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2011 Mountain West Conference Football Preview
by Scott Spreitzer

The Mountain West Conference is an 8-team league for the 2011 football season. Gone are BYU (Independent) and Utah (Pac-12). The newest member, Boise State, first sought to join the MWC, believing they could join powers BYU, UTAH, and TCU, which would eventually force the NCAA's hand into "promoting" the MWC to AQ (automatic qualifier) status. Well, with two of those three schools off to "greener pastures," and with TCU joining the Big East next season, the Broncos new conference will soon look like their old one, the WAC, with a handful of WAC opponents moving to the MWC in the near future. But for now, Boise State & TCU are believed by most to be the class of the 2011 conference campaign.

Boise State should be the cream of the crop in their first season in the MWC. However, while the drop-off won't be too dramatic, TCU is going to be in a bit of a rebuilding mode thanks to plenty of losses from last year's version. And don't leave out Air Force as a team with an outside shot to upset the "big-2." Most of the rest of the league are light year's away from challenging the Broncos.

Before we get to the individual teams, and before anyone passes over the MWC, just remember that this conference is on an 18-6 winning run in bowl games over the past five seasons. They have routinely been at or near the top in win percentage among all conferences over the last several seasons.

Boise State, with 14 returning starters (7 offense; 7 defense) including QB Kellen Moore, is a national championship contender. They do need to get by Georgia on September 3 in Atlanta. If they do so, the Broncos should be 4-0 when they travel back-to-back weeks to Fresno State (WAC) and Colorado State, before hosting Air Force on October 22. There is some upset potential there if BSU is not on top of their game. The Broncos do get a week off and then a "virtual bye" with a game at UNLV on November 5, before hosting TCU. A road date the very next week at SDSU would be the final potential test before wrapping up the season at home against bottom feeders Wyoming and New Mexico.

The Broncos strengths are obviously the passing game - along with the front-seven on defense. The offensive line should be on par with last season's with three of five starters returning. The ground game loses Jeremy Avery and a total of three of their top five producers from a season ago. But Doug Martin is more than capable of carrying the load and he will be spelled by solid talent that goes three deep. The biggest drop-off this season could be in the defensive secondary where the Broncos must replace last year's strong safety and a corner, but George Iloka is back at free safety. The returning corners have just one INT between them and may take a game or two to adjust.

The Golden Nugget opened Boise a 4 1/2-point favorite over Georgia and the line was quickly bet down to 1 1/2. I happen to feel that the adjusted number is "right-on" in this particular matchup. However, as we inch closer to kickoff, I may find a few reasons to back one side or the other.

TCU should still challenge the Broncos in the MWC, despite losing 14 starters, including eight on offense. Opening up with road games at Baylor and Air Force will not be an easy task for the Horned Frogs, who finished 13-0 last season. The team also has roadies at SDSU and Boise to contend with and a neutral site (Arlington) date with BYU in late October. But other than a potential test with Colorado State, the home slate looks pretty easy. The passing game will take some time to develop. Losing Andy Dalton creates a huge pair of shoes to fill. The fact that the unit has thrown for less than 80 yards combined and hasn't had a single starter win a single game makes those early season road tilts awfully interesting.

The Frogs have to replace all but one on the offensive line, making matters tough on one of the three returning offensive starters, RB Ed Wesley. Teams will likely load-up against the run to try and force TCU to beat them through the air in the early portion of the season. Josh Boyce returns at wideout. The sophomore started 7 games last season and played in all 13. Antoine Hicks had a terrific 2009 season and HC Gary Patterson's offense would benefit greatly if the senior could return to his form of two seasons ago. One note about the receiving corps, Patterson hit pay dirt in wide receiver recruiting and we could see more than one freshman making an immediate impact. Things aren't quite as daunting as it seems on paper and that's why we call for the Frogs to finish 2nd in the conference. The defensive line and secondary won't be as good as last year's, but the linebacking corps should be nothing short of outstanding, especially with future pros Tanner Brock and Tank Carder back for their junior and senior seasons, respectively.

The Golden Nugget opened TCU a 6 1/2 point favorite over Air Force (Sept. 10 in Colorado Springs). The number steadily dropped to 1 1/2. My early summer power ratings make the Frogs 5 points better than Air Force on a neutral field. With home field factored in, the adjusted number looks much more solid than the opener.

