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Mountain West Preview 2006

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 9, 2006


Preview 2006 CollegeFootballNews.com Mountain West Preview

CONFERENCE OUTLOOK
Utah broke through the BCS barrier in 2004 and TCU would’ve gotten in last year if the 2006 rules applied. Now the league is sniffing the big-time more and more with the Utes, Horned Frogs and BYU all dreaming, and deserving, of the major game spotlight. This isn’t a great conference with Air Force, UNLV and Wyoming all mediocre, but it’s the best of the non-traditional big six BCS leagues and is sure to represent itself well in non-conference games. Even with the disparity between the top teams and the potential average ones, as always, there will be several upsets along the way with San Diego State to be stronger under new head coach Chuck Long and New Mexico and Colorado State each good enough to go bowling.

3 THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. There will be a weekly battle of some of the most interesting offenses in the game. Utah, BYU and UNLV will all run some form of the spread. Air Force will try to be more balanced, and former UCLA head coach Bob Toledo taking over the offensive coordinator duties at New Mexico.

2. If San Diego State RB Lynell Hamilton can finally stay healthy, he’ll make a big push for Mountain West Player of the Year honors.

3. No one will want to play UNLV over the second half of the year. The addition of USC QB Rocky Hinds, JUCO WR Aaron Straiten, USC CB Eric Wright, and UCLA CB Mil’Von James will make the Rebels dangerous.

GAME OF THE YEAR
October 5th TCU at Utah. Running the Mountain West table is possible if the Horned Frogs can get over the brutal road tip to Salt Lake City. TCU won a 23-20 overtime classic last year to launch its big season, and now Utah will be looking to do the same. It's not an overstatement to think this might be the Mountain West title game.

1. Utah
Predicted record: 11-1  Conf. record: 8-0
Best Player: SS Eric Weddle, Sr.
Offense - Utah's offense should once again be one of the Mountain West's most devastating thanks to an improved line, speedy receivers, and a great quarterback situation with Brian Johnson and Brett Ratliff each good enough to earn Player of the Year honors. The running game is the big question mark with no proven experience and operating on a prayer that gimpy backs like Darryl Poston and Mike Liti can get through a season healthy. Brian Hernandez leads a very fast receiving corps that will get better and better as the year goes on.
Defense - The defense doesn't get the publicity of the offense, but it's effective and should be good enough to win with after finishing second to TCU in most of the big categories. Several players are being moved around and nothing will be set in stone with all the different looks defensive coordinator Gary Anderson will provide. The biggest change is the move of top safety Casey Evans to linebacker giving the defense more of a 4-2-5 look despite really being a 4-3. Eric Weddle will be the star of the secondary either at strong safety or corner, while the line should be great against the run if nose guard Paul Soliai can be strong right away.
This season will be a success if … the Utes win the Mountain West title. The four conference road games are against teams that didn't go to a bowl last year. Anything less than a championship will be a major disappointment.

T2. TCU
Predicted record: 9-3  Conf. record: 6-2
Best Player: DE Tommy Blake, Jr.
Offense - Ten starters return if you count all three returning tailbacks, but there's a problem up front with all-star Herbert Taylor the only returning starter. QB Jeff Ballard needs to keep improving after a stellar second half of last season by cutting down on interceptions and making even more deep plays. The receiving corps should be fine even without number one target Cory Rodgers, while the running back trio of Lonta Hobbs, Robert Merrill and Aaron Brown should be the best in the Mountain West.
Defense - Seven starters return to the Mountain West's best defense after forcing a nation-leading 40 turnovers and holding teams to 108 rushing yards per game. Take away the wild 51-50 overtime shootout with BYU and the Horned Frog defense allowed a mere 15.7 points per game. The defensive line should be unreal when it comes to getting into the backfield thanks to the return of ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, but there will be early concern over the new tackles. Cornerback is a worry for the secondary needing seniors Vernon Russell and Mike Salvage to shine right away. Things are rock-solid up the middle with a great linebacking corps and excellent safeties.
This season will be a success if … TCU repeats as Mountain West champions. With all the returning talent and all the success of last year there's no reason to expect less. A spot in the BCS is an attainable goal if there’s an early win over Texas Tech.

