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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: BYU; Utah
In a conference of running teams, BYU uses a wide–open passing attack that saw QB Max Hall throw for approaching 4000 yards and 26 TDs last season. The line is one of the best in the country, let alone the Mountain West, and what many people have been overlooking with all the passing going on, is that the rushing game added 24 scores in 2007. But forget the offense: look what they do against the run in a conference where everybody runs: not one back managed a 100–yard game against them. Because of turnovers and an imperfect kicking game they could throw away some key game and keep themselves out of a BCS game, but BYU are sure as heck a class above their conference for the first time since the '80s, and the schedule should be a stroll until they meet Utah November 22. The Cougars are poised just outside the preseason Top 10s and with good reason – if they beat the people they should beat, they will be in a BCS Bowl.
Brian Johnson is back at QB, and that means a lot to Utah, especially if he gets through the year without an injury nagging him, when he turns into one a dual–threat dynamo. RB Matt Asiata was another player lost to injury for part of last season, so Utah's offense could be ready to break out in a big way. Utah has defense too, attacking the backfield against the run and shutting down the pass. They kept opponents to 10 or less points five times last season. Whether they can keep pace with BYU is another matter, but scheduling is on their side; the toughest programs they face are in the opener against a Michigan team undergoing a major overhaul, and against Oregon State and BYU, both of which Utah host. Brigham Young won't get out of the conference without a fight.
Tier 2: TCU; New Mexico
Prepare for a running theme as we move down the Mountain West. If I tell you TCU's Aaron Brown and Joseph Turner run behind a line that could be one of the best run–blocking lines in the country, that justifies sticking them in the second tier as a conference contender, but putting them ahead of all the other running games in the MWC means looking closely at the passing game. Sophomore QB Andy Dalton's debut had its interceptions, but there were scores through the air and on the ground. The experienced receivers have mostly departed, so it might be 2009 before Dalton becomes a name, but this year's line could be the catalyst for his development. Meanwhile, TCU's defense remains strong despite some changeover, and will be good against the MWC's ever–present rushing attacks. That means Dalton won't be asked to do too much, which was when the interceptions came last year.
Somewhere in the fourth round of next year's NFL draft, somebody will take New Mexico's 6–0, 240lb runner Rodney Ferguson, who by then may have completed his third 1000–yard seasons. If he doesn't reach 1000, it will be the fault of the reconstituted line, Ferguson will be undervalued, and somebody will get a workhorse at a knockdown price. Talking about anything else on New Mexico is difficult: the defensive line is also in transition, and the passing game is so–so (although in the MWC, so–so keep you in the upper half). The defense returns a secondary that smothers the pass during blitzes, and for that reason, New Mexico is something of a threat to the MWC teams ranked above it while remaining susceptible to the running games below. Last year's 9 wins were no fluke, but the offensive line could make or break things.
Tier 3: AIr Force; Colorado State
Okay, let's find something nice to say about Air Force, armed forces fans. Well, for one thing, if not much is expected of them, that would be the same as last year, when they went 9–4 and were second in the MWC, so feel free to deride any predictions made by experts. For another, the Falcons return the sort of defensive line they need to counter the running games most of the lower echelons of this conference rely on. Beyond that, things look a little grim. Anybody who ever sniffed a running play is gone, and most of the line is gone too. That doesn't leave much of an experienced offense. And the defense beyond the line is rebuilding too. Coach Troy Calhoun's first season may turn out to be a false dawn. Losing again to Navy would seem a certainty, and even Army may take their revenge for last year's 30–10 whipping.
Expect the Rams to play like Rams. Colorado State will ride tailback Gartrell Johnson this season, have most of the offensive line back, plus tight end Kory Sperry returning from injury. That's the offense. On defense, the linebackers and safeties represent the power and the experience too, so listening to CSU games could be fun this year. Being more than a one–dimensional team will rely on new coach Steve Fairfield, a successful Rams offensive coordinator in the late '90s, and on his ability to find a passer. Fortunately, the one dimension Colorado State has will probably serve them well enough to do better than eighth again in the MWC.
Tier 4: Wyoming; UNLV
The whole line and runningbacks Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon are back, but unless JuCo arrival Dax Crum can do better than last year's Karsten Sween at QB, Wyoming may end up looking like just another running game. The defense has areas of strength, so the scene is set for a revelationary leap in Laramie if a passing game shows up. The fact that I have them in Tier 4 tells you not to expect it. Another seventh–place finish for the Cowboys would probably spell the end for 26–33 coach Joe Glenn.
Coach Mike Sanford has overseen three 2–win seasons at UNLV, so it's fair to say the target is 3 or more this time around. Last year featured a surreal 27–0 blanking of Utah, thanks in large part to bowling ball RB Frank Summers' 29 carry, 190 yard performance. With a little more experience under center, the Rebels have a better chance than some of their rivals of discovering a passing game, as Summers and WRs Ryan Wolfe and Casey Flair both have good hands. The defense remains horrible until further notice. If Sanford can get UNLV to at least double its wins or just survive for another season, better times may not be far away.