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Mountain West Preview
by Matt Fargo - 08/08/2009
It is tough for a non-BCS conference to compete with the big boys but don’t tell that to the Mountain West Conference. It can in fact compete but it just does not get the respect it deserves. Utah was the only undefeated team in the nation last season following a shellacking of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl but Florida was given the National Championship. In my opinion, the Utes were the true champs and this conference has nowhere to go but up. It will be another great season for the MWC and don’t be surprised so see another Cinderella this season.
TCU Horned Frogs 11-2 SU, 8-4 ATS, 5-7 O/U
Summary: TCU could be wearing that Cinderella slipper come January. The Horned Frogs are loaded once again and they have the inside track to the MWC Championship because they have Utah at home this season. The defense was ranked the best in the country last season and it will be right near the top again despite needing to replace six starters. The offense is usually pushed to the side because of that defense but a strong offensive line along with a duel-threat at quarterback is going to make this unit very tough.
Schedule: As mentioned, getting Utah at home is a huge bonus. Last season, the Horned Frogs had to play at Oklahoma but this season it will have two tough road tests at Clemson and at Virginia. Playing at Air Force and at BYU during conference action will be tough challenges but ones they will have to take care of.
Bottom Line: It is not impossible for TCU to go undefeated this season but it is probably a stretch to predict that. Those four road games are all extremely tough and if they can somehow wins all of those, the Horned Frogs will deserve a shot at the top. However that is a long way off but we will say they are going to be the team to beat in the MWC.
Betting Forecast: TCU is 21-9-2 ATS in the MWC over the last four years and 11-3 ATS in its last 14 games as a double-digit chalk so it is not scared of big numbers.
Utah Utes 13-0 SU, 8-3-1 ATS, 10-2 O/U
Summary: Utah completed its second undefeated season in the last five years while also taking its second BCS bowl game over that span as it ripped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. A repeat of last season is unlikely but the Utes are not going down without a fight. The big questions this season revolve around the offense as a replacement needs to be found for MWC Offensive Player of the Year Brian Johnson. Also, the top three receivers are gone as is two-fifths of the offensive line. Defensively, the Utes finished 11th in total defense and the unit will be strong once again led by defensive end Koa Misi.
Schedule: Utah benefited from a relatively easy schedule last season and the non-conference portion this year is manageable. The two tough games are at Oregon and at home against Louisville in back-to-back weeks. The MWC slate will be more difficult as Utah has to travel to both TCU and BYU in two of the last three weeks of the year.
Bottom Line: The Utes will be in the hunt for another MWC Championship but they will need to take care of business on the road. A seventh straight bowl game is in the cards and it will come down to the play of the rebuilt offense that will determine what sort of bowl game they will be taking part in. Utah finished 10th in turnover margin last year and it will need a similar outcome.
Betting Forecast: 10 of the 12 lined games last season went ‘Over’ last year but a reversal of that should happen so look for some goods value plays on the ‘Under’.
BYU Cougars 10-3 SU, 3-8 ATS, 6-5 O/U
Summary: Once again, BYU is on the outside looking in but there is a very good possibility that the Cougars could win the MWC. Last year, they lost twice during the regular season and both of those losses were on the road at TCU and Utah. BYU will be looking to avenge both of those setbacks and it will need to do so by stiffening up its defense which finished 59th in the country last season. All of the playmakers are back on offense including the best quarterback in the conference in Max Hall. The problem is that only one starter from the offensive line returns and that is a problem with the early schedule.
Schedule: The year starts out with a neutral site game against Oklahoma and following a game at Tulane, the Cougars host Florida St. BYU hits a stretch in October and November where it plays four of five games on the road but none of those contests are difficult. After traveling to TCU and Utah last year, BYU gets both at home this season.
Bottom Line: BYU has never won 10 games in a season for four straight years but that is the goal this season. The Cougars have the talent and the schedule setup to make a run at the MWC title but it cannot get down if it loses to both Oklahoma and Florida St. Another goal is to play a bowl game outside of Sin City as it has played in the Las Vegas Bowl the last four postseasons.
