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Mountain West Conference Overview

Published August 27, 2006 1:46 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

PLAYING THE BIG BOYS

The Mountain West Conference will play 13 nonconference games against teams from the six major Bowl Championship Series leagues, after having modest success last season:

League Record Pct.

Big 12 8-5 .615

ACC 13-9 .591

Big Ten 10-10 .500

Pac-10 7-7 .500

SEC 7-8 .467

Mountain West 7-9 .438

Big East 5-14 .263

Mid-American 2-19 .100

Conference USA 2-20 .090

Sun Belt 1-17 .060

WAC 0-17 .000

MOST CAPTIVATING STORY LINES

What will happen first - the TCU Horned Frogs finally reach the Bowl Championship Series and take control of a league they joined just last season, or San Diego State records its first winning season in league history under new coach Chuck Long?

BIGGEST QUESTIONS

Can Utah's Brett Ratliff possibly keep up the pace he set in scorching defenses in his final two games last season, and will Brigham Young's absentee secondary actually come within a zip code or two of covering anybody this season?

HARDEST HIT

DonTrell Moore

The New Mexico Lobos lost not only the league's all-time leading rusher in DonTrell Moore, but also leading receiver Hank Baskett - two players who accounted for 63 percent of their offensive yards last season.

TOUGHEST TEST

Bad enough Air Force lost seven of its last nine games a year ago, but now it opens - gulp - at Tennessee. The Vols are desperate to make up for last year's washout, and already will have played Cal by the time the Falcons visit the 104,000 fans in full throat at Neyland Stadium.

STREAK BUSTERS?

Defending champion TCU enters the season with a 10-game winning streak, second in the nation behind Texas' 20-game ride, but faces Texas Tech in its third game Sept. 16. Wyoming has lost six straight and UNLV five in a row, but the Pokes open with Utah State while the Rebels start with Division I-AA Idaho State.

Lonta Hobbs

MANY HAPPY RETURNS?

Safety Ben Stratton is hoping to buoy the wilted Colorado State defense with his return from a major knee injury, but the three-year starter and former all-conference player has been battling soreness and swelling in the knee.

RIDICULOUS DEPTH

In each of the past three seasons, a running back who started the season third on the depth chart for the TCU Horned Frogs has wound up rushing for 1,000 yards. And all three - seniors Robert Merrill and Lonta Hobbs and sophomore Aaron Brown - are still on the team. They combined for 1,740 rushing yards last season.

TOP TRANSFERS

Quarterback Rocky Hinds and cornerback Eric Wright are among a quartet of four-year transfers who will play for the UNLV Rebels this season, and fans are desperate for both to emerge as some of the league's top stars after leaving USC.

QUIET PEFORMANCE

Wynel Seldon

Wyoming's Wynel Seldon rushed for 871 yards

and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last season,

but was overshadowed by the league's other top rushers and played on a bad team. He figures to make an even bigger impact this season, though, with the Cowboy passing game rebuilding.

MOST CONFLICTED OFFSEASON

The New Mexico Lobos gave mediocre teams reason to shudder when they created the New Mexico Bowl, in response to being left home with a 6-5 record last year. On the other hand, coach Rocky Long coaxed his former UCLA boss, Bob Toledo, back into football to revive the impotent Lobo offense as its coordinator.

HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE

Who has it? Who doesn't? Here's our quick ranking of where it's toughest to play in the Mountain West:

1 WYOMING - Of course, it has been awhile since the Pokes have been good enough to take advantage of it. But nowhere in the league does an opponent face the same challenge of playing at 7,220 feet, often in miserable weather, in front of a notoriously nasty home crowd.

2 BRIGHAM YOUNG - The biggest crowds in the league and the ghosts of legends past make LaVell Edwards Stadium one of the most intimidating - as well as picturesque - places to play. That odd feeling of stepping into a foreign culture kind of freaks teams out, too.

3 AIR FORCE - The jets roaring overhead before the game, the altitude, the sense of being on lockdown on an isolated campus miles from town . . . it's all part of playing at Falcon Stadium. And on top of it all, the Falcons run that blasted option.

4 TCU - The crowds aren't always that good, but neither is the weather. For most teams in the league, playing at TCU is an exercise in coping with heat cramps and suffocating humidity - never mind a team that's savage enough to really exacerbate both of those problems.

5 UTAH - Beautiful stadium, no doubt. Probably the best in the league. And the Utes really had it rocking a couple of years ago when the team was undefeated and went on to an unprecedented BCS Bowl berth. But generally speaking, the atmosphere isn't usually too this or too that. The altitude can bother some teams, but otherwise, not especially daunting.

