A team-by-team look at how the Mountain West fared so far this season.
Things appeared so promising for the Falcons early. Air Force began the
season 6-1 overall and 3-0 in conference, only to fall apart down the
stretch and finish 7-5, 3-4. It has become somewhat of a constant with Air
Force in recent years, this ability to play well early and then not respond
when opposing defenses have a better feel for defending the option later in
a season. The season was also marked with a loss to Navy, which likely cost the
Academy another Commander-In-Chief's Trophy should the Midshipmen defeat
Army (Dec. 6). Entering the final week of regular-season play, it appeared
doubtful Air Force would be extended a bowl berth.
MVP: LB Marchello Graddy. The senior linebacker ranked fourth among conference players in tackles (113), second in sacks (six) and tied for the lead in
fumble recoveries (five). He was the main reason Air Force ranked among the
league's top defenses.
Biggest Disappointment: The final two games. Air Force still had its
post-season life to play for, but ended with road setbacks of 24-12 against
New Mexico and 24-3 against San Diego State. It certainly didn't finish like
a team that is 58-28 since 1997.
What's Next: Fisher DeBerry's team must replace 26 seniors from its 2003
roster, but that only means elevating names from the junior varsity squad.
Air Force, which will be directed by a new quarterback now that Chance
Harridge graduates, will always be difficult to scheme against.
It makes you wonder how quickly the natives will be calling for head coach
Gary Crowton's head if BYU begins slowly in 2004. On the season, injuries
forced Crowton to play four different quarterbacks, a fact that led to the
consistent offensive woes. Think about it: BYU averaged just 215 yards passing this season and totaled 13 TD passes to 22 interceptions. The Cougars were even more inept running the ball with an average of 99.6 yards. One once -- once! -- did BYU score at least 30 points in a game. It's the first time since 1970-71 that BYU has
posted consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
MVP: S Aaron Francisco. The junior safety had 116 tackles (57 solo) to rank third among conference players. BYU won its four games and stayed close in
several losses for extended periods because of the Francisco-led defense.
Biggest Disappointment: Utah 3, BYU 0. Talk about hitting rock bottom. BYU had scored in an NCAA-record 361 straight games before ending the season
with a shutout loss to in-state rival Utah. Prior to the setback, BYU had
last been blanked in 1975.
What's Next: Crowton has admittedly not dealt well with the wacky
recruiting numbers BYU can offer annually due to return Mormon missionaries.
But he has more than 20 scholarships to offer this season and needs to be
diligent in his evaluation. BYY fans will only stomach so much more mediocrity.
In most programs, a 7-5 overall record and 4-3 conference mark with a bowl
berth would be considered a rousing success. But the Rams were an
overwhelming pick of most to repeat as league champion and fell short with a
third-place finish. Unlike in recent seasons, the Rams fell apart defensively for long
stretches of games. They struggled defending both the pass and run, and were
a woeful minus-11 in turnover ratio. CSU uncharacteristically lost big at
home to a very good but not great Miami (Ohio) team 41-21. It was also the
first time in recent memory CSU did not have a running back listed among the
league's top eight in average.
MVP: QB Bradlee Van Pelt. The senior quarterback did everything possible to lead CSU to another championship, ranking No. 1 among conference players in total offense (293.8) and pass efficiency (158.3). He rushed for a team-best 844 yards and accounted for 27 touchdowns.
Biggest Disappointment: Utah 28, CSU 21. In past years, CSU would not have lost such a critical home game by turning the ball over as it was driving
for a possible game-winning field goal. But when Arnold Parker returned a
fumble 80 yards for a score with 1:33 remaining, a shift in Mountain West
power had occurred.
What's Next: The Rams are set to play Boston College in the San Francisco Bowl on Dec. 31. Justin Holland -- who will replace Van Pelt as starting
quarterback next season -- is taking snaps in practice while Van Pelt
(broken hand) hopes to be healthy for the bowl game.
Prognosticators pegged the Lobos correctly as the league's second-best team
this year, a side that finished its regular-season 8-4 overall and 5-2 in
conference. Once again, coach Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense confused opponents
on a weekly basis. New Mexico allowed opponents a rushing average of just
80.4, and only seven players have managed 100 yards against the Lobos since
2000, a span of 47 games. Long's team led the league in scoring (31.4) and added enough of a competent passing attack behind improved quarterback Casey Kelly to allow a potent running game opportunity for success. More impressively, New Mexico scored 45-of-49 times in the red zone, coming away with TDs on 31 of those occasions.
MVP: RB DonTrell Moore. As the conference Freshman of the Year in 2002, he rushed for 1,134 yards and 13 TDs. But his true skill shined late this
season, when he went for 242 yards against CSU, 188 against Air Force and
153 against Wyoming. In those three games, he scored six times.
Biggest Disappointment: A 10-7 home loss to BYU on Sept. 13. First, the
Lobos were much better than the Cougars across the board. But when you
finish a game out of first place to Utah, looking back on this defeat stings
What's Next: New Mexico makes its second straight Las Vegas Bowl appearance when it plays Oregon State on Christmas Day. It's the first time the program has made consecutive postseason appearances since 1945-46 and considering Moore returns for his junior season and the defense only gets better each year, bowling could become an annual thing.
