Sophomore Jordan Wynn returns to guide the Utah Utes on offense.
The Mountain West is polishing up its conference resume for a chance at earning automatic qualifier status in the next BCS review cycle. They hit a homer this summer, convincing Boise State to come aboard in 2011, but then those gains were negated by the impending loss of Utah to the Pac-10. Might 2010 be the year when these teams truly force themselves into the national title conversation?
The only thing holding them back is the dead weight at the bottom of their league. At least half of the games played by the elite non-BCS teams come against FBS bottom feeders, making it difficult to evaluate their success in the same context as that, of say, the Southeastern Conference.
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Utah has multiple BCS bowl victories since 2004, BYU has posted double-digit wins in four straight seasons and TCU has tallied 11 or more victories in five of the last seven seasons. This terrific trio will once against dominate the conference standings in 2010 and the Horned Frogs are legitimate national title contenders.
Brief snapshots, including betting trends and angles, for each team in the Mountain West appear below.
TCU (12-1 SU, 8-4 ATS)
Coach Gary Patterson welcomes back 16 starters from a team that played in a BCS bowl and finished sixth in the final polls. Since 2005 the Horned Frogs have the best record in the nation (53-11) and Patterson has averaged more than nine wins in each of his nine seasons.
There’s no reason to believe there won’t be more success at TCU this fall.
There is depth at running back, skill and experience at receiver and speed on defense that few in the country can match.
Since November of 2007, the Horned Frogs have only twice given up more than 17 points in a game and have held 10 of their last 26 opponents to single digits.
TCU may not face any top-25 teams and its toughest test, BYU, has to travel to Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs have won nine of 11 games against BCS conference teams since 2004 — with their only losses against top-10 opponents.
TCU has cashed eight of 12 in three of its last four seasons and grabbed the cheese at a torrid 15-5 clip as favorites at Amon G. Carter Stadium. In addition, the Horned Frogs have passed 12 of their last 16 conference tests against college football betting spreads.
UTAH (10-3, 6-7)
Quarterback Jordan Wynn, the MVP of last year’s Poinsettia Bowl, is back. So is running back Eddie Wide, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 10 games.
On defense, Utah needs a slew of new starters to step up. Five of the six leading tacklers from 2009 are gone. The linebacker position is undergoing a complete overhaul and cornerback Brandon Burton is the only returning starter in the secondary.
The new blood will try to continue the Utes recent run of stingy defense; Utah has given up 17 of fewer points in 16 games over the last two seasons.
The Utes don’t shy away from a non-conference challenge and will host Pittsburgh on September 2 and will travel to Notre Dame on November 13. Coach Kyle Whittingham is 9-4 against BCS conference teams.
Utah was 16-8 ATS versus Mountain West foes from 2006-08, but fell to 6-7 last season.
BYU (11-2, 6-6-1)
Brigham Young has the best record in the MWC over the last three, five and 10 seasons. However, the Cougars have to play both TCU and Utah on the road and that drops them to third in the conference.
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BYU has finished in the top 20 four straight years but for that impressive string to continue, some key players must be replaced, including quarterback Max Hall and his two top backups.
Coming out of spring, junior Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps had a slight edge over sophomore James Lark in the battle to be the starter.
As long as the offensive line remains healthy, there are enough weapons around whoever plays quarterback to let them ease into the transition.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall also must scramble to fill a big hole left when Harvey Unga, the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards, withdrew from BYU in April due to an undisclosed honor violation.
In Unga’s place, juniors J.J. Di Luigi and Bryan Karlya have 112 career carries and six touchdowns between them and may share time throughout the fall.
The Cougars have been a betting bust versus MWC competition the past two campaigns, failing to cash at a 10-5-1 clip. They have also come up short at a 6-3-1 pace as home favorites.
AIR FORCE (8-5, 7-5)
Air Force is the closest team among the other six conference members to break into the top three.
It’s hard to imagine the Falcons finishing any lower than fourth again in 2010 based on what they return on both sides of the ball. However, if Air Force hopes to compete with the “Big Three” it needs to show more of a passing threat than just a couple of play-action passes.
As long as the Falcons can continue to force turnovers defensively and prevent them offensively (Air Force has a +45 turnover margin the last three seasons) they should once again win at least eight games and earn a fourth straight bowl bid.
The skill position players return, led by quarterback Tim Jefferson, fullback Jared Tew, and tailback Asher Clark. Tew and Clark combined for 1,835 yards and 16 touchdowns last year and will once again be featured in the second-most run-heavy offense in the nation.
