Scouting the Mountain West Conference

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

Mountain West Conference Preview


The Mountain West Conference formed when the16-member WAC split in half after 1998. Seven MWC teams were long-time WAC members. These schools started the wide-open, pass-the-ball 40 to 50 times movement that has become the norm in football today. In the six-year history of the new league, only Colorado State, Utah, and BYU have won or shared the conference championship. Utah and Colorado State finished first (including ties) three times each, while BYU pulled the trick twice.

I have the Mountain West rated above the Big East and deserving of automatic BCS bowl consideration. Eight of the nine MWC teams this year could finish in the upper division of the Big East.


Last year, Utah ran roughshod over the league on its way to a perfect 12-0 season and number four ranking. The next five teams were bunched together and separated by a thin margin.


This year, my ratings show three teams worthy of a top 25 ranking and five more teams that could become bowl eligible depending on which team gets the breaks. The Utes still look like the class of the conference, but the MWC championship isn't a given. This will be another exciting year in the league.


At the conference's media event, the official poll released picked the MWC in this order: Utah-1st, New Mexico-2nd, Wyoming-3rd, BYU-4th, Colorado State-5th, TCU-6th, Air Force-7th, San Diego State-8th, and UNLV-9th. My ratings say Colorado State will be better than where they were picked. I believe five teams should be bunched together in a tight race for fourth place.


All but UNLV, San Diego State, and TCU get four home field advantage points. Those three get the minimum three points.


1. Utah                      PiRate:107               HFA: 4


What can the Utes do for an encore after posting a perfect 12-0 season in 2004? Did you say go 12-0 again? Can they do something only Nebraska (1994-95) and Penn State (1968-69) have managed to do since 1960? It's not impossible, but it is unlikely. My guess is the Utes will have a loss after they leave Ft. Collins, Colorado, on October 8.


Kyle Whittingham takes over as head coach for Urban Meyer. He served as the team's defensive coordinator for 10 seasons. He won't have the services of two All-MWC receivers, the leading rusher, two All-MWC offensive linemen, and the leading pass interceptor. Oh yeah, they also lose a fairly good quarterback. All-American and top pick in the NFL draft Alex Smith completed nearly 68% of his passes for just under 3,000 yards. He tossed 32 touchdown passes against only four interceptions! He gave defenses fits with his 774 rushing yards. You cannot replace that type of performance unless you have another top All-American on your roster.

Brian Johnson is not an All-American, nor even an All-MWC quarterback. He saw mop-up action in 10 games as a true freshman last season, throwing just 21 passes. He won the job with an excellent spring. Johnson has deceptive speed and, like Smith, should rush for several hundred yards.


The receiving corps lost two stars who combined for 147 receptions and 23 scores. Split end Travis LaTendresse and flanker John Madsen are the leading returning pass catchers. They combined for 54 receptions and seven touchdowns. Both are tough receivers not afraid to catch a pass in a crowd. Look for Madsen to become the next Ute star.


Quinton Ganther moves into the starting tailback position. As the backup last year, he ran for 654 yards at six yards per pop. At H-back, Brian Hernandez and Brent Casteel should split time.


The offensive line may be the strongest unit on the team. Four of the five projected starters could earn some post-season accolades. Center Jesse Boone, guard David Dirkmaat, and tackles Jason Boone and Tavo Tuploa make the Utah line top-rate.


Utah won't score 45.3 points per game nor accumulate 500 total yards per game, but it should top 30 points and 400 yards. The defense gave up less than 20 points and 350 yards per game last year. If a decent pair of linebackers develops, the Utes could come close to matching those numbers in 2005.


In their 4-2-5 defense, the defensive line will be Utah's top unit. End Marquess Ledbetter and tackle Steve Fifita are NFL prospects.

Rover Spencer Toone is part linebacker and part defensive back. He led the Utes last year with 115 tackles and should lead again this season. Joining him at linebacker are Grady Marshall and Malakai Mokofisi. Both are inexperienced, but their quickness could overcome some of their mistakes.


