The 11-win season was TCU’s fourth double-digit success in the 2000’s. This is a program that went 18-98-5 over an 11-year stretch in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
This year, the Horned Frogs are the
official pick to repeat as MWC champs.
Brigham Young received 20% of the first place votes and was picked
second. Utah finished right behind
BYU in third. There was a large
drop to fourth, where Colorado State was the choice, followed by New Mexico
fifth and San Diego State sixth.
Air Force was tabbed for seventh place well behind the Aztecs, while
Nevada Las Vegas edged Wyoming for eighth.
The PiRates differ somewhat, picking
San Diego State and Wyoming to have better years. The number two through number eight
teams are not that far apart in talent.
1. T C U Horned Frogs
National Ranking: 30 (t)
If this were 1968, TCU would have the
best full-house-T offense since Army in 1945. The Horned Frogs have not one, not two,
but three potential NFL running backs on their roster. Their quarterback can run
and pass equally well. They have an
exceptional tight end and a talented wide receiver. Actually, instead of two receivers and
three backs, TCU will line up with four receivers and one back.
Back number one is returning starter
Robert Merrill. This Merrill let’s
his legs do the singing as judged by his 911 yards and 10 touchdowns last
year. Aaron Brown gained 758 yards
at nearly six yards per try in 2005.
Brown is more of the speedy outside runner, whereas Merrill is more of a
mini-bus. Lonta Hobbs returns after
missing 2005 as a medical redshirt.
When healthy, Hobbs combines both speed and quickness and has a nose for
the goal line. As a freshman, he
topped 1,000 yards at 6.6 yards per rush.
Vanderbilt fans might remember his debut against the Commodores in 2003,
when he torched the black and gold for over 100 yards in a comeback 30-14
Quarterback Jeff Ballard may not make
the All-MWC team, but he is perfect for TCU’s offense. Ballard can run as judged by his nearly
six-yard average (when you take out QB sacks). He passed the ball at a 60% completion
rate and picked up 13 yards per completion.
Wide out Michael DePriest caught just
nine passes last year, but three of them were for scores, as he averaged 24.8
yards per grab. Tight end Chad
Andrus is a sixth offensive lineman who can catch the ball in a
The offensive line is the only area of
concern on offense. Tackle Herbert
Taylor could sign as an undrafted NFL free agent next year, as he more than
likely will be on several draft boards.
Taylor is the only returning starter in the
The TCU defense is going to be quite
strong up front and a little worrisome in the back. The front four and two linebackers have
no equal in the MWC and taken as a group of six, these units may be one of the
10 best in the entire NCAA! Ends
Tommy Blake and Chase Critz should wear the opponents’ jerseys because they stay
on that side of the line most of the time.
They combined for 27.5 tackles for loss including 16 sacks. Tackle Lorenzo Jones should become part
of the purple sack exchange this year, as he recorded 3.5 stops behind the line
in limited action.
Linebackers Jason Phillips and Robert
Henson finished one-two in tackles last year, throwing 17 enemy ball carriers
for losses. Both could earn post-season honors this
The five-man secondary is led by
safety Marvin White. He is the only
All-MWC caliber player in the backfield, but TCU capitalizes on an A+ pass rush
to slow down opposing teams. In the
five double-digit-win seasons, TCU’s pass defense held opposing quarterbacks to
44.5%, 38.9%, 51.5%, and 52.2% thanks to a heavy pass rush that forced passers
to dump the ball quickly. Of
course, this type of defense has led to the opponent getting a big
Kicker Chris Manfredini missed four
extra points, but he was a perfect 19-19 with his field goal
TCU’s schedule gives them an outside
shot at a perfect season, but I don’t see it happening. The toughest non-conference opponent,
Texas Tech, must come to Ft. Worth.
The Frogs host BYU, but must play at Utah. My guess is they will win 10 or 11 times
and play an exciting bowl game.
2. Utah Utes
National Ranking: 55
Utah lost so much talent last year
form their 2004 12-0 team. Alex Smith may have been the biggest departure, but
the defense suffered more losses.
