Phil Steele's annual preseason data-mine is out, and his take on the MWC is worth some discussion-- first, because it's not insight-free, like most of the other preseason mags', and also because it differs from The Wimple's in a few interesting ways.
First, the similarities: Steele calls the MWC the best non-BCS conference. Agreed. He also puts BYU, TCU, and Utah atop the conference, in that order. Agreed. Air Force and UNLV as likely bowlers? Absolutely. Jerry Hughes, Jeremy Kerley (PR), Priest-n-Sanders, Marshall Newhouse, Jimmy Young as first-team all-MWC players? Amen.
The differences? Let's start with teams. Steele puts Colorado State about where The Wimple guessed New Mexico would finish, and New Mexico about where The Wimple guessed Colorado State would finish: CSU 6th, UNM last. (The Wimple put the Lobos in the conference's middle tier, and CSU in its bottom tier.) Why the difference?
Steele doesn't trust the Lobos to handle the switch from a run-option offense to the spread, especially with only 9 starters returning. The personnel losses are most troubling on defense- where New Meixco must replace its entire D-line, and its best cornerbacks in recent history. If TCU's recent switch from an option-based offense to the spread is any indicator, the Lobos' D will have to save the offense from more than the usual amount of turnovers. But will New Mexico's increased reliance on a defense sporting a lot of new starters result in a trip to the conference bottom?
The Wimple just doesn't see the Lobos falling that far. Even if New Mexico performs at a lower level than last year, it gets CSU at home, and a roady to the conference's weakest link: Wyoming. At the very least, New Mexico will share last place with those two teams-- but my guess is the cherry and gray will be a step ahead of the MWC's '09 bottom feeders.
Phil Steele puts a lot of trust in Colorado State's nation-leading offensive line, which features more returning starts in 2009 than any other team. If this fact meant the Rams could count on a steady ground attack, one could happily agree with him. But it doesn't. That line was blocking for one of the nation's most underrated backs last season, and a whole lot of the credit for CSU's 4.2 yards per carry goes with Gartrell Johnson into the NFL. Coach Steve Fairchild was unhappy with his returning backs this spring, and absent a significant step-up in the backfield, Colorado State is in a significantly worse position than it was in 2008.
Has it a passing attack to rely on? There is more room for hope here. CSU returns a terrific receiving corps, but no heir apparent to last year's mildly productive QB, Billy Farris. Grant Stucker and Klay Kubiak return-- but that silence you hear out of Fort Collins is the excitement they don't create in the green and gold fanbase. JUCO Jon Eastman early enrolled for spring, and is either a dud, or has a lot of adjusting to D-1 speed to go. One doesn't expect a true freshman (Nico Ranieri is the lucky kid in this situation) to step under center at CSU and match last year's senior's numbers. So the watchwords for the hopeful in regard to Colorado State's passing attack is offseason development. Could happen; but safer bets are on a step backwards for the Rams this season.
Which, considering they snuck into a bowl game last year, puts them in the "Rebuilders" tier of the conference, where bragging rights in the Border War figure more prominently than developing a post-season winning streak. CSU is 12-4 recently versus Wyoming, and is at least as well positioned as Wyoming for a win in frigid north range November.
Who's missing from Phil's all-MWC lists? Steele, and everyone else who hasn't got Daryl Washington on their first-team list, is missing a blow-up year from the Horned Frog senior. Barring injury (and he's proven durable to date), Washington is going to pile up tackles and highlight reel moments from the get-go this season. Steele also pins high expectations on JUCO safety Malcolm Williams at TCU, putting him ahead of Teejay Johnson in his all-MWC list. That's silly. Williams will have to beat Bledsoe or Cuba even to start-- not a terribly likely outcome in Williams' first year as a Frog. Look for Johnson and Bledsoe to finish the season on the first team. Also likely to finish high: Zach Roth (OG), Antoine Hicks (WR), Marcus Cannon (OT), and Dalton (QB).