Ryan Smith and Eric Weddle team to form an excellent combination in the defensive backfield. Together, they broke up 12 passes and had five interceptions in 2004.


Utah may have to settle for the Liberty or Emerald bowl this season.


2. Wyoming                        PiRate:105               HFA: 4


Joe Glenn may very well be the next coach at Colorado if the job becomes available. The former head man at Northern Colorado and Montana has quite a positive reputation in the area. Last year, he added to that eminence by turning around a moribund Wyoming program in just his second year. Wyoming won seven times including a huge Las Vegas Bowl upset over UCLA, the first bowl win for the pokes since 1966, when future Miami Dolphin Jim Kiick toted the pig for the Pokes.


The Cowboys return 17 starters including most of their offensive skill position players. Look for the winning ways to continue in Laramie, and if the ball bounces just right, the CSU, Utah, BYU title dominance may end.

Quarterback Corey Bramlet should contend for 1st team All-MWC honors. Last year, he finished third in the MWC in total offense. His running ability must be respected, or he can burn a defense for 10 quick yards.


Jovon Bouknight has an NFL future. He nabbed 63 passes good for 1,075 yards last year. When he wasn't catching passes, he was running the reverse and tossing passes. He ran 11 times for 78 yards and completed two passes for two touchdowns. Jason Wallace and Tyler Holden will split time at the other wide out spot. Tight end John Wadkowski was named to multiple all-conference teams, so this group of receivers is the best in the league.


Last year's co-tailbacks both return. Ivan Harrison and Joseph Harris combined for 996 yards rushing. Wyoming improved their rushing output by 45 yards per game last year.


The offensive line returns four starters. None of the regulars this year will make 1st team all-conference, but they are all above average. The strength of the unit is in the tackles; Chase Johnson and Hunter Richards will open holes and protect the QB.


The defense has improved by leaps and bounds from before the Joe Glenn era. After giving up 36 points per game in 2002, the points allowed dropped to 30 in 2003 and 25 last year. Eight starters return, so the points allowed should drop more in 2005.


The strongest defensive unit is the secondary. Free safety John Wendling returns after leading the Cowboys with 89 tackles. He broke up six passes and picked off three more. Cornerback Derrick Martin broke up 14 passes to go with three interceptions. Safety Ron Rockett and cornerback Terrance Butler make this one of the top two secondary units in the league. Depth is abundant here, so fatigue won't be a problem.


The one question mark may be at linebacker, where there are new starters at two of the three spots. Holdover Austin Hall had only 20 tackles last year, so this unit is the Cowboys only weakness.


In the trenches, nose guard Dusty Hoffschneider is a hoss. At 5-08 and 257, don't be deceived by this former wrestling champion's frame.  John Flora and Aaron Robbins are a fine duo at end.


Wyoming must play at both Colorado State and Utah. That's the only thing keeping me from picking them to finish first in the MWC.


3. Colorado State               PiRate:103               HFA: 4


Last year, Coach Sonny Lubick and the Rams endured their first losing season since 1993. Three tough out-of-conference games set the tone for the down season. The record should head back north of .500, as  CSU has 17 starters returning. By the end of the year, this team could be as strong as the 2000 squad.


It was defense that caused the losing record. Coach Lubick's stop troops had only three experienced starters, and the averages took a beating (30 points, 420 yards). Things should be better this year. The Rams are strong at linebacker and in the secondary.


The defensive line is the one question mark this season. After end Terrance Carter, there really isn't a star. Carter missed the second half of last year with a season-ending injury. Blake Smith is one of the strongest tackles in the league.


The line backing trio returns intact. Courtney Jones recorded seven tackles for loss. Luke Adkins and Jahmal Hall complete the group.


The secondary is strong. Cornerbacks Brandon Cathy and Robert Herbert combined for 19 passes broken up. Free safety Ben Stratton had 88 tackles.


The Rams gained less than 375 total yards per game and averaged less than 24 points per game. With nine starters returning, including most of the key players, those numbers will improve, possibly by 10 points and 50 yards.


