The Mountain West gave a great account of itself last year, as 14-game winner and Sugar Bowl victors Utah were joined by TCU and BYU in having excellent seasons.
The Mountain West Conference produced five bowl teams last season, and the conference boasts the team with the longest current winning streak in the nation in the Utah Utes.
Utah has now won 14 consecutive games, and few are as memorable as the game that culminated an unbeaten season in 2008, a surprisingly easy win over the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. The Utes will be hard-pressed to remain unbeaten this season however, although they may come very close.
The TCU Horned Frogs are our choice to dethrone the Utes this season, as TCU also had a fine season last year, giving the Oklahoma Sooners a battle early on and then beating the Boise State Broncos in the Poinsettia Bowl. The BYU Cougars complete the Big Three in this conference, although there is a considerable drop-off after these three squads. The other two Mountain West bowl participants last season were the Air Force Falcons and the Colorado State Rams.
We see a similar top-heavy season for this conference again this season, as TCU and Utah can beat any team in the country, but we look for BYU to fall back a bit and for Air Force to basically remain on par with last year. There is very little to get excited about after that however.
This is how we see the Mountain West Standings at the end of the year:
1 TCU – Not only do we feel that TCU will win the conference this season, but we also give them an outside chance of pulling a Utah and going undefeated entering the Bowl Season! After all, the Horned Frogs are very experienced on offense, returning All-MWC quarterback Andy Dalton, two senior running backs and all but one of the wide receivers that saw significant time last year. As for the defense, TCU has consistently had one of the best defenses in the entire nation for the past decade, and this year should be no different under the leadership of First Team All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes.
2 Utah – The Utes will probably not go undefeated again, especially having to play both TCU and BYU on the road and returning only four starters on offense. In fact, it will be a major transition for the offense this year with the departures of quarterback Brian Johnson, their top running back and their top three receivers from 2008. However, the defense is still solid, and that unit could steal some early season games while the talented new offensive recruits start to gel and gain some continuity. Add in the great coaching of Kyle Whittingham and this team will still be right there at the end.
3 BYU – Now we realize that the Cougars traditionally just try and outscore their opponents, and they have great talent returning at the offensive skill positions. However, the problem with BYU this year will be an entirely revamped offensive line, and that unit may not allow their great quarterback Max Hall and his top corps of receiver to live up to their preseason billing. The defense may actually be ahead of the offense in the early going, which is almost unheard of for a BYU team.
4 Air Force – The Falcons will continue to do their thing this season, which means running the ball down the throat of opposing defenses and preferable throwing the ball no more than five times per game. They are certainly equipped to do that with an excellent and experienced offensive line. Still, Air Force is very young on defense with only three players returning from the front seven, and if that unit allows points early, the Falcons are not built to come from behind. Air Force is clearly the fourth best team in the conference, one notch below the Big Three but considerably better than the rest of the Mountain West.
5 UNLV – Somebody has to finish fifth in the conference, and not much separates the bottom five teams, but we give this nod to the improving Rebels. Coach Mike Sanford has put a spread offense in place, and this style seems perfect for All-MWC wide receiver Ryan Wolfe. There is still some uncertainty at the quarterback and running back positions, although those competing for the starting spots do have talent. The offense will have to produce because the defense is a mess, save for linebacker Jason Beauchamp.
6 Colorado State – The Rams were lucky to make a bowl game last year, but we see them regressing and finishing with a losing record this year. They do not have a bona fide starting quarterback nor an every-down go-to running back, at least not to start the season. The offensive line is experienced and the receiving corps is fairly deep, but that may not do much good without a playmaker in the backfield. The defense is also in trouble, as the only returning starter on the front seven is only a sophomore.
7 New Mexico – Unlike Lobos teams of the past, New Mexico could not throw the ball last season, ranking a poor 110th in the nation in passing offense. Unfortunately, we do not see anyone on their current roster that could improve that area. Also, the Lobos return only three starters from their entire defense.
8 San Diego State – The bright side is that the Aztecs return nine starters on offense from last year. However, we feel that is outweighed by the fact that the offense must learn a whole new scheme under new coach Brady Hoke, and the defense was downright atrocious last year with no relief in sight this season.
9 Wyoming – So, how exactly did the Cowboys win on the road at Tennessee last year? Regardless, Wyoming averaged just 12.7 points per game, and they are putting in a new spread offense under new coach Dave Christensen, who will quickly learn that he is not in Missouri any more. The defense is actually very solid, with eight returning starters from a unit that ranked 38th in the nation in total defense in 2008. Unfortunately, the Cowboys cannot win games 0-0.