6 NEW MEXICO - Fans at University Stadium can get pretty riled up, but only on occasion. And there's not much else about the program, the stadium or the atmosphere to make it really stand out, one way or the other.

7 COLORADO STATE - The Rams have the best college town in the league, by far, but their stadium sits so far out in the middle of the high plains that you half expect Laura Ingalls Wilder to stop by. Not many others manage it, however, and the team isn't nearly as good as it used to be.

8 SAN DIEGO STATE - Let's see, the weather's always perfect, the home team's always easy, and the field is laid across a pretty little baseball field. How threatening is that? The Aztecs don't even have their own name painted across the end zones, for crying out loud.

9 UNLV - Not only is the team bad, with the worst home record in league history, but the stadium - even recently refurbished - is blahsville. Way out in the middle of dusty nowhere, usually with few fans in the stands. How does this happen in the entertainment capital of the world?

TOP 10 PLAYERS

Brent Casteel

UTAH RECEIVER

Solid with 39 catches as a redshirt freshman, the electrifying playmaker figures to be among the top receivers in the league in his second season running coordinator Andy Ludwig's spread scheme.

Eric Weddle

UTAH SAFETY

Nobody in the league can do as much as the senior fourth-year starter. He's an all-conference defender - reigning defensive player of the year, in fact - who also plays on offense and special teams and has the pro scouts drooling.

Curtis Brown

BYU RUNNING BACK

Not only does the senior talk a good game, he backs it up. He's a punishing rusher who ran for 1,123 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, as well as an adept receiver who caught 53 passes for another 454 yards and two scores.

Tommy Blake

TCU DEFENSIVE END

So fast that he was once a tailback, the senior has ravaged quarterbacks with 12 sacks and 82 total tackles the past two seasons and helps lead a defense that allowed just 107.6 rushing yards per game last season.

Kyle Bell

COLORADO STATE RUNNING BACK

Arguably the best pure running back in the league, the junior rushed for 1,288 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and could get even more work this year with a new quarterback and receiving corps.

John Beck

BYU QUARTERBACK

Sure, he once shed a tear. So what? The senior is reminding fans of the halcyon days when the Cougars torched every defense they met, having thrown for 3,709 yards and 27 touchdowns last season - most by a Coug since 1996.

Chase Ortiz

TCU DEFENSIVE END

You want a story? The junior started last preseason third on the depth chart, but wound up starting all 12 games and leading the league with nine sacks - all in the final nine games of an 11-1 season.

Robert Turner

NEW MEXICO TACKLE

The Lobos take a lot of pride in offensive linemen, and have sent three to the NFL in the past two years. Yet the 325-pound senior could be better than all of them, or anybody else during the eight-year tenure of coach Rocky Long.

John Wendling

WYOMING SAFETY

Starting for the fourth straight season, the senior has added weight yet maintained the astonishing speed that has helped him make 164 tackles and six interceptions the past two seasons as the heart of the Cowboy defense.

Jonny Harline

BYU TIGHT END

The senior is resurrecting the legacy of the pass-catching tight end for the Cougars, having blossomed to lead the team with 63 receptions for 853 yards and five touchdowns last season after a year spent seeing little action on special teams.

Others to Watch

* RB Aaron Brown, TCU

* S Ben Stratton, Colorado State

* RB Lynell Hamilton, SDSU

* LB Quincy Black, New Mexico

* CB Eric Wright, UNLV

* LB Cameron Jensen, BYU

* OT Herbert Taylor, TCU

* DE Jesse Nading, Colorado State

* RB Robert Merrill, TCU

* S Casey Evans, Utah

* QB Shaun Carney, Air Force

* LB Cameron Jensen, BYU

* S Reggie Grigsby, SDSU

Tribune Power Rankings

1) Texas Christian

Just about everybody is returning for the defending league champ, which has a shot at the Bowl Championship Series with ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz leading a savagely fleet defense.

Odds of winning: 3-to-2

2) Utah

Choosing a quarterback might not make as much difference as keeping running back Darryl Poston healthy, but the defense appears in great shape with safety Eric Weddle as its

anchor.

Odds of winning: 3-to-1

3) Brigham Young

Quarterback John Beck and running back Curtis Brown lead what should be a high-powered offense, but the big question is whether the anemic secondary has improved at all after getting scorched last year.

