August 12, 2011

TCU, Boise State should battle for MWC crown

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Mountain West Conference fans can only wonder what might have been.

What if BYU and Utah had stuck around? And what if TCU wasn't on the verge of following those schools out the door just as Boise State was coming aboard? A league that featured Boise State, TCU, BYU and Utah would have been as good as the Big East lineup and perhaps could have even rivaled the ACC. That nucleus might have been strong enough to warrant an automatic BCS bid.

But we can only deal with hypotheticals because the MWC never managed to have all four of those schools in the league at the same time. Utah left for the Pac-12, while BYU decided to become independent. TCU will leave for the Big East next season.

That means TCU and Boise State - the top programs from outside the major conferences - will spend only one season as league rivals. Their Nov. 12 showdown in Boise likely will determine the conference champion and could have BCS implications as well, considering that the MWC champion has gone undefeated and has earned a BCS bid in each of the past three seasons.

Then again, Air Force and San Diego State think they might have something to say about that. Air Force has a veteran starting quarterback in Tim Jefferson, a 1,000-yard rusher in Asher Clark and an outstanding secondary, and Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman give new San Diego State coach Rocky Long an imposing offensive backfield.

Still, the Broncos enter their first season in the MWC as the clear favorite. They return Heisman finalist Kellen Moore at quarterback, while TCU must rely on first-year starter Casey Pachall to emerge as an effective replacement for two-time MWC offensive player of the year Andy Dalton. Boise State also has the benefit of playing TCU at home.

This represents a season of transition for the MWC. TCU will try to bid farewell to the league with a third consecutive conference title. The league will replace TCU next season by bringing in Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada from the WAC. But the MWC very well could have emerged as a seventh major conference if only BYU, Utah and TCU had stuck around.

Instead, MWC fans should savor this one season of Boise State and TCU as conference rivals.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State QB Kellen Moore. This 2010 Heisman finalist and fourth-year starter simply doesn't make mistakes. Over the past two seasons, Moore has thrown 74 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions. He leads all active FBS quarterbacks in career passing efficiency (166.74) and wins by a starter (38). He ranks second among active FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage (.682), passing yards (10,867), touchdown passes (99) and completions (831). He already holds Boise State career records for total offense, passing yards, pass attempts, completions and touchdown passes. He finished seventh in the Heisman balloting in 2009 and fourth last season.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State DT Billy Winn. This honor just as easily could have gone to TCU's Tank Carder or Tanner Brock, who form one of the nation's top linebacker tandems. Or we could have selected Boise State E Shea McClellin, who led the Broncos in sacks and tackles for loss last season. But we instead wanted to salute Winn for his emergence as the heart of Boise State's outstanding front four. Winn has 10 sacks and 22 tackles for loss in the past two seasons - solid numbers for an interior player - while helping a program known for its offense develop an elite defense as well. Boise State finished second nationally in scoring defense and total defense and was seventh in run defense last season. Winn was a major reason for those lofty rankings.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: TCU QB Casey Pachall. This first-year starter has the challenge of replacing two-time Mountain West Conference offensive player of the year Andy Dalton, who capped a brilliant career by leading TCU to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl title. Pachall arrived at TCU as a four-star prospect and the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, but he has attempted only nine passes in his college career. TCU's dominant defense should assure that the Horned Frogs win at least 10 games this season, but they won't beat out Boise State for the MWC title unless they have a relatively seamless transition from Dalton to Pachall at quarterback.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: San Diego State T Jerome Long. San Diego State's chances of matching last season's success in the first year of the post-Brady Hoke era will depend in part on how well Long leads a young line. As the only returning starting lineman, Long must play well, particularly early in the season. San Diego State faces Army's option attack and Michigan's Denard Robinson in the first month of the year, so stopping the run will be a major priority. The Aztecs then must face TCU's potent running game, Boise State's Doug Martin and Air Force's option attack in conference play. Long seems up to the challenge after recording 30 tackles - six for loss - last season. Long already is a good player. The Aztecs may need him to be great. Another defensive player on the spot is Boise State's Cedric Febis, who grew up in Holland and now is aiming to continue Boise State's recent string of outstanding strong safeties (Jeron Johnson, Quintin Mikell, Gerald Alexander). Febis finally could crack Boise State's starting lineup as a fifth-year senior, but he must hold off a challenge from promising redshirt freshman Jeremy Ioane.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Boise State WR Tyler Shoemaker. Although he was overshadowed by teammates Titus Young and Austin Pettis for most of last season, Shoemaker still managed 32 receptions for 582 yards and five touchdowns as a slot receiver. He caught a combined 11 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns in consecutive midseason wins over Louisiana Tech and Hawaii. Now that Young and Pettis have completed their eligibility, Shoemaker will move to the outside for his senior season and could emerge as Moore's favorite target.

