1. Boise State — This is a season of change for Boise State with a swarm of new starters needing to step in. It’s also a farewell tour around the league as the Broncos prepare to depart for bluer pastures. Still, history says this is the program to beat.
2. Nevada — Six starters on offense and defense come back for the Wolfpack, who seem to occupy a niche that’s clearly below that of frontrunner Boise State but clearly above the rest of the MW field that’s in pursuit.
3. Fresno State — Here’s where the fun starts, as I think a reasonable argument can be made for sticking the next five schools in just about any order. The Bulldogs bring back seven starters on each side of the ball after going 4-9 last season. Take note though, this is a team that had No. 10 Nebraska on the ropes for three quarters. Five of those nine losses last year were by 10 points or less. It won’t take much improvement to see a huge swing in the record this year. I’m not sure that justifies the two first-place votes Fresno State received from MW writers, but, hey, sound judgment is not a staple of many a Vegas visit.
4. San Diego State — The only other team besides Fresno and Boise to receive a first-place vote from a writer at this year’s media event, the Aztecs return six on each side of the football as they, too, make a farewell tour around the league.
5. Wyoming — After much wrangling, I decided to drop the Pokes here on my list. On the positive, all those quarterback concerns we had a year ago are gone entering 2012. On the negative, I worry about the dreaded sophomore slump for Brett Smith and the impact of a still-inexplicable decision by Alvester Alexander to forego his senior season on the rushing game. The defense returns seven, but has to improve on a year where it allowed more than five yards per carry and allowed opponents a 60 percent pass completion rate.
6. Hawaii — Offensively, Hawaii has the potential to do better than sixth. Defensively, there will be a lot of new faces, and as tightly clustered as the middle of the MW pack appears, this looks like the right spot.
7. Air Force — The Falcons have been a consistent top-half team in the MW, but this season return the fewest number of starters in any of the nation’s 124 Division I fooball programs. That’s got to take its toll on performance. I may be sinking the team too low by putting them here, but then again Air Force was only 7-6 a year ago.
8. Colorado State — On the other side of the coin, we have the MW’s most experienced returning roster with 15 starters back from a program that’s breaking in a new head coach and that harbors three consecutive 3-9 seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rams improve, but I’ll keep them here due to the new coach, new offensive/defensive schemes and the lack of a clear candidate to demote below them on the totem pole.
9. New Mexico — Bob Davie steps in as head coach and pledged a more physical approach to the game. That harkens back to the days of Rocky Long, when the Lobos were known for physical play. Make no mistake, New Mexico has a deep hole to climb out of, but Davie as a new head coach has to be a big step in the right direction.
10. UNLV — Bobby Hauck did wonderfully as Montana’s head coach, but that success has not followed him to Las Vegas so far. This year, he’s breaking in new offensive and defensive coordinators in an attempt to improve on a 2-10 record. UNLV lost by an average of 23 points per game last season, so there’s not a lot of positives to draw on. I liked Hauck and was hoping he could bring success to a moribund program when hired, but UNLV just looks rudderless.