Saturday, August 02, 2008

2008 Mountain West Preview

Though they finished a somewhat disappointing 4-4 in the Mountain West last season (alone in 5th place), the Horned Frogs were actually one of the league’s best teams. In conference play, the Horned Frogs had the second-best yardage differential (behind league heavyweight BYU). In addition, all 4 of their losses in conference play came by 7 points or less (18 total points) and their turnover margin in Mountain West games was tied for 7th (among 9 teams) at -5. If TCU plays as well as they did last season and has a little better fortune, they have a great shot at winning the league title.

Despite losing a senior starter at quarterback from the 2006 team (Jeff Ballard) and starting a redshirt freshman (Andy Dalton), the TCU offense performed very well in 2007. Nationally, the Horned Frogs ranked a rather pedestrian 64th in total offense (387 yards per game), but in conference play, only BYU gained more yards. Dalton returns for his sophomore campaign and should improve upon his decent freshman numbers (passer rating of 118.48 ranked 83rd in the nation). Dalton also contributed 232 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground and with more experience could see those numbers improve as well. Joining Dalton in the backfield are running backs Joseph Turner and Aaron Brown. The duo combined for nearly 1100 yards last season and with 4 starters returning along the offensive line, should see improvement as well. The lone significant loss on offense is leading-receiver Ervin Dickerson. However, Dickerson paced the team with a mere 40 catches and 514 yards in 2007. The Horned Frogs spread the ball around quite a bit in 2007 (4 receivers caught at least 20 passes and gained over 300 yards) so that should not be a real issue as the other 3 men who achieved those aforementioned feats all return. The offense as a whole should continue to progress and remain one of the best in the Mountain West.

The defense was it’s usual stingy self in 2007, limiting opponents to only 324 yards per game (15th in the nation). In Mountain West play, they were 3rd in yards allowed, behind Utah and BYU. The Horned Frogs do have some holes to fill on defense in 2008, as 3 of the top-4 tacklers are no longer with the team. Of course, that’s not to say the Horned Frogs will not be experienced in 2008, as 7 of their projected starters are seniors. The Horned Frogs may regress some on defense, but it will be marginal at most. They should remain in the upper-tier of the Mountain West.

Prediction: If the Horned Frogs can get by the opener at New Mexico, they stand a great shot at being 4-0 by the time they travel to Norman to take on the Sooners (Stephen F. Austin, Stanford, and SMU follow the New Mexico game). I don’t think they can knock off the Sooners, but for the sake of argument, an 11-1 TCU team with a good showing in Norman on its resume could conceivably get into the BCS. Of course calling for an undefeated Mountain West season is likely folly this season with so many strong teams. With the game against conference overlord BYU in Fort Worth, a bevy of returning starters at the ready, and some better luck (in close games and the turnover department), the Horned Frogs are the conference favorite.

Since taking over for Urban Meyer following the 2004 season, Kyle Whittingham has captained the Utes to 3 straight bowl wins and seen the team’s final record improve each season (7-5, 8-5, 9-4). Is this the year the Utes put everything together and make another run at the conference title and a possible BCS bid?

Last season the Utah offense returned one of the conferences best players in quarterback Brian Johnson. Johnson missed all of the 2006 season after a superb starting debut in 2005 (151.02 passer rating—11th in the nation). Johnson struggled somewhat (of course) after missing an entire season, posting a passer rating of 129.58 (53rd in the nation). Johnson also continued to struggle with injuries missing 2 full games and parts of 2 others. In those 4 games (the 1st 4), the Utes went 1-3 and netted only 7 offensive touchdowns (5 in the 44-6 drubbing of UCLA fueled mostly by 5 Bruin turnovers). Despite underperforming based on the standard he set in 2005, Johnson was vitally important to the team’s success as the table below illustrates. If Johnson can remain healthy in 2008, the Utes can do great things. Joining Johnson on the offensive side of the ball are 4 returning starters on the offensive line, running back Darrell Mack (1204 yards on the ground in 2007), and receivers Brent Casteel (2nd on the team in receiving in 2006, but tore ACL in game 2 last year) and Bradon Godfrey (2nd in receiving in 2007). The Utes do lose receiver Derrek Richards (led team past 2 seasons in receiving), but the passing game should remain potent. Johnson may not achieve his 2005 numbers, but he should improve upon those from 2007. As long as he does not miss significant time, the Utes should be one of the best offenses in the Mountain West.