As a result, the Utes fell off to 7-5 in Coach Kyle Whittingham’s first
season. Year number two should see
Utah improve, but it may not be enough to return to the top of the MWC
The offense tailed off from 45.3 to 30
points per game, scoring less than 20 in three consecutive mid-season
losses. Quarterback Brian Johnson
completed 63.6% of his tosses for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns, but that was
quite a reduction from the departed Smith, who completed closer to 70% of his
passes the year before.
The running game dropped off by more
than 50 yards per game. It could be
a problem this year, as Quinton Ganther (1,120 yards/7 TD 5.5 avg) now wears a
Tennessee Titans uniform. Getting
first crack at Ganther’s job will be former Southern Cal Trojan Darryl
The receiver unit lost some talented
players, but the Utes return speedy Brian Hernandez, who averaged 18.2 yards on
his 39 catches. Derrick Richards is
ready to become a big play receiver this year.
Tavo Tupola leads the offensive line
contingent this year from his tackle spot.
He earned 2nd team All-MWC honors a year ago. Two other starters return to this
The Titans also claimed Utah’s top
defender from last year, linebacker Spencer Toone (113 tackles, 5 for
loss). The next five leading
tacklers return though.
Three starters return to the
trenches. Nose guard Kelly Talavou
and ends Soli Lefiti and Martail Burnett combined for 12.5 stops for
Joe Jiannoni and Casey Evans give the
Utes a fine pair of linebackers.
The duo registered 162 tackles.
Evans is a strong pass defender, as his five interceptions at safety in
2005 confirm. He’ll be more of a
rover this year.
The secondary returns Eric Weddle and
Shaun Harper (as well as Evans who moves up). Weddle was the star of the unit last
year with 16 passes defended, four as
Utah has enough talent to compete with
TCU for the MWC title. In fact,
when the Utes and Frogs meet in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 5, both
teams could be undefeated if Utah gets by UCLA in the opener and TCU takes out
Texas Tech. Should Utah win that
game to rise to 6-0, they could be on their way to a repeat of 2004. I see the Utes falling short of that
goal. My realistic guess is 10
regular season wins and possibly a share of the MWC
3. Brigham Young Cougars
National Ranking: 56 (t)
Who would have ever thought this
school would be happy with a 6-6 season?
After three consecutive losing seasons, last year’s break even campaign
and Las Vegas Bowl berth was cause for celebration in
If a rebuilding defense can contain
opponents just enough this year, a strong offense could outscore the opposition
a few more times this year than last.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall was noted for
spectacular defenses as the coordinator at New Mexico. He will have to be quite a genius (or
maybe a sorcerer) to mold the Cougar stop troops into an effective
Linebacker Cameron Jensen led BYU with
84 tackles last year (6 for losses).
He may have to add 25 stops to that number this year for the Cougars to
be just mediocre on the stop side.
The secondary has two fairly good
defenders in cornerbacks Justin Robinson and Kayle Buchanan. They only combined for one
Up front, the entire line must be
replaced. Nose tackle Hala Paongo
can stuff the run but he is not All-MWC material.
BYU could easily surrender 35 points
and 450 yards per game this season and still return to a bowl game thanks to a
powerful offense that could annex 500 yards and 40 points per
Quarterback John Beck is the best of
the MWC. He completed 64.5% of his
passes last season for 3,709 yards and 27 scores. Playing 13 games this year, he should
top 4,000 yards with ease and possibly break the 4,500 yard
Five receivers who caught more than 20
balls return this year. Chief among
them is tight end Johnny Harline, who nabbed 63 passes for 853 yards in
2005. Harline could be the leading
candidate for the Mackey Award this year.
Number two tight end Dan Coats could start everywhere else in the
BYU can run the ball for 200-300 yards
a game when defenses concentrate on stopping the pass. Running back Curtis Brown gained 1,123
yards and scored 14 times on the ground.
He can also come out of the backfield and do damage with his
pass-catching ability, as he caught 53 passes and scored two more
What will make the 2006 offense so
deadly is an offensive line that will open running holes and give Beck plenty
time to locate his receivers.
