Western Athletic Conference Preview

Over the past five years, Boise State has undoubtedly been the highlight of the WAC.  That is about to change, though, in 2011.  Boise State has agreed to join the Mountain West Conference and leave the WAC in the dust.  Right now, the WAC stands at nine teams, so losing one puts them at eight, which puts them below the usual eight game in-conference schedule.  So, it’s my opinion that the WAC will look to add another team in time for 2011.  Who will it be?  Hopefully it will be somebody who can jump in and compete right away.  Besides Boise State, only three WAC teams are above .500 in in-conference play.  Those teams, in order of record, are Nevada (28-12), Hawaii (27-13) and Fresno State (26-14).  The bottom three teams, New Mexico State (5 wins), Idaho (10), Utah State (11) combine to equal Fresno State’s 26 total wins.  As you can see, there is room for improvement, and that begins in 2010.  I’m expecting the middling teams to show off in 2010, hoping to fill the star spot that Boise State will be vacating.

Order of Finish (Overall record, In-conference record)

  1. Boise State (12-0, 8-0)
  2. Fresno State (8-4, 6-2)
  3. Nevada (9-3, 6-2)
  4. Idaho (9-4, 5-3)
  5. Utah State (5-7, 4-4)
  6. Hawaii (6-6, 3-5)
  7. Louisiana Tech (4-8, 3-5)
  8. San Jose State (4-9, 2-6)
  9. New Mexico State (2-10, 0-8)

Boise State: As good as Boise State was in 2009 (14-0), I expect them to be even better in 2010.  Year in and year out, the Broncos are good, but they start too far back in the rankings to make it to #1 or #2 by the time December rolls around.  This year, they’ll start within the Top 10 and could easily find a home in the Top 5 for a majority of the season.  Lining up at QB is third team All-American Kellen Moore.  As just a sophomore, Moore put up stellar numbers: 3,536 yards, 39 TDs, 3 INTs, 64.3% completion percentage.  Moore has two more years to perfect his skills, and I expect him to improve again, as difficult as that may seem.  Moore is surrounded by an awesome group of skill players, so he doesn’t have to do it alone.  Senior starting RB Jeremy Avery rushed for 1,151 yards and 6 TDs.  Avery gave way in the touchdown department to Doug Martin who racked up 15 rushing TDs on 765 yards.  RB DJ Harper suffered an ACL injury in 2009, but will be back in 2010.  Unfortunately, there may not be many carries left over for him after Avery and Martin.  The entire receiving corps returns, led by WR Austin Pettis.  Pettis, 6’2″, is a good target man for Moore.  He caught 63 balls for 855 yards and 14 TDs.  Pettis’ reception and yardage numbers weren’t even the best on the team; the diminutive Titus Young (5’10”) caught more passes (79) and amassed more yards (1,041) but had less TDs (10).  TE Kyle Efaw made a name for himself in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl when he caught the team’s famed fake punt.  Efaw caught a total of 31 last year for 444 yards and one TD.  The defense wasn’t as solid as it was in 2008, but it was good nonetheless.  As a unit, they allowed 17.1 points per game and an even 300 yards per game.  Second team All-WAC performer, SS Jeron Johnson is the defense’s leading returning tackler with 91.  Also of note are the 6 INTs that CB Brandyn Thompson stole from the opposition.  The defensive line is anchored by DE Ryan Winterswyk (41 tackles, 9 sacks) and DT Billy Winn (44, 6).  Combination kicker and punter, Kyle Brotzman, is a senior and can be trusted in game changing situations.  Bottom Line:  Returning starters abound in Boise, as 20 of the 22 starters from 2009 are back for 2010.  They all know how to win as they have all been to a bowl game each year.  That is important, in my opinion.  Expect everybody to improve and for Boise to challenge for the BCS Championship.

