Continuing our survey of the Mountain West, today's look is at the Bowlers.
Air Force's inclusion in this list is heavily contingent on the Asher Clark's health. The sophemore tailback was a key cog in last year's Coach-of-the-Year performance from Troy Calhoun's outrageously young Falcons. Clark broke his leg in spring drills, while filling in for eligibility-challenged Tim Jefferson (another key cog) at QB. The Falcons return starters primarily to their offensive line and secondary, but must replace the strong defensive line.
At home, AFA opens with cupcake Nicholls State, and also face SDSU, TCU, Wyoming, Army, and UNLV. How the Falcons hold up against the Horned Frogs and Rebels may define the tenor of the season for the Academy. AFA travels to Minnesota, New Mexico, Navy, Utah, Colorado State, and BYU-- all tough matches. If the whole crew returns (which is a large returning contingent, unlike last year), look for AFA to make waves out of conference, finally beating Navy, and maybe taking down Minnesota in Minneapolis as well. Air Force will be a dangerous roadgame for TCU and Utah as well. Running on all cylinders, the Falcons may reach 8 wins again.
New Mexico lost its coach in the strangest off-season move of the year: Rocky Long fled, at least publically on his own initiative, and wound up coaching the defense in San Diego (see below). The Lobos responded with the best coaching hire of the year, handing the reins to Mike Locksley, Illinois's OC. The new guy capped a complete turnover in staff, and inherited a talented team in Albuquerque that is used to winning. The '08 Lobos missed their first post-season as players last year. Their new offensive and defensive schemes are not the wholesale changes we'll see in Wyoming; but it's much faster-paced stuff, too, and the players have shown growing and transition pains, especially at O-line.
Donovan Porterie (pictured) hopes to quell the very competitive battle brewing at QB, and hope Terrence Brown will fill Rodney Ferguson's ample shoes at tailback. Their once-young O-line will be as much of a strength in '09 as they want to be; inexperience won't be an issue anymore.
New Mexico starts on the road at Texas A&M, whom the Lobos might just beat-- signaling good things for the conference and the Cherry-clad Albuquerqueans. (say that three times fast...) New Mexico also travels to Texas Tech, Wyoming, SDSU, Utah, and TCU. Taking three out of those five would be a new high for the Lobos. At home, UNM faces Tulsa, AFA, New Mexico State, UNLV, BYU, and CSU. New Mexico expects .500 at home, but may best that mark if Tulsa can't reload at QB like they have in the past, or if AFA or BYU slip up. New Mexico's defense may have a heyday against the new quarterbacks they'll face: A&M, Tech, Tulsa, NMState, Utah, and CSU are all breaking in new starters under center. If the Lobos have their act together from the get-go, they may carry the MWC's banner out of conference, and have a say in who takes the big trophy in it.
UNLV is finally ready to cap its rise from utter obscurity with a return to the post season. Mike Sanford's crew now almost numbers 85 on scholarship; they return one of the conference's best and toughest QBs (Omar Clayton is the guy who played through a broken chin in last year's overtime upset at Arizona State), a bevy of terrific wideouts, and good lines. The Rebels gambled on JUCO transfers to help plug their porous secondary, and they appear to have won the bet with Warren Ziegler, and also returners Travis Dixon, Terrence Lee, and Chris Jones. The only gaping hole is at runningback-- when Frank "the Tank" Summers went down against San Diego State last season, the cost was a bowl invitation. The committee of runners who'll try and fill Summers' shoes will work behind a good line and in tandem with a good passing game; if they can't succeed, it'll be their own fault.
UNLV starts the season with three home games: Sacramento State, Oregon State, and Hawaii. Considering Hawaii's drop in performance when away from the enchanted isles, look for the Rebs to take 2 of these 3. Upsetting Oregon State might match the improbability of UNLV's toppling Arizona State last season. The Rebels also face BYU, Utah, CSU, and SDSU at home. Winning three of those four would mean the Rebels have improved more than expected. UNLV travels to Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, TCU, and Air Force. Only Wyoming is a probable win for Rebs-- their first conference road win in years. Air Force, if at all weakened by the long season, may prove a second road win.
Bowl eligibity is one upset away for the Rebs this season. The moral of the story: don't fire a coach whose ship is pointed in the right direction just because it ain't sailing as fast as you'd like. (ah hem, SDSU!)