The Fly Boys have been money-makers the last three seasons, cashing at a 23-13 clip and been especially potent versus MWC foes (17-7). The Falcons have also ‘covered’ five of their last six as road favorites.
WYOMING (7-6, 9-3)
Coach Dave Christensen took Wyoming bowling for the first time since 2004 and the Cowboys then proceeded to upset Fresno State as a double-digit dog in the New Mexico Bowl.
Wyoming won four games with fourth-quarter rallies by finding ways to hang around and eventually come out on top.
Sixteen starters are back from that team, and barring any major slippage should be in the postseason mix. A lot will depend on the continued progress of sophomore quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who passed for 1.953 yards and ran for another 306 while working with a limited playbook.
Wyoming beat the four teams that finished below it in the conference last year, and lost to the four teams that finished above it by a combined score of 129-20.
The Cowboys were 4-18-1 ATS combined in 2007-08 before rebounding to cash nine of 12 last season. They grabbed the cheese in six of seven as road short-enders after failing in 10 of their previous 13 in that role.
SAN DIEGO STATE (4-8, 4-6-1)
By going 4-8 and staying out of the conference cellar, San Diego State took its first steps back into respectability. The Aztecs must get more stops and the offense must take care of the ball and play smart in order to take the next step.
Quarterback Ryan Lindley is well on his way to developing into one of the better signal callers in the conference. And the Aztecs may have one of the top wide receiver trios in the nation in seniors Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson and sophomore Dominque Sandifer.
A defense that was among the nation’s worst in virtually every category in 2008 made steady strides in defensive coordinator Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 scheme.
If San Diego State can survive playing five of its first eight games on the road, it gets three of its last four at home.
Circle the calendar when the Aztecs travel to New Mexico on October 23. The Lobos have cashed eight of nine against San Diego State, including the last four at home.
COLORADO STATE (3-9, 3-7-1)
Colorado State took a step backwards last season, dropping all eight conference games and nine of 12 overall. To prevent a repeat performance, the Rams are going back to their roots—pounding the rock and playing good defense.
The ground game will be built around Leonard Mason, who gained 766 yards last year, and John Mosure, who had 650 rushing yards. Colorado State’s problem is that the guys up front who are expected to open the holes are inexperienced.
The Rams will be better than 3-9, but breaking into the top four or five in the MWC standings will be tough.
Colorado State was 1-6-1 ATS in conference play last year. The Rams have also scuffled as short-enders on the highway, going 2-6-1 the past two seasons.
NEW MEXICO (1-11, 5-7)
Coach Mike Locksley’s young Lobos managed only one win during his rookie campaign but showed marked improvement in the final five games.
Blue-chip defensive tackle recruit Calvin Smith and a defensive line that returns three starters assures New Mexico is taking steps in the right direction, slow but sure.
The Lobos no-huddle spread-offense managed just 16.3 points a game last year. And there’s going to be a new quarterback in charge of generating more points. One of the more significant stories coming out of spring was that sophomore B.R. Holbrook distanced himself from juniors Brad Gruner and Tate Smith for the starting job.
Despite a couple of solid players, the defense lacks playmakers or consistency. Three or four victories in year two under Locksley would be progress.
New Mexico has given MWC bigwigs Utah and BYU fits recently. The Lobos have grabbed the green in four of their last five versus the Utes at University Stadium and cashed four straight versus the Cougars in Albuquerque.
UNLV (5-7, 3-8)
As the only new coach in the conference, Bobby Hauck isn’t promising any quick fixes for a moribund UNLV program with just 16 wins the last five years and one bowl appearance since 1999. Hauck compiled a stellar 80-17 mark at Montana while leading the Grizzlies to three national championship games.
There is talent to work with. Eight starters return on each side of the ball and the Rebels secondary is one of the better units in the league.
Three quarterbacks, including two who have played a lot the last couple of years, were in contention for the job during spring. Senior Omar Clayton entered camp as the starter and kept that title, but Hauck insists that the job will be up for grabs during fall camp.
Unless some younger and unproven players step up, UNLV figures to struggle defensively again this season. It may have to resort to outscoring teams, but going from a spread to a more conventional offense may not be conducive to winning shootouts.
The Rebels failed to cash two of three as home pups last season after getting the money in eight of their previous dozen in that role. UNLV has floundered in 13 of its last 18 as road pups.