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August 12, 2008

Utah can challenge BYU in Mountain West

» MORE: 2008 Mountain West Unit Rankings

The 25th anniversary of BYU's 1984 national championship comes next season, but the Cougars could give their fans reason to celebrate a little bit early.

BYU has legitimate hopes of earning a BCS bid by going undefeated and winning its third consecutive Mountain West title. The Cougars have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons and return the nucleus of an offense that helped BYU end the 2007 season on a 10-game winning streak.

The Cougars enter the season as favorites to win the Mountain West, but a third consecutive title won't be easy. Utah enters the season with its own BCS hopes and could dethrone BYU if quarterback Brian Johnson stays healthy. The Utes lost last-minute heartbreakers to BYU the past two seasons and get the Cougars at home this season. TCU also seems likely to bounce back after posting a relatively disappointing 8-5 record last season.

Will the Cougars spend the holidays celebrating a BCS bid or bemoaning the end of their reign as Mountain West champions? This rundown of the Mountain West could help you make a prediction.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: BYU quarterback Max Hall. Hall, who began his career at Arizona State, threw for 3,848 yards last season - the most by a sophomore quarterback in Mountain West Conference history. He also threw a league-high 26 touchdown passes. In addition, Hall proved he can deliver in the clutch by leading BYU on a dramatic game-winning touchdown drive in a 17-10 victory over Utah.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: BYU defensive end Jan Jorgensen. Indiana's Greg Middleton and South Florida's George Selvie are the only active players who averaged more sacks per game than Jorgensen last season. Jorgensen set an MWC single-season record with 14 sacks and recorded at least one sack in each of his final seven games.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Utah quarterback Brian Johnson. Nobody questions what this guy can do. The only concern is how long he can stay on the field. Johnson missed the 2006 season with a knee injury and sat out two games last season after hurting his shoulder in the opener. The Utes enter the season with high hopes, but they can't win the MWC title unless Johnson stays healthy.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: TCU defensive tackle James Vess. After compiling four sacks in the final seven games of 2006, Vess sat out the 2007 season for violating a team policy. Now that Vess is back, the Horned Frogs are counting on him to deliver big things. TCU needs Vess' strength on the inside to compensate for the loss of firepower on the edges now that star ends Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake have completed their college careers.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Air Force quarterback Eric Herbert and running back Kyle Lumpkin. Herbert and Lumpkin have no varsity experience, but the Falcons are counting on them to help fill the void created by the departures of quarterback Shaun Carney and Rivals.com third-team All-America all-purpose player Chad Hall. Lumpkin exited spring practice as the Falcons' starting quarterback. Lumpkin ended spring as the No. 1 tailback after playing defensive back on the junior-varsity team last season.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Utah wide receiver Brent Casteel. After leading the Utes in all-purpose yardage two years ago, Casteel suffered a knee injury in the second game of the 2007 season and missed the rest of the year. Now that he has recovered from knee surgery, he could emerge as one of the conference's top receivers.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Utah defensive end Paul Kruger. Kruger capped a solid redshirt freshman season last year by collecting 10 tackles and a sack in a Poinsettia Bowl victory over Navy. The Utes would love to see him pick up where he left off last season.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley. Lindley, a redshirt freshman, ended spring practice as the Aztecs' likely starter. Lindley threw for 3,521 yards and 35 touchdowns his senior year at El Capitan (Calif.) High. If Lindley doesn't win the job, it likely will go to fellow newcomer Drew Westling, who transferred from Southwestern College after beginning his college career at Tulsa.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: TCU defensive end Braylon Broughton. The Horned Frogs must find a pass rusher to replace Blake and Ortiz. Broughton, a 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman with exceptional athleticism, just might fill the void. The MWC media made Broughton the preseason pick as the conference's freshman of the year. MWC fans also should look out for Wyoming linebacker Gabe Knapton, a redshirt freshman who performed well enough in spring practice to emerge as the Cowboys' starting middle linebacker. Knapton's uncle - Jeff Knapton - earned all-conference honors for the 1987 Wyoming team that won the WAC championship.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Wyoming's Joe Glenn. Wyoming hasn't done all that poorly under Glenn. The Cowboys whipped Virginia 23-3 last season, reached the Las Vegas Bowl in 2004 and have won at least four games in each of his five seasons. But he hasn't produced the kind of success he enjoyed at Division I-AA Montana, where he went 39-6 before coming to Wyoming. The Cowboys have posted only one winning campaign in Glenn's five seasons, which is causing some impatience.

