Scouting the Western Athletic Conference

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the football conferences. Today we will take a look at the Western Athletic Conference.

Western Athletic Conference Preview

What's in a name? The Western Athletic Conference for years consisted of Arizona, Arizona State, Brigham Young, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah, UTEP, and Wyoming. With UTEP moving to C-USA, this conference now has 100% turnover from its early days. Hawaii is the only member which has been in the WAC for at least 20 seasons, having joined in 1979. The other eight members were at one time members of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association and later the Big West Conference.

Last year, Boise State ran the table in the regular season and narrowly missed out on a BCS bowl. Fresno State has been a force in this league for several years. These two teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league. The third best team is more than two touchdowns weaker than the big two. The big two could compete in the Pac-10.

In the official preseason WAC poll, Boise State was picked to repeat as champs. Fresno State was selected second followed by Hawaii, Nevada, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Utah State, and Idaho. My ratings are not an exact match, but they are close.

The top three teams, Boise State, Fresno State, and Hawaii receive four home field advantage points, while everyone else gets three.

1 (tie). Fresno State        PiRate: 107       HFA: 4

The Bulldogs have been to six consecutive bowls and have gone 38-16 in 21st century games. Yet, they've had to play second fiddle to Boise State for the past three seasons. This year, the Bulldogs host the Broncos on November 12, and the home field advantage may be enough to earn FSU the top spot in the standings. The Bulldogs averaged 40 points per game in 2004 and return all the key components this season. The defense gave up 21 points per game and could be as good or better in 2005.

Quarterback Paul Pinegar should be selected in the 2006 NFL draft. Last year, he completed just under 60% of his passes for 23 touchdowns. All the key receivers return from last year. Joe Fernandez led the team with only 38 receptions, as FSU spreads it around.

The Bulldogs came within five yards of having two 1,000-yard rushers last year. Bryson Sumlin ran for 1,104 and Wendell Mathis added 995. Third string tailback Dwayne Wright ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2003 and was the leading rusher at the beginning of 2004 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Somehow, Coach Hill will find time to insert big play back Clifton Smith. Smith was converted from cornerback in the spring, and he will get some touches as a back and as a return specialist. Last season, he returned three punts. His first one went 67 yards for a touchdown, while the second one went for 62 yards setting up another score!

The strength of the Bulldog stop unit is its pass defense. In the WAC, that is more important than run defense. Tackle Garrett McIntyre recorded seven sacks and four tackles for loss last year; he also batted down multiple passes. Cornerback Marcus McCauley broke up eight passes and picked off three, while his counterpart, Richard Marshall, broke up five passes and picked off three as well. Safety Tyrone Culver swatted away five more.

Fresno State won't be this year's Utah. They must travel to the Coliseum in Los Angeles to take on Southern Cal and have to play at Oregon as well. Give Coach Pat Hill credit; he will play anyone, sort of like Bobby Bowden in his early days at Florida State.

1 (tie). Boise State          PiRate: 107        HFA: 4

Coach Dan Hawkins is a wanted man. Several big time programs would like to have him as their coach, but Hawkins received a long-term, multi-million dollar contract to stay in Boise.

What will the Broncos do for an encore after going 11-0 in the 2004 regular season before losing to a Louisville team that came within a minute of going 12-0 themselves? Boise State won't win 11 games because they must venture to Georgia, Oregon State, Hawaii, and Fresno State. They will lose at least two times.

The Broncos welcome back key players on both sides of the ball. An offense that averaged 49 points and 493 total yards per game returns most of the skill position starters. Quarterback Jared Zabransky is the equal of Paul Pinegar. He completed 63% of his passes last year, with a higher than normal amount going for 20 or more yards. He's also a threat to take off and run for a first down.

Zabransky loses his top receiver from last year in T.J. Acree. Drisan James was the key receiver by the end of last season, and he could easily top 1,000 yards in receptions. Best tight end in the WAC Derek Schouman can run the deep middle routes and get open.

All the contributing ball carriers return. Lee Marks should top 1,000 yards rushing this year. Boise averaged 230 yards per game on the ground last year in their balanced attack.  Much of the credit goes to a talented offensive line led by All-WAC tackle Daryn Colledge.

Boise State held seven opponents under 100 yards rushing last year. Three returning defensive line starters, Andrew Browning, Alex Guerrero, and Mike Williams join All-WAC linebacker Korey Hall. The run defense should remain strong.

Another potential All-WAC prospect anchors the secondary. Cornerback Gerald Alexander broke up eight passes to go with five interceptions in 2004.

A big loss for Boise is punt return specialist Chris Carr. He took two punts back for scores last year.