Betting Forecast: The Cougars are only 2-6 ATS in non-conference games the last two seasons so tread lightly in those games against the Sooners and Seminoles.
Air Force Falcons 8-5 SU, 7-5 ATS, 7-5 O/U
Summary: After back-to-back rough seasons in 2005 and 2006, the Falcons have put up a 17-9 combined record the last two years. That is the best two-year record since 1998-99 when the combined for 18 victories. Air Force will look to keep the winning going behind the running game as it does every season. The Falcons finished 6th in the nation in rushing 2008 and they get back six of their top seven rushers. The offensive line will feature five senior starters. The defense allowed 38.7 ppg in the final three games last year after allowing just 17.3 ppg through the first 10 games. There is enough back to match that early season performance from last year.
Schedule: The schedule is far from challenging with a road game at Minnesota being the biggest non-conference test. Games against Army and Navy as well as Nichols St. round out the out of conference slate. It will be tough to make a run at the MWC title with two of the three games against the ‘Big Three’ taking place on the road.
Bottom Line: The schedule is easy enough for Air Force to continue its turnaround but the program is still some time away from competing for the conference championship. The secondary will determine how far the Falcons go as it has been a weakness for years and competing in the MWC, it is even more of a priority to perform. A third straight bowl game is the goal.
Betting Forecast: The Falcons are 12-4 ATS in the conference the last two season as they snuck up on teams. That won’t be the case again in 2009.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels 5-7 SU, 6-5-1 ATS, 8-4 O/U
Summary: UNLV has not had a winning season since 2000 but the streak could come to an end this season. The Rebels were one win away from being bowl eligible last season and there is enough talent coming back to finally turn the corner. This is head coach Mike Sanford’s fifth season so if it does not happen this season, he won’t be back to give it another go in 2010. Omar Clayton emerged as a dependable quarterback as he tossed 18 touchdowns along with only four interceptions before his season was cut short because of a knee injury. The running game should improve but it is up to the defense to see how far this team can go.
Schedule: The Rebels have seven home games again this year and they will have to take advantage. UNLV has gone 3-26 outside of Sam Boyd Stadium the last five years and with games at Nevada, TCU and Air Force, it will be another challenge. The Rebels do get BYU and Utah at home and in non-conference action, they host Oregon St. and Hawaii.
Bottom Line: The defense finished 103rd overall so there is a lot of work to do. The offense will have the potency to outscore some opponents but it cannot count on that every game. Stopping the run will be priority one and running the ball on offense is not far behind as the Rebels finished 91st last season in rushing offense. The Rebels have never lost a bowl game but have only played in three in school history.
Betting Forecast: The Rebels are 11-5 ATS as home underdogs under Sanford and they will see more opportunities this season and that success should continue.
Colorado St. Rams 7-6 SU, 7-5 ATS, 7-5 O/U
Summary: Hard times had fallen on the Colorado St. program but head coach Steve Fairchild did a wonderful job in his first year as he led the Rams to a winning season including a bowl victory over Fresno St. They will likely take a step back this season however as the offense needs to replace the two top running backs as well as the quarterback and the defensive front seven has only two returnees on a unit that finished 96th in total defense. They also recorded a national low nine quarterback sacks. For a team that fell so far so quickly after years of success, it takes time to come back and while the pieces are there for the future, the future isn’t quite here yet.
Schedule: The non-conference schedule includes a home game against Weber St. but it starts out with its rivalry game against Colorado and also includes a game against Nevada. As for the MWC portion, the first three conference games are against BYU, Utah and TCU with only the game against the Utes being at home so the Rams could be looking at a 0-3 start right from the gate.
Bottom Line: I was a doubter last season when Fairchild came in but he proved me and plenty others wrong as Colorado St. exceeded expectations. Now the goal is to continue to keep building the program back up but that will be tough this year as inexperience in key areas will be exploited by other teams. The team is positive and it can feed off last year’s success but it will likely be a slight dropoff in 2009.
Betting Forecast: The Rams went 4-0 ATS as a home underdog last season and we could see two opportunities in that role this year (Nevada and Utah).
