PiRate Preview: the Mountain West

Nobody told Gary Patterson it's not nice to take win the entire pot at the weekly card game when it's your first time at the party. But, the TCU mentor guided his Horned Frogs to the MWC Championship in their first go-around in the circuit. An upset loss to SMU early in the year prevented the Frogs from possibly playing in the Fiesta Bowl.

The 11-win season was TCU's fourth double-digit success in the 2000's. This is a program that went 18-98-5 over an 11-year stretch in the 1970's and 1980's.

This year, the Horned Frogs are the official pick to repeat as MWC champs.  Brigham Young received 20% of the first place votes and was picked second.  Utah finished right behind BYU in third.  There was a large drop to fourth, where Colorado State was the choice, followed by New Mexico fifth and San Diego State sixth.  Air Force was tabbed for seventh place well behind the Aztecs, while Nevada Las Vegas edged Wyoming for eighth.


The PiRates differ somewhat, picking San Diego State and Wyoming to have better years.  The number two through number eight teams are not that far apart in talent.


1. T C U Horned Frogs

PiRate: 109             National Ranking: 30 (t)                        HFA: 4


If this were 1968, TCU would have the best full-house-T offense since Army in 1945.  The Horned Frogs have not one, not two, but three potential NFL running backs on their roster. Their quarterback can run and pass equally well.  They have an exceptional tight end and a talented wide receiver.  Actually, instead of two receivers and three backs, TCU will line up with four receivers and one back. 


Back number one is returning starter Robert Merrill.  This Merrill let's his legs do the singing as judged by his 911 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.  Aaron Brown gained 758 yards at nearly six yards per try in 2005.  Brown is more of the speedy outside runner, whereas Merrill is more of a mini-bus.  Lonta Hobbs returns after missing 2005 as a medical redshirt.  When healthy, Hobbs combines both speed and quickness and has a nose for the goal line.  As a freshman, he topped 1,000 yards at 6.6 yards per rush.  Vanderbilt fans might remember his debut against the Commodores in 2003, when he torched the black and gold for over 100 yards in a comeback 30-14 win.


Quarterback Jeff Ballard may not make the All-MWC team, but he is perfect for TCU's offense.  Ballard can run as judged by his nearly six-yard average (when you take out QB sacks).  He passed the ball at a 60% completion rate and picked up 13 yards per completion.


Wide out Michael DePriest caught just nine passes last year, but three of them were for scores, as he averaged 24.8 yards per grab.  Tight end Chad Andrus is a sixth offensive lineman who can catch the ball in a crowd.


The offensive line is the only area of concern on offense.  Tackle Herbert Taylor could sign as an undrafted NFL free agent next year, as he more than likely will be on several draft boards.  Taylor is the only returning starter in the line.


The TCU defense is going to be quite strong up front and a little worrisome in the back.  The front four and two linebackers have no equal in the MWC and taken as a group of six, these units may be one of the 10 best in the entire NCAA!  Ends Tommy Blake and Chase Critz should wear the opponents' jerseys because they stay on that side of the line most of the time.  They combined for 27.5 tackles for loss including 16 sacks.  Tackle Lorenzo Jones should become part of the purple sack exchange this year, as he recorded 3.5 stops behind the line in limited action.


Linebackers Jason Phillips and Robert Henson finished one-two in tackles last year, throwing 17 enemy ball carriers for losses. Both could earn post-season honors this year.


The five-man secondary is led by safety Marvin White.  He is the only All-MWC caliber player in the backfield, but TCU capitalizes on an A+ pass rush to slow down opposing teams.  In the five double-digit-win seasons, TCU's pass defense held opposing quarterbacks to 44.5%, 38.9%, 51.5%, and 52.2% thanks to a heavy pass rush that forced passers to dump the ball quickly.  Of course, this type of defense has led to the opponent getting a big play.


Kicker Chris Manfredini missed four extra points, but he was a perfect 19-19 with his field goal attempts.


TCU's schedule gives them an outside shot at a perfect season, but I don't see it happening.  The toughest non-conference opponent, Texas Tech, must come to Ft. Worth.  The Frogs host BYU, but must play at Utah.  My guess is they will win 10 or 11 times and play an exciting bowl game.