BREAKOUT DEFNSIVE STAR: Colorado State LB Mike Orakpo. The Rams need another quality linebacker to complement all-conference selection Mychal Sisson. Orakpo has the big-play ability to fill that role. The younger brother of Washington Redskins star Brian Orakpo, Mike made a name for himself last season with a memorable hit in which he knocked UNLV RB Tim Cornett's helmet backward. He finished the season with 37 tackles and two sacks in a reserve role. Now that he has moved into the starting lineup, this converted safety should deliver plenty more highlight-worthy tackles.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Boise State WR Matt Miller. This represents a bit of a leap of faith, but we can't overlook the impact Miller, a redshirt freshman, has made in the first few days of preseason practices. Miller tore an Achilles tendon in fall camp last season and only participated in spring practice on a limited basis, but he has played well in the first workouts of the summer. If he keeps up this momentum, Miller could earn a featured role with a receiving corps that lost plenty of star power. Keep an eye on some quarterback situations, too. Wyoming's starting quarterback will be a newcomer, whether it's true freshmen Adam Pittser or Brett Smith or junior college transfer Colby Kirkegaard. And JC transfer Sean Reilly is competing for UNLV's starting quarterback job.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: TCU CB Jason Verrett. Verrett, a junior college transfer, has made quite an impression since joining the Horned Frogs in time to participate in spring practice. Verrett has won raves from TCU coach Gary Patterson for his work ethic and improvement. Verrett's rapid development has made him a front-runner to open the season in the starting lineup, though he still must beat out sophomore Travaras Battle.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: New Mexico's Mike Locksley. New Mexico has gone 1-11 in each of his two seasons. In the first of those seasons, Locksley was suspended for a game after scuffling with an assistant. If that weren't enough, projected starting QB Stump Godfrey and DT Calvin Smith - the prize recruit of Locksley's tenure - announced during the offseason that they planned to transfer. Locksley said this month that going to a bowl was the goal for this team. The Lobos seem a long, long way from bowl contention.

BEST COACHING STAFF: TCU. While Boise State coach Chris Petersen lost offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to Texas this offseason and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Tennessee a year earlier, TCU's Gary Patterson has been able to keep most of his staff together. For each of the past three seasons, defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas has been a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. TCU's reliance on co-offensive coordinators has worked well. The continuity on the coaching staff is a major reason TCU has won at least 11 games in five of the past six years.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: TCU's Justin Fuente and Jarrett Anderson. It's tough to argue with the results these guys have delivered. TCU has gone 25-1 and has set single-season records in touchdowns, points and first downs since Fuente and Anderson were promoted to co-coordinator before the 2009 season. Fuente also serves as TCU's quarterback coach, while Anderson works with the running backs. Both of those units have performed extremely well the past two seasons. Fuente deserves at least part of the credit for helping Dalton develop into a pro prospect. TCU ranked fifth nationally in rushing in 2009 and 10th in 2010.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: TCU's Dick Bumpas. The Horned Frogs have led the nation in total defense in each of the past three seasons. The Frogs did it last season despite having to replace first-round pick Jerry Hughes, a two-time consensus All-American. Patterson is known as a defense-minded coach, and he calls the defensive signals. But there's no doubt that Bumpas commands plenty of respect. His annual status as a Broyles Award contender proves that much.

