2007 Mountain West Conference Preview

2007 Mountain West Conference Preview

2007 Mountain West Conference Preview
by Jordan Adams

Will 2007 be the fourth consecutive year that this league produces an undefeated league champ? Utah did so in 2004 and earned a BCS berth. The following year it was TCU in their first season removed from Conference USA. Last season we saw BYU rise to the top of the conference with its high-powered aerial attack. Now the Cougars look to defend their league crown, although the departed all-conference quarterback John Beck will leave quite a big hole unfilled for his team.
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Only three teams finished above. 500 last season, but just two achieved enough to be content. While BYU took the top spot, TCU finished with an equal 11-2 overall mark in their second season in the MWC, and with one of the nation's top defenses returning this fall, the Horned Frogs look to regain their top form that vaulted them up the ladder as Mountain West champs in their inaugural season in 2005.

Behind BYU and TCU it gets somewhat hazy. Utah underachieved to the tune of an 8-5 record and were just 5-3 in the league. And after the Utes it got even worse. Wyoming did manage a 5-3 mark, but no one else finished better than even, including porous seasons from 1-7 Colorado State and UNLV.

In 2007 the MWC should again produce a top-heavy outcome. TCU, BYU and Utah will again battle it out, while not much is expected from the rest in terms of competing for a conference championship. From purely a preseason perspective, all the money suggests TCU will be the likeliest to crash the BCS party.

Teams on the Rise:

New Mexico played to another disappointing season last fall. The Lobos finished 6-7 and fifth in league play. But with a rising star in sophomore quarterback Donovan Porterie leading the offense, there is optimism on the horizon in Albuquerque. With 19 returning starters and a fairly weak non-conference schedule there's no reason not to find a winning record and a bowl berth come December.

Utah should again find itself as a major contender in the MWC. Quarterback Brandon Johnson is back from an ACL injury and will lead one of the more prolific offenses in the conference. The Utes still finished 2006 with eight wins despite their injury setbacks, and with nine men back on offense, expect a lot of points in Salt Lake City this season. Utah's biggest task will be overcoming the likes of Oregon State, UCLA and Louisville on their non-conference schedule.

Team on the Decline:

The Cougars will be in the mix all season for the league crown, but the subtraction of star quarterback John Beck will leave them well short of 11 wins and far from a second straight undefeated conference mark. BYU's biggest issue is replacing Beck. However, the offense still has playmakers on the ends and in the backfield with tailback Fui Vakapuna. Getting both TCU and Utah at home is definitely a plus.

Treading Water (hasn't done much to improve):

Wyoming is a team that will find itself in a similar situation as last season, sticking to the middle of the pack and not straying too far either way in the standings. At 6-6 in last year, the Cowboys haven't tasted a league title since 1993 and it doesn't appear like it's coming any time soon. Surely a weakness for this team is their offensive line and just two return from a group that allowed 40 sacks last year. Wyoming should be a good bet against most of the bottom feeders of the MWC. But they have challenges throughout year, especially early outside the league, so you never know which game they will be focused on the most.

Money Player (player to bet on):

The Mountain West isn't exactly a superstar league, but one person to keep your eye on is TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas. His 4-2-5 scheme has been lights out and confuses the heck out of opposing offenses. Nine men are back on this unit, including all-conference players defensive end Chase Ortiz and cornerback Rafael Priest. The Horned Frog defense finished 2006 4th in total yards allowed, 5th in points surrendered, along with 31 sacks and a 32 percent third down conversion given up. Watch out, as this defense will again flourish as one of the best this fall.

Bankroll Buster (player to avoid betting on):

New Mexico's offense will be exciting to watch with up-and-comers Donovan Porterie under center and Rodney Ferguson at starting tailback. But they still sit behind Utah and TCU, and you might be wiser to sit back and check this unit out and see how they fair for a couple of weeks before banking on the Lobos for a key win.

Important Betting Trends:

Just as their league championship indicated, the BYU Cougars also managed to provide some nice coin for their backers in 2006. Finishing at 9-2 ATS, they were one of the biggest moneymakers across the nation. TCU proved just as tough against the number, finishing right behind the Cougars at 8-3 ATS. New Mexico and Utah both also ended last season in the black, but the lower portion of the MWC wasn't too impressive in terms of paying dividends. We'll see quite a bit of the same this year.

