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Predicting the Mountain West

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With the college football season around the corner, I thought it would be wise to do my best in predicting how the Mountain West Conference will shake out this season. It's a difficult task, as there have been many surprises throughout the short history of the conference, but an undertaking I'm willing to accept.

Last season TCU surprised its new conference foes by rolling through unscathed, becoming only the third team in Mountain West history to go undefeated in conference play (BYU in 2001 and Utah in 2004 were the other two). It surprised many because TCU hadn't been predicted to finish anywhere near the top of the conference. This season TCU will look to keep it rolling, however I doubt other Mountain West teams will take them lightly, especially after what they did last year.

This season, like last season, it's difficult to pick a consensus conference champion. Last year Utah was chosen to finish first in the conference, but fell to 4-4 in conference play. As noted, TCU was picked to finish down the conference ladder, only to dominate their way to the top. But TCU should be the favorite heading into September, however whether they repeat as conference champions very well may come down to their game against the Utes in Salt Lake City. Generally, at least according to preseason publications, TCU has been picked to finish first, with Utah and BYU rounding out the top 3. All three teams, along with Colorado State, were invited to bowl games last year, with only TCU and Utah winning their bowl game.

Looking at the schedule of each team, it's fairly easy to say Utah has the easiest conference slate with TCU, BYU and CSU all needing to travel to Salt Lake City to play the Utes. Though tough road games against New Mexico, Wyoming, Air Force and San Diego State very well could derail any conference championship hopes for the Utes. BYU on the other hand seems to have the most difficult conference slate with road games against TCU, CSU and their end of the year match up with Utah. Though they do have home games against potentially tough teams in San Diego State, Wyoming and New Mexico.

With the top-3 pretty much predicted, the rest of the conference seems to be anyone's guess. The Lobos disappointed last year after a few people thought they would win the conference with their senior heavy team. A 4-4 finish and the prospects of a very young Lobos team though, has cooled the predictions in Albuquerque. Likewise, Wyoming was predicted by a few to win the conference and even contend for the top-25. However a conference season filled with untimely missteps and games plagued by turnovers had the Cowboys limping to a 4-7 finish. With Wyoming replacing key players from their 2005 team, including starting quarterback Corey Bramlet, they aren't expected to do much. However they weren't expected to do much in 2004, either, and that season they went 7-5 and stunned UCLA in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl.

The biggest question mark in the conference this year seems to revolve around San Diego State. Gone is Tom Craft and his often undisciplined and underachieving teams, as he's been replaced by former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long. Long has no head coaching experience, so it's impossible to tell whether or not he will have the ability to turn San Diego State around. Expectations for the Aztecs vary, but it seems they could be the dark horse when it comes to Mountain West contenders.

To predict how teams will finish in the conference, I've decided to look at each team's schedule and predict their final overall record and their conference record. I feel breaking it down by schedule will yield the best results, though I admit that the degree of prediction is heavily compromised by the fact I might be a bit biased (especially when it comes to Utah and BYU). That said, I will do my best to not predict a BYU season consisting of 0 wins and 12 losses -- though how sweet would that be?

2006 Conference Predictions:

Air Force:

DeBerry has had two losing seasons in a row and his legacy at Air Force could be severely jeopardized with yet another losing year. Can he turn things around and wiggle his way out from that noose quickly tightening around his neck?

2006 Schedule:

@ Tennessee: L
@ Wyoming: L
New Mexico: L

Navy: L
Colorado State: L
@ San Diego State: L
BYU: L

@ Army: W
Notre Dame: L
Utah: L
@ UNLV: W
TCU: L

Final Record: 2-10
Conference Record: 1-7

Another losing season for DeBerry and his boys. Whether the Academy's administration decides to force DeBerry into retirement or whether he steps aside himself might be the biggest question for the Falcons this season.

Brigham Young:

When he's not slipping and sliding down a watery slip-and-slide, Bronco is looking to the future, by embracing the past. Return to glory was the rage last year for the Cougars and while they made a bowl game, the season was fairly unremarkable and an up and down affair. This season, on the shoulders of senior quarterback John Beck, the Cougars will look to have their first winning season in 4 years.