San Diego State
A 6-6 season marked improvement in coach Tom Craft's second year guiding
the program, and enough skilled bodies return to think the Aztecs might
contend for a conference title in 2004. But what was often a pathetic
offense inside the red zone must now replace Adam Hall at quarterback,
although Craft got a taste of that when the senior missed all or parts of
five games with injuries. Missed opportunities with close losses at Ohio State (16-13) and UCLA (20-10) kept SDSU from making a major jump. The defense was fantastic most of the season, but playing two I-AA schools in Samford and Eastern
Washington didn't allow the team to be bowl eligible at season's end.
MVP: LB Kirk Morrison. The junior linebacker might flirt with leaving early for the NFL, but it would be in his best interest professionally (and
certainly for SDSU) if he returns. Morrison finished the season with 115
tackles (70 solo, 15 for loss), four forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. He was
Biggest Disappointment: A 30-7 home loss to New Mexico. All you need to
know about this game: SDSU had out-gained the Lobos 274-103 and owned
possession time by nearly 20 minutes in the first half. And still trailed
17-7. Teams with serious thoughts about being a player in the conference
race have this game won by that time.
What's Next: Guarded optimism abounds within the program, especially if
sensational freshman running back Lynell Hamilton (1,087 yards, four TDs)
can fully recover from major knee surgery. More competency is needed at wide
receiver and the quarterback spot remains unproven for now, but that defense
is a great place to start next year's run.
The team that began 4-1 and looked so impressive in winning 23-5 at
Wisconsin lost five of its last seven to finish 6-6 overall and a
disappointing 2-5 in league. A porous passing game never allowed the Rebels
enough balance to hurt people consistently, as junior quarterback Kurt
Nantkes battled injury and inconsistent efforts. UNLV never really took advantage of leading the conference in turnover margin (plus-13), ranking last in total offense with a 309.2 average. In a span of three consecutive league defeats, the Rebels scored a combined 37 points. That didn't count a 7-0 home loss to SDSU.
MVP: DB Jamaal Brimmer. A finalist for the Thorpe Award, this junior defensive back had a conference-best six interceptions, 77 tackles and three sacks. He broke onto the national scene at Wisconsin, where he returned a fumble for
one score, set up two more with interceptions and had two sacks among a
game-high 11 tackles.
Biggest Disappointment: The frustrations on offense. Injuries at running
back didn't help UNLV's cause, but any semblance of more consistency likely
would have produced eight wins instead of six. John Robinson-coached teams
should never be this average at reaching the end zone.
What's Next: Robinson has said he will return for a sixth season leading
the program. There is enough talent returning to think the Rebels can
improve their conference standing, but it took just a year for them to go
from one of the Mountain West's best offenses to its worst. Big improvement
The conference champion methodically made its way through the schedule to
finish 9-2 overall and 6-1 in league. The only losses in Urban Meyer's first
season as coach was a two-pointer at Texas A&M and a 47-35 home setback to
second-place New Mexico. This is a team that lost its starting quarterback in the season's second game and promptly followed with five straight wins, including ones against Pac-10 teams Cal and Oregon and defending league champ CSU. It is Utah's first outright title since winning the Skyline Conference in 1957. Did we
mention Utah also lost leading rusher Brandon Warfield for three games with
a serious knee injury?
MVP: QB Alex Smith. The kid who began the season as a backup completed 66.7 percent of his passes and went 181 attempts before throwing an interception at Air Force. He threw 2,037 yards while completing 160-of-240. Something tell us it is his job to lose next season.
Biggest Disappointment: It has to be the loss to New Mexico, considering
that is what kept Utah from a perfect conference record. Utah completely
fell apart in the third quarter, being outscored 28-6. When it was over, the
Lobos had gained 633 yards to 300 for the Utes.
What's Next: For the first time since 1964, Utah will play in the Liberty
Bowl when it meets Southern Mississippi from Conference USA on Dec. 31.
There is also little question Utah will be the preseason pick to repeat as
next year's Mountain West champion.
Joe Glenn's first year brought a sense of
excitement and passion that has lacked from the Cowboys in recent times. The
final record -- 4-8 overall, 2-5 in conference -- is a definite first step
for a team that posted just five wins the previous three seasons. Two of the
eight losses were by a touchdown or less. Wyoming made some strides defensively, but still allowed a conference-worse 30 points per game. The Cowboys were hurt most on the ground, where they surrendered an average of 230.4. They gave up far too many first downs (284) for only having 14 sacks all season.
MVP: QB Casey Bramlet. In a league with some very good quarterbacks, this senior stood his ground among the best. Bramlet led the conference in
passing (253.1 average) and threw 22 TDs to just nine interceptions. He
ranked third in total offense (244.7).
Biggest Disappointment: Not being able to sustain good play. At one point,
the Cowboys were actually 2-2 in conference and looking very much like a
possible bowl team. But three straight losses (the last two at home) to end
the season never allowed Glenn's team to know what-might-have-been.
What's Next: There is no question Glenn has already instilled a better
attitude in Wyoming players. The Cowboys are likely still a few recruiting
classes away from contending with the league's best, but things haven't
appeared this bright in some time.
Ed Graney covers college football for the San Diego Union-Tribune.