PiRate Preview: The WAC

PiRate Preview: The WAC

Howell Peiser continues his preview of all the Division 1-A conferences. Today Howell gives us a preview of the explosive Western Athletic Conference.

Expect Another Season Where 30 PPG Is The Mean

 

Boise State actually lost a conference game last season.  Fresno State trounced the Broncos 27-7 and virtually wrapped up the WAC title.  The next week, the Bulldogs came oh so close to upsetting Southern California.  A week later, Nevada upset Fresno State, and then Louisiana Tech capitalized on numerous turnovers to prevent FSU from even earning a tie for first.  Nevada and Boise State finished tied for first, while Fresno State continued to be the bridesmaid.

 

This season, four teams should compete for the conference title, while the other five trail far behind.

 

The official WAC pre-season poll tabbed Boise State as the overwhelming favorite to win the title; the Broncos received 36 of the 50 first place votes.  Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii followed closely bunched, as each received some of the remaining 14 first place votes.  Louisiana Tech trailed far back in fifth, while San Jose State, Utah State, and Idaho followed in that order.  Far behind those three, New Mexico State was picked to repeat their last place showing (pity poor former SEC coaches Hal Mumme and Woody Widenhofer).

 

1. Boise State Broncos

PiRate: 107                         National Ranking: 37 (t)                        HFA: 5

 

In 2000, Dirk Koetter led Boise State to a 10-2 season and bowl win over UTEP.  He left for greener (in the wallet and playing field only) pastures and Arizona State.  Dan Hawkins took over and made Bronco fans forget Koetter.  In his five seasons on the blue turf, BSU  won 53 games and lost just 12, including an undefeated regular season in 2004.  Hawkins left after the 2005 season to assume command of the rocky program at Colorado.

 

The next coach who should lead Boise State to a double digit winning season is Chris Peterson, the offensive coordinator the last five seasons.  His offenses averaged 41 points a game in that time period.  Look for more of the same this year because nine starters return on the attack side.

 

If quarterback Jared Zabransky can get over his bout of interceptionitis, Boise State could challenge for a BCS bowl bid and maybe run the table this year.  Zabransky's 2005 season got off to a rough start in Athens, Georgia.  He completed more passes to the Bulldog defenders than his own early in that game, and Georgia wiped out the Broncos 48-13.  It led to a drop off in his stats, as he finished with 2,562 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.  I expect Boise State's passing yardage to average more than its 2004 counterpart (263 yards).  The top three pass receivers from last year return.  Jerard Rabb, Drisan James, and Legedu Naanee each grabbed more than 30 passes last year.  The 106 combined receptions by the trio resulted in 13 touchdowns and a 14.8 yard per catch average. 

 

Ian Johnson inherits the starting running back position from Lee Marks.  Marks averaged 5.7 yards per carry, but Johnson averaged 5.6; there shouldn't be any slump in the rushing output.  Boise State averaged 202 yards per game rushing last year and should top 200 yards again this year; Zabransky can take off and run for 10 yards at a pop if defenses don't respect his ability to run with the ball.

 

Jon Helmandollar missed last year with an injury.  As a 2004 power running back, Helmandollar was a bull on short yardage and goal line situations.  He scored 14 touchdowns in 2004.

 

The offensive line is one of the three best in the WAC and returns four starters.   The left side is particularly strong, led by guard Tad Miller and tackle Ryan Clady.  Center Jeff Cavender starts alongside his twin brother Pete.

 

The WAC hasn't been known as a tough defensive league since Wyoming was a power in the mid 1960's.  Boise State has the talent to hold opponents to under 17 points a game this year.  All three units are full of top-grade players.

 

Let's start with the linebackers, where the Broncos have the top player in the entire league in the middle.  Korey Hall is a bit too small to become the next Ray Lewis, but the 6-1, 228 star won WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season.  He recorded a team high 106 tackles.  If Hall fails to repeat as top WAC defender, teammate Colt Brooks may win the award.  The outside linebacker made 11 tackles for loss including six quarterback sacks.