San Diego St. Aztecs 2-10 SU, 5-6 ATS, 6-5 O/U
Summary: The Aztecs could be the most improved team in the MWC but that does not mean it will be competing for a conference championship anytime soon. Chuck Long was supposed to turn this team around but he actually drove it into the ground and now it will be up to former Ball St. head coach Brady Hoke to pick up the pieces. The offense returns nine starters and it will need to find a way to run the ball better. As for the defense, it will need to be able to stop the run and the addition of former New Mexico head coach Rocky Long as defensive coordinator should help matters right away. It will be up to Hoke to instill a winning attitude that has not been here since 1998, its last season with a winning record.
Schedule: The Aztecs start the season with a game at UCLA but the remainder of the non-conference slate gets easier with games against Southern Utah, Idaho and New Mexico St. San Diego St. has a stretch where in plays five of six games at home including contests against BYU and TCU. A winning season could be decided in the final game of the year at UNLV, a team they have defeated each of the last three years.
Bottom Line: San Diego St. has never been short on talent but Long, and Tom Craft before him, simply have not got the job done. Hoke is regarded as one of the best young coaches in the country and he should be able to move the Aztecs the right way. Whether it happens this season or not is debatable but San Diego St. has no where to go but up and a winning season is far from impossible
Betting Forecast: San Diego St. went 1-5 ATS under Long when coming off a win. Under Hoke, Ball St. went 18-9 ATS his last four years. You do the math.
Wyoming Cowboys 4-8 SU, 2-9 ATS, 4-7 O/U
Summary: Wyoming has had only one winning season since 1994 and it will be up to Dave Christensen to turn the Cowboys into a winner. Christensen was the offensive coordinator under Gary Pinkel at Toledo and Missouri and he has had enormous success in that role. It will take some time to get Wyoming going in the new spread offense as the talent simply is not there yet. The Cowboys were the lowest scoring team in the nation last year, averaging just 12.7 ppg and they were held to a touchdown or fewer five times. An improvement in that average is likely but we will wait and see how much improvement there actually is. The defense was solid at times last year and will be the strength again.
Schedule: The schedule is far from easy but it isn’t overly difficult from top to bottom. Non-conference games against Texas and Colorado will be losses but Christensen did come from the Big XII so he has some knowledge in that regard. Four of the final six games are on the road and the two home games over that span are against BYU and TCU so a 0-6 finish is quite possible.
Bottom Line: It is going to take a while for the spread offense to take shape in Laramie but a new start and a new system is exactly what this program needed. Matching the four wins from last season probably is not going to happen but that does not mean the Cowboys have taken a step back. It simply means a change for the good is taking place now to provide dividends in the future.
Betting Forecast: Wyoming went just 2-9 ATS last season but it could turn that around because of the new system as teams will have a hard time preparing.
New Mexico Lobos 4-8 SU, 6-6 ATS, 5-7 O/U
Summary: It is officially rebuilding time in New Mexico. After years of success under head coach Rocky Long, the Lobos fell to 4-8 last season and with Long stepping down and only nine total starters coming back, it could be a very long season in Albuquerque. The new head coach is Mike Locksley who like Christensen at Wyoming, is bringing in a brand new system. Locksley was the offensive coordinator under Ron Zook the last six seasons and he is implementing a no huddle, spread offense but like any drastic change like this, it will take time to get established. The defense took a small step backwards last year and this year, only three starters return so it could go down even more before coming back up.
Schedule: The schedule doesn’t do the Lobos any favors. They play at Texas A&M and at Texas Tech while hosting Tulsa during the non-conference segment. The MWC piece is better but it is bottom heavy as three of the final four games are against Utah, BYU and TCU with the game against the Cougars being the lone home game.
Bottom Line: Change can be good and changes are being made on both sides of the ball. Besides the offense going up tempo, the defense is moving to a 4-3 scheme from the previous 3-3-5 under Long. These alterations will take a while to find their niche but at the same time, teams will have a tough time in preparing for the new look Lobos. That does not translate into wins however but it does provide hope going forward.
Betting Forecast: It will be hard to predict how the Lobos will perform at the betting window with so much change taking place. Watch and wait.