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Nine teams, nine questions

Well not apiece, that's just maddening! 

But as the season approaches, there are questions facing each Mountain West team. We'll ask the most pressing. 

Air Force: 

Will Air Force prove to be more than 4th best in the Mountain West?

In Troy Calhoun's first season, the Falcons finished second in the Mountain West and surprised nearly everyone. There was a bit of a step back last year, but they still managed to finish with a winning record. Their fourth-place finish, however, just might be an indication of what to expect from future Falcon teams. 

It seems near-universally accepted the three teams at the top are Utah, TCU and BYU in no particular order, while the rest battle it out for the middle. Can Air Force change that? A 10-win season, coupled with a top-three finish very well might slide them in there in terms of perception. They would certainly be aided if Utah, TCU or BYU could slip a bit and finish below third.

How likely is that, though? TCU has finished outside of the top-three only once since joining the Mountain West (2007), while you have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last time the Utes weren't in the top-three and 2003 for BYU. 

It doesn't seem likely the Falcons can be any better, on a sustained level, than fourth in the conference. But if they make noise this year and finish in the top-three, maybe that's up for debate in the future.

Brigham Young:

Will the Cougars crash the BCS? 

It's a similar question posed by many last year and the answer to that was an emphatic no. Sure, BYU made a push for the BCS early in the season, but then ran straight into a wall when they faced TCU. That loss was difficult to accept for the Cougars, but it didn't seem to really fire them up any, as they would go on to lose the Holy War against the Utes and then lay an egg in the Las Vegas Bowl. 

This year is different, though. BYU has expectations but they're not openly talking about the BCS like they were in the summer of 2008. Maybe they've learned a bit about loose lips sinking BCS ships. 

Yet there are still some major hurdles to overcome for this Cougar squad. They open the season essentially on the road against the team that lost in the national championship game and then also host what many believe will be a resurgent Florida State program. 

Now I think victory over the Seminoles is attainable, but how good are the Cougars' odds against the Sooners? I wouldn't bet on 'em and I'm sure you'll find many BYU fans agreeing with me. 

So does BYU automatically ruin their BCS hopes with an opening season loss to Oklahoma? No. They can rattle off 11-straight wins and put themselves in position for a BCS bowl bid. Of course, that will require both Utah and TCU to have exceptional seasons -- ones mirroring last year. But if that's the case, then it isn't difficult predicting BYU finishing with three or more losses and that most certainly would not cut it down in Provo. 

Colorado State:

Will the Rams make a bowl game in 2009?

Last season was an exceptional debut for Steve Fairchild, as he guided the Rams to a bowl victory and a 7-6 record. But can he follow it up with another bowl berth? That's the question facing Colorado State this season as they prepare to build some stability in Fort Collins. 

Stability has been the Rams' problem since their reign over the Mountain West sputtered to a halt at the end of the 2002 season. Sure, there were bowl berths in 2003 and 2005, but that's about it.

Fairchild breathed new life into the struggling program, but was that only temporary and if they revert back to 3 or 4-wins this season, will all that momentum to come out of 2008 disappear?

New Mexico:

Will Mike Locksley take the Lobos to the next level?

This question might not be answered this season, but I think you'll get an idea if that's likely under his leadership. 

Rocky Long built a constant contender in Albuquerque, however, could never really get them over the hump. There were good seasons, but generally, the Lobos performed rather mediocre. In fact, it wasn't until 2007, Long's tenth season there, that they won their first bowl game since the Lyndon Johnson administration. A year later and the Lobos limped to a 4-8 record, forcing Long out.

He was replaced by former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who promises to bring an offensive explosion to the Land of Enchantment. But is that likely and will it happen this season? 

Locksley definitely has the resume, but the Lobos aren't a sleeping giant and it's going to take exceptional coaching to lift them from where Rocky Long had them over the past decade and turn them into what fans expect. Which means there is a possibility Long was the best they could do and if that's the case, their only hope is that Locksley isn't worse at the job. 

However, early signs point to him being a better recruiter and in this day and age, that might just be the most important factor when looking at a head coach.

San Diego State

Will Brady Hoke prove to be the answer? 

Stop me if you've heard this one: San Diego State hires a head coach who promises to turn a struggling head-scratcher of a program around and two or three years later, gets the boot. 

That seems par the course for the Aztecs, who are somehow searching for that silver bullet that'll turn everything around. 

Brady Hoke now shoulders this responsibility. But there is a big difference between Hoke and the past failures at San Diego State. He's at least coached at this level before. Chuck Long and Tom Craft (he coached junior college) hadn't prior to taking over the struggling Aztec program. 

Hoke, of course, comes via Ball State. He was their head man last year, guiding them to an impressive 12-1 record. Though his team lost in the conference championship game, 2008 will most likely be regarded as the best season in Cardinal history. 

