Athlon Sports MWC Predictions

The Colorado State Rams are back, and they want to stay there. After a year's absence, the Rams returned to the Liberty Bowl in 2002 as the Mountain West Conference champion for the third time in four seasons. CSU is primed for another title run, with quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt leading a group of 15 returning starters.

Projected Finish

1. Colorado State
2. New Mexico
3. BYU
4. Air Force
6. Utah
7. Wyoming
8. San Diego State

Always an adept scrambler and playmaker, Van Pelt blossomed into a complete quarterback last season and earned the league's Offensive Player of the Year award. The Rams must replace powerful Cecil Sapp, the Mountain West's top rusher last year, but they believe Rahsaan Sanders and Tristan Walker can replace Sapp's production.

New Mexico could take another step up the MWC ladder this fall. The Lobos will once again be stout on defense, and the offense welcomes back the much-improved Casey Kelly at quarterback and tailback DonTrell Moore, the 2002 conference Freshman of the Year.

BYU tries to rebound from its first losing season since 1973. Cougar fans wonder which season was the aberration under coach Gary Crowton: 2001, when he won his first 12 games, or 2002, when he lost seven of the last 10.

Air Force returns starting quarterback Chance Harridge, and experience is vital in the operation of the wishbone scheme. Harridge will be working with a veteran offensive line and a talented group of running backs. Air Force's defense improved considerably last season, but the Falcons have to replace star linebacker Anthony Schlegel, who transferred to Ohio State.

UNLV heads into the season without Jason Thomas at quarterback, but many believe new signal-caller Kurt Nantkes will actually be an upgrade. The Rebels won't ask Nantkes to do much; they are loaded at tailback.

At Utah, coach Urban Meyer steps into a much better situation than the one he inherited at Bowling Green. Ron McBride was fired after Utah finished 5–6 last season, but the Utes won their last three conference games.

Wyoming is energized by the hiring of Joe Glenn, who was highly successful at Division I-AA power Montana. San Diego State will lean on talented quarterback Adam Hall, who will be working in a new set of receivers to operate in Tom Craft's high-octane offense.

New Coordinators

Three Mountain West coaches stayed in place but hired new defensive coordinators. One of the hirings was an intra-conference move, as Bronco Mendenhall moved from New Mexico to BYU, not far from where he grew up. New Mexico hired former Illinois assistant Osai Lewis to replace Mendenhall. At Colorado State, coach Sonny Lubick had to find a new defensive coordinator after Larry Kerr took a similar job at UCLA.

Amid all of the changes, Kyle Whittingham stayed at Utah — even though he has a new boss. Urban Meyer was determined to keep Whittingham, who has built the league's top defense.

On offense, in addition to the new staffs at Wyoming and Utah, BYU has new co-coordinators. Long-time quarterbacks coach Robbie Bosco and receivers coach Todd Bradford, who formerly coached on defense, were given the titles during spring practice.

New Date

Will anyone watch a televised college football game at 7:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve? That's what Las Vegas Bowl officials are asking fans in the East to do. After two years of playing on Christmas Day, they are moving the game to Christmas Eve, with a 4:30 p.m. local time kickoff.

The reason for the switch is "to allow the teams and fans to spend Christmas Day with their families," says Chuck Gerber, executive vice president of ESPN Regional Television, which operates the bowl. The game matches a second selection from the Mountain West against a fifth team from the Pac-10.

Saturdays Off

Counting two open dates, Utah will have five Saturdays off during the season. The Utes open the schedule on a Thursday, and also play on another Thursday and a Friday in the first six weeks of the season.

Big Day

Sept. 6 is a landmark day for the Mountain West. The eight schools are booked to play four Big 12 teams, two Big Ten teams and two Pac-10 teams — all on the road. The opponents include Northwestern (Air Force), USC (BYU), California (Colorado State), Texas Tech (New Mexico), Ohio State (San Diego State), Kansas (UNLV), Texas A&M (Utah) and Oklahoma State (Wyoming).

Those eight non-conference games are among 39 scheduled for MWC teams. Of those, 18 opponents appeared in bowl games last season, seven were in the final Associated Press Top 25 and three finished in the Top 10. Besides Ohio State and USC, 2002 conference or division champions on the schedule include Boise State (WAC), North Texas (Sun Belt), Colorado (Big 12 North) and Toledo (Mid-American West).