By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com
Like a new year’s resolution, it’s out with the old and in with the new… well sort of… in the Mountain West in 2012.
After breaking off talks with the Conference USA about a proposed super merger, the MW lost its first-and-only three time champ, TCU, to the Big 12 this season, before bouncing back and luring three replacement members for 2012 – namely Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada.
By our scorecard three major powerhouse programs have bailed out the past two seasons (BYU, Utah and aforementioned TCU) with the aforementioned Bulldogs, Rainbow Warriors and Wolf Pack taking their place.
Pure and simple, if it were a trade the MW would have been hosed. Granted, last year’s addition of Boise State (albeit temporarily) added luster but, in this wacky world of conference carpetbagging, the Mountain West suddenly appears to be crumbling. From Air Force to Wyoming, the new Mountain West does more than just blanket the alphabetical world of college football.
Through all changes the MW owns the best percentage in bowl games of all conferences in games the last eight years, going 24-12 (.667). It has also produced four 8-win teams the last five years in a row, all who went bowling. In addition to the revolving door, four new coaches come calling in the Mountain West this season, three of whom that will be taking charge of a program for the first time in their coaching careers. In fact, the MW has seen 16 first-year coaches the past 13 seasons, seven of which played in a bowl game in their debut year.
Ranging from sea level (Hawaii 18 feet and San Diego State 46 feet) to over 7,000 feet above (Air Force and Wyoming), a mountainous challenge awaits the ten teams calling the MW home this season.
Note: Team writeups by this author were excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
AIR FORCE – (3/2)
Team Theme: WHAT, ME WORRY?
When you’ve guided your team to a bowl game each and every year you’ve roamed its sideline, and then in one fell swoop lose 17 starters – including your four-year starting signal caller from an offense that put up its best ever numbers during your tenure – it may be time to reach for the Right Guard. Silver lining comes from the fact that five of the Flyboys’ six home games are against teams that ended the 2011 season with losing records. That and the fact the Falcons are 19-1 SU and 9-5 ATS hosting non-winning foes under Troy Calhoun. Hey, no sweat… if you’re Alfred E. Neuman.
Stat You Will Like: Falcons are 20-10 SU in the final six games of the season with Calhoun. They were 12-24 before his arrival.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Navy (10/6)
BOISE STATE – (5/3)
Team Theme: TOP OF THE CLASS
Wouldn’t you know it? TCU dipped its toes into the Mountain West waters for just one year, but it was long enough to ruin another perfect season by the Broncos. The stunning 36-35 setback snapped Boise’s 65-game regular season, 47-game conference and 35-game home win streaks. The win skeins also contributed to an astonishing 50-3 record compiled by QB Kellen Moore, with all three losses coming by a total of FIVE POINTS! Like the Horned Frogs, Moore is now gone, leaving Chris Petersen – one of the most innovative offensive minds in college football – with 10 straight senior classes to win 40-plus games. Its no wonder Petersen’s horses own the nation’s longest active win streak in the BCS standings (37 straight).
Stat You Will Like: Boise State is the first program since 1920 to win 12 or more games in four consecutive seasons.
COLORADO STATE – (7/7)
Team Theme: UNSETTLING IN
A 3-1 start had Ram backers forgetting back-to-back 3-9 seasons but then – just like that – a season-ending eight-game losing skid made it a three-peat and terminated the four-year reign of Steve Fairchild. Enter Alabama OC Jim McElwain who must think Fort Collins resembles Fort Apache as starting LB Michael Orakpo and DE Nardly Capi were expelled as a result of an off-campus brawl, and two-year starting QB Pete Thomas transferred to NC State following the firing of Fairchild. Garrett Grayson, who filled in for Thomas when he suffered a knee injury last season, inherits the starting job but, like Apache, may find a dilapidated attack early on.
Stat You Will Like: The Rams are 1-11 ATS as road favorites since 2003.
PLAY ON: vs. UNLV (11/10)
FRESNO STATE (*8/7)
Team Theme: OVER THE HILL
The leash simply wasn’t long enough for Pat Hill to survive just his third losing season in 15 years at the Bulldogs’ helm. Enter Tim DeRuyter, who arrives with nine new assistants, as the Fresno makeover begins. The former Texas A&M DC has the luxury of 15 returning starters – the most in the MWC this season – including a backfield that features QB Derek Carr, the younger brother of former No. 1 pick David Carr, and all-MW RB Robbie Rouse. It’s time to let these ‘Dogs out as Carr threw for 3,544 yards in 2011 – the second highest among sophomore QB’s – while the diminutive Rouse has tallied over 2,600 rushing yards the past two seasons.
Stat You Will Like: The Bulldogs are 19-5-1 ATS as single-digit non-conference dogs.
