The Sports XChange- MWC Season In Review

The inside slant on the 2010 MWC season and upcoming bowl games...

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AIR FORCE
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INSIDE SLANT

Don't expect to see many passes in the Independence Bowl.

Air Force will face Georgia Tech in a matchup of the top two rushing offenses in the nation. The Yellow Jackets averaged 327 rushing yards per game and the Falcons trailed slightly at 317.9 per game.

"It will be a quick game," Air Force athletics director Hans Mueh joked.

The game will resemble a service academy rivalry game, because Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson coached Navy before coming to the Yellow Jackets and brought the triple-option offense with him. The Falcons had trouble with Johnson's teams, as Johnson built Navy into the powerhouse program among the three service academies for most of the 2000s.

"It might be easier to prepare for them -- it will be like preparing to face Navy," Mueh said. "I think it'll be a great matchup."

Since neither team will be bothered by the preparation for facing the triple option, it could come down to who has the better athletes, and that could be an edge for Georgia Tech. But the Yellow Jackets are just 6-6, and the Falcons played tough against Oklahoma and Utah -- which were both ranked in the top 10 when they played Air Force -- so they won't be intimidated.

Air Force won its bowl game last year, and is expecting to be playing its best at the end of the season again. The Falcons got into the national rankings early in the season before injuries started to pile up. Air Force should be pretty healthy for the game against Georgia Tech, perhaps getting back key players such as fullback Jared Tew and receiver Kevin Fogler. The Falcons didn't have a bye week and might have been a little fatigued near the end of the year, but that shouldn't be a problem in the Independence Bowl.

"We showed earlier in the season, when we're at full strength we can be pretty darn good," quarterback Tim Jefferson said.

The Falcons are also energized by going to a different bowl. They had participated in the Armed Forces Bowl each of the last three years, so they were pleased to get an invitation to go to Shreveport, La.

"It's nice to go somewhere different," Falcons guard A.J. Wallerstein said. "It's nice to see other places. I think we're all up for it. We're excited to prepare for the bowl. Any bowl you can get in to is great."

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

WR Kevin Fogler -- He wasn't just Air Force's leading receiver last year, he had twice as many yards as any other Falcons player. This year has been a much different story, as a knee injury kept him out a few weeks, and his return only lasted a few plays before he reinjured the knee and was knocked out for the rest of the regular season. He has just two catches for 67 yards this season. But Fogler should be back for the bowl game and reasonably close to full health. He is the Falcons' best deep threat and could add a dimension to the offense that has lacked most of the year.

LB Jordan Waiwaiole -- He had a big game against Navy this year, racking up 15 tackles. With safety Brian Lindsay -- the Falcons' best in-the-box safety -- questionable to play as he recovers from a collarbone injury, more responsibility will be on the Falcons' linebackers to stop Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. Waiwaiole has had an inconsistent year, but can finish it strong with a big day against the Yellow Jackets.

FB Nathan Walker -- He should get most of the work against Georgia Tech, even thought Jared Tew might be able to return from a leg injury. Tew won't be 100 percent if he plays, so Walker will be a key for the Falcons. Walker came on late in the season, running hard on dive plays, and wants to finish his senior season with a strong performance.

--Air Force's Troy Calhoun has faced Paul Johnson once, in 2007, and Johnson's Navy team beat Calhoun's Falcons. But now Calhoun has his players in place, and his program is in a better place. Johnson is in a different place, Georgia Tech, and now has superior athletes to run his triple-option attack. Calhoun got past a hurdle last year when he guided Air Force to a bowl win after a couple of bowl losses to start his head-coaching career, and he had another good season for the Falcons again. Another bowl win against longtime Falcons nemesis Johnson would be another nice step for Calhoun.

BOWL HISTORY: Air Force is 9-10-1 all-time in bowl games, but two of those wins have come in the Independence Bowl. The Falcons played in the Independence Bowl in 1983 and 1984 and beat Mississippi and Virginia Tech. This is Troy Calhoun's fourth bowl game, but first outside the Armed Forces Bowl. Air Force was 1-2 in three trips to the Armed Forces Bowl.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "If you can pinpoint one bowl where there's a great lineage with the academy, it's this one. You feel like you fell in a bunch of four-leaf clovers." -- Air Force coach Troy Calhoun.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: The Falcons would be running at full strength if fullback Jared Tew was back to normal, but that's unlikely. He has been out since midseason with a broken fibula and might not even play in the bowl. But Air Force can still run the ball well -- the only problem for the Falcons is the Yellow Jackets won't be surprised by it, because they face it every day in practice.

Scouting the passing game: Quarterback Tim Jefferson had a good season throwing the ball, and the Falcons aren't necessarily a one-dimensional offense because of his development. Even though the Falcons obviously prefer to run, Jefferson can push the ball downfield. Having Kevin Fogler, the team's leading receiver last year, back from an injury will help.

Scouting the run defense: Air Force is not catching Georgia Tech at an ideal time. The Falcons lost starting defensive end Zach Payne and key reserve nose guard Bradley Connor in the regular-season finale, and neither is expected to be available for the bowl game. The Falcons will have to use a shorter rotation against an opponent that will run it as often as it is effective for them.

Scouting the pass defense: Last year, Air Force got six interceptions in its bowl win. This year, the Falcons might not see six passes thrown against them. Even if Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt can play through an arm injury, the Yellow Jackets won't throw much. That negates one of Air Force's main strengths -- a ball-hawking secondary.

Scouting the special teams: There has been some good and bad with the Air Force special teams all season. The highlight is the play of kickoff returner Jonathan Warzeka, who is dangerous because of his quickness and could break a big play at any time. There have been some concerns, too: the kicking situation has been inconsistent and forced Troy Calhoun to replace Erik Soderberg for Zach Bell in the season finale, and the coverage units have been up and down.

Intangibles: The Falcons could be more excited to be in this bowl than Georgia Tech, which had a mediocre season and is coming off a blowout loss to Georgia. For Air Force, this is a step up, considering it played in the Armed Forces Bowl each of the last three years.

ROSTER REPORT:

--S Brian Lindsay hasn't been ruled out of the bowl game, but is questionable at best. He suffered a broken collarbone in early October.

--K Zack Bell will likely handle kicking duties in the bowl game. He took over as Air Force's primary kicker in the regular-season finale, replacing slumping Erik Soderberg.

--LB Brady Amack, who missed the regular-season finale with a hamstring injury, should be ready to play in the bowl game.

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BYU
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INSIDE SLANT

It's a classic case of "be careful what you wish for" when it comes to BYU and a bowl game.

There were some Cougars in the offseason who would grouse privately that they wanted to go somewhere besides Las Vegas after five consecutive postseason bids.

Now, rather than at least a noteworthy Pac-10 opponent -- some better and more motivated than others -- BYU has to settle for the New Mexico Bowl and a reeling opponent in UTEP.

It's a game in which the most interesting thing may be the date. It opens the bowl season Dec. 18, which isn't exactly a great time for BYU to participate as it's right in the middle of semester final exams.

It could be an interesting game against an old Western Athletic Conference rival. BYU has won 25 of the past 27 meetings, the last one coming in 1998.

"We are anxious to participate in the postseason and kick off the bowl season with UTEP at the New Mexico Bowl," coach Bronco Mendenhall said after qualifying for the postseason his sixth consecutive year. "Coach (Mike) Price is a very successful coach, and UTEP and BYU have a long history as former conference opponents that fans from both schools can renew and enjoy."

Don't expect BYU to be aloof about a bowl game. It's a group with some determined seniors and a fair number of young players who should be excited for the occasion. A change of scenery may ultimately be refreshing, even while preparing to face a fellow 6-6 team that has lost five of its past six games.

Besides, don't forget that BYU was 1-4 after an Oct. 1 loss at Utah State, the first of its kind in 17 years. BYU won five of its final seven games, the only defeats coming to nationally ranked TCU and Utah.