Speaking of Air Force, I fully expect the Falcons to give the Horned Frogs a run for their money for the runner-up position in the MWC. HC Troy Calhoun returns six starters on offense and eight on defense. QB Tim Jefferson & RB Asher Clark should run circles around most opponents in the Falcon "flexbone." The offensive line returns three starters, and losing players at the academies is never as drastic as most football programs. The staffs are used to replacing a lot of bodies, for one thing. The O-line may not be as powerful as last year's outstanding version, but I don't expect a huge drop-off, by any means. Four of six return on the defensive line, but Air Force is always prone up front against physical opposing offensive lines. The back seven should be outstanding this season.

Five top players return at linebacker, while seven of their top eight return in the secondary. The Falcons open the season with a 3-game home stretch against South Dakota, TCU, and then Tennessee State, following a bye. The Falcons may very well stand 3-0. But how's this for a stretch?: Air Force follows their first three games with back-to-back road dates at Navy and Notre Dame, followed by a home game with SDSU, and yet another road game at Boise State. That stretch, plus finishing the season at Colorado State is what keeps me from moving Air Force ahead of TCU in my MWC preview.

Steve Fairchild returns eight starters on offense and six more on defense. This is the season for Colorado State to make some noise. They did go to a bowl game in 2008, but after a pair of 3-9 seasons, the Ram faithful should be disappointed if CSU finishes with less than an eight-win campaign. Pete Thomas is one of the most unsung QBs in college football. The sophomore connected on a FBS record 65% of his passes as a freshman last season. He has a decent stable of RBs to hand the ball to, and an experienced receiving corps to throw to. Thomas lines up behind a an offensive line that has combined for more than 60 starts among them. The secondary is a team-strength and the front-seven should be better than a season ago. The Rams have their annual date with Colorado on September 17 in Denver. I make the Buffs 7-points better than the Rams in my current set of power numbers, which means a Ram win is not out of the question. Pull an upset in that one, and the Rams have an outside shot at a 5-0 mark when they meet Boise State on October 15. And again, while eight wins are something to shoot for, I believe the Rams are more likely to finish 7-5. A great improvement over back-to-back 3-9 campaigns.

Brady Hoke was never going to be a "lifer" at San Diego State, but if Rich Rodriguez could have performed better in Ann Arbor, Hoke would be around for at least one more season with the Aztecs. With eight returning starters on an excellent offense, Hoke's presence could have meant a runner-up finish this season. Rocky Long takes over as HC. Long was Hoke's DC at SDSU and he obviously knows the MWC, having been the head coach at New Mexico from 1998 thru' 2008. Long was a miracle worker with the Lobos, and that's one of the reasons why I don't believe there will be much of a drop-off for the Aztecs this season. The offense is in great hands with the return of QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Harmon, a fantastic and underrated QB-RB tandem. There is no replacing wide receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. The two were the most underrated WR-duo in the nation last season, as far as I'm concerned. The opposition will be able to load-up with an extra man in an attenpt to slow Hillman's production while the young receiving corps gains experience. Lindley will have a strong group of TE's to throw to. Eight of the top 10 are back on the offensive line and I expect even better numbers for this group. I'm not too crazy about the Aztec defensive line. But with Long and D-line coach Osia Lewis in charge, they may be better than most think. The linebacking unit and secondary are decent, relative to the MWC, but will have their problems with the better offenses on the schedule. The lack of experience at WR, along with some of the holes on defense, and of course the departure of Hoke, keeps me from moving SDSU ahead of CSU for now. The Aztec shedule is not an easy one. They open with Cal Poly. The Mustangs finished 7-4 last season - and some may remember that they actually beat SDSU in 2008. Cal Poly also gave Wisconsin a scare that same season, before losing 36-35 in OT in Madison. The Aztecs play roadies at Army and Michigan in the first month of the season. Conference road games at Air Force and CSU are going to be tough. SDSU does get TCU & Boise at home, but home field advantage has never been anything special for the Aztecs.

The rest of the conference is pretty bad. New Mexico, Wyoming, and UNLV all have major rebuilding projects at hand. I'm scratching my head when it comes to Lobo HC Mike Locksley's employment, but he may have his best team yet. Then again, with a 2-22 mark as HC at UNM, the only way to go is "up." Wyoming is an absolute mess at the QB position and the promising start to the Dave Christensen coaching-era in Laramie has hit a snag. UNLV is in for a battle to stay out of the MWC cellar. But I still say the Rebels hit the bullseye when they landed HC Bobby Hauck. I also believe UNLV could be a bowl contender next season, which will be Hauck's third on the job. As for now, a one or two win season is likely in store for the Rebels.

Get all of Scott Spreitzer's College Football Picks at Vegas Experts.

 
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