The Mountain West Conference is going to be damn tough this year and it's going to take a strong performance night in and night out for the Utes to walk away with a top finish. Though there are clearly favorites for the championship, I think it's very possible a cellar-dweller can pull the upset and shake things up. Most likely that will either come from UNLV or San Diego State, as both were completely abysmal last year and probably have enough talent returning to at least net a win against a perceived top team.
While I don't know which team will win the conference, there are favorites and I think those three are TCU, Utan and BYU in that order. Just like last year and it appears these three teams have staked out the top spots in the conference standings. In the past three years, all three have won the conference championship. So who'll win it again, Utah or TCU? Does BYU have enough talent to compensate for inexperience? Or will Wyoming be the dark horse and surge to the top? Luckily, we have a few more months to speculate. Right now though, I've got to say TCU is the team to beat, but I also thought they were going to win the conference again last year, and after back-to-back losses to BYU and Utah at the start of the conference season, they were out of the conference championship hunt fairly early, so who knows.
Instead of predicting the conference standings (I'll save that for the summer, after spring ball has finished up), I thought I would look at the teams on the rise, and the team(s?) on the decline. I'll take into account schedule, returning talent and where they were last year.
Troy Calhoun takes over for Fisher DeBerry, who retired after 27 years as the Falcons head coach. Out goes the triple option and enter a more Big 12 style of offense that utilizes the running game. While the improvement probably won't be seen in terms of won/loss results, I think Calhoun will inject a much needed energy in the program. Air Force should be far more competitive than they were last year, however a tough schedule will make it difficult for the Falcons to post a winning season.
The Cougars went undefeated in conference play last year, defeating every team except Utah with ease. That won't be nearly as easy, since BYU loses John Beck and Curtis Brown, two crucial parts to their offense. They'll take a hit, but their defense should be good enough to keep them in most games. I don't see BYU falling off the college football map, but I don't expect them to win 10 or more games and run away with the conference, either.
It's tough to fall from a 4-8 record, which includes a 7 game losing streak to end the year. So I think CSU will improve, even if marginally. However that probably won't be enough to keep Sonny Lubick from being pushed out the door. The Rams have really fallen, especially when they were one of the elite Mountain West teams just a few years ago. Since winning the conference in 2002, when they went 10-4, CSU has gone 7-6, 4-7, 6-6 and 4-8. The return of Kyle Bell, who injured his knee prior to last season, and quarterback Caleb Hanie should help on the offensive end. CSU does have a difficult schedule though and a slow start might doom them to another below .500 campaign.
The Lobos appear to be a team destine for mediocrity. They've yet to really break through and I don't expect them to do that this season. Since Rocky Long built the program into a winner (by the most liberal of definitions), the Lobos have won more than 7 games once, when they won 8 in 2003. And even then they still had 5 losses on the season. This year the Lobos return a ton of talent, but will it be enough to push them toward the top of the conference? Probably not, though New Mexico should fair better than their 6-7 record from last year.
San Diego State
Poor Chuck Long. He takes over at SDSU talking a big game and then goes out and has the Aztecs' worst season in 23 years. After going 3-9, things HAVE to improve, right? Probably, as you can't get more pathetic than last year's San Diego State team. I'd be surprised if the Aztecs had a winning season, but they could be the spoiler for a team battling it out for the conference championship (hm, Aztecs might end Utah's hopes of a conference championship like they did in '05).
TCU was nearly perfect last year, only losing to Utah and BYU. Luckily for them, they get the Utes at home and that should be a win. Though they travel to BYU, the Frogs have a legitimate shot at going undefeated in conference play. If they can somehow upset Texas the second week of the season, look out!
When you only win 4 games the past two seasons, it really isn't possible to decline any further. So UNLV should see a slight improvement on their conference standings, but it probably won't be enough to give them a winning record, or a solid conference record. There is enough talent on both sides of the ball that UNLV could match their win totals from the past two seasons...and hey, that would be reason to celebrate in Las Vegas, right? Shots on the house!
Movin' up because they replace Brett Ratliff with Brian Johnson. No disrespect to Ratliff, because he'll be known as the quarterback who beat BYU, won two bowl games and finished with a 10-5 record as a starter. However I think it's safe to say he was no Brian Johnson and Utah's offense worked far better out of the spread option than it did under center. Their schedule, which includes road games against Oregon State, Louisville, TCU and BYU and a home game against UCLA, is far too tough for an improvement record wise over last year. There are also questions about the Utes running game and their defense, which is young and has to find a replacement for Eric Weddle. With that said, the talent is there for this team to be far more improved over last year, even if it doesn't show in the standings.
The Cowboys had a decent year last season, but failed to get a bowl invite. This year they have a fairly easy out of conference schedule and some of their toughest conference games at home. BYU, TCU and New Mexico all has to travel to Laramie and though they have a road game against Utah, it could easily set up for a great season. I mentioned earlier they're a dark horse and I believe it. This team should win at least 7 games, garner a bowl invite and win 8 games for the first time since 1998.
As you can see, I think the Mountain West will be better this year than it was last season. Only BYU should see a decline, mostly because they lose so much on offense and it's far more difficult to improve on an 11-2 season than it is to decline from there. That means there won't be many gimmie games for the Utes in conference play. Parity is going to play a big role in the final standings and if Utah is going to win the conference they can't lose any home games, or games against lesser opponents. That means no more losing to the likes of New Mexico, especially at home. Since TCU might slip up during conference play, Utah could still lose to them in Fort Worth and win at least a share of the title. I don't think that would be bad at all.