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Jake Heaps -- He has looked older than a freshman for the past month. As important as it is to have one more game, it was key for BYU coaches to give him an extra set of practices leading up to the game in the hopes of propelling him to a strong baseline for spring practices. Heaps wasn't perfect at rival Utah to finish the regular season, but his composure and most of his decisions certainly have fans singing a different tune than in September or October about his capabilities.

S Andrew Rich -- He has the potential to play on Sundays. Facing UTEP will allow him one more showcase. A hard hitter with good instincts, he'll be a tough player to replace. He's a favorite of coach Bronco Mendenhall.

RB Josh Quezada -- He's had a decent freshman campaign. It'll be fun to watch him "compete" with junior J.J. DiLuigi and see what kind of tone is set for spring practices. They've been a two-headed monster (and don't forget junior fullback Bryan Kariya) but BYU would prefer to have one player getting the majority of the carries next season. Quezada gets a chance against another team to show it should be him.

--Bronco Mendenhall has been BYU's coach for six years, and he's reached the postseason in every one of them. This one comes in sort of like his first campaign, when the program was just happy to reach the postseason. The difference is, in 2005 the Cougars had gone a few years without sniffing December. This group didn't live up to high expectations, as BYU had won 10 games in four consecutive seasons. Mendenhall's biggest edge in Albuquerque may be momentum. His team won five of its final seven games and played inspired even in losses to TCU and Utah. Meanwhile, UTEP coach Mike Price's team has slogged to losses in five of the past six games.

BOWL HISTORY: BYU is 10-17-1 in bowl games. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is 3-2, including a win against nationally ranked Oregon State last year at the Las Vegas Bowl. This becomes the first year where motivational tactics may come into play, as the Cougars take a step down in both bowl prestige and opponent.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Even though we had a rocky start, we still had stuff to play for, and we never lost hope. We still had a bowl game to play for, we still had every single win to play for. And I think we have done a good job at seeing where we were, seeing what was left in the season, and really just taking it one week at a time, and working hard." -- BYU running back Bryan Kariya on returning to the postseason after the Cougars started the season 1-4.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: BYU relies on the running game to set up a play-action scheme. JJ DiLuigi is tops at 68.2 yards per game. But watch for Bryan Kariya and Josh Quezada, who provide different talents and combine for about 77 yards. UTEP has a two-headed monster as well, with Joe Banyard (51.0 ypg) and Donald Buckram (46.4), who missed a significant chunk of the early season.

Scouting the passing game: It hasn't been like BYU passing attacks of the past. Maybe in the future, though freshman Jake Heaps sped that up a bunch for the Cougars in the past month. He finished with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but had considerably better numbers in the last seven games, beginning Oct. 9 against San Diego State. UTEP will counter with Trevor Vittatoe, who had 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He completed 54.5 percent of his passes, about the same as his counterpart Heaps (55.6).

Scouting the run defense: BYU jumped from one of the worst in the country to around 40th after Mendenhall took over the defensive play-calling duties following an Oct. 1 loss at Utah State. Granted, some of that success had to do with the decreased level of competition (BYU faced Air Force, Nevada and Florida State in the early going). But Mendenhall was also more aggressive with his front seven, which allowed an experienced and fairly talented secondary to make some more plays. UTEP's fairly meager running game may not put up much opposition.

Scouting the pass defense: No doubt the guy UTEP will look to pick on is Brian Logan, a 5-foot-6 cornerback. UTEP wide receiver Kris Adams is 6-3, so that could provide some challenges for the Cougars. But other than that, the Miners don't have a receiver who averaged even 30 yards per game.

Scouting the special teams: It's an area where BYU may not automatically have the upper hand. UTEP ranks 58th or lower in all 10 major offensive and defensive NCAA statistical categories. The Miners' best numbers are in special teams categories: 11th in punt returns and 11th in kickoff returns.

Intangibles: BYU defeated just one winning team this year (San Diego State), but at the end of the season it played TCU strong for a half and should have beaten nationally ranked Utah if not for a last-second blocked field goal. Meanwhile, UTEP's Sagarin rating of 112 is the third lowest of any bowl-eligible team (behind Florida International's 116 and Troy's 113). UTEP had one win over an FBS team with a winning record this season, a 28-14 victory over 7-5 SMU on November 6 -- UTEP's final win before two season-ending losses. The Miners' five FBS victims had a combined record of 15-45.

ROSTER REPORT:

--QB Jake Heaps suffered a rib injury in the Utah game (Nov. 27) but is expected to play in the New Mexico Bowl.

--DE Vic So'oto left the Utah game in the fourth quarter with his shoulder in a sling, but the AC sprain isn't expected to keep the senior from one more game.

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COLORADO STATE
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INSIDE SLANT

There were moments in 2010 when it seemed a young, rebuilding Colorado State team was making positive strides. Two embarrassing losses at the end of the season casts doubt on whether the program is on the right track.

The season began terribly for the Rams, and by the end they were right back where they started.

Colorado State started 0-3 with three uncompetitive losses, but rebounded to win a few games and perhaps the most impressive outing of the season was a 24-19 loss to San Diego State.

But the Rams followed a 49-10 defeat at home to BYU, with an inexplicable 44-0 loss to Wyoming in the season finale. The Cowboys were 0-7 in the Mountain West coming into the game.

"The last two weeks, we just haven't shown up to play," coach Steve Fairchild told the Rocky Mountain Collegian. "That certainly wasn't the football team I thought we had become.

"It falls on me. I just haven't gotten the guys ready to play the past two weeks."

The pressure will be turned up on Fairchild after he didn't build much on a 2009 season in which the Rams didn't win a conference game.

Colorado State was young in 2010, and does have an important player to build around, quarterback Pete Thomas, who had a very promising freshman season.

But a bunch of blowout losses will stick with Rams fans. Colorado State did not score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of its third game.

In all, Colorado State lost by at least three touchdowns in a staggering eight games.

Young team or not, that's unacceptable. The finale, against a Wyoming team coming off losses to Mountain West bottom feeders New Mexico and UNLV, will not sit well with fans.

"This is a rivalry game and the score should never look like that; that's the bottom line," senior linebacker Ricky Brewer told the Collegian.

"Heartbreak and sorrow would be the two words I would use. Another thing I'll remember from my career is never beating BYU, Air Force, TCU or Utah. That's going to stick with me."

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Colorado State 36, Idaho 34 -- When Ben DeLine lined up for a field goal on the final play of the Sept. 25 game, the Rams had lost 12 in a row. There was a sense of relief when DeLine's kick split the uprights as time expired. "It is beyond words for what that kick was for," WR Matt Yemm said. "There were so many built-up frustrations on us; now I think we can just go out and relax, have some fun." The Rams fell behind, 13-0, but showed some mettle by getting back into the game. DeLine was in line to be the goat after missing an extra point to tie the game, but redeemed himself in a big way.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: LB Mychal Sisson -- Sisson didn't lead the team in tackles, LB Ricky Brewer beat him, 105-95, but he was a playmaker all season. He had a team-best 15 tackles for losses and added 4.5 sacks. Colorado State forced 14 fumbles, and Sisson had seven of them. The best news for the Rams is that Sisson is a junior and should be in line for a fantastic senior season.

FAST FORWARD: After a terrible season that ended with two head-scratching losses, some changes on the staff might be considered. At very least, coach Steve Fairchild might have to consider changing his approach in some areas to make sure the Rams are more competitive. The good news is the Rams were young in 2010, so there will be reason for hope in 2011. But those days seemed far off after a sobering 44-0 loss to Wyoming in the finale. Most of the Rams' seniors didn't have great stats and seem replaceable, but they did set a tone for the Rams and were praised for their leadership all season. Even though Colorado State's season finished poorly, that will be missed. But on paper, there aren't any huge holes in the lineup. The only thing one might wonder after a 3-9 season with many blowout losses is if the talent is good enough for a dramatic improvement.

