Preseason 2005: A Look at the Mountain West
In the Mountain West, everything has changed. Utah, the team that finally cracked the BCS a year ago, has a new quarterback and a new coach. TCU has joined the conference. Suddenly the conference is talking about automatic BCS bids. With the Big East struggling and C-USA losing many of its good teams, there is reason to believe that the Mountain West might just be the sixth best conference in the country.
1. Utah (8-3, 7-1)- For the Utes, it begins and ends with Brian Johnson. If he can continue the legacy that Alex Smith left behind at quarterback, then the Utes will be very successful. With three offensive linemen back, he should have plenty of time back there to throw. The receivers will have to step into the big shoes left by Paris Warren and Steve Savoy. Travis LaTendresse and John Madsen will be filling the void. Quinton Ganther is the new running back. He rushed for 654 yards a year ago and should fill in quite nicely. On defense, Marques Ledbetter and Steve Fiftia played excellent on the defensive line and should continue to improve. Spencer Toone stars at the rover position. He is a critical player in the Utes scheme. Eric Weddle is moving to this third position in three years when he will be starting at free safety this fall. He should have a lot of success. The Utes play Arizona and at North Carolina out of conference this year, two teams that they also played last year. It will not be easy to win the Mountain West again, with road trips to BYU and Colorado State making the schedule challenging. But home dates with Wyoming and New Mexico do add a bit of an extra edge for the Utes.
2. Wyoming (7-4, 6-2)- There is talk in Cowboys camp of something that has not happened in quite a while- winning the conference title. The talent is there. Corey Bramlet has become a superstar at quarterback and has worked out of his brother's (Casey) shadow. The offensive line returns four starters and should be very solid. The wide receivers are very talented. Jovon Bouknight leads the way and could easily be heading towards an NFL career. The running game will feature Wynel Seldon and J.R. Moore early on, at least until Ivan Harrison and Joe Harris can recover from their offseason knee surgeries. The defense has potentially the best secondary in the conference. Derrick Martin, Terrance Butler, Ron Rockett, and John Wendling are all returning starters. Three starters also return on the defensive line. Dusty Hoffschneider lead the way last year against the run, and is expected to do it again. The linebacker position has a lot of depth despite the fact that Austin Hall is the only returning starter. A trip to Florida to open the year might be a better game than people think, and a later visit to Ole Miss could produce a second straight season with a win over the SEC school. But the season will be made or broken with a four game stretch that sees New Mexico and BYU come to Laramie, and they will sandwich games at Colorado State and Utah.
3. BYU (7-4, 6-2)- The Cougars have quite the quarterback battle going on. John Beck, Matt Berry, and Jason Beck (no relation) are battling for the top spot. John Beck has been named the starter, but the merry-go-round went on last year and it will be interesting to see if it continues. The offensive line was a major weakness last year, but with three starters back and blocking assingments simplified, this unit could be a dominant force. The running game is lead by Curtis Brown, who could explode this season. Todd Watkins is the big play wide receiver, and he is the only one the Cougars need. He averaged 20.0 yards per catch last year, and anyone who watched the Cougars play know what a threat he is. The defense will be lead by Cameron Jensen at middle linebacker. He has the potential to lead a dominant unit this season. Manaia Brown has shown a lot of promise at defensive end. The secondary is still the major question for the Cougars to answer. If it develops, then the Cougars secondary has a shot to be very, very good. The Cougars go to Wyoming and New Mexico, but get Utah and Colorado State at home. Boston College comes calling on September 3, and a visit to Notre Dame looms on October 22. This team should be much better and could provide a return to the glory days of sorts.
4. New Mexico (6-5, 5-3)- The Lobos offense really depends on the health of DonTrell Moore, their start running back, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery. He is expected to be ready by opening day against UNLV. Kole McKamey is being asked to take more on this year from his quarterback position. He is going to be used as a second running back and try to spread the field. The wide receivers need to step up if they are going to be successful. Hank Bassett did quite well last year, but Marcus Smith, Anthony Carter, and Chris Brawley all need to come through. The offensive line returns three starters. On defense, the defensive line has become a strength. There is a ton of depth and Evroy Thompson is the big man that leads it all. The linebackers are lead by Michael Mohoric, who is a former walk-on. Michael Tuohy's move from defensive line to linebacker also helps the linebackers. The secondary has two excellent corners in Jerrell Malone and Gabriel Fulbright. There is plenty of depth in the secondary as well. Trips to Missouri, UTEP, Wyoming, and Utah make this one of the most daunting schedules the Lobos may have ever faced. If they can find a way to split with Wyoming and Utah, then they will be right in the hunt for the conference title down until the very end.
5. Colorado State (5-6, 4-4)- The running game will be the key to the Rams offense this season. Jimmy Green has the most returning experience, but Kyle Bell looked great in the spring. Gartrell Johnson III looks to make an impact and UCLA transfer Nnamdi Ohaeri looks to have a say in who will be starting as well. Last year the team averaged only 3.1 yards per rush, which explains why they went 4-7. They will be running behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Quarterback Justin Holland looks prepared to have a breakout year, especially if he can cut down on his ten interceptions. The receivers are lead by David Anderson, who has a ton of potential. The defense will be lead by the secondary and the linebackers. Jahmal Hall, Courteney Jones, and Luke Adkins return at linebacker. Brandon Cathy, Robert Herbert and Ben Stratton return in the secondary. The weakness is in the defensive line, which allowed 221.7 yards per game on the ground last year, good for 111 in the country. Blake Smith will be the key to if the run defense improves, and Terrance Carter must provide good solid senior leadership. The schedule features trips to Colorado and Minnesota, along with New Mexico and BYU. But Utah and Wyoming both come to Colorado State, which means the Rams have a chance to make some serious noise in the Mountain West. They play all four Mountain West teams ahead of them in consecutive weeks from October 8 through October 28. Success in those games will determine how close the Rams are to winning the conference.