2006 Schedule:

@ Arizona: L
Tulsa: W
@ Boston College: L
Utah State: W
@ TCU: L
San Diego State: W
UNLV: W
@ Air Force: W
@ Colorado State: L
Wyoming: W
New Mexico: W
@ Utah: L

Final Record: 7-5
Conference Record: 5-3

BYU finishes with its first winning season since going 12-2 in 2001, but still fails to win the conference championship or beat Utah. Improvement on the 6-6 finish last year might unravel however with the fact BYU in 2006 is a senior laden team.

Colorado State:

Sonny Lubick is a legend in Fort Collins, so much so that they named their football field after him. However over the past few years the Rams have struggled and haven't really positioned themselves as a threat to the conference championship. Though the Rams finished 6-5 last year and were invited to a bowl game, they subsequently went out and got blown away by a strong Navy team. The 6-6 finish assured Sonny Lubick and his Rams their 2nd straight non-winning season. This year, with a new quarterback at the helm, the Rams will look to right the ship, contend for the conference championship and return to their winning ways.

2006 Schedule:

Weber State: W
Colorado: L
@ Nevada: W
@ Fresno State: L
UNLV: W
@ Air Force: W
@ Wyoming: L
New Mexico: W
BYU: W
@ Utah: L
TCU: L
@ San Diego State: L

Final Record: 6-6
Conference Record: 4-4

Rams finish 6-6, possibly getting a bowl berth.

New Mexico:

New Mexico disappointed last season, finishing 6-5 and missing out on a bowl game for the first time in three years. The Lobos were picked by many to win the conference and never really found their groove last season, especially on offense. This season Rocky Long will not only need to rebuild with new players, he's rebuilding with his coaching staff as well. The Lobos have hired former UCLA head coach Bob Toledo as their new offensive coordinator and he'll look to revive a stagnate Lobos offense. The season should be interesting for New Mexico, as they've consistently been a 6 win, 5 loss team under Rocky Long over the past few years. With 12 games added, and a relatively easy out of conference schedule, getting to 6 wins might not be too difficult, even with a new offense and much inexperience on the football field.

2006 Schedule:

Portland State: W
@ New Mexico State: W
Missouri: L
UTEP: W
@ Air Force: W
Wyoming: W
@ UNLV: L
Utah: W
@ Colorado State: L
TCU: L
@ BYU: L
San Diego State: W

Final Record: 7-5
Conference Record: 4-4

Lobos win 7 games, become bowl eligible and play in the first ever New Mexico Bowl. A win against Utah was a tough pick, but the Lobos have had Utah's number as of late and it would not surprise me if the Utes lost this game.

San Diego State:

Chuck Long will look to do something no coach has done at San Diego State since the Don Coryell days and that's consistently win. He inherits one of the Mountain West's most talented teams and the Aztecs should be solid on the defensive end. San Diego State has underachieved over the years and Long may be the guy that finally puts everything together for that hauntingly good Aztec team all Mountain West fans have been dreading.

2006 Schedule:

UTEP: W
@ Wisconsin: L
Utah: L
@ San Jose State: W
@ BYU: L
Air Force: W

Cal Poly: W
@ Wyoming: L
UNLV: W
@ TCU: L
@ New Mexico: L
Colorado State: W

Final Record: 6-6
Conference Record: 3-5

Aztecs finish with a 6-6 record in Long's first season, a success over last year's 5-7 record. They become bowl eligible and either don't go bowling, or stay home and play in the Poinsettia Bowl.

TCU:

All that stood between TCU and a BCS bowl game last year was a little school by the name of Southern Methodist. SMU, hardly considered a football power anymore, rocked TCU's world and ended any hopes of an undefeated BCS busting season. However the Frogs bounced back, winning their next 10 games and finishing with that lone blemish on their record. This season it won't be nearly as easy, especially with their tougher schedule and the fact they lose Corey Rogers, their stud wide receiver from last year, and some key players on their O-line. However the Frogs return surprise quarterback Jeff Balard, who replaced Tye Gunn during the season and actually looked better on the field. Will TCU's encore live up to their debut?