BEST POSITION COACH: TCU OL coach Eddie Williamson. Although he got plenty of attention nationwide last year for leaving the San Diego State game with chest pains that eventually required an angioplasty, Williamson had made a name for himself in the coaching fraternity long before that. Williamson has coached 16 All-MWC selections over the past six seasons. TCU has allowed a total of 21 sacks over the past two seasons. Williamson is a former VMI coach and Wake Forest offensive coordinator.

THE OTHER STUFF

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Colorado State. It's easy to understand why the Rams went 3-9 and got blown out so many times (only one of their losses was decided by fewer than 21 points) last season. True freshman Pete Thomas started at quarterback all season and suffered growing pains while getting sacked 44 times, and the defense couldn't stop anyone. But Thomas hung tough and improved over the course of the season. The former four-star recruit should be much better as a sophomore while working behind an improved line that returns four starters. The Rams also should improve a turnover margin that ranked 105th nationally last season. And the defense couldn't get any worse. Colorado State won't finish in the top half of the MWC standings, but the Rams should win a couple more games and might even be bowl-eligible.

Boise State vs. Georgia in Atlanta, Sept. 3

TCU at Air Force, Sept. 10

San Diego State at Michigan, Sept. 24

TCU at San Diego State, Oct. 8

Air Force at Notre Dame, Oct. 8

San Diego State at Air Force, Oct. 13

Air Force at Boise State, Oct. 22

BYU vs. TCU in Arlington, Texas, Oct. 28

TCU at Boise State, Nov. 12

Boise State at San Diego State, Nov. 19

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: San Diego State. There are two ways to classify disappointments. We don't expect UNLV, New Mexico or Wyoming to be that good this season; those three teams might not even combine for six wins. But how can a team be disappointing if nobody expected it to be any good in the first place? That brings us to San Diego State, which went 9-4 last season and earned its first bowl win since 1969. The Aztecs should get back to a bowl this season, but they could take a small step backward in the process. San Diego State lost the architect of its reconstruction when Michigan hired away Brady Hoke. The Aztecs also must replace all-conference receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. SDSU still should finish no lower than fourth in the conference, but anyone expecting the Aztecs to make a serious run for the MWC championship will be disappointed.

GAME OF THE YEAR: TCU at Boise State, Nov. 12. It would be a major surprise if this game doesn't end up determining the MWC champion. Considering the recent track record of both teams, an undefeated season and BCS bid also could be at stake. This matchup already has garnered plenty of attention for off-field reasons. The Nov. 12 showdown originally was scheduled to be played at TCU, but MWC officials moved it to Boise State after the Horned Frogs announced their plans to leave for the Big East after the 2011 season.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: New Mexico. The Lobos are the only MWC team that must play both of the conference's heavyweights - Boise State and TCU - away from home. The Lobos also have non-conference games with Arkansas and Texas Tech in back-to-back weeks, though the matchup with Texas Tech is at home. During one four-week stretch, New Mexico travels to Nevada and TCU, plays host to Air Force and travels to San Diego State. Those four teams posted a combined 44-9 record last season.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Colorado State. Each of Colorado State's non-conference games is against an FCS program (Northern Colorado) or a team that had a losing record last season (Colorado, Utah State, San Jose State and UTEP). Colorado State travels to TCU on Nov. 19, but the Rams get Boise State, Air Force and San Diego State at home. They play three of their last four games at home and have back-to-back road trips just once all season. They also get two weeks to prepare for the Oct. 15 home game with Boise State.

