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September 2, 2010

Week 1 preview in the Mountain West

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THE SCHEDULE
Thursday
Pittsburgh at Utah, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday
Northwestern State at Air Force, 2 p.m.
Colorado vs. Colorado State at Denver, 2 p.m.
New Mexico at Oregon, 3:30 p.m.
Washington at BYU, 7 p.m.
TCU vs. Ore. St. at Arlington, Texas, 7:45 p.m.
Nicholls State at San Diego State, 8 p.m.
Southern Utah at Wyoming, 9 p.m.
Wisconsin at UNLV, 11 p.m.

Nearly all the discussions about the Mountain West Conference this summer focused on the league's long-term future.

Now that the season is about to start and BYU has made its exit plan official, perhaps the attention can shift to the MWC's short-term future. Or, more precisely, whether the league can earn a BCS bid for the third consecutive season.

TCU returns 16 starters from a team that posted an undefeated regular-season record before losing to future MWC member Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. As the No. 6 team in The Associated Press poll, TCU has its highest preseason ranking in school history. One of the biggest obstacles standing between TCU and a second consecutive undefeated regular season comes Saturday when Oregon State faces the Horned Frogs at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"This team's kind of like us," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "It's got a chip on their shoulder, has something to prove, wants to be talked about at the end of the season. We're just kind of taking it as such."

A victory would put TCU in prime position for a BCS bid. TCU should be favored in all the rest of its games, though a Nov. 6 trip to Utah looks troublesome. Utah went undefeated and won the Sugar Bowl two years ago, but a demanding non-conference schedule and an inexperienced defense could make it tough for the Utes to earn a BCS bid this season.

If the MWC can crash the BCS party for a third consecutive season, it would produce a triumphant conclusion to the league's year of upheaval. The conference will have a tough time making as many headlines on the field this fall as it already created off the field this summer.

The MWC lured Boise State from the Western Athletic Conference and lost Utah to the Pac-10. Then came the surprising reports that BYU was on the verge of leaving the MWC to go independent in football and join the WAC in all other sports. The MWC responded to that threat by signing Nevada and Fresno State away from the WAC, only to lose BYU anyway Tuesday when the Cougars announced they would go independent in football and join the West Coast Conference in other sports.

Boise State is expected to join the MWC in 2011, the same year BYU and Utah are planning to leave the conference. The loss of BYU coupled with the exit of Utah likely ended any hopes the MWC had of earning an automatic BCS invitation.

While the long-term prospects of the MWC are murkier than before, the league has reason for optimism about this year, particularly if TCU, BYU and Utah win tough openers.

This figures to be one of the toughest games TCU plays all season. Oregon State is ranked 22nd in the coaches' poll and 24th by The Associated Press, and the Beavers are eager to redeem themselves after an embarrassing 44-20 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

"This is what college football is all about," Patterson said. "More people should play these kinds of games to open the season."

Utah also should have its hands full at home Thursday against Big East preseason favorite Pittsburgh, while BYU plays host to Heisman candidate Jake Locker and Washington. Colorado State faces Colorado, UNLV plays host to Wisconsin and New Mexico travels to Oregon in the other three MWC games of note. Air Force, San Diego State and Wyoming open the season against FCS opponents.

BYU enters the season with an uncertain quarterback situation -- the Cougars will alternate junior Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps against Washington -- but the biggest question facing the Cougars is whether they'll be distracted by all the speculation about the program's move to independence.

"I haven't mentioned it to them, nor have I talked to our assistant coaches about it," coach Bronco Mendenhall said Tuesday at the MWC coaches' teleconference. "I've been driving our team as hard as possible, making sure they're prepared for their first game.

"It sounds like the outside world is very intrigued with it, but really within our building it hasn't been a topic of conversation in any regard."

Of course, several hours later, BYU formally announced its plans to go independent.

The topic might not have gained much traction in the BYU locker room up until Tuesday, but it's likely to dominate conversations around campus for the rest of the week.

Best matchup: Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers vs. TCU's run defense. Rodgers has rushed for 2,693 yards and 32 touchdowns in the past two seasons, but this will be one of the toughest defenses he has faced. TCU has led the nation in total defense in each of the past two seasons and returns seven starters from the unit that helped the Frogs go 12-1 last season. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, Stanford's Toby Gerhart, Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray and Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe (the 2006 NCAA rushing leader) each averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry and gained less than 64 rushing yards in games against TCU since the 2005 season. Rodgers enrolled at Oregon State after setting a Texas high school record with 136 career touchdowns at Rosenberg (Texas) Lamar Consolidated, and his team's chances of beating the Frogs depend on whether he has a happy homecoming. TCU's ball-hawking defense shouldn't expect to pry the ball loose from Rodgers: He has lost just one fumble in 656 career touches.

Player on the spot: Utah OT John Cullen. Rated as the No. 3 overall junior college prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, Cullen won a job as Utah's starting left tackle in his first season since arriving from Fullerton (Calif.) College. Cullen will make his Division I debut against a Pittsburgh team that led the nation with 47 sacks last season and returns each of its starting defensive ends (2009 Big East co-defensive player of the year Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard). Pittsburgh could be vulnerable in the secondary as it breaks in two new starters at cornerback, but it won't matter unless Cullen gives Utah QB Jordan Wynn enough time to throw.

