By Marc Lawrence
If it appears the WAC is running things up, it's because they are.
As a team, Nevada led the nation in rushing with 344.9 yards per game. The Wolf Pack became the second team in WAC history (Rice in 2004 with 306.5 yards per game) to lead the country in rushing yards per game. And for the first time since 2001, a WAC running back led the nation in rushing. Fresno State's Ryan Mathews (first-round draft choice by San Diego this season) averaged 150.7 yards per game after racking up 1,808 rushing yards, the fourth most in a single season in WAC history. It is the seventh time a WAC back has led the country in rushing.
More impressive, there are 53 Division I-A programs west of the Mississippi that include all of the teams from the WAC, Big 12, Mountain West and Pac-10 and several teams from the Big Ten, Conference USA, SEC and Sun Belt. Since the 2001 football season no other team has won as many games as Boise State (102), an anchor set to switch allegiances in 2011.
Can the Broncos run the card and create a spot in this year's BCS championship game? After checking out their overview below, we're not about to bet against them.
With the WAC coming apart at the seams with Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada making an exodus to the Mountain West Conference next year, it seems more now than ever this conference needs to flex its muscles and make another strong run this football season.
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.
BOISE STATE - *10 / 10
TEAM THEME: BOYS SEE BCS
All eyes will be on Landover, MD on September 6th where the Broncos could very well punch a ticket to the BCS title game with a win over Virginia Tech. Considering HC Chris Petersen is 31-1 (45.5 PPG) in his career versus WAC opponents, there's not much else that stands in the way of another unbeaten season and a probable date with history. As if that's not enough, the Broncos return 20 starters, including five all-WAC 1st-team performers, from last year's 14-0 edition. QB Kellen Moore, 26-1 as a starter, leads the way behind an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the nation in ‘09. A new Blue FieldTurf, said to be softer on the eyes, was installed this year at Bronco Stadium. With Petersen signing a five-year, $8 million contract expansion, look for Boise to extend its current 56-game home win streak. It's BCS title game or ‘bust' for the boys in blue this season.
PLAY ON: vs. Fresno St (11/19)
FRESNO STATE - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: KING OF THE ‘HILL'
It's good to be a Bulldog these days. 81 wins over the last decade are the most in school history. 15 BCS wins since 2000 are the second most in the nation among non-BCS schools. Seven home games frequent the schedule for the first time since 1994. Fresno State returns every starting lineman on both sides of the ball in 2010, along with five of their top six tacklers. HC Pat Hill, in his 14th season at the Fresno helm, is living right. Now if he could just figure out a way to win a bowl game. The Bulldogs have faltered in three out of their last four postseason appearances. Our Playbook.com database has the solution - enter as a dog. You'll probably want to file this in the archives until late December: the dog in Fresno State bowl games has won the last nine games - straight up! These Bulldogs look to have a dangerous bark.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Idaho (11/27) *KEY off SUATS loss
HAWAII - *5 / 7
TEAM THEME: PASSING FANCY
Despite finishing in the top three nationally in passing offense for the 10th time in 11 years, Hawaii's 23 PPG was their lowest scoring average in over a decade. The 30 points allowed per game was also the most since the 2005 season - the only other time in eight years that the Warriors failed to go bowling. Hence, a pair of new coordinators are on board in 2010. HC Greg McMakin welcomes back 48 lettermen in his third full year as island master, including QB Bryant Moniz. More importantly, All-WAC first team WR Greg Salas (106 catches) returns for his senior season. While McMakin knows he'll have to tighten a ‘D' that was roasted for over 400 YPG, he also realizes an explosive offense is required in the wide-open WAC. Hawaii's 25-0 SU record since 2005 in games in which they score 40 or more points reminds him of that!