Quarterback Justin Holland is an average to above-average signal caller. He completed more than 60% of his passes last year, but his TD/Int ratio was only 6/10. Backup Caleb Hanie returns and should see time in most games.


CSU rushed for only 112 yards per game after averaging around 200 for the previous three seasons. Tailback Jimmy Green accounted for 436 yards with a miniscule 3.3 average. Kyle Bell and Nnamdi Ohaeri will see some touches, and either one could become the starter.


An excellent group of receivers should help Holland and Hanie top last year's output of 261 yards per game. David Anderson and Dustin Osborn have good hands and speed. Anderson was a 2nd team All-MWC last year. Tight end Matt Bartz missed much of last year due to injury. When healthy in 2003, he was an honorable mention All-MWC. Brentwood High graduate Brian Heimerdinger, son of former Titans and current Jets offensive coach Mike Heimerdinger, is a freshman wide out on the CSU roster.


Four starters return to the interior line. Center Albert Bimper and tackle Mike Brisiel will vie for All-MWC honors.


Colorado State gets both Utah and Wyoming at home. That gives them an excellent shot to run the table in the Mountain West, but it isn't a given. What is a given is that the Rams are headed to an eight or nine-win season.

Note: Within the last week, several starters have missed practices with injuries. Dustin Osborn, Mike Brisiel, guard Brandon Alconcel, Albert Bimper, Terrance Carter, Jahmal Hall, and Ben Stratton have all been banged up. CSU opens with road games against Colorado and Minnesota, so their injury status must be closely monitored.


4. Brigham Young                         PiRate:97                 HFA: 4


Gary Crowton knows how Ray Perkins, Gene Bartow, and Ron Zook felt. Trying to replace a legend can be hazardous to your employment health. Three consecutive losing seasons ended his coaching career in Provo. Enter Bronco Mendenhall. The former defensive coordinator becomes head coach this year.


The once dominant Cougar offense has been just ordinary the last three years. Don't expect much improvement this year, but the numbers should be better than 2004 (24.3 points/386 yards).


Quarterback John Beck's numbers last year didn't remind BYU fans of Ty Detmer, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, or Robbie Bosco. However, he has a strong and accurate arm. He played lame most of 2004 and when healthy, he could produce Detmer/Wilson/McMahon/Bosco numbers.


Todd Watkins is the prime receiver. Last year, he caught 52 passes at 20 yards per reception. If another receiver can develop to take the pressure off, Watkins could lead the MWC in receiving yards. He could easily be a 1st team All-American and first round pick in the next NFL draft. Tight end Daniel Coats had a sophomore slump last year. As a freshman, he caught 30 passes.


Curtis Brown and Fahu Tahi will share the load at running back. They combined for 1,128 yards rushing last year. Both can come out of the backfield and catch the ball. Brown earned 2nd team All-MWC honors.

The offensive line returns three starters. Center Lance Reynolds and tackle Jake Kuresa could both earn All-MWC accolades.


The Cougar defense surrendered 27 points and 380 yards per game in 2004. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses. End Manaia Brown tips the scale at 310 pounds. He should make it hard to run the ball his way. The next man inside, Vince Feula, is only 300 pounds.


Middle linebacker Cameron Jensen led BYU with 103 tackles and 11 tackles for loss last year. He is equally competent as a run stopper and pass defender.


The secondary features two potential stars. Cornerback Nathan Soelberg and safety Spencer White combined for 91 stops and seven passes deflected.


Losing punter Matt Payne may be the biggest Cougar loss. Payne averaged 45.3 yards per punt with excellent hang time.


5 (tie) New Mexico                       PiRate:96                 HFA: 4


The Lobos have enjoyed four consecutive winning seasons and three straight bowl games. Until last year, Coach Rocky Long had won one more game each year than the year before. The 7-5 record in 2004 was one win less than 2003. Looking at my ratings and applying them to their schedule, it looks like the record will drop further in 2005.