Former Vanderbilt Commodore Tom Sorenson was scheduled to start at center
until he was injured in the opening week of fall practice. Jeff Rhea should take over that
position. On either side of him
will be two exceptional blockers—guards Ray Feinga and Dallas Reynolds and
tackles Jake Kuresa and Eddie Keele.
BYU has a tricky non-conference slate
playing at Arizona, hosting Tulsa, and venturing to Boston College to begin the
season. They could lose all three,
but I expect them to win at least one and possibly two of those. After beating intrastate rival Utah
State, the Cougars begin MWC at TCU on a Thursday night game. After that game, the next six could
start the ball rolling for the Cougars.
The season concludes with the big rivalry game on the road against
Utah. I believe eight wins are
possible this year.
4. San Diego State Aztecs
National Ranking: 66 (t)
An erratic defense kept the Aztecs
from enjoying a winning season and possible bowl berth last year, and it cost
Tom Craft his job. Enter the great
gunslinger Chuck Long. The former
long bomber from Iowa could very well be in the right place at the right
time. San Diego State has enough
talent to challenge for third in the conference.
The Aztecs clobbered BYU and Utah last
year and almost upset TCU. With
eight starters returning on defense, the Aztecs should perform much better than
2005 when they yielded 27 points and more than 400 total yards per
SDSU was too much in the giving mood
to enemy running backs in 2005, but they should be stingier this season. A front four that includes tackles Nick
Osborn and Jonathan Bailes plus end Antwan Applewhite should yield less than 150
rushing yards and pick up 25 to 30 sacks.
Russell Allen and Joe Martin give the
Aztecs to standout linebackers. The
duo made 142 tackles and provided excellent pass defense in the short
The defensive backfield was not all
that bad last year, and it should be better in 2006. Cornerbacks Donny Baker and Terrell Maze
combined for 28 defended passes, while safety Reggie Grigsby made 90
If Long can maintain consistency on
this side of the ball, San Diego State could lop off more than a touchdown per
game with this talent.
The offense is not in the same shape
as the defense, but Long should be able to mold the returning talent into a
Expect SDSU to run the ball more this
year, possibly the most times since the days of Marshall Faulk. Lynell Hamilton should rush for 1,200 to
1,500 yards this year after gaining 819 a year ago. He topped 1,000 yards as a freshman in
2003 even though he missed four games.
Staying healthy is his number one concern.
Quarterback Kevin O’Connell completed
62.1% of his passes for 2,663 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2005. He can also take off and run, and I
expect him to do more of that this year.
O’Connell won’t have the superstar
receiver he had last year, as Jeff Webb and his 92 receptions for 1,109 yards
and 10 touchdowns departs to the NFL.
Fear not, for wide outs Chazeray Schilens and Alex Ghebreselassie should
provide adequate countermeasures to the running
The one iffy unit is the offensive
line. Aside from guard Brandon
Dombrowski, the rest of the unit is only fair.
The Aztec kicking game is
top-rate. Kicker Garrett Palmer
connected on 15 of 17 field goal attempts, and punter Michael Hughes averaged an
amazing 44.8 yards per punt.
2006 looks like the year San Diego
State returns to a bowl for the first time since 1998. The Aztecs have enough talent to fight
it out with BYU for third place in the MWC. If something crazy should happen, like a
repeat upset over Utah at Qualcomm on September 23, Long could take the Aztecs
to TCU on November 18 with a chance to grab a share of the MWC title. While I think true contention will have
to wait until next year, I do expect State to win more than they lose and get
that special invitation for a 13th game.
5. Colorado State Rams
National Ranking: 76 (t)
The last three years haven’t been kind
to Sonny Lubick and his Rams, as the cumulative record is 17-19. The offense no longer bowls people over
with a tough running game, and the defense no longer scares anybody. Will things change this year? I don’t think so. CSU has too many holes to fill on both
sides of the ball, and depth is an issue.
The Rams’ defense has given up more
points per game every year than the previous year since for five years
running. That should end this year,
as CSU should yield less than 2005’s 30.8 PPG.