2. Utah Utes

PiRate: 101             National Ranking: 55                               HFA: 5


Utah lost so much talent last year form their 2004 12-0 team. Alex Smith may have been the biggest departure, but the defense suffered more losses.  As a result, the Utes fell off to 7-5 in Coach Kyle Whittingham's first season.  Year number two should see Utah improve, but it may not be enough to return to the top of the MWC standings.


The offense tailed off from 45.3 to 30 points per game, scoring less than 20 in three consecutive mid-season losses.  Quarterback Brian Johnson completed 63.6% of his tosses for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns, but that was quite a reduction from the departed Smith, who completed closer to 70% of his passes the year before.


The running game dropped off by more than 50 yards per game.  It could be a problem this year, as Quinton Ganther (1,120 yards/7 TD 5.5 avg) now wears a Tennessee Titans uniform.  Getting first crack at Ganther's job will be former Southern Cal Trojan Darryl Poston.


The receiver unit lost some talented players, but the Utes return speedy Brian Hernandez, who averaged 18.2 yards on his 39 catches.  Derrick Richards is ready to become a big play receiver this year.


Tavo Tupola leads the offensive line contingent this year from his tackle spot.  He earned 2nd team All-MWC honors a year ago.  Two other starters return to this unit.


The Titans also claimed Utah's top defender from last year, linebacker Spencer Toone (113 tackles, 5 for loss).  The next five leading tacklers return though. 


Three starters return to the trenches.  Nose guard Kelly Talavou and ends Soli Lefiti and Martail Burnett combined for 12.5 stops for loss.


Joe Jiannoni and Casey Evans give the Utes a fine pair of linebackers.  The duo registered 162 tackles.  Evans is a strong pass defender, as his five interceptions at safety in 2005 confirm.  He'll be more of a rover this year.


The secondary returns Eric Weddle and Shaun Harper (as well as Evans who moves up).  Weddle was the star of the unit last year with 16 passes defended, four as interceptions.


Utah has enough talent to compete with TCU for the MWC title.  In fact, when the Utes and Frogs meet in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 5, both teams could be undefeated if Utah gets by UCLA in the opener and TCU takes out Texas Tech.  Should Utah win that game to rise to 6-0, they could be on their way to a repeat of 2004.  I see the Utes falling short of that goal.  My realistic guess is 10 regular season wins and possibly a share of the MWC crown.


3. Brigham Young Cougars

PiRate: 101             National Ranking: 56 (t)                        HFA: 5


Who would have ever thought this school would be happy with a 6-6 season?  After three consecutive losing seasons, last year's break even campaign and Las Vegas Bowl berth was cause for celebration in Provo.


If a rebuilding defense can contain opponents just enough this year, a strong offense could outscore the opposition a few more times this year than last.


Coach Bronco Mendenhall was noted for spectacular defenses as the coordinator at New Mexico.  He will have to be quite a genius (or maybe a sorcerer) to mold the Cougar stop troops into an effective resistance.


Linebacker Cameron Jensen led BYU with 84 tackles last year (6 for losses).  He may have to add 25 stops to that number this year for the Cougars to be just mediocre on the stop side. 


The secondary has two fairly good defenders in cornerbacks Justin Robinson and Kayle Buchanan.  They only combined for one interception.


Up front, the entire line must be replaced.  Nose tackle Hala Paongo can stuff the run but he is not All-MWC material.


BYU could easily surrender 35 points and 450 yards per game this season and still return to a bowl game thanks to a powerful offense that could annex 500 yards and 40 points per game.


Quarterback John Beck is the best of the MWC.  He completed 64.5% of his passes last season for 3,709 yards and 27 scores.  Playing 13 games this year, he should top 4,000 yards with ease and possibly break the 4,500 yard barrier.


Five receivers who caught more than 20 balls return this year.  Chief among them is tight end Johnny Harline, who nabbed 63 passes for 853 yards in 2005.  Harline could be the leading candidate for the Mackey Award this year.  Number two tight end Dan Coats could start everywhere else in the league.