The Lobos will score more points than last year after tallying 10 fewer points per game than in 2003. Quarterback Kole McKamey returns to pilot the offense. In 2004, he threw for just 1,272 yards, as the Lobos averaged only 112 yards passing and completed a poor 44.8% of their passes.

The strength of this offense is tailback DonTrell Moore. Last year, he raced for 1,091 yards to make it three, 1000-yard seasons in three years. He added 27 receptions. He is coming off ACL surgery, but his rehab has gone well. Fullback Adrian Byrd leads the way for Moore.


All the key pass receivers return for 2005. On the other hand, only two receivers caught double digit passes last year. Hank Baskett pulled in 54 passes for 908 yards.


The offensive linemen are known as "The Hitmen."  Three of these guys could challenge for All-MWC honors.  Center Ryan Cook, guard Robert Turner, and tackle Terrance Pennington give the Lobos a tough strong-side blocking trio.


The defense may take a step backward this season after giving up a league best 19 points per game in 2004 and finishing first in rushing defense and total defense. The strongest unit is the interior line. All three starters return to a unit that gave up 108 yards per game rushing. Nose Tackle Marcus Parker was a 1st Team All-MWC selection.


Linebacker is a question mark this year. Since the Lobos use a 3-4 alignment, this could be a major problem. Three excellent seniors departed, leaving Mike Mohoric as the only experienced starter. Mohoric registered 83 tackles with seven sacks and six passes broken up.

The secondary should be about as good as last year. Since New Mexico blitzes quite a bit more than the average team, the cornerbacks are frequently left out on an island. Gabe Fulbright earned 2nd team All-MWC last year when he intercepted five passes and broke up seven others. Jerrell Malone earned valuable playing time last year and becomes the other starting CB. Charles Brown broke up six passes from his free safety spot.


The Lobos make out-of-conference visits to Missouri and UTEP in addition to playing Wyoming and Utah on the road. It adds up to a losing season unless the defense can repeat last year's surprise performance.


5 (tie). T C U                       PiRate:96                 HFA: 3


It was a disappointing season for TCU in their last year of C-USA play. The Horned Frogs fell from 11-2 to 5-6, as their defense dropped the ball. After giving up 34 points and 425+ yards per game, the move to the tougher Mountain West should mean fewer wins and even more yards allowed.


Coach Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense returns seven starters, but one or two of those may find themselves on the second team. The secondary will be the strength of the defense. Quincy Butler is a physical shutdown cornerback with speed. Last year, he finished with five passes broken up and two interceptions. He took one of those thefts 99 yards for a touchdown. Free Safety Jeremy Modkins is the most experienced member of this unit, having earned three letters.


The two man linebacker corps consists of a couple of speedsters. Middle linebacker Andrew Ward is an excellent zone defender in the inside zones. David Hawthorne is fast enough to play in the secondary.


The interior line has a couple of potential stars. Nose tackle Zarnell Fitch tips the scale at 310 pounds. Ranorris Ray has great hands and speed from his end position.


Even though the defense is improved, the number of points allowed could stay the same or even rise a bit.


There is doubt about the offense as well. TCU has a potentially superior running game and excellent passing game, but unless the rebuilt offensive line develops quickly, The Horned Frogs could find themselves struggling to score points.


Quarterback Tye Gunn is one of the better long passers in college football. His major problem has been staying healthy. Last year, he started four games and threw for 1,065 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 15 yards per completed pass.


Co-starting tailbacks Lonta Hobbs and Robert Merrill have each rushed for 1,000+ yards in a season at TCU. Last year, they combined for 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. Hobbs combines power and speed, while Merrill is great at making defenders miss. When TCU uses a fullback, former linebacker William Jackson will be the man.


TCU has a real star at split end. Cory Rodgers returns after catching 61 passes for 836 yards in 2004. He owns five, 100-yard receiving games in Ft. Worth. Speedy flanker Michael DePriest is the team's deep threat. He caught 19 passes last year at an average of 16.8 yards.


