The Mountain West Conference is certainly made up of the haves and have nots. Expect this trend to continue in 2011.
Air Force, San Diego State, TCU and Boise State seem poised to reign atop the conference. And that's how you have to view this league -- the Big Four are much better than the bottom four, again.
Look for Air Force and San Diego State to battle over the crumbs left by Boise State and TCU. Boise State appears primed for a huge season with lots of starters returning, one of America's best quarterbacks in the fold and a proven model for success. It should be the favorite to win the conference with TCU chasing, provided the Horned Frogs can get good quarterback play.
The league title will be played out between four teams, with the others hoping to pull a shocker. Looking for a surprise team? Take a run at Colorado State, which returns plenty of experience on both sides of the ball. New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV are in various stages of finding quarterbacks and identities that don't include getting mauled.
2010 Record: 9-4
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 40th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 28th
Base Offense: Triple option
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 5/8
Significant Losses: FB Jared Tew, WR Kevin Fogler, DL Rick Ricketts
Newcomer of Note: Brent Michaels and Anthony LaCoste are two youngsters who made plays in the spring at the fullback position. Like any triple-option team, the fullback needs to be a guy who can get yards and make teams pay. Both these guys are converted tailbacks, so there's some speed there. There's a fierce battle to replace Tew among a group of four or five players, but here are two youngsters who looked good in the spring.
2011 Thoughts: Air Force has some interesting pieces for its option offense in Tim Jefferson and Asher Clark, but the driving force behind another 8-or-9 win season will be a seasoned defense that returns eight starters. The Falcons were a very good defense in 2010, so with this many players back and the usual hard-nosed service academy attitude in place, expect the Falcons to see more offense created via defense this season. One important component will be the development and decision-making processes of Jefferson under center. He's talented and seems capable of hurting teams on the ground and through the air. In 2011, he needs to be more consistent game-to-game in both areas.
Final Analysis: It would seem that everything is in place for Air Force to again be one of the more successful Mountain West programs. It has proven offensive ability and a defense that seems poised to be a Top-25 unit again. Nine wins seems doable, but to get above that it will need to pull an upset or two. It seems unlikely the Falcons can unseat Boise State or TCU, so vying for third place seems more likely.
2010 Record: 12-1
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 2nd
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 2nd
Base Offense: Multiple
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 8/8
Significant Losses: WR Austin Pettis, WR Titus Young, DL Ryan Winterswyk, DB Jeron Johnson, DB Brandyn Thompson
Newcomer of Note: Geraldo Hiwat will be one of those called on to replace the void left at receiver created by Pettis and Young. Hiwat was the standout in the spring game (97 yards) and generally looked like the best wide receiver option the team had all spring.
2011 Thoughts: Forget the missing targets at receiver. The Broncos have a quarterback who throws to everyone, so by sheer force of his talents, Kellen Moore will help the wide receiver corps to develop. The Boise State offense is going to be its usual nightmarish conglomerate of pass and run that we've come to expect. What we have to keep in mind is that Boise plays a very good and physical brand of defense -- something that should continue with eight starters back and plenty of backups hungry to contribute. Can they go 12-1 again? That's a distinct possibility as the returning firepower on both sides of the ball seems to spell "success."
Final Analysis: Despite TCU's emergence of late, Boise State is still the main stallion in this corral and it seems primed to keep that run going. The offense will be potent and the defense will bring pressure from a bunch of no-name, under-recruited defensive players who thrive as underdogs. There is no reason to think Boise State won't again be one of the nation's premier teams.
2010 Record: 3-9
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 114th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 104th
Base Offense: Multiple
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 6/6
Significant Losses: TE Eric Peitz, WR Tyson Liggett, FB Zac Pauga, DL Ty Whittier, LB Ricky Brewer, LB Alex Williams, DB DeAngelo Wilkinson
Newcomer of Note: Defensive back Bernard Blake is the fastest player on the Rams roster and demonstrated just how valuable that speed is throughout the spring -- consistently making plays and drawing "ooohs and aaahs." Blake had a good spring game, breaking up one sure touchdown and halting a couple other drives with plays in the secondary. The redshirt frosh was in position to play as a true freshman before a leg injury in fall camp put him on the shelf. He looks like a playmaker for the secondary.
2011 Thoughts: The Rams were near the bottom offensively and defensively a year ago, but have enough starters returning on each side of the ball that a reasonable amount of improvement can be expected. Quarterback Pete Thomas simply has to get better in all phases of his game to make a difference. With every offensive line starter back, you'd like to think the cohesion will be better, the running game will improve and the offense will be far less anemic than in 2010. It should be. Defensively, this team just needs to make some plays and get some stops -- two things it was woefully bad at a year ago. There will be improvement on defense, but the question is: Are there any playmakers in the barn and will they deliver?