2006 Schedule:

@ Baylor: W
UC-Davis: W
Texas Tech: L
BYU: W
@ Utah: L
@ Army: W
Wyoming: W
@ UNLV: W
@ New Mexico: W
San Diego State: W
@ Colorado State: W
Air Force: W

Final Record: 10-2
Conference Record: 7-1

Frogs win 10 games and a share of the conference championship. After an early stumble against Texas Tech and Utah, they roll to a dominate season finish.

UNLV:

Last year the Rebels struggled on offense and doubts were raised on whether Mike Sanford really was the offensive genius behind Utah's explosive 2004 offense. This season, those doubts should either be proven false, or proven unfortunate for Rebel fans. UNLV has a fairly easy schedule and a lot of returning talent, as well as some key transfers from BCS programs. Yet, it's still unknown whether that talent is good enough to make a greater impact than last year's Rebels team. UNLV's offense struggled last season and they could still struggle this season as well.

2006 Schedule:

Idaho State: W
@ Iowa State: L
@ Hawaii: L
Nevada: W
@ Colorado State: L
New Mexico: W
@ BYU: L
@ Utah: L
TCU: L
@ San Diego State: L
Wyoming: L
@ Air Force: L

Final Record: 3-9
Conference Record: 1-7

While the season appears to be poor, the Rebels should improve defensively and maybe on the offensive side of the ball as well. Year 3 for Sanford will be much more important than year 2 for Rebel football and whether Sanford has a career as UNLV's coach.

Utah:

Kyle Whittingham's first season with the Utes wasn't very memorable. In fact, it was one game away from being a complete disaster. However he's excused from the mediocre 7-5 record because of all the talent Utah had to replace. This season though, Utah fans won't be so lenient to losing. With more returning talent this season than last year, expectations are high for the Utes to not only compete for the Mountain West, but compete for a BCS bowl, too. Though the loss of a few key players, especially on the offensive side of the ball, should not go unnoticed. While the Utes believe they have the best receiving core in the conference, they still need to find a legitimate replacement for star receivers John Madsen and Travis LaTendresse. If they do, look out.

2006 Predictions:

@ UCLA: W
Northern Arizona: W
@ Utah State: W
@ San Diego State: W
Boise State: W
TCU: W
@ Wyoming: W
@ New Mexico: L
UNLV: W
Colorado State: W
@ Air Force: W
BYU: W

Final Record: 11-1
Conference Record: 7-1

Utes and Frogs share the conference championship with the Utes stumbling against the Lobos down in Albuquerque. That loss will most likely end any hope of a BCS bowl bid, since it comes so late in the season. However, since I'm a Ute fan, I would not take too much stock in Utah's picks.

Wyoming:

Joe Glenn and his Wyoming Cowboys struggled in his first season, only to turn around and have a winning season in his second year. That shocking turnaround had Cowboy fans dreaming of their return to glory (an era where Wyoming was actually a solid team), however the program regressed in 2005 and might have to start all over entering this season. With expectations tempered and the fact Glenn's still a solid coach, Wyoming may actually have a winning season. Glenn is building something solid in Laramie and I would not be surprised if they finished in the upper-half of the conference this year. They do lose their starting quarterback and if last season's play is any indication of how they play this season, Wyoming may be in for another long campaign.

2006 Schedule:

Utah State: W
@ Virginia: L
Boise State: L
Air Force: W
@ Syracuse: W
@ New Mexico: L
Utah: L
Colorado State: W
@ TCU: L
San Diego State: W
@ BYU: L
@ UNLV: W

Final Record: 6-6
Conference Record: 4-4

Wyoming finishes 6-6, but probably doesn't go to a bowl game. Definite improvement over last year's 4-7 finish.

Final Mountain West standings:

*Utah: 7-1 (11-1)
*TCU: 7-1 (10-2)
*BYU: 5-3 (7-5)
Wyoming: 4-4 (6-6)
Colorado State: 4-4 (6-6)
*New Mexico: 4-4 (7-5)
*San Diego State: 3-5 (6-6)
UNLV: 1-7 (3-9)
Air Force: 1-7 (2-10)

* Bowl teams.

Utah and TCU win the conference, while BYU comes in second. Both TCU and Utah should finish ranked, however the Utes late season stumble against New Mexico might cost them a BCS bowl bid.