Last season, the Utah defense carried the team while the offense was struggling with a hobbled quarterback. The Utes allowed the fewest yards in conference play and nationally were the top-ranked defense in terms of opponents’ passer rating (96.15). Opposing teams completed only slightly more than half their passes (50.4%) against the miserly Ute defense. The defense should continue to be an asset to the team, but will not approach last year’s potency. 5 starters are gone, and the team loses 3 of the top-6 tacklers. In addition, while the defense was good, part of its otherworldliness was built upon turnovers. The Utes forced 33 turnovers in 2007, 16 of them coming via a fumble recovery. The Utes recovered 2/3rds of their opponents’ fumbles in 2007, a number not likely to be repeated.

Prediction: The Utes open in the Big House at Michigan, in a game the Wolverines will certainly not look past. Even if they fall to the men in maize and blue, the Utes can take solace in the fact that their other non-conference games are very winnable. The Utes travel to WAC bottom-dweller Utah State before hosting Weber State (IAA) and the Pac-10’s Oregon State. The first 2 are gimmes and while the date with the Beavers will be tough, it does come in Salt Lake City. In league play, the Utes have a supreme advantage in that they host both TCU and BYU. However, the while the Utes should be better and even post their best record in the Whittingham-era, the football gods will likely not be as kind in the turnover department, so expect the Utes to finish in second despite handling both the Horned Frogs and the Cougars.

They’re back! Believe it or not, prior to 2006, BYU had faded into mid-major irrelevance. In the 6-season span from 2000-2005 (the end of the Lavell Edwards era, the entirety of the Gary Crowton era, and the inaugural season of the Bronco Mendenhall era), the Cougars were 38-35. Taking it a step further, after beginning the 2001 season 12-0, the Cougars were 20-29 over the next 4+ seasons. To put that in perspective, the Cougars have won 22 games over the past 2 seasons. Significant progress has been made in each season under Mendenhall, culminating in consecutive undefeated romps through the Mountain West. Can the Cougars make it 24-straight Mountain West wins, and in the process punch their ticket to a prestigious bowl game?

Statistically, BYU was head and shoulders above every other team in the Mountain West last season. In conference play, they gained the most yards and only Utah allowed fewer (a yard and a half fewer per game). The offensive showing was very impressive considering the Cougars lost an NFL-draft choice (John Beck) at quarterback following the 2006 season. Arizona State transfer Max Hall performed admirably in his stead, compiling a passer rating of 137.71 (30th in the nation) and leading all Mountain West quarterbacks with 26 touchdown passes. Hall returns for his junior campaign along with 8 other starters. Included in that group is super sophomore running back Harvey Unga, who was second in the Mountain West in rushing (1227 yards) as a freshman. Unga also proved very capable in the passing game, catching 44 passes for 655 yards (3rd on the team in both categories). With 4 starters back along the offensive line, Unga should once again post very good numbers. Besides center, Sete Aulai, the only other starter not returning is receiver Matt Allen. While Allen did catch 33 balls last season, he should easily be replaced by senior Bryce Mahuika. If BYU does not have the league’s best offense once again, it will be because of injuries, serious egression by Hall, or an otherworldly season from Utah’s Brian Johnson.

