Day 2 of our college football previews and we dive into the new-look WAC. This is a conference that very well may not exist for football in a few years. With Boise State’s departure this year and Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii leaving next year, the remaining football schools in 2012 will be Utah State, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and San Jose State. They’ll add 5 schools in 2012, but three of them don’t field football teams (Seattle U, Denver and UT Arlington). UT-San Antonio will begin it’s football program this year with former Miami head coach Larry Coker at the helm. The Roadrunners will play as an FCS independent this season before beginning the transition to the FBS along with Texas State-San Marcos. So get to know those names, as you’ll likely only see them in the first three weeks of the season getting blown out by the big boys.
It seems like the main storyline in this year’s version of the WAC will be who can recover from their losses the quickest. Almost every squad lost a good chunk of their playmakers in the offseason and the key for every contender will be bringing up talent and having them produce. Nevada loses record-setting QB Colin Kapernick and 1,600 yard rusher Vai Taua. Hawaii loses their star recievers in Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares. Fresno State will also have to break in a new starting QB with the departure of Ryan Colburn. It will be a year where the underclassmen will have to step up and some upperclassmen will have to cement their spots with production. Not saying these teams will put a bad brand of football on the field. It’ll just be hard for them to reach the level the conference has had in the last few seasons without consistent BCS-buster Boise State. However, the Broncos departure does open up a shot for someone else to take home the conference title.
Teams to Watch:
It seems like a no-brainer that the team that has played the last three or four seasons in Boise State’s shadow would be the favorite to take over their throne. Like I said it will be very tough to do without Kapernick and Taua, one of the most potent rushing duos in conference history. However, they have a senior ready to take over under center in Tyler Lantrip. He’s a big pocket passer and he’ll have three of last season’s top five receivers to throw to. The running game will also take a step back with junior Mark Ball moving into the role of featured back. Despite all of the retooling this offense is doing, they return seven starters on a defensive unit that was 3rd in the conference against the rush and 4th against the pass.
Another team putting pieces back in place. The big difference and advantage for the Warriors is that QB Bryant Moniz returns for his senior season. The 2nd team All-WAC signal caller threw for 5,040 yards and 39 touchdowns last season (1st in the NCAA in total yards per game) and although he loses his two biggest targets (Salas and Pilares), he has a core of young receivers that will have to step up. Although, historically, it seems that Hawaii is to receivers as Mike Shanahan’s Bronco teams were to running backs. Just put someone with some talent in there and they’ll become outstanding in the system. And the front seven on defense should be the top unit in the WAC. Six starters return on a defense that only allowed 136 rushing yards per game (40th NCAA). Just like Nevada, Hawaii would love to leave the WAC on a high note with some hardware.
Players to Watch:
QB Bryant Moniz, QB, Hawaii
He’s got to be the preseason favorite for WAC Player of the Year, despite all the losses in his receiving corps. Hawaii has always turned out very productive quarterbacks (see: Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan) and Moniz is no different. Last year’s stats were 2008 Drew Brees-like: 5,040 yards (360 ypg -1st NCAA), 39 Tds (1st NCAA), 15 INTs, 367 ypg (1st NCAA). He may struggle with young receivers early, but there’s no reason to think he can’t match these stats again this season.
RB Robert Turbin, Utah St.
Turbin will return for his junior season after losing all of 2010 to a torn ACL. However, in 2009, he rushed for 1,296 yards and 13 touchdowns on a 4-8 Aggies squad. This season may not be much different for Utah State, with trips to Auburn, BYU, Fresno St. and Hawaii on the docket, but Turbin may the diamond in the rough here. He also holds the school record for most touchdowns in a single season with 18 in ’09 (13 rush, 5 rec.). If he can return to his pre-injury form, he may be the best running back in the conference.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Yes, I know I just got done laying out how much offense they’ve lost from last season. However, the with talent this is there, and the fact that the rest of the league is rebuilding to has me agreeing with almost every other publication in calling for a Nevada championship. The big reason is the schedule. They spend all of September on the road (@Oregon, @ San Jose St., @Texas Tech, @ Boise St.) and could legitimately pull an upset in one of those three games. Then they get 6 of their last 8 in Reno, with both Hawaii and Fresno State coming in and the remaining road games are very winnable (New Mexico State and Utah State). A very comfortable conference schedule is what makes me believe that Nevada will hoist the WAC title in their final season in conference.
The WAC gets three automatic bowl bids and there’s really not much surprise in who will be getting there. As champs, Nevada will head to San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl against a member of the Mountain West, which has of late been one of the highlights of the December bowl season. Hawaii will likely stay home again for Christmas Eve and the Hawaii Bowl and a Conference-USA opponent and I see Fresno State getting the invite to the blue turf of Boise for the Idaho Potato Bowl and a clash with a MAC opponent. Louisiana Tech is the wild card here, they could surprise and jump into that 3rd spot, or be a 4th invitee if the bigger boys can’t fill their quota of teams with winning records.