Will Cougs start fast in 2011?

IF ALL THE preseason prognosticating is on the money, the toughest games for the Cougs in 2011 will come in the latter half of the schedule. By definition, that would render the start of the season to hold that much of an opportunity. Here's a closer look at the Cougs' first five opponents..

Fast facts:
  • Three of the five games are on the road.
  • The Mountain West will factor in heavily – two of the five games are against MWC conference members.
  • WSU has a bye after their third game against San Diego State, and before Colorado.
  • The combined 2010 W-L records for the first five opponents: 21-40

    Game 1: Idaho State
    The Bengals had a rough year, winning their first game followed by a 10 game losing streak. But taking them lightly can be a big mistake, as Montana State, the Big Sky Champion, found out last year. Idaho State nearly pulled off the shocker, losing 23-20 in OT.

    New ISU coach Mike Kramer spent the past year at WSU as a Football Operations assistant, and will know plenty about WSU's schemes and personnel. Kramer's linebackers' coach, Ryan Smaha, was at WSU for three-plus years from 2007-2010, as a graduate assistant. The o-line coach, Derrick Roche, was a Cougar offensive lineman from 1998-2003.

    ISU was without 10 injured players for spring ball. But Kramer was pleased with how things turned out. "We are a lot better than I thought we would be...especially in the offensive front and linebacker," he said in a school sponsored chat session last month.

    Game 2: UNLV
    Bobby Hauck didn't have the best of times in his first season, going 2-11. UNLV operated a spread before Hauck arrived, and the transition to more of a multiple offense did not go smoothly last year. The defense allowed more than 450 yards per game but several freshmen saw playing time up front and will be that much more experienced in '11.

    UNLV will return 12 starters (7 offense/4 defense/1 kicker) in 2011. On their post-spring depth chart, the Rebels have three seniors starting on offense, and 3-5 on defense (two positions listed as either/or on the chart include seniors).

    Robin Ross, a candidate for the Cougs' linebackers coach opening this offseason that was filled by Chris Tormey, became UNLV's linebackers coach.

    UNLV is picked to finish eight in the Mountain West by the Sporting News, while Lindy's sees them fifth.

    Game 3: San Diego State
    The first of three straight games on the road for the Cougars, Washington State will face a big test in Week 3. SDSU returns a number of key pieces from a 9-4 campaign where they knocked off a ranked Air Force team. Their three losses against ranked teams all could have gone the other way -- 27-24 to No. 25 Missouri, 40-35 to No. 3 TCU and 38-34 to No. 25 Utah.

    Jim Sterk, the AD at SDSU, tabbed Rocky Long to become the new SDSU head coach this offseason after Brady Hoke took the job at Michigan. The Aztecs return 14 starters for Long in 2011. Long had previously been the defensive coordinator the past two seasons at SDSU. The Aztecs' base is a 3-3-5 on defense. Although Long hired a new offensive coordinator, the Aztecs' offense isn't expected to change much.

    The three SDSU starters who will gain the most preseason press are sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman, who gained 1,532 yards last season, QB Ryan Lindley who led the MWC in passing last season and Miles Burris, who led the conference in sacks.

    Fifteen San Diego State players were recently named to the Phil Steele Preseason All-MWC team, six of whom were named first team.

    Game 4: Colorado
    After a bye, the Cougs travel to Boulder to meet Colorado. The Buffs have a new coach, Jon Embree who came from coaching tight ends for the Washington Redskins for a year to replace Dan Hawkins who was let go after five seasons.

    Embree is implementing a new pro-style offense, with more snaps under center and less shotgun formations. Only a small amount had been implemented through the spring. Defensively, Colorado may be weakest at the corner position, and a number of players sat out this spring on defense with injuries.

    The Buffs had 60 players on scholarship at the end of the spring. They're expected to add 19 freshmen to that ledger in August. They may not be deep but Colorado does return a high number of starters from last season – 16 to be precise.

    Colorado picked to finish last or next to last in the six-team Pac-12 South by the Sporting News, Lindy's and Athlon but there's reason for optimism in Boulder. Last season, Colorado lost significant leads, and ultimately four games, to Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas by a combined 16 points.

    Game 5: UCLA
    Rick Neuheisel went 4-8 last season and would figure to need a bowl game to quiet the critics. The Bruins in 2011 are picked to finish last or next to last in the Pac-12 South by the Sporting News, Lindy's and Athlon.

    UCLA has 15 players – 8 on offense, 7 on defense – returning. Three more starters from 2009 who sat out last year due to academics or injury are also slated to return.

    The defense looked to have potential this spring but the offense is still finding its way, if the reports from the LA beat writers are any indication. The offense has a new coordinator, and the D is also operating under a new defensive coordinator and line coach, with Todd Howard joining Washington State this season.

    A clear choice has not yet been made at quarterback, which is usually a bad sign. The offensive line has almost as many questions.

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