3. Hawaii           PiRate: 92          HFA: 4

The Warriors were truly two different teams last year. The offense was one of the most potent units in the country, while the defense was one of the weakest. Hawaii gained 435 yards and scored 36 points per game but yielded 488 yards and 38 points per game! In their annual home bowl game, they outgunned UAB 59-40 in a contest where both teams threw for over 400 yards. At home, they were 8-1 with an average margin of 45-30. On the road, they were 0-4 with an average margin of 17-58.

Coach June Jones must break in a new signal caller, as NCAA career passing leader Timmy Chang and his 38 TD pass arm picked up his diploma. Chang departs after passing for 4,258 yards in 2004 and 17,072 for his career. The new QB is Jeff Rhode. Fret not for the Warriors. Coach June Jones' offense will pass for more than 300 yards per game yet again and score more than 30 points per game.

Chad Owen, who grabbed over 100 passes in 2004, has used up his eligibility as well. Jason Rivers caught 80 passes for 973 yards and is the lone returning wide out. Hawaii uses four wide receivers and no tight ends, so there will be numerous mistakes in the passing game this year while they compile 320 or so yards.

The Hawaii running game consists mostly of draws and delays. Inexperience abounds at this position also, as the top two backs finished up their college careers last year. Whoever emerges as the starter at tailback will have a veteran front line to run behind, so expect a 4.5 average per carry on the few running plays UH uses. The biggest brute on the OL has the apropos name of Samson Satele. Satele, a junior, is a pro prospect at guard.

The defense should be a little stronger this year, but I expect Hawaii to surrender more than 30 points per game again. A porous defensive line gave away more than 250 yards rushing per game last season. Rice and Boise State rushed for more than 400 yards against them, while Fresno State rushed for more than 500! There is no way to go but up, even though half of the starting line departed.

Middle linebacker Ikaiki Curnan heads the second line of defense. When totally healthy in 2003, he recorded over 120 tackles with a dozen being made behind the line of scrimmage.

Returning safety Leonard Peters led UH in 2004 with 120 tackles. The rest of the secondary is above-average, so the pass defense numbers should be better than last year.

The newest and most exciting addition to the defense is the coordinator. The Man in Black has returned to coaching. Welcome back Jerry Glanville.

Look for Hawaii to win enough games to play an extra home date in late December if either Boise State or Fresno State jumps up to a higher bowl. This year, The WAC only has two bowl tie-ins after the Silicon Valley Bowl bit the dust.

4. Louisiana Tech          PiRate: 90          HFA: 3

The Techsters belong in this league like the Nashville Sounds belong in the Pacific Coast League in baseball. I could see them jumping to C-USA or the Sunbelt some time in the future.

Coach Jack Bicknell, III begins the season with the most new starters in the league. Besides losing the entire interior front three in the Bulldogs 3-4 defense, there have been three different coordinators in the last 12 months. The four linebackers include the top three returning tacklers from 2004. Outside backer Jeremy Hamilton is only 5-11 and 220, but he packs a wallop and is as quick as any split end.

The secondary was hit hard by graduation, as only cornerback Tramon Williams returns. La. Tech allowed 231 passing yards and 57% completions last season. For The Bulldogs to have any chance of making a bowl game this year, the new guys will have to perform like veterans. Tech can finish in the upper division, but a bowl game is a long shot.

5. Nevada           PiRate: 88          HFA: 3

Athletics Director Chris Ault fired former coach Chris Tormey after 5-7 and 6-6 seasons in 2002 and 2003. He named himself head coach for 2004, and how did the Wolf Pack fare? 5-7. Ault previously coached Nevada for two decades from the mid 1970's to mid 1990's.

Ault's specialty is offense. His last edition the first time around in Reno averaged 43.4 points per game and won the Big West Title. Last year in season number one of Ault's second term, Nevada increased their scoring output from 24 to 30 points per game and their total yardage from 387 to 419 yards. This year, the production should continue to climb. Quarterback Jeff Rowe compares favorably to Paul Pinegar. Rowe completed 58.4% of his passes last year for 2,633 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has good feet and can sting defenses by scrambling for a quick first down.

Rowe's top two receivers return in 2005. Nichiren Flowers caught 91 passes for 1,126 yards and earned 1st team All-WAC honors. Caleb Spencer nabbed 67 passes for 761 yards. Tight End Anthony Pudewell may get more touches this year. Keep an eye on red shirt freshman Mike McCoy. He is a bulldog who can be a valuable possession receiver.

The offensive line has some rebuilding to do, but it was in worse shape last August. I expect the new unit to block adequately.