Potential Conference Champ:

For the second time in three years the Horned Frogs of TCU will reign as the MWC champs. BYU lost too much, albeit from just one player, to be back on top in 2007. New Mexico and Utah will attempt to play the role of spoiler, and while they'll find successful winning seasons and go bowling it will be a longshot for them to capture the Mountain West crown. With a date in Austin on Sept. 8, it will be a tall order for Texas Christian to run the table, but a league crown will put them exactly where they want to be come the new year.

Key Games:

TCU at Texas, Sept. 8 - TCU has the defense to make this a game, especially with a fairly young quarterback in Colt McCoy under center for the 'Horns. No doubt Texas will be favored at home, but how much respect will the Frogs receive from the linesmakers?

Utah at TCU, Oct. 18 - This is a must win for the Utes if they have any shot of keeping themselves in line for the conference title.

TCU at BYU State, Nov. 8 - Simply put, the loser is done and the winner keeps playing. Almost like a single elimination bracket, we'll see another undefeated champ.

Predicted order of finish:

TCU, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Air Force, San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV.

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Re: 2007 Mountain West Conference Preview

Mountain West - Can TCU overtake BYU?
July 27th, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Both BYU and TCU finished 11-2 last season with decisive bowl victories as the Cougars took care of Oregon, 38-8, while the Horned Frogs demolished Northern Ill, 37-7. However, that's where the similarities end. BYU won the conference with an undefeated 8-0 mark, including a two-touchdown win (31-17) at TCU, with the Frogs also losing at Utah the following week.

Both schools will have new quarterbacks this year, but the Cougars also lose their 1,000-yard rusher and their top-three receiving leaders. The Frogs bring back nine starters from a defense that allowed just 12 points per game last season.

Last year, the Mountain West Conference received four bowl bids and won three of them, going 3-1 as well against the spread. In fact, the MWC was dominant ATS the entire season, with a 21-12-1 out-of-conference mark, including 9-3-1 vs. BCS schools!

Which club will come out on top in 2007? If one goes by the odds to win the BCS Title Game, then TCU has the edge since the Frogs are 100-1 with BYU listed at 200-1. The rest of the league is currently 75-1 as the seven other clubs are part of the field.

1) TCU - The Horned Frogs are one of only eight teams with more than 21 victories the past two years. Do they have what it takes for another 11-win season? Strengths - It all starts with the defense. TCU ranked third in the country in scoring defense (12.3) and second in total "D" allowing just 234.9 yards per game. Nine starters return to the unit, including future first-round draft choice Tommy Blake. The offense brings back RB Aaron Brown, who should easily surpass the 1,000-yard plateau this season. Even though QB Jeff Ballard graduated, the previous two quarterbacks in the TCU system have reeled off eight straight wins in their first eight starts. Weaknesses - It's hard to find anything wrong with the Frogs except maybe a matchup at Texas early in the season. They do have to replace their starting QB and their top receiver, but minor changes haven't stopped them before. Bottom line - The Mountain West Conference has had one undefeated team each of the last three seasons and TCU will continue that trend with an 8-0 league mark in 07. The only loss will come at the hands of the Longhorns. Bet the Frogs almost every week.

2) BYU - For the fourth time in the last 14 years the Cougars pulled off a double-digit win season. Unfortunately, they finished 7-4, 6-5 and 5-7 the three follow-up years. Will a sub-standard record chase them down once again? Strengths - For all of BYUs offensive weapons, the defense was the key to its 11-2 mark. After allowing 29 ppg in 05, the unit slashed it in half giving up just 14.7. The secondary was the bright spot intercepting 18 passes after picking off only nine the previous season. In addition, the unit was beaten for just 12 passing touchdowns as opposed to a whopping 25 in 05. Weaknesses - Gone are John Beck (3,885 passing yards and 32 touchdowns), Curtis Brown (1,010 rushing yards, 62 receptions and 10 TDs) and Jonny Harline (58 catches, 935 yards and 12 TDs). The replacements will be QB Max Hall, RB Fui Vakapuna and WR Austin Collie, but if they don't match the production of the aforementioned troika, it could be a long season in Provo. Bottom line - BYU will not win 11 games, but will also not fall below .500 either. The Cougars will be somewhere in between with eight victories, six in the conference, but don't be surprised if they fail to reach .500 ATS. They will be heavily bet and might not warrant the support.

