TCU established itself as the team to beat in the Mountain West in the 2009 season and will most likely carry that title over into the 2010 season. But are they and if they aren't, who will dethrone the defending champions? Moreover, will the conference place a team in the BCS for a third consecutive year?
These questions obviously can't be answered right now. We can only speculate as to what those answers will be and even then, much hinges on the improvement of talent on each side of the ball for the three major players in the conference. Ultimately, the success of the eventual conference champion will come down to factors that at this moment are unclear.
The 2010 season should be another exiting one with big games and even bigger implications. Especially when you realize the Frogs very well could be starting the season in the top-ten. If that's the case, another undefeated regular season would position them for a national championship berth - but it won't be easy.
As mentioned earlier, TCU will be the favorites to win the Mountain West. They bring back a good number of their offense and that should help shore up their defensive losses. With that said, the Fiesta Bowl exposed them a little. They are beatable. Prior to the Fiesta Bowl, that wasn't quite a given due to their dominant play in the conference.
Even then, the Frogs look to be the biggest and clearest favorite to repeat as champions in the conference's short history. Only Utah in 2004 dominated the Mountain West similarly to TCU and they did not return the number of players in 2005 as the Frogs will in 2010. Bluntly, they might not be as stacked as they were a year earlier, but don't let that fool you - they'll still be plenty good.
Though they finished third in the conference in 2009, they were an overtime play or two from finishing second. The margin between them and the Cougars was extremely close - probably closer than at any time in Bronco-Whittingham era.
With the return of a good number of offensive weapons and the fact Utah's defense has a history of rapidly fixing its losses, the Utes should contend with TCU for the top of the conference. They're also aided by their schedule, as both TCU and BYU have to travel to Salt Lake. Had the Holy War been played at Rice-Eccles last year, I think we can all agree Utah probably wins.
Of course, playing TCU at home isn't a given win. BYU proved that in 2009. But it makes it easier. Especially when you realize at just how pumped the Frog fans were for their showdown against the Utes in Fort Worth. Add the revenge factor - the fact Utah was embarrassed in a national-recognized game - and things certainly begin falling into the Utes' favor.
Now I don't know if it'll be enough to dethrone the Frogs, but they will certainly challenge.
The Cougars see the most loss of any of the big three and officially enter rebuilding mode in 2010. Yet they'll still be a threat. Bronco Mendenhall is a good coach and has won ten or more games in all but one year down in Provo. I expect the same consistency out of BYU next season. Their problem, like with Utah in 2009, could come down to their schedule. The Cougars face both the Frogs and Utes on the road.
As we saw with the Utes in both instances, it's not easy to take a younger team into an opposing stadium and win. Without Max Hall and a few other offensive weapons, BYU will certainly be at a disadvantage.
Which means a conference championship is unlikely. Unlikely because both TCU and Utah should be better and they happen to get those teams on the road. Outside of those two games, beyond a hiccup here and there, the Cougars should be able to get it done. Which means their contending lies within their ability to surprise either the Utes or Frogs. Can they do it?
The Middle of the Pack
The Falcons have established themselves as a pretty good Mountain West team. Not a great one, but a team that is good for 7-8 wins and a bowl berth yearly. That is fine, though, because long gone are the days of Air Force truly contending for a conference championship. The Mountain West has grown too much since the height of the Fisher DeBerry era and it's far harder to climb to the top with three dominant teams than in the old WAC days where the Falcons and Cougars routinely duked it out.
What should be expected is another decent campaign. Probably no fewer than seven regular season wins and no more than eight. A respectable record that firmly places Air Force at the top of the middle of the conference. Not quite good enough to join TCU, Utah and BYU at the top, but hardly bad enough to fall below 4th place.
I guess you can say they're the quintessential fourth-place team. And I'm not sure that changes again in 2010.
The Cowboys had a surprising debut under Dave Christensen, but it isn't like we haven't been here before. Just a year ago, a first year head coach led a stagnant program to a New Mexico Bowl win over Fresno State. That was Steve Fairchild and Colorado State. No one is talking about them much these days.
That's the tricky part. Proving what happened in 2009 wasn't a fluke. Now the Cowboys will probably never be better than fourth or fifth in the Mountain West and that's okay. We've seen how well it works for Air Force and that might be the blueprint best used by Christensen in trying to sustain the success he saw in his first year.
2010 should offer up a chance to do that and unless they fall into a black hole like the Rams did, the conference is just not good enough from top-to-bottom for them not to contend for a bowl berth. Six regular season wins should again be the expectation in Laramie.
San Diego State
The Aztecs were on the cusp last year of making a bowl game and their old problems resurfaced. This could be the year, though, for Brady Hoke and San Diego State.
Of course, that's something we've been saying for years now. And each season the Aztecs let us down. They've not been to a bowl game in over a decade and I think until they prove they can get to the six-wins needed, we should all be skeptical about their prospects.
And I am. Even though I believe the Aztecs have the most potential of all the programs outside of the top-three. It should be a sleeping giant and a team worthy of making that next giant step to contending. But over the span of the Mountain West Conference, that just has not been the case. Hoke is a good coach and maybe he'll get them there. Or maybe he won't. I think we'll have a better idea of where San Diego State stands once 2010 wraps up.
Like the Aztecs, the Rebels are an enigma. They're located in one of the most exciting cities in the country and have the ability to really tap into some hotbed recruiting areas and yet they've done nothing in football for a generation. Why? How can a program be so damn bad for so damn long?
Now it's Bobby Hauck's turn to try and turn them around. Can he, though? Each coach they've hired over the last few tries has come in with the same hype as Hauck and each have failed. Will he be any different?
Hard to imagine the Rams started 2009 3-0 with wins over Colorado and Nevada. But that's exactly what they did and then followed it up losing nine straight. Their 3-9 finish undid any momentum Steve Fairchild had created in his inaugural season with Colorado State and now he faces an uphill battle.
The Rams are probably the most likely team to make the leap. They won't contend for a championship in 2010, but they should be good enough to at least potentially make a run at a bowl berth. And they might have to, or Fairchild may enter his third season on the hotseat.
The good news for Mike Locksley and New Mexico is that the Lobos can't be much worse than they were in 2009. So 2010 should offer up some progress. Whether they make a leap up to respectability, though, is questionable. I mean, how do you when you're coming off a 1-11 season? Thank God for Colorado State (their lone victory).
But their problems are so vast that nothing should be expected from the Lobos next season. For starters, their defense was atrocious last year. New Mexico gave up 36-points a game and that just won't cut it. Regardless of how good your offense is.
And it wasn't like their offense was all that good, either, as they only averaged 16 points. Not a good combination.
Especially when Locksley is still facing fallout from punching an assistant last year.