 

The first line of defense has two potential all-WAC talents.  End Mike Williams and tackle Andrew Browning should help BSU hold opponents to less than 100 yards rushing per game.

 

If opponents cannot run the ball, don't expect them to have a great day through the air.  Boise's secondary is the best in the league!  All four 2005 starters return.  Cornerback Orlando Scandrick successfully defended 12 passes last year and made 50 stops.  Cornerback Austin Smith broke up five passes and registered four tackles behind the line.  Safety Marty Tadman recorded 101 tackles and defended 12 passes, five as interceptions.  Safety Gerald Alexander is the best of the quartet.  Last year, he defended 14 passes and made 50 tackles.

 

While the Broncos surrendered 262 yards passing last year, they held quarterbacks to under 55% completions.  They should lower that to at least 52% this year.

 

Two final weapons on hand are punter Kyle Stringer and return specialist Quinton Jones.  Stringer averaged 41.5 yards per punt with great hang time.  He will be one of the Ray Guy finalists this season.  Jones returned three punts for touchdowns while averaging 20.9 yards per return.

 

The schedule is set up for Boise State to go 12-0 if they can get by the other Western non-BCS superpower.  The Broncos play at Utah on September 30.  The winner of that game could be in line for one of the five BCS bowl games.  BSU hosts Fresno State and Hawaii this year, which are the two toughest road venues in the WAC aside from the blue turf.

 

 2. Fresno State Bulldogs

PiRate: 105                         National Ranking: 45 (t)                        HFA: 5

 

Nine and a half games into the 2005 season, Fresno State looked like a top 10 team on the cusp of earning a Fiesta Bowl bid.  After losing a close game at Oregon in week two, the Bulldogs had run over seven consecutive opponents including a 20-point pasting of Boise State.  With a 7-1 record, Fresno fumbled away a chance to pull the biggest upset in years, narrowly losing to Southern California 50-42.  Their season effectively ended in the Los Angeles Coliseum that night.  Losses to Nevada, Louisiana Tech, and Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl dropped FSU's final record to 8-5.

 

The Bulldogs return several quality players this year, but they lost just enough talent to begin the season ranked behind Boise State. 

 

One player sure to be missed is quarterback Paul Pinegar.  Pinegar departs after throwing for 3,335 yards and 30 touchdowns.  Backup Tom Brandstater threw only 13 passes last year.  He has a strong arm, but he won't put up the numbers Pinegar did last year.  Fresno State may be hard pressed to average within 50 yards of last year's total per game (260).

 

If Brandstater can get the ball to wide receiver Paul Williams, Fresno State can score from any spot on the field.  Williams averaged 17 yards per catch last year including a 98-yard touchdown reception against Boise State. 

 

The Bulldogs lost their outstanding running back to graduation.  Wendell Mathis rushed for 1,313 yards and 15 touchdowns.  Things may not be so bad if former 1,000-yard rusher Dwayne Wright returns to form after missing most of the last two years.

 

The only team with possibly a better offensive line than Boise State, Fresno returns three all-star linemen.  Center Kyle Young figures to be in the mix for the Rimington Award.  Guards Ryan Wendell and Cole Popovich could both make all-WAC this year.

 

The Bulldogs are stocked with talent on the defensive side of the ball.  Tackles Jason Shirley and Louis Leonard both top 325 pounds, making it difficult for them to be moved off the line.  End Tyler Clutts made 12 stops for losses, including seven quarterback sacks.

 

All three 2005 starters return at linebacker.  The trio of Marcus Riley, Dwayne Andrews, and Alan Goodwin registered 181 tackles, 11.5 for loss.  Andrews is almost as capable at middle linebacker as Hall at Boise State.

 

Cornerback Marcus McCauley will be wearing an NFL uniform in 2007.  Last year, he defended eight passes.  Joining him in an able backfield are safeties Josh Sherely and Vincent Mays.

 

Kicker Clint Stitser is a huge weapon.  Last year, he converted on 83.3% of his field goals, missing only one from inside 50 yards.  He can hit from 55 yards out.