RECRUITING TRAIL: Colorado State has a solid recruiting class coming in that could help add firepower to an offense that made some strides behind young QB Pete Thomas. There's no standout headliner of the group, as Thomas was last year, but running backs Kapri Bibbs from Illinois and Dorian Brown from Colorado are intriguing players. There isn't a lot of defensive firepower coming in, which the Rams look to fix with some late commitments.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He has probably exceeded my expectations, and I had high expectations for him. What he set out to do last January is a very big challenge, and it seemed like every step of the way he has grown and gotten better." -- Coach Steve Fairchild, on freshman QB Pete Thomas.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2011:

RB Tony Drake -- Drake showed flashes during his freshman season, but wasn't consistent enough to merit a big bump in playing time. As a sophomore, he should get a chance to play a lot more, and the Rams have an offseason to figure out the best way to use him. The speedy Drake, a top-ranked recruit for Colorado State, played some running back and was moved him to wide receiver to get him on the field more. Drake also displayed his speed on kickoff returns.

LB Mike Orakpo -- During the second half of the season, the coaches raved about the plays Orakpo made in practices and during his limited playing time, but couldn't find a way to get him on the field more. He was stuck behind Ricky Brewer, one of the Rams' best defenders. But Brewer has run out of eligibility and Orakpo, whose brother Brian is a standout with the Washington Redskins, should be an impact player.

PRO PROSPECTS:

FB Zac Pauga -- Pauga is a good blocker and receiver. Not many teams use a traditional fullback anymore, so Pauga's chances of latching on somewhere are limited, but he was a good leader and a durable, tough player for the Rams.

RB Leonard Mason -- Once Mason became healthy, he had a good senior season. He had 513 yards and five touchdowns in a crowded backfield, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He was benched for a game in midseason for missing a team meeting, but bounced back.

LB Ricky Brewer -- Brewer led the Rams with 105 tackles, including eight for losses. He has only decent size at a listed 212 pounds, which won't help him, but teams might like his athletic ability.

ROSTER REPORT:

--CB Momo Thomas should be back for his senior season after undergoing shoulder surgery. His return would be welcome in a defense that too often gave up big plays, and on punt returns.

--RB Raymond Carter came into the season with high expectations. The UCLA transfer started slowly, and was inconsistent after that. Some weeks he would play well, and others he would disappear. He should have every opportunity to shine next season, but the Rams have a lot of running backs and won't be too patient.

--T Mark Starr had some injuries as a senior, but was still an important part of the offensive line and will be missed.

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NEW MEXICO
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INSIDE SLANT

Money talks. Or in this case, lack of it.

Which is why second-year New Mexico coach Mike Locksley's job appears safe. He hasn't made the university administration's task of keeping him for a third year easy. And his resume goes far beyond a 2-22 record, culminating with a 66-17 loss to Bowl Championship Series contender TCU in the 2010 season finale that has resulted in back-to-back 1-11, 1-7 Mountain West Conference seasons for the Lobos.

Locksley has been the source of multiple off-the-field controversies, and the end of the '10 season was complicated by the suspension of three players who were allegedly involved in a brawl at a nightclub on the eve of Thanksgiving.

And with attendance ending at its lowest in 18 years, Locksley has given New Mexico little evidence to justify retaining him for 2011.

The financially strapped program, however, likely cannot afford a reported $1.46 million buyout of its head coach. Not only does New Mexico lack the funding, but it also has had to buy out former basketball coach Ritchie McKay and former football coach Rocky Long -- both of which have been political black eyes. And with a new governor taking office in the state of New Mexico in 2011 whose message is to curb spending, the school cannot set a bad example if it hopes to receive any funding in the near future.

So when Locksley says he still thinks he can turn around the fortunes of the team, New Mexico has no choice but to believe him.

"I do think, contrary to what the record may indicate, that there have been some improvements within the program," he told the Albuquerque Journal. "... I do plan on doing whatever it takes to get it back and get it back quick, in time for next year.

"There'll be some changes; there'll be some tough decisions that have to be made. But I'm willing to make the decisions that are gonna move this program forward, whether it be personnel, whether it be coaching staff, whatever it takes to get this program back on track."

Expect a considerable overhaul of coaching staff, for starters. The Lobos were among the nation's worst teams on offense, defense and special teams.

Locksley also has to monitor his players' status. He dismissed four scholarship players since the beginning of fall camp, and one quit during the season. More might leave at semester's end.

New Mexico has one more year of NCAA sanctions to endure and can offer only 21 scholarships for 2011 -- rather than the maximum 25 allowable. It also can only retain 80 scholarships, but the team will be hard-pressed to be anywhere near even 80 scholarships.

Athletic director Paul Krebs said the school would evaluate Locksley's status in the next week or so, but unless more trouble occurs -- such as a mass exodus of players -- the school likely will retain Locksley.

It doesn't have any other choice.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: New Mexico 34, Wyoming 31 -- It's hard to believe that a team can allow its opponent three 100-yard rushers and still win a game, but the Lobos capitalized on four costly Cowboys turnovers to rally from an early 14-point deficit. New Mexico's defense recorded three takeaways at its own 10 or inside, thwarting Wyoming scoring chances. True freshman QB Stump Godfrey gave the offense a spark, and TE Lucas Reed made acrobatic catches all evening to give the team enough firepower, for once, to win a game. The players also deserved credit for not quitting when they fell behind early. Coach Mike Locksley's message to the team before the game was that if the players believed that coaching was holding them back, then they should overcome it themselves.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: The Lobos were supposed to have many more weapons on both offense and defense this season, but the only player to meet expectations was TE Lucas Reed. The sophomore, who missed the season finale because of food poisoning on the eve of the game, finished with 33 receptions for 459 yards and a team-high five TDs. He emerged as the go-to receiver at midseason when New Mexico against started to play slightly better, and it was his performance against Wyoming -- seven receptions for 100 yards and two TDs -- that helped the Lobos escape a winless season. His value should increase in 2011 when transfers WRs Lamaar Thomas (from Ohio State) and Deon Long (from West Virginia) become eligible.

FAST FORWARD: The Lobos have reason to believe they'll be improved in 2011. They lose only one player on the defensive line and have some young players with athletic ability returning in Calvin Smith, J.J. Hugine and Jacori Greer. Thomas and Long gives Lamaar Thomas speed it has sorely lacked at the wide receiver position, and QB Stump Godfrey can make positive things happen on broken plays. But the Lobos lose four seniors on the offensive line and have little depth everywhere except on the defensive line. Because of having to serve the last year of a three-year NCAA probation, New Mexico still is hamstrung in adding depth to the team in 2011.

RECRUITING TRAIL: This is also a problem area for Locksley, the master recruiter. While some programs are putting on the finishing touches of their 2011 class, New Mexico has one verbal commitment so far this season, as recruits are probably awaiting the fallout from the season. Will Locksley stay? Which assistants will remain? It's safe to say the program is far behind where Locksley thought it would be in recruiting heading into year three. The Lobos are entering their last year of a three-year probation and will be limited to 21 scholarships for 2011, but that's one more than they've had the last two years.

The Lobos' committed recruit is Raton (N.M.) High School QB Dustin Walton, who has led his team to the Class 3A semifinals this season. Walton has good size, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, but seems to be a bit of an odd fit for the spread offense Locksley wants to run because he's not considered a mobile QB.

OT Austin Weatherford (Maypearl, Texas) is a greyshirt from 2010 who is expected to enroll in school in January. He is expected to help give New Mexico some depth on a line that loses four seniors. Expect Weatherford to benefit from spring practice to compete for playing time in 2011.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've got a lot of talent; we've got great leaders. It's just staying focused for four quarters. You see the improvement, and you see stuff we've got to continue to work on. You see a team that only won one game but continued to come every week and fight for it. ... A team that does that is gonna be great down the road." -- Freshman QB Stump Godfrey, to the Albuquerque Journal.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Stump Godfrey is the biggest reason for hope in 2011. The elusive true freshman is exactly the weapon the offense needs to make the spread effective. He has speed and elusiveness to move the football on broken plays. He also has an adequate arm and will improve with more work in the offseason. If the Lobos can get some more weapons around him, they should be able to move the football much better in 2011.

