A four-win conference season would then equate to a bowl for the hard-working Falcons.

Okay, Wyoming coach Joe Glenn made the cover of a national sports magazine last year (I believe it was the Sporting News). So did Cowboy hoops player, Fennis Dembo, who scored 41 points in a victory over the UCLA Bruins in the NCAA 1987 Tournament, but that was Sports Illustrated.

The point being, anybody from Wyoming making the cover of any national magazine should not create more excitement than some good fly fishing in the Cowboy State. The Pokes started well last year at 4-1, but fell off their horse in an 0-6 spin. Wyoming has a very good RB in Wynel Seldon with four returning offensive linemen, but questions at QB, the secondary, and on special teams mean the Cowboys are fighting to stay out of the cellar with UNLV, Air Force, and New Mexico.

The Mountain West Conference champion might slip into a BCS Bowl game this year. TCU joining the MWC last year was the best thing that could have happened to this mid-level group as the Horned Frogs showed that a great defense can overcome any gimmick or pass-heavy offense out there. It is a fun conference to watch and one that I do believe is on the rise. They are scheduling against major conferences and have had good success recently against more “name schools”.

It should be an exciting race in the young Mountain West Conference this year, one that is wide-open.