The 2011 Mountain West Conference will look significantly different than the 2010 edition with the addition of Boise State and departures of BYU and Utah. The media tabbed Boise State as the pre-season favorite to win the conference even though reigning MWC champions TCU return with a #14 pre-season ranking and an always formidable team with Gary Patterson at the helm. Boise State enters the year with a #5 pre-season ranking, BCS Bowl expectations and as conference favorites despite being the newcomers. I’m not sure the Broncos will roll through MWC as easily as many are expecting but I can’t wait to see them play new (tougher) conference opponents in different locations after beating up on the WAC for the past 10 years (8 conference championships). I’m not a Mountain West expert yet but here are a few thoughts on the upcoming season and some predictions.
Photo via zimbio.com
Air Force: Coach Troy Calhoun returns 14 starters from last year’s team (9-4) including senior quarterback Tim Jefferson (will be a four-year starter). With so many returning starters, a veteran QB, and an experienced, talented secondary the Falcons could make make some noise in the conference and perhaps nationally. Don’t be surprised if Air Force gives TCU all they can handle in week 2.
Boise State: Kellen Moore gets most of the publicity but the Broncos will be anchored by an always underrated defense lead by one of the country’s best D-lines. Kellen leads the offense but will get plenty of help from running back Doug Martin as the wide receiver pecking order is determined. With 14 starters back and only a few question marks – Can Cedric Febis fill Jeron Johnson’s shoes at SS, which WRs will step-up and how does coach Pease’s transition from WR coach to offensive coordinator? – expectations are once again high in Boise.
Colorado State: The Rams weren’t particularly impressive last year finishing 3-9 but the outlook is optimistic for the 2011 season with 14 starters returning. All-Freshman-MWC QB Pete Thomas should be better as a sophomore especially behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The defense is anchored by star linebacker Mychal Sisson and should be better after allowing 34.7 points per game last year (ranked 104th in the country). Linebacker Mike Orakpo – younger brother of Redskins star Brian Orakpo – could have a breakout season as he moves into a starting role.
New Mexico: Mike Locksley has to be on the hot seat with a record of 2-22 in two seasons as head coach of the Lobos. This year’s team should be his most talented but they have a brutal schedule with games at Arkansas, vs Texas Tech, at Nevada, at TCU, at San Diego State and at Boise State. There’s always next year, right?
San Diego State: Rocky Long (the blue-on-blue whistle blower) takes over as head coach after Brady Hoke bolted for the Michigan job. The Aztecs return eight starters on offense lead by quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman but have question marks at wide receiver. I’m a little skeptical that Long will be able to build on Hoke’s success last season but we’ll see soon enough.
Photo via obnug.com
TCU: 2011 will be the defending MWC champions’ last season in the league as they head to greener ($$$) pastures in the Big East. In the meantime, Gary Patterson’s defense is sure to be one of the nation’s best lead by linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock. Much of TCU’s success this year will depend on how well sophomore quarterback Casey Pachall replaces Andy Dalton but he will have a stable of running backs – Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker and Waymon James – to lean on. The Horned Frogs visit to Boise on November 12th will likely determine the conference champion.
UNLV: Former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck enters his second season in-charge of the Rebels but could still be a season away from really turning things around in Las Vegas. With question marks across the board, 2011 looks to be another re-building year with seven road games including Wisconsin, TCU, and Air Force.
Wyoming: The Cowboys return 14 starters but don’t have a QB on the roster with a single snap of Division-1 experience. Fortunately for coach Christensen and the Pokes, they open with Weber State and Texas State and should have a good chance at winning five of their first six games. If they struggle to start the year it will be a long season in Laramie.
Predicted Finish and Records:
1. Boise State 12-0 (7-0)
2. TCU 10-2 (6-1)
3. Air Force 9-3 (5-2)
4. Colorado State 8-4 (4-3)
5. San Diego State 6-6 (3-4)
6. Wyoming 4-8 (2-5)
7. UNLV 2-10 (1-6)
8. New Mexico 2-10 (0-7)
Players of the Year:
The media announced the pre-season All-Conference Team and players of the year. I don’t have an issue with either selection but here are my predictions and other players to keep an eye on:
Photo via zimbio.com
Offensive: Boise State Quarterback – #11 Kellen Moore
The 2010 Heisman Finalist returns for his senior season after completing 71.3% of his passes for 3,845 yards, 35 touchdowns, and just 6 interceptions last year. His numbers might decline with the loss of Austin Pettis and Titus Young but the unproven wide receivers are progressing so I wouldn’t expect too much of a drop in production. Not only is he the best quarterback (and offensive player) in the conference but he’s arguably the best signal caller in the country.
Defensive: Boise State Defensive Tackle – #90 Billy Winn
Chances are Billy Winn wont actually win defensive player of the year but he (along with Chase Baker) anchor Boise State’s deep, physical, athletic defensive line that enables the defense to dominate and be so successful. Last year Winn had 29 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks after 44 tackles, 12.5 TFL and 6 sacks in ’09 – pretty impressive numbers for a defensive tackle. The senior is a nightmare for opposing offensive lines using quickness, power and athleticism to not only stuff the run but also harass the quarterback.
Others To Watch:
San Diego State Running Back – #13 Ronnie Hillman – Hillman will likely lead the conference in rushing after carrying 262 times for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman. Don’t be surprised if he gets more carries this year with the departures of wide receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson.
Boise State Running Back – #22 Doug Martin – Martin’s workload and production will depend on how new offensive coordinator Brent Pease decides to use him. The “Muscle Hamster” carried 201 times for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 28 passes for 338 yards and 2 touchdowns.
TCU Linebackers – #43 Tank Carder & #35 Tanner Brock – Carder seems to get more of the publicity but these two are both ballers combining for 167 tackles (96 solo), 15 tackles for loss and5.5 sacks. The star LBs are two of only five returning starters on Patterson’s defense but should help ease the transition for the newcomers. Don’t be surprised to see either of these guys making game changing plays for the Horned Frogs this season.
Colorado State Linebacker – #3 Mychal Sisson – If Sisson played on a better team he would surely be a household name after raking up 106 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 1 interception last year. If the Rams can improve on last year’s dismal season, Sisson will likely play an important role and get some recognition.
Boise State Defensive Line – Obviously the defensive line can’t win MWC Defensive Player of the Year but keep your eye on #97 Chase Baker, #40 Tyrone Crawford, #92 Shea McClellin, Billy Winn (mentioned above) – these four along with not too shabby back-ups will be among the best defensive lines in the country and will play a major role in the Bronco’s success this season.
Only 10 more days until we can finally watch and talk about actual football! Next week I’ll have a Boise State-Georgia Preview and MWC Power Rankings. Any complaints on my thoughts and predictions?