3) COLORADO STATE - The Rams have not had a winning season since 2003, but this will be the breakout year as coach Sonny Lubicks club will be one of the most improved teams in the nation. Strengths - When running back Kyle Bell tore his ACL in fall practice last August, the season was pretty much history and the Rams played like it winning just four games. The offensive line was also mistaken as an infirmary and both of these units will improve immensely in 07. Defensively, only 12 teams in the entire country allowed fewer passing TDs and all four secondary starters return. The front seven also did its job holding down the run, knocking off a full yard per carry from the previous two seasons. Weaknesses - If Bell doesn't return 100%, the offense will once again rest on the shoulders of QB Caleb Hanie, who faltered last season under constant pressure. Bottom line - All the pieces are in place for a major turnaround in Fort Collins. The Rams will go from 4-8 (1-7) to 8-4 (5-3) and will be one of the top ATS teams to wager on throughout the year.

4) NEW MEXICO - Rocky Long did his finest coaching job ever last season taking the Lobos to a bowl game after returning just 10 starters and losing his starting quarterback early in the second game. Strengths - Kole McKameys injury and Chris Nelsons ineffectiveness forced redshirt freshman Donovan Porterie into the role of saviour and he delivered with a 4-2 record. Running back Rodney Ferguson also burst on the scene with 450 rushing yards the final three games. New OL coach Dave Baldwin installed a multiple look scheme this spring with extra wide-outs and two tight end formations and Porterie looked extremely poised with the new offense. Thirteen of the top 14 tacklers return, which will be a huge boost to the defense after only four starters returned each of the last three years. Weaknesses - The offensive line gave up 43 sacks last year, tied with Duke for fifth worst in the country. On the bright side, only 37% of the sacks came in the last seven games. According to coach Long, the hardest player the Lobos will have to replace is kicker Kenny Byrd, who booted 32 of 38 field goals the last two years. Bottom line - Like Colorado State, expect eight wins, five in league play. The Lobos will be a solid ATS team all season long.

5) UTAH - The Utes look to regain their magical form from 2004, but must face TCU, BYU and CSU all on the road. Strengths - Brian Johnson returns from injury to reclaim his starting job after Brett Ratliff guided Utah to 10 wins in his last 15 starts. Johnson has a host of weapons to work with and four O- line starters return as well. Weaknesses - Eric Weddle, the heart and soul of the defense, has taken his tack to the NFL. In addition, both defensive tackles depart, which will leave the team extremely vulnerable up the middle. Bottom line - Utah will be improved but it might not reflect in its record, as the club has to travel to Oregon State and Louisville as well as the three teams previously mentioned. Expect a .500 season, but five of the six victories will come in conference play. There will be a lot of high-scoring games in Salt Lake City this season so be prepared for a ton of OVERS.

6) AIR FORCE - Not many prognosticators are predicting big things from the Falcons, especially with a new coaching staff, but this team was not nearly as bad as its four-win season a year ago. Strengths - Troy Calhoun, who takes over from Fisher DeBerry, was Wake Forests offensive coordinator in 2002 when the Deacons led the ACC in first downs, fewest turnovers and most importantly, total offense. Quarterback Shaun Carney will love the new no- huddle offense and the defense will also show massive improvements. That unit knocked off seven points per game from two seasons ago and the move to the 3-4 "D" will be a godsend. Weaknesses - Air Force historically has fared poorly against the pass, as its defense rarely practiced against it since the Falcons primarily ran an option-based offense. The passing defense still might not be up to snuff in Calhouns first year at the helm. In addition, the Falcons are always behind the rest of the conference in terms of building chemistry since most of the cadets aren't available for summer workouts. Bottom line - Air Force lost five games last season by a combined 21 points. This team could have easily been 6-6 and thats exactly where they will finish in 07. Three MWC victories will also be in the cards, but more importantly, the Falcons will be over .500 ATS.

7) UNLV - The Rebels have been stuck in "deuce" mode, as in two victories each of the past three seasons. Strengths - Former USC recruit Rocky Hinds was injured most of last season and should improve in 07, especially with Ryan Wolfe and Casey Flair as his two main targets. The O-line gave Hinds tremendous protection allowing just six sacks the final six games. Weaknesses - Defense has been a problem the last two years as the unit gave up a combined 39 passing TDs in 05 and 06, not to mention finishing in last place in conference play allowing an average of 36 points per game. Bottom line - A brutal non-conference schedule, which features Wisconsin, Hawaii and Nevada, will prevent the Rebels from winning more than three games, two in the conference. However, they will be more competitive and it will show in their ATS record.

