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July 28, 2011 9:12 am

SPORTS GUY: Surveying the Mountain West

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Media days for the Mountain West Conference wrapped up earlier this week. You can read all about the various preseason selections originating out of that set of interviews in the accompanying story in today’s paper.

As always though, I wanted to take my turn to survey the landscape. The Mountain West, or MW as the league is attempting to brand itself these days, gets a new look this fall with Boise State sliding in to take the place of Utah and BYU. The Utes, you’ll recall, escaped to the PAC-12 while BYU opted to pursue a go-it-alone strategy and become an independent.

We’ll see in the years ahead just how wise a strategy that was for both schools.

This is a bit of a transition year for the MW. After this season, TCU will depart for the Big East, of all places. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada will all leap into the league starting next fall.

But for now, eight is enough here in the Rocky Mountain West and here’s how yours truly would have submitted his media days ballot if asked:

1. Boise State — With 14 starters due back from a team that was in the national championship hunt last year, the Broncos have to be considered the frontrunners in 2011. If he played in a bigger league, quarterback Kellen Moore’s name would dominate Heisman Trophy discussion. All he’s done in the last two years is throw for nearly 7,400 yards, 74 touchdowns and — get this — only nine interceptions. Besides, if I didn’t pick Boise State here, Powell’s Dave and Matt Wilson, both on roster for the Broncos, might tiptoe to my door some night and whisk me away to dye my hair blue.

2. TCU — After a Rose Bowl win, the Horned Frogs cashed out for the Big East and this will be their last season in the MW. The Nov. 12 game against Boise State should decide the league, but with just eight starters back, including three on offense, things don’t look like the Frogs will take the title and run.

3. Air Force — If a third team is going to crack the Top 25 this season in the MW, it will be the Falcons, who return almost 60 letterwinners from last year’s team and feature one of the most experienced defensive units in the country. That’s a nice feature considering only TCU scored more than 28 points against Air Force’s defense last season.

4. San Diego State — Here’s where the fun really begins. If Brady Hoke were still head coach, I’d call the Aztecs for No. 3 in the MW. Since the coaching staff went through a shakeup when Hoke accepted the mantle of head coach at Michigan, I’m dropping them. The Aztecs’ other dilemma is that they begin the season with no healthy wide receiver with more than five catches last year. Fortunately, they have one of the league’s top running backs and an experienced offensive line to soften the damage.

5. Wyoming — I’ll throw the Pokes here, perhaps in a blatant display of homer-ism. Set aside the question mark at quarterback, however, and what you have is an experienced returning group of players that’s no worse off than any of the other remaining MW teams. I’m willing to call last year a sophomore slump for head coach Dave Christensen and look for a rebound this year as increased speed and athleticism continue to filter into Laramie.

6. UNLV — Former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck starts his second year with the Rebels. He’ll be completely rebuilding the defense this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the boys in Vegas gave up 40+ points eight times last year. I respect Hauck’s offensive genius though, and UNLV’s biggest benefit will be returning eight starters to a unit that now has a year of experience in that system.

7. Colorado State — Noted college football pundit Phil Steele has gone out on a limb and predicted that the Rams will be one of the most improved teams in the nation this season. On the optimistic side, after a 3-9 year last season, there’s little direction to go but up for the Rams. On the pessimistic side, considering eight of those losses were by three touchdowns or more, the Rams could improve quite a bit and still have nothing to show for it record-wise. Call me a pessimist in 2011.

8. New Mexico — MW football writers are going to have to craft a new term for being on the hot seat this fall. Lobo head coach Mike Locksley’s chair is sizzling so much after back-to-back 1-11 seasons that he’d best be sporting asbestos pants. All you need to know about the state of New Mexico football is that only once in 12 games last year did the Lobos hold an opponent to fewer than 30 points. Only once did the team score more than 24 points — sadly, in its win over Wyoming, the team’s lone victory in 2010. The question in Albuquerque likely isn’t whether Locksley will have a job next season, but how many games he survives into this season before being handed his pink slip.

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