 

Fresno State will more than likely pull off a major upset this year; the teams on the schedule who are supposed to beat them are Oregon, LSU, and Boise State.  Oregon must come to Bulldog Stadium, so they better watch out.  Every year, Fresno State drops a game or two or three to teams they should have beaten, and that's why Coach Pat Hill still awaits his first WAC title.  Count on FSU playing the bridesmaid again but still getting a bowl bid to go with eight or more wins.

 

3. Hawaii Warriors

PiRate: 98                           National Ranking: 72                               HFA: 5

 

The Warriors continue to be the hardest team in Division I-A to figure out.  Coach June Jones and defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville are two of the most unique guys on the field.  Jones once made national headlines in the 1970's when he went on 60 Minutes and admitted using DMSO (which was not legal then).  Glanville used to leave tickets for Elvis Presley when he coached the Houston Oilers.

 

As you can guess with a pair of free spirits like those two, Hawaii is a free-spirited team.  They pass the ball 70-80% of the time, and they like to blitz and stunt on defense.  As a result, most of their games see a multitude of big plays and high scores.  Expect more of the same this year, but the Warriors should win more games this year than last.

 

The offense only averaged 30.7 points per game in 2005.  That's the lowest since 2000, when they went 3-9.  As a rule of thumb, if Hawaii averages 35 or more points per game, they have a winning season and berth in the Hawaii Bowl.

 

This looks like a year where UH will average 35 or more points per game, maybe closer to 40.  The Warriors will be awesome thanks to the return of all their skilled starters.  Quarterback Colt Brennan completed 68% of his 2005 passes for 4,301 yards and 35 touchdowns.  What can he do for an encore?  How about 4,500 yards or more and 40 touchdowns?

 

When Brennan drops back to pass, he will have four quality receivers with whom to pass the ball.  Davone Bess grabbed 89 balls for 1,124 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Ryan Grace-Mullen caught 85 passes for 1,228 yards and 12 scores.  Ross Dickerson and Chad Mock combined for another 93 passes caught, good for 1,227 yards.  Besides these four, the next seven leading receivers from last year return as well. 

 

When Hawaii runs the ball, all six players who ran the ball 10 or more times last year will be on hand to do so this year.  The Warriors only averaged 92 yards rushing a year ago, but they only ran the ball 23 times a game.  Factor in that more than three of those rushes per game last year were actually quarterback sacks and there was an occasional quarterback kneel down, and Hawaii really averaged more than five yards per legitimate rush.  Defenses are constantly placed in a catch-22 situation.  A draw play can easily become a breakaway, as Nate Ilaoa proved last season with his 7.6 yard per rush average.

 

The only area of concern on offense is the line.  Two starters must be replaced.  The three returnees are all top-rate.  Tackles Dane Uperesa and Tala Essera and center Samson Satele average 312 pounds and rarely allow a pass rusher to get by them.

 

Hawaii's defense hasn't been impressive since Dick Tomey coached the Warriors 20 years ago.  Last year, they were quite generous, allowing 35.7 points and 439 yards per game.  Glanville uses a 3-4 formation, and he has a pair of anchors that rate with any in the WAC.  Ends Melila Purcell and Ikaika Alama-Francis have both size and speed.  Both made 2nd team All-WAC last year.

 

Linebacker could be a concern this year, as three starters are gone.  Solomon Elimimian is the lone returnee after stopping 83 ball carriers last year.  Replacing 2005 leading tackler Kila Kamakawio'ole and his 14 stops for loss will be difficult.

 

The secondary has just one returning starter in safety Brad Kalilimoku, but he failed to defend a single pass last year.  Former starter Leonard Peters returns after missing 2005 with a knee injury.  In 2004, he led the Warriors with 120 tackles and nine defended passes.

 

Hawaii will score points rapidly this season, but they will give up points almost as fast.  When you wake up on Sunday morning and go online to check the scores from the late night games, locate the basketball-looking score, and you will see what the Warriors did. 

