by Robert Ferringo - 08/22/2005
Be prepared to hear quite a bit about the Western Athletic Conference this year. Just as Utah made a commanding run into the BCS Top Five last season out of the lowly Mountain West, the WAC features a pair of clubs that could do some serious damage to the bowl hopes of schools in the major conferences.
According to the USA Today preseason poll, the WAC is home to two of the top 26 teams in the country. Boise State is currently ranked No. 19 in the nation, and Fresno State is No. 26. Fresno State is a mere four points out of the Top 25 (188 pts. to Pittsburgh's 192 pts.). Not too shabby.
Boise State has a chance to make its presence felt on the national scene early on this fall. The Broncos travel to face SEC powerhouse Georgia in Athens on Sept. 3. If they manage to win that game, they should be undefeated by the time the square off against the Bulldogs in early November.
As for the rest of the conference, three Sun Belt refugees have made their way into the mix - New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State. None of those teams figure to factor much in the mix, but each are trying to establish a base for programs that aspire to reach the level of national respect that it looks like Boise and Fresno have achieved.
Here is how I predict the standings will look like in late December:
Doc's 2005 WAC Preview -- Projected Standings
|TEAM||WAC Record||Overall Record|
|New Mexico State||7-5||5-3|
|San Jose State||3-8||2-6|
The following is Doc's detailed analysis of each Western Athletic Conference team highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and strength of schedule.
Fresno State Bulldogs (11-1, 8-0)
Fresno State closed out 2004 with a flourish. They ended took out their wrath after a loss to Boise State by blasting their last five conference foes by an average of 40 points (all big time covers). They then claimed an upset win (outright) in a bowl game for the third year in a row, coming from behind to top Virginia 37-34 in overtime in the MPC Computers Bowl. With increased national recognition for their accomplishments, the goal for the Bulldogs now is to end Boise State's reign in the WAC. Fresno has lost four straight meetings.
Strengths: 17 starters include linebacker Dwayne Andrews and quarterback Paul Pinegar. Pinegar completed 60 percent of his passes last fall and 11 different receivers had more than five catchers. Wendell Mathis (995) was five yards away from giving the Bulldogs two 1,000-yard rushers (Bryson Sumlin had 1,104). The defense brings back eight starters on a crew that finished 13th nationally in both passing yards allowed and third down efficiency.
Weakness: Team MVP Logan Mankins is now starting for the New England Patriots, and though four starters return they are still pretty green up front (two sophomores and a freshman). Garrett McIntyre is the only returning defensive lineman for the league's top defense in '04.
Best Bet: Sept. 17, 2005 at Oregon. Statement game. Big time. Fresno State is 13-2 versus teams from the BCS leagues, and has eight outright wins in those contests. Also, they're recently 8-1 vs. the Pac 10. Be careful though, the Bulldogs have gone only 12-12 on artificial turf the last seven years.
Be Wary Of: Nov. 12, 2005 vs. Boise State. This is it. This game will be for the conference championship, and the Bulldogs get to play it at home. I do think this is the year they get over the hump, but the number on this game could be deceiving. If they're getting points, it's a trap bet. If they're giving points, just make sure it's less than six.
Boise State Broncos (10-2, 7-1)
Don't let the gimmicky offense and blue field fool you - Boise State is one of the top programs in all of college football. The Broncos were one quarter away from an undefeated season last year, suffering its first loss at the hands of Louisville 44-40 in the Liberty Bowl. Amazingly, that loss makes Boise State 37-3 over its last 40 games. The other defeat was a two-pointer to Oregon State in '03. The Broncos have won 26 consecutive conference games and three straight WAC titles. Also, they've been to five bowl games in the last six years, going 4-1 (overall and against the spread) in that period.
Strengths: Eight starters on both sides of the ball will make their way back to Bronco Stadium this fall. Quarterback Jared Zabransky, who passed for 16 touchdowns and rushed for 13 more in 2004, and linebacker Korey Hall, the top returning tackler are both back in blue. All four of the Broncos top rushers (including Jon Helmandollar, who had 14 touchdowns in 46 carries) return, as do four stellar offensive linemen. The defense is stout in the middle, and safety Cam Hall and cornerback Gerald Alexander (5 INT's) bring some experience to the secondary.