MWC EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the MWC. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Boise State
Tom Dienhart: Boise State
David Fox: Boise State
Mike Huguenin: Boise State
Steve Megargee: Boise State

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: San Diego State
Tom Dienhart: San Diego State
David Fox: San Diego State
Mike Huguenin: San Diego State
Steve Megargee: San Diego State

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: Seventh
Tom Dienhart: Seventh
David Fox: Seventh
Mike Huguenin: Seventh
Steve Megargee: Sixth

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Boise State QB Kellen Moore
Tom Dienhart: Boise State OT Nate Potter
David Fox: Boise State QB Kellen Moore
Mike Huguenin: Boise State QB Kellen Moore
Steve Megargee: Boise State QB Kellen Moore

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: San Diego State TB Ronnie Hillman
Tom Dienhart: San Diego State TB Ronnie Hillman
David Fox: San Diego State TB Ronnie Hillman
Mike Huguenin: San Diego State TB Ronnie Hillman
Steve Megargee: San Diego State TB Ronnie Hillman

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: Boise State's Kellen Moore
Tom Dienhart: Boise State's Kellen Moore
David Fox: Boise State's Kellen Moore
Mike Huguenin: Boise State's Kellen Moore
Steve Megargee: Boise State's Kellen Moore
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: Boise State WR Tyler Shoemaker
Tom Dienhart: UNLV WR Michael Johnson
David Fox: Boise State WR Tyler Shoemaker
Mike Huguenin: Boise State WR Tyler Shoemaker
Steve Megargee: Boise State WR Tyler Shoemaker

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: TCU LB Tanner Brock
Tom Dienhart: New Mexico LB Carmen Messina
David Fox: TCU LB Tanner Brock
Mike Huguenin: Colorado State LB Mychal Sisson
Steve Megargee: New Mexico LB Carmen Messina

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: TCU
Tom Dienhart: TCU
David Fox: Boise State
Mike Huguenin: San Diego State
Steve Megargee: Colorado State

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: TCU
Tom Dienhart: TCU
David Fox: TCU
Mike Huguenin: San Diego State
Steve Megargee: TCU

THE WORST?
Olin Buchanan: UNLV
Tom Dienhart: Wyoming
David Fox: UNLV
Mike Huguenin: Wyoming
Steve Megargee: New Mexico

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBKellen Moore, Boise State (6-0/191, Sr.)
RBRonnie Hillman, San Diego State (5-10/190, Soph.)
RBDoug Martin, Boise State (5-9/215, Sr.)
WRJosh Boyce, TCU (6-0/203, Soph.)
WRPhillip Payne, UNLV (6-3/205, Sr.)
TELucas Reed, New Mexico (6-6/232, Jr.)
TPaul Madsen, Colorado State (6-4/309, Sr.)
TNate Potter, Boise State (6-6/300, Sr.)
GKyle Dooley, TCU (6-3/315, Sr.)
GA.J. Wallerstein, Air Force (6-4/285, Sr.)
CThomas Byrd, Boise State (5-11/288, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EStansly Maponga, TCU (6-2/265, Soph.)
TBilly Winn, Boise State (6-4/295, Sr.)
EShea McClellin, Boise State (6-3/258, Sr.)
LBTanner Brock, TCU (6-3/250, Jr.)
LBMiles Burris, San Diego State (6-3/235, Sr.)
LBTank Carder, TCU (6-3/237, Sr.)
LBMychal Sisson, Colorado State (5-11/207, Sr.)
CBLeon McFadden, San Diego State (5-10/185, Jr.)
CBAnthony Wright, Air Force (5-10/200, Sr.)
FSGeorge Iloka, Boise State (6-3/216, Sr.)
SSJon Davis, Air Force (6-1/210, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KAbel Perez, San Diego State (6-1/225, Sr.)
PBrian Stahovich, San Diego State (6-0/190, Sr.)
KRJonathan Warzeka, Air Force (5-9/180, Sr.)
PRChris Potter, Boise State (5-9/158, Jr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Boise State: Kellen Moore arguably is the second-best quarterback in the nation, behind only Stanford's Andrew Luck. Doug Martin rushed for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The Broncos must replace Jeremy Avery, who ran for 495 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago.