Unfortunately, the Cougars will need all the offense they can muster because the defense has to replace a host of talented players. 6 of the top-8 tacklers are gone from a defense that permitted only one foe (Tulsa with 595) to top 400 yards. The entire secondary and 3 quarters of the starting linebackers are gone. That’s not to say Mendenhall does not have capable replacements, but expecting them to match last season’s performance is unlikely. On the positive side, the Cougars do bring back defensive end Jan Jorgensen and his 13.5 sacks (5th in the nation). Jorgensen and his mates on the defensive line will need to up the pressure to protect the green secondary.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule is built for a BCS bid. The Cougars open with Northern Iowa and then face 2 mid-level BCS foes, one on the road (Washington) and one in Provo (UCLA). The final non-conference test (ahem) is against perennial softee Utah State. The Cougars certainly have a pretty good shot at taking all 4 of those games. However, in the conference, they must travel to their 2 biggest threats for the conference crown—Utah and TCU. The Mountain West streak should end on October 16th in Fort Worth at 16-straight wins.

New Mexico
Los Lobos won the eponymous New Mexico Bowl in 2007; their first bowl win since 1961. Of course, the Lobos have not been terrible in the interim. Quite the contrary, as they have participated in bowl games in 5 of the past 6 seasons, and have not finished below .500 in league play since 2000. Last season they finished tied for 3rd with Utah. They lost to what can best be considered the Big 3—BYU, Utah, and TCU, but managed to beat the other 5 teams in the league. As the chart below shows, the Lobos were certainly a notch below those 3 powerhouses. Can the Lobos build upon last year’s bowl win and contend for the league title?

If the Lobos are to contend for the Mountain West crown, they must get better production from the offense. That season, the Lobos gained 372 yards per game (a respectable 76th in the nation). However, in league play, only Wyoming gained fewer yards. All the Lobos offensive explosions occurred outside the league. In their 5 non-conference games, they averaged 469 yards per game. In their 8 conference games, they averaged 311 yards per game. This was due mostly to the fact that they played defensively challenged UTEP (117th in total defense), New Mexico State (94th), and Sacramento State (IAA) in 3 of those games. As you can see, both quarterback Donovan Porterie and running back Rodney Ferguson performed much better outside the league. Against Mountain West foes, Porterie barely completed half is throws, and against everyone else, he was highly efficient. Outside the league, Ferguson was an upper-tier back. In league play, he was Eddie George (pro version). Should we expect substantial improvement this season? Not really. While I wouldn’t expect the splits to be so extreme this season, the Lobos must break in 4 new starters on the offensive line and replace their top-two receivers from 2007—Marcus Smith (91 catches and 1125 yards) and Travis Brown (72 catches and 981 yards). The Lobo offense should certainly refrain from being among the league’s worst, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for substantial improvement.

The defense propped up the underperforming offense last season. Their national ranking of 13th in total defense is a tad overstated (they were only 4th in yards allowed in conference play behind the Big 3—Utah, BYU, and TCU), but the Lobos did hold 6 of their 13 opponents to under 300 yards (UTEP, Sacramento State, Wyoming, San Diego State, UNLV, and Nevada). 5 starters are back for 2008, but 3 of the top-5 tacklers are gone. The major attrition is at linebacker where are 3 out of 4 starters from last season are gone. The Lobo defense should remain solid, but should not be as good as last season.

Prediction: The non-conference slate is, in a word, brutal. Texas A&M and Arizona come to Albuquerque, and while the Lobos did beat Arizona in Tucson last season, winning one or both of those games will be a tall order. The Lobos then travel to Conference USA power Tulsa before closing non-conference play at rival New Mexico State. With the Lobos hosting TCU in the season opener before the non-conference schedule, the chance for an 0-4 start is certainly realistic. Still, the Lobos always seem to hang around the mid-section of the league. However, 4-4 in the league may not be enough for a bowl bid if the Lobos can’t beat Texas A&M, Arizona, or Tulsa. It’s either another New Mexico Bowl or home for the holidays.

A swift glance at the Runnin’ Rebels record under head coach Mike Sanford, and you’d figure he’s on his way out after the 2008 season. Sanford’s charges have gone 6-29 in his 3 seasons (3-21 in Mountain West play), winning only 2 games each season. However, if you look closer you can see signs of progress. In 2005, the Rebels were outgained by about 81 yards per game over the course of the season. That number dropped to 70 per game in 2006, despite the win total holding steady. In 2007, the Rebels were only outgained by 33 yards per game, numbers hardly befitting a team that won only 2 games. Barring a Clint Black-esqe good run of bad luck, the Rebels should be one of the most improved teams in the nation and could attain bowl eligibility.