True freshmen DL Calvin Smith and J.J. Hugine showed signs of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and now they'll get a year of offseason conditioning under their belts that should help them get bigger as well as faster. The Lobos need them to get up to speed quickly to have any chance of major improvement on the defensive side of the ball in 2011.

Barring any unforeseen offseason drama, the Lobos should unveil sophomore WR Lamaar "Flash" Thomas in 2011. Thomas, a transfer from Ohio State, is one of the fastest players on the team and will give New Mexico speed it has lacked at the receiver position since coach Mike Locksley's arrival in 2009. Thomas was the team's best weapon in spring practice and should be that much better when he gets ready to play in 2011.

PRO PROSPECTS: The Lobos' biggest hope for an appearance next year in the NFL comes in the form of OT Byron Bell. The 6-foot-5, 325-pound prospect certainly has the size and athletic ability to play at the next level. His career, however, have been marked by inconsistency and immaturity. He is a true senior and would have benefited from a fifth year. The key for him is to find some handlers who can get him in a good offseason condition program to get him ready for next April's NFL Draft.

DT Peter Gardner also has the size to get a look by NFL scouts. He also needs to get with a trainer to help him work on his speed and overall conditioning to have any chance of getting a tryout. He improved in his second year with New Mexico's 4-3 scheme but was not a dominant player. ROSTER REPORT:

--The Lobos suspended starting senior WR Bryant Williams and reserve LBs Joe Harris and Julian Conley for their involvement in a alleged fight at a nightclub on the eve of Thanksgiving. Conley was arrested that night, and Harris and Williams were subsequently implicated in the incident. One media report indicated that Harris, a scholarship player, and Conley, a walk-on, have been kicked off the team.

--QB B.R. Holbrook, who was limited to seven games this season because of the effects of a knee injury that originally occurred in high school, will undergo surgery in the offseason to repair the knee. He will be hard-pressed to unseat Godfrey. Holbrook's edge this season was his knowledge of the offense, but he has to prove himself a far more accurate passer after he gets healthy to give himself a chance to compete for the job.

--S Carmeiris Stewart should return in 2011 after suffering a torn ACL just before the start of the season. The converted wide receiver should be a much bigger contributor with another offseason learning the defense under his belt.

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SAN DIEGO STATE
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INSIDE SLANT

For weeks on end after San Diego State became bowl-eligible, coach Brady Hoke would not allow his team to talk about a bowl game. When a trip to the Poinsettia Bowl evident but had not been officially announced, Hoke talked about the Aztecs playing a 13th game, rather than referring to it as a bowl game.

Now that it is a reality -- the Aztecs (8-4) will play Navy (9-3) in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23 -- Hoke would be best served by continuing to refer to it as a 13th game, rather than a bowl game.

San Diego State is making its first trip to the postseason since the Mountain West Conference formed in 1999. The Aztecs haven't been bowling since 1998, when they were members of the Western Athletic Conference. The Midshipmen, who are regulars in bowl-game participation, will have a decided edge in experience in game preparation.

The Aztecs are in uncharted territory, practicing in December.

"We get a reward of having an extra month where younger guys get to spent extra time around the seniors like Andrew (Preston), Ernie (Lawson) and (Vincent Brown) and all those older guys where the last three years it's been, after last week's game, see you guys later, see you at the banquet, probably won't see you much after that," junior quarterback Ryan Lindley said. "So it's an awesome thing that we get to come together and have fun this month and play in a bowl game."

And while the bowl experience will be unlike any regular-season game, the best way for the Aztecs to keep from getting caught up in the postseason fervor is to treat the game like a regular-season game.

One factor in San Diego State's favor is the fact that it doesn't have to travel to the site of the bowl game. The Aztecs won't be as distracted by all the bowl-week festivities leading up to the game and won't get caught up in all the sight-seeing done in by visiting another city.

Of course, San Diego State will use about half of the 13 extra practices it gets in December to develop the younger players coming back in 2011, but the team could use some extra days preparing for Navy's triple-option offense. The Aztecs had some success earlier in the season against Air Force's version of the triple-option, but Navy is more reliant on its quarterback, Ricky Dobbs, and employs its scheme differently by catering more to what Dobbs can do.

Aztecs defensive coordinator Rocky Long knows too well how difficult preparing for Navy's offense can be. He watched first-hand as head coach of New Mexico when the Midshipmen had 26-play, 94-yard drive that consumed more than 14 minutes -- almost the entire fourth quarter -- in a 34-19 Navy victory in the 2004 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco.

San Diego State has its own offensive juggernaut that averages 35 points and 448.8 yards of offense per game and can hurt Navy if it can get an early lead and force the Midshipmen to pass more. That will prevent Navy from controlling the tempo of the game, chewing up clock and keeping Long's defense on the field far too long.

Those are the things Hoke must stress to the team, while trying to give the players some time to enjoy the bowl-game experience. It's a blend whose success won't be known until the end of the game.

The Aztecs are hoping that the experience isn't a one-time event.

"It's great for the program," linebacker Miles Burris told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But we want to win Mountain West Conference championships. If we do that, the bowl games will take care of themselves. We want to get to a point where going to a bowl game is standard. It happens every year and isn't just a one-year thing."

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

RB Ronnie Hillman -- He's the catalyst the Aztecs will use to counteract Navy's ball-control offense. The freshman hit a wall because of injuries and fatigue midway through the season but had a strong finish against UNLV in the season finale. With four weeks of recovery time, Hillman will be much fresher for the bowl game and should be more of a weapon for the Aztecs.

QB Ryan Lindley -- He also labored through some injuries during the midseason but had two productive games against Utah and UNLV to end the regular season strong. With some time off to heal as well as scout Navy's defense, Lindley should be ready to have a big game. He certainly has enough playmakers to help him move the ball down the field consistently.

LB Miles Burris -- He must come up big in the bowl game for the Aztecs defense to have a chance of slowing down the Navy attack. He had 19 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks during the regular season. If he can be a regular in the Midshipmen backfield, Navy will be hard-pressed to keep its ball-control offense on the field for a significant length of time.

--San Diego State coach Brady Hoke has only one bowl game's worth of experience under his belt, a loss in the 2007 International Bowl to Rutgers when he was coach at Ball State. Hoke led Ball State to a bowl berth in 2008 but accepted the Aztecs job in December and did not coach Ball State in the bowl game that season. He has lots of experience in bowl games as an assistant coach. Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is 1-1 in bowl games, leading the Midshipmen to a win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl last season. The jury still is out on both coach's ability to get their teams ready for a bowl game.

BOWL HISTORY: The Aztecs are 4-4 all-time in bowl games but have not won a bowl game since the 1969 Pasadena Bowl. Their last appearance came in 1998, a 20-13 loss to North Carolina in the Las Vegas Bowl. San Diego State has played at home once before, in the 1986 Holiday Bowl against Iowa. The Aztecs lost on a touchdown pass on the last play a wild shootout, 39-38.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel great. We have had a lot of downs and ups, and I say downs and ups because we know how this program was when we got here. It's on the other side now. We tried to turn it around, and we are just happy that we were able to do it." -- San Diego State senior WR Vincent Jackson.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Both RB Ronnie Hillman (hip) and FB Brandon Sullivan (concussion) had injury issues late in the season. But they should be healthy enough to form a formidable 1-2 punch against a smaller Navy defense. Hillman led the Mountain West Conference in rushing last season with 1,304 yards and 14 TDs on a 5.6-yard average per carry. Sullivan scored nine TDs in the Aztecs' last five games combined. Their team average per game, however, dipped during the second half of the season after averaging more than 200 yards per game early on. The Aztecs finished at 151.8-yard average per game. Navy doesn't have a lot of size on its three-man line, averaging about 250 pounds. If the Aztecs can manage the clock and not put themselves in second- or third-and-long because of penalties, they have a chance to move the ball down the field.

