Boise State Football & The Western Mid-Majors

There’s a lot of change going in mid-major college football in the West. TCU has left the Mountain West to join the Big 12. Boise State is in its second year in the Mountain West, but on its way out to the Big East next season. Three schools are shifting from the WAC to the Mountain West, and two more are elevating their programs into the FBS level by beginning play in the WAC. TheSportsNotebook sorts out the 17 schools in the Mountain West and WAC as part of our ongoing college football previews…

The shadow of Boise State football has loomed over the entire nation the past few years, but quarterback Kellen Moore is now gone and head coach Chris Peterson has some rebuilding to do. He’s got a good chunk of the offensive line back, so slotting new people into the skill spots will be a little easier. And even though not much is back on defense, it’s a testament to the program that six seniors are set to step into starting jobs. Boise State won’t be in the BCS discussion into November like in years’ past, but they can win 9-10 games and win the Mountain West, something their gut-wrenching loss to TCU a year ago cost them.

But while Boise State will compete and perhaps even be the favorite, there’s room for a serious challenge and both Wyoming and Fresno State have a shot. The Cowboys went to a bowl game a year ago and are a good path under coach Dave Christiansen. Sophomore quarterback Brett Smith made a nice splash a year ago as a freshman starter, and the team has an experienced secondary on the defensive side. Fresno State has the best-known playmakers in the conference, with quarterback Derek Carr and running back Robbie Rouse. Fresno’s also got a good group of linebackers to build the defense around.

Nevada, Colorado State and New Mexico all fall in the category of “interesting”, though whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen. Nevada has come over from the WAC—you may recall they upset Boise State on Black Friday 2010, one of the best games of that season, and the Wolfpack have been a consistent winner. Cody Fajardo is back to run the offense and returning starters are sprinkled throughout the lineup. On the surface, they have the look of a contender. But how hard will the transition to a new league be? Not so much in terms of talent, as Nevada has enough, but in basic familiarity with their new competition? Colorado State has 13 returning starters and a  new coach in Jim McElwain, but the starting point is last year’s 3-9 record. And Bob Davie, former Notre Dame coach and ESPN analyst takes over New Mexico. B.R. Holbrook is a pretty good senior quarterback, he’s protected by a veteran offensive line and half of the defense is back. But the team has been so bad in recent years, it’s tough to know how much improvement—or if any for that matter—is realistic.

Perhaps the best way to measure the interesting teams will be against Hawaii and Air Force. Both programs have been too consistent over the years to fall apart, but the rebuilding is so substantial that neither can hope to compete for a conference championship. And the final team left is UNLV, who has players back on both lines but so few seniors that it tells you how young the program is.

Intriguing teams are Nevada, with Cody Fajardo and returning starters throughout the lineup, but first year in the Mountain West. Colorado State went 3-9 last year has a new coach in Jim McElwain, but 13 returning starters. New Mexico has Bob Davie in his first year, B.R. Holbrook, a returning offensive line and five returning defensive starters. UNLV has players back on both lines, but few seniors, an indicator of how young Bobby Hauck’s program has been.

In the WAC…

We’re down to seven teams left in the WAC and you can circle November 17 on your calendar as the date the league championship will be decided. That’s when Louisiana Tech hosts Utah State. Its unfortunate the league is so watered down, because these two teams are pretty good and deserve better.

Louisiana Tech is stacked on offense, led by senior quarterback Colby Cameron. Utah State has a veteran front and a returning sophomore quarterback in Chuckie Keeton. Utah State has more back on defense, but the Louisiana Tech program in general has operated at a slightly higher level in recent years. Both teams suffered tough bowl losses. Tech gave TCU all it could handle before losing 31-24, while Utah State lost to Ohio 24-23 in a game that I still have no idea how they managed to give away.

As far as competition from the rest of the WAC, San Jose State has the skill position talent back, but no quarterback to make it go after expected starter Tate Forcier left school. New Mexico State and Idaho have a ton of rebuilding to do and neither is any good to begin with.

Where the potential interest lies is with the two new schools, Texas State and UT-San Antonio who begin FBS play this year. Each has a senior quarterback, returning starters stacked elsewhere through the lineup and what makes each of them most interesting is the coaches. Texas State is led by Dennis Franchione, now in his 27th year as a head coach and he’s won conference titles at the mid-major level in the West. UTSA is coached by Larry Coker, who won the 2001 national title at Miami and came within an overtime loss of repeating in 2002. The difficulties of transitioning to a new level make it imprudent to pick either program to contend, but the presence of these coaches and the WAC’s weak middle class, make winning seasons a realistic goal.

PREDICTIONS:  The Mountain West has five bowl commitments and the first four of those get cracks at teams from major conferences. Boise State, Wyoming, Fresno State and Nevada are my choices to get those chances, and I lean Wyoming to win the conference championship. In the WAC, I think you have to go with Louisiana Tech. And that showdown game with Utah State might have more than hardware on the line—the WAC has only one bowl commitment, so the loser will be hoping there’s unexpected openings the power leagues can’t fill.