Pre Spring Analysis

Here are various articles from ESPN regarding the MWC as well as a ranking list of the Non-BCS teams.

BYU beat up on its Mountain West brethren over the last two seasons, but the Cougars ended up watching another non-BCS team (first Boise State, then Hawaii) reach the BCS bowls. The Cougars don’t want to be left out this season and enter the spring as the favorite to bust the BCS. Boise State will try to recharge after dropping its final two games in 2007, and Fresno State could become a contender again after a bounce-back season. Conference USA will produce several solid squads in 2008, and Central Michigan has established itself as a MAC power. Notre Dame found itself at the bottom of every ranking last season, but the Irish could recover with greater experience and a manageable schedule.

Here’s a look at the independents and non-BCS spring power rankings:

1. BYU Cougars

What we know: Quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga, the reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year, lead an explosive offense.
What we don’t know: Who steps in at linebacker after the losses of leading tacklers Kelly Poppinga and Bryan Kehl.
How the Cougars can reach a BCS bowl game: Nonconference wins against Washington and/or UCLA would be a good start.

2. Fresno State Bulldogs

What we know: The Bulldogs have depth at running back, and stability at quarterback with Tom Brandstater.
What we don’t know: How the offense adjusts to new coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
How the Bulldogs can reach a BCS bowl game: Survive the predictably brutal nonconference slate featuring UCLA (road), Kansas State (road) and Wisconsin (home).

3. Boise State Broncos

What we know: Minus safety Marty Tadman, the defensive back seven returns. So does running back and non-BCS posterboy Ian Johnson.
What we don’t know: The starting quarterback and several first-team offensive linemen.
How the Broncos can reach a BCS bowl game: Win nonconference road games at Oregon and Southern Miss before the favorable WAC schedule (home against Fresno State and Hawaii).

4. Utah Utes

What we know: Quarterback Brian Johnson and running back Darrell Mack are back after leading the Utes to wins in eight of their final nine games last season.
What we don’t know: Who steps in for leading tackler Steve Tate and top pass rusher Martail Burnett.
How the Utes can win the Mountain West: Take advantage of a conference schedule that includes home games against both TCU and BYU.

5. UCF Knights

What we know: Nine starters return on defense, and a sturdy offensive line loses only tackle Josh Sitton.
What we don’t know: How the Knights replace national rushing leader Kevin Smith, who ran for 2,567 yards in 2007.
How the Knights can win the C-USA: Find an answer at running back and win the close ones like they did in 2005.

6. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

What we know: The nation’s top offense returns many of its weapons, including running back Tarrion Adams and wide receiver Trae Johnson.
What we don’t know: Who replaces 5,000-yard passer Paul Smith and who fills several holes on a suspect defense.
How the Golden Hurricane can win the C-USA: David Johnson, Clark Harrell or juco transfer Jacob Bower steps in for Smith at quarterback and the team avoids October stumbles.

7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

What we know: The linebackers and secondary look decent, and the defensive coaching staff adds veteran Jon Tenuta.
What we don’t know: How the offense changes with Michael Haywood as the playcaller and whether the line and backs can bounce back from a miserable season.
How the Fighting Irish can reach a decent bowl game: Establish the run game early and capitalize on a more favorable schedule.

8. Central Michigan Chippewas

What we know: The offense returns five All-MAC players, including the league’s offensive player of the year (quarterback Dan LeFevour) and freshman of the year (wide receiver Antonio Brown).
What we don’t know: Who fills holes at linebacker after the losses of Red Keith and Ike Brown.
How the Chippewas can win the MAC: Upgrade a pass defense that finished 118th nationally in 2007 and draw from nonconference road experiences at Georgia, Purdue, Indiana.

9. Florida Atlantic Owls

What we know: The defending league champions return 17 starters, including 10 on offense. Quarterback Rusty Smith has all his weapons back.
What we don’t know: Who steps in for star linebacker Cergile Sincere. The Owls also need to restock at safety.
How the Owls can win the Sun Belt: Continue to be clutch in close games and capitalize on facing Troy at home.

10. Hawaii Warriors

What we know: Quarterback Tyler Graunke has some starting experience and a veteran offensive line to work behind.
What we don’t know: How Hawaii rebounds from the losses of coach June Jones, quarterback Colt Brennan and wide receivers Davone Bess, Jason Rivers and Ryan Grice-Mullen.
How the Warriors can win the WAC: Continue to improve on defense, stabilize the passing game and steal road wins at Boise State and Fresno State.