Scouting the passing game: QB Ryan Lindley had a pair of big games to close the regular season against Utah and UNLV that helped him get his completion percentage up to 56.5. He has a pair of NFL-caliber WRs available in Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson and has the home-run ball available at any time. Against Navy, however, he must limit his incompletions that stop the clock and give Navy's offense a chance to get on the field and control the tempo of the game. San Diego State should be able to protect Lindley; Navy has only nine sacks on the season. Still, the Midshipmen are going to force the Aztecs to move the ball methodically down the field, hoping the Aztecs make a mistake along the way to allow Navy the upper hand in a third-and-long situation.

Scouting the run defense: The Aztecs allowed Air Force to get 312 rushing yards with its triple-option offense when the teams met in October, but some of that was San Diego State getting a lead and playing a little softer at the end of the game to force the Falcons to chew up clock. The Falcons also rely more on their wingbacks and fullbacks. Navy's offense is more traditional in that it wants the ball more in QB Ricky Dobbs' hands. Dobbs leads his team with an average of 80.6 yards per game on a unit that averaged 302.5 yards. The Aztecs want to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible, especially in play-action situations. San Diego State must play assignment football but still find a way to be aggressive.

Scouting the pass defense: The play-action is what could hurt San Diego State the most. Navy averages 17.5 yards per pass completion and leading WR Greg Jones checks in a 19.8 yards per catch with four TDs. The Aztecs likely will ask their CBs to remain in one-on-one coverage with the receiver and hope they don't bite on fakes need any more help in coverage. The key for San Diego State is its safeties' ability make the correct run-pass reads and not let Navy off the hook in third-and-long situations.

Intangibles: The Middies will have an edge in bowl-game experience, but the biggest advantage they may have going in could be the fact that they will have played their last game just 12 days before the Poinsettia Bowl. Navy still plays Army on Dec. 11 and will be relatively sharp in terms of game preparation. The Aztecs' last game was Nov. 27.

ROSTER REPORT:

--FB Brandon Sullivan (concussion), who missed most of the regular-season finale against UNLV, should return.

--MLB Marcus Yarbrough should be available after missing the last three games with a sprained foot.

--The Aztecs had six first-team All-Mountain West Conference selections this season, the most since 1996 when SDSU was part of the Western Athletic Conference. The six were WRs Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, RB Ronnie Hillman, P Brian Stahovich, CB Leon McFadden and OLB Miles Burris. McFadden and Burris were the Aztecs' first defensive first-teamers since 2006.

===
TCU
===

INSIDE SLANT

For the second time in as many years, TCU is crashing the BCS party.

But this time is different.

The non-automatic qualifier got an automatic berth into the "Granddaddy of them All" this season and won't be facing another party crasher like a season ago.

This year, the Horned Frogs finally get that chance to go toe-to-toe with one of the big boys in Big Ten representative Wisconsin.

The culmination of the past several seasons of building the program -- TCU's Rose Bowl invite is viewed by many in Fort Worth as much more than a one-season accomplishment -- is something head coach Gary Patterson is trying not to let overwhelm his team.

"We understand we represent a lot of people," Patterson said. "This will be our 12th bowl in 13 years. I think you've got to be very careful as a program to not treat this bowl game any different than the rest of them. Every bowl game that we've gone in, we've tried to win. If you treat it differently, you're going to mistakes. Our kids have been in big games."

But not this big. Yes, TCU had hoped its 12-0 season would sneak them into the BCS National Championship game, but a chance to paint Pasadena purple for the Rose Bowl is an awfully satisfying consolation prize, assuming the team doesn't fall flat.

TCU, the nation's leader in total defense this season and a program that has hung its hat on one of the nation's top defenses for several years with Patterson's stifling 4-2-5 scheme, now faces a Wisconsin team that is as good on offense lately as TCU is on defense.

The Badgers averaged 67 points per game in its final three games of the regular season, including wins over bowl-bound teams in Michigan and Northwestern.

Hoping to keep pace with the Badgers' high-powered offense is a TCU offense that can move the ball just fine, thank you. Fourth-year starting quarterback Andy Dalton is the NCAA's active wins leader at 41 and leads a Horned Frogs team that actually ranks higher than Wisconsin in rushing offense (261.2 yard per game), passing offense (230.3 yards per game), total offense (491.5 yards per game) and is tied with the Badgers at No. 4 in the nation in scoring offense (both at 43.3 points per game).

"People often say we don't get enough chances to play against automatic-qualifying teams," Dalton said. "This will be a great opportunity for us to go out and play a game in a great atmosphere at the Rose Bowl."

Patterson just hopes the opportunity doesn't overwhelm his team as it may have done a season ago when the program played in its first BCS game.

"It's awesome to know all the players that have played (in the Rose Bowl) and walk out into a stage that as they say is 'The Granddaddy of them all,'" Patterson said. "So to be a part of something like that is very special. I don't think our kids will really understand how special it is until they get a chance to go there."

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Andy Dalton -- He's the nation's active wins leader with 41 career victories. He's been a bowl-game MVP twice and led TCU to the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, a 17-10 loss to Boise State. There isn't a quarterback around who knows his team's offense better than Dalton knows the TCU offense. He can run (407 rushing yards, five TDs on the ground) or pass (2,638 passing yards, 26 TDs, 6 interceptions). If the Badgers aren't able to put pressure on him, and nobody really has this season, he'll find one of the many targets TCU has at the skill positions.

LB Tank Carder -- He's the field general for head coach Gary Patterson's dominating defense. The slender 6-foot-3, 237-pound linebacker is all over the place, racking up 54 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery and six pass deflections. He is TCU's third consecutive Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year and will have his hands full with Wisconsin's high-powered offense.

WR Jeremy Kerley -- He has been one of the nation's top return men for three years and is itching to find the end zone at least once this season. The dynamic Kerley is a field position difference maker and if Wisconsin kicks or punts to him at all, he hopes to make him pay. Kerley averaged 122.8 all-purpose yards this season. His 1,473 yards came from 93 rushing, 517 receiving, 388 on punt returns and 476 on kick returns.

--TCU's Gary Patterson has been a master at preparing his team for the week in, week out grind. Considering the team's only loss in the past 25 games was to a Boise State team in last year's Fiesta Bowl that propelled the Broncos to a No. 2 national ranking, it's hard to say Patterson didn't have his team ready for the big game. But still, some feel the Horned Frogs are overmatched in the Rose Bowl against a Wisconsin team that will represent the Big Ten. While Wisconsin has been arguably the hottest offensive team in the last month of the college football regular season, there hasn't been a better statistical defense than TCU all year. It is hard to imaging Patterson won't have the Horned Frogs defense ready from an Xs and Os standpoint.

BOWL HISTORY: TCU is 11-13-1 all-time in bowl games and senior QB Andy Dalton has been the MVP in bowl wins in 2007 and 2008. Last year, the Horned Frogs missed perfection when they lost 17-10 to No. 2 Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Frogs are making their second BCS bowl game appearance in as many years.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I have always said it doesn't matter what conference you are in, you should be judged by what type of football team you have. We feel like we have a very good football team." -- TCU head coach Gary Patterson in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Nagging injuries may have slowed sophomore RB Ed Wesley down the stretch, but don't think it slowed down the TCU run game. The Horned Frogs' 261.2 rushing yards per game, with four players rushing for more than 400 yards (Wesley led the way with 1,065 and 11 TDs), was eighth in the nation. Wisconsin's 31st-ranked rushing defense allowed 131.7 yards, allowing 155 rushing yards to Ohio State and 168 to Michigan, the two top-ranked rushing teams the Badgers played this season. Both totals were more than 60 yards below those team's season averages.