Last season, the Rebels were a shade below average on both offense and defense. In Mountain West play, they were 7th in yards gained. However, many of the league’s offenses were clustered around the middle. Consequently, they averaged only about 6 fewer yards per game than the 4th best offense (Utah). The offense should see momentous improvement in 2008 as 9 starters return. Whoever, amongst the average at best passers, wins the starting quarterback job (Omar Clayton or Travis Dixon) will have a very good running back to hand off to (Frank Summers—928 yards last season) and 4 returning starters on the offensive line to provide protection. The Rebels also return their top-3 receivers from last season. If the offense doesn’t improve, getting rid of Sanford will be the only solution.

Defensively, the Rebels were also a shade below average. In conference play, they were 6th in yards allowed. The defenses in the Mountain West were not concentrated as much around the middle. There was a steep drop off from the top 4 (Utah, BYU, TCU, and New Mexico). The Rebels defense should not see the kinds of improvement the offense is right to expect. The Rebels lose 6 starters and 3 of their top-5 tacklers from last season. The biggest loss is linebacker Beau Bell, who totaled 126 tackles in 2007 and was taken in the 4th round of the NFL Draft. The defense may decline a little, but the Rebels should remain a slightly below average defense in the Mountain West.

Prediction: The non-conference slate includes Utah State and Nevada from the WAC (the Rebels should be 1-1 at worst in those games), Arizona State, and Iowa State. While the Cyclones are a Big 12 foe, the Rebels nearly won in Ames in 2006 (falling 16-10), and this year the game is in Vegas. One win outside the league is a given, 2 is a distinct possibility, and 3 is not as crazy as one may think. In the league, the Rebels have 3 very winnable home games against mid-level conference foes (Air Force, New Mexico, and Wyoming) and 2 winnable road games against the proletariat of the conference (Colorado State and San Diego State). Besides the dissonance in the Rebels yardage differential and their actual record, UNLV also posted a poor record in close games in 2007. They went 1-4 in one-score games, including losing to Wisconsin of the Big 10 by only 7 points. As their luck improves, the Rebels should win more conference games in 2008 than they have in Sanford’s first 3 seasons (3). If not, it’s back to the junkyard for Sanford.

On the morning of October 13th, things looked great for the Cowboys. They stood 4-1 (1-0 in the conference) with wins over Virginia and TCU. Their only loss came to Boise State on the notoriously tough Smurf Turf. The Cowboys were hosting a 3-2 New Mexico team and looking to make a run for a possible conference championship. The Cowboys lost that game 20-3 and won only once more on the season, finishing up 5-7. What happened? The offense went from below average to downright deplorable. Was it quarterback Karsten Sween? No. He was not appreciably worse in the skid. It was the running attack. Running backs Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon combined for over 1500 yards on the season, but as you can see, they struggled considerably in the latter part of the season. And it can’t all be explained by the opposition either. In he first 5 games, the Cowboys played Virginia (13th in rush defense), Boise State (35th), TCU (11th) and the last 7 included contests against UNLV (87th), San Diego State (118th) and Colorado State (107th). Can the Cowboys fix the offense and save head coach Joe Glenn’s job?

The running game should avoid the decline it went through last season. Along with Moore and Seldon in the backfield, the offensive line returns all 5 starters. Game-to-game, the running attack could suffer depending on the opponent, but the prolonged slump of last season should be a thing of the past. As for the quarterback, Karsten Sween, for lack of a better expression, is what he is. His passer rating of 118.51 in 2006 ranked 73rd in the nation. His passer rating of 108.90 from last season was not in the top-100. So he’s somewhere between below average and terrible. He may improve on last season’s number, but don’t expect a miracle.