Final Analysis: There are too many questions surrounding Thomas and the offense, which could adversely affect the defense with poor field position and down-and-distance issues. The offense must respond and help the defense. There should be improvement on both fronts, but there are too few difference-makers to think more than three or four wins are possible.
2010 Record: 1-11
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 116th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 120th
Base Offense: Pro-style spread
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 6/9
Significant Losses: OL Karlin Givens, OL Byron Bell, RB Demond Dennis, WR Chris Hernandez, DL Peter Gardner
Newcomer of Note: Despite repeated seasons of futility, New Mexico has produced some good running backs the last few years. It might have discovered the next in the line this spring with the ascension of A.J. Butler, who was consistently productive in the spring and capped it off with a very good performance (119 rushing yards) in the spring game. With a no-huddle, fast-paced spread offense in place under coach Mike Locksley, Butler's speed and elusiveness could be used in a variety of ways.
2011 Thoughts: Is having nine starters back from the nation's worst statistical defense a good thing? Well, if you believe in the "year older, year better" adage, the Lobos should be able to get a few more stops and couple more turnovers in 2011. At least the Lobos are starting from a position of experience and certainly had some good defensive moments in the spring. There seems to be more speed and some playmakers emerging defensively, which is good because the offense will need a significant upgrade. Despite B.R. Holbrook returning, he's dealing with injuries and wasn't guaranteed to be the starting quarterback exiting the spring. In all honesty, the offense needs to find playmakers of its own if it's to help its defense get off the field for extended periods. The spring would seem to indicate the players are better and the depth has increased, but it's hard to see more than two or three wins at this point.
Final Analysis: Just too many holes and question marks on both sides of the ball to think a major jump up the Mountain West ladder is possible. At least the defense has a healthy dose of starters returning, but until proven otherwise that's just experience getting run over at will. The rebuilding project is in full swing, but still expect a ton of ugly moments in 2011.
San Diego State
2010 Record: 9-4
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 19th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 36th
Base Offense: Pro style
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 7/5
Significant Losses: WR Vincent Brown, WR DeMarco Sampson, FB Brandon Sullivan, DL Ernie Lawson, DB Andrew Preston, LB Marcus Yarbrough
Newcomer of Note: Sophomore wide receiver Dylan Denso is one of an army of receivers being looked to in the wake of Sampson and Brown moving on. Quarterback Ryan Lindley needs dependable receivers, and Denso had some very good moments in the spring. A big guy (6-3), Denso may not be the speed guy, but he could very well work the short and intermediate routes nicely. He had a touchdown catch in the spring game. Keep an eye on sophomore defensive lineman Jordan Thomas, who had two sacks in the spring game and seems capable of being a regular contributor for the Aztec defense.
2011 Thoughts: Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman are a nice duo, and then toss in four-fifths of the offensive line returning and you've got a good starting point offensively. The question is whether a receiver or two can step forward and help keep pressure off the running game? If receiver is a problem, Hillman will see more bodies in the box and that could be a killer for this offense. The defense was a Top-40 unit a year ago, but is missing all but one defensive lineman. Stopping the run will be key for the Aztecs -- something they did decently well a year ago. This program made a huge jump in 2010, but with wide receiver and defensive line issues, there are reasons to worry.
Final Analysis: The goal should be to duplicate last year's nine wins. Consider a nine-win 2011 a very good year, particularly if the receiving corps presents Lindley options that open up the field and allow Hillman running room. Given the experienced offensive line, being able to pass should make Hillman a very attractive commodity. Expect the Aztecs to rebuild the defense, though not quite to last year's statistical level. And look for Lindley to find a target or two that keeps opposing defenses honest. Nine wins seems doable again.
2010 Record: 13-0
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 4th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 1st
Base Offense: Multiple
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 5/6
Significant Losses: QB Andy Dalton, WR Jeremy Kerley, WR Jimmy Young, DL Cory Grant, DB Tejay Johnson, DB Colin Jones, DB Jason Teague
Newcomer of Note: Replacing a standout player like Dalton puts you in the spotlight. Sophomore Casey Pachall now finds himself in that situation as the winner of an exciting quarterback competition this spring. If this were a struggling program, you'd be able to cut Pachall a little slack, but the Horned Frogs are one of the nation's very best, so he'll need to make plays from the outset.