Scouting the passing game: There isn't a starting QB in college football with more wins right now than Andy Dalton (41). The active victories leader often gets challenged by opposing defenses who figure the key to beating TCU is stopping the run and seeing what Dalton can do through the air. The Manning Award finalist completed 66 percent of his passes this season for 2,638 yards, 26 TDs and 6 interceptions. Dalton was at his best in those few games teams asked him to throw over the top of stacks defensive fronts. He has a slew of wide receiver weapons and an offensive line with senior experience that has allowed just nine sacks this year. Wisconsin allowed 191.8 passing yards per game this season while TCU threw for 230.3 passing yards per game.

Scouting the run defense: Head coach Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense is hard to prepare for because you never seem to know where the pressure is coming from. As a run defense, the strength starts up front with two beefy tackles that allow penetration from other players like SS Colin Jones (10.5 tackles for loss) and LB Tank Carder (6.5 tackles for loss). The Horned Frogs had 68 tackles for loss this season and led the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 89.2 rushing yards per game. While TCU opponent Air Force is ranked higher than the Badgers in rushing, Wisconsin in many ways is likely the best running attack at 247.3 rushing yards per game that the Horned Frogs will see.

Scouting the pass defense: Yes, TCU played in the Mountain West Conference, a league that didn't exactly feature the same level of competition as the Big Ten. But what more could any team have done against the pass than what the Horned Frogs did this season? TCU led the nation in pass defense, allowing just 126.3 passing yards per game (it allowed 34 passing yards in its regular-season finale at New Mexico). That average not only led the nation, but was more than 20 passing yards fewer per game than the nation's second best pass defense, Miami (146.3 passing yards allowed per game). Wisconsin's 202.8 passing yards per game isn't scaring anybody, but they'll take some shots deep on TCU.

Scouting the special teams: WR Jeremy Kerley is a repeat winner of the Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the year award and has proven for several years he's at the very least worthy of inclusion in any conversation about the nation's best return specialists. K Ross Evans is solid, connecting on 11 of 13 field goals this season with a long of 43 yards.

Intangibles: TCU has won 24 of 25 games (its only loss in the past two years was to No. 2 Boise State in last year's Fiesta Bowl). Not all those victories were against the Mountain West Conference. The fact is the team has learned how to win and has convinced itself it can play with anyone. Don't expect TCU to be intimidated by a Big Ten team, even a hard-charging one late in the year like Wisconsin. Head coach Gary Patterson has proven to be a great Xs and Os coach through the years and giving him a month-plus to prepare could be trouble.

ROSTER REPORT:

--QB Andy Dalton went down with a right elbow injury in the second quarter at UNM on Nov. 27, but that was far more precautionary for a team with a BCS bowl game already wrapped up than any sign he was actually hurt. Dalton will be 100 percent for the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

--RB Ed Wesley (foot) was limited some down the stretch but it was an attempt to get him to 100 percent health for the team's bowl game. Now whether his limited workload in the past month or so has made him rusty is the question, not his health.

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UNLV
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INSIDE SLANT

Moments after UNLV said "aloha" to a tough 2-11 season with a 59-21 loss at Hawaii, head coach Bobby Hauck couldn't wait to get back to the mainland.

"We need to get on the road and recruit," Hauck said. "We're good at the recruiting game. At six o'clock on Monday morning, we'll be out and catching up on recruiting."

Although most coaches and their teams look forward to a season-ending trip to the sunny islands, Hauck made no secret of the fact he didn't like the timing. Instead of spending the first week of December recruiting, the rebuilding Rebels were focused on preparing for another top 25 opponent.

Hauck, who hopes to land seven or eight junior college prospects, said he would have normally hosted about a dozen recruits on the first December weekend.

"A lot of people are making their decisions," Hauck said. "Certainly, losing 33 percent of the contact time doesn't help. Next week, we'll have to hit the ground running and be ready to roll."

Hauck, who didn't get the UNLV head coaching job until just before Christmas last year, certainly made up for lost time. No fewer than 14 true freshmen saw major action for the Rebels this season, many of them on the defensive side of the ball, including four -- ends Ian Bobak and Tyler Gatson and tackles Nate Holloway and Alex Klorman -- on the line.

Two true freshmen on offense -- running back Tim Cornett and electrifying receiver/kickoff returner Marcus Sullivan -- both garnered Mountain West Conference player of the week honors during the season. And Hauck made it a point not to bring two promising offensive tackles, Cameron Jefferson and Brett Boyko, out of their redshirt years during the season so they wouldn't waste a year of eligibility.

Although he fielded a young team that was ravaged early by injuries thanks to a brutal 13-game schedule that included nine bowl-bound teams, Hauck's young players managed to hold their own in the trenches at times against bigger and more talented teams and displayed good toughness as the season progressed.

Hauck, who said he could sign two quarterbacks, including a junior college prospect if he can find one, will likely turn over the starting reigns to promising sophomore Caleb Herring in the spring. Herring will have two talented senior receivers to throw to in Phillip Payne and Michael Johnson.

The biggest improvement needs to be made on the defensive side of the ball, however. UNLV, which had 10 freshmen on its two-deep roster, gave up an average of 39.7 points per game and 222.7 yards rushing.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: UNLV 42, Wyoming 16 -- The Nov. 13 homecoming game at Sam Boyd Stadium started badly for the Rebels, who trailed 13-7 after one quarter. But UNLV, behind the power running of freshman Tim Cornett (21 carries, 70 yards, 3 TDs) and the passing of senior quarterback Omar Clayton (13 of 18, 163 yards, 3 TDs), rallied to score the final 35 points of the game to win easily. Cornett also caught a 12-yard touchdown pass to become the first Rebel since 1994 to score four touchdowns in a game.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB Omar Clayton -- With a new head coach and a new offensive system, it would have been easy for the former fifth-string walk-on from Normal, Ill., to cash it in during his senior year, especially when he was beaten out by longtime backup Mike Clausen for the starting job in the season-opener against Wisconsin. But Clayton battled back to start the final 12 games to give him a school-record 40 appearances at QB and finished second to the great Randall Cunningham in most career passing stats, including passing yards, touchdown passes and rushing yards by a quarterback. He also displayed great leadership on and off the field for a very young team.

FAST FORWARD: The Rebels lose long-time quarterback fixture Omar Clayton, stud DT Isaako Aaitui and all three starting LBs in Ronnie Paulo, Starr Fuimaono and Calvin Randleman. But head coach Bobby Hauck gave their young backups plenty of time during the season and that should help in the next year or two. UNLV's 13-game schedule, which featured games against nine bowl teams, including two BCS squads (Wisconsin and TCU), should be a little easier in 2011 with the departures of Utah and BYU from the Mountain West Conference. The Rebels have winnable non-conference games at home against Southern Utah and at Washington State. However, UNLV, which opens the season at Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin, also has non-conference games against top 25 teams Nevada and Hawaii, the latter at Sam Boyd Stadium.

RECRUITING TRAIL: The Rebels were still searching for their first commitment when Hauck and his staff hit the road recruiting Dec. 6. With only eight players in this year's junior class, Hauck, who normally shies away from recruiting junior college players, said he might sign seven or eight this year to try to balance out his classes.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not very pleased with the win total, certainly, but I'm not displeased with where we are going. We're building this program up from ground zero ... but I've seen signs we've got a chance some day to be a good football team." -- UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck after his young team, which played 23 freshmen, finished 2-11 in his first year.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2011:

WR Phillip Payne -- Although he sat out two games after he made several unflattering tweets about the coaching staff, the 6-foot-3 wide receiver finished the year strong and had 40 receptions for 689 yards and five touchdowns, including six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in the season finale at Hawaii.

RB Tim Cornett -- The true freshman from North Shore High in Galena Park, Texas, led the team in rushing with 546 yards on 144 carries and scored six touchdowns. The 6-foot, 195-pounder has the speed to get around the corner and should benefit greatly from a year in the weight room.