T2. BYU
Predicted record: 8-4  Conf. record: 6-2
Best Player: QB John Beck, Sr.
Offense - While BYU technically uses the spread offense and certainly has the ability to run the ball with Curtis Brown and an NFL-sized offensive line, this is a passing attack. John Beck is mobile, but he's a bomber with a good array of weapons to work with. Brown is a fantastic receiver, and tight end Jonny Harline is one of the nation's best. Now the wide receivers have to step up with the loss of deep threat Todd Watkins. This is an offense that can score in bunches, but it can't bog down like it did at times. With more experience in the system, the attack should be more consistent.
Defense - The 3-3-5 is gone in favor of a 3-4 defense, and that's a positive considering the strength of the D is at linebacker. Head man Bronco Mendenhall is a defensive coach and will look to get far more production, but there isn't a whole bunch of talent. Linebacker Cameron Jensen is a playmaker and there are a few good defensive backs, but this group will have to be prepared to be in plenty of shootouts.
This season will be a success if … the Cougars come in second in the Mountain West. This is a relatively lofty goal considering the defense is mediocre at best and with road trips to TCU and Utah. The offense will simply outbomb everyone else.

4. Colorado State
Predicted record: 5-7  Conf. record: 4-4
Best Player: RB Kyle Bell, Jr.
Offense - Colorado State turned into a passing team last year finishing 16th in the nation averaging 286 yards per game, but the ground game, when Kyle Bell was held in check, went kaput. Now there should be more of a balance with the passing attack going to be a little worse with Caleb Hanie taking over for Justin Holland at quarterback and without star receiver David Anderson to make big play after big play. The line is too big and too strong to not blow open bigger holes for Bell and the running game.
Defense - If you were hoping for a rebound after a disastrous 2004, you had a long year. The Ram defense struggled to tackle, didn't generate enough pressure in the backfield, and basically got beat on by anyone who dared to try. There's hope for improvement with a decent group of veteran starters returning and helped by Ben Stratton coming back to the secondary after missing last year with a knee injury. The defensive backs are excellent, but the defense won't improve unless the linebacking corps plays night-and-day better and the smallish defensive line holds up against power running teams.
This season will be a success if … CSU finishes second in the Mountain West. There are issues from depth problems on the offensive line to a lack of a proven number one receiver to all the major concerns with the run defense.

T5. New Mexico
Predicted record: 6-6  Conf. record: 3-5
Best Player: OT Robert Turner, Sr.
Offense - The New Mexico offense has always been effective, and now it could be explosive with the addition of former UCLA head coach Bob Toledo to run the attack. He has a veteran leader in Kole McKamey to run things, but he's missing New Mexico's all-time leading rusher, DonTrell Moore, and top receiver Hank Baskett. Martelius Epps and Rodney Ferguson are good backs who should keep the running game rolling behind a humongous line full of veterans. The receiving corps has potential if Marcus Smith plays up to his skills and Travis Brown develops into a number one target.
Defense - The whole is better than the sum of the parts. The line isn't big, the secondary isn't particularly fast, and there isn't a big run stuffer anywhere, but the defense always produces. Well, almost always. The secondary had problems last year and the D gave up an unLobo-like 29.7 points per game. There should be more big plays with outside linebackers Cody Kase and Quincy Black about to grow into stars, and safeties Blake Ligon and DeAndre Wright about to go from being green freshmen to dynamite sophomores. The concerns are at corner and with size up front with the tackles going around 250. However, New Mexico's system usually produces results.
This season will be a success if … the Lobos finish second in the Mountain West. They're not as good as TCU or Utah, but they get the two big games at home and have enough overall talent to be in the hunt for the title until the final day.

T5. Air Force
Predicted record: 4-8  Conf. record: 3-5
Best Player: QB Shaun Carney, Jr.
Offense - Air Force passed the ball better and more effectively than it had in a long time with Shaun Carney emerging as an efficient starter. Now the job will be to get more out of the running game that only averaged 4.6 yards per carry. The Falcons finished eighth in the nation averaging 247 rushing yards per game, but it has to average more than 275 per outing to beat the big boys. Carney needs to be more effective at getting big plays from the backs, but that could be tough with an average group of runners and an even more pedestrian receiving corps (at least compared to last year). The line will be fine despite losing great blockers Jon Wilson and Ross Weaver.
Defense - The defense has been awful over the last two seasons and there's no immediate sign of a huge improvement. Overall, the Falcons have to force more turnovers and not give up so many big plays, but both will only happen with more of a pass rush. The strength is at tackle where Gilberto Perez and Grant Thomas should be the best the team has had in a while. There's no depth at linebacker and the ends are small and unproven pass rushers. There are several corner options and a star in free safety Bobby Giannini to hope for a big improvement in the secondary.
This season will be a success if … Air Force has a winning season. This is probably no better than the sixth or seventh best team in the conference, but the schedule works out nicely with only three games (at Tennessee, Notre Dame and at TCU) that it likely has little chance of winning.
 