BYU can run the ball for 200-300 yards a game when defenses concentrate on stopping the pass.  Running back Curtis Brown gained 1,123 yards and scored 14 times on the ground.  He can also come out of the backfield and do damage with his pass-catching ability, as he caught 53 passes and scored two more times.


What will make the 2006 offense so deadly is an offensive line that will open running holes and give Beck plenty time to locate his receivers.  Former Vanderbilt Commodore Tom Sorenson was scheduled to start at center until he was injured in the opening week of fall practice.  Jeff Rhea should take over that position.  On either side of him will be two exceptional blockers—guards Ray Feinga and Dallas Reynolds and tackles Jake Kuresa and Eddie Keele.


BYU has a tricky non-conference slate playing at Arizona, hosting Tulsa, and venturing to Boston College to begin the season.  They could lose all three, but I expect them to win at least one and possibly two of those.  After beating intrastate rival Utah State, the Cougars begin MWC at TCU on a Thursday night game.  After that game, the next six could start the ball rolling for the Cougars.  The season concludes with the big rivalry game on the road against Utah.  I believe eight wins are possible this year.


4. San Diego State Aztecs

PiRate: 98               National Ranking: 66 (t)                        HFA: 4


An erratic defense kept the Aztecs from enjoying a winning season and possible bowl berth last year, and it cost Tom Craft his job.  Enter the great gunslinger Chuck Long.  The former long bomber from Iowa could very well be in the right place at the right time.  San Diego State has enough talent to challenge for third in the conference.


The Aztecs clobbered BYU and Utah last year and almost upset TCU.  With eight starters returning on defense, the Aztecs should perform much better than 2005 when they yielded 27 points and more than 400 total yards per game.


SDSU was too much in the giving mood to enemy running backs in 2005, but they should be stingier this season.  A front four that includes tackles Nick Osborn and Jonathan Bailes plus end Antwan Applewhite should yield less than 150 rushing yards and pick up 25 to 30 sacks.


Russell Allen and Joe Martin give the Aztecs to standout linebackers.  The duo made 142 tackles and provided excellent pass defense in the short zones.


The defensive backfield was not all that bad last year, and it should be better in 2006.  Cornerbacks Donny Baker and Terrell Maze combined for 28 defended passes, while safety Reggie Grigsby made 90 stops.


If Long can maintain consistency on this side of the ball, San Diego State could lop off more than a touchdown per game with this talent.


The offense is not in the same shape as the defense, but Long should be able to mold the returning talent into a decent attack.


Expect SDSU to run the ball more this year, possibly the most times since the days of Marshall Faulk.  Lynell Hamilton should rush for 1,200 to 1,500 yards this year after gaining 819 a year ago.  He topped 1,000 yards as a freshman in 2003 even though he missed four games.  Staying healthy is his number one concern.


Quarterback Kevin O'Connell completed 62.1% of his passes for 2,663 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2005.  He can also take off and run, and I expect him to do more of that this year.


O'Connell won't have the superstar receiver he had last year, as Jeff Webb and his 92 receptions for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns departs to the NFL.  Fear not, for wide outs Chazeray Schilens and Alex Ghebreselassie should provide adequate countermeasures to the running game.


The one iffy unit is the offensive line.  Aside from guard Brandon Dombrowski, the rest of the unit is only fair.


The Aztec kicking game is top-rate.  Kicker Garrett Palmer connected on 15 of 17 field goal attempts, and punter Michael Hughes averaged an amazing 44.8 yards per punt.


2006 looks like the year San Diego State returns to a bowl for the first time since 1998.  The Aztecs have enough talent to fight it out with BYU for third place in the MWC.  If something crazy should happen, like a repeat upset over Utah at Qualcomm on September 23, Long could take the Aztecs to TCU on November 18 with a chance to grab a share of the MWC title.  While I think true contention will have to wait until next year, I do expect State to win more than they lose and get that special invitation for a 13th game.


5. Colorado State Rams

PiRate: 97               National Ranking: 76 (t)                        HFA: 4


The last three years haven't been kind to Sonny Lubick and his Rams, as the cumulative record is 17-19.  The offense no longer bowls people over with a tough running game, and the defense no longer scares anybody.  Will things change this year?  I don't think so.  CSU has too many holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and depth is an issue.


