While Utah coach Kyle Whittingham might be hesitant to put any target on his team, other schools aren't.
Whether they are new or veteran head coaches in the Mountain West, they all made it clear last week that catching programs such as Utah, BYU and TCU is a priority, acknowledging those programs have distanced themselves from others.
Utah, BYU and TCU are the only teams to win league titles since 2003. The Utes won the conference championship in 2003, 2004 and 2008 while BYU won it in 2006 and 2007 and TCU won in 2005.
Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild said it was obvious last season the Utes were above everyone else and he doesn't expect much of a drop-off in the Utes in 2009.
"When you look at our league, they, TCU and BYU are good football teams, probably a notch ahead," he said. "In the mid 1990s CSU was in that upper echelon but we certainly aren't there now. The only way to get there is to keep working hard and recruiting and training and hopefully we can close that gap."
UNLV coach Mike Sanford said that from his experience with Utah, he learned it takes a certain winning mentality to be consistently good, which is something he is trying to instill in his team. He has put a priority on beating those teams.
"When I took this job we have been on a quest and pursuit of putting ourselves in a position to compete with those three," he said. "We haven't done that yet. We've had some positive moments, but we haven't done that yet."
Speaking of CSU: Fairchild, who was critical of the quarterback play he saw in CSU's spring game from fifth-year senior Grant Stucker and JC transfer Jon Eastman, didn't back off that harsh assessment.
"I wasn't pleased at all in spring ball at quarterback," he said. "We have a long way to go. We were in a similar situation last year and Billy Farris stepped it up and had a good year for us. We're hoping we'll develop as summer and August practice goes and get better."
Eastman is a Hillcrest High graduate from Sandy who enrolled at CSU in the spring after playing for Snow College.
He missed all but three games with a foot injury in 2008. He finished 60-for-89 passing for 804 yards and eight touchdowns, including a 19-for-32, 266-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Badgers' 37-30 double overtime loss to Butler Community College in the Top of the Mountain Bowl.
The Cowboys had more than a dozen players sidelined in spring practice with injuries, but new coach Dave Christiansen said all are supposed to be healthy in time for fall camp. Christiansen, Missouri's former offensive coordinator, said he is considering several quarterbacks, although senior Karsten Sween is considered the No. 1 quarterback going into fall to run his spread offense.
San Diego State coach Brady Hoke said he is focusing on instilling a new attitude among his players and is encouraged by what he sees, from the efforts in the strength room to the spring workouts.
"These kids have done a tremendous job buying in to how we want to do things," he said.
Hoke also said former New Mexico coach Rocky Long is a huge asset on his coaching staff as his defensive coordinator.
"Obviously we're really privileged to have him here," he said. "We share the same mind-set on how we want to play the game and what we want to achieve. I know I'll lean on him a whole lot as we get into the season."
No rebuilding necessary
New Mexico coach Mike Locksley said the Lobos' program doesn't need an overhaul as much as a renovation, mainly on offense, thanks to the work that Long had done with the defense.
"We need those guys playing with the swagger and enthusiasm and emotion the defense has played with for a long time," he said of the offense.
The Lobos will emphasize a no-huddle, spread option offense, but Locksley said he hasn't decided who will start at quarterback, Donovan Porterie or Brad Gruner. Porterie was the starting quarterback going into 2008 but his season was cut short with a knee injury and Gruner finished out the season.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said running back Kyle Lumpkin, who started the first five games in 2008, wouldn't play in 2009 and would focus on academics instead of football. Lumpkin's duties highlight the unique demands Calhoun's squad faces, he said.
"We're not a veteran group and every year at the academy we are going to have to retool," he said. "We're not able to redshirt guys; they move through in a hurry so you can't backlog guys."
Hughes even better?
TCU coach Gary Patterson said defensive end Jerry Hughes looked even better in spring practice than he did last year when he was a consensus All-American.
"He is strong and faster and playing with a lot of confidence," he said. "I don't know if the stats will show that because he had a dream season a year ago."
Hughes' presence is one of the reasons Patterson believes his defense can be even better in 2009 than it was in 2008, when it led the nation in total defense. TCU gave up just 47.1 yards rushing and 217.8 total yards per game in 2008.
Defense needs improvement
Sanford said his quarterback situation is the best since he has been at UNLV, with Omar Clayton and Travis Dixon his No. 1 and No. 1-A quarterbacks, but his defense still needs improving.
"That is going to be the big thing, improving our defense and specifically improving the play of our secondary."
The Rebels were fifth in passing defense in 2008, giving up 210.1 yards a game.
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