The strength of this defense rests in
the secondary, where two of the best pass defenders line up. Cornerback Robert Herbert defended 12
passes to go with 72 tackles.
Safety Ben Stratton was poised for an All-American season in 2005, but he
missed the entire year with an injured knee. His healthy return is vital.
Middle linebacker Jeff Horinek leads
the linebacking brigade. Five of
his 61 tackles were for losses.
Another returning starter, Jon Radford delivers punishing blows, but he
lacks the speed required of an outside linebacker.
The front four features tackle Blake
Smith and end Jesse Nading who combined to make 81 tackles, 17 for losses. Nading earned honorable mention
Colorado State will be better
defensively, but don’t expect the Rams to approach their defensive efforts of
the 1990’s. Look for 25 to 28
points and 375-400 total yards allowed.
The Ram offense loses its leader as
quarterback Justin Holland is gone.
Fan favorite Caleb Hanie takes over. Hanie saw some action in 2004, but he
spent most of last year on the bench.
He has a strong arm and can move to avoid the pass rush, but he is not
likely to come close to replicating Holland’s numbers (63.7%, 3,185 yds, 13.6
per completions, 8.6 per attempt).
The running game has suffered through
consecutive mediocre seasons, but Kyle Bell should help improve that phase of
the game. Last year, Bell ran for
1,288 yards at 4.7 yards per try with 10 touchdowns. This year, he should get as many as 50
additional rushes and could top 1,500 yards.
The top receiver this year should be
H-back Kory Sperry. At 6-6, he
gives Hanie a big target; once he catches the ball, it will take more than one
defender to bring him down. Last
year, Sperry picked up 547 yards on 42 receptions. The primary deep threat is Johnny
Walker, who averaged 15.4 yards on his 43 receptions. Someone else will need to step up to
help replace David Anderson, who wound up his CSU career with an 86-reception,
The offensive line has three potential
all-conference performers in center Nick Allotta, guard Josh Day, and tackle
After opening with Weber State,
Colorado State faces Colorado at Denver’s Invesco Field. They then play at two WAC powers, Nevada
and Fresno State. If they come out
of that start at 1-3, it’s almost a given the Rams will not see the good side of
.500. If they can split the first
four, then 7-5 is not out of the realm of possibility.
6. Air Force Falcons
National Ranking: 86
Has the triple option run its course
in The Springs? Air Force has seen
its record head south from 8-5 to 7-5 to 5-6 to 4-7 the last four years. 2006 could see a third consecutive
Actually, the offense has not been the
problem in recent years; it’s the defense that broke down. Last year, the Falcons scored 30 points
per game and gained 418 yards per game.
That should be good enough to win eight or nine times with an average
defense. AFA’s last two defenses
gave up 31.1 and 31.7 points per game and over 420 yards per game both
There’s bad news and then there’s more
bad news. The defense might regress
more in 2006, and the offense may have difficulties adjusting to a coaching
change that occurred after fall practice began.
Let’s start with the porous stop
troops. They won’t stop many people
this year. Air Force played pass
defense like they were defending some of their F-117’s. Enemy passers completed 65.7% of their
passes for 255 yards per game. The
Falcons only picked up 13 sacks.
Leading the charge up front are tackle
Grant Thomas and end Gilberto Perez.
Perez made 9.5 stops for loss in 2005.
The linebackers will be a weak spot
this year, where only Drew Fowler has much experience. Julian Madrid could develop into a
In the secondary, cornerbacks Carson
Bird and Chris Sutton teamed up for 99 tackles and 15 defended passes, while
safety Bobby Giannini led the team with 92 tackles.
Depth is a major concern with the AFA
defense. If the injury bug hits,
this could get ugly.
Speaking of ugly, that’s the best way
to describe the dismissal of offensive line coach Pete Hurt a little over a week
ago, after he slugged one of his players.
The Offensive line figured to be the strength of the offense. Center Stuart Perlow, guard Curtis
Grantham, and tackle Robert Kraay give the Falcons a trio of excellent
blockers. Blocking the triple
option allows the line to double team the bigger defenders at the point of
attack, so the line has an easier job of it than in other offenses.