The Rams' defense has given up more points per game every year than the previous year since for five years running.  That should end this year, as CSU should yield less than 2005's 30.8 PPG.


The strength of this defense rests in the secondary, where two of the best pass defenders line up.  Cornerback Robert Herbert defended 12 passes to go with 72 tackles.  Safety Ben Stratton was poised for an All-American season in 2005, but he missed the entire year with an injured knee.  His healthy return is vital. 


Middle linebacker Jeff Horinek leads the linebacking brigade.  Five of his 61 tackles were for losses.  Another returning starter, Jon Radford delivers punishing blows, but he lacks the speed required of an outside linebacker.


The front four features tackle Blake Smith and end Jesse Nading who combined to make 81 tackles, 17 for losses.  Nading earned honorable mention All-MWC.


Colorado State will be better defensively, but don't expect the Rams to approach their defensive efforts of the 1990's.  Look for 25 to 28 points and 375-400 total yards allowed.


The Ram offense loses its leader as quarterback Justin Holland is gone.  Fan favorite Caleb Hanie takes over.  Hanie saw some action in 2004, but he spent most of last year on the bench.  He has a strong arm and can move to avoid the pass rush, but he is not likely to come close to replicating Holland's numbers (63.7%, 3,185 yds, 13.6 per completions, 8.6 per attempt).


The running game has suffered through consecutive mediocre seasons, but Kyle Bell should help improve that phase of the game.  Last year, Bell ran for 1,288 yards at 4.7 yards per try with 10 touchdowns.  This year, he should get as many as 50 additional rushes and could top 1,500 yards.


The top receiver this year should be H-back Kory Sperry.  At 6-6, he gives Hanie a big target; once he catches the ball, it will take more than one defender to bring him down.  Last year, Sperry picked up 547 yards on 42 receptions.  The primary deep threat is Johnny Walker, who averaged 15.4 yards on his 43 receptions.  Someone else will need to step up to help replace David Anderson, who wound up his CSU career with an 86-reception, 1,221-yard campaign.


The offensive line has three potential all-conference performers in center Nick Allotta, guard Josh Day, and tackle Clint Oldenburg.


After opening with Weber State, Colorado State faces Colorado at Denver's Invesco Field.  They then play at two WAC powers, Nevada and Fresno State.  If they come out of that start at 1-3, it's almost a given the Rams will not see the good side of .500.  If they can split the first four, then 7-5 is not out of the realm of possibility. 


6. Air Force Falcons

PiRate: 93               National Ranking: 86                               HFA: 5


Has the triple option run its course in The Springs?  Air Force has seen its record head south from 8-5 to 7-5 to 5-6 to 4-7 the last four years.  2006 could see a third consecutive losing season.


Actually, the offense has not been the problem in recent years; it's the defense that broke down.  Last year, the Falcons scored 30 points per game and gained 418 yards per game.  That should be good enough to win eight or nine times with an average defense.  AFA's last two defenses gave up 31.1 and 31.7 points per game and over 420 yards per game both years.


There's bad news and then there's more bad news.  The defense might regress more in 2006, and the offense may have difficulties adjusting to a coaching change that occurred after fall practice began.


Let's start with the porous stop troops.  They won't stop many people this year.  Air Force played pass defense like they were defending some of their F-117's.  Enemy passers completed 65.7% of their passes for 255 yards per game.  The Falcons only picked up 13 sacks.


Leading the charge up front are tackle Grant Thomas and end Gilberto Perez.  Perez made 9.5 stops for loss in 2005.


The linebackers will be a weak spot this year, where only Drew Fowler has much experience.  Julian Madrid could develop into a gamer.


In the secondary, cornerbacks Carson Bird and Chris Sutton teamed up for 99 tackles and 15 defended passes, while safety Bobby Giannini led the team with 92 tackles.


Depth is a major concern with the AFA defense.  If the injury bug hits, this could get ugly.