The offensive line returns just two starters. Shane Sims returns at guard, and Herbert Taylor returns at tackle. New starting tackle Michael Toudouze needs to improve his run blocking, but he is a plus blocking for the pass.


TCU's schedule has them going on the road to BYU, Air Force, and San Diego State; my ratings show them losing three close games and suffering another losing season. If those games were at home, I would call for a winning season. It's that close.


7 (tie). Air Force                PiRate:95                 HFA: 4


Last year, Coach Fisher DeBerry suffered through just his third losing season in 21 years at the Academy. The option offense was as potent as ever even with just three returning starters. The inexperienced defense imploded giving up 31 points and 422 yards per game.

The offense could keep the defense off the field this year and give the Falcons a chance to return to their winning ways. My ratings show AFA starting the season near the bottom of the Mountain West by just a couple points, but my gut instinct says Air Force will exceed the expected output and win five to seven games.


The offense begins with quarterback Shaun Carney. He became the first true freshman to start his first game at the Academy. And, what a year he had! He not only led the team with 596 yards rushing, he completed a Falcon record 61.1% of his passes. He was so impressive that backup Adam Fitch has moved to backup halfback.


The fullback position gets more carries than the two halfback positions in the option scheme. Jacobe Kendrick is slated to start after rushing for 232 yards (5.4 avg) in 2004.  When he runs the dive, it usually takes two defenders to stop him.   Joining him in the backfield are halfbacks Chad Smith and Justin Handley; the two combined for just 151 yards on 33 carries last year.


When Air Force puts the ball in the air this year, inexperienced receivers will be trying to catch those passes. End Jason Brown caught just nine passes last year.


The offensive line returns all five starters this year. Coach DeBerry believes Jon Wilson is the best center he has ever coached. Tackle Robert Weaver averaged 14.4 knockdown blocks last year. If this group plays even better this year, the backs should average a yard more per carry. That could be enough to keep the defense off the field and win a few extra games.


The defensive line features former nose guard Gilberto Perez and Nelson Mitchell at the ends. Along with nose guard Russ Mitscherling, this will be a question mark in 2005.


Jared Baxley, who was voted most improved player last year, leads the three-man linebacker corps. Joey Keller and Overton Spence join Baxley to form an average group.


The five-man secondary is led by cornerback Chris Sutton. He picked off two passes last year, saving those heroics  for Army and Navy. Bobby Giannini returns at free safety. The falcon backs are set with Denny Poland and John Taibi. It is a reliable quintet.


7 (tie). San Diego State                PiRate:95                 HFA: 3


The Aztecs had one of the youngest offenses in college football in 2004. This year, the defense will be young. San Diego State hasn't fielded a winner since 1998, but if the youthful defense can gel, that could change this year. The talent level has improved since Coach Tom Craft came to SDSU, so look for the Aztecs to challenge for the conference title in a year or two.


Getting back to 2005, eight starters return. Quarterbacks Kevin O'Connell and Matt Dlugolecki each started games last year; adding red shirt freshman Darren Mougey to the mix gives the Aztecs three different options . O'Connell is the best runner of the trio; Dlugolecki is the best passer, while Mougey has the best combination of skills.


Regardless of who plays the most at QB, he will have a pair of excellent receivers to toss the ball to in split end Jeff Webb and slot back Robert Ortiz. The two combined for 123 catches for close to 1,600 yards. Flanker Chaz Schilens could emerge to make this an excellent three-man group. Lance Louis has a firm grip on the tight end position.


Three players return with starting experience at running back. Lynell Hamilton missed all of 2004 after fracturing an ankle. In 2003, he earned Freshman All-American honors after rushing for 1,087 yards. Last year's top rusher, Brandon Bornes, picked up 578 yards, and backup Michael Franklin added 463.


The offensive line was hit hard by injuries last year. At one point last year, three freshmen started. This year, the left side of the interior is extremely talented. Center Jasper Harvey, guard Taylor Schmidt, and tackle Chris Pino form a formidable trio.