Fresno State: Fresno State lost, in my opinion, the single best player from the WAC in 2009, RB Ryan Mathews.  Mathews, drafted by the San Diego Chargers, rushed 1,808 yards and 19 TDs.  Luckily for Coach Pat Hill, senior QB Ryan Colburn returns for his second year as the Bulldogs’ starter.  Colburn had a consistent year, throwing for 150+ yards in 10 of the team’s 12 games.  All together, he had 2,459 yards and 19 TDs and 11 INTs.  The new starter at RB, Robbie Rouse, had 479 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 4 TDs in 2009 as a true freshman.  I believe a year of learning behind Mathews may have Rouse poised to be a breakout star in the WAC.  It also helps that the offensive line returns all five starters and is anchored by RG Andrew Jackson (fourth team All-America selection).  The WR corps suffered the loss of stalwart WR Seyi Ajirotutu (49 catches, 677 yards and 7 TDs) but does return the potential of junior Jamel Hamler (37, 503, 5).  The Bulldogs defense in 2009 wasn’t particularly strong.  Overall, the team allowed 414 yards of total offense and 28.4 points per game.  The offense outplayed the defense, so the allowances were not an issue, but for success in 2010, the defense needs to tighten up.  Senior DE Chris Carter led the team with 5 sacks (his closest competition had just two) and totaled 47 tackles.  MLB Ben Jacobs averaged 8.15 tackles per game and led the team with 106 overall.  First team All-WAC kicker, Kevin Goessling missed just one of his 16 attempts in 2009.  Bottom Line:  From top to bottom, the team is one of the most complete in the conference, behind Boise State, and could ruin the seasons for their three BCS opponents (Cincinnati, Ole Miss, Illinois).

Nevada: The heart and soul of the Nevada Wolf Pack is their QB, Colin Kapernick.  Kapernick puts up insane statistics.  Take a look at his 2009 production: 2,052 passing yards, 20 TDs, 6 INTs, 58.9% completion percentage, 1,183 yards rushing, 16 TDs and 7.3 yards per carry.  If you play in a college fantasy football league, you need to draft him immediately.  If it weren’t for Kellen Moore of Boise State, Kapernick would be first team All-WAC, unquestioned.  Senior RB Vai Taua is the WAC’s best at the position.  Last year, Taua totaled 1,345 yards and 10 TDs.  Impressively, Taua averaged 7.8 yards per rush.  Sophomore Mike Ball lit up the field when given the chance, averaging 9.6 yards per carry and 5 TDs on just 23 carries; expect him to get 5-8 touches per game in 2010.  The top five receivers return for this season, but the best of the bunch is WR Brandon Wimberly.  Wimberly snagged 53 balls for 733 yards and 6 TDs.  The defensive secondary needs improvement in order for the team to improve.  In-conference they were second in scoring defense and first in rushing defense, but their passing defense finished eighth.  The front seven returns four starters and features no underclassmen, so I believe they will be stout against the run again.  The secondary, though, may remain weak; in 2009 the entire unit had just 6 INTs, and only 4 of those INTs by returning players.  Bottom Line:  There is no catching Boise State, but Nevada should have a solid grasp on the #2 or #3 spot in the WAC.  The defense will not stifle any offense, but the offensive scheme and its speed could catch non-conference foes BYU and Cal off balance.

Idaho: The Vandals surprised some of the pundits in 2009 with an 8-5 record and a bowl victory over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl.  The key to their success was QB Nathan Enderle.  Enderle, starting his fourth season as Idaho’s QB, completed 61.5% of his attempts last season and converted for 22 TDs versus just 9 INTs.  Enderle averaged a superb 15.1 yards per completion, on his way to 2,906 yards.  There may be a competition going into September between RBs Deonte’ Jackson (senior) and Princeton McCarty (junior).  McCarty had the superior season in ’09 with 680 yards and 3 TDs.  Jackson rushed for 387 yards and 2 TDs.  Jackson may have the inside track at the job because he is a senior, but I would like to see McCarty awarded for his 2009 performance.  Leading WR Max Komar has departed, but he leaves a crew of capable role players behind.  Four returning recievers had at least 30 receptions and 400 yards.  Daniel Hardy (39 reception, 691 yards, 3 TDs) and Maurice Shaw (32, 666, 6) are the deep threats while Preston Davis (33, 460, 1) and Eric Greenwood (32, 401, 3) are the possession receivers.  The defense returns 10 starters, which should help to improve a unit that allowed 36 points per game.  First team All-WAC FS Shiloh Keo is the team’s biggest playmaker; he amassed 113 tackles and 3 INTs.  Also receiving honors are second team All-WAC players DE Aaron Lavarias (54 tackles, 4 sacks) and OLB JoJo Dickson (79 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INTs).  Bottom Line: An improving defense, along with a potent offense, led by Enderle, should be the ideal formula for a repeat bowl trip for the Vandals.