Weakness: Leading receiver T.J. Acree graduated, and Boise will be relying on juco transfer Cole Clasen to pick up the slack. Defensively, two-way player Quinton Jones will be expected to make the change from RB/WR to starting cornerback. The nation's leading scorer in '04, kicker Tyler Jones, has moved on and punter Kyle Stringer will likely take on double-duty. Also, the schedule is a bit tougher with trips to Georgia, Oregon State, Fresno State and Hawaii looming.
Best Bet: Sept. 10, 2005 at Oregon State. If Boise State loses to Georgia in its season opener, it will drop the line on this game. Don't be fooled - the Broncos are the far superior team. BSU is 2-0 as road dogs the last two years.
Be Wary Of: Oct. 22, 2005 at Utah State. I know this sounds crazy, and I don't think there's a chance in hell that the Aggies pull the upset, but Boise State is only 14-11 the last two years ATS, and is 0-3 as favorites of more than four touchdowns. It takes a certain type of animal to beat a team by 40. The Broncos might not be it.
New Mexico State Aggies (7-5, 5-3)
Hal Mumme is bringing his traveling sideshow to Aggie Memorial Stadium. Mumme made a national name for himself by actually turning Kentucky into a relatively competitive football program in the SEC. After four years at the school, Mumme was run out amidst rumors of impropriety. He resurfaced at Southeast Louisiana, where he had another successful two-year run. Now it's on to New Mexico, where he could put the Aggies in the position of spoiler for Boise or Fresno, and should at least find his way to the school's first ever bowl game.
Strengths: The Aggies' offense has a real nice core for Mumme to work his magic with. He has the team's five leading receivers back, three offensive linemen, and the top three rushers. The most intriguing prospect is converted quarterback Paul Dombroski, who is now a full time slot receiver. Linebacker Jimmy Cottrell has led the team in tackles for three straight seasons, and is back to anchor the defense.
Weakness: Like several other teams in this division, they don't have a quarterback. Junior Joey Vincent and juco transfer Royal Gill with fight for reps this fall. Also, while they may be the most well equipped team to make the jump from the Sun Belt to the WAC, they're still tossing themselves into a conference with preexisting hierarchy and will be facing teams with a greater skill level than they're used to.
Best Bet: Sept. 17, 2005 at New Mexico. The Lobos whooped up on the Aggies 38-3 last year, and will be playing at home. This should lead to a double-digit spread with the Aggies getting points. The teams are pretty even in strength, and have the whole in-state rivalry thing going on. I think NMSU could win outright, but I'll settle for a cover.
Be Wary Of: Sept. 24, 2005 vs. California. Yes, they'll be all amped up for this one, but the Aggies are 0-4 after playing New Mexico, including a terrible home loss to Idaho in 2003 and a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of UTEP in 2004.
Nevada Wolfpack (5-6, 4-4)
Through three separate tours with the Wolfpack, coach Chris Ault has had only two losing seasons in 20 years. One of them was last year's 5-7 disappointment. This season Nevada is sort of a dark horse team in the WAC. Now, obviously they aren't going to overthrow Boise or Fresno, but with a soft non-conference schedule they could pull out 7 wins and make their first bowl appearance since 1996.
Strengths: Quarterback Jeff Rowe and Nichiren Flowers hooked up 91 times last fall, the fifth-highest total in the country. Both are back, along with Caleb Spencer (67 catches for 761 yards), to provide the offensive punch for Nevada. The defense returns eight starters (though they were terrible as a group last year). Jeremy Engstrom had a solid freshmen year, and will team up with a juco transfer and another true freshmen to lead the linebackers.
Weakness: The defense has yielded less than 31 points per game only once in the last six years. They do return the eight starters, but they let up 210 rushing yards per game last season and 14 yards per pass. Leading rusher Chance Kretschmer has also moved on after three solid years, leaving a void in the Nevada running game.
Best Bet: Oct. 1, 2005 vs. San Jose State. Nevada has cleaned San Jose State's clock the last two years, winning by double figures each time and leading to two covers. With a little momentum after their pre-conference schedule, another double-digit win should be in the cards.
Be Wary Of: Nov. 12, at New Mexico State. This should be a hotly contested game against the third and fourth best teams in the conference. The fact that Nevada is going to be a road dog (0-5 ATS in 2004) doesn't bode well for them.