8) WYOMING - The Cowboys have been outscored in every year but one (2004) this entire decade. Coincidentally, that campaign was the clubs only winning season at 7-5. Strengths - The skill positions are set with Karsten Sween under center and a host of backs and receivers for him to get the ball to. Coming out of spring practice, coach Joe Glenn felt this years squad was the best in his five years with the team. Weaknesses - Despite the assortment of offensive talent, the O-line loses two four-year starters and one three-year starter. The defensive line also is a mess with four new starters and a combined three career starts. In addition, leading tackler John Wendling is off to the NFL and the safety position will need two new starters. Bottom line - Its hard to see this team winning more than four games (one in the MWC) with its inexperience in the trenches. The Cowboys are 6-12 ATS in their last 18 games and will sport a similar percentage this season.

9) SAN DIEGO STATE - Its surprising that the Aztecs were able to win three games last year with all the injuries they sustained, especially at the quarterback spot where they were down to their third string for half the season. Strengths - Kevin OConnell should be healthy to start the year after missing most of the first seven games with an injured thumb. Seven other offensive starters return so look for substantial improvement from the 14 points per game the Aztecs averaged last season. Weaknesses - San Diego State gave up an average of 27 ppg last season, the same amount it allowed in 05. Not a positive statistic considering every other MWC team saw its ppg total go down. To make maters worse, the Aztecs brought back the most defensive starters of any team in the conference in 06 and have the least returnees in 07 with just four! Bottom line - It will be considered a great coaching job by Chuck Long if he can get this team to match last years three wins. Look for a 2-10 mark, 1-7 in league play. Stay away from them ATS.

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Re: 2007 Mountain West Conference Preview

Mastering The Mountain

MWC looks for a fourth straight undefeated conference champion

The Mountain West Conference debuted in 1999 with a three-way tie atop the standings.

But the tide has shifted to pure domination.

The last three conference champions have run the table with perfect records. BYU was the latest to complete the sweep behind record-setting quarterback John Beck and a solid defense.

But the defending champions have been hit hard by personnel losses on offense, and TCU is this year's preseason pick to capture the crown.

With the nation's No. 2 defense returning nearly intact, including defensive ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, the Horned Frogs are hoping to be this year's BCS bowl game busters.

While some things around the conference remain the same (Sonny Lubick at Colorado State), some things have changed (Troy Calhoun at Air Force).

Calhoun, an Air Force graduate, replaces academy institution Fisher DeBerry, who retired after 23 years at the helm.

Calhoun plans to introduce a few tweaks to Air Force's trademark triple-option offense by allowing senior quarterback Shaun Carney to operate more out of the shotgun.

The conference finished 3-1 in bowl games last season, but was only 2-9 against BCS schools. It has plenty of chances to improve that record this season with matchups like TCU-Texas, BYU-UCLA, Colorado State-California and Utah facing the three-game juggernaut of Oregon State, UCLA and Louisville. Utah junior quarterback Brian Johnson is one of two marquee players returning from an injury this season, along with Colorado State running back Kyle Bell, who could be the missing element the Rams need to climb back up the standings after a dismal 2006.

Texas Christian - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 6-2 MWC --- Horned Frogs The Favorite

Offense

The Horned Frogs will be breaking in a new quarterback after losing reliable starter Jeff Ballard to graduation. Coach Gary Patterson will use fall camp to determine whether sophomore Marcus Jackson or redshirt freshman Andy Dalton gets the start behind center. Jackson has the edge in experience while Dalton was a highly-decorated recruit. Junior tailback Aaron Brown should make the transition easier. A dual-threat, Brown averaged 116.8 all-purpose yards per game last season as TCU's rushing attack ranked No. 9 nationally. Wide receiver Donald Massey demonstrated playmaking abilities last year, and tight end Shae Reagan is a pass-catching threat. TCU lost three linemen from a group that allowed only 15 sacks a year ago, but returns left guard Matty Lindner and center Blake Schlueter.

Defense

Far and away the strength of the team, TCU's defense returns nine starters from a unit that ranked No. 2 nationally last season. Leading the way are defensive ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, who form arguably the most talented defensive duo in the nation. Blake is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Lott Trophy. The Horned Frogs have a streak of 20 games without a 100-yard rusher, and allowed only 234.9 yards per game last season. Jason Phillips, the team's top returning tackler, and David Hawthorne headline the linebacking corps while sophomores Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders highlight the secondary. TCU's special teams should be solid again with return man Brian Bonner and senior place kicker Chris Manfredini back for another season.

The Skinny

TCU has emerged as the trendy pick as this season's BCS buster. But the Horned Frogs were given the same tag last year only to stumble in early losses to BYU and Utah before winning eight straight to end the season. TCU will need to make it through the state schools - including a key game against Texas on Sept. 8 - before trying to capture its fourth conference title in eight years. The Horned Frogs can handle a loss to Texas, but will likely need to run the table to be this year's Boise State and earn a BCS bowl bid.