Utah State: With more wins (4) than any other season since 2002, Gary Andersen seems to have the Utah State Aggies moving in the right direction.  Sixteen total starters return, so there is hope in Logan, Utah that 2010 may bring the Aggies their first bowl appearance since 1997.  On the offensive side, senior QB Diondre Borel runs the show.  He threw for 2,885 yards and 17 TDs last season.  Even on a 4-8 team, Borel was able to limit mistakes and throw just 4 INTs, or one every 91.5 pass attempts.  Borel is also a threat to run the ball; he rushed for 458 yards and 6 TDs in 2009.  Junior Robert Turbin (1,296 yards and 13 TDs) tore his ACL in the winter and vows he will be able to return for the 2010 season.  If he’s unable, senior Michael Smith (290, 4) will assume the lead spot.  The Aggies return their top three receivers from 2009, however, it is important to note that it was a very balanced bunch (eight receivers with at least 15 receptions and 220 yards).  Leading the way is mighty mite junior Stanley Morrison.  Morrison stands only 5’9″, but once he has the ball in his hands he converts;  Morrison averaged 18.7 yards per catch on 33 receptions (616 yards).  Third year starter, and 2009 first team All-WAC OLB, Bobby Wagner leads the weak Aggie defense.  Wagner was fantastic, recording 115 tackles, but the unit as a whole allowed 34 points per game and 455 total yards per game.  Bottom Line:  The offense, if RB Robert Turbin returns, will be explosive.  The question will be the defense and if it can hold onto leads deep into the fourth quarter.  2011 may be their year to finally make the jump.

Hawaii: Since former Head Coach June Jones left prior to the 2008 season, the Rainbow Warriors just haven’t been the same gun slinging team we came to know from 2001-2007.  Sure, Hawaii still throws the ball a lot, but not with the same results as years past.  Last year’s starter, Greg Alexander, tore his ACL against Louisiana Tech and the starting role fell to sophomore Bryant Moniz.  Moniz, now a junior, will look to improve upon his numbers of: 2,396 yards, 14 TDs and 10 INTs.  Uncharacteristically for a Hawaii quarterback, Moniz completed under 60% of his passes (57.1%).  Two senior WRs lead the way on the outside, Greg Salas (106 receptions, 1,590 yards and 8 TDs) and Kealoha Pilares (66, 690, 4).  Salas is the big play threat, while Pilares is a closer to the line of scrimmage possession receiver.  Due to the aerial attack displayed each game, the rushing game rarely gets moving.  Senior RB Alex Green had the most carries last season, 86, and gained 453 yards.  Green scored just 2 TDs, though, so don’t expect much production in 2010.  Former Oregon State transfer, Mana Silva, leads the Warriors defense from his SS spot.  Last year, Silva had 74 tackles and an impressive 6 INTs.  The entire secondary returns in 2010, so expect them to improve upon their shoddy pass defense: 203 yards per game, 64.1% completion percentage against.  Bottom Line:  The Warriors play a very specific brand of offense that relies on timing and rapport between QB and WR.  I’d bet on Moniz, Salas and Pilares meshing well, but will the defense be able to slow down the opposition enough to win?  I’d say it’s about 50/50.

