Athlon Sports WAC Predictions

The Western Athletic Conference has developed a reputation for wild games and crazy conference races over the years. But there was certainly nothing "WAC-ky'' about the way things went in 2002.

Projected Finish

1. Fresno State
2. Boise State
3. Hawaii
4. San Jose State
5. Nevada
6. Louisiana Tech
7. SMU
8. Rice
9. UTEP
10. Tulsa

Boise State simply steamrolled its way to a 12–1 record and No. 12 national ranking. The Broncos led the nation in scoring (45.6 points per game), passing efficiency (169.4) and total offense (501.5 yards per game) while running away with their first-ever WAC crown.

Luckily for the rest of the WAC, the Broncos have only 11 starters back from that squad. And Boise State must hit the road this year for key conference games at Fresno State, Hawaii, SMU and Louisiana Tech.

Meanwhile, Fresno State, which was forced to start nine redshirt freshmen at times last season due to a rash of injuries, appears ready to regain the top spot in the league. Pat Hill's Bulldogs won eight of their last 10 games, including an impressive 30–21 victory over Georgia Tech in the Silicon Valley Classic. And Fresno State did that without dangerous wide receiver/return man Bernard Berrian, arguably the top player in the conference.

With 15 starters returning and a favorable home conference schedule that includes Boise State visiting Bulldog Stadium in late November, Hill believes he has all the makings of another championship team.

"I never shy away from those kinds of predictions,'' Hill said when told that his team was going to be picked to win the WAC. "I really like this team. I think we're going to be good.'' But so should Hawaii and Boise State. And what about up-and-coming teams like SMU, San Jose State, Nevada, not to mention always-dangerous Rice? "On paper, I'd say Hawaii is the odds-on favorite," Hill said. "Boise is going to be good again. Reno, SMU and Rice are better. Louisiana Tech won it two years ago. … I think this conference is really on an upswing."

Fresno State's number one obstacle toward winning the WAC could be surviving another bruising non-conference schedule that includes early road games at Tennessee, Oklahoma and defending Mountain West Conference champion Colorado State, as well as a home game against Oregon State. The Bulldogs' biggest competition for the championship will likely come from Boise State, which has won 14 straight conference games at home on its blue "Smurf Turf," and a Hawaii team that must travel to the mainland for six games this season.

Quarterback Conference

Picking a conference champion in the WAC this year is kids stuff compared to the task of trying to pick the first-team all-conference quarterback. You could make a valid argument that no conference in the nation has as many quality signal-callers as the WAC this season.

Consider:

• Boise State's Ryan Dinwiddie's 188.2 passing efficiency rating in 2002 would have easily broken the NCAA mark of 183.3 set by Tulane's Shaun King in 1998. But Dinwiddie came up one game short of playing in the required 75 percent needed to qualify for the record because he sat out four games with a broken ankle.

• Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang, who already has 18 career 300-yard passing games heading into his junior season, is on pace to shatter Ty Detmer's NCAA passing mark of 15,031 yards.

• Louisiana Tech senior Luke McCown, regarded as a top-notch NFL prospect, has already thrown for 9,420 yards in his career and was the WAC's preseason Offensive Player of the Year in 2002 after leading the Bulldogs to the 2001 WAC title.

• Fresno State sophomore Paul Pinegar, forced into action last year because of injuries to expected starter Jeff Grady, finished ahead of both Chang and McCown in passing efficiency rankings and is being touted as a future NFL first-round pick by Hill.

• San Jose State's Scott Rislov, SMU's Richard Bartel, Rice's option-whiz Kyle Herm and Tulsa's Tyler Gooch are talented enough to contend for all-conference honors in most conferences but will likely get overlooked unless they can come close to matching the eye-popping stats that Dinwiddie, Chang, McCown and Pinegar all figure to put up this season.

"There's no question that people years ago thought of the WAC as something of a quarterback's league,'' Hawaii head coach June Jones says. "I think you could make an argument that it's headed back in that direction.'' New Boss at Tulsa

The WAC will have one new head coach roaming the sidelines this fall. Steve Kragthorpe, who spent the last two years as quarterback coach of the Buffalo Bills, takes over at Tulsa for Keith Burns following back-to-back one-win seasons by the Golden Hurricane.

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