Posted 06/28/2011 at 05:15 PM
The Mountain West appeared to be on the verge of being a major player in the college football landscape with Boise State joining the league but it was short-lived as Utah and BYU quickly left the league and TCU will be leaving after this season. Boise State and TCU figure to be the two powerhouses in the conference this season and an undefeated season could be on the line when the teams meet in November. The Mountain West may lose some prestige in years to come but for 2011 the league can still make a lot of noise. With just eight teams in the league there will be unbalanced schedules with half the teams playing three conference road games and half the teams playing four, not a small factor in such a short conference slate. Here is a quick look at the schedules for each team in the 2011 version of the Mountain West.
Air Force Falcons: Moving a team other than Boise State or TCU into the top two in the conference would require some courage but Air Force would be the team most likely to make that jump. The Falcons have a veteran team with 14 returning starters which is a lot for a service academy and the schedule lines up nicely with only five road games all season and just three in league play. The toughest home game against TCU occurs early in the season when a Frogs team that is replacing a lot of key pieces may be vulnerable. Air Force has tough road games with non-conference games at Navy and at Notre Dame and playing at Boise State in conference play but going 5-2 though the conference schedule seems possible. The finale at Colorado State could be key game for the pecking order in this conference.
Boise State Broncos: With TCU leaving the league the conference switched the game between TCU and Boise State to the blue turf and that could be the difference in the season. While TCU may have a better chance to have an undefeated season, Boise State has to be considered the favorite to win the conference. The Broncos open the season with a game against Georgia in Atlanta and like the huge showdown with Virginia Tech last season, that game could propel the Broncos into the national title equation. Boise State has to play at Colorado State and at San Diego State in league play as well as tricky non-conference games with Nevada and at Fresno State but the first game will be the biggest hurdle. Hosting TCU gives the Broncos a big edge in league play and only playing three road games in the Mountain West instead of four is also an advantage. Boise State has enough key players back in place to make another run at a special season.
Colorado State Rams: After overachieving a bit in 2008 the Rams have struggled the past two seasons with matching 3-9 records. Steve Fairchild could feel some heat in his fourth season if things do not improve but the Rams are in position to make a big leap this season. This will be one of the more experienced teams in the conference and while the results were generally ugly last season the schedule is very favorable this season. It will not be surprising to see Colorado State eclipse last season’s win total in the first five games with a very favorable opening slate. Colorado State also gets four conference home games including games with San Diego State, Air Force, and Wyoming, which should be key battles to sort out the middle of this conference. Winning at TCU or at home against Boise State will not be easy but a 4-3 mark in the conference play is very possible even for a team that is 2-14 the last two years in Mountain West games. Colorado State has a great chance for a strong record in the non-conference schedule and a bowl season should be expected.
New Mexico Lobos: After back-to-back 1-11 seasons there is nowhere to go but up for the Lobos and Coach Mike Locksley. There has been decent recruiting and a few promising transfers to the program which should make for a much more competitive season for a team that allowed over 44 points per game last year. Nine starters are back on defense so the unit should improve and there is some continuity with the offense featuring some returning players at key skill positions. The schedule is far from easy with six road games including four in conference play however. Two of those games are at TCU and at Boise State which is preferable because that means that New Mexico will have a better opportunity to win its home games. The non-conference schedule does not provide many easy outs but games with Sam Houston State and New Mexico State could allow the Lobos to double last season’s win total and getting to host UNLV is a big opportunity. It will be a small step forward this season but it may not be quite what Lobos fans are looking for.
San Diego State Aztecs: Brady Hoke has departed for Michigan after a great turnaround season in 2010, leading San Diego State to a 9-4 season with a Poinsettia Bowl win. Former New Mexico coach Rocky Long takes over after serving as defensive coordinator with the Aztecs the last two seasons. His experience in the conference should allow for a smooth transition even if this team lacks the overall talent level of last year’s squad. The schedule features four home games in conference play but with TCU and Boise State as two of those home dates the Aztecs will need a big upset to take advantage of the unbalanced schedule working in their favor. Winning on the road has not been common for this program in recent years and for another successful season to occur the Aztecs likely need to win a few games away from home, as all five contests are games that the Aztecs will have a shot in. The home schedule should lead to at least four wins in seven games so this should be a team that makes another postseason appearance although matching nine wins may be a bit of a reach.
TCU Horned Frogs: After a perfect 13-0 season TCU has a tough act to follow but this is clearly a program to be reckoned with. The Mountain West has done the Frogs no favors with one of the tougher league schedules, featuring four road games and trips to the home venues of three of the better teams in the conference. This team has just eight returning starters and big questions in key positions on both sides of the ball but the talent is there to reload quickly. While TCU does have to play at Boise State, the non-conference schedule is not overly threatening so this is a team that again has a chance to go undefeated. An opening game at Baylor and a favorable neutral site game with BYU are hurdles on the non-conference slate but the final year for TCU in the Mountain West should be a successful one. If TCU does go undefeated there likely would again not be enough heft to get the team into the national championship game as it is unlikely that the defense will be as dominant as it has been the past three seasons given the significant personnel losses.
UNLV Rebels: UNLV is coming off an ugly 2-11 season and another tough non-conference schedule is waiting in 2011 which will prevent much of an improvement. Three of five non-conference games are on the road and the Rebels should be dogged in all three games and only a home game against Southern Utah is a game that UNLV backers should be comfortable penciling in a ‘W’. UNLV plays just three conference home games and all three will be difficult, making wins tough to come by. There is little experience on a defense that allowed almost 40 points per game last season and while the offense should improve its statistics, the unit is not good enough to win the shootouts that may be required to keep pace. Another similar 2-11 season could be the most likely scenario for this team although last season both wins came by huge blowout margins in conference play, so there is some potential with this squad.
Wyoming Cowboys: Coach Christensen surprised by getting this team to a bowl game in his first season but last year reality set in with a tough 3-9 season. Wyoming won just one game in Mountain West play although several were very competitive. The Cowboys play just three conference games at home but with New Mexico and UNLV as two of those opponents the opportunities for wins are there. Playing two FCS teams to start the season while also playing two other winnable non-conference games (though both on the road) gives Wyoming a shot at a respectable season. This is a team that can certainly win five games but getting to the postseason will be very tough, especially needing seven wins with the two lower division match-ups on the schedule. It should be a small step forward however and a move up in the conference standings is likely for Wyoming.