6. Air Force (4-7, 3-5)- Shaun Carney returns at quarterback and could have a very nice season. He is only a sophomore, but appears prepared to lead the team for the next several years and put together a very nice career. Adam Fitch, a converted quarterback, is expected to be one of the starters at running back. The offensive line returns five starters, which is always key in the Falcons run-first offense. Jason Brown is a receiver that could help change the Falcons into a more balanced team. He has given up baseball to focus on football, and that could lead to a big senior season. Denny Poland and Mark Carlson play defensive back and lead the defense. They will be counted on for a lot of leadership as two of the starting seniors on the defense. Marcus Brown appears to be prepared to have a breakout season at linebacker. Gilberto Perez and Russ Mitscherling are expected to have great years on the defensive line. For the Falcons, the defense must improve. They ranked last in the conference a year ago. Fisher DeBerry is a good coach. It appears the Falcons may still be a year away from being back to their normal selves, which means this year's team may not go to a bowl game, but watch out for them in 2006.
7. San Diego State (4-8, 3-5)- Lynell Hamilton will be returning from a season missed due to injury, but if he picks up where he left off, the running game for the Aztecs will be as good as ever. The offensive line looks to be the real strength of the offense with all the players have significant experience, along with a lot of depth. Jeff Webb and Robert Ortiz provide some solid play at the receiver spot. The key will be the quarterback position. Kevin O'Connell started the last five games last year, but sat the spring out recovering from shoulder surgery. Darren Mougey stepped in and played great in the spring. Suddenly, there was a quarterback controversy on the Aztecs hands. Either should be good picks. The defense has some major question marks. The safety position and the linebacker position were decimated by graduation. Marcus Demps has moved from corner to safety and Jacob Elimimian should be back to his 2003 form at corner. The defensive line is anchored by Antwan Applewhite, who has the potential to become the next star of the defense. If the defense can come around, this team has potential to become a real darkhorse in the Mountain West race. However, this team is young everywhere but on the offensive line. That probably means they are about a year away from really competing.
8. TCU (4-7, 2-6)- The Horned Frogs are coming off an unexpected down season. Now, it will be up to Tye Gunn and the rest of the Horned Frogs to turn it around. Gunn has a long list of medical problems, but when he's been healthy, he has played great at quarterback. Unlike before, there is no experience behind him, so he must stay healthy. Lonta Hobbs and Robert Merrill are one of the best running back tandems in the country. Cory Rodgers has already established himself as one of the top receivers in school history and looks to build on that legacy this year. The offensive line only return two starters and there is not a lot of depth anywhere. This is a major cause for concern when your quarterback has the medical history that Gunn has. The defensive line has a lot of experience with Ranorris Ray and Jared Kesler leading the way. The linebackers will be lead by David Hawthorne, who needs to have an immediate impact. The secondary gave up 304 yards per game through the air last year, ranking dead last in the country by an incredibly 22.8 yards per game. The major players are all returning and the coaching staff hopes that the year's experience will make all the difference. The schedule opens at Oklahoma. If they can recover from that pasting (unlike what happened last year after the 70-35 beating Texas Tech handed them), then the Horned Frogs have the talent to be a pleasant surprise this year in the Mountain West.
9. UNLV (2-9, 0-8)- After a decent performance in an 18-3 loss to Wisconsin last year, the team could never get it turned around. After a 2-9 season, everything is back at square one with the coming of new head coach, Mike Sanford, the former offensive coordinator at Utah. Shane Steichen and Jarrod Jackson will battle for the starting quarterback job. Steichen is the returning starter, but struggled badly last year at times. The offensive line returns three starters that should be able to provide some protection. Alvin Marshall is expected to be a big play receiver in the new offense. The key will be finding someone to replace Dominique Dorsey, the MWC rushing champ from a year ago. Erick Jackson looked just as impressive as Dorsey in practice at times a year ago, and Ohio State transfer JaJa Riley should provide some immediate competition for Jackson. The defensive line is the anchor of the defense. There is experience and depth there. Leon Moore and Howie Fuimaono will be the forces up front. The Rebels top six linebackers all graduated, which creates quite a void. All-American safety Jamaal Brimmer is also gone. Joe Miklos is the lone returning starter in the secondary. He forced four fumbles a year ago and also had two interceptions. The schedule is a little easier this year (Idaho and Nevada replace Tennessee and Wisconsin), so getting things off to a good start is possible. But this team looks to be several years away from really competing.
ALL MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE
QB Corey Bramlett, Wyoming
RB DonTrell Moore, New Mexico
RB Lonta Hobbs, TCU
WR Jovon Bouknight, Wyoming
WR Todd Watkins, BYU
TE John Wadkoswki, Wyoming
OL Jesse Boone, Utah
OL Ryan Cook, New Mexico
OL Lance Reynolds Jr., BYU
OL Ross Weaver, Air Force
OL Jon Wilson, Air Force
DL Steve Fiftia, Utah
DL Marques Ledbetter, Utah
DL Dusty Hoffschneider, Wyoming
DL Marcus Parker, New Mexico
LB Michael Mohoric, New Mexico
LB Spencer Toone, Utah
LB Cameron Jensen, BYU
DB Gabriel Fulbright, New Mexico
DB Eric Weddle, Utah
DB Derrick Martin, Wyoming
DB Ben Stratton, Colorado State
K Deroc Yaussi, Wyoming
P Adam Brooks, Wyoming
PR Hoost Marsh, Wyoming
KR Justin Walker, Utah