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Nevada (10/16)
IDAHO - *8 / 10
TEAM THEME: DANCING IN THE DARK
A decade of darkness is over. Picked to finish last in the WAC last year, Robb Akey's Vandals had fans dancing in the streets of Moscow when they capped an eight-win season with an exciting come-from-behind bowl victory over Bowling Green. Thanks to an offense that vandalized opposing defenses for 451 YPG, Idaho was the nation's second most improved team in 2009. Star QB Nathan Enderle, a 4-year starter, is back to lead the nation's 9th-ranked offense, along with seven other starters. The defense also showed signs of improvement and should take an even bigger step in 2010 with 10 starters back in the mix. The Spuds will open at home for the first time since 1998 and will play in a non-Saturday game for the first time in over 50 years. Yes, success has its rewards.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Boise St (11/12)
LOUISIANA TECH - *8 / 6
TEAM THEME: SONNY DAYS
New head coach Sonny Dykes arrives with his wide-open offense and that could spell trouble for some defenseless WAC foes. The son of former Texas Tech coaching legend, Spike, Dykes has served as offensive coordinator at Arizona the past three seasons where the Wildcats offense improved 138 YPG and 16 PPG under his direction. Dykes takes over a Tech program that actually improved on both sides of the ball, despite winning four less games. Departed HC Derek Dooley left the offense well-stocked as QB Ross Jenkins, WR Philip Livas (the only player in the nation to score four different ways last year), and the entire offensive line return to Ruston. We'll also remind you that 18 players missed at least half the season with injuries in ‘09 - the most in the nation. Look for these Bulldogs to show some serious bite this fall.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Fresno St (11/6)
NEVADA - *9 / 6
TEAM THEME: THOU'AULT SHALL RUN
Joe Paterno, Mack Brown, Frank Beamer, Jim Tressel and Chris Ault. No, there is nothing amiss here. These are the five active coaches with at least 200 career wins. The common thread among this group is to ‘run first' and no one has done it better than Ault's Wolf Pack, as they look to extend a school-record five straight bowl appearances behind the No. 1 rushing offense in the land (nearly 50 YPG more than any other team in 2009). Led by QB Colin Kaepernick, only the second player in NCAA history to post consecutive seasons with 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, and RB Vai Taua, a first-team all WAC performer each of the last two years, five different players combined to rush for more than 100 yards an incredible 22 times last season. Seven home games (the most in school history) figures to have Nevada re-writing the history books in 2010.
PLAY ON: vs. Colorado St (9/11)
NEW MEXICO STATE - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: ‘AGGIE-NIZING'
DeWayne Walker had an uneventful rookie campaign when his Aggies took a step back on both sides of the ball last season. The offense was particularly disappointing, averaging an FBS-worst 12 PPG on 230 yards of total offense - another national low. However, 2010 finds plenty of optimism in Las Cruces. For openers, 16 starters are back, including 9 on offense. New OC Mike Dunbar, a 25-year veteran, figures to add some spark as he designs an attack around RB Seth Smith. The lone bright spot from an inept offense, Smith rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2009 as a walk-on and the ground game actually improved 87 YPG and 1.6 YPR. In addition, all four starting DB's are back from a unit that ranked No. 36 in the country in pass defense. A non-conference schedule that includes four losing teams with a combined 14-34 record could cultivate some early-season wins.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. New Mexico (10/9)
SAN JOSE STATE - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: ROAD WORK AHEAD
New coach Mike MacIntyre takes over the Spartans' reins from the recently retired Dick Tomey and, to no one's surprise, the old veteran left the cupboard well-stocked. Sixteen returning starters are back from last year's team, along with three other potential starters who were red-shirted in 2009. A former NFL assistant and most recently Duke defensive coordinator, MacIntyre was named AFA assistant coach of the year in 2009. Unfortunately, Tomey has also left MacIntyre with the schedule from hell. Besides dealing with unbeaten conference foe Boise State, the Spartans face three FBS non-conference opponents that went a combined 34-6 in 2009. The Spartans were outscored 179-48 (0-4 SU & ATS) in their first four road games last season. With trips to Alabama, Wisconsin, Utah and Nevada, they may not want to find the way out of San Jose this season.
UTAH STATE - *8 / 9
TEAM THEME: LITTLE HOUSE IN LOGAN
Despite a 4-8 record, Gary Andersen's first year on the Logan sidelines had to be considered a success as the four wins were the most since 2002. In the process, Utah State set a school record for total offense (5,272 yards). This season may find more records fall as the Aggies return eight offensive starters, including QB Diondre Borel. Borel owns three school records, including fewest interceptions in a season (4) last year. The senior signal-caller will be joined by a bevy of returning backs (5) and will also have three of last year's top four WR's at his disposal. Even a defense that allowed over 450 yards per game welcomes back five of its top six tacklers. Expect the defense to play with plenty of emotion on their prairie this season as they honor the most decorated player in school history - Merlin Olsen - who passed away in the spring.
PLAY ON: vs. New Mexico St (11/6)