Brigham Young - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 8-0 MWC --- BYU Readies For New Look Offense

Offense

There will be a lot of new faces at the skill positions this year for the Cougars as they lost all-everything quarterback John Beck, all-time leading rusher Curtis Brown and tight end Jonny Harline to graduation. Sophomore Max Hall has big shoes to fill in replacing Beck and trying to keep BYU's prolific offense (465.5 yards per game) on track. A transfer from Arizona State, Hall spent last season running the scout team, and hasn't thrown a pass in a real game since high school in 2003.  Returning starters Michael Reed and Matt Allen will provide targets for Hall at wide receiver while returning missionaries Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta are also big-play threats through the air. Collie was the MWC Freshman of the Year in 2004 before serving his two-year Mormon mission. BYU's strength is its offensive line, and the experienced unit should help Hall as he gains comfort. Sete Aulai leads the way at center and Ray Feinga and Travis Bright return as guards. Fui Vakapuna, Manase Tonga and Harvey Unga are expected to share carries in the backfield and incoming freshman J.J. DiLuigi could join the fray if he doesn't redshirt.

Defense

Switching to a 3-4 last season allowed BYU to play to its strength at linebacker, and the same strategy should apply this year. The Cougars return seven starters from a defense that surrendered only 14.7 points per game. Although BYU lost captain Cameron Jensen, the returning linebackers have more experience. Kelly Poppinga will shift to the middle to replace Jensen, while senior Bryan Kehl and junior David Nixon will man the outside. BYU's secondary is led by safety Quinn Gooch and Dustin Gabriel, while last season's surprise, cornerback Ben Criddle, is working his way back from a foot injury.

The Skinny

The Cougars expect to defend their conference title, and their fate will rest on how quickly the new players get up to speed. BYU enters the season with a 10-game winning streak and receives early tests in Pac-10 opponents Arizona and UCLA. But the Cougars have a favorable conference schedule with home games against TCU and Utah late in the year. Last season, BYU dominated at home, beating opponents by an NCAA-best 35.2 point margin. Entering his third season, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall believes this year will test the program's maturity and show whether the Cougars have returned to their consistent contending status.

Utah - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 5-3 MWC --- Utah Looking For Upsets

Offense

The Utes return nine starters and welcome back junior quarterback Brian Johnson. Johnson redshirted last season after suffering a knee injury and brings plenty of starting experience. As a sophomore in 2005, he threw for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns for a team that ranked No. 4 in the nation in total offense. The Utes possess a deep receiving corps that accounted for 90 percent of the team's receiving yardage last year. Derreck Richards, Brent Casteel and Brian Hernandez should help ease Johnson's transition. The running back job is up for grabs despite the return of starter Darryl Poston. Ray Stowers, Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata will compete to take the title away from Poston this season. Asiata, a junior college transfer, created the most buzz in the backfield during the preseason. The offensive line will be a strength again, returning four of its five starters.

Defense

Utah must replace six starters on defense, including All-American Eric Weddle, a rookie with the San Diego Chargers. The secondary suffered the most hits, losing a strong safety and three of its top four cornerbacks. Returning starters Steve Tate and Brice McCain will lead a young group through any growing pains. But the Utes have experience at the middle linebacker position in senior Joe Jiannoni, a second-team all-conference selection, and Malakai Mokofisi returns at Utah's "stud" linebacker spot. The Utes lost their two tackles, and will turn to Gabe Long and Kenape Eliapo to fill the holes.

Utah won't have to worry about its kicking game. Junior Louie Sakoda, the MWC Special Teams Co-Player of the Year, returns as a Lou Groza candidate. Sakoda converted 80 percent of his field goals last season and averaged 44 yards per punt.

The Skinny

If Johnson can return to his 2005 form, Utah has the ability to challenge for the conference title. But the Utes must navigate a daunting schedule that includes non-conference games against Oregon State, UCLA and Louisville and conference road games against TCU and BYU. If the Utes somehow make it through unscathed, there is no question they deserve a BCS bowl bid just like their 2004 team.