Speaking of ugly, that's the best way to describe the dismissal of offensive line coach Pete Hurt a little over a week ago, after he slugged one of his players.  The Offensive line figured to be the strength of the offense.  Center Stuart Perlow, guard Curtis Grantham, and tackle Robert Kraay give the Falcons a trio of excellent blockers.  Blocking the triple option allows the line to double team the bigger defenders at the point of attack, so the line has an easier job of it than in other offenses. 


Hoping to benefit from the strong corps of blockers are quarterback Shaun Carney and a host of running backs.  Carney and graduated backup Adam Fitch combined to pass the ball for more yards than any other Falcon offense in the Fisher DeBerry era, finishing with an average of 171 yards per game.  Carney completed 64.2% of his tosses, while leading the Academy with 710 rushing yards.


Fullback Jacobe Kendrick gives Carney an excellent first option.  Last year, he accumulated 532 yards with a 4.6 average per rush.  He is virtually impossible to stop behind the line of scrimmage.  Halfbacks Chad Hall and Justin Handley averaged 5.4 yards per carry, but of course as pitch backs in the option, they benefited from getting the ball in open field.


Hall is the leading returning receiver this year as he caught 16 passes last season.  Victor Thompson caught just six passes.  This is quite a decline from the two leading receivers from last year (Jason Brown and Greg Kirkwood had 79 receptions for 1,429 yards and nine scores).


Air Force will play only one game during the first half of September.  They will be one of the few teams not playing until September 9, when they open the season in Knoxville against Tennessee.  Another bye week follows before the Falcons travel to Wyoming.  Air Force then plays six of their next eight at Falcon Stadium before closing the season with road games at UNLV and TCU.  It looks like another four or five win season at best, and if the offense tanks due to the August coaching changes, Air Force could suffer through a two or three win debacle.


7. Wyoming Cowboys

PiRate: 93               National Ranking: 87                               HFA: 4


I must admit I thought Joe Glenn would turn around the moribund Wyoming football team and have the Cowboys challenging for conference supremacy by year four.  When he wasn't a real finalist for the Colorado job last year, that was a big telltale sign that Wyoming has not returned to their glory years.


Coming off a 4-7 season after going 7-5 in 2004, Wyoming won't have enough offense to get back over .500.  In fact, just matching last year's four-win total will be tough.


The offense figures to struggle this year with no proven quarterback on the roster.  Jacob Doss will begin the season as the starter after completing seven of 13 passes last year for just 49 yards.


The running game should remain fairly strong with Wynel Seldon returning to his running back spot.  Seldon gained 871 yards at 4.7 yard increments.  He will be backed up by two backs who can carry the load.  Joseph Harris and Ivan Harrison return from injuries and either could push out Seldon if he falters.


The receiving corps loses Jovon Booknight and his 77 receptions for 1,116 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Michael Ford finished second with just 29 catches.


The line is the strongest unit on offense.  Center Jason Karcher and tackle Chase Johnson earned honorable mention All-MWC honors last year. 


The Cowboy defense only allowed 377 total yards per game last year, but they gave up 27 points per game.  Stopping the pass is the key to the season, as Wyoming lost their top two secondary players, one the leading tackler in 2005.  Safety John Wendling intercepted three passes while recording 75 tackles.


Mike Groover is the best of an average defensive line.  He should improve on last year's numbers when he made 6.5 sacks.


The four-man linebacking crew has some talent.  Aaron Robbins, Ward Dobbs, and Austin Hall give the Cowboys three strong run-stoppers.


A difficult schedule includes road games at Virginia, Syracuse, New Mexico, TCU, BYU, and UNLV with home games against Utah State, Boise State, Air Force, Utah, Colorado State, and San Diego State.  This looks like another four-win season at best in Laramie.


8. New Mexico Lobos

PiRate: 92               National Ranking: 88 (t)                        HFA: 5


2006 figures to be a rocky year in Albuquerque.  Coach Rocky Long's Lobos were decimated by graduation, losing the top rusher and pass receiver on offense and losing the top two tacklers on defense, as well as several run-stoppers and pass defenders.


The Lobos moved the ball with a perfect blend of runs and passes, but this season, they could struggle both ways.  Quarterback Kole McKamey returns to direct the attack, but his top receivers are missing.  McKamey threw for 1,682 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he also threw nine interceptions.  He will sorely miss Hank Basket, III who grabbed 67 passes for 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns.  Travis Brown must learn to run to daylight after making the catch, as he has sprinter's speed.