2. San Diego State: QB Ryan Lindley is a fourth-year starter who threw for 3,830 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. Ronnie Hillman ran for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman to lead the MWC in rushing.

3. Air Force: Tim Jefferson rushed for 794 yards and 15 touchdowns and also threw for 1,459 yards and 10 TDs last season. Asher Clark ran for 1,031 yards and five touchdowns. The Falcons lack an experienced fullback.

4. TCU: Casey Pachall has a tough task replacing Andy Dalton at quarterback, but the Horned Frogs are loaded at tailback with Ed Wesley (166 carries, 1,078 yards, 11 TDs last season), Matthew Tucker (148-709-7) and Waymon James (87-513-5).

5. Colorado State: Pete Thomas should be much better this season after throwing for 2,662 yards, 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a true freshman. Candidates at tailback include Chris Nwoke (74-357-1) and Raymond Carter (65-235-1).

6. Wyoming: The Cowboys rank this high only because they have a good tailback in Alvester Alexander (189-792-14). They have no experience at quarterback, as true freshmen Adam Pittser and Brett Smith and junior college transfer Colby Kirkegaard are competing for the starting job.

7. UNLV: Caleb Herring is the likely starting quarterback. He completed only half his passes, with four TDs and three picks, as a backup last season. The Rebels have a promising tailback in Tim Cornett (144-546-6).

8. New Mexico: Stump Godfrey's transfer leaves B.R. Holbrook and Tarean Austin as the potential starting quarterbacks. They combined to throw 10 interceptions and four touchdown passes last season. The Lobos return Kasey Carrier, who rushed for a team-high 373 yards last season.

Receivers

1. UNLV: The Rebels have the MWC's most productive receiving tandem in Michael Johnson (51 catches, 571 yards, five TDs last season) and Phillip Payne (40-689-5).

2. TCU: The Frogs return Josh Boyce (34-646-6), Antoine Hicks (13-175-2) and Skye Dawson (12-170-0). Boyce has star potential. The Frogs also add LaDarius Brown, the No. 53 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.

3. Boise State: The Broncos must replace Titus Young and Austin Pettis - one of the nation's top receiving combinations last season - but Tyler Shoemaker (32-582-5) is solid and the Broncos have other promising candidates.

4. New Mexico: The Lobos bring back their top receiver in Ty Kirk (38-477-2). Lucas Reed (33-459-5) is one of the nation's top pass-catching tight ends.

5. Air Force: The Falcons don't throw particularly often, but they do have two nice receiving options in Jonathan Warzeka (18-406-3) and Zach Kauth (16-274-4).

6. Colorado State: The development of sophomore quarterback Pete Thomas should allow Lou Greenwood (34-474-2) and Matt Yemm (21-265-1) to step up their production.

7. San Diego State: All-MWC selections Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson will be hard to replace; the top returning wide receiver, Dominique Sandifer, blew out his knee over the summer and will miss the season. TE Gavin Escobar (29-323-4) is the Aztecs' top returning receiver.

8. Wyoming: The Cowboys will have an inexperienced quarterback throwing to unproven receivers. Wyoming's top two returning pass catchers are Chris McNeill (28-257-3) and Mazi Ogbonna (18-183-1).

Offensive line

1. Boise State: The Broncos return three starters, including All-America candidate Nate Potter at tackle and four-year starter Thomas Byrd at center. Boise State ranked seventh nationally in rushing and third in sacks allowed last season.

2. Air Force: The Falcons return three starters, including one of the conference's top guards in A.J. Wallerstein. Air Force ranked second nationally in rushing and allowed the fewest sacks of any FBS team last season.

3. San Diego State: T Tommie Draheim and G Nik Embernate lead a group that returns four starters. San Diego State ranked 48th in rushing and tied for fifth in sacks allowed last season.

4. TCU: Senior G Kyle Dooley is the Frogs' lone returning starter. The Frogs must break in two new tackles and also have to replace Rimington Trophy winner Jake Kirkpatrick.