QB Caleb Herring -- He turned down a late scholarship offer from Oregon out of high school and should be the starter in 2011 as a redshirt sophomore. Got valuable practice snaps and game experience (28 of 56, 365 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs) as Omar Clayton's backup. Herring has a strong arm with a quick release and is also a good runner.

PRO PROSPECTS:

DT Isaako Aaitui -- The native of American Samoa started 30 games for the Rebels and passes the look test. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, he's a strong run stopper inside but also is athletic enough to have seen some time at defensive end during his UNLV career.

OL John Gianninoto -- Versatile enough to start at both guard and center during a career that included 33 starts. Has the size (6-4, 295 pounds) and brains (two-time Academic all-MWC pick) to get a look at the next level.

OT Evan Marchal -- Three-year starter at right tackle has the size (6-7, 325) to garner a look. Finished the year at right guard, which may be a better spot for him in the pros.

ROSTER REPORT:

--CB Quinton Pointer, the team's best corner who missed all but one game with a knee injury, should provide a big boost to the Rebel secondary next fall.

--RBs Imari Thompson (ankle surgery) and C.J. Cox (shoulder) both should be back for spring practice.

--OTs Brett Boyko and Cameron Jefferson kept their redshirt even though head coach Bobby Hauck played 23 freshmen in his first year. The Rebels believe both Boyko (6-7, 295) and Jefferson (6-6, 265) have promising futures and provide some much-needed size up front.

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UTAH
====

INSIDE SLANT

A perfect "10" already would have been an impressive accomplishment. Now it may be close to miraculous.

Utah, which had to play heroically late in each of its last two games to help the team finish with a 10-2 record, plays its last game as a member of the Mountain West Conference in the Dec. 22 Las Vegas Bowl against vaunted Boise State. The Broncos, who finished the regular season two kicks away from Bowl Championship Series consideration, are 11-1 on the season and present a huge hurdle for the Utes to extend their bowl-game winning streak to 10 games.

The Utes' streak is the longest current streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the second longest ever, behind Florida State. Between the Utes and the Broncos, they own all of the BCS wins by non-automatic qualifying schools -- each has two victories apiece.

While Boise State may be lamenting a missed opportunity to play in a BCS bowl game, the Utes have their own problems heading into Las Vegas -- namely that quarterback Jordan Wynn will not play. The sophomore needs surgery on his throwing (right) shoulder and will be out for the next six months.

"It was bothering him, and we had an MRI just to take a look at it," Utah coach Whittingham told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's not good news, but life goes on and we have to move forward."

"Forward" means going with senior Terrance Cain, who was terrific in Wynn's absence earlier this season when the starter missed two games with an injured thumb. Cain has a 9-1 record as the Utes starter but he had a horrible outing in the season-finale against Brigham Young, throwing interceptions in his only two series of the game.

"He is excited about his opportunity," Whittingham told the Tribune. "He'll be ready to play. Terrance is a competitor, and he didn't play the way he wanted to play."

The Utes' play on the field in general has faltered significantly since their 8-0 start to the season. A 47-7 loss at home to TCU shook the team's confidence, and the hangover carried over to the next week at Notre Dame. The Irish pummeled Utah 28-3.

Utah found itself trailing San Diego State 20-3 and 27-10 before rallying for a 38-34 victory, and it needed Brandon Burton's last-second block of a 41-yard field goal attempt by Mitch Payne to preserve a 17-16 victory over Brigham Young in the regular-season finale. Those two wins may have given the Utes their late-game confidence back, if not their early season swagger.

"We've got good momentum going into the bowl game," Whittingham said. "We've won two tough games back-to-back. We got back on track by handling adversity. These guys believe they can overcome any situation."

The Utes have enough time to formulate a game plan to suit Cain's abilities, and Whittingham has had his troops ready to play in the postseason, as his 5-0 bowl record as a head coach attests. The Broncos, however, also are known for their postseason magic, and they were able to rebound from their heartbreaking 34-31 loss at Nevada in week 11 with a 50-14 win over Utah State.

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Terrance Cain -- Arguably was having a better season than starter Jordan Wynn -- until the regular-season finale against Brigham Young when Cain went 2-for-7 for 8 yards with two interceptions in two series. He has a little more athletic ability to scramble from the pocket, but he doesn't possess the deep threat that Wynn does in the passing game. Cain, who's been a gamer for the Utes despite the emergence of Wynn, can cap his career nicely with a big game against Boise State. With his 9-1 career record as a starter, he should rise to the challenge.

WR Jereme Brooks -- Comes more into play with Cain's presence. He is Utah's short- and intermediate-route WR and could be the go-to guy, rather than DeVonte Christopher, who is Utah's home-run threat. Brooks has the potential to make big plays in space as well, but he has to get open and help Cain get into a rhythm and move the chains.

CB Brandon Burton -- He's had a high-risk, high-reward season for the Utes. He has 10 pass breakups, including two interceptions. But he also has been susceptible to the big play -- TCU picked on him a couple of times early in its lopsided win last month. Now comes Heisman Trophy candidate Kellen Moore, who is one of the most accurate passers in college football. Burton can't let Boise State's receivers accumulate yardage after the catch.

--What a matchup of coaches for the Las Vegas Bowl -- Boise State's Chris Peterson is the master of the unpredictable, using all kinds of trick plays that help his team win bowl games. Utah's Kyte Whittingham is the master of the predictable -- five consecutive bowl game wins. He also has been known for the creative play now and then. How well Whittingham matches wits with Peterson may make him an even hotter coaching commodity for years to come.

BOWL HISTORY: The Utes are 12-3 in bowl games all-time and are riding a nine-game winning streak. Utah is 5-0 in the postseason under coach Kyle Whittingham, and only one of those wins was not by double figures.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "T. (Terrance) Cain has won a ton of games for us already in the past. So I have just as much faith in him as I ever did in Jordan. So I don't see it as a problem at all. I think it's a great opportunity for him to start one more game before he ends his senior season. I wish the best for Jordan, but I know we've got a great quarterback that's going to fill in the spot. He's proven himself before and he's going to prove it again in this bowl game." -- Utah senior center Zane Taylor.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Utah certainly has a nice combination in the bruising Matt Asiata and the more shifty Eddie Wide, but the Utes average only a respectable 156.8 yards rushing per game. The presence of mobile QB Terrance Cain may help open up the run game a little more, but Boise State enters the bowl game giving up only 103.5 yards per game. The Broncos have the speed to match the Utes around the edges, so the Utes may have to try to exert physical superiority between the tackles for a chance to win.

Scouting the passing game: Cain isn't as strong-armed as injured starter Jordan Wynn, but he isn't weak-armed, either. The key for the Utes is to make sure not to put him in a situation where he has to pass the ball for the Utes to consistently move the chains. Utah can't be a pass-first team with Cain in the game. He'd better be ready for a Boise State pass rush that accumulated 45 sacks during the regular season. Cain has good mobility but he's been a very good decision-maker, with the exception of the regular-season finale against BYU.

Scouting the run defense: This is where the Utes have to dominate to have a chance to slow down the Broncos. The Utes surrender 104.2 rushing yards per game and were keeping teams in check during their eight-game winning streak to start the season. The Broncos are a strong rushing team behind RB Doug Martin, who has 1,113 rushing yards on the season. The Utes have to contain the run without committing any extra defenders, or else they will leave their secondary more vulnerable.

Scouting the pass defense: The secondary has been Utah's Achilles' heel on that side of the ball. Opposing teams are getting 215.5 yards per game against them, which isn't bad, but Utah's opponents have scored 18 TDs through the air, as opposed to only eight on the ground. Boise State enters the game with one of the best QBs around in Kellen Moore. Moore is averaging 292.2 passing yards per game and he has 33 TDs compared to only five interceptions. WRs Titus Young and Austin Pettis have combined for nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 18 TDs. The Utes have a respectable 28 sacks but probably won't try to apply any more pressure on Moore and hope to cover better downfield.

