It's hard to argue 2008 wasn't the banner year for the Mountain West. Three teams finished in top-25, two in the top-ten, with Utah coming in at second nationally. But what can the conference do for an encore and will next year's results mimic what we saw this season?
Those questions will dominate the discussion as we enter the spring & summer months, but it's an answer that will have to wait until the season actually gets under way. This is the case because while talent does return at the very top of the conference, it's also being shuffled out, with Utah, TCU and BYU losing key players on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
The champions, Utah, probably have the biggest question marks, as they lose a bulk of their offensive production, two key defensive stars and the best kicker in school history. Those players won't be easy to replace, however, Utah's strength, even with the losses of Paul Kruger and Sean Smith, is still their defense and that should keep them competitive, especially when conference play rolls around.
But will it be enough to give Utah a preseason top-25 ranking? Well most previews for next season, however early they may be, suggest Utah will fall anywhere from 25th to 9th. But it remains to be seen if this buzz will stay the further we get from the Utes' surprisingly easy victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Another team that can make the case for the championship is TCU. The Frogs finished the season 11-2, with their lone conference loss coming to Utah, in Salt Lake City. Many people thought the Frogs were the best team in the conference and gave the Utah game away. Debate aside, TCU looks to be the favorites next year, if only because their conference schedule is more favorable than Utah's, though it should be noted they have to travel to BYU and what they return.
Speaking of BYU, their losses might be the most damaging. The biggest is Austin Collie, Max Hall's favorite receiver this season and the player that made the Cougar offense tick all year long. Without that option, their offense could fizzle, especially since they have to rebuild most of their offensive line. That could pose some nightmare scenarios for Hall, who buckled under pressure in all three of the Cougars' losses. It isn't a coincidence that Hall's three poorest games came against the three toughest defenses BYU faced all season. With an opener against Oklahoma -- whose Heisman winning quarterback will return -- and a home game against Florida State, that line is going to be tested early and often. If BYU struggles out of the gate, it could snowball into something pretty nasty.
Of those three, I think BYU has the least room for error, but mostly because this is the season to get it done. A season not unlike Utah's and if they can't next year, then when? In fact, I think BYU now stands at a similar position as the Utes did in the offseason. It was a question I asked here on Block U, though more in the terms of conference championships instead of BCS berths. I knew Utah would be good, we all knew Utah would be good and if Kyle Whittingham couldn't produce a championship with this team, then would he ever? Well we know Bronco can win conference titles at BYU, but can he take it to the next level and produce a season where BYU becomes the non-BCS darling? This appears to be a now or never situation facing the Cougar football program, which means everything is on the line and if they let it slip away, the climb back to the top will be harder than ever.
The Cougars do have some things going for them, though. Max Hall is a good quarterback and if he can become as mentally tough as John Beck in his senior season, their offense should be extremely scary. Couple that with their favorable home schedule and it's likely they can lose to Oklahoma in week one and go undefeated the rest of the way, which would position them for a BCS bowl bid.
For Utah, they have a favorable out of conference schedule, as Oregon looks to be the only possible loss. Games against San Jose State, Utah State and Louisville, the latter two at home, should be victories. That sets up nicely for the Utes as they enter conference play and hopefully the success they gain out of conference carries over and Utah picks up where they left off at the end of this season.
When it's all said and done, I expect the Mountain West to probably take a step back. Out of the top-three, TCU seems to have the best chance of going undefeated, though a very easy out of conference schedule will kill any chance of playing for the national championship. BYU could make some noise, especially if they manage to upset Oklahoma, but they have got to figure out what to do with their defense if that is going to happen. As for Utah, I expect a better rebuilding season than what we witnessed in 2005 and if all goes to plan, the Utes should be playing for the conference championship well into the final month of the season.