Louisiana Tech: Before I get into the team preview, can anybody tell me why LaTech is actually in the WAC?  Didn’t think so.  Anyway…  The QB spot is unsettled between returning starter Ross Jenkins and Auburn transfer Steve Ensminger.  Jenkins threw for 2,095 yards and 17 TDs to just 5 INTs, so you’d expect him to start.  I’m not certain, though.  Ensminger, who must be talented to be recruited and signed by Auburn, will get plenty of consideration after the Spring.  Right now, it’s an even money bet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see both of them over 100 attempts for the season.  The RB spots are even less settled.  Gone is star RB Daniel Porter (1,132 yards and 11 TDs) and left are sophomore Tyrone Duplessis (277, 0) and Tennessee transfer Lennon Creer (388, 4 in 2008 at UT).  Creer should start, but will likely split time.  Despite having a solid season from their starting QB, the receivers put up dubiously shallow numbers.  Just one WR had more than 21 catches; that was Dennis Morris, and he is no longer in Ruston.  Despite his unsatisfactory receiving stats (20 catches, 205 yards), I would keep an eye on Phillip Livas.  Livas gained more yards rushing (245) than receiving.  Livas is also a factor in the return game because he returned both a punt and a kickoff for a score.  The defense played well as a unit in 2009, despite not having any standout performers.  In WAC Conference play, Louisiana Tech’s defense allowed the second fewest yards per game, 369.  MLB Adrien Cole (93 tackles, 2 sacks) played well enough to earn himself first team All-WAC honors.  Bottom Line:  LaTech’s offense is unsettled at QB and RB.  Pair that with a new coach and you could have some growing pains, rather than growing gains, in 2010.

San Jose State: In eight starts in 2009, QB Jordan La Secla cemented his role as the Spartans’ starting quarterback.  La Secla wasn’t perfect, he threw 11 INTs to just 10 TDs, for example, but he got the job done well enough to instill some confidence.  La Secla amassed 1,926 total passing yards and completed just under 60% of his passes (59.9).  Juco transfer Lamon Muldrow led the team in rushing in ’09 and returns to reprise his role in 2010.  Muldrow averaged a respectable 4.5 yards per carry on his way to a total of 592 yards and 3 TDs.  Another juco transfer, Marquis Avery will be the team’s leading receiver this season with the departure of Kevin Jurovich (60 receptions, 777 yards and 1 TD).  Avery had a solid year with 42 catches, 465 yards and 6 TDs.  He is a lanky (6’4″ and just 205 lbs) posession receiver who will become La Secla’s best friend.  As you may expect from a 2-10 team, the Spartan defense was, well, spartan.  Up the middle, the defense is strong, but elsewhere could use improvement.  MLB Pompey Festejo totaled 83 tackles and 2 sacks.  At the two safety spots, Duke Ihenacho and Tanner Burns combined for 185 tackles and 3 INTs.  Bottom Line: With one more year of eligibility for QB Jordan La Secla and RB Lamon Muldrow, I could see San Jose State getting back to a bowl game, however, their last seasons may be overshadowed by a new coaching staff and a spotty defense.

New Mexico State: To be honest, I’ve never seen a worse stat line for a quarterback who started a majority of a team’s games (nine to be exact).  Overall, QB Jeff Fleming had four games where he had fewer than ten attempts and ten games where he didn’t hit 100 yards passing.  Fleming connected on just 50.6% of his 172 pass attempts.  He gained 789 yards and had a negative touchdown:interception ratio (4:12).  Hopefully with a full year with Coach DeWayne Walker, Fleming will be able to develop.  The Running back situation, luckily for the Aggies, was better.  RB Seth Smith rushed for 1,016 yards as a junior and is poised to increase that as a senior.  Smith had just a single touchdown, but I’ll chalk that up to bad quarterback play rather than poor rushing.  Typically for a team with such quarterback play, the receivers saw little action.  No receivers reached the 30 reception plateau.  The two leaders, Marcus Allen (26 catches, 308 yards, 2 TDs) and Todd Lee (28, 280, 1), will hope to see more balls thrown their way.  The biggest bright spot on the defensive side came from the DEs Pierre Fils and Donte Savage.  Both players recorded 53 tackles and they had seven and six sacks, respectively.  FS Stephon Hatchett is the team’s leading returning tackler, with 98.  Bottom Line:  Rarely can a team win without consistent quarterback play, and judging by his sample size, Jeff Fleming may not be the man for the job.  It would take a miracle from RB Seth Smith to carry the team if Fleming and the defense faltered as they did in ’09.

What to Watch for:

OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: Colin Kapernick, QB, Nevada
Ryan Winterswyk, DE, Boise State
Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State
Boise State at Nevada, Friday November 26th
TOUGHEST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Boise State (vs. Virginia Tech [neutral site], at Wyoming, Oregon State, Toledo)
EASIEST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Louisiana Tech (vs. Grambling State [neutral site], at Texas A&M, Navy, Southern Miss)
FIRST COACH FIRED: DeWayne Walker, New Mexico State


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