 

The schedule has some difficult moments; Hawaii never does well on the mainland, and they must fly to Alabama, Boise State, and Fresno State.  They will lose all three.  They get Nevada, Oregon State, and Purdue at home and could easily beat all three.  It adds up to a winning record and berth in the Hawaii Bowl.  As usual, they will be quite exciting to watch when they are on TV.

 

4. Nevada Wolf Pack

PiRate: 96                           National Ranking: 80                               HFA: 4

 

Chris Ault built the Wolf Pack into a power in the old Big West Conference, leading his team to multiple conference championships.  He won enough games to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.  He retired from coaching to become Nevada's A.D., but after watching the program fail to win through the late 1990's and first four years of the 2000's, he fired Coach Chris Tormey and named himself coach once again.  In just his second year in Reno, Ault guided the Pack to a share of the WAC title.  Nevada followed that up with an electrifying overtime win over Central Florida in the Hawaii Bowl.  They won 49-48 and gained well over 600 total yards in that game.

 

Will Nevada maintain their newfound status in the upper echelon of the WAC?  You betcha!  The Wolf Pack return enough talent to contend for another nine-win season.  If somehow, they can beat Fresno State on the road to open the season, they could be hosting Boise State at the end of the season with a chance to win outright the WAC title.

 

Like the other WAC contenders, Nevada wins games by outscoring teams in shootouts.  The offense scored 34.2 points per game in 2005; they rushed for 200 yards and passed for 250.  Returning to direct the spread attack from his "pistol" position (a smaller, reduced shotgun) is Jeff Rowe.  Last year, Rowe completed 62.0% of his passes for 2,925 yards and 21 touchdowns.  He should compete with Hawaii's Brennan and Boise's Zabransky for 1st team All-WAC.

 

Rowe will have one of the best receivers in the WAC as his principal target this year.  Caleb Spencer caught 67 passes for 889 yards last year and could catch 80 or more this year.  Two other receivers, Kyle Sammons and Mike McCoy both join Spencer as deep threats.

 

Nevada must replace an excellent running back, but they return one as well.  Gone is B.J. Mitchell who fell a yard short of rushing for 1,400 yards last year.  Robert Hubbard scored 11 touchdowns while rushing for 719 yards and produced a 5.9 yard per carry average.

 

Enough talent returns on the offensive line to make it respectable.  Guard Barrett Reznick was a 2nd team All-WAC performer a year ago.

 

Defensively, Nevada gave up almost 32 points per game and still won nine times.  This year's defense should be a little better than the 2005 edition.  The three-man defensive line returns two starters in Matt Hines and Charles Wilson.  If former starter J. J. Milan returns to his spot at end after missing 2005 with an injury, Nevada will be quite strong up front.  Milan can play both end and outside linebacker.

 

The second line of defense will be strong even if Milan doesn't play.  Ezra Butler is the star.  Last year, he made 15.5 tackles for losses and broke up three passes.  Joshua Mauga and Jason DeMars started last year and combined for 71 stops.  Jeremy Engstrom has potential to be a 1st team All-WAC linebacker.  He earned 2nd team honors in 2004, but he tailed off last year.

 

The secondary gave up 269 passing yards per game last year, but teams passed the ball 37 times a game and completed an almost pedestrian 55.9%  Cornerback Joe Garcia led the way with 18 passes defended, four being interceptions.

 

The non-conference schedule features a road trip to Arizona State and home dates against Colorado State and Northwestern.  This season's arch-rivalry game against UNLV is in Vegas, but Nevada should be favored in that one.  Another 7-1/9-3 season is quite possible for the Wolf Pack.  Should they hold court against Boise State in the season finale, the WAC could be all theirs.

 

5. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

PiRate: 89                           National Ranking: 97                               HFA: 3

 

The Bulldogs have been bowl eligible the last two seasons, but they waited in vain by their mailbox.  No invitation ever came.  Tech didn't deserve a bid in 2004, as they finished 6-6.  Last year, they finished 7-4 including a win over #23 Fresno State and may have been worthy of a bid.