Improving a rather weak 2004 defense is the main focal point this year. Nevada gave up 34+ points and about 400 yards per game last year. Any improvement at all should give The Pack a real shot at a winning season. The defensive line should be a team strength, even though Nevada switches to a 3-4 alignment. Charles Wilson is one of the best ends in the league, but he was injured and missed much of last year. Craig Bailey compliments Wilson at the other end spot.

The next line of defense will be the Wolf pack's best line backing unit in years. J.J. Milan, Jeremy Engstrom, and either Roosevelt Cooks or Jamaal Jackson are better than any other three-man group on any WAC team.

The secondary will be better than last year. The Wolf pack only gave up 190 yards per game last year in a league where 250 yards is fair. Of course, some of that has to do with the fact that Nevada was easy pickings for most teams' running games.

Look for Coach Ault to have this team contending for league honors in a year or two. For 2005, Nevada will struggle to win more than five games.

6. New Mexico St.          PiRate: 87          HFA: 3

The Aggies left the Sunbelt at the wrong time. Just when it looked like they were getting good enough to contend for a league title, they move up to a tougher league. Instead NMSU may win fewer games than last year's 5-6 team.

Vandy fans will be watching this team closely this year as Woody Widenhofer and Hal Mumme return to Division I-A ball. If Woody can perform any miracles with this defense and lead the league in fewest yards allowed, he should be given strong consideration for the Broyles Award (given to the nation's top assistant).

Air Mumme will be quite a change from what Aggies fans saw during former coach Tony Samuel's tenure (Samuel was from the Tom Osborne coaching tree). Much like what happened at Kentucky in year one of Mummeball, expect the Aggies to make tons of mistakes but be really exciting to watch.

Junior College transfer Royal Gill gets the task of setting the Aggie single season passing yardage record this year. If he stays healthy, he should break Cody Ledbetter's 1995 record of 3,501 yards by mid-November.

Gill will have multiple receivers to share the wealth this year. All the key receivers return including five who caught 20 or more passes in 2004. All five could double their numbers this year. Watch out for Stevelan Harper who has moved from third team to starter. He is a speedy deep threat even though he is only 5-06.

Muammar Ali will get most of the carries when the Aggies run the ball. He picked up a team-leading 561 yards last year.

The offensive line returns three starters, but none of the blocking schemes will be the same as last year. At Kentucky, Mumme's pass blockers frequently stood up at the line of scrimmage rather than get into a three-point stance.

Coach Woody's defense will be stronger against the pass, which is important in the WAC. Free safety Matt Griebel recorded 91 tackles last year with four being for losses. He was a 2nd team All-Sunbelt Conference performer.

Linebacker Jimmy Cottrell was an All-Sunbelt 1st teamer. He led the Aggies with 99 tackles, seven of those for loss.

The defensive interior will get burned often this year. Only end Jared Naylor has much experience. NMSU gave up five yards per rush in 2004, so a year in which they give up 200 yards on a 4.5 average will be considered progress.

Look for the Aggies to average about 30-35 points per game and yield around 40. The season opener against UTEP should be well worth the price of the ticket. Game two at Colorado should be ugly.

7. Idaho               PiRate: 82          HFA: 3

Trivia Question: From 1922 until 1958, in what conference was Idaho a member? The answer: The Pacific Coast Conference, known today as the Pac-10. Yes, Idaho was once in the same league with UCLA, Stanford, Washington et al. The Vandals almost always finished in last place and won zero or one conference game most years.

As a first-year member of the WAC, Idaho isn't expected to fare much better than they did when they battled the brutes of the West Coast in the 1940's and 1950's. After winning just nine games in the last four years, their schedule gets much stronger.

Second year head coach Nick Holt has not decided on his starting quarterback for the opening game at Washington State. Michael Harrington and Steven Wichman have not set the woods on fire during fall practices. Harrington started every game last year, completing nearly 66% of his passes.

The reason for concern in the passing game has more to do with who is not back this year. Gone is Bobby Bernal-Wood, who caught 96 passes last year. He was basically a safety valve receiver who served as the dump off man on failed pass plays. Take away his contribution and Harrington's completion percentage would have dropped greatly. That's part of the current problem.

Tailback Jayson Bird earned 2nd team All-Sunbelt accolades last year after he raced for 859 yards in 10 games at a 5.7 average. He's also a dangerous pass catcher coming out of the backfield.

The offensive line returns four 2004 first teamers and the entire second string. Obviously, there will be quite an impressive improvement in the trenches. However, with the schedule getting stronger, the averages may not improve and may actually decline in 2005.

The defense looks set in the line and at linebacker. The secondary has some question marks. Middle linebacker Cole Snyder is the star of the stop troops. He earned 1st team All-Sunbelt honors last year when he recorded 136 tackles with a dozen going for lost yardage.

Idaho will be a better team in 2005, but it will be a long year. The match up for the cellar takes place when Utah State visits on homecoming day.