BEST COACHING STAFF: BYU. Bronco Mendenhall has wasted no time helping BYU reclaim its status as a national power. He's done it with help from offensive coordinator Robert Anae, a player on BYU's 1984 national championship team. The Cougars also have plenty of stability on their staff. Assistant head coach Lance Reynolds, the father of star offensive tackle Dallas Reynolds, has been at BYU since 1983.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: BYU's Anae. The Cougars have led the Mountain West in yardage and scoring in two of his three seasons as offensive coordinator.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: TCU's Dick Bumpas. TCU has made a habit of stopping the run and delivering big plays on defense since Bumpas' arrival. TCU ranked second in the nation in run defense and total defense two seasons  ago, and the Frogs led the nation in turnover margin in 2005.

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Ludwig's creativity and familiarity with the spread offense should make him an attractive head-coaching candidate for any school needing to add juice to its offense. Ludwig previously worked as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Oregon, where he tutored current New York Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens. Ludwig also has helped Utah overcome injuries to Brian Johnson the past two seasons.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: BYU at Utah, Nov. 22. BYU has delivered classic comebacks to beat Utah in the final minute in each of the past two seasons, including scoring the winning touchdown as time expired in '06. Could a BCS bid be on the line when the two teams meet this season?

Aug. 30: Utah at Michigan
Aug. 30: Texas Christian at New Mexico
Sept. 6: BYU at Washington
Sept: 13 UCLA at BYU
Sept. 27: Texas Christian at Oklahoma
Oct. 11: New Mexico at BYU
Oct. 16: BYU at Texas Christian
Nov. 1: Utah at New Mexico
Nov. 6: Texas Christian at Utah
Nov. 22: BYU at Utah
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: New Mexico. The Lobos and UNLV are the only Mountain West teams that won't face a single Division I-AA team this season. New Mexico opens the season with home games against TCU, Texas A&M and Arizona before going on the road to face a dangerous Tulsa team. New Mexico also must go on the road to face BYU.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Air Force. The Falcons are the only Mountain West team that doesn't face a single opponent from one of the "Big Six" conferences. Air Force also gets the conference's two toughest teams – BYU and Utah – at home.

WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Air Force. As we mentioned above, the Falcons don't face any teams from major conferences. Air Force opens the season with Division I-AA program Southern Utah and later faces Houston, Navy and Army.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: Stephen F. Austin at TCU, Sept. 6. Stephen F. Austin is a I-AA team that went 0-11 last season and began preseason workouts with only five seniors on its roster.

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: New Mexico. The Lobos earned their first bowl victory last season, the latest sign of how the program has turned the corner under coach Rocky Long. The return of quarterback Donovan Porterie and tailback Rodney Ferguson should assure the Lobos remain competitive again this season.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Colorado State. The Sonny Lubick era had plenty of highlights, but it didn't exactly end the way anyone would have liked. After losing their final seven games of the 2006 season, the Rams went 3-9 last fall in Lubick's final season. New coach Steve Fairchild has a major rebuilding project on his hands.

IN THREE YEARS, BYU WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: No other program has the Cougars' tradition and talent level. As long as Bronco Mendenhall sticks around, the Cougars should remain the class of the conference.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Max Hall, BYU, Jr.
RB Harvey Unga, BYU, Soph.
RB Darrell Mack, Utah, Sr.
WR Austin Collie, BYU, Jr.
WR Ryan Wolfe, UNLV, Jr.
TE Dennis Pitta, BYU, Jr.
T Zane Beadles, Utah, Sr.
G Robert Conley, Utah, Sr.
C Blake Schlueter, TCU, Sr.
G Ray Feinga, BYU, Sr.
T Dallas Reynolds, BYU, Sr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Jan Jorgensen, BYU, Jr.
T John Fletcher, Wyoming, Jr.
T James Vess, TCU, Sr.
E Ryan Kemp, Air Force, Sr.
LB Russell Allen, San Diego State, Sr.
LB Ward Dobbs, Wyoming, Sr.
LB Jason Phillips, TCU, Sr.
CB Brice McCain, Utah, Sr.
CB DeAndre Wright, New Mexico, Sr.
SS Stephen Hodge, TCU, Sr.
FS Quincy Rogers, Wyoming, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Louie Sakoda, Utah, Sr.
P Louie Sakoda, Utah, Sr.
KR Dion Morton, Colorado State, Jr.

» MORE: 2008 Mountain West Unit Rankings

Steve Megargee is a national football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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