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October 27, 2011

Week 9 preview in the Mountain West

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Mountain West Conference fans can sit in front of their TV sets Friday night and wonder what might have been.

What if the nationally televised showdown between TCU and BYU still featured two MWC rivals? What if Utah's rout of BYU last month also had been a conference game? What if all three of these teams were competing with Boise State for a league title on an annual basis?

BYU at TCU, 8 p.m.
Air Force at New Mexico, 2 p.m.
Colorado State at UNLV, 6 p.m.
Wyoming at San Diego State, 10 p.m.
If only the MWC had managed to keep BYU, TCU and Utah in the fold for the long term while also luring Boise State from the WAC, it could have made a serious argument for an automatic BCS bid.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. Utah already has left for the Pac-12, while BYU went independent. After originally agreeing to join the Big East next season, TCU now is heading to the Big 12 instead. The MWC now is joining forces with Conference USA to form a league that features more quantity than quality.

But we still get at least one more season of the TCU-BYU series, which ranked alongside BYU-Utah as the best rivalry in the old Mountain West. And though a conference title won't be at stake, this game still means plenty to both teams.

"It's like anytime TCU and BYU have gotten together," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We've always taken them very seriously because of the way they play, the way they do things. Coach [Bronco] Mendenhall has won a lot of football games over the years. I don't this any different from any year as far as it being a very physical football game."

Each team wants to continue its recent momentum. TCU (5-2) has won back-to-back games and is coming off a 69-0 shellacking of New Mexico, but the Horned Frogs faded from the national consciousness after falling 50-48 to Baylor in a nationally televised game in Week 1. BYU (6-2) had its own nationally televised meltdown in a 54-10 loss to Utah on Sept. 17, but the Cougars have won five in a row since.

BYU's resurgence began when Riley Nelson replaced season-opening starter Jake Heaps at quarterback. Nelson came off the bench Sept. 30 and threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to rally BYU from an 11-point deficit in a 27-24 victory over Utah State. Nelson moved into the starting lineup afterward and has helped BYU average 41.3 points in its past three games. Nelson has thrown 11 touchdown passes with three interceptions this season, and he also has rushed for at least 62 yards in four consecutive games.

"He keeps plays open," Patterson said. "He's another running back back there. You've got to defend the quarterback. He's harder to sack. He moves around, does things and throws a catchable ball. He's added a spark, and their kids believe in him. Chemistry's a big thing. For whatever reason right now, that chemistry is working well for them."

Nelson will try to change BYU's recent history of frustration in this series. After BYU beat TCU in 2006 and '07, TCU won the past three meetings by a combined 101-17. BYU didn't score more than seven points in any of those games.

"Eventually our program will have to, as it once did two years in a row, be able to compete [with] and beat TCU or teams like that at a consistent level so we can move the program forward," Mendenhall said.

[Fresh start: Rivals.com five-star freshman tracker ]

Although the Frogs have dominated this rivalry lately, these two teams also have played plenty of tightly contested games. One of the most memorable games in MWC history came in 2005, when TCU erased an 18-point, second-half deficit in a 51-50 overtime victory, giving TCU its biggest come-from-behind victory in Patterson's 11-year tenure.

"We consider them like a conference opponent," Patterson said. "We've been playing a long time. Each of us knows each other very well."

Too bad they're no longer actual conference opponents.

Best matchup: BYU OT Braden Brown vs. TCU DE Stansly Maponga. A potentially intriguing one-on-one matchup between Maponga and NFL prospect Matt Reynolds would have pitted the top performer on TCU's defense against BYU's best overall player. But that matchup probably won't happen since Maponga typically plays left end and lines up against the opponent's right tackle. Reynolds is entrenched as BYU's left tackle. Still, the matchup between Maponga and Brown merits watching. Maponga has five sacks and four forced fumbles. Brown is a second-year starter. Although Nelson has plenty of mobility, the Cougars still must give him time to throw. BYU won't win if Maponga is wreaking havoc in the backfield all night.

Player on the spot: San Diego State TE Gavin Escobar. Although he broke his left hand Oct. 13 against Air Force in the Aztecs' most recent game, Escobar plans to play Saturday against Wyoming. But how well will he catch the ball? Escobar has been practicing with a cast on his broken hand. San Diego State coach Rocky Long has indicated Escobar will have his cast cut down before Saturday to give him a little more flexibility for the game. Escobar ranks third on the team in receiving and has 16 catches for 226 yards and four touchdowns.