Note: It strikes me as quite funny that schools like Arkansas State must change their nickname due to alleged negative connotations, yet the NCAA says nothing of a nickname that condones pillaging. I guess the Vandals' historical victims don't rate much with the NCAA even though they greatly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

8. San Jose State              PiRate: 79          HFA: 3

Once upon a time, San Jose State was a mid-major football power. In the two decades from 1971 to 1990, The Spartans enjoyed 14 winning seasons and were invited to five bowl games. In that time frame, they whipped big neighbor Stanford eight times, including one year in which the Cardinal won the Rose Bowl!

In the last 12 years, San Jose State. has had just one winning season, a 7-5 record in 2000. Spartan alums are hoping things are about to change, as their school has hired a big name coach to turn around the program. Enter former Hawaii and Arizona coach Dick Tomey. Tomey's Wildcat teams were noted for their "Desert Swarm" defense. State won't strike fear in too many opposing offenses this year. They return the bulk of a defense that surrendered 43 points and more than 440 total yards per game.

You know you've had a bad defensive year when one of your safeties leads the team with 101 tackles. Josh Powell did just that. Tomey will utilize the 4-2-5 alignment, so it's likely a secondary member will lead in tackles once again.

The top linebacker is Ezekiel Staples. Last year, he finished second in tackles with 94, seven of them for lost yardage.

The defensive line allowed 5.1 yards per rush, while recording just 22 sacks on enemy quarterbacks. Tackle Kinji Green is the best of this bunch.

The offense was quite good last year, striking for more than 28 points per game. To improve or maintain the status quo, Tomey's troops will have to do so with a new quarterback.  Adam Tafrails saw limited action last year but completed less than 45% of his passes. Many of those were longer passes, as he has a cannon for an arm.

The top three receivers return this year. John Broussard was the third receiver. He is a legitimate deep threat and should be used more often with Tafrails at QB. He hauled in 20 passes at a 17.1 per catch average last year.

The running back stable has been depleted, as the top two runners from last year are gone. The likely starting tailback, Lamar Ferguson, rushed for 150 yards on 49 carries (only 3.1 avg.). He is one of the smallest players in college football at just 5-05 and 150 pounds.

The offensive line is in good shape with most of the two-deep returning. Guard Marcel Burrough is a giant at 6-06 and 349 pounds...

Look for the Spartans to be more competitive this year, but they may not improve upon their 2-9 record of last year. Tomey may shave 10 points per game of the defensive average, but the offense is likely to score less than 21 points per game.

9. Utah State     PiRate: 76          HFA: 3

The Aggies haven't fared well on the gridiron as of late. Their last winning season was a 6-5 team in 1996. From 1978 to 2000, State was a member of the PCAA/Big West. After spending two years as an independent, they spent two years in the Sunbelt. Now they are back among old friends.

That's not all that's new. Brent Guy begins his first season as a head coach having most recently served as defensive coordinator at Arizona State. Guy inherits a team moving up in conference strength after winning three games each year as a member of the Sunbelt.

The Aggie offense should be about as strong as last season. USU averaged only 16.7 points and 290 yards per game in 2004 playing a weaker schedule than the one they will face this season. Coach Guy recently named Leon Jackson, III as his starting quarterback for the opener against Nicholls State. Jackson saw action in a handful of games last year, but he has never started a collegiate game.

Five or six players will vie for time at running back. Nobody on this roster will remind anyone of Reggie Bush. The Aggies finished dead last in the NCAA in 2004 with an average of just 76 yards per game. True freshman Keith Gilliam may emerge as the starter by the end of the season.

The offensive line should be a little better than last year. Senior tackle Donald Penn has started every game in his collegiate career.

Aggie defensive coordinator Mark Johnson could single-handedly increase Maalox sales and monopolize the time of the counting sheep that have been put out of work by Serta. He takes over a defense that gave up 400+ yards to the likes of Louisiana Monroe and New Mexico State and a whopping 550 against UNLV. This year, he will have to devise game plans to stop Boise State, Fresno State, and Hawaii. Can you say 40 points and 450 yards per game allowed?

Cornerback Cornelius Lamb broke up seven passes and intercepted three last year. Safety Terrance Washington has been injured for the better part of a year and a half. If he can return to form, Utah State's secondary will be much improved.

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

Team                    Conf.    Overall

Fresno State         8-0            9-2

Boise State            7-1            9-3

Louisiana Tech     5-3            7-4

Hawaii                    5-3            6-6

Nevada                  4-4            5-6

New Mexico St.  4-4            4-8

Utah State             1-7            3-9

San Jose State      1-7            2-9

Idaho                      1-7          1-10


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