Defensively, the Cowboys ranked a very solid 22nd in total defense (332 yards per game). However, in Mountain West play, the Cowboys were only 5th in yards allowed. The Cowboys bring back 6 starters in 2008, but do lose 3 of their top-5 tacklers. The strength of the team should be the defensive line where defensive end John Fletcher and his 10.5 sacks returns. The defense should also have some better luck at forcing turnovers. Despite their solid yardage statistics, they forced only 19 turnovers all season (94th in the nation). That contributed to their turnover margin of -12 (112th in the nation).

Prediction: The non-conference slate features 3 home games, but only one of them is a sure victory (North Dakota State). The other two feature MAC teams (Ohio and Bowling Green). Wyoming should take at least one of those games, and could possibly sweep them both. The final non-conference game is at Tennessee, so there figures to be at least one loss on the ledger outside the league. The Cowboys host 2 of the league’s presumptive weaker teams (San Diego State and Colorado State) and another that is sure to decline (Air Force). The final home game comes against one of the league favorites (Utah), but since the game is in Laramie, a win is possible. Unfortunately, the road schedule is much more daunting. The Cowboys will likely not be favored against any of their road opponents (BYU, New Mexico, TCU, and UNLV). 4-4 seems to be the ceiling for the Cowboys. Depending on how they do outside the league, that may be enough to save Glenn’s job.

Air Force
The only problem with Troy Calhoun’s sensational maiden voyage is that he may have set expectations too high. The Falcons won 9 games for the first time since 2000, and finished with a winning record in league play for the first time since 2002. The Falcons even went 2-1 against the league’s Big 3. They upended Utah by 8, toppled TCU by 3 in OT, and were walloped by BYU 31-6. However, despite the fact that they won 2 of 3, that does not mean they outplayed their opponents. As you can see, Air Force was handled pretty well on a down-to-down basis by the Big 3. In the other 5 conference games, Air Force had a slight yardage edge, but not of the caliber that you would associate with a 4-1 record. Air Force was the beneficiary of solid play in one-score games (3-2 record) and a very good turnover margin (+10). Both those facets of the team should decline in 2008, and with a multitude of starters no longer eligible, the Falcons will be hard-pressed to return to postseason play.

The Air Force offense was flying high in 2007. The Falcons ranked 39th in the nation in total offense, averaging 419 yards per game. In conference play, they were 3rd in yards gained, behind BYU and TCU. Unfortunately, most of those yards were gained on the ground and they are almost all gone. The Falcons totaled 3894 rushing yards last season. 3668 of those yards have departed. The big losses are wing back Chad Hall (1478 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2007), running back Jim Ollis (682 rushing yards) and quarterback Shaun Carney (637 rushing yards and another 1491 through the air). Carney also posted a fine passer rating of 134.30 (38th in the nation). Hall also led the team with 50 catches for 524 yards. To recap, the Falcons lose their quarterback, top-6 rushers, and top-2 pass catchers. That’s not a recipe to remain an elite offense.

The Falcons are not quite as strapped on defense, but they do lose some significant players. 4 of the top-5 and 5 of the top-7 tacklers from a defense that ranked only 7th in yards allowed in Mountain West play are gone. The defense may not suffer as much of a decline as the offense (they don’t have nearly as far to fall), but they should remain towards the bottom of the league in terms of defensive acumen.

Prediction: The Falcons open with Southern Utah, a game they desperately need in order to get their new starters game experience. In their other non-conference games, they travel to Houston, host Navy, and travel to Army. The Falcons should be underdogs against the Cougars and Midshipmen, but they have beaten Army 10 of the last 11 years. In conference play, the Falcons can do some damage at home against New Mexico and Colorado State and could steal a road game against San Diego State. However, 3 wins in the league seems to be the limit for this team. Calhoun and the Falcon faithful may be disappointed with his encore performance, but even Bear Bryant couldn’t match last year’s record with this team.

San Diego State
Former Heisman runner-up Chuck Long has had a rough go of it in his first 2 seasons on the job in San Diego. Long’s teams have gone 7-17 (6-10 in Mountain West play) and nothing about last season’s performance screams for an about-face in 2008.