5. Colorado State: The Rams have four returning starters, but they need to perform better. CSU ranked 118th in sacks allowed last season and was 103rd in rushing. Sophomore C Weston Richburg is a rising star, though.

6. Wyoming: The Cowboys return G John Hutchins, T Clayton Kirven and T Josh Leonard. That experience is nice, but this line must step up its production. Wyoming ranked 98th in rushing and 95th in sacks allowed last season.

7. New Mexico: The Lobos return two starters after ranking 78th in sacks allowed and 106th in rushing last season.

8. UNLV: Andrew Mack and Doug Zismann are the lone returning starters. UNLV was 116th in rushing and 101st in sacks allowed a year ago.

Defensive line

1. Boise State: The Broncos return T Billy Winn (9.5 tackles for loss) and Es Tyrone Crawford (seven sacks) and Shea McClellin (9.5 sacks). Boise State led the nation in sacks and ranked seventh in run defense last season. This should be one of the top lines in the country

2. TCU: E Stansly Maponga (32 tackles 2.5 sacks) earned second-team All-MWC honors as a freshman last season. T D.J. Yendrey delivered three sacks last season and could be a force on the interior. TCU was fifth in run defense last season.

3. Wyoming: The Cowboys return four starters: Josh Biezuns (10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks), Gabe Knapton, Patrick Mertens and Mike Purcell. But Wyoming ranked 109th in run defense, 84th in sacks and 100th in tackles for loss last season.

4. San Diego State: The lone returning starter is T Jerome Long, who recorded six tackles for loss and one sack last year.

5. Air Force: The Falcons must replace Rick Ricketts, and they don't have any linemen who recorded more than one sack last season. That said, they also have three senior starters and two returning starters (Zach Payne and Ryan Gardner). Air Force was 103rd in run defense last season.

6. Colorado State: The Rams return Es C.J. James and Broderick Sargent, who combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.

7. New Mexico: Returning starters include E Jaymar Latchison (50 tackles, 2 sacks) and T Ugo Uzodinma, who began his career at Illinois. The Lobos ranked last in the nation in run defense last season.

8. UNLV: Returning starters are Es B.J. Bell (51 tackles) and James Dunlap (38 tackles). UNLV and New Mexico have two of the worst defensive lines in the FBS ranks.

Linebackers

1. TCU: The Frogs return MWC defensive player of the year Tank Carder (60 tackles, 9.5 for loss) and first-team all-MWC pick Tanner Brock (106 tackles). There might not be a better linebacker duo in the nation.

2. Air Force: The Falcons return three quality starters in Brady Amack (82 tackles), Jordan Waiwaiole (96 tackles) and Patrick Hennessey (60 tackles)

3. Boise State: The Broncos should get a boost from the return of Byron Hout, who missed the latter part of the 2010 season with a foot injury. J.C. Percy (65 tackles) and Aaron Tevis (46 tackles) also are back.

4. San Diego State: Miles Burris is one of the MWC's top defensive playmakers. He delivered 20 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks last season. Logan Ketchum is a returning starter who made 52 tackles a year ago.

5. New Mexico: Carmen Messina has made 277 tackles over the past two seasons. The Lobos also return Joe Stoner (67 tackles last year) and Spencer Merritt (65 tackles).

6. Wyoming: Returning starters include Devyn Harris (47 tackles) and Brian Hendricks (80 tackles). Hendricks is entering his third year as a starter. But Oliver Schober, a projected starter at middle linebacker, will miss the season for medical reasons.

7. Colorado State: Mychal Sisson (95 tackles, 15 for loss) is a star, but he's the Rams' only returning starter.

8. UNLV: The Rebels don't have a single returning starter at linebacker - and they weren't exactly dominant on defense last season.

Secondary

1. Air Force: The Falcons lost CB Reggie Rembert, but they return their other three starters in CB Anthony Wright, FS Anthony Wooding and SS Jon Davis. Air Force led the nation in pass defense and ranked 10th in pass efficiency defense last season.