10. TCU Horned Frogs

What we know: The Frogs finished strong and return depth at running back and in the secondary.
What we don’t know: Who replaces pass rusher Chase Ortiz on the nation’s 10th-ranked scoring defense.
How the Horned Frogs can win the Mountain West: Finish off close games. The Frogs fell to Air Force, Utah and BYU by seven points or fewer in 2007.

Mountain West Conference

What to watch
• BYU should enter the season ranked in the top 20 and carry the label as this season’s non-BCS darling, but there’s still work to be done this spring. Coach Bronco Mendenhall gave up defensive coordinator duties to Jamie Hill. Though Mendenhall will continue to call plays, he and Hill must evaluate a unit that needs new bodies in the secondary and at linebacker.• It wasn’t the end Colorado State had hoped for longtime coach Sonny Lubick, but the program now turns to one of its own to rebuild. Steve Fairchild’s first priority will be a passing attack that loses wide receivers Johnny Walker, Damon Morton, Luke Roberts and George Hill. Quarterback is also a concern because Billy Farris didn’t play much last season before injuring his elbow.

• Several quarterback competitions kick off, none more intriguing than the one at Air Force, which loses longtime starter Shaun Carney. Shea Smith backed up Carney last season and will go up against Eric Herbort. The Falcons also must replace superstar Chad Hall, one of several ball carriers lost to graduation.

Defense Department

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has his priorities in order.

He lost his top six rushers, including Chad Hall, the academy’s all-time all-purpose yards leader, and four-year starting quarterback Shaun Carney. Also gone are his top two receivers and three starting offensive linemen. His only starting skill-position player back in the mix on offense is tight end Travis Dekker.

So what area does Calhoun, the former Air Force quarterback and longtime offensive coordinator, list at the top of his spring agenda?

“The defense,” he said. “That’s where it’s always going to start.”

Allow him to explain.

“On defense, when you’re disciplined, when you’re aggressive, it has a huge impact on the morale of your football team,” he said. “I played quarterback, but defense has got to be the initiator in everything you do.”

For that reason, Calhoun will focus on revamping a unit that led the Mountain West in red zone efficiency (70.8 percent) but lost six starters, including linebackers Drew Fowler, John Rabold and Aaron Shanor. The career offensive coach will lean heavily on his defensive experience, which consists of a single season (2003) tutoring the Denver Broncos linebackers.

“That was probably the most beneficial year I’ve ever been a part of in football,” Calhoun said.

Last year was undoubtedly Calhoun’s most satisfying.

Air Force went 9-4 and made its first postseason appearance since 2002. Hall broke records, and the defense allowed just 13.2 points a game at home — where Air Force went undefeated for the first time in nine years.

But the defense dipped a bit toward the end of the season, and Calhoun plans to install more 4-3 packages this spring after going with the 3-4 exclusively in 2007. Three starting linemen return, including end Ryan Kemp (four sacks).

“There were too many times where we felt like we had to immediately go to five-man pressures in order to generate some heat,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got to have ways where we’re only rushing four and still able to get to the quarterback.”

Identifying the Falcons’ next quarterback will be another chief concern for Calhoun. Shea Smith, who backed up Carney last season, will compete with Eric Herbort and others.

Calhoun wants to be close to settling on a starter by the end of spring ball, but replenishing the overall rushing production will take time.

“It’s a little bit of TBD … it’ll be determined down the road,” he said. “It’s not like we didn’t know that when we came here that there wasn’t going to be rebuilding involved. That’s why we’re going to start with the defense. For the long-term health of your program, it’s got to be done on the defensive side of the ball.”

 TCU coach Gary Patterson postponed the start of spring practice from March 1 to March 18, giving a group of injured players more time to recover. Among those who will benefit from the later start date are running back Aaron Brown (ankle) and linebacker Daryl Washington (shoulder). “We have a lot of kids recovering from surgery,” Patterson said. The Horned Frogs’ spring game was moved from April 5 to April 12.

Louisiana-Monroe also pushed back spring practice, but for a different reason — not enough coaches. Warhawks coach Charlie Weatherbie has had to replace six assistants during the offseason, most recently co-offensive coordinator Nate Kaczor and defensive backs coach Lytrel Pollard. ULM begins practice March 14 and plays its spring game April 19.

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