Statistically, San Diego State was the worst team in the Mountain West last season. On the offensive side of the ball, they were 6th in conference play in yards gained. Quarterback Kevin O’Connell posted OK numbers (passer rating of 124.79 ranked 68th in the nation), but apparently had the ‘tools’ to be an NFL quarterback (3rd round draft choice). O’Connell also led the team in rushing (426 yards and 11 touchdowns), which does not bode well for the team in 2008. Brandon Bornes, the team’s top-running back, is gone as are the two leading receivers (Brett Swain and Chaz Schilens). Both aspects of the offense will have to be completely retooled. The Aztecs were not a good offense with O’Connell, and they should be even worse without him.

Defensively, the Aztecs were the most inept team in the Mountain West last season. They allowed the most yards in conference play by a significant margin. They allowed 62 more yards per game than the 8th best team, Colorado State. The difference between the 5th best defense (Wyoming) and Colorado State was only about 44 yards per game. The good news for the defense is that they will at least be more experienced in 2008. 8 starters return, including 5 of the top-6 tacklers. Most of those starters are in the linebacking corps and secondary (6 of 7). That’s a very good thing considering the defense racked up only 15 sacks last season (107th in the nation). The defense should no longer be the worst in the conference, but a middling performance is the best that can be expected.

Prediction: The Aztecs open the season against IAA Cal Poly in what should be a certain win. However, it behooves me to mention that the Aztecs lost at home to Cal Poly in 2006. The Aztecs then take road trips to Notre Dame and San Jose State before closing the non-conference season at home against Idaho. Assuming the Cal Poly game as a win and the Notre Dame game as a loss, the Aztecs desperately need to beat the Spartans and Vandals. However, a split is more likely. In league play, the Aztecs best chance for a win comes at home against Colorado State. All 3 of the Aztecs wins over Division IA teams last season were by 8 points or fewer; not the sign of a team on the rise. Chuck Long may survive to coach in 2009, but he will certainly be on the hot seat.

Colorado State
The Sonny Lubick era did not end with a bang, but with a whimper. In what turned out to be the future Hall of Famer’s final season, the Rams limped to a 3-9 record. However, Lubick concludes his 15-season run with a fine record of 108-74. He guided the Rams to 9 bowl games, 6 conference titles, and 3 final poll rankings. Can his replacement, Steve Fairchild, lead the Rams back to the top of the league?

Colorado State was victimized by some poor luck last season (2-4 in one-score games), but they were far removed from a good team. The offense was the team’s strong suit, finishing 5th in yards gained in conference play. The leader of the offense was quarterback Caleb Hanie, who actually led all Mountain West quarterbacks in passing efficiency (145.08 rating—19th in the nation). Was is the essential word in that sentence though as he was a senior and has exhausted his eligibility. Hanie is gone as well as the top-3 receivers from last season. However, all hope is not lost as 4 starting offensive linemen return to open holes for senior running back Gartrell Johnson III (957 yards and a robust 5.29 yards per attempt last season). In addition to Johnson, Kyle Bell, the team’s leading rusher in 2005 (1288 yards), who has battled injuries the past 2 seasons is also back. The passing attack will suffer, but the running game should improve.

The defense let the team down last season, only finishing better than San Diego State in conference play. The Rams return only 5 starters in 2008, and lose 3 quarters of their starting defensive line and secondary. The best returning player is linebacker Jeff Horinek. Horinek led the team with 94 tackles last season. The defense should not be appreciably better than last season, and with the gains elsewhere in the league, may end up being the worst in the Mountain West.

Prediction: The non-conference slate features one sure win (Sacramento State), a rivalry game (Colorado), and 2 likely losses (Houston and California). Best case scenario is a 2-2 record outside the league. In conference play, the Rams have the misfortune of playing 2 of the league’s top teams (TCU and BYU) at home. One win in the league is the likely result and 2 wins seems to be the absolute ceiling for this team.

Predicted Records:

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