Intangibles: While the Utes have made two heroic late-game stands in their final two games of the regular season, they certainly don't have the swagger they had when they were riding their eight-game winning streak. Substituting Terrance Cain for Jordan Wynn at QB shouldn't be a problem, and the Utes also will be without DL coach John Pease, who retired after the regular-season finale. The Broncos seemed to respond well after their heartbreaking defeat at Nevada with a resounding victory over Utah State in their regular-season finale. But will the glitz of Las Vegas and the quality of opponent of Utah be enough to keep Boise State from wondering what might have been in a BCS game?

ROSTER REPORT:

--Starting QB Jordan Wynn will miss the Las Vegas Bowl because of an injured shoulder that requires surgery. Backup Terrance Cain, a senior with a 9-1 record as the Utes starter, will get the nod against Boise State.

--Starting LT John Cullen will miss the bowl game with a forearm injury. Sophomore Sam Brenner is penciled in as his replacement.

--Three other Utes who were hurt in the BYU game, WR Luke Matthews, RG Tevita Stevens and RB Eddie Wide, all will return for the game.

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WYOMING
=======

INSIDE SLANT

No single victory can put a bandage on a poor season. But this one came pretty darn close. Wyoming capped a disappointing season under second-year coach Dave Christensen with its most dominating performance since his arrival.

Sophomore running back Alvester Alexander ran for 147 yards and a school-record five touchdowns as the Cowboys (3-9, 1-7 Mountain West Conference) routed arch-rival Colorado State 44-0 in the season finale at War Memorial Stadium.

The margin of victory was Wyoming's largest in 102-year Border War history.

"A picture is worth a thousand words and (the returning players) can see what they're capable of," Christensen told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

"I think it will be great motivation for every single kid returning on this football team, which is about 90 kids. I think they'll come in excited, enthusiastic and eager to prepare and work to be a better team next year."

The Cowboys certainly can be forgiven for not improving upon their magical 2009 season in 2010.

Wyoming had one of the nation's toughest schedules with games against Boise State, TCU, Texas, Utah and Air Force, all of whom were ranked at some point this season.

Texas, Utah and Air Force each lost momentum along the way, but it could be argued that the Cowboys caught them when they were playing their best football.

The brutal schedule, combined with the Cowboys playing 12 consecutive weeks without a break, proved too tall a mountain for Wyoming to conquer.

The trick in the offseason is for the program to build on its blowout victory over the Rams, but not mistaking that one game for a sign of its arrival.

A running game that came together in the last three weeks of the season loses only one starter on the offensive line, Sam Sterner. Alexander and Robert Herron showed their big-play capabilities. Alexander ran for a combined 390 yards in those three games.

Developing skill-possession weapons is priority one for Wyoming in the offseason to complement the talents of sophomore quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.

Carta-Samuels' athletic ability allows him to keep plays alive, but the Cowboys did not possess a consistent home-run threat at wide receiver. That hurt the team immensely as it struggled to run the ball earlier in the season.

Defensively, the Cowboys lose two starters -- free safety Chris Prosinski and cornerback Marcell Gipson -- from a unit that struggled somewhat in switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme.

Returning defensive ends Josh Biezuns and Gabe Knapton showed down the stretch that they can disrupt in the opponent's backfield.

The Cowboys must improve with their pressure up front to make the 4-3 a manageable defense. They must also defend better against the run to have any chance of making another postseason run in 2011.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Air Force 20, Wyoming 14 -- The Cowboys' coaching staff showed its willingness to alter its approach to give its players the best chance to win. Wyoming scrapped the spread in favor of a Wing-T rushing offense that helped the Cowboys slow down the game and play with the ranked Falcons. Wyoming's ability to run the ball, a season-high 174 yards at the time, enabled the Cowboys to take a 14-7 lead into the fourth quarter. But whereas the Cowboys last season found ways to win games, the Air Force game was symbolic of Wyoming's inability to make the key plays to win the game. The Falcons put together an 80-yard drive with 3:41 left in the game for the game-winning touchdown.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels was a factor in every game in which the Cowboys were competitive in 2010. The sophomore persevered while the offense struggled to move the football and score points. Carta-Samuels has won nine games as a starter for Wyoming, and the offense has hovered about the 300-yard mark per game during his two years. He accounted for about 2,100 passing and rushing yards in 2010 with 12 touchdowns. For the Wyoming offense to fully take advantage of his athletic ability, it must surround him with more playmakers. The biggest positive could be the breakout performance of RB Alvester Alexander during the final three games of the season. Freshman WR T.J. Smith also began to prove himself as a playmaker, and that should help Carta-Samuels immensely.

FAST FORWARD: The Cowboys lose only a few seniors, but those players combined for more than 100 games of playing experience. LG Sam Sterner was a three-year starter and WR David Leonard finished No. 8 on the school's all-time receptions' list. FS Chris Prosinski finished fourth on Wyoming's career tackles list and CB Marcell Gipson was a four-year starter. Wyoming has to adapt to the 4-3, especially with its run defense, to get off the field. MLB Brian Hendricks had 80 tackles in 2010 but might not mind seeing that total go down if it means the defense plays fewer play next season. QB Austyn Carta-Samuels needs wide receivers who can stretch the field to get coach Dave Christensen spread offense up to speed.

RECRUITING TRAIL: Wyoming might get a boost from Rivals three-star DE recruit Miraldo Michel out of Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College. The Cowboys' line was one of their shortcomings in 2010. The Cowboys also are hoping that Chad Reese, another three-star recruit, can help fill in the void in the secondary left by DBs Chris Prosinski and Marcell Gipson. The offense is looking for playmakers and have WR London Muse (Sugar Land, Texas) and athlete Trey Norman (Texarkana, Texas) committed for 2011.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know if I could have written a better script on how I wanted this game to go. The great thing about it is that our kids have never stopped working hard all season or quit during a game, they just kept pounding away. They believed and put it all together today. It was exciting to have them play that way, and it was nice to send out the seniors with a performance like this. What a great feeling for everyone." -- Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, on the team's 44-0 victory over arch-rival Colorado State in the season finale.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

RB Alvester Alexander -- It'll be interesting to see how the sophomore responds in the offseason after averaging 130 yards per game over his last three games. Through the first nine games of the season, Alexander had 402 rushing yards and a 3.1-yard average per carry. In his last three games, he had 390 rushing yards and a 6.6-yard average per carry.

Sophomore S Luke Ruff had six tackles and a forced fumble in the finale in place of SS Shamiel Gary. The Cowboys likely will give him a long look to replace Chris Prosinki opposite Gary next season. Ruff should have a better idea of what his role will be with more reps next spring.

Redshirt freshman WR T.J. Smith -- He began to emerge at the end of the season as a deep-threat playmaker. He had three receptions for 58 yards in the season finale against Colorado State. Smith was in coach Dave Christensen's doghouse for much of the season, but became more productive once he began to understand the work ethic required on a daily basis.

PRO PROSPECTS:

FS Chris Prosinski's production will get him a look in the offseason as he prepares to make an NFL squad next season. He had 373 career tackles, thanks to a tremendous work ethic. He's not the fastest of secondary players, but he doesn't give up on plays.

CB Marcell Gipson has plenty of athletic ability and could find a job on Sundays next season. He probably will first have to prove himself as a special teams player and then hone his skills as a cover cornerback.

WR David Leonard is a sure-handed possession receiver who must turn heads during offseason workouts. He's not the prototypical big-play threat that most NFL teams seek, but he can find a niche, like New England's Wes Welker, if he displays a similar willingness to understand the game.

ROSTER REPORT:

--RB Robert Herron missed the last game of the season after he was injured in a violent collision in the UNLV game. Herron provides a good change of pace to Alvester Alexander, who proved he was the lead running back.

--The Cowboys are hoping to get redshirt freshman DE Mark Willis healthy in the offseason. He missed most of the season because of injury, and Wyoming hopes he can make a difference on the edges in 2011 with his athletic ability.

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