2011 Mountain West Football Preview

How far the BCS usurpers have fallen. With the BCS re-evaluation coming up, the MWC had BCS-busters Utah and TCU with Boise State coming in this year and BYU. In a matter of weeks, that all changed. Utah bolted for the PAC-12, BYU went independent and TCU will play their final season in conference this year and join the Big East next season. They do restock next year as well, but unlike the WAC, the new teams coming in have the potential to replace the powerhouses leaving. Fresno State, Nevada and Hawai’i make the jump to a BCS-lite conference in 2012. That said, it looks like this will be a quieter year for the MWC. Boise State will be Boise State and TCU will also stay nationally relevant but there aren’t any BCS-busters past the top 2 in the league.
Also, the Mountain West swung and missed worse than the Big 10 with their new logo. I don’t know what was so wrong with the old logo.
From this…
To this.

Ok, this one. Really…
Conference Overview:
It’s no secret that this edition of the MWC is a two-horse race between Boise State and TCU. One is looking to make an impact in their first season in a new conference. The other is looking to net their third straight MWC title as they make a head-scratching exit. The question many have is which of the other six teams will set up and take the places of Utah and BYU as the league’s other major players. The MWC has quite the postseason reputation to live up to, with four Bowl Challenge Cups to their name including the last two. In fact, if you look at postseason records since the inception of the BCS in 1998, the Mountain West stands on top with a 29-17 mark and 4-1 records the last 2 years. However, all most of the country will be talking about when it comes to this conference is which MWC will be this year’s BCS buster.
Teams to Watch:
Boise State
Of course we have to talk about the Broncos. They take the step up this year, hoping a new look MWC would make their path to the BCS easier and between this season and next season’s additions (Fresno St., Nevada and Hawai’i), the Mountain West should continue to get national respect. The Broncos are the preseason favorites, come into the season ranked #5 in the AP poll. QB Kellen Moore returns and although he loses his top 2 receivers to the draft (Austin Pettis and Titus Young), the next 4 leading receivers are back, along with 1,200 yards rusher Doug Martin and seven starters on offense. This was a passing offense that was 6th in the nation, putting up 321 yards a game. The less talked about side of Boise’s game was the defense, which is senior-heavy this year. It was the 2nd best unit in total defense (254 ypg) a season ago, 4th in pass defense (151 ypg) and first in the nation in sacks (3.69 per game). Get a load of these sack stats coming back: 49 on the season, 31.5 returning. Shea McCellin’s 9.5, Tyrone Crawford’s 7, and Chase Baker’s 4.5 all coming back. Phil Steele has this D-line as the 6th best in the country and with numbers like that you can see why. September 3rd’s season opener against #19 Georgia will be a big test for the Broncs. They get out of the Georgia Dome with a win, they will be serious National Title contenders.
TCU
BCS Buster #2, c’mon down. Let’s not ask ourselves why a team from Ft. Worth, Texas is joining the Big East, where they’ll have to travel to Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida on a regular basis. Let’s ask ourselves how they reload for their final year in the MWC. All-time leading passer Andy Dalton is gone, along with a trio of talented receivers (Jeremy Kerley, Jimmy Young, Bart Johnson). In fact, only 3 starters return on offense. Leading rusher Ed Wesley (1,093 yds., 11TD) is back along with sophomore Josh Boyce, who was actually the leading receiver as well (646 yds, 6TD). Sophomore QB Casey Pachall had huge shoes to fill, but has talented position players around him and an experienced O-line in front of him. The defensive numbers will be harder to replicate thought. Top total defense (228 ypg), top pass defense (129 ypg), top scoring defense (12 ppg) and #5 rushing defense (99 ypg). The heart of the defense is back in Tanner Brock (106 tkl) and Tank Carder (3.5 sks) and while there’s only one starter on a defensive line that averaged just over 2 sacks a game, it is an experienced line, with 2 juniors and a senior sitting atop the depth chart. This isn’t a rebuilding defense by any means, but this shouldn’t be the dominant unit it was last year. The defense may have to keep the offense in games if they can’t click right away. But the Horned Frogs benefit from a pretty weak schedule. Their toughest non-conference game is a trip to Waco against a weaker Baylor squad and they should be favored in 11 of 12 games (except @ Boise St. 11/12). Double digit wins this year? I’ll say yes. BCS bowl and MWC title? I’ll say no.
Air Force
A quick nod to a team who’ll be chasing the Big Two all season. Troy Calhoun has taken the Falcons to four straight bowls and last year’s Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. They should be the favorites for back-to-back CIC titles, but there’s even more potential here. Senior QB Tim Jefferson returns (1,459 yds, 10 TD, 764 rush, 15 TD) along with his top rusher and 2 of 3 top receivers. Eight starters return on a solid defense that was 37th (350 ypg) in total defense nationally. The weak spot was the rush D (202 ypg, 103rd) and that will have to improve, but the Falcons could be the surprise team in the MWC. They get a young TCU team early (Sept. 10) at home and should be favored in six of their last seven games (except @Boise St., go figure). 8-5 or 9-4 is where I see them, but one great upset puts them in the conference title race fast.
Players to Watch
QB Kellen Moore, Boise State
You knew he’d be here. Once again in the early Heisman discussion, Moore is coming off a season where he set the all-time Boise State passing mark (10,867 yards and counting). He finished the year with 3,845 yards and 35 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. That last number could come up as the defenses will the tougher this season than last year in the WAC. Regardless, Moore makes things happen. He’s a mobile passer when he has to be, has great field vision and is one of those passers who bring out the best in his receivers week after week. It also helps when he completes 68% of his career passes. Another 3,000 yard campaign with 25+ touchdowns sounds about right and he could the best in the nation this year. Also, he needs 8 wins to pass Colt McCoy as the NCAA’s winningest QB. He’ll hit that mark on this Broncos team, so look for him in New York in December.
RB Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State
Hillman was one of the best freshmen last season and he did it quietly on a Aztec squad that was a pleasant surprise last season. He broke Marshall Faulk’s frosh rushing record, rushed for a Poinsettia Bowl record 228 rushing yards in SDSU’s thumping of Navy and ran for 1,600 yards and 17 TD on the season and was a first-team freshman All-American. He’s a compact slasher with power with 4.39 speed. Even though SDSU will have a new OC calling plays, don’t be shocked if this guy repeats last year’s production. And he’ll do it without much fanfare, at first.
Conference Championship:
The MWC title game will be November 12 when TCU heads north to Boise State. Both teams should be undefeated with the MWC title on the line and a likely BCS berth in the balance. And I’ll make this one easy. The Broncos will have to fight for it, but they’ll take their 9th straight conference title with a win here. There are simply the superior team. Intense analysis, huh?
Bowl Picture:
As I said, I see Boise State once again BCS-bound, meaning a 5th MWC team could be getting a postseason call. The Broncos should be heading back to the Fiesta Bowl. TCU will head to Sin City to face a PAC-12 opponent in the Las Vegas Bowl (one more matchup with Utah maybe?). Air Force and San Diego State swap bowls from a year ago, as the Aztecs head to the Independence Bowl to face an ACC opponent and the Falcons hit the Poinsettia Bowl to face a team from the WAC. Colorado State is the dark horse here, but I see them turning around a 3-9 campaign last year and heading to the New Mexico Bowl this year against a team from the PAC-12.

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