Hoping to benefit from the strong
corps of blockers are quarterback Shaun Carney and a host of running backs. Carney and graduated backup Adam Fitch
combined to pass the ball for more yards than any other Falcon offense in the
Fisher DeBerry era, finishing with an average of 171 yards per game. Carney completed 64.2% of his tosses,
while leading the Academy with 710 rushing yards.
Fullback Jacobe Kendrick gives Carney
an excellent first option. Last
year, he accumulated 532 yards with a 4.6 average per rush. He is virtually impossible to stop
behind the line of scrimmage.
Halfbacks Chad Hall and Justin Handley averaged 5.4 yards per carry, but
of course as pitch backs in the option, they benefited from getting the ball in
Hall is the leading returning receiver
this year as he caught 16 passes last season. Victor Thompson caught just six
passes. This is quite a decline
from the two leading receivers from last year (Jason Brown and Greg Kirkwood had
79 receptions for 1,429 yards and nine scores).
Air Force will play only one game
during the first half of September.
They will be one of the few teams not playing until September 9, when
they open the season in Knoxville against Tennessee. Another bye week follows before the
Falcons travel to Wyoming. Air
Force then plays six of their next eight at Falcon Stadium before closing the
season with road games at UNLV and TCU.
It looks like another four or five win season at best, and if the offense
tanks due to the August coaching changes, Air Force could suffer through a two
or three win debacle.
7. Wyoming Cowboys
National Ranking: 87
I must admit I thought Joe Glenn would
turn around the moribund Wyoming football team and have the Cowboys challenging
for conference supremacy by year four.
When he wasn’t a real finalist for the Colorado job last year, that was a
big telltale sign that Wyoming has not returned to their glory
Coming off a 4-7 season after going
7-5 in 2004, Wyoming won’t have enough offense to get back over .500. In fact, just matching last year’s
four-win total will be tough.
The offense figures to struggle this
year with no proven quarterback on the roster. Jacob Doss will begin the season as the
starter after completing seven of 13 passes last year for just 49
The running game should remain fairly
strong with Wynel Seldon returning to his running back spot. Seldon gained 871 yards at 4.7 yard
increments. He will be backed up by
two backs who can carry the load.
Joseph Harris and Ivan Harrison return from injuries and either could
push out Seldon if he falters.
The receiving corps loses Jovon
Booknight and his 77 receptions for 1,116 yards and 12 touchdowns. Michael Ford finished second with just
The line is the strongest unit on
offense. Center Jason Karcher and
tackle Chase Johnson earned honorable mention All-MWC honors last year.
The Cowboy defense only allowed 377
total yards per game last year, but they gave up 27 points per game. Stopping the pass is the key to the
season, as Wyoming lost their top two secondary players, one the leading tackler
in 2005. Safety John Wendling
intercepted three passes while recording 75
Mike Groover is the best of an average
defensive line. He should improve
on last year’s numbers when he made 6.5 sacks.
The four-man linebacking crew has some
talent. Aaron Robbins, Ward Dobbs,
and Austin Hall give the Cowboys three strong
A difficult schedule includes road
games at Virginia, Syracuse, New Mexico, TCU, BYU, and UNLV with home games
against Utah State, Boise State, Air Force, Utah, Colorado State, and San Diego
State. This looks like another
four-win season at best in Laramie.
8. New Mexico Lobos
National Ranking: 88 (t)
2006 figures to be a rocky year in
Albuquerque. Coach Rocky Long’s
Lobos were decimated by graduation, losing the top rusher and pass receiver on
offense and losing the top two tacklers on defense, as well as several
run-stoppers and pass defenders.