We already know what a MAC coach can do in the Mountain West (see Urban Meyer), but what can a MAC coach do at San Diego State? Expectations aren't high, but with a favorable schedule (UCLA, Utah, BYU and TCU are their biggest threats), they should certainly be in the bowl mix when it's all said and done. That's a huge step up from where they were last season - a 2-10 finish. 

If Hoke can get the Aztecs to the postseason, they haven't been since 1998, then he very well could be the answer. 


Will Gary Patterson finally guide the Frogs to the BCS? 

It's not really a secret, TCU is the best non-BCS team to not play in a BCS bowl. And while that isn't entirely bad, it's not entirely good, either. In fact, the Frogs have been knocking at the door to the BCS longer than any program outside the Big Six and that includes BYU, Boise State and Utah. Unfortunately for them, no one is answering. 

Their first run came in 2000 - an entire year before BYU would make a play at the BCS. Back then they were led by Dennis Franchione and opened the season 7-0. They vaulted up the standings and looked poised to bust the BCS. Then they ran into the mighty buzz saw known as San Jose State and lost (let this be a lesson to Utah).

The 24-27 setback ruined the season, even though the Frogs finished 10-2. Franchione up and left Fort Worth for Alabama and Gary Patterson took over. His first game was a loss to So. Miss in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.

In Patterson's third season, TCU again made noise after starting the season 10-0. But then they were blown out against So. Miss (by this time, they had joined the Conference USA) and not only lost out on the BCS, but a conference championship. You'll remember, Utah faced the Golden Eagles in that year's Liberty Bowl. 

Their most recent struggles (2005's loss to SMU a week after defeating Oklahoma and 2006's losses to BYU & Utah) we're aware of and I'm not going to get into those. 

But this is a new year and for Patterson, who enters his tenth season with the Frogs, things are set up better than ever for a BCS run. Yet you can't help but think this program is somehow cursed in that regard and if they come up short again this year, will it ever happen? 

If it doesn't, the Frogs most certainly will continue to be the best team to not play in a BCS bowl game. Whether they like that title or not.


Will Mike Sanford finally get the Rebels to a bowl game? 

Sanford enters his fifth year with the Rebels and all he has to show for it is a five-win season in 2008. It wasn't bad and compared to what UNLV was expected to do, it was actually pretty good. However, a losing season is a losing season and that's just not going to cut it this time around. 

With a decent enough foundation set, anything short of six regular season wins this year will not be tolerated. So Sanford now enters 2009 knowing it's pretty much a bowl game or unemployment. But can the Rebels get to the six-wins needed for a bowl game? 

Their schedule is a mixed bag. They do play Oregon State, who could possibly contend for the Pac-Ten, but that's at home and a victory there could signal things are shifting in Vegas. They also host the Cougars and Utes and as we saw in 2007, Utah certainly can lose down there. 

But there are road games against Wyoming, Nevada (who's expected to finish 2nd in the WAC), New Mexico, TCU and Air Force. Those are all possible losses and if that's the case, UNLV will pretty much need to run the table at home to have a realistic shot at a bowl berth. And I'm not so sure that is possible. Which means I see another 5-7 season unfolding for Sanford and that won't be enough.


Will Utah have a decent follow up to 2008? 

While going 13-0 and winning the Sugar Bowl over one of the best programs in college football history is great, it's also something no team can ever live up to, especially with zero chance at a national title. Unfortunately, that's what the Utes will have to do this season and it's not likely. There won't be no 13-0 season and most likely no BCS bowl berth as well, but that doesn't mean Utah can't do something special enough. 

2009 is going to be a challenge for the Utes, however, a conference championship and ten or more wins is definitely reasonable. If the Utes do that this season, and I don't see why they can't, then that will provide a decent enough follow up to what they accomplished in 2008. It might not be a perfect season, but it would be perfect enough.


Will Dave Christensen bring real offensive change to Laramie?

Joe Glenn was supposed to be the coach to take the Cowboys back to elite status and it never happened. After briefly flirting with success in 2004, Wyoming has been rather pathetic since and now it's up to Christensen to get things turned around. 

Can he? 

Well he's definitely not Joe Glenn and that's not a bad thing. Christensen also brings a change in philosophy, focusing more on offensive development, while the last administration was more known for their defenses. Which isn't a surprise, since the most successful Cowboy teams have been known for their offense (just check out Joe Tiller, former Purdue coach). 

But there are problems. Christensen had the weapons at Missouri when he was their offensive coordinator, he doesn't at Wyoming. Without the players, an offense will fizzle - just ask Glenn. 

Of course, expectations are low and maybe that works best in Wyoming's favor, since they can sneak up on teams like Colorado State last year. If they do that, maybe they'll make more noise than expected. But even that seems like a stretch.