By Marc Lawrence
There are highs and lows in every major conference. In the Mountain West Conference they range from 70 feet to 7,200 feet in altitude.
They also range from 2009's National Coach of the Year (TCU's Gary Patterson) to one-win New Mexico.
For a league an unsung as the MWC, they find themselves atop the pecking order in a handful of meaningful categories in the FBS. Among them: TCU QB Andy Dalton leads all returning signal callers in career victories (29), while Utah has more consecutive bowl wins (9) than any team in the nation.
In addition, the Utes and the Horned Frogs will ride 17 and 14 game home win streaks, respectively, into the 2010 season.
With 26 all-conference players returning in 2010, it would be no surprise to find this league to improve on its 25-16 bowl mark since 1996. After all, they're riding a mighty nice high in the MWC these days.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 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 - *5 / 5
TEAM THEME: WHERE'S THE BEEF?
While the Falcons welcome back just five starters on offense, including QB Tim Jefferson, the quintet accounted for 100% of the team's passing yards, rushing yards and total scoring. The concern for HC Troy Calhoun is rebuilding an offensive line that loses all five starters to graduation. Despite losing nearly 1,500 pounds of beef, the Force will again feature a ground attack that has led the MWC in rushing 26 of 28 years, including each of the last 12. There are a few issues on the defensive side, as well. The last time we saw the Falcons' stop unit in action was in the Armed Forces Bowl where they shut down high-powered Houston, 47-20, picking off Case Keenum SIX times. However, only five starters return from that opportunistic unit which ranked No. 11 nationally while leading the country in turnover margin, including zero on the offensive line. Yes, there are some holes to fill this season in Colorado Springs but in ‘Calhoun We Trust.'
PLAY ON: vs. Navy (10/2)
BYU - 6 / 6
TEAM THEME: CREATURES OF HABIT
Who needs a calendar when you have a Bronco? By the end of November, you can pretty much count on double-digit wins from BYU and by the third week in December you can always find the Mormons in Sin City. For the fourth time in five years, Bronco Mendenhall's Cougars won 10-plus games, while a fifth straight season was capped off with a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. In truth, last year's 11-win season was probably a bit disappointing. After surprising Oklahoma to start the season, the Cougars were upset at home by Florida State and lost for the second year in a row to conference rival TCU. They'll get a chance to make amends this year with trips to Tallahassee and Fort Worth. With just six starters returning on each side of the ball, we need to see more before assessing those chances. One thing we know for sure: we'll be rolling the dice with Bronco's boys come December.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Utah (11/27)
COLORADO STATE - 4 / 10
TEAM THEME: HONEY, PLEASE COME BACK
After leading the Rams to their first winning season since 2003 and delivering their first bowl victory in seven years, the Ft. Collins courtship was on for HC Steve Fairchild. A 3-0 start to 2009 pressed the engagement but, like a jilted lover, things got ugly. Real ugly. A season-ending nine-game losing skein was even more befuddling considering the fact that the Rams were favored in four of those contests. For Fairchild to get back in the sack, he'll need the offense to revert to their productive 2008 form. Easier said than done with only four starters back in the mix, including a new signal-caller for the third straight season. The defense, as a whole, took baby steps in 2009 but the D-line, in particular, showed vast improvement. With 10 starters back on that side the ball, and a recruiting class that Rivals.com called CSU's best in ten years, maybe Steve can get his groove back.
PLAY ON: vs. UNLV (10/16)
NEW MEXICO - 5 / 6
TEAM THEME: BABY STEPS
When you are winless without a TD in your last four season openers, a new team motto is needed. "Take the Next Step" is the phrase Mike Locksley has opted for in 2010. These young Lobos managed only one win for Locksley in his rookie season, but they showed marked improvement over the season's final five games, losing the stat battle by an average of 59 YPG as compared to a negative 161 YPG in the first five games of the year. "The last five games we improved about 50 to 60 percent in almost every vital statistical category, and the last five games included the best teams in the conference. We got better, we stepped forward," confirmed Locksley. Blue-chip DT recruit Calvin Smith and a defensive line that returns three starters assures these Lobos are taking steps in the right direction... slow but sure.