Hawaii Warriors (4-7, 3-5)
Last year the Timmy Chang Era ended in the Aloha State with a flourish. The Warriors won their final three regular season games to barely secure a bowl berth. They made the most of it by drubbing UAB 59-40 for their third bowl win in the last six years. Chang left college as the NCAA's all-time leading passer, topping Ty Detmer's mark by over 2,000 yards. Also gone is WR Chad Owens, who tallied 22 touchdowns in '04.
Strengths: Coach June Jones insists that all five of his offensive starters this year along the offensive line will be in the NFL at some point. Yeah, he's probably blowing smoke, but there is some talent there. The best of the lot is 6-foot-2 guard Samson Satele. Also, after hiring run-and-shoot godfather Mouse Davis to coach special teams in '04, Jones brought in Jerry Glanville to coach up the defense.
Weakness: Even Jones admits that this is a rebuilding year. Besides their quarterback, Hawaii waved goodbye to its four leading receivers. Glanville will be good for some ridiculous quotes, but can he improve the 112th-ranked defense? They gave up an absurd 252 yards per game on the ground last year. Also, their schedule is brutal with USC, Michigan State and Wisconsin on the on-conference slate.
Best Bet: Nov. 25, 2005 vs. Wisconsin. The Warriors are 13-6 ATS under Jones, and should be dogs in this post-Thanksgiving game. I think the timing, along with Wisconsin's unfamiliarity with Hawaii's style, will lead to a cover.
Be Wary Of: Sept. 10, 2005 at Michigan State. The Spartans came to Hawaii last year and got molested by the officials. It's not going to be pretty how they exact revenge in East Lansing.
Idaho Vandals (3-8, 3-5)
This isn't going to be pretty. Idaho was 3-9 last season while playing in the Sun Belt, and now their moving up in class to the WAC. First-year coach Nick Holt did an admirable job coaxing what he could out of an undermanned squad that only played two true home games. This year, he returns just 13 starters and will be hard-pressed to contend with the likes of Boise State and Fresno State.
Strengths: Two freshman running backs, Jayson Bird and Rolly Lumbala, combined for 1,433 yards. Bird averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Michael Harrington completed 66 percent of his passes (up from 46 percent in '03) and found wideout Bobby Bernal-Wood 96 times. Those 96 grabs were fourth in the country. Also, all-Sun Belt performer Cole Snyder joins Mike Anderson to lead the linebacking corps.
Weakness: Harrington didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from Holt in spring practice after the coach refused to name him the starter over juco transfer Steve Wichman. A QB controversy is not something that a program that will struggle not to drown in its new league needs. Also, the secondary was terrible last season (gave up 200 yards rushing and 230 in the air) and hasn't shown signs of improvement.
Best Bet: Oct. 1, 2005 at UNLV. The Vandals are above water ATS as road dogs (17-14 the last seven years) and are a respectable 12-8 on grass. I don't know if they're good enough to steal a road win against the Rebels, but they should cover against a team of comparable skill.
Be Wary Of: Nov. 19, 2005 at Boise State. Four of Idaho's nine losses in 2004 came by more than 30 points. One of those was a 65-7 debacle versus their in state "rival".
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs(3-8, 2-6)
Ryan Moats, the 5-foot-8 dynamo that electrified the crowds of Joe Aillet Stadium has taken his road show to the NFL, leaving a gaping hole in the Bulldogs offense. Though he started only 22 games, last year's WAC Offensive Player of the Year finished his brief career with almost 3,200 yards. And those numbers didn't come against cupcakes. The Bulldogs had one of the toughest schedules in the nation in '04, squaring off against six nationally ranked teams. They shouldn't face more than half of that number this fall.
Strengths: Freshman Patrick Jackson could end up filling the void left by Moats. Jackson ran for more than 3,000 yards and 58 touchdowns as a senior in high school in '04. If he follows behind all-WAC guard Aaron Lips he could have a breakout year. The defense is spotty, but they do return three senior linebackers, led by Ladarius Love.
Weakness: La. Tech is on its fifth defensive coordinator in the last five years. They were college football's worst D in 2003. Giving up 32 points a game last year was an improvement, but only four starters are back from that suffocating unit. The Bulldogs also don't have a quarterback, with three signal-callers still lost in the indomitable shadow left by 2003 grad Luke McCown.
