It seems each year there is one team no one thinks will make much noise that actually does. Air Force last year, BYU and TCU the two years before that. They're teams that are picked to struggle or are coming off poor seasons. TCU, fresh off a 5-6 campaign, wasn't picked by many to do much in their inaugural Mountain West season, yet they rolled through the conference, winning its championship. And even though BYU was picked to contend for the championship in 2006, I don't think anyone expected them to dominate the conference like they did. Then there is Air Force, a team many predicted would finish in the bottom-half of the conference. But the final result was nearly the exact opposite, as Troy Calhoun -- in his first season -- guided the Falcons to a 9-4 record, their best finish in 7 years.
So who'll be this year's Air Force? It's hard to say, because any team can have that breakout season, like Utah in '03, or they can continue to stagnate (UNLV and SDSU most recently). But that is too easy of an answer and I'm not about to wrap this post up on an ender like that, so let's look at the candidates.
Firstly, you've got to take out the teams who actually accomplished something last year, especially since all but one of them actually managed to do fairly well, winning 9 or more games. I'm talking, of course, about BYU, Utah, Air Force, New Mexico and TCU. So that leaves us with the rest of the Mountain West.
As I said earlier, a team that surprises has to be picked to do poorly in the conference. Chances are there are four teams that will not be picked to do much in the Mountain West this season: UNLV, Colorado State, San Diego State and Wyoming -- in that order. So let's start there.
The Rebels just can't seem to get it right. They hired legendary USC coach John Robinson in hopes of recreating his Southern California magic and while he had some success, it was never sustained. The Rebels should not have an excuse for sucking this badly, not with their recruiting pipelines and the fact they're in the entertainment capital of the United States. How in the hell do you not get the talent needed to compete in the Mountain West when you're in a city every college kid would love to live in?
However, I do not think Mike Sanford is a good coach and he is not going to get it done with UNLV. In fact, he should be canned at the end of the year, maybe even before and thus UNLV won't surprise anyone this season...because they'll continue to suck.
Steve Fairchild takes over a program with a dearth of talent and must find a way to mold that into some kind of success. Luckily for him, he probably gets a pass for this year. With that said, the Rams could make some noise, or they could continue to struggle greatly, which wouldn't surprise me, especially with so many questions on both sides of the ball. The safe bet, though, is to pick them to finish toward the bottom of the conference, which probably will happen.
San Diego State:
The Aztecs are slowly moving in the right direction, or so this season will prove (or disprove). The jury is still out on Chuck Long, but like UNLV, there is no excuse for San Diego State to struggle. In fact, I'd wager they should be more open to success than the Rebels. I mean, it's California and San Diego may just be the nicest city in America. But that's really a moot point at this time.
The problem with San Diego State is that they need to find a replacement for Kevin O'Connell and that's not going to be easy. Luckily for them, it appears the defense could be good, at least based on spring reports. If this is the case, the Aztecs may have growing pains on offense, but the defense could make them a threat...to finish above .500. And if San Diego State actually finishes above .500, it will be a shocker. Not because this program can't do it, but because they haven't been able to do it in so long.
The coaching staff will have their work cut out for them, but it's doable.
This just may be it for Joe Glenn. If the Cowboys do not get their act together and finish with a winning season, it's entirely likely they'll be looking for a new coach. Which seemed completely and utterly implausible just a few years ago. But when you've done nothing since a 7-5 campaign in 2004, the seat starts heating up and that's exactly what he faces.
Fortunately for Glenn, the Cowboys should have a better offense than what they had last season. Of course, that isn't hard to do, since Wyoming's offense was down right putrid. But the success of that offense -- and possibly their season -- rests in the hands of Karsten Sween, who most likely will be starting for the Cowboys come August. If Sween can improve and play at the level of what his experience suggests he should be able to play at, the Cowboys will dramatically improve over last year's team. Cut down on the turnovers and move the ball efficiently enough and Wyoming very well could be the surprise team this year.
Each team has a semblance of a case here, but ultimately San Diego State and Wyoming have the best shot at making some type of noise this season. With the Cowboys actually returning some offensive weapons, especially at quarterback, I'm going to go with them. Though that will require a lot on their part and they can't afford the annual second half collapses that have gutted their seasons over the past few years.