PLAY ON: vs. San Diego St (10/23)
SAN DIEGO STATE - *9 / 8
TEAM THEME: ABOVE ALL HOKE
If you listen to HC Brady Hoke, it's time for his Aztecs to get physical. His first year at the helm saw San Diego State double its win total from the previous season, thanks to a defense that improved dramatically against the run. Yet opponents still more than doubled their rushing output per game (165 to 78). The continued development of both the offensive and defensive lines is critical if the Aztecs are to produce their first winning season since the MWC formed in 1999. Skill wise, Brady's bunch is in good shape with the return of WR's Vincent Brown (778 yards, 6 TD's in six games before a season-ending thumb injury) and DeMarco Sampson, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
A relatively soft non-conference schedule may give Hoke the push he's looking for early, but can this group hold their ground after visiting BYU, Wyoming and TCU? Time will tell.
PLAY ON: vs. UNLV (11/27)
TCU - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: A TAD(POLE ) OLDER
The Frogs just seem to keep on multiplying. TCU had more freshmen (17) on the depth chart last season than seniors (13) and the 27 seniors on this year's roster more than double last year's number. Despite a disappointing bowl loss to Boise in which they held the Broncos to 25 points below their season average, the Horned ones completed a perfect regular season for the first time in school history. As always, it was about the ‘D'. Since 2005, the Frogs have allowed a meager 79.5 rushing yards per game - tops in the nation. In fact, over that span, Gary Patterson's stop unit has held 45 opponents to under 333 total yards of offense, producing a 42-3 record in those contests. The offense is also in good hands as QB Andy Dalton, the MWC player of the year in 2009, returns. With only one tough conference roadie (Utah), it looks like the Fort Worth Frogs will, once again, be jumping.
PLAY ON: vs. Oregon St (9/4)
UNLV - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: MR. CLEAN
Mike Sanford is out and Bobby Hauck is in as six straight non-winning seasons was all the UNLV brass could stomach. They'll gamble that the winningest coach in the FCS over the last seven years can change the Rebels' fortunes. Hauck compiled a stellar 80-17 mark at Montana while leading the Grizzlies to three national championship games. SR QB Omar Clayton returns along with four starting offensive linemen and 1,291 of the team's 1,522 rushing yards. However, Hauck plans on cleaning house if necessary as he contends that, "No job is safe now or ever, really. You may see a lot of spread principles in our offense because that's what the strength of our personnel is." With nine bowl teams on this year's form, including four non-conference bowlers, it may take some time before Hauck cleans up this mess.
PLAY ON: vs. Wyoming (11/13)
UTAH - *8 / 4
TEAM THEME: SAND BAGGERS
Playing in the MWC, Utah is America's best-kept secret. However, every year when we publish our Bowl Stat Report, Kyle Whittingham's Utes come front and center. That's because Utah owns the winningest bowl percentage (12-3, 80%) in Division 1 history of teams with at least 15 appearances. They also own the nation's longest current bowl win streak at 9 - and Whittingham has been a part of all of them. QB Jordan Wynn, the MVP of last season's Poinsettia Bowl, is back. So too is RB Eddie Ware, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 10 games last season. Ware is joined in the backfield by Matt Asiata, who led the conference in rushing through the first four games before a knee injury ended his season. Checking the scoresheet we find twelve starters in all, including six all-MWC perfomers, returning to Salt Lake City as Whittingham looks to make it 10 strikes in a row.
PLAY ON: vs. Iowa St (10/9) - *KEY as dog
WYOMING - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: JUST DO IT... AGAIN
Chase Daniel, former Missouri quarterback, was right on the money when he proclaimed that his former OC Dave Christensen was "going to take that program to levels it's never seen." In short order, Christensen took the Cowboys bowling for the first time since 2004 and then proceeded to upset Fresno State as a double-digit dog in the New Mexico Bowl. Some may say it was the new Nike uniforms they wore for the first time in 2009. Others argue the five 4th-quarter comebacks orchestrated by MWC Freshman of the Year QB Austyn Carta-Samuels had more to do with it. "We didn't utilize all of our offense last year... I think we can start moving toward what we originally envisioned for the spread when we came here... I believe we've improved our team athletically," said Christensen. It's hard to argue with success.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Colorado State (11/20