Also gone is 1,298-yard rusher DonTrell Moore, who crossed the goal line 14 times.  Not counting quarterback McKamey, the leading returnee at running back is receiver Brown who averaged 7.7 yards per deceptive carry.  The running game should disappear from 200 yards per game to possibly less than 125 yards per game.


The offensive line gives the Lobos hope, as three blockers have all-star potential.  Guard Bo Greer and tackles Robert Turner and Anthony Kilby can open holes and protect the passer.


The defense has a few good players, but not enough to stop the high-scoring offenses in the MWC.  The top unit on the stop side are the linebackers, where Quincy Black and Cody Case figure to make about 150 tackles this year.  Black specializes in pass defense, while Kase is a better blitzer.


The front three features end Michael Tuohy who recorded 4.5 stops behind the line in limited action last year.  He can be driven backwards by big tackles as can opposite side end Stephen Hutchinson.


In the secondary, UNM has a fine pair of safeties in DeAndre Wright and Blake Ligon.  The Lobos gave up 254 yards per game through the air last year, and it could be worse this season.


New Mexico will start 2-0 thanks to beginning the season against Portland State and New Mexico State.  After that, the chances for wins greatly drop.  I foresee the first losing season since 2000 and the worst season since 1999.  Look for four wins tops this year.



9. U N L V Rebels

PiRate: 83               National Ranking: 108 (t)                      HFA: 3


The Rebels begin the season well behind the other eight MWC teams, but I have a sneaky suspicion they will put the bite on a couple of teams ahead of them in the standings.  The Rebels have some decent talent, and if that talent stays injury-free, they could be 10 to 15 points better in November than they are to start the season.


The UNLV offense should easily pass last year's 18.8 points per game.  Quarterbacks Jarrod Jackson and Shane Steichen both return after combining for 2,288 yards a year ago, but they could both sit on the bench this year as former USC Trojan Rocky Hinds runs the team.  Hinds has a cannon for an arm, and once he shakes off the cobwebs, he should accumulate 250-300 passing yards per game.


Hinds will have some decent targets to look for when he passes.  Wide receivers Casey Flair and Corey Anderson made 46 receptions for 587 yards last season.  Throw in JUCO wide out Aaron Straiten, who Coach Mike Sanford compares to Keyshawn Johnson, and you have the makings of an efficient passing game.


Keeping defenses honest will be the job of running back Erick Jackson.  Last year, Jackson averaged only 3.9 yards per rush.


The improved offensive line features center Aaron Mueller and guard Brandon Gray.  UNLV allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 39 times, so that is one area where the line must improve.


On defense, the secondary could actually challenge for best in the league this year.  Cornerbacks John Guice and Eric Wright could be the best combined at that position in the MWC.  Guice can get into enemy backfields and make big plays.  Wright started four games at Southern Cal in 2004 which speaks volumes.


The linebacking unit will not be a team strength this season, but Beau Bell should lead the team in tackles after recording 92 a year ago, 7.5 behind the line.  Up front, nose guard Howie Fuimaono earned honorable mention All-MWC in 2005 and could earn more accolades this year.


Kicker Sergio Aguayo may be the best in the league.  Last year, he nailed 12 of 16 field goal attempts including two from 50 or more yards.


The Rebels might have had a decent shot at a winning record had the schedule not been so difficult this year.  Outside of league play, UNLV hosts Idaho State and intrastate foe Nevada, while going on the road to Iowa State and Hawaii.  That looks like 1-3.  In MWC play, New Mexico TCU, Wyoming, and Air Force visit Boyd Stadium, while the Rebels play at Colorado State, BYU, Utah, and San Diego State.  Overall, it looks like four wins or five at the most.


Next Up:  The four independents.  Can Notre Dame go the distance, and will Brady Quinn be the next Joe Montana?  Will both Army and Navy become bowl eligible?  Will Temple come to Nashville on September 30 riding a 16-game losing streak?


Sources: The official Mountain West Conference website plus the nine member websites.

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