Friday, April 10, 2009

Rating the MWC post-spring: the rebuilders

The whistles go silent; the pads are shelved; the off-season enters its interminable summer dawdle... What's the conference pecking order look like? As usual, the Mountain West looks like layered cake, with these layers: the contenders, the bowlers, and the rebuilders. In these next few posts, the Wimple will cast an eye on each layer of the cake.

Today: the rebuilders.

Colorado State, Wyoming, and San Diego State share the dubious honor of low expectations, but for totally different reasons.

The Cowboys used power running to lose consistently last year-- and lost their backfield to the graduation of Devin Moore and Wynel Selden. With them went the coach, and in their place blew in Joe Christensen, the spread-guru from Missouri. Despite the incessently optimistic spring chatter out of Laramie, there is exactly a 100% chance the Cowboys are going to spend a season in the wilderness, learning this newfangled high-tempo pass-happy offense. Wyoming is filled with power running players, and even though Karten Sween (pictured) ran a spread in high school, he's going to work behind a subpar o-line, with receivers who, let's face it, signed with a power running school.

The Cowboys might beat Weber State in Laramie, but after that the home slate is Texas (huh?), UNLV, New Mexico, BYU, and TCU. While it's true UNLV hasn't won a conference roadie in... forever, look for Wyoming to end that streak. New Mexico, BYU, and TCU look much stronger than the 'Boys, even on the road. On the road, Wyoming faces Colorado, Florida Atlantic, Air Force, Utah, San Diego State, and Colorado State. Maybe the boys in brown 'n yellow will find a way to stifle Florida Atlantic, SDSU, or Colorado State, but the Wimple thinks chances are slim. FAU returns one of the nation's most prolific quarterbacks in '09; SDSU brings back nearly nothing but experience, and Colorado State, for all its troubles (see below), has a strong offensive line that may keep Wyoming's new spread off the field. Air Force and Utah will make quick work of the Cowboys. Anything better than 2-10 will be a remarkably quick turnaround by what will have become the hottest coach in the country.

The good news: Christensen signed a pretty good recruiting class, and has the Cowboys working tougher than they were working under Joe Glenn. We won't look for fruit in this quest for respectibility until at least 2010. Any buds before then will be welcome surprises.

Colorado State, on the other hand, is not changing schemes from night to day this offseason; it's changing personel night to day. Steve Fairchild rode a terrific group of senior skill players to a surprising bowl bid to in Albuquerque last season, and an equally surprising upset over Fresno State, where Gartrell Johnson set the all-time bowl rushing record. And then graduated. With him strolled out of eligibility the Rams' two QBs, a terrific LB, and the best CSU TE of the decade, Kory Sperry. Add a year's suspension for the Rams' other great LB, another QB quitting, and suddenly the skill position cupboard in Fort Collins looks terribly bare. The spring chatter has been more honest than the coverage of the Rams' rival, featuring sinking expectations.

The Rams share Weber State and a trip to Colorado OOC with Wyoming, and likely will beat only Weber State, as well. At home, CSU also sees Nevada, Utah, SDSU, Air Force, and Wyoming. The Wimple sees the Rams beating Wyoming, and if Steve Fairchild can find a quarterback and runningback between now and September, maybe CSU bests SDSU as well. After what will be a humiliating trip to Boulder, CSU travels to BYU, Idaho, TCU, UNLV, and New Mexico. The Rams may not even score points except against hapless Idaho, whom CSU may beat. If CSU can squeeze four wins out of this schedule, it will have gotten a jump-start on what may be a solid '10 team.

The good news: CSU returns 4 starters up front, including light-out tackle Shelley Smith (pictured). These big guys will give the new backfield room and holes to work with much of the time. But don't expect the Rams to muscle their way back into bowl eligibility this season.

San Diego State hasn't been good in... in forever. Despite a season-killing plethora of injuries last year, it looked like the Aztecs might be headed for a different layer of the MWC cake, for a change. But then it fired Chuck Long, who had turned the team's trajectory back towards winning, and brought in Brady Hoke (pictured). Although the Wimple thinks firing Long was a bad idea, it can hardly be argued that hiring Hoke was equally as bad. The midwesterner promptly hired two great coordinators, and has begun installing a faster tempo offense, and completely different defense.

So, what do the Aztecs have to look forward to in 2009? They return the longest list of returning starters in the conference. Many of those starters were fill-ins for the terribly injury-plagued Aztecs last year. If Hoke & Co. can skirt the injury bug this season, they may command one of the conference's most surprising offenses; the defense is learning an entirely new scheme-- Rocky Long's high-risk high-reward 3-3-5, with the "Lobo" back recast as the "Aztec." Which means exactly what, you ask? Probably more of the same in San Diego, for another interminable year.

There is reason for (highly guarded) hopes, however: SDSU's OOC slate could be shockingly soft: @Ucla, Southern Utah, @Idaho, and New Mexico State. BYU, New Mexico, TCU, and Wyoming also come to San Diego; the Wimple expects the Aztecs to beat only Wyoming at home in conference. SDSU travels to UCLA, Idaho, Air Force, Colorado State, Utah, and UNLV. .500 on the road may happen, and suddenly the Aztecs may be one upset away from a bowl. Or, in its accustomed drill, SDSU may choke on Hoke's new scheme, and join the hapless Rams and Cowboys at the conference bottom. The Wimple sees little clue which way their chips will fall this season.

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