 

The Bulldogs won't have to worry about being shunned this year; they lost too much talent to earn bowl eligibility in 2006.  Gone from a decent WAC defense are nine starters, including the five best pass rushers and the six best pass defenders.  Tech gave up less than 26 points per game last year; they may give up more than 35 points per game this year.

 

Six of the starting front seven in the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense will be new starters.  The one returnee, junior inside linebacker Brannon Jackson has NFL potential if he continues to improve.  JUCO transfer Marquis McBeath began his career as a highly-touted prospect at Ole Miss.  He could challenge Jackson for most tackles this season.

 

Nose tackle Joshua Muse should provide solid play in the middle, but both ends, Sammie Collins and Wes Day have little experience.

 

The secondary returns starter Dez Abrams at free safety.  Abrams is a better run-stopper than pass defender.  Cornerback Sandy Ray Collins has some experience, but he has yet to successfully defend a pass.

 

If Louisiana Tech is to challenge for a break-even season, the Bulldog offense is going to have to score points in bushels.  Having to break in a new quarterback is not a good sign that they will achieve that goal.  Joe Danna, Zac Champion, and Michael Mosley are competing for the starting job, but no matter who ends up starting, expect La. Tech's passing yardage to be less than last season's 219 yards per game.

 

On the bright side, the quarterback will have one of the WAC's best wide outs as his chief deep threat.  Eric Newman grabbed 30 passes at an 18.9 yard clip last year.  Receiver Jonathan Holland and tight end Anthony James are two more able-bodied receivers.

 

I expect Louisiana Tech to try to run the ball more this season in an attempt to keep the clock running, limit plays to a minimum, and allow the defense to be on the field less.  The top three rushers return this season, and all three, led by Mark Dillard, averaged better than four yards per try.

 

The offensive line returns three starters, but it is far from a team strength.  Guard Marcus Lindsey is the only one in this group who could earn All-WAC honors this year.

 

The schedule this year is not kind.  Tech must open on the road at Nebraska, and the outcome of that game will be nothing like the last time the Bulldogs played in Lincoln when they pushed the Cornhuskers' defense all over the field.  Road trips to Texas A&M, Clemson, Boise State, and Hawaii virtually guarantee the Bulldogs will lose five games by healthy margins.  Among the also-rans in the league, Tech hosts Idaho and Utah State, which means they have a good chance of winning those games.  They may be strong enough to win at New Mexico State, so that gives them three wins.  All told, look for something like a 4-8 or 5-7 season; Tech could be back in 2007.

 

6. Utah State Aggies

PiRate: 84                           National Ranking: 106                             HFA: 3

 

The Aggies have suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons since they went to the Humanitarian Bowl in 1997.  The last three years have produced a troika of  three-win seasons, and State could easily win three games again this year.  They could also win more, as they have some talent in the fold.

 

Utah State averaged a meager 18.9 points per game last year, and that number should jump into the 20's this season.  Quarterback Leon Jackson, III returns after tossing for 1,547 yards and eight touchdowns as he split the job with now departed Jerod Walker.  Jackson should exceed 2,500 yards passing this year if he stays healthy.

 

The Aggies return four of their top five receivers this year.  Kevin Robinson is the deep threat having caught 43 passes for 661 yards and eight scores.  Tony Pennyman led State with 63 receptions.

 

Utah State rushed for just 117 yards per game last year.  Leading rusher Ryan Bohm returns, but he could step aside for outstanding JUCO star Marcus Cross, who is an Edgerrin James-type north-south runner.

 

If Cross is to lead the WAC in rushing, the offensive line will have to improve by leaps and bounds over last year.  While most of the two-deep can play multiple positions on the line, none of them will earn all-league honors.

 

Utah State surrendered 32.9  points a game last year and more than 400 total yards a game.  The defense could be marginally better this season against the run, where they gave up only 144 rushing yards per game in 2005.  They should be quite a bit stingier against the pass, where they allowed 62.2% of enemy throws to be completed.

