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WAC Preview

It's Boise State, Fresno State ... and the seven dwarfs

Posted: Friday August 19, 2005 12:42PM; Updated: Friday August 19, 2005 12:45PM
The Skinny
Team on the rise New Mexico State
Team on the decline Hawaii
Toughest schedule Boise State
Most favorable schedule Nevada
Coach on the hot seat Jack Bicknell, Louisiana Tech
Newcomer to watch Cole Clasen, WR, Oregon State
Game of the Year Boise State at Fresno State, Nov. 10

The WAC boasts two of the highest-profile "mid-majors" in the country, Boise State and Fresno State, both of whom will generate no shortage of national attention this season if they live up to their expectations. The Broncos, coming off their third straight season of at least 11 wins and in the midst of a 26-game WAC winning streak, could immediately jump into BCS contention if they can manage to win at Georgia on the season's first Saturday. Pat Hill's Bulldogs, who most believe will field their best team since the famed 2001 David Carr squad, are playing their typical, take-on-all-comers non-conference schedule, but with perhaps their most unique challenge yet: a late-November trip to two-time national champion USC.

Unfortunately, beyond its two poster programs, the WAC doesn't have much to offer these days, especially following the offseason exodus of UTEP, which was just beginning to return to prominence under Mike Price; Tulsa, a bowl team two years ago; SMU and Rice. In their place come three largely uninspiring programs -- Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State -- from the bottom-of-the-barrel Sun Belt. Of the three, the Aggies, under new coach Hal Mumme, show the most promise. Then there's Hawaii, which has won at least eight games each of the last four seasons but could be in for a tumble this year without record-setting QB Timmy Chang. With the exception of the Nov. 10 Boise-Fresno showdown, the most intriguing part of the WAC season will likely be those occasions when the two powers go out of conference.

   Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings
   (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
1   Boise State
The Broncos bring back the majority of their offense, which, considering what QB Jared Zabransky and his deep cast of running backs accomplished last year (48.9 points per game), is downright scary. Oregon State transfer Clasen should emerge as one of their top receivers. The main holes to fill are on defense, where Boise loses LB Andy Avalos and CB Gabe Franklin, but they'll still easily outscore most foes
2   Fresno State
The Bulldogs return 16 starters from last year's 9-3 team and could put a scare into Boise State, Oregon or even USC. The key is avoiding their usual midseason lull where they lose to someone they shouldn't. Four-year QB Paul Pinegar is solid, and Bryson Sumlin, Wendell Mathis and Dwayne Wright are all 1,000-yard caliber backs. Star DT Garrett McIntyre and a loaded LB corps lead the conference's top defense.
3   Nevada
After reinstalling himself as head coach last season, Hall of Famer Chris Ault still couldn't get the Wolf Pack over .500. He's installed a new, shotgun offense that he hopes will benefit talented but erratic QB Jeff Rowe and his young, slashing running backs. Ault also switched to a 3-4 scheme to improve the defense. Nevada plays an aggressive style, and swarming LBs J.J. Milan and Jeremy Engstrom lead the way.
4   New Mexico State
Mumme inherits a senior-laden team that's ripe to explode under the high-powered offense he made famous at Kentucky. He has the receivers, most notably converted QB Paul Dombrowski, a veteran O-line, and an eager juco QB with the perfect name: Royal Gill. The defense, with switched to a 3-4 midway through last season, struggled against the run, but that might not matter as much in the pass-happy WAC.
5   Louisiana Tech
After years of throwing it all over the place, Bicknell centered his offense last year around workhorse RB Ryan Moats. With Moats leaving early for the draft, the Bulldogs probably won't approach last year's mark of 200 rushing yards per game, but they also lack the type of high-caliber QB they once had with Tim Rattay and Luke McCown. LB Bryon Santiago is a stud, but several juco DBs will be needed to plug holes.
6   Hawaii
Following the graduation of all-time NCAA passing leader Chang, June Jones' Run and Shoot attack will be in the hands of a completely green QB. He'll also be without four starting receivers, including star Chad Owens, and his top three running backs from last year. Yikes. The defense was second-worst in the country last season, but there's a surprising new sheriff in town as coordinator: former NFL coach Jerry Glanville.
7   San Jose State
Former Arizona and Hawaii coach Dick Tomey has been charged with the unenviable task of turning around a program that is barely staying afloat in Division I-A. The Spartans were competitive at times last year, most notably when they took Boise State to overtime, but with no experienced QB, little talent at running back and a bottom-of-the-barrel defense, it could take several years for Tomey to turn things around.
8   Utah State
The Aggies, which last posted a winning season in 1996, recruited a new coach for their move to the WAC, Arizona State defensive coordinator (and former USU assistant) Brent Guy. He inherits a squad that was barely competitive in the inferior Sun Belt but does have some experience, particularly at receiver. He'll need to develop a new quarterback and a running game. His main impact, though, should be felt on defense.
9   Idaho
Second-year coach Nick Holt, whose team has won all of nine games the past four years, faces a brutal schedule that starts with three straight road trips. The Vandals do return 17 starters, including QB Michael Harrington -- younger brother of Joey -- but it might not make much difference considering the step up in competition from Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State to the likes of Boise State and Fresno State