T7. San Diego State
Predicted record: 4-8  Conf. record: 2-6
Best Player: RB Lynell Hamilton, Jr.
Offense - New offensive coordinator Del Miller brings 25 years of experience with his most recent stint at Kansas State, but this is Chuck Long's offense. It's not going to be a night-and-day different offense with plenty of four-wide sets and plenty of spread-it-out passing. However, the focus of the attack will be on the running game with a next-level talent in Lynell Hamilton to work with. The offensive line will be a work in progress until the coaching staff figures out where to put everyone. Kevin O'Connell is one of the Mountain West's best all-around quarterbacks, but he'll have work to do with a young receiving corps that needs a little time.
Defense - The defense had a hard time coming up with consistent production last season, but it should be better with eight returning starters and a great cornerback combination in Terrell Maze and Donny Baker. Overall, better run defense is a must after finishing next-to-last in the Mountain West allowing 185 yards per game. End Antwan Applewhite is one of the Mountain West's best pass rushers, but the defense needs to produce more than the 17 sacks of last year. The linebacking corps could quickly turn into something special if Andrew Shantz shines as the new starter in the group.
This season will be a success if … the Aztecs win eight games. It's not that lofty a goal if the new coaching staff can get a little more production out of the run defense and more efficiency and consistency out of the offense.

T7. UNLV
Predicted record: 3-9  Conf. record: 2-6
Best Player: QB Eric Wright, Jr.
Offense - The Rebel Shotgun Spread went through some major growing pains in its first year hurt mostly by a wrist injury to starting QB Shane Steichen. Now it'll be a battle between Steichen and USC transfer Rocky Hinds to run the attack, but that's hardly the only position battle. 5-6 Erick Jackson is firmly entrenched as the starting running back with five options behind him looking for playing time. The receiving corps is more talented even after losing three of its top four wide receivers, while the line is experienced with eight recruits on the way to push for starting spots. Essentially, it's an experienced offense with a major influx of very, very young talent that'll get every chance to play.
Defense - The defense was decent against the run and had problems against the pass, but that should quickly change with the addition of USC's Eric Wright, UCLA's Mil'Von James, and Oklahoma's Tony Cade to the secondary. The front three needs to find ends who can rush the passer with Howie Fuimaono sure to be on of the Mountain West's best anchors in the middle. The linebacking corps has Beau Bell and the hope for a few JUCO transfers to come through. Expect the schemes and formations to change wildly throughout the season depending on the emergence of all the new additions.
This season will be a success if … the Rebels win six games. There’s still a long way to go talent-wise and the early schedule is way too tough to hope for any sort of run for a conference title, but that doesn't mean the improved team can't be in the hunt for a bowl game.

T7. Wyoming
Predicted record: 3-9  Conf. record: 2-6
Best Player: SS John Wendling, Sr.
Offense - The offense went in the tank as the season went on plagued by turnovers and no consistency. The normally pass-happy one-back attack could take a little bit of a turn with four excellent running back options working behind an experienced line, while the passing game will try to retool without star receiver Jovon Bouknight and without any quarterbacks named Bramlet. Jacob Doss has an inside line on the starting job, but he'll have plenty of competition and will have to look over his shoulder at Karsten Sween, Stinson Dean, and JUCO transfer Ian Hetrick.
Defense - Wyoming will move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to take advantage of all its linebacker talent, but it'll still mix in a Buck linebacker to rush the passer like an extra end. The D wasn't all that bad last year, but it got worse as the season went on and was never clutch. It'll take a little while to get any sort of groove back with two new corners and not enough speed in the linebacking corps. While the front seven won't get steamrolled over, it's not going to stop anyone cold. John Wendling will be in the hunt for defensive player of the year honors moving over from free safety to strong safety.
This season will be a success if … UW gets to a bowl game. If the team is any good, it should beat Utah State, Air Force and San Diego State, and it needs to win road games at Syracuse, New Mexico and UNLV. A big upset here or there will also be a must.