 

Middle linebacker Jake Hutton led USU with 87 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.  Defensive backs Antonio Taylor, Josh Taylor and Terrance Washington give the Aggies a trio of fine pass defenders who are competent run-stoppers.  Defensive tackle Brian Soi tries to become the key pass rusher after 1st Team All-WAC John Chick and his 19 tackles behind the line graduated.

 

Utah State starts the season playing their four non-conference games in succession.  They open at Wyoming, go to Arkansas, host Utah, and play at Brigham Young.  After what could be an 0-4 start, whether the Aggies can recoup and continue to play to their best ability will determine if they can win their four winnable conference games and even pull off an upset.  It looks highly likely that three or four wins is the most they can hope to accomplish.

 

7. Idaho Vandals

PiRate: 82                           National Ranking: 110                             HFA: 3

 

While Idaho hasn't been much of a football force for some time, they do have the luxury of playing their games indoors at the Kibbie Dome.  It may be one reason why they sell out many of their games during bitter cold days and nights.  Vandals' fans may get to see their home team improve upon last year's 2-9 season, as Dennis Erickson returns to Moscow this year.  Four wins would be the best effort since 2000.

 

Idaho should gain more yardage and score more points this season with an experienced eleven returning.  Quarterback Steven Wichman needs to cut down on his interceptions (he threw 18 of them last year).  He could easily top last year's average of just over 250 passing yards per game.  300 yards isn't out of the realm of possibility.

 

Wichman's leading receiver last year, Daniel Smith (67-1001/7), declared early for the NFL draft.  Wendell Octave, Matt Askew, Lee Smith, Tracy Ford, and tight end Luke Smith-Anderson give Wichman five quality receivers, so the Vandals should be just fine through the air.

 

Rolly Lumbala was 2005's leading rusher with 472 yards, as Idaho ranked near the bottom in rushing with 78 per game.  This year, that stat should go up 50% as highly-prized JUCO tailback Brian Flowers,  2004 leading rusher (returning from injury) Jayson Bird, and freshman Andre Harris join Lumbala.  I expect the rushing average to increase by more than a yard per carry.

 

The offensive line is not a strength, but it is more experienced than last year.

 

Defensively, Idaho didn't scare anybody last year, when they gave up more than 38 points and 420 yards per game.  While Idaho won't be shutting any opponents down this year, expect Erickson to get more production on the stop side.  Tackles Ryan Davis and Siua Musika are big and quick and should slow down the opponents' running game.  Linebackers Josh Bousman and David Vobora combined for 118 tackles with 16 for loss. Defensive backs Stanley Franks, Jason Martin, Tone Taupule, and D.J. Dykes give the Vandals a decent back four.

 

Idaho has another scoring weapon in kicker Mike Barrow.  Last year, he connected on 16 of 19 field goals including 7-8 from beyond 40 yards and 2-3 from 50 yards or more (53 long).  He also punted for a 42.1 yard average, but he could surrender punting duties to T.J. Conley.

 

Erickson should produce results quickly at Idaho.  He inherits a decent roster, and the schedule is a little more friendly this year.  Idaho hosts five games for the first time in three years, and the Vandals' home has been unkind to strangers in past years.  Idaho State, New Mexico State, and San Jose State at home should be wins.  Road games to Louisiana Tech and Utah State give them a chance to pick up two more wins.  Look for at least three wins this year and maybe as many as five. 

 

8. San Jose State Spartans

PiRate: 77                           National Ranking: 113 (t)                      HFA: 3

 

Dick Tomey begins his second season in San Jose after increasing the Spartans' victory total by 50% (okay from two to three wins).  Tomey's specialty is teaching aggressive defense, and in year one, SJSU improved its rushing defense by 107 yards and 1.6 yards per rush!  After giving up 42.6 points per game in 2004, they improved to 32.5 points last year.  Unfortunately, the cupboard is nearly bare on that side of the ball this year.  Eight of the top 11 tacklers are gone this year and nine starters must be replaced.