2011 Thoughts: With Tanner Brock and Tank Carder patrolling the linebacker spots, you know the Horned Frogs are going to play outstanding defense that's fast, physical and leaves offenses trembling. They've got experience up front, at linebacker and in the secondary, so the youngsters stepping into the open slots will have some experience to draw from. The defense will again be good. Unfortunately, the offense will have some growing pains. Pachall has some nice weapons to throw to in Josh Boyce and Antoine Hicks, as well as a bunch of speedy youngsters. TCU will have a good running game with Ed Wesley and a stable of other running backs leading the charge. Despite a strong defense, quarterback play will be the deciding factor in 2011 for the Horned Frogs.
Final Analysis: Can Pachall play? That's the question that needs to be answered. Expect a little downward slide in terms of the defensive statistics, but TCU has too much pride and proven track record to think it won't terrorize opposing offenses. Expect 10 or 11 wins, but there could be a surprise or two for the Horned Frogs this season.
2010 Record: 2-11
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 110th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 116th
Base Offense: Multiple spread
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 7/4
Significant Losses: QB Omar Clayton, OL Matt Murphy, DL Preston Brooks, DL Isaako Aaitui, LB Ronnie Paulo, LB Starr Fuimano, DB Alex De Giacomo
Newcomer of Note: Caleb Herring is the new guy under center for the Rebels and takes on the task of trying to rebuild an offense that was one of the worst in the nation a year ago. The sophomore replaces Clayton, who had plenty of talent but couldn't translate that into success on the field. As bad as its offense was, UNLV's defense was worse. That means there's plenty of opportunity for new faces. Keep an eye on starting free safety Tajh Hasson, a redshirt freshman who made plays all spring long.
2011 Thoughts: It could get ugly on the defensive side of the ball with four starters back from a unit that battled for the worst defense in the nation in 2010. The Rebels spent the spring trying to find playmakers on defense and located a few, but expect UNLV to give up yards and points in bunches again this season. Things should be better offensively, but even with a talented quarterback like Clayton they stunk badly. Now, they are transitioning at quarterback to Herring, so bumps along the way are expected. Two wins may be all this team has in the tank as they try to rebuild from last year's disastrous outing.
Final Analysis: UNLV is another team that's hoping the "year older, a year better" philosophy holds because this team really didn't impress much last season. There are major questions on offense, and a major physical and emotional rebuilding job that needs to take place on defense. The playmaking ability may be a bit improved, but this is a team that will be looking up at a lot of teams in the Mountain West this season.
2010 Record: 3-9
2010 Offensive Rank (out of 120): 107th
2010 Defensive Rank (out of 120): 85th
Base Offense: Spread
Returning Starters (Offense/Defense): 7/8
Significant Losses: WR Zach Bolger, QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, OL Sam Sterner, DB Shamiel Gary, DB Marcell Gipson, DB Chris Prosinski
Newcomer of Note: For a defense that needs plenty of help, the Cowboys might have found it in newcomers Korey Jones and Mark Nzeocha at linebacker. Jones is a junior college transfer, and Nzeocha came from Germany in January to join the program. Both made impacts this spring from the linebacker position.
Brandon Miller exited the spring as the No. 1 running back, supplanting last year's starter, Alvester Alexander. The sophomore turned heads and made plays throughout the spring and needs to be a threat this fall to help this spread offense break in a new quarterback.
2011 Thoughts: The spread offense didn't really spread many people out a year ago, and though the yardage totals were decent, the ability to score didn't keep pace. Wyoming must find a quarterback who can hit the passes that are there to be completed and limit mistakes. Miller was a revelation in the spring and probably will end up teaming with Alexander to give Wyoming a nice pass-catch running back tandem. You'd like to think the offense will improve, but the quarterback issue and struggles of a year ago make one wonder if that's really going to be the case. Defensively, eight starters return from a unit that actually had good moments a year ago. It didn't bring those moments to the field every game, but the goal is to develop more consistency, more pressure and get more big plays out this group. Depth seems to be better, but a huge improvement doesn't seem likely. The hope is they get to beat up on a few of the league's weaker opponents and perhaps steal a win from one of the big boys. Five wins would be a nice improvement.
Final Analysis: This team lacks playmakers, particularly on offense. The spread needs to make teams pay by getting quick, elusive receivers in favorable matchups it can exploit for big plays. Wyoming doesn't get enough big plays from its offense, and with a new quarterback on hand, who knows which direction this ship sails. The defense should be serviceable, but the offense just doesn't inspire confidence. The early going will be critical for this team. They need some success out of the gate.