Expect the Aztecs to score more than the 21.3 points per game of 2004. I see an average of 25 to 28 points and close to 400 total yards per game.

The great defensive effort of 2003 (17.3 points/290 yards allowed) could not be repeated last year. The averages rose to 25.6 points and 366 yards. With seven starters missing (they were the seven leading tacklers) from their "Darkside Defense," expect more woes on this side of the ball. It will be what keeps SDSU from winning seven or eight games.


The defensive front four returns two starters. Defensive tackle Jonathan Bailes stopped five runners for losses last year. End Kurt Kahui added three more TFLs.


There will be three new starters at linebacker. Two of last year's starters were selected on the first day of the NFL draft, so this will be a much weaker unit. Freshman middle linebacker Andrew Schantz should be the leading tackler of this group.


One starter returns to the secondary, but one 2003 starter, who missed all of last season, returns. Cornerback Donny Baker broke up an incredible 13 passes last year even though he started only one game.  Jacob Elimimian returns to his 2003 cornerback spot where he led the conference with 14 passes broken up two years ago. Safety Marcus Demps broke up eight passes and made 35 tackles.

San Diego State will upset someone this year, but they might also lose in an upset to someone. They aren't that far away from a winning season.


9. U N L V                 PiRate:79                 HFA: 3


John Robinson ended his long coaching career last year. New coach Mike Sanford has never been a head coach before. He was the offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer at Utah, so there is much excitement in the city that requires much excitement to get any attention.


UNLV went 2-9 last year, and this year's team doesn't look as good. The Rebels better take care of business against Idaho on September 10, or they could end up with a goose egg on the left side of the final record.

Sanford calls his offense "The Shotgun Spread." It will take some time to effectively implement this style with players who were recruited to play in the I-formation. Shane Steichen has the edge over Jarrod Jackson at quarterback. Steichen passed for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Expect those numbers to rise to 3,000 yards and 15 touchdowns.


Alvin Marshall is the Rebels leading returnee at wide out. He caught 37 balls for 437 yards last year. Due to a viral infection that kept him out of spring practice, it is unsure how fit he will be at the start of the season.

Tremayne Kirkland and former walk-on Casey Flair will begin the season as starters. Tight end Greg Estandia red shirted last year due to injury; prior to that, he was selected for the Mackey Award watch list.


The one true weapon last year, running back Dominique Dorsey, rushed for 1,261 yards last year to lead the MWC. Erick Jackson is the leading returnee with 154 yards last year. Ja Ja Riley is eligible after transferring from Ohio State. At U-back (half fullback/half tight end), Chad Henley will get the starting nod.


The offensive line saw three expected starters sit out spring drills with injuries. Having to implement new pass blocking schemes put this group behind schedule. Guard Zach Gorham and tackle Marco Guerra are the best of the bunch.


UNLV gave up 33 points and 378 yards per game last year. Only three starters return, so those weak numbers will get even worse. The only improved part of the defense will be the three-man interior. End Leon Moore and Nose guard Howie Fuimaono form a solid nucleus up front.

The entire two-deep at linebacker graduated. Two of the starters were drafted. This is a major area for concern. Weak side linebacker Beau Bell saw limited action last year and recorded 26 tackles.


One defender returns to the five-man secondary. Safety Joe Miklos is the one bona fide star of the defense. Last year, he had 86 tackles and broke up five passes.


Year one of the Mike Sanford era will be a long one. I cannot see UNLV winning a Mountain West Conference game or even challenging to win this year. Two out-of-conference games (Idaho and Utah St.) are winnable. Idaho is at home, so I pick them to get one win.


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

Colorado State                       8-0                    9-2

Utah                                          7-1                   10-1

Wyoming                                6-2                    8-3

San Diego State                     4-4                    5-7

New Mexico                            3-5                    4-7

B Y U                                         3-5                    4-7

Air Force                                 3-5                    4-7

T C U                                        2-6                    3-8

U N L V                                    0-8                    1-10 Top Stories