 

Two of the leading returning tacklers Tomey will rebuild around are linebacker Matt Castelo (eight tackles for loss) and safety Chris Vedder, who defended six passes last season.  Even though Idaho played a 4-2-5 defense, they were much too kind to enemy passers in 2005.  Six teams passed for more than 300 yards against the Vandals.  While, SJSU could give up 50 yards less through the air this year, the defense against the run should take a step backwards.

 

Offensively, the Spartans are in much better shape.  Tomey should order more running plays this season as all his ball carriers from last year return accompanied with an experienced offensive line.  Tailback Yonus Davis ran for 638 yards (6.7 avg) last year and could top 1,000 this year. 

 

Four quarterbacks who saw action last year return this year.  Those four combined for less than 50% completions. 

 

Wide out John Broussard leads the charges in the pass catching brigade after hauling in 26 balls last year including a 90-yard connection.

 

Tackle Matt Cantu and guards Marcel Burrough and John Booker should help open holes for the running attack.  The entire unit should be competent pass blockers.

 

San Jose State will score 25 to 28 points per game this year, but that amount will get them beat almost every week.  The defense will give up basketball scores to three or four of their opponents.  Speaking of opponents, the Spartans must play at Washington, Nevada, and Hawaii.  Those three teams should score close to 150 points combined.  San Jose hosts Stanford and San Diego State out of conference and Boise State and Fresno State in the WAC, which should produce four blowout losses.  Home games with Cal Poly, Utah State, and Louisiana Tech give them three chances to win this year.  So, three wins is the maximum expectation.

 

9. New Mexico State Aggies

PiRate: 76                           National Ranking: 116 (t)                      HFA: 3

 

There was a great what-if discussion brought up in the Southeastern Conference in the late 1990's.  That question was, "what would happen if you combined Hal Mumme's offense at Kentucky with Woody Widenhofer's defense at Vanderbilt?  Last year, the Division I-A ranks got the chance to find out the answer.  These two counterparts took over a New Mexico State program that had narrowly missed out on a winning season in 2004.  So, what happened?  The Aggies finished 0-12 and had no chance in 10 of them.  They averaged just 16.5 points per game and 344 total yards, so Mumme's side of the equation took a step back from the previous coaching regime.  They surrendered 38.8 points and 485 yards per game, so Widenhofer's side of the equation also took a step back from the previous coaching regime.  You may ask, did NMSU lose too much talent after 2004?  The answer is most undoubtedly no!  They returned 14 starters last year, the most returning talent in Las Cruces in the 2000's.

 

The Aggies performed so poorly because both the offense and defense were too hard to learn in one season.  This year, both the offense and defense should improve a good bit.  However, even if both units are a touchdown stronger, it may not be enough to move NMSU out of last place in the WAC.  At most, expect a jump to eighth.

 

On offense, quarterback Chase Holbrook re-joins Mumme after playing for him at Southeast Louisiana.  He understands the offense and should put up 4,000-4,500 yards this year.  He'll have several able-bodied receivers to toss to including Miami (Fla.) transfer Akieem Jolla.  Jolla was considered one of the top high school prospects six years ago.

 

Justine Buries returns to his running back spot after running for 779 yards last year.  He'll benefit from an improved corps of blockers, led by tackle Mike Martinez.

 

On the other side of the ball, State lost two defenders who combined for 328 tackles a year ago (unfortunately one was a defensive back). There is talent in each unit.  End Jared Naylor leads the 3-4 defense that returns the starting line from 2005.  Linebacker Nathan Nuttall is the only returnee in that unit.  The secondary has two potential stars in cornerback Courtney Bryan, who defended 14 passes last year, and Eric Carrie, who defended eight passes last year.

 

There's only one way to go for Mumme's Marauders.  This team won't go 0-12 again.  A couple of creampuffs on the schedule will give them two wins and maybe three.  Mumme's first win in Las Cruces should come against his previous team, Southeast Louisiana.  Two weeks later, they should beat Texas Southern.

 

Next Up: Conference USA:  Can Tulsa two-peat?

 

Sources: The WAC official website plus the nine individual teams' official websites.

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