Dick Harmon: TCU is cream of the Mountain West Conference
It's time for the annual prognostications for Mountain West Conference football and there are really only two choices: Accept the prevailing winds — that it is TCU, Utah and BYU — or pick Utah or BYU to unseat TCU some way, some how.
I'll go with the populist line that the Frogs are very, very good and will win the league championship and crack the Top 5 nationally. TCU and Boise State will make all the noise in the BCS and will give every pundit from San Jose to Miami fodder to poke fun of the college football system.
This season couldn't be better for the Frogs. They have the position, the returners, a decent schedule to prove BCS meat for voters, an outstanding defense and an offense that returns the most starters Gary Patterson has ever had.
The Utes should be very good on offense even without playmaker David Reed, although they need to find a go-to guy that's proven. Love Utah's backfield behind Jordan Wynn. Utah's defensive secondary and linebacker corps is questionable behind a stout front line, but Kyle Whittingham knows how to build defenses.
The Cougar offense will need some time to develop, but its mammoth O-line will make that easier. Where the defense looked very questionable in spring, it is surprisingly good this fall with an infusion of new talent and returning missionaries. Bronco Mendenhall said he has never had more fun coaching than he's had so far in 2010.
The biggest factor in this season's MWC race is the experience of returning quarterbacks, QB depth, and the ability of QBs to stay healthy. If TCU's Andy Dalton goes down, all bets are off. If Utah's Jordan Wynn gets hurt, they have a starter to step in with Terrance Cain, and if BYU has a starting QB go down, I like the caliber of replacement.
Quarterback health and experience will determine the league championship, and it will be the biggest factor in front of who plays the best defense.
Here's the predictions:
1. TCU 12-0 on the back of a veteran senior QB, a ton of returning starters and a schedule that opens with home dates against Oregon State, Tennessee Tech and Baylor.
2. Utah 10-2 with a very good schedule, outstanding backfield and offensive line. Ute losses could come in the opener with Pitt and TCU at home and possibly Notre Dame on the road.
3. BYU 8-4 with too many holes to fill on offense, especially the departed third-down beasts of 2009. Nine wins would be very good, 10 a shocker. Losses to FSU, TCU and Utah on the road, and the Cougars could possibly lose at AFA in Colorado Springs.
4. Air Force 7-5 with a completely new offensive line and road trips to TCU, SDSU, Oklahoma and Army. The Force will trip somebody along the way but won't challenge for a Top 3 finish.
5. SDSU 7-5 with Brady Hoke making a difference with an established QB in Ryan Lindley. Look for the Aztecs to make the most improvement this year.
6. Wyoming 6-6 has a killer schedule with Texas and Boise State added to BYU, Utah and TCU. The Cowboys are improved thanks to nifty little QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, but Wyoming has a tall order ahead this season.
7. UNLV 5-7 and just out of bowl consideration. This is a tough schedule for Bobby Hauk with Wisconsin and West Virginia in addition to the regular league diet.
8. Colorado State 4-8 will hope to avoid the 0-9 finish from a year ago, and I think Steve Fairchild will accomplish that feat.
9. New Mexico 3-9 after going 1-11 a year ago is an improvement, but the Lobos won't get that big a run in the league this year.
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