Odds of winning: 5-to-1

4) Colorado State

The return of injured safety Ben Stratton should help fix the miserable run defense (115 out of 117 in the nation), and the Rams probably will lean on running back Kyle Bell after losing their other top offensive

weapons.

Odds of winning: 10-to-1

5) New Mexico

Losing all-time leading rusher DonTrell Moore can't help a team that perenially has problems putting it together, though the addition of former UCLA coach Bob Toledo as offensive coordinator is

intriguing.

Odds of winning: 20-to-1

6) San Diego State

Running back Lynell Hamilton and quarterback Kevin O'Connell are among the 16 starters returning for new coach Chuck Long, who's trying to finally direct an abundance of talent in the same direction.

Odds of winning: 30-to-1

7) Air Force

Quarterback Shaun Carney and the entire backfield return to run the dangerous triple-option rushing attack, but that won't matter if the defense continues to wither away as it has the past few seasons.

Odds of winning: 30-to-1

8) Wyoming

Coach Joe Glenn needs to teach a lot of new players - including new quarterback Jacob Doss - how to avoid the turnovers that killed the Cowboys last season, or his popularity is going to keep right on plummeting.

Odds of winning: 35-to-1

9) UNLV

All eyes will be on heralded quarterback Rocky Hinds (one of four big-time transfers) as the former USC backup attempts to pump some life into the offense that died last year when coach Mike Sanford moved it from

Utah.

Odds of winning: 50-to-1

BIG GAMES

UTEP AT SDSU, THURSDAY

The only new coach in the league, SDSU's

Chuck Long, can make a big statement if he can get Aztecs a nationally televised win.

UTAH AT UCLA, SATURDAY

High-profile victory at the Rose Bowl could jump-start another Fiesta Bowl campaign for the Utes.

COLORADO STATE VS. COLORADO, SEPT. 9

The Rams have won league titles in each of the past three seasons they have beaten Buffs, but not in the four seasons they have lost to their rivals.

TEXAS TECH AT TCU, SEPT. 16

Still seeking revenge for 70-35 loss two years ago, the Horned Frogs face high-octane offense at home.

MISSOURI AT NEW MEXICO, SEPT. 16

The Lobos were inexplicably miserable at home last season, so winning this one would help reverse the trend.

BYU AT TCU, SEPT. 28

Early title favorite will be established in rematch of controversial overtime game in Provo last year.

TCU AT UTAH, OCT. 5

If Horned Frogs can beat the Cougars and then win this one, they should pretty well cruise to another championship.

COLORADO STATE AT WYOMING, OCT. 21

The Rams have lost the Border War just once in seven seasons, the last time they traveled to play it three years ago.

NOTRE DAME AT AIR FORCE, NOV. 11

Quarterback Brady Quinn and the Fighting Irish roll into the academy for just the second time in 10 years.

COACHES TO WATCH ON THE HOT SEAT

Fisher DeBerry, Air Force

The Falcons already have suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 25 years (never mind the embarrassment of those racially insensitive comments), and a third straight would amplify calls for the 68-year-old DeBerry to retire.

POISED TO MOVE UP

Gary Patterson, TCU

Sure, the guy just signed a contract extension through 2012. But with three 10-win seasons and

four bowl games in the past five years in the

heart of football country, he figures to remain

a hot commodity for any opening.

WHO'LL CATCH THE BALL?

The Mountain West lost almost all of its top-flight receiving talent from a year ago, with eight players representing more than 26 percent of the passes caught:

Player Rec. Yards TDs

Jeff Webb, San Diego State 92 1,109 10

David Anderson, Colorado State 86 1,221 8

Jovon Bouknight, Wyoming 77 1,116 12

Hank Baskett, New Mexico 67 1,071 9

Travis LaTendresse, Utah 55 810 8

John Madsen, Utah 55 672 6

Cory Rodgers, TCU 52 685 5

Jason Brown, Air Force 49 874 5

MOUNTAIN WEST BOWL GAMES

Game Date Time

Opponent Location

POINSETTIA BOWL, Dec. 19

Qualcomm Stadium 6 p.m. At-large San Diego

LAS VEGAS BOWL, Dec. 21

Sam Boyd Stadium 6 p.m. Pac-10 Las Vegas, Nev.

NEW MEXICO BOWL, Dec. 23

University Stadium 2:30 p.m. WAC Albuquerque, N.M.

FORT WORTH BOWL, Dec. 23

Amon Carter Stadium 6 p.m. C-USA Fort Worth, Texas