Truth is, the Wimple began this survey of MWC squads with a look at the conference's quarterbacks, in an attempt to rank them. That proved inadequate, and so the following four posts became the predicate to this one. The Mountain West has a tremendous cast of quarterbacks at the helm this season. What follows is an approximate ranking of the conference's big men on campus.
Leading the pack, in the Wimple's unhumble estimation, is UNLV's duo, junior Omar Clayton starting, and sophomore Mike Clausen ably backing him up. Clausen had a better spring game, but Clayton has that it factor that separates not only a starter from a backup, but first-ranked QB from the second. Working behind his best o-line yet, and with an improved defense to keep him on the field longer, look for Clayton to lead UNLV back into the post-season, and to win all-conference lauds.
UNLV is in the enviable position of having the heir apparent already experienced. Clauson had to start a few games last season, and is pushing Clayton. Coach Sanford refuses to say there's a QB battle, but any dropoff from the starter may result in a inversion of the two-deep.
BYU can go as far as Max Hall can take them. That may not be to the promised land of 12-0, considering Oklahoma returns its entire d-line and a top-notch team generally, and TCU's offense likely will keep BYU's off the field for long stretches, but Hall is capable of exploiting BYU's receivers, line, and runners to their full capacity. That probably means BYU racks up another double-digit win season, and at least ties for the conference crown. Hall says he wants to run more, and if that's more than bluster, it'd make Hall even more of a fright under center. Cougar fans will spend 2009 falling back in love with Max Hall. Next to Hall on the depth chart is, um . . . Brendon Gaskins. Riley Nelson is #3, but all eyes are fixed on BYU's gaudy new recruit Jake Heaps, who'll early enroll for '10. Because 2011 feels like an eternity, the Wimple says it's now or never for BYU. Hall can take them there.
TCU has one of the conferences two darkhorses at QB. Junior Andy Dalton did win an honorable mention last season, but his experience and performance indicate that greater production awaits. His dual-threat capacity no longer surprises: it's expected. Add the conference's best o-line, backfield, and receiving corps, and it appears Dalton is on the brink of a season unlike any a quarterback has seen in Fort Worth in generations. His backups, very experienced senior Marcus Jackson and redshirt freshman Yogi Gallegos are comfortable enough in the offense that highly touted (and early enrolled) Casey Pachall will redshirt. Look for an eye-popping year in Fort Worth.
Things have calmed down in Colorado Springs, where Air Force looks to return Tim Jefferson under center, eligibility scare notwithstanding. Asher Clark may take some snaps as well, particularly with the popular "Wild Frog" sweeping Division 1. These two sophomores came out of nowhere (it seemed) and took Air Force to bowl eligibility against high odds last season. They return as part of the most exciting cast in the academy's recent memory, to test if the MWC has room for a Big Four. If Jefferson can become more of a passing threat, he'll lead one of the best underdog attacks in the nation.
San Diego State has BYU-like passing potential in its returner, sophomore Ryan Lindley. Lindley is the other darkhorse for all-conference lauds at quarterback. If his line can give him time (and it'll certainly be able to give him more time than last season, but that's not necessarily high praise) and his receivers are up to the task, SDSU will boast a gaudy passing attack. Backup Drew Westling is a step down, but less so than last year.
Utah graduated a game-changer in Brian Johnson, the first-team all-conference QB and offensive player of the year. Johnson's poise probably made the difference between 13-0 and 9-4 last season, with terrific final drives at Oregon State and Michigan and against TCU, and a lights out Why Doesn't That Guy Have A Heisman? performance in the Sugar Bowl. Going into fall, it's a three-way battle (officially) between junior change-of-pace backeup Corbin Louks, JUCO five-star transfer Terrence Cain, and early enrolled true frosh Jordan Wynn. Look for Wynn to redshirt, and for a season-long debate over whether Louks or Cain should have won the starting job. Utah's returning cast is going to take a step back, and the place where it'll show the second-most is at QB. (Where will it show the most? Kicker!)
New Mexico is another team with a QB battle raging, although returning starter Donovan Porterie appears to have won it. Brad Gruner, who started eight games last season, might disagree. Because the Lobos are installing a new offense, look for mildly disappointing performance this season.
Colorado State really hopes something clicks this offseason with early enrolled JUCO transfer Jon Eastman. He challenged Grant Stucker and Klay Kubiak this spring at quarterback, and all three drew jeers from coach Fairchild. Pinning hopes on freshman Nico Ranieri is just unfair to Ram fans, who have the nation's #1 experienced returning offensive line this season, and good receivers too. Look for barely adequate QB performance this year in Fort Collins, and that mostly because the Rams' line and receivers are pretty good.
Wyoming is also installing a new offense: one returning starter Karsten Sween ran in high school. Maybe that means he'll have an inside edge on starting this season, over Dax Crum and Chris Stutzriem. But Sween is the kid who has twice lost, and twice re-gained the starting role over those same backups, so it's hard to get excited about Sween's return under center. Look for freshmen recruits Austyn Carta-Samuels and Robert Benjamin to press for PT as freshmen, and maybe win the starting role altogether, like Lindley did at SDSU last season.