Mountain West Preview 2006 - Top 5s
Posted Aug 9, 2006 2006 Mountain West Preview Top 5s

1) The five games that will shape the Mountain West race (in order)
Sept. 28 (Thur.),
Hopefully this will be close to as good as last year's 51-50 overtime classic won by TCU.
Oct. 5 (Thur.),
TCU at Utah
TCU shocked the Utes in overtime last year to officially announce its arrival as the new star of the Mountain West. Utah will need this win to be in the driver's seat for the title.
Oct. 19 (Thur.),
Utah at New Mexico
This is a dangerous game for a Utah team coming off the TCU showdown and a trip to Wyoming. New Mexico still has to face Colorado State, BYU and TCU, so this is a must-win.
Nov. 4,
BYU at Colorado State
Talk about a killer run, Colorado State's November starts off with BYU, is followed up with a road trip to Utah, and finishes against TCU.
Nov. 25,
BYU at Utah
TCU will have something to say about the conference title, but this bitter rivalry should have some bearing on the title.

2) Five non-conference games that Mountain West teams had better take very, very seriously
1. TCU at Army, Oct. 21
Army isn't all that good, but TCU could be sluggish with 15 days off after playing Texas Tech, BYU, and at Utah.
2. Utah State at BYU, Oct. 23
Sandwich game. BYU plays at Boston College the week before dealing with the Aggies and has the showdown with TCU five days after.
3. New Mexico at New Mexico State, Sept. 9
The Lobos have won three straight in the series, but the Aggies should be far better than last year.
4. Idaho State at UNLV, Sept. 2
Much will be made out of all the big-time transfers in their first game for UNLV, but Idaho State has a new star of its own in former Michigan quarterback Matt Gutierrez. Preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Pago Tagafau might be the best linebacker on the field.
5. UC Davis at TCU, Sept. 9
UC Davis should be a walk in the park for TCU, right? That's what Stanford thought last year before getting shocked 20-17. The Horned Frogs will certainly be looking ahead to Texas Tech.

3) Five best Mountain West pro prospects
 Utah SS Eric Weddle, Sr. - 78 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 TFL, 3 interceptions, 12 broken up passes, 3 forced fumbles
One of the nation's best defensive backs, Weddle has 213 career tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and nine sacks to go along with a boatload of big plays against the pass. He's a phenomenal all-around athlete who has seen time almost everywhere throughout his career from safety to cornerback to quarterback to punter to punt returner. A more natural corner who helped erase Georgia Tech star receiver Calvin Johnson from the gameplan in the Emerald Bowl, he'll start out at strong safety.
2. TCU DE Tommy Blake, Jr. - 59 tackles, 7 sacks, 13.5 TFL
Blake grew from a tremendous pass rushing specialist to a strong all-around end and the best player in the Mountain West last season. The former running back is a blur in the backfield and more than holds his own against the run despite only being 250 pounds. With next level athleticism and moves, and with Chase Ortiz on the other side garnering attention, he'll be a near-lock for another big sack total.

UNLV CB Eric Wright, Jr.
The transfer from USC instantly becomes the team's top defensive back. He has a national title ring from the Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma and has the speed and lock-down skills to be a dominant number one corner and an All-Mountain West performer. At least that's what the expectation will be.

Dallas Reynolds, Soph.
Reynolds turned into one of the big surprises last year stepping into a starting role right away at left guard and playing the entire year. He's a huge 6-4, 335-pound presence who turned into a nice run blocker. He made the typical freshman mistakes with a few problems with his consistency in pass protection, but he was hardly a liability.

BYU TE Jonny Harline, Sr. - 63 catches, 853 yds, 13.5 ypc, 5 TD
A tight-end-not-a-tight-end, Harline is a big wide receiver at the Y position finishing last year as the team's leading pass catcher while showing off the hands and deep speed to make him a good pro prospect. He's a decent blocker with a strong 6-4, 240-pound frame, but he's all about catching the ball with three 100-yard games last year and a ten-catch performance against New Mexico.

4) Five biggest Mountain West shoes to fill 
1. New Mexico RB
Martelius Epps for DonTrell Moore
Mostly a special teamer and defensive back so far, the 5-10, 182-pound Epps gets the honor of trying to take over for DonTrell Moore. He's a lightning fast runner with some of the best wheels on the team, and he won't be afraid to pound the ball between the tackles. Pound for pound, "Tay" is one of the team's strongest players.

2. Wyoming WR Michael Ford for Jovon Bouknight

Is he the next star Cowboy receiver? The 6-2, 203-pound junior will take over Bouknight's number one role. While the explosion is there, the consistency has to follow. He hasn't scored a touchdown yet despite being used as a deep threat, and he all but disappeared  over the second half of the season until he caught five passes for 54 yards in the season finale against San Diego State.

Utah DT Kelly Talavou for Steve Fifita
While he's not Steve Fifita, the 305-pound transfer from Idaho is a rock-solid run defender who did a great job on the nose last season. He'll take over at tackle but could see time on the nose, as well, where he was on the verge of all-conference honors.

San Diego State WR Chazeray Schilens for Jeff Webb
It's Schilens' show to run now that top receivers Jeff Webb and Robert Ortiz are gone. The 6-4, 205-pound junior is the only returning starter and the top returning receiver with nice skills, but not next-level ability. He had his best game of the season in the finale against Hawaii catching eight passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, but that's not going to be the norm.

5. New Mexico C
Vince Natali for Ryan Cook
It hasn't been easy finding time at center with Ryan Cook holding down the job over the past three seasons, but the 298-pound Natali is ready after serving as the understudy. He can play anywhere on the line suited best for guard or center with tremendous strength on the inside.

5) Five Mountain West breakout players
Rocky Hinds, Soph.
The USC transfer doesn't have the experience of Shane Steichen, but he was good enough to rip apart the Rebel defense as a scout teamer last season with all the tools to be a star. He's 6-5 and 220 pounds with an NFL arm and enough mobility to a difference maker when he gets out of the pocket. He's going to be rusty having not played since high school, so it's going to be a battle for the starting job.

Aaron Straiten, Jr.
The JUCO transfer has been mentioned by the coaches as a comparable talent to Keyshawn Johnson and Curtis Conway. He's 6-3, 205 pounds, and fast, fast, fast. 

3. Utah OG
Robert Conley, Soph.
Conley might have been raw, but he was good enough to push his way in to a starting job at right guard last season. He's a strong, talented 6-1 and 310 pounds with the potential to be an all-star standout with a little more time. He's a tremendous run blocker and one of the team's best weight room performers.

4. New Mexico WR
Marcus Smith, Jr. - 6 catches, 56 yds, 9.3 ypc
A running back turned receiver, the 6-3, 209-pound Smith has the speed to replace Hank Baskett as the team's most dangerous receiver. Mostly known for being a top kick returner and a good runner on occasion, he has the potential to be special as he figures out what he's doing.

Corderra Hunter, RFr.
He'll eventually be the team's top corner. He's 6-2 and 180 pounds with track star speed and good hitting ability. Even though he'll start out behind Vernon Russell on the right side, he could find a starting spot somewhere early on.