Keep an eye on: UNLV's quarterback situation: Although junior Sean Reilly will start Saturday's game against Colorado State, UNLV coach Bobby Hauck has indicated sophomore Caleb Herring also would play. Neither has played well. "We haven't had either quarterback seize the job and distance himself, so we'll be willing to play both," Hauck said. Herring opened the season as the starter, but he threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in a 41-16 loss to FCS program Southern Utah and went 1-of-14 for 8 yards in a 37-0 loss to Nevada. Reilly made his first start two weeks ago and went 7-of-16 for 79 yards with no touchdown passes and an interception as the Rebels fell 41-14 at Wyoming. Herring came off the bench in that game and went 2-of-5 for 25 yards. UNLV ranks 114th nationally in passing offense, 116th in passing efficiency and 117th in total offense.

Numbers game: TCU set all kinds of school records last week in its 69-0 rout of New Mexico. TCU shattered a 79-year-old single-game scoring record. The previous record came in a 68-0 shutout of Austin College on Oct. 22, 1932. This game also represented the largest margin of victory in school history. Nine different Frogs reached the end zone, setting yet another school record.

Quotes of the week

"Blowouts aren't realistic. They aren't real football, especially if you play a team like Air Force. For us to go out there and compete and not really let down is a good sign for the future. We're going to be in games that come down to the wire and it's going to be how we respond, and today helped that." - Boise State OT Nate Potter, to The Idaho Statesman after the Broncos' 37-26 victory over Air Force

"It's a statistic, I guess. I've got to focus on Wyoming." - San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman, reacting to The San Diego Union-Tribune about leading all FBS players with 138.8 rushing yards per game

"Certainly, we've got to have some urgency about getting a win this weekend. In Fort Collins, if they've got their press conference going on right now, they're probably saying the same thing. They've got to take a look at us and feel like they've got a good chance to beat us. If they're watching what's transpired to date, I'm sure CSU feels pretty good about their chances this weekend." - UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the Rebels' game with Colorado State. UNLV (1-5) has lost each of its past three games by at least 25 points, while Colorado State (3-4) also has dropped three in a row

[Going bowling: Rivals.com 2011 bowl projections ]

"I feel like we can compete with anybody as long as we have a good plan and as long as we go out there and execute it. We've got the Boises and the TCUs [left on the schedule], but I feel like we can compete with anybody and I feel like my teammates feel the same way. We don't try to look too far ahead, but we know what the schedule's like." - Wyoming RB Alvester Alexander, to the Casper Star-Tribune

Poll watch: Boise State moved from fifth to fourth in the latest BCS standings. The Broncos jumped ahead of Oklahoma following the Sooners' loss to Texas Tech. Boise State already was ahead of Wisconsin, which also suffered its first loss last week. No other Mountain West team is in the BCS standings.

Etc.: Air Force's recent history suggests the Falcons (3-4) could come on strong down the stretch. Air Force has gone 18-9 during the second half of the season since Troy Calhoun took over the program in 2007. The Falcons posted a 12-24 second-half record in the six seasons leading up to Calhoun's arrival. ... Boise State's victory over Air Force last week gave the Broncos a 45-2 record during Kellen Moore's four years as the starting quarterback. Moore's 45th victory allowed him to tie Texas' Colt McCoy (2006-09) for the most career wins by any FBS quarterback in history. Colorado State OT Paul Madsen has returned to practice, but there's no indication whether he will play Saturday after missing a game with a sprained left knee. The Rams need a speedy recovery from Madsen because OTs Joe Caprioglio and Jared Biard are out for the season with knee injuries. With redshirt freshman OTs Ty Sambrailo and Mason Hathaway forced into the starting lineup last week, Colorado State gave up seven sacks in a 31-17 loss to UTEP. Colorado State will have Ben DeLine and Chad VanderMolen compete for the kicking job this week. DeLine is 4-of-8 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 42 this season. Saturday will mark UNLV's first home game in more than a month. The Rebels had two off weeks and road losses to Nevada and Wyoming since their last home contest Sept. 24. But will the fans return? In that last home game, UNLV suffered an embarrassing 41-16 loss to FCS program Southern Utah. New Mexico WR Lamaar Thomas, who suffered a foot injury on Oct. 15, is out for the season. The Lobos are hoping WR Deon Long returns this week after missing the TCU game with a toe injury. Long, the MWC's leading receiver, has 31 catches for 580 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas caught nine passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns this season. San Diego State's combined total of 47 wins by its football and men's basketball programs since the start of the 2010 football season leads all FBS schools. San Diego State is followed by BYU (45), Alabama (43), Connecticut (43), North Carolina (42) and Wisconsin (42). TCU WR Josh Boyce has 38 catches for 604 yards, which puts him on pace to break Kelly Blackwell's school single-season record for receptions (64 each in 1990 and '91) and Reggie Harrell's single-season mark for receiving yards (1,012 in 2003). One reason Wyoming already has exceeded its win total from last season is because the Cowboys have protected the passer much better. Wyoming has allowed only six sacks through its first six games and is tied for 18th nationally in fewest sacks allowed. The Cowboys gave up 31 sacks last season to rank 95th.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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