Numbers game: The good news for Utah is that it has a 17-game home winning streak heading into Thursday's game with No. 15 Pittsburgh. The bad news? Utah has lost all five of its previous season openers against teams ranked in The Associated Press poll. Utah fell 13-7 to No. 17 UCLA in 1956, 31-0 to No. 14 Nebraska in 1968, 29-22 to No. 20 Texas Tech in 1973, 62-24 to No. 5 Oklahoma in 1977 and 49-22 to No. 11 Nebraska in 1992. Utah won its 2008 opener 25-23 over a Michigan team that was 24th in the coaches' poll, but the Wolverines were unranked by the AP at the time. One item worth noting: Utah had to go on the road for each of its five previous season openers against teams in the AP poll. The Utes get Pitt in Salt Lake City.

What they're saying

"I'm supportive and I'm anxious to coach the team in a new situation. I don't consider myself a real student of all the national landscape. The No. 1 thing to me on a broader perspective, other than football, is exposure. And I love the idea of being more visible. I don't know what all of those details are and I'm sure they'll be addressed, but that part to me is significant." -- BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, speaking to reporters after Tuesday's practice in the wake of the announcement that the Cougars planned to go independent in football

"I've never seen this much media hype on one kid -- ever. Quarterback is king, so they get a lot of the attention. But this kid has handled it well.'' -- BYU quarterback coach Brandon Doman, to the Everett (Wash.) Herald about Cougars freshman Jake Heaps, the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 2010 recruiting class

"Really what separated him was the second week of fall camp; he put together four or five or six practices in a row where you could say, 'This guy's starting to get it.' Not too many mistakes and looking more and more efficient every time he went out there. There are going to be bumps in the road. I've never been around a true freshman who's really been capable of doing this successfully, but Pete's sure earned the right to give it a shot." -- Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild, on the decision to make true freshman Pete Thomas his starting quarterback

"That's the major key, because they love to run. We've really improved from the last couple of years. I think most of the guys know and understand the defensive scheme, and I believe that we're going to do better than the last couple of years." -- UNLV DT Isaako Aaitui, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the challenge of slowing down Wisconsin's vaunted rushing attack. UNLV ranked 115th in the nation in run defense last season

"If you look at guys who have been drafted in the first four rounds, Northwestern State had 13. Air Force Academy's had zero. ... We don't have anybody in our program who was offered and signed by a Big 12 school. They've got guys [OL Michael Booker] who were at Oklahoma State. They got a receiver who [played] his freshman and sophomore year at Texas Tech. The quarterback [Chris Garrett] transferred from LSU. You can go on and on. Our guys realize we'd better be buckled up and ready to go." -- Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, on making sure his team doesn't overlook Northwestern (La.) State, an FCS program that went winless last season. Northwestern State has produced 32 NFL draft picks, and Air Force has produced seven

"They weren't expected to be anywhere near where they are. We talk about it as a team, that they are a great example of teamwork, guys who care about each other and making plays when you have to." -- San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, telling the San Diego Union Tribune how his team has used the San Diego Padres' season as inspiration. Picked before the season to finish last in the National League West, the Padres instead are in first place.

Etc.: The only new coach in the MWC this season is UNLV's Bobby Hauck, who was 80-17 and advanced to three FCS title games in seven seasons at Montana. Hauck also spent four seasons as an assistant at Washington and four years as an assistant at Colorado. ... BYU will be trying to beat an old friend Saturday. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian played quarterback for the Cougars in 1995 and '96. Sarkisian led the Cougars to a 14-1 record in 1996, with the lone loss coming against Washington. The strength of New Mexico's team is its front seven on defense, with Illinois transfers Ugo Uzodinma and Reggie Ellis at tackle and 2009 NCAA tackles leader Carmen Messina at linebacker. That group will get a stern test in its opener Saturday against Oregon, which ranked sixth in the nation in rushing and eighth in scoring last season. ... TCU's Andy Dalton leads all current FBS quarterbacks with 29 career wins as a starter. Dalton's 29 wins tie him with Sammy Baugh for the most of any quarterback in school history. ... Colorado State is attempting to beat Colorado in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1999-2000. The Rams won last season's game 23-17 in Boulder. ... Wyoming's game with Southern Utah this week marks the unveiling of an upgrade to War Memorial Stadium that includes the addition of 12 luxury suites and 256 club seats in a climate-controlled environment. ... Air Force is breaking in five new starters on the offensive line against Northwestern State. ... San Diego State will wear black "DC'' stickers with gold lettering on the back of their helmets this season to honor College Football Hall of Famer Don Coryell, who died on July 1. Coryell posted a 104-19-2 record at San Diego State from 1961-72 before going on to coach the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals from 1973-77 and the San Diego Chargers from 1978-86. He is the only coach to win 100 games at both the college and pro levels.

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



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