Wyoming - 2006: 6-6 Overall, 5-3 MWC --- Wyoming's Forward Thinking

Offense

The reason for the team's optimism this season can be found behind center. Sophomore quarterback Karsten Sween opened eyes last year once he took over the reins of the Cowboy offense. With Sween starting, Wyoming ended the season 5-2 to finish 6-6 overall and place third in conference. But Sween isn't the only offensive threat returning for another year. Wyoming also brings back its top two running backs and six of its top seven receivers. Wynel Seldon and Devin Moore combined to rush for 1,184 yards last year while seniors Michael Ford and Hoost Marsh will be reliable targets for Sween. The vulnerable part of Wyoming's offense is its line. The Cowboys lost three starters and will turn to a redshirt freshman and a pair of sophomores to fill the voids.

Defense

Wyoming ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense last year and returns with depth at linebacker and cornerback. The Cowboys bring back three starting linebackers, led by all-conference second-teamer Ward Dobbs and Sean Claffey on the outside and Luke Chase on the inside. Although Wyoming lost safety John Wendling, the secondary returns senior cornerbacks Michael Medina and Julius Stinson. The duo combined for 88 tackles and four interceptions last season. At safety, Michael Ray and Quincy Rogers will get their first shot at starting. Like the offense, the defensive line will be a question. The depth chart heading into camp featured three sophomores as starters. Strong-legged senior punter Billy Vinnedge averaged 50.1 yards per punt in the team's final spring scrimmage.

The Skinny

The continued development of Sween will be the key to what has the potential to be an explosive offense. The sophomore demonstrated uncanny maturity last season as a freshman, and with an added year of experience under his belt, he should be even better. The Cowboys started last year 1-4, but many of the losses were close and could have gone either way. Wyoming plays last year's BCS darling Boise State on the road in a non-conference game, but has a favorable conference schedule in hosting TCU and BYU.

New Mexico - 2006: 6-7 Overall, 4-4 MWC --- New Mexico Bowl-Bound?

Offense

The only constant about New Mexico's offense in recent years has been change. The Lobos will debut a new offensive coordinator for the third consecutive year and a new system for the fourth consecutive year. Former Michigan State coordinator Dave Baldwin replaces Bob Toledo, who accepted the head coaching job at Tulane. Baldwin will be joined by three new position coaches. The Lobos return eight starters, including junior tailback Rodney Ferguson - the conference's leading rusher last season. Junior fullback Matt Quillen will help pave the way for Ferguson again. Sophomore Donovan Porterie will get the start at quarterback. Porterie began last season third on the depth chart, but finished as an honorable mention all-MWC pick. Seniors Travis Brown and Marcus Smith are coming off breakout seasons at wide receiver while three senior starters return on the offensive line, led by tackle Devin Clark and guard Anthony Kilby.

Defense

With 10 returning starters, New Mexico has experience and depth at nearly every position of its 3-3-5 scheme. The defensive line is bolstered by senior end Tyler Donaldson and former walk-on nose tackle Wesley Beck. Cody Kase, Major Mosley and George Carter lead the linebacking corps. Kase, a two-time team captain, will take over at middle linebacker after a productive spring. The secondary is highlighted by the junior cornerback tandem of DeAndre Wright and Glover Quin while the team's top returning tackler O.J. Swift returns at safety. The Lobos are searching for a replacement for kicker Kenny Byrd, the MWC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year. Seniors Eric Garrison and John Sullivan will stage a competition during camp.

The Skinny

New Mexico (6-7) is coming off its first losing season in seven years. The 18 returning starters are the most in coach Rocky Long's 10 years at New Mexico. But will that be enough to end the Lobos' bowl victory drought? New Mexico has lost its last five bowl appearances dating back to 1997. Long's teams have been known for their finishing kicks, but New Mexico will need a fast start to challenge for the MWC title. The Lobos begin conference play against defending champion BYU and Wyoming. Protecting the ball could be the key after New Mexico led the conference in fumbles last year.

Colorado State - 4-8 Overall, 1-7 MWC --- Will CSU Win The Battle of Colorado?

Offense

Injuries sent the offense into a downward spiral last season, but a healthier unit should provide a healthier outlook. The biggest boost is the return of running back Kyle Bell. The junior injured his knee just days before last season's opener and redshirted the entire season. In 2005, Bell set the program's sophomore rushing record with 1,288 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Bell's absence was noticeable last year as CSU ranked 113th in the nation in rushing. Senior quarterback Caleb Hanie will likely benefit from Bell's presence in the backfield to balance the ledger. Hanie threw for 2,427 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and will have familiar targets in senior wide receiver Johnny Walker and tight end Kory Sperry. Walker led the team in receptions last year and finished second in receiving yards and all-purpose yards.

