So what next, both for TCU and for the MWC agenerally? The correctest answer is that nobody knows for sure. But ignorance is never a barrier to commentary, so let's dive in.
We do know that a lot of new coaches will be strolling the sidelines in '09. Brady Hoke (last at Ball State) takes over for Chuck Long in San Diego, with Al Borges (Auburn) and Rocky Long (New Mexico) as offensive and defensive coordinators. Replacing Long at New Mexico is Illinois's recruiting genius Mike Locksley, who hired Doug Mallory (LSU) for D.C. and Darrell Dickey (Utah State, UNT) for O.C. Every one of Locksley's assistants is new to the Lobos this year. Dave Christensen (the offensive mastermind from Missouri) now leads Wyoming, with Marcus Arroyo (San Jose State) and Marty English (Wyoming, linebackers) coordinating his offense and defense. Something else we don't know is who'll be coordinating TCU's offense; Mike Schultz is off to Illinois to replace Locksley. (the D-1 coaching merry-go-round has been whirling with unusual gusto this season...) Utah replaces both its coordinators-- promoting Kalani Sitake for D.C., and Dave Schramm for O.C. Remarkably, Kyle Whittingham ain't leaving Salt Lake City after outcoaching Nick Saban's Tide on national TV last week. Perhaps the MWC top spots are less like stepping stones than they used to be.
So what'll stay the same for next year? Most of the conference's offenses. SDSU, UNLV, TCU, Air Force, UNM, and Wyoming return much of their '08 crews. BYU loses 4 of its starters on the o-line, and its best receiver. Colorado State must replace its best core of skill players in years: Gartrell Johnson, Billy Farris, and Korry Sperry. Wyoming loses its backfield duo, Seldon and Moore, it's only bright spot. Utah loses much of its offense.
It's a make-or-break year for UNLV, again. The Rebels came within a torn ligament in Frank Sommer's knee early in the last game of the season of bowl eligibility; they'll come that close again-- and if they don't break through the 6-game barrier, they'll oust their coach.
Air Force now can capitalize on the experience it gave Asher Clarke, Tim Jefferson, and the rest of its true freshman that played most of the second half of the '08 season. Look for the best year in Colorado Springs since its late WAC years.
BYU looks to bounce back-- from a 10-win season! You know expectations are high when double-digit wins are a disappointment. Max Hall will work behind a largely new offensive line, but gets to face TCU and Utah at home this year.
Focusing now on TCU, the Frogs will face Wyoming, Air Force, San Diego State, and BYU on the road. BYU, particularly, will be nursing a grudge against the Frogs, and will be TCU's toughest road game. Utah in Fort Worth may be the Frog's lowest scoring matchup of the year: both teams will bring good defenses to the tilt. Expect the Frogs' offense to win the day, however, if by only a field goal... (how's practice, Mr. Evans?) The roady to Air Force might be a trap game, if sandwiched just right (or wrong).
Confidence in TCU's offensive potency next season is not misplaced. The Frogs return a terrific backfield and receiving corps for Andy Dalton to hand off and throw to for his third year at the helm.
Up front, only one of the big guys will be starting for the first time-- likely Jake Kirkpatrick at center. The right guard position is up in the air to date, with several strong contenders, including Josh Vernon, who started at left guard some of last year. Blaize Foltz, Spencer Thompson, Spencer Olson, Trevius Jones, and Zach Roth are in the mix. Look for Marshall Newhouse (LT), Kyle Dooley (LG), Kirkpatrick, (C) Josh Vernon (RG), and Nic Richmond (RT) to compose the first team, and to dominate. How Marcus Cannon fits in (well, he fits in largely-- we know that!) remains to be seen. This much we know: the Frogs are stacked at O-line.
Joe Turner, Luke Shivers, and Jai Cavness return in the backfield, and will be joined by Ed Wesley, who apparently has made waves in practice. Two true freshmen will press them mightily for PT-- Waymon James and Matthew Tucker.
Defensively, optimism requires more faith, and reasoned expectations must be for slightly less dominance than this year's stellar season. Kelly Griffin, who is now huge, will replace James Vess at left DT. The competition to start to his right, both at tackle and end, will be tremendous. Henry Nuitei, Cory Grant, Jeremy Coleman, the Maud Squad (Burns, Dunbar, House), Ross Forrest, Braylon Broughton, and Chris Leatch are all in play.
Behind them all will be Daryl Washington and Tank Carder at linebacker. Carder hasn't played a lot, but has two full years in the system already, and some experience. His step up is key to the season. Washington appears to be the emotional heir to Robert Henson, and may well end the year as TCU's best linebacker-not-named-Jason-Phillips in a long time. Kris Gardner and Greg Burks will see PT as backups.
The secondary will be a strength. Johnson, Sanders, and Priest return. Bledsoe and Cuba haven't started (much) but have played a lot and are going to make names for themselves as safeties. (clearly Sir Demarco Bledsoe has the goods on the name department already...) There's a very good crop of backups behind them, including four-star JUCO transfer Malcome Williams. Look for Greg McCoy and Jason Teague to get lots of time as well.
The biggest question for TCU will be its offensive scheme; the Frogs geared up for the spread in '07, and cashed in on all that work in '08. Hopefully the new coordinator, whoever he'll be, can up the production. He's certainly got a great cast to work with.
The biggest question for the conference will be Boise State. Have the Broncos an invitation to join the conference, as rumored? [turns out the answer is: no.] The Wimple hopes so, and looks forward to adding the Broncos' stellar decade to the conference laurels when the BCS recalibrates its autobids in a few years. The Wimple does not expect, however, for the Broncos to continue their NCAA-topping winning percentage once a part of the tougher MWC. They put in an inspiring effort against TCU this season, and came us short in the end. Boise State, if it joins the MWC, won't have the best athletes in the conference anymore.