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Mountain West Preview

After fairytale BCS run, Utah will return to earth in '05

Posted: Friday August 19, 2005 12:35PM; Updated: Friday August 19, 2005 1:57PM
The Skinny
Team on the rise Wyoming
Team on the decline Utah
Toughest schedule San Diego State
Most favorable schedule Utah
Coach on the hot seat Tom Craft, San Diego State
Newcomer to watch Brent Casteel, WR, Utah
Game of the Year Wyoming at Utah, Nov. 5

The Mountain West finally got what it wanted last season: a BCS team. Not just any BCS team, mind you -- one that finished No. 4 in the country, Utah. The good news is, it brought unprecedented exposure to the conference, and on the eve of its first-ever expansion at that. TCU becomes the 7-year-old league's ninth member this season. The bad news is, as one might have predicted, nearly all of the major characters from the Utes' dream season have moved on to greener pastures. Head coach Urban Meyer went to Florida. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford became the head coach at UNLV. Quarterback Alex Smith became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

The Utes aren't exactly starting from scratch under promoted defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, but they surely will be less powerful this season, opening the door for a host of other contenders. This year's Utah may be Wyoming, which seems poised for a breakthrough season under third-year head coach Joe Glenn, though the Cowboys have to open their campaign against Meyer at the Swamp. New Mexico has been a regular bowl team lately whose time to climb to the top of the league finally may have arrived. Newbie TCU is only two years removed from an 11-win season. And underrated BYU is re-energized under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The MWC might not boast another BCS team this year, but it should produce one of its most competitive races to date.

   Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings
   (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
1   Wyoming
Having improved from two wins to four in Glenn's first year, and from four to seven last season (including a Las Vegas Bowl victory over UCLA), the Cowboys, with 17 returning starters, believe this is their year. QB Corey Bramlet and WR Jovon Bouknight form a lethal passing tandem, though injuries have dampened the running game. DT Dusty Hoffschneider and CB Derrick Martin lead a rapidly improving defense.
2   New Mexico
The Lobos have adopted Utah's spread-option offense, but their success with it will hinge greatly on the health of star RB DonTrell Moore, who's recovering from knee surgery. QB Kole McKamey also needs to become a more accurate passer. One constant in Albuquerque, though, is the defense, which has ranked in the top 30 nationally five straight years. Versatile DT Marcus Parker leads a formidable front four.
3   Utah
While the rest of the country is busy mimicking Utah's 2004 offense, the Utes themselves are going to a more pro-style look under coordinator Andy Ludwig. Sophomore QB Brian Johnson showed flashes of greatness as Smith's backup, but Utah loses standout receivers Paris Warren and Steve Savoy. Redshirt freshman Casteel is the new top playmaker. The defense returns several cogs but will miss safety Morgan Scalley.
4   BYU
The Cougars weren't as bad as their 5-6 record indicated last year, going 4-3 in the league and beating Notre Dame. New offensive coordinator Robert Anae, a Mike Leach disciple, promises to return the Cougars to their high-powered ways, and veteran QB John Beck and NFL-caliber WR Todd Watkins should help him. BYU's 3-3-5 defense lost several key veterans, however, particularly in its most important unit, the secondary.
5   TCU
The Horned Frogs fell from 38th to 99th in total defense last season and, not surprisingly, won six fewer games. TCU should have another explosive offense, led by veteran QB Tye Gunn, a pair of former 1,000-yard rushers in Lonta Hobbs and Robert Merrill and speedy receiver Cory Rodgers. They had better improve the nation's worst pass defense in a hurry, though, considering they're playing in a more pass-happy league.
6   Colorado State
Season-opening trips to Colorado and Minnesota may put the Rams in a hole again, but they should be improved overall. QB Justin Holland, who shined prior to a season-ending injury last year, is back under center, and he'll be throwing to prolific receiver David Anderson. Sophomore Kyle Bell needs to become a go-to tailback. The defensive line and linebacking corps struggled a year ago and will be keys to success.
7   San Diego State
The good news for Craft's Aztecs, who nearly knocked off Michigan before slumping to a 4-7 finish last year, is that RB Lynell Hamilton, the league's freshman of the year in 2003, is back after missing all of 2004. The bad news is, the cogs of SDSU's ferocious defense the past couple seasons, LBs Kirk Morrison and Matt McCoy, are gone to the NFL. The offense should be much better, but the defense could be worse.
8   Air Force
Fisher DeBerry's venerable program is going through a rough patch. After suffering their first losing season in 11 years, the Falcons will hang their triple-option hat on second-year QB Shaun Carney, but they lack a single experienced halfback. At least the O-line is experienced and strong. AFA's defense fell off the map last season, particularly against the run, which doesn't bode well with an inexperienced linebacker corps.
9   UNLV
Sanford eventually could have great success with the spread option, but as of now he lacks the necessary pieces. Until USC transfer Rocky Hinds becomes eligible next season, Sanford will likely go with erratic junior Shane Steichen at QB. RB Erick Jackson and WR Donnell Wheaton have been pleasant surprises. The defense wasn't bad last year, but the Rebels lost eight starters. Sophomore LB Beau Bell is an emerging star.