Saturday saw the first few games of Mountain West play. The schedule will kick into full gear in about a week, where teams like Utah, BYU, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico have a chance to prove they are the real deal, while teams like Colorado State and Wyoming have a chance to reshape their season.
Looking back at the preseason, there have been some surprises and some setbacks for the conference so far. I don't think anyone could have predicted New Mexico would play as well as they currently are, while Wyoming has unexpectedly taken a step back under new head coach Heath Schroyer. Then there are teams like TCU and San Diego State, who really haven't performed great, but also haven't performed terribly bad, either. We'll get a first hand look at San Diego State next week when Utah battles them in their second game of the conference season.
With how the preseason has shaped out, I don't know if you can say there is a clear cut favorite for the conference championship. UNLV, New Mexico, Utah and BYU are all playing really well right now, while San Diego State doesn't look bad and Air Force has actually looked pretty decent, even with how much talent they lost from last year. If things continue like this, I don't envision a team running away with the conference title. It will be a battle that could ultimately come down to the final week of play and maybe the final conference game between Utah and UNLV at the Mack.
Truth be told, I think this conference is too close to call. In fact, I think you can make a claim for at least four teams. So, instead of trying to predict the conference outcome, like I did at the beginning of the season, I will give reasoning as to why the following teams will win the conference and why they won't. I'm not going to use every team, since I don't think Wyoming, TCU, Colorado State or Air Force have the horses to win the championship.
Why: The Cougars won the Mountain West last year and looked poised to have another solid season this year. After toppling then number 7 Louisville and nearly defeating number 1 North Carolina, BYU cracked the top-25 and climbed the rankings. That play made them the early favorite to win the championship.
Why Not: Even though they knocked off Louisville, that win looked less impressive as the Cardinals struggled and fell out of the top-25 entirely. A close loss to North Carolina, however, is still a loss and BYU did lose to Boise State, forcing them out of the top-25 last Monday. Outside of that, they have no other impressive wins and haven't really faced a tough game on the road yet. The Louisville, North Carolina and Michigan State games were all played on BYU-friendly neutral courts.
Why: The Lobos have had a fantastic start under new head coach Steve Alford, jumping to a 14-2 record. That quick start is one of the best in recent memory and has people forgetting the Ritchie McKay era. Lobo fans hope that the momentum can continue into the conference season and the team did open up with a gutsy overtime victory over Wyoming in Laramie.
Why Not: Who have they beaten? The Lobos do own victories over Wyoming, Hawaii and UTEP, but they still haven't beaten anyone. Their two losses came on the road, where they've only played six times this season. They still have a lot to prove if they are going to be considered the conference favorite.
San Diego State:
Why: The Aztecs are 11-3 on the season and cruising along, even though they lost some key players. San Diego State also opened up conference play with a victory over TCU.
Why Not: There really isn't much that favors a San Diego State championship. In every important game this season, the Aztecs have lost. They lost to Cal, Arizona and Saint Mary's, while beating up on a bunch of cupcakes. They still have to prove they are a consistent enough road team to position themselves for a championship.
Why: Lon Kruger has done a great job at reloading with the Rebles. UNLV lost some key players after last year's Sweet Sixteen run, however, Kruger and Wink Adams have them on the cusp of the top-25.
Why Not: Like the other teams, who have the Rebels actually beaten? They were blown out, at home, by Louisville -- the same team BYU beat not even a week later. They lost, by 3, to UCSB and even though they kept it close against Arizona, there really isn't an impressive victory on their schedule. Minnesota may prove to be later on in the season, but it's hard to say, since they too have played no one.
Why: Utah is off to a surprisingly good start in Jim Boylen's first season. At 9-4, the Utes own an impressive blowout victory over instate rival Utah State and a close road win over Cal -- who also upset a ranked USC team last week. In 2 of their 4 losses, the Utes fell to Washington and Gonzaga by only a combined 8 points. They also opened up conference with a dominant 22-point victory over Air Force.
Why Not: Close losses are still loses and Utah went through many of them last year. The Utes still haven't proven they can get over the hump, even if it looks like they're progressing. That could keep them from any chance of winning the conference championship, since they will need to do more than just win all their home games.
The other teams could play spoiler and might make some noise, but I don't envision them winning the championship. Obviously I'm hoping for Utah, but I'm not confident just yet. A victory next week over the Aztecs on the road, however, could determine whether or not they are a real threat to win the Mountain West.