Team Theme: CHOW TIME
When Honolulu native Norm Chow was hired as the new Hawaii head coach, he became the first Asian American coach of a major college football program. The credentials are certainly there: 39 years of collegiate and NFL experience, three National Assistant Coach of the Year awards, three Heisman Trophy winners and six first-round NFL QB’s. Though the WR corps remains intact, the offensive guru will be put to the test early as he loses All-WAC performer QB Bryant Moniz to graduation. After 33 years, the Warriors will be also calling a new conference home as they say mahalo WAC and aloha MW.
Stat You Will Like: The Warriors will travel 23,604 round trip miles in their four MWC games this season.
PLAY ON: at Fresno State (11/3)
Team Theme: NEW LEADER IN THE CLUBHOUSE
Looking for a free cold one this football season? Simply saunter into any sports bar and ask anyone to name the FBS college football coach with the most active career wins with one team. If they answer Chris Ault (226 wins with Nevada), they’re either from Reno or they have more time on their hands than Bobby Petrino. Ault hesitantly bids adieu to the WAC as he enters the MW this season with a 17-1 SU log in his last 18 home games. The good news for the Nevada faithful is the fact that the Pack takes on a schedule laced with opponents that went a combined 46-67 ATS in 2011. Dual-threat QB Cody Fajardo will once again be in charge of triggering the ‘Pistol.’
Stat You Will Like: Chris Ault is 24-8-1 ATS as a home favorite, including 8-0 ATS versus non-conference foes.
PLAY ON: vs. Boise State (12/1)
NEW MEXICO (*8/6)
Team Theme: LET’S GET PHYSICAL
College football television analyst Bob Davie is back on the sidelines after 10 years away from the locker room. Here’s Urban Meyer on Davie: “X’s and O’s and understanding the game of football, he’s one of the best minds that I’ve ever been around.” However, Davie will bring a physical approach to Albuquerque. “We’ll hit. I’m not going to tippy-toe into it. There is only way to play the game and that’s to be physical,” says the former Notre Dame head coach. Davie does return eight starters on offense but that’s like hiring the staff of the Titanic to captain a ship as the Lobos ranked 120th in the land in scoring (12 PPG). Yep, physical sounds like the right way to go.
Stat You Will Like: Bob Davie is 12-0 SU and 8-4 ATS at home versus sub .400 opponents
PLAY ON: vs. Texas State (10/6)
SAN DIEGO STATE – (7/6)
Team Theme: PACKING UP
One year away from moving into the Big East Conference – yes, the Big East – the Aztecs are hoping to stay above water in 2012 after suffering major losses from last year’s bowl squad. Gone are QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Hillman. Spring camp saw former Oregon State QB Ryan Katz the frontrunner for Lindley’s job while the stop-unit was still looking for replacements after losing virtually its entire front seven. In truth, the Aztecs actually scrimmaged more than practiced this spring in hopes of finding those replacements. A very favorable seven-game home slate should help somewhat, but taking on foes that were 59-44 ATS last year will not.
Stat You Will Like: Rocky Long is 1-9 ATS at home in conference games when playing off a double-digit win.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Army (9/8)
Team Theme: WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU DOING?
Likeable Bobby Hauck knows that unless he improves on a pair of two-win seasons and seriously addresses a defense that ranked No. 117 in the nation, he’ll likely end up like most other ‘good fellas’ in Vegas – last seen in the desert talking to a Joe Pesci look-alike. “We are a better looking team in our uniforms but the depth charts shows the youth,” admits Hauck. He’s right: of the 47 returning lettermen, just two red-shirt seniors and 11 scholarship seniors answer the roll call. Hopefully, opening the season with four straight home games for the first time since 1973 will stave off that little road trip to the desert. After all, Hauck is 0-14 SU and 1-13 ATS away from home.
Stat You Will Like: The Rebels have been outgained in 21 of their 25 games under Hauck.
PLAY AGAINST: at Hawaii (11/24)
Team Theme: WE TRY HARDER
The Cowboys’ offense took a quantum leap forward last year behind new offensive coordinator Greg Brandon’s spread attack. The former Bowling Green head coach nurtured freshman QB Brett Smith to a record-shattering performance when Smith’s 3,232 total yards eclipsed Andy Dalton’s freshman record. Fortunately, Brandon has elected to stay with the Cowboys after the new staff at Illinois failed to lure him away. HC Dave Christensen has tabbed Chris Tormey as his new defensive coordinator and if his work is anything close to Brandon’s, the Cowboys could end up being the second best team in the MW this season… and maybe even give Boise a poke.
Stat You Will Like: The Cowboys’ 20 losses under Christensen have been by an average of 24.15 points per game.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at UNLV (11/17)