By Marc Lawrence
Like an aging Hollywood actor, the Mountain West adds a wrinkle or two this football season.
Checking out this year are BYU (Independent) and Utah (PAC 12). Checking in is Boise State. Next year's juxtaposition will find Hawaii entering the loop, while TCU heads to the BIG EAST.
If you're scratching your head trying to rationalize the moves, don't. What matters is that the MWC is trying to position itself, or at the least hold serve, as a player in the FBS despite the aforementioned major defections.
Don't laugh. Here's a bar bet we'll bet you will win every time: Name the league that owns the best postseason record of any FBS Bowl Subdivision conference since the inception of the BCS in 1998. The answer: The Mountain West (29-17, .631, including 4-1 last season).
From Air Force to Wyoming, the new Mountain West Conference does more than just blanket the alphabetical world of college football. And with Boise State and TCU heading this year's class, there is no cosmetic surgery needed just yet.
The 8-team MWC is holding confidently firm - for the time being, at least.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 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 / 8
TEAM THEME: FLYING HIGH
Troy Calhoun has taken the Falcons to four bowl games in his four years at the Academy. While a fifth straight trip to the alleys would be unprecedented in Colorado Springs, what really would have the Force flying to new heights would be a second straight Commander-in-Chief trophy. The pilot is in place as QB Tim Jefferson returns for his senior season. A defense that slipped 62 YPG last season also appears to be on solid ground as it welcomes back eight starters. While the Falcons may have to avoid a few bombs from TCU and Boise State, their 17-3 ‘In The Stats' mark over their last 20 contests will have us going to war with this bunch.
Stat You Will Like: Falcons are 18-8 straight up in the final six games of the season under Calhoun. They were 12-24 before his arrival.
PLAY ON: vs. San Diego State (10/15)
BOISE STATE - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: MOUNTAIN HIGH
The Broncos leave the WAC for the Mountain West where a battle for conference bragging rights will likely be decided when TCU comes calling in mid-November. QB Kellen Moore, the nation's current leader in pass efficiency, heads a contingent of 16 returning starters from 12-1 team that was arguably better than the 14-0 perfect edition in 2009. Last year's group improved 71 YPG on offense and 45 YPG on defense, while scoring more and allowing fewer points per game in the process. Five bowlers will test Peterson's horses early but it's unlikely Boise's 69-2 SU mark on the blue stuff, including 40 wins in a row, will be in jeopardy until that TCU showdown
Stat You Will Like: Boise State is 13-1 SU and 10-4 ATS vs. Mountain West Conference opponents since 1999.
PLAY ON: vs. Nevada (10/1) - *KEY
COLORADO STATE - *6 / 6
TEAM THEME: FAIR TO MIDDLIN'
After a jubilant debut in which he led his team to a bowl win on the heels of inheriting a 3-9 squad, head coach Steve Fairchild has suffered his own ignominy of back-to-back 3-9 seasons. For that to change, the first order of business will be patching up a rush defense that surrendered nearly 200 YPG and 5.0 YPC. The offense appears to be in good hands, thanks to the play of sophomore QB Pete Thomas, the only freshman to start all of his team's games in 2010. Thomas broke the CSU single-season record for pass completion percentage while tossing for 2,662 yards. With only four winning teams lining the schedule, there's a "Fair' chance that the Rams taste some success this season.
Stat You Will Like: The home team is 23-8-1 ATS in Rams games with Fairchild.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. San Diego State (11/12)
NEW MEXICO - *6 / 9
TEAM THEME: DEUCES - THIS TIME - LOSES
It's strange but suddenly it looks like the job Rocky Long did with the Lobos during his 11-year tenure from 1998-2008 (65-69) looks like a work of art next to the 2-22 disaster in two seasons under Mike Locksley. That's what happens when you allow 24 PPG more than you score. We'd like to report that nine starters back on defense will help, but we can't. Not when the returning personnel allowed 5.3 YPR, 469 YPG and 44 PPG. If Locksley is going to avoid being booted out of Albuquerque - and that's a big if - he'll need to take advantage of a reasonable early-season slate. Road games in five of his final seven games will likely prove his Waterloo.
Stat You Will Like: The Lobos are winless without a touchdown in each of their last five season openers.
PLAY AGAINST: at Wyoming (11/19)
SAN DIEGO STATE - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: ROCKY ROAD
When Brady Hoke answered the call at Michigan after a successful two-year stint in San Diego, the Aztecs needed to look no further than to SDSU assistant, and former New Mexico head coach, Rocky Long to fill the void. While Long's 11-year mark with the Lobos was hardly awe-inspiring (65-69), he did manage to take New Mexico bowling on five occasions. The skill positions are in good shape with the return of SR QB Ryan Lindley, the MWC's leading passer (3,830 yards) in 2010, and RB Ronnie Hillman, who led all freshmen in rushing (1,532 yards). While the road isn't ‘Long' this year (just five roadies), it could be a little ‘Rocky' early on with trips to West Point, Ann Arbor and Colorado Springs.
Stat You Will Like: Rocky Long is 10-1 SU and 11-0 ATS with rest in conference games.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. TCU (10/8)
TCU - 5 / 6
TEAM THEME: MOVIN' ON OUT
The best team in Texas - the last six years, at least - is headed out of the Mountain West and over to the Big East next season. While it was initially a surprising decision (Storrs and company are more than a stone's throw from Ft. Worth), it's a move that figures to put the Frogs on the big-time college football map. Winners of 25 regular season games in a row, TCU takes a hit on offense with the loss of QB Andy Dalton to the NFL. However, the sobering fact of the matter is the loss of C Jake Kirkpatrick and T Marcus Cannon might be felt more than Dalton. A couple of tough away games will also put the nation's longest road winning streak (11) in jeopardy.
Stat You Will Like: TCU is 33-1 in day games and 59-4 on Saturdays.
UNLV - 7 / 4
TEAM TEHME: YOUNG AND IN VEGAS
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Or so the saying goes. The same could be said for a Rebels' squad that was 0-7 SU and ATS on the road last season, being outscored 322-79. If the minimum drinking and gambling age is Las Vegas is 21, where does the UNLV football team go for a night out on the town? If second-year HC Bobby Hauck had his way, it would be the film room. Twenty-four sophomore lettermen return to a team that played 14 true freshmen last season. Gone is QB Omar Clayton whose 40 starts was the most in school history. The first order of business will be re-tooling an offense that slid 77 YPG and 7 PPG. It could be worse... you could be cold and in Cleveland
Stat You Will Like: The home team in UNLV games is 12-1 ATS under Hauck.
PLAY ON: vs. Wyoming (11/13)
WYOMING - 7 / 7
Team Theme: GET FRESH
Year Two of the Dave Christensen hire went south when the Cowboy offense and defense did the same. Even so, coach Christensen is doggedly optimistic about 2011. "I'm very excited about our team," he exclaimed. "We have a number of quality players who can contribute. I think the key is playing a lot of guys and keeping them fresh and being able to play 100 miles an hour every snap." Speaking of staying fresh, the new QB this year will be a freshman as three candidates competed for the job this spring. With new OC Greg Brandon bringing his spread-minded playbook to Laramie, look for the Pokes to 'freshen things up' a bit in 2011.
Stat You Will Like: The Cowboys are 8-1-1 ATS as dogs of less than 12 points under Christensen.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Colorado State (12/3)
Be sure to check back here next Monday, August 1st for Marc's PAC 12 CONFERENCE Football Preview!