Tuesday, September 18, 2007

First Quarter: MWC analysis

A few thoughts on the MWC, one quarter of the way through the season.
One everybody's tongue: Air Force. The academy opened with arguably the scariest conference, and season, stretch: Utah, BYU and TCU in the first four games. Utah and TCU have both fallen to the academy, but BYU gets the Zoomies at home. Neither of the upsets came easily-- but the Falcons boast the conference's only 3-0 record, and appear to have positioned themselves as this year's surprise contender for the title.

Quarterbacks. Simply put, the MWC is loaded under center. Max Hall and Andy Dalton have exceeded expectations as freshmen; Karsten Sween and Donovan Porterie have not lost their respective freshmen magic; Travis Dixon and Tommy Grady have burst on the scene with solid performances. Kevin O'Connell is no longer a liability in sunny San Diego; Shaun Carney and Caleb Hanie are turning in solid senior years. Who's missing from this list? Brian Johnson, at Utah. Tommy Grady's outstanding performance against UCLA might keep Johnson in rehab longer than planned, however.

Out of Conference Play: the MWC has finally turned in a solid season out of conference. Utah State (twice), Baylor, Virginia, Arizona (twice), New Mexico State, and UCLA have all suffered losses against the MWC. A few surprises: BYU couldn't outpace Tulsa in a 1,000-yard, 100-point shootout in Oklahoma; Colorado State nearly topped Colorado and California; UNLV almost stopped Wisconsin's winning streak; New Mexico, in a strange game, lost to UTEP to open the season; the conference's victor against UCLA? Not BYU, but their sorely depleted rivals up I-15-- Utah. This was Tommy Grady's breakout party, and will be talked about on The Hill for years to come.

Dangerous sleeper: well, Air Force isn't a sleeper any longer, so the award goes to New Mexico, who boasts the league's best tandem at wide receiver to date, and a QB who has excelled in getting them the ball. Marcus Smith and Travis Brown will be household names for the conference before too long. Combine them with the nationally-underappreciated ground play by Rodney Furgeson, and New Mexico might have what it takes to threaten the conference's power structure, and finally win a bowl game for Rocky Long.

Re-loaded: BYU's offense, and TCU's defense. The classes of the league, each unit, appear to have lost none of their lustre. BYU has experienced almost no dropoff from last year's incredible production, despite losing its three top playmakers. TCU's defense finally coalesced against Air Force, holding the Falcon's tricky attack to just 3 points before a bizarre 17-point finale in the game's final minutes and overtime. The Frogs' defense has had to stifle opposing teams without the aid of a productive running offense, and a litany of turnovers in the red zone. The unit has performed admirably, and will be under much less pressure to produce near shut-outs as the Frogs heal and mature on the other side of the ball.

Disappointments: some of the league's marquee matchups turned into marquee routs. Oregon State stuffed Utah to open the season, and TCU's high hopes for a best-in-Texas claim were crushed a bad second half in Austin.

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