Defense

Like the offense, the defense returns nine starters led by defensive end Jesse Nading and tackle Blake Smith. Junior Jeff Horinek mans the middle linebacker spot while sophomores Jake Pottorff and Sedric Patterson are on the outside. The secondary has experience returning in seniors Darryl Williams and Joey Rucks at corner and juniors Klint Kubiak and Mike Pagnotta at safety. Special teams should be a CSU strength with senior Jim Kaylor already ranking atop the school's career list in punting average and senior Damon Morton back as the return man.

The Skinny

The Rams are hoping not to sustain any momentum from last year when they ended the season on a seven-game losing streak to finish 4-8 and 1-7 in conference. CSU's 70-year-old coach Sonny Lubick says he has no plans for retirement, but a repeat of last year could age him another few years. During conference media days in Las Vegas, Hanie came up big playing craps and Lubick hoped it was an omen of good fortune. Although the Rams will need more than a gambler's mentality to reach the top of the conference standings, with 20 returning starters, a move up from the bottom is a safe bet. They will need to be ready right out of the gate with games against rival Colorado at Invesco Field followed by Cal, Houston and TCU.

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Re: 2007 Mountain West Conference Preview

Air Force - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 MWC --- Air Force Hoping To Soar Ahead

Offense

With Troy Calhoun taking over for retired Fisher DeBerry, Air Force is poised to finally live up to its name and air it out more. Although the Falcons won't completely abandon their trademark option offense, Calhoun plans to allow senior quarterback Shaun Carney to operate more out of the shotgun and provide a more balanced attack. The Falcons finished 118th in passing offense last season. Entering his fourth season as the starter, Carney is closing in on several program records. His main target will be senior wide receiver Mark Roof, the team's top returning pass catcher. Chad Hall moves from halfback to wide receiver, and senior Chad Smith will take Hall's place in the backfield. The only other returning offensive starters are tight end Travis Dekker and lineman Blaine Guenther.

Defense

The Air Force defense is the team's most experienced unit. Senior linebacker Drew Fowler led the conference and ranked No. 10 nationally last season in total tackles (10.2 per game). Aaron Shanor will man the other inside linebacker spot after sitting out last season and John Rabold and Hunter Altman will start on the outside. Two starters return in the secondary in senior cornerback Garret Ryback and senior free safety Bobby Giannini. With Jake Paulson as the lone returning starter, the line will be Air Force's biggest defensive question mark. On special teams, junior Ryan Harrison returns from an academy suspension to kick and punt.

The Skinny

An Air Force graduate and former Falcons quarterback, Calhoun understands the challenges his players face on and off the field. That aspect alone should significantly ease the transition from the DeBerry era. Calhoun brings four years of NFL coaching experience, including a stint last season as the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans. Air Force's success this year will depend on how quickly the offense can adapt to the changed schemes. The Falcons have posted three straight losing seasons, and even if they endure a fourth, it should be only a matter a time before Calhoun has them flying back up the standings.

San Diego State - 2006: 1-11 Overall, 1-7 MWC --- Can The Aztecs Contend?

Offense

After finishing 108th in total offense and throwing only eight touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions, San Diego State's passing attack can only improve. Some of those paltry numbers can be attributed to health of Kevin O'Connell. The senior quarterback was limited to just six games last season after suffering a thumb injury. But with O'Connell back and healthy, the Aztecs hope to reinvigorate their offense. Sophomore running back Atiyyah Henderson was a bright spot in the backfield for the Aztecs last season, and senior Brandon Bornes could challenge for more carries. Once-hyped tailback Lynell Hamilton has been switched to fullback. Chaz Schilens, Brett Swain and sophomore DeMarco Sampson comprise the receiving corps, and three seniors return on the line in Brandyn Dombrowski, Will Robinson and Mike Kravetz.

Defense

The Aztecs registered only 15 sacks last season, and seven of those came from Antwan Applewhite, who skipped his senior season for the NFL. The line will need a significant upgrade but it may not come this year. Nick Osborn and Oman Nwansi are the only returning starters. Linebacker is the position of strength for San Diego State's defense, led by strong side linebacker Russell Allen and weak side linebacker Brett Martin. Luke Laolagi will get the start in the middle. The secondary features four new starters with safety Ray Bass as the only returner with extensive experience. For the special teams to have success, senior punter Michael Hughes needs to return to his sophomore form. Battling an injury last year, Hughes' yards per punt decreased from 44.8 to 41.1. San Diego State's return unit was among the worst in the country, ranking 110th in kickoffs (17.5 yards) and 101st in punts (5.76).

