Before signing day arrives, and the inevitable collective dive into the measurements, SAT scores, and possible position switches for thousands of yet-untested true freshmen, let's peruse the 2009 season with a wide lense. It was a pretty good year for the Mountain West-- although less successful than the blockbusting '08 season. The last three seasons the conference has gone .947 (18-1) against 2A foes; .629 (34-20) against non-cartel 1A teams; and .520 (26-24) against the cartel. In '09 the MWC fared slightly better than average against 2A and non-cartel 1A teams, (6-0 for 1.000, 12-7 for .632) and slightly worse against the cartel (7-9 for .435). The Mountain West had at least two teams in every poll this season (a first), and three teams ranked in all but four of the season's 16 poll weeks (previous record in '08: only five weeks without three ranked teams). And until TCU's lain egg at the Fiesta Bowl, it appeared the conference would sweep its five bowl games.
Coaching continuity had a lot to do with the conference's sustained success. For the second year running, the MWC had a BCS team without losing its BCS coach. Despite overtures from Tennessee, Notre Dame, USC, Kansas, and Cincinnati, the Mountain West keeps Gary Patterson and Kyle Whittingham (and Troy Calhoun) for another year. The situation is nearly the same with coordinators-- only Air Force lost a coordinator to poaching. (UNLV's turnover not included, obviously.) CSU fired its OC, and UNLV has an entirely new crew, but otherwise the staffs are unchanged at the tops in the conference.
The only new kid on the block is UNLV's Bobby Hauck, and his team of coordinators, most of whom followed Hauck from Montana State. Hauck poached JD Williams from Utah (cornerbacks) to be his assistant head coach, pass defense, and secondary coach; Brent Myers from Louisville will coach tight ends-- an emphasis in Hauck's run-heavy offenses. The rest of his staff followed Hauck from Montana State: Rob Phenicie (OC); Kraig Paulson (DC); Ty Gregorak (LB, recruiting coordinator) Chad Germer (o-line); Dominic Daste (RB); Michael Gray (DT); Mike Gerber (strength and conditioning).
How about the rookies? Dave Christensen leads these coaches going away, having led his Wyoming Cowboys not just out of a projected last-place finish, but to their first bowl (and bowl win) since '04. The first-year head coach had the sagacity to deemphasize the pass (his forte) and rely on the Cowboys less-dead running game, with true freshmen playmakers to boot. Christensen's returning crew is large, young, and optimistic. Brady Hoke appears to have his San Diego State Aztecs turned around, although his team lost a couple it shouldn't have. Whether Hoke can generate a running game in San Diego remains his biggest worry-- and the lack of one his team's Achilles heel.
Which leaves New Mexico's Mike Locksley, who probably has about half a season to show some wins, or else. The wheels came off in Albuquerque this season, and unless the Lobos show drastic improvement right off the bat in 2010, they'll be begging Rocky Long to come back by Columbus Day.
The shape of the league-- the Big Three atop, AFA leading the rest of the pack-- remained unchanged in 2009. Oddly, the league standings were perfectly transitive. TCU beat everybody; BYU lost only to TCU; Utah lost only to TCU and BYU; AFA lost only to the Big Three; Wyoming lost only to the Big Three and AFA; etc. Maybe AFA narrowed the distance between it and the Big Three (losing to TCU and Utah by a combined six points), but the better analysis that AFA neither gained nor lost ground. In '07, remember, the Academy took second place in the league.
The MWC's surprises, in rough order of magnitude, were these:
(1) Colorado State cratered, finishing 0-9 in conference after starting 3-0, including its first win in Boulder in over a decade.
(2) Wyoming wins bowl eligibility in its Year One of the spread-- albeit a run-heavy adaptation of Dave Christensen's attack.
(3) New Mexico's Year One of the spread features no wins and less offense until its eleventh game, against wheels-off CSU. The punch (alleged)? Later reports indicate it may not be as surprising as Lobo fans wish.
(4) BYU, with a 80% retooled offensive line, out-slugged Oklahoma in a defensive battle only a couple hours' drive from Norman.
(5) BYU gets out-slugged in a offensive embarrassment by Florida State, in Provo.
(6) ESPN Gameday comes to two Mountain West conference games, as well as the AFA-Army game.
(7) TCU loses its bowl, but remains ranked in the top 10.
(8) BYU's defense was faster than Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
(9) TCU likely will start 2010 ranked in the top ten, and below another non-cartel team.
The Mountain West's best 2009 moments:
(1) BYU topping OU;
(2) Colorado State beating Colorado;
(2) Wyoming beating Fresno State in double overtime in the New Mexico Bowl;
(3) ESPN Gameday at TCU;
(4) ESPN Gameday at BYU;
(5) Troy Calhoun turning down the top job at Tennessee
The MWC's reasons for optimism about 2010:
(1) TCU's returning seniors;
(2) the impossibility that AFA could have worse injury luck than last year;
(3) Jordan Wynn and Austyn Carta-Samuels were only freshmen;
(4) the bullseye for media attention is on Boise State's back
(5) Whittingham, Patterson, and Calhoun all return, with nearly idental staffs
(6) Pete Thomas (CSU QB) early enrolled;
(7) Harvey Unga, Jeremy Kerley, Vincent Brown returned for their senior years, and Matt Asiata and DeMarco Sampson won medical redshirts and sixth years of eligibility;
(8) New Mexico is .500 (in its last two games).