If ever there was a telling stat about a conference in decline it's this about the WAC: Of the 29 first-team all-WAC players in 2010, just five return for the 2011 season and none from the offensive side of the ball.
In fact, there were 30 second-team players, and only half of them are scheduled to return this year.
That's quite a dilution in talent and it's directly attributable to the loss of conference powerhouse Boise State to the Mountain West this season.
Making matters worse, Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada will be bolting at the conclusion of this season. And so far, they will be replaced by the likes of Texas State and UT San Antonio.
Confounding matters this year, of the WAC's 36 FBS non-conference matchups, 21 are against teams that played in a bowl game last season. Its top team (for the moment), Nevada, opens the season with four consecutive road games, including three versus non-conference bowlers.
The little bit left to cling to is the fact the league returns the nation's total offense leader from last season in QB Bryan Moniz from Hawaii.
Enjoy him, and what's left of this conference, while they last.
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.
FRESNO STATE - 4 / 5
TEAM THEME: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
The Bulldogs bid adieu to the WAC at the conclusion of this season and we have a sneaky suspicion that a few of those members will look to send the 'Dogs out on a short leash. With just nine overall starters returning, including just one lineman on each side of the ball, it appears as if veteran HC Pat Hill will be dealing with pups this season. His first order of business will be instilling some confidence in a team that suffered it worst bowl loss in team history (23-point loss to N. Illinois). No coaching changes for the first time in eight years will provide some stability as will the return of diminutive RB Robbie Rouse, the league's second-leading rusher.
Stat You Will Like: The Bulldogs 17 BCS wins since 2000 ties them with Utah for the most in the nation among non-BCS teams.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Utah State (10/15) - *KEY off SUATS loss
HAWAII - *3 / 6
TEAM THEME: MIGHTY MO
Thanks to the play of SR QB Bryant Moniz, the Warriors closed the 2010 regular season with plenty of 'mo.' The former walk-on, who led the nation in total passing yards (5,040), also tossed 39 TD's as the Warriors offense took giant strides (+17 PPG, +62 YPG) last season. The stop unit chipped in as well, holding opponents to four fewer points and 45 less yards. Like Fresno State and Nevada, Hawaii will be leaving the WAC at season's end and may face some bad blood along the way. Not to worry - Greg McMakin's formidable staff, which includes Mouse Davis, just got stronger with the addition of former head coach Dick Tomey. And, of course, there's always that funny thing called 'mo.'
Stat You Will Like: The Warriors led the nation in forced turnovers (38) last season.
PLAY ON: vs. Colorado (9/3)
IDAHO - 5 / 8
TEAM THEME: END OF THE LINE
It's not easy for a growing program to lose a four-year starter at quarterback, especially one that tossed for more than 10,000 yards in his career. However, that's the dilemma the Spuds face with the graduation of Nathan Enderle. Replacing Enderle behind center will be Brian Reader, who has played in 16 games, starting two. Meanwhile, John McDonnell, a long-time colleague of HC Robb Akey, has joined the team as it offensive line coach, hoping to improve a rushing attack that dropped 76 YPG and a head-turning 1.6 YPG. The eventual key to success, though, rests with a defense that returns eight starters and has shown steady improvement three years in a row.
Stat You Will Like: Of the 24 seniors on this year's roster, 16 have been with the program since their freshman year.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Bowling Green (9/1)
LOUISIANA TECH - 6 / 7
TEAM THEME: SONNY DAYS NEAR AGAIN?
Sonny Dykes' squad took baby steps in his first year at the helm in Ruston, just missing bowl-eligibility as a 1-4 start proved too much to overcome. To Dykes credit, the Bulldogs enjoyed the top recruiting class in the WAC and all of his full-time assistant coaches are back. In addition, Tech set a single-season attendance record last year. In terms of total yards, the Bulldogs took to Dykes' wide-open offensive philosophy but the defense suffered miserably, falling 5 points and 94 yards per game. That must improve if the Bulldogs hope to overcome a tough seven-game road schedule. Will Sonny and company crawl or walk this year? Too early to tell.
Stat You Will Like: The Bulldogs' offense finished the season ranked 47th in the nation last year, up from 66th in 2009.
NEVADA - 6 / 7
TEAM THEME: BYE, BYE WAC
Like many FBS teams looking for a new home these days, the Wolves will be packing up and relocating to the Mountain West next season. Gone this year are five of nine all-WAC performers, including QB Colin Kaepernick, the first player in NCAA history to post three consecutive seasons of 2,000 passing and 1,000 rushing yards. Also leaving Reno is RB Vai Tua, an all-WAC first-teamer each of the last two seasons. We're big fans of Chris Ault but it appears that the pistol he's been packing since 2008 (three straight years of 500+ YPG) is a lot like the WAC - a thing of the past. A four-game, season-opening road trek likely confirms that notion.
Stat You Will Like:
Last year's 11th ranked team was the lowest ranked one-loss team in the nation. It was also the highest Nevada has been ranked since 1948.
PLAY AGAINST: at New Mexico State (10/29)
NEW MEXICO STATE - 9 / *9
TEAM THEME: AT LAST
When you finish last in the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense, passing offense, rushing offense and total offense, you know there is not much good news to report. Ah, lo and behold, inside every black cloud is a silver lining. In the Aggies case, it starts in the trenches where every offensive and defensive linemen returns in 2011. That should have QB Matt Christian, one of 17 returning starters, sleeping a bit better at night. It hasn't been 'Good Times' for third-year head coach DeWayne (not Jimmy JJ) Walker as his defense has been anything but 'dynamite' in his two seasons in Las Cruces. Maybe the Aggies can improve on a pair of 10-loss seasons but the 'line' stops there.
Stat You Will Like:
The Aggies are 1-19 ATS as a favorite or a dog of four or less points vs. an opponent with revenge.
PLAY AGAINST: at San Jose State (9/24)
SAN JOSE STATE - 6 / 11
TEAM THEME: DRAWING UP NEW PLANS
With a 1-24 straight up mark against FBS teams since late 2008, even King Leonidas couldn't help these Spartans. Last year rookie coach Mike MacIntyre, a former Duke DC, engineered a scheme that promptly managed to slice a full yard off a hideous rush defense, but it was still like walking into the battle of Thermopylae with no weapons for MacIntyre as the Spartans managed only one non-FBS win in 2010. As a result, San Jose brings a nation-worst 10-game losing streak into the 2011 season - as well as a 1-18 conference mark. The good news is the return of 5th-year senior Duke Ihenacho, a two-time 1st-team all-WAC performer at safety, who missed 11 games last season. Other than that, it's back to the drawing board for McIntyre.
Stat You Will Like: The Spartans have suffered 14 consecutive road losses, by an average losing margin of 27.3 points per game. PASS
UTAH ST - 9 / 6
TEAM THEME: TURN TO TURBIN
What do you do when your offense looks to reclaim the 91 YPG it lost last season while having to replace (a) a record-setting quarterback that has piloted the team the last three years, and (b) two of your top running backs - including your leading rusher? If you're head coach Gary Andersen, you count heavily on the return of RB Robert Turbin, the team's leading ground gainer in 2009 who missed 2010 with a knee injury. Andersen will also take over DC duties in 2011 and welcomes back LB Bobby Wagner, the leading tackler in the WAC the last two years. But it's up to Turbin to deliver the goods, a la 'Forrest Gump.' Run, Robert, run!
Stat You Will Like: The Utes are 7-1 ATS as double-digit dogs under Andersen.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. New Mexico State (12/3)