2. Boise State: The Broncos return All-America candidate George Iloka at safety and Jamar Taylor at cornerback. Boise State was second nationally in pass efficiency defense last season.

3. TCU: Returning starters include S Tekerrein Cuba and CB Greg McCoy. TCU led the nation in pass efficiency defense last season, but the Frogs must replace 2010 Jim Thorpe Award finalist Tejay Johnson at free safety.

4. San Diego State: CB Leon McFadden was a first-team all-MWC pick last year. FS Brandon Davis gives the Aztecs two returning starters, though that means they'll have three first-year starters in their 3-3-5 scheme.

5. New Mexico: The Lobos return four starters, but they were 111th in pass efficiency defense a year ago.

6. Wyoming: The lone returning starter is CB Tashaun Gipson. Wyoming was 92nd in pass efficiency defense last fall.

7. Colorado State: The Rams have three returning starters in Shaq Bell, Elijah-Blu Smith and Ivory Herd. But they ranked just 118th in pass efficiency defense last season.

8. UNLV: The lone returning starter is CB Will Chandler, who had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2010. The return of CB Quinton Pointer. who missed last season with a knee injury, should provide a boost.

Special teams

1. San Diego State: Abel Perez was 17-of-22 on field goals with a long of 53 last season. Brian Stahovich was an All-MWC punter. That duo is good enough to give San Diego State the No. 1 ranking, though the Aztecs must upgrade their return game and coverage units.

2. TCU: Ross Evans was 11-of-13 on field goals with a long of 43 last season. P Anson Kelton, a 280-pounder, helped the Frogs rank fourth in MWC and 58th overall in net punting. The Frogs could have a tough time replacing star return man Jeremy Kerley.

3. Colorado State: Ben DeLine was 16-of-22 on field goals last season with a long of 43. Pete Kontodiakos helped CSU rank third in the MWC and 50th nationally in net punting. Derek Good was 35th nationally in kickoff returns last season, but kickoff coverage needs to get a lot better.

4. UNLV: Nolan Kohorst was 8-of-11 on field goals last year, but only 1-of-4 from at least 40 yards out. The Rebels will have a new punter this season.

5. Air Force: The Falcons have a new punter this year and are counting on K Erik Soderberg to bounce back from a disappointing season. Jonathan Warzeka is one of the nation's top kick returners.

6. Boise State: The Broncos have a new kicker and punter this year. Chris Potter ranked 13th nationally in punt returns last season.

7. New Mexico: James Aho was 8-of-9 on field goals with a long of 51 and Ben Skaer is back as the punter, though the Lobos were just 115th in net punting last season. The Lobos were last in punt coverage and 105th in kickoff coverage last season.

8. Wyoming: Austin McCoy is back as the punter, but the Cowboys will have a new kicker and have to shore up leaky coverage units.

Coaching staff

1. TCU: TCU's Gary Patterson and Boise State's Chris Petersen are equally outstanding coaches, but the continuity on TCU's staff gives the Frogs the edge.

2. Boise State: Can Brent Pease replace departed offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin as effectively as Pete Kwiatkowski stepped in for former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox last season?

3. Air Force: Troy Calhoun is one of the nation's brightest coaching prospects, and he has remained loyal to his alma mater.

4. San Diego State: Rocky Long has won in this conference before, so he could make sure San Diego State remains successful even without Brady Hoke on the sidelines.

5. Wyoming: Dave Christensen had a successful debut season in 2009 before everything fell apart last season. Former Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon seems like a good hire at offensive coordinator, but the Cowboys' inexperience at quarterback will make his job difficult.

6. Colorado State: Steve Fairchild does have a bowl win under his belt, and he showed some guts turning the offense over to a true freshman last season.

7. UNLV: Bobby Hauck's track record at Montana shows he knows how to win, though his first season at UNLV didn't go well.

8. New Mexico: The Lobos' 2-22 record during Mike Locksley's two-season tenure makes this staff the clear choice for the No. 8 spot.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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