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Jason Olson, Deseret News
BYU's Travis Bright blocks as BYU faces Air Force in the Cougars' Mountain West Conference opener at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Sept. 22, 2007. BYU beat Air Force 31-6.

What will be the trademark of Mountain West Conference football this fall?

What position will make the difference in the outcome of the league race?

All-MWC ballots are out and due at league headquarters soon for tabulation. What position did league schools most often nominate candidates for preseason honors this fall?

Try offensive linemen. You can't have enough of them and coaches lean on these hogs to establish the strategic battle, the real war that takes place in the trenches.

The receivers, running backs and quarterbacks will get all the attention and focus, but there is evidence in years past that productive, playmaking QBs and running backs with formidable offensive lines end up staying healthy and making the most noise in the MWC and WAC.

In this regard, this is a league that needs to increase its talent level on the offensive line. Who has done it? On paper, it would appear BYU returns the most experience and depth up front. But was BYU's O-line underachievers last year? In that second UCLA game at Las Vegas, they looked lost.

Locally, BYU and Utah have to be optimistic about blocking talent up front and their respective surrounding casts. Utah will find reality quick at Michigan. BYU will have to wait until after Northern Iowa in 57 days.

If I were New Mexico's Rodney Ferguson, Wyoming's Devin Moore or even UNLV's bowling ball back Frank Summers, I'd prefer Utah or BYU's offensive line for yardage, consistency, depth and for simply staying healthy.

I believe Utah and BYU's lines separate them from the rest of the league, and it will be proven this fall.

Utah's Darrell Mack and BYU's Harvey Unga proved very productive last year, and they should return as mega keys in the success of these two teams, generally accepted as the teams to beat in the league this season.

If their respective quarterbacks, Brian Johnson and Max Hall, have to pick themselves up off the turf too many times, a decisive injury could turn the fortunes of either team big time.

Both Utah and BYU need to find centers. BYU believes it has found one in Tom Sorensen. Utah likes the battle between Tyler Williams and Zane Taylor, both experienced guys they've tutored and trained. Utah proved flexible and capable when Jason Boone went down early and Beadles moved in at left tackle and starred a year ago.

The Utes return veterans Robert Conley, Zane Beadles, Caleb Schlauderaff and Dustin Hensel at the tackle and guard. There are no rookies or quick fixes; all are experienced enough to unleash Mack, keep defenses off balance and make the spread option work. Replacing center Kyle Gunther is key.

BYU nominated almost every starting lineman as a candidate for preseason honors. Left tackle Ray Feinga is the most talented, but Travis Bright is the strongest man on the team, if not in the MWC. Dallas Reynolds and Dave Oswald are back. Many believe redshirt freshman Matt Reynolds could end up as the league's freshman of the year. The lone departee is center Sete Aulai. Key reserves are all back.

The pretty boys, the QB spot, is always key to a league race. TCU believes Andy Dalton survived enough growing pains as a freshman last year that he'll be a marquee quarterback in the league this fall. UNM's Donovan Porterie also swallowed a tough freshman season, but his inconsistency with the pass remains a question mark.

With SDSU's Kevin O'Connell drafted into the NFL ranks, the above quarterbacks are expected to carry the load, unless a surprise transfer at Wyoming or someplace steps up. This is not a top-heavy QB year in this league. Johnson and Hall are head and shoulders above the rest in experience and skill.

Freshman of the year? Utah's Dave Kruger and BYU's Reynolds or kicker Justin Sorensen have a chance.

Best secondary? Utah, hands down.

Best special teams player? No brainer, the Utes' Louis Sakoda.

Best defensive line? TCU or BYU, led by sack leader Jan Jorgensen.

Best receiver? Brent Casteel and Austin Collie can make a case, but SDSU, who throws a lot of talent at the NFL, can brag on Vincent Brown and Darren Mougey. But who will throw them the ball?

Best tight end? No brainer. BYU's Dennis Pitta.

Best running back? I love Ferguson at UNM, he's tough and fast. But Unga and Mack will each go over a thousand yards and battle it out for most yardage at the end.

Dark horse player of the year? CSU running back Gartrell Johnson or any unidentified overachieving Air Force runner/receiver.


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