The Lobos moved the ball with a
perfect blend of runs and passes, but this season, they could struggle both
ways. Quarterback Kole McKamey
returns to direct the attack, but his top receivers are missing. McKamey threw for 1,682 yards and 13
touchdowns, but he also threw nine interceptions. He will sorely miss Hank Basket, III who
grabbed 67 passes for 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns. Travis Brown must learn to run to
daylight after making the catch, as he has sprinter’s
Also gone is 1,298-yard rusher
DonTrell Moore, who crossed the goal line 14 times. Not counting quarterback McKamey, the
leading returnee at running back is receiver Brown who averaged 7.7 yards per
deceptive carry. The running game
should disappear from 200 yards per game to possibly less than 125 yards per
The offensive line gives the Lobos
hope, as three blockers have all-star potential. Guard Bo Greer and tackles Robert Turner
and Anthony Kilby can open holes and protect the
The defense has a few good players,
but not enough to stop the high-scoring offenses in the MWC. The top unit on the stop side are the
linebackers, where Quincy Black and Cody Case figure to make about 150 tackles
this year. Black specializes in
pass defense, while Kase is a better blitzer.
The front three features end Michael
Tuohy who recorded 4.5 stops behind the line in limited action last year. He can be driven backwards by big
tackles as can opposite side end Stephen
In the secondary, UNM has a fine pair
of safeties in DeAndre Wright and Blake Ligon. The Lobos gave up 254 yards per game
through the air last year, and it could be worse this
New Mexico will start 2-0 thanks to
beginning the season against Portland State and New Mexico State. After that, the chances for wins greatly
drop. I foresee the first losing
season since 2000 and the worst season since 1999. Look for four wins tops this
9. U N L V Rebels
National Ranking: 108 (t)
The Rebels begin the season well
behind the other eight MWC teams, but I have a sneaky suspicion they will put
the bite on a couple of teams ahead of them in the standings. The Rebels have some decent talent, and
if that talent stays injury-free, they could be 10 to 15 points better in
November than they are to start the season.
The UNLV offense should easily pass
last year’s 18.8 points per game.
Quarterbacks Jarrod Jackson and Shane Steichen both return after
combining for 2,288 yards a year ago, but they could both sit on the bench this
year as former USC Trojan Rocky Hinds runs the team. Hinds has a cannon for an arm, and once
he shakes off the cobwebs, he should accumulate 250-300 passing yards per
Hinds will have some decent targets to
look for when he passes. Wide
receivers Casey Flair and Corey Anderson made 46 receptions for 587 yards last
season. Throw in JUCO wide out
Aaron Straiten, who Coach Mike Sanford compares to Keyshawn Johnson, and you
have the makings of an efficient passing game.
Keeping defenses honest will be the
job of running back Erick Jackson.
Last year, Jackson averaged only 3.9 yards per
The improved offensive line features
center Aaron Mueller and guard Brandon Gray. UNLV allowed their quarterbacks to be
sacked 39 times, so that is one area where the line must
On defense, the secondary could
actually challenge for best in the league this year. Cornerbacks John Guice and Eric Wright
could be the best combined at that position in the MWC. Guice can get into enemy backfields and
make big plays. Wright started four
games at Southern Cal in 2004 which speaks volumes.
The linebacking unit will not be a
team strength this season, but Beau Bell should lead the team in tackles after
recording 92 a year ago, 7.5 behind the line. Up front, nose guard Howie Fuimaono
earned honorable mention All-MWC in 2005 and could earn more accolades this
Kicker Sergio Aguayo may be the best
in the league. Last year, he nailed
12 of 16 field goal attempts including two from 50 or more
The Rebels might have had a decent
shot at a winning record had the schedule not been so difficult this year. Outside of league play, UNLV hosts Idaho
State and intrastate foe Nevada, while going on the road to Iowa State and
Hawaii. That looks like 1-3. In MWC play, New Mexico TCU, Wyoming,
and Air Force visit Boyd Stadium, while the Rebels play at Colorado State, BYU,
Utah, and San Diego State. Overall,
it looks like four wins or five at the most.
Next Up: The four independents. Can Notre Dame go the distance, and will
Brady Quinn be the next Joe Montana?
Will both Army and Navy become bowl eligible? Will Temple come to Nashville on
September 30 riding a 16-game losing streak?
Sources: The official Mountain West
Conference website plus the nine member websites.