The Skinny

Chuck Long's first season in sunny San Diego didn't go quite as planned. Dark clouds hovered over the program all year, and Long was left searching for answers just like most of his predecessors. It's been eight years since San Diego State posted a winning record, and its last bowl game appearance was way back in 1991. A breakthrough will be tough this season. The Aztecs face a challenging schedule with four of their first six games on the road against Washington State, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. If O'Connell can remain healthy and Hamilton can flash some of his athletic potential, the Aztecs may spring a few surprises. But gradually starting to climb the conference ladder may be a more reasonable sign of success.

UNLV - 2006: 2-10 Overall, 1-7 MWC --- Turnovers Could Be Key To UNLV Season

Offense

UNLV's offense has the potential to be explosive, but much of it depends on the health of Rocky Hinds. The junior quarterback played most of last season with a torn ACL and rarely displayed the abilities that made him a top prospect coming out of high school. If Hinds can flash those skills he has a talented receiving corps waiting to take full advantage. The group is highlighted by sophomore Ryan Wolfe and junior Casey Flair. Wolfe led the conference in receiving yards per game (75.9) last season while Flair was tops in receptions (67). Aaron Straiten could be the next receiver on tap for a breakout season. Cal transfer Frank Summers will be a quality addition in the backfield, and could overtake David Peeples as the starter. The line returns two starters in Tim Goins and Mike McKiski, and sophomore Joe Hawley is a potential rising star at center.

Defense

The secondary is a big concern for UNLV after cornerback Eric Wright decided to leave early for the NFL. Mil'Von James will replace Wright and safeties Tony Cade and Daryl Forte will try to help improve a unit that surrendered 226 yards per game last year. The linebackers are the strength of UNLV's defense, and they all hope to remain healthy after an injury-plagued season last year. Seniors Beau Bell and Bradley Niles will be the guiding forces of the group. On the line, junior defensive end Jeremy Geathers will be one to watch and Oregon transfer Thor Pili will complement Geathers on the other side. The kicking game should be solid with senior place-kicker Sergio Aguayo returning and Brian Pacheco handling the punting duties.

The Skinny

Mike Sanford arrived in Las Vegas with the promise of building UNLV into a legitimate contender, but Sanford is just 4-19 in three seasons. Although UNLV should be an improved team this year, the final record may not show it. After opening against Utah State, UNLV faces a challenging three-game gauntlet in Wisconsin, Hawai'i and Utah. In order to remain in contention for victories this season, UNLV must improve its turnover margin - which ranked 112th last year.

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Re: 2007 Mountain West Conference Preview

Dixon To Start At QB In Season Opener

Sanford announces that redshirt freshman earns starting nod against Utah State.

Aug. 16, 2007

UNLV head coach Mike Sanford announced late Thursday that redshirt freshman Travis Dixon will be the starting quarterback when the Rebels open their season at Utah State on August 30.

"Travis has had a tremendous summer and preseason camp and he will start for us against Utah State," Sanford said. "We knew he could make plays as a runner but he has worked very hard and is showing he can also make plays as a passer. He is ready to lead this offense and we feel great with Travis as our starter."

Dixon and returning starter Rocky Hinds were listed as co-starters heading into camp. However, Dixon has taken the majority of the snaps with the number-one offense as Hinds, who started 11 of 12 games last season for the Rebels, has been slowed in his recovery from off-season knee surgery. After experiencing swelling in his knee, Hinds left camp over the weekend to return to Los Angeles for testing, a process that continued through today.

"Because of his injury situation, Rocky's availability has not been completely determined," Sanford said. "We hope it gets settled soon and Rocky gets back into camp and helps us win games this season."

Dixon is a dual-threat quarterback who was originally a member of the 2005 UNLV recruiting class and grayshirted before enrolling full time in 2006 and redshirting. With Hinds out after surgery, Dixon ran the first team all spring and led his Scarlet squad to a victory in the annual spring game.

As a prep star, he passed for 2,100 yards and 25 touchdowns against just four interceptions as a senior, earning 5A First Team All-State honors for Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz. He also rushed for 745 yards and 12 more scores during his final season, leading the Huskies to a second-straight state 5A championship.

A former USC transfer, Hinds passed for 2,148 yards and eight touchdowns last season as a sophomore, becoming the first Rebel signal caller since 1997 to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a season. In his second career start Hinds injured his knee against Iowa State and played the rest of the season on a partially torn ACL before undergoing surgery in January.

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