Best Bet: Nov. 12, 2005 at Idaho. Having to close the season against Fresno and Boise, this will probably mark the Bulldogs' last shot at a win in '04. Also, they've won at least one game on turf every season since 2001.
Be Wary Of: Sept. 10, 2005 at Florida. Cover your eyes and hide the women and children. La. Tech is 0-6 the last few years ATS as dogs of more than 21 points. The Urban Meyer Era should begin pretty swimmingly in the swamp against the Bulldogs.
San Jose State Spartans (3-8, 2-6)
The good news for the Spartans is that 67-year-old Dick Tomey is rip roarin' and ready to go. Tomey is currently eighth on the active list of winningest coaches at the Division I-A level, with a 158-110-7 career record. The bad news is that this is barely a Div. I-A roster, and the average attendance of SJSU home games last season was about 6,500. Oh yeah, and they are the second worst program at graduating players "in a timely manner," as noted by the NCAA. Tomey, you sure you don't want to retire?
Strengths: Seven starters return from last year's defense. New offensive coordinator Ken Margerum thinks this receiving core is better than the one he left at Stanford. Lamar Ferguson, this year's starter at running back is only 5-feet, 5-inches. I'm sure the novelty on that will wear off quick, but at least it's something. How about this: over its last 16 games, the Spartans are 9-7 against the spread.
Weakness: Everything else. Quarterback Adam Tafralis is an accomplished discus thrower, but not much of a passer. Tafralis completed just 44 percent of this throws last season in limited action. He's excited about the new offense though, and has been quoted as saying, "There's a lot more of a plan, instead of just flipping a coin."
Best Bet: Oct. 22, 2005 vs. Hawaii. Tomey will have his charges fired up in this matchup against one of his old teams. Also, the Spartans have covered the spread against the Warriors in each of the past two seasons.
Be Wary Of: Oct. 8, 2005 at Utah State. This clash of WAC cellar dwellers should be riveting. Amazingly enough, San Jose State is 8-1 ATS over the last seven years as a road favorite. If they're giving points here, take the Spartans all the way to the bank!
Utah State Aggies (3-9, 2-6)
The highlight of the Aggies' season in 2004 was their 34-point second half for a comeback win over New Mexico State in the final game of the year. The win was a fond farewell for coach Mick Dennehy, who had been fired 12 days earlier. Utah State is welcoming new coach Brent Guy, a former Aggies assistant under Charlie Weatherbie and has been at Arizona State for the past four years. To say that the Aggies will have a tough adjustment moving to the WAC would be an understatement, given that they tied for last in the Sun Belt last fall.
Strengths: For the second straight year, the strength of the team should be the secondary. The defensive line also has some talent, but needs to improve against the run (90th nationally in 2004). Wide receiver Kevin Robinson led the squad with 602 yards and managed 22.5 yards per punt return, second in the nation to Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr.
Weakness: If Utah State is to match last year's win total (3), they need to improve their run defense. They were 115th in the country last season against the run, yielding 192 yards a game. It could be tough to shore up that area on defense given that the Aggies lost their top four linebackers from last season.
Best Bet: Nov. 5, 2005 vs. Louisiana Tech. Utah State is forced to play Fresno State, Boise State and at Alabama in consecutive weeks. The Bulldogs will be a welcome sight for the Aggies.
Be Wary Of: Oct. 1, 2005 at Idaho. Utah State has split against the Vandals the past two years, but hasn't covered against Idaho the last four years. The two are familiar foes from the Sun Belt, so a close game should ensue.
Top-heavy is the best way to describe he WAC this season. I think that Boise State has a more difficult schedule than Fresno State, and that will give the Bulldogs a slight edge. I think the two clubs are very close in talent, and while Boise State may be better, I have a feeling that Fresno's home-field advantage will win out when the two meet in what should be their only competitive conference game.
The teams that joined the conference this season have certainly watered-down the league. I'm not sure where this league is headed in the long term, but I know that this should be a season of unprecedented coverage for the WAC. Watch out for New Mexico State this season. Finally, I think that this league is nothing more than two powerhouses that will get to look a little better than they really are by demolishing the WAC bottom-feeders.
If you enjoyed Doc's 2005 WAC preview, check back throughout the week for more college football conference previews.
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