Conference play begins in earnest this week in the Mountain West. What do we know about the conference's nine teams? How do we expect the conference to stack up? Who will surprise its fans pleasurably? And who will stink? Here, we will analyze each conference team based on its resume; on the likelihood of it either winning the conference championship, or going to a bowl, or failing to do either; we'll also look ahead to next season.
Utah has assembled the best resume of any team in the MWC to date-- its wins over Michigan, Air Force, and UNLV have to be considered quality wins, even though Michigan has only one win this season. A win tonight over Oregon State would put the Utes' resume head and shoulders above any other MWC team's marks.
The UNLV Rebels' win over highly ranked Arizona State, with wins on either side of it as well, is unexpectedly catchy. BYU has beaten four very weak foes, but done so in style, pitching two shutouts. TCU's only loss was to #2 (now #1) Oklahoma, and the Horned Frogs boast a win against an over-.500 Pac-10 team. Air Force and Colorado State both upset Houston. Wyoming, New Mexico, and San Diego State have weak resumes-- the only quality win among them is the Lobos shellacking of Arizona. SDSU lost to 2A Cal-Poly, again.
Summary: by resume, I'd rank the MWC (1) Utah, (2) Air Force, (3) TCU, (4) UNLV, (5) BYU, (6) Colorado State, (7) New Mexico, (8) Wyoming, and (9) San Diego State.
Contending for the Top
The conference pecking order will take a giant leap into focus on October 16, when BYU plays TCU in Fort Worth. The Cougars are expected to be 6-0 coming to Texas, and ranked in the top 5. The Horned Frogs should be 6-1, and may be ranked. Because this is the Cougars' first strong test, I don't know what to expect. The Horned Frogs' defense looked weak on and off against the pass in Norman-- but very strong against the run. If the Frogs tighten up against an aerial attack, BYU's winning streak against TCU will not continue into this season.
The winner of the BYU-TCU tilt will have the inside track to the conference title. Utah plays both teams at home, in November. I believe a two- or three-way tie for the title is very likely this season.
Contending for a bowl
This year the Mountain West may break last year's record of five bowl teams, and put six of its teams into bowls. If BYU, TCU, or Utah can earn a BCS berth, I expect the conference to put a team into the Las Vegas, Poinsettia, Armed Forces, New Mexico bowls-- each a conference tie-in. I expect that a MWC team will snag an open slot in one of the new bowls premiering this season, or in the Humanitarian Bowl.
If BYU, TCU, and Utah make the one-two-three teams in the conference, in one order or another, Air Force, UNLV, and Colorado State are the four-five-six, and the order remains unclear here too. All three were stronger out of conference than I expected. All three likely will lose to BYU, TCU, and Utah (AFA and UNLV already have lost to the Utes). To get to six wins-- bowl eligibility-- UNLV and Air Force need three; Colorado State needs four. How successfully these three teams perform against the bottom dwellers in the conference likely will dictate whether or not they reach the post-season.
Somebody has to be at the bottom, and this season New Mexico, Wyoming, and San Diego State staff the cellar in the conference. San Diego State and Wyoming each appear least likely to rise from the depths. New Mexico has shown signs of life-- but Donovan Porterie's absence due to injury will take its toll in conference losses again and again. SDSU hasn't developed a rushing attack to free its young and very talented passing attack; Wyoming has the opposite problem. The Cowboys don't have a passing attack to free its seasoned and potentally-gangbuster rushing attack. I expect to see the Cowboys and the Aztecs vie for last place, and the Lobos to be only a win or two ahead. Look for a new coach in Laramie next season.
The biggest turnaround waiting to happen-- next season's UNLV-- likely will be San Diego State. They're very young, but have finally begun acting like a winning D-1 program. The injury bug has bitten them with unusual vigor this year, but Ryan Lindley will lead a much improved passing game next season, and will have considerably more help from his defense. Air Force, TCU, and Colorado State return most of their offenses. BYU and Utah shed offensive starters in droves-- Utah probably more painfully than their rivals in Provo. Wyoming, New Mexico, and UNLV will be searching for their first-team runningbacks.