August 14, 2011

WAC wobbles into transitional season

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

For the time being, "WAC" may as well stand for "Wounded Athletic Conference."

First, Boise State left for the Mountain West this season; Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada will follow next season. That means at this time next year, the exodus from the WAC will leave five holdover teams that have made a combined nine bowl appearances since 1990 and just four since 2000. There also will be two teams new to FBS play, UT-San Antonio and Texas State.

Perhaps as a further bruise to the WAC's ego, the three son-to-be defectors appear to be the primary contenders for the league championship in its final season in this incarnation.

With the departures of Boise State and Nevada's prolific backfield of Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua, the WAC does not appear to have the type of top-flight teams that produced a three-way tie for the league championship last season, including two teams (the Broncos and Wolf Pack) that finished in the top 11 of The Associated Press poll.

This season, Hawaii is the only team in the league with an established quarterback; Bryant Moniz was the nation's leading passer last season. But Moniz is one of only two returning starters on his offense. Nevada and Fresno State have the talent to win the WAC, but both teams are inexperienced at quarterback.

While Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State are the favorites, there are reasons to believe some of the other teams have spoiler potential.

Louisiana Tech has the league's best running back in Lennon Creer, who began his career at Tennessee. Utah State has a veteran team with a handful of key players, led by tailback Robert Turbin, returning from season-long injuries. Idaho, despite featuring the league's worst offensive line, a lackluster running game and a porous defense, managed to finish 6-7 a year ago.

The story in the WAC is the same as it is every season - the team that fields a capable defense has the best chance to compete for a bowl. Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii were the only teams in the conference last season to finish in the top 60 nationally in total defense - and each went to a bowl. Four WAC teams were in the bottom 20 in the same category.

If Utah State or Louisiana Tech or Idaho can find solid quarterback play and make drastic defensive improvements, they may be able to show that the WAC will have some fight left in it once its best programs leave for the Mountain West.


BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz. When he was a recruit, the Warriors declined to offer Moniz a scholarship twice, once out of high school and again of out of junior college. Moniz decided to walk-on, and more than 7,400 yards and 53 touchdowns later, Moniz is safely on the roster. He was the nation's only 5,000-yard passer last season, his first as the full-time starter. Hawaii will continue to throw the ball at a high rate, but Moniz has some challenges. First, his top two receivers are gone, and the replacements are untested. Second, his mobility will be tested with every starter on the line gone for at least part of the season (T Austin Hansen is ineligible because of an NCAA issue).

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Utah State LB Bobby Wagner. The past two seasons haven't been particularly memorable for Utah State, but Aggies fans have at least enjoyed watching Wagner. He has led the WAC in tackles per game in each of the past two seasons, and he's a hard hitter who would like to find a way to get Utah State to a bowl in his final season.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Fresno State QB Derek Carr. He has the famous name and famous bloodlines, but can he play? Fresno State hasn't shied away from hyping up David Carr's little brother - Derek's likeness has been used in ticket promotions though he's attempted 14 career passes (all in 2009). The Bulldogs haven't won even a share of the WAC title since 1999, the year before David Carr became the starting quarterback.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: New Mexico State DT Pierre Fils. With a hot start in 2009, Fils looked like he could be a key player in turning around the Aggies' defense. He finished his sophomore season with 53 tackles and 7.5 tackles for a loss but regressed as a junior (34 tackles, 3.5 TFL). After two years at end, Fils is moving to tackle, but no matter where he plays, Fils needs to be a contender for All-WAC honors for New Mexico State to have a fighting chance.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Nevada RB Mike Ball. Nevada has produced five 1,000-yard running backs in the past four seasons, and that was with Colin Kaepernick - an excellent runner - at quarterback. With a veteran line and a new quarterback, the Wolf Pack appear poised to rely on their running backs even more this season. Ball has performed well when called upon over the past two seasons, but had trouble earning regular carries with Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott in the mix. Teammate Lampford Mark could just as easily be the breakout star, too. He rushed for 971 yards and six touchdowns over the last two seasons. Stefphon Jefferson also is in the mix for carries.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Utah State E Levi Koskan. The senior more than doubled his output last season (from 19 tackles to 41, from 3.5 tackles for a loss to 8.5). ILBs Wagner and Kyle Gallagher are proven commodities, but the front seven (now in a 3-4 alignment) must improve. Koskan appears poised for the best season of his career. With a redshirt freshman at nose tackle, Tevita Vaifoou, Utah State will look to Koskan and senior E Quinn Garner to anchor the line.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Idaho RB Ryan Bass. He was a Rivals100 running back in the 2008 class and rushed for 293 yards in two seasons with Arizona State. After sitting out a season, Bass will look to revive his career and the Idaho running game, which produced only 88 yards per game last season. He still has some summer-school academic work to complete before joining the Vandals on the field.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Nevada E Rykeem Yates. Defensive end has been a productive position for the Wolf Pack in each of the past three seasons with Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped. This season will mark a changing of the guard. Yates, a true freshman who enrolled in time for spring ball, is listed as the starter going into the season, and he'll be given every opportunity to flourish at a position of need.


1. Hawaii [ Team Preview ]

2. Fresno State [ Team Preview ]

3. Nevada [ Team Preview ]

4. Louisiana Tech [ Team Preview ]

5. Utah State [ Team Preview ]

6. San Jose State [ Team Preview ]

7. Idaho [ Team Preview ]

8. New Mexico State [ Team Preview ]

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: New Mexico State's Dwayne Walker. First of all, almost no one wins at New Mexico State. The program hasn't been to a bowl since 1960 and hasn't had a winning season since 2002. That said, the Aggies have yet to show great improvement under Walker, who was a well-respected defensive coordinator at UCLA. The Aggies have gone 5-20 in Walker's two seasons, including 2-14 in the WAC. If there's a silver lining, the Aggies have defeated archrival New Mexico in each of the past two seasons. This could be a critical season for Walker as New Mexico State has a fair amount of all-conference candidates to go with a solid group of returning starters.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Nevada. Chris Ault is in the College Football Hall of Fame, and when he was inducted in 2002, Ault hadn't invented the "Pistol" formation or led Nevada to a 13-1 season and a No. 11 finish. Nevada has proven it can put up points despite changing personnel over the years, but the most important coaching move was on defense last season, now led by Andy Buh.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Louisiana Tech's Tony Franklin. His tenure at Auburn came to an ugly end, but Tommy Tuberville didn't escape that mess, either. Other than his short stint at Auburn, Franklin has been in charge of highly productive offenses at Troy and Middle Tennessee. In his first season at Louisiana Tech, Franklin's offense averaged 398 yards per game, the best performance in Ruston since 2003. Though coach Sonny Dykes and Franklin believe in the pass-first philosophy of Hal Mumme, they adjusted their offense midseason to focus on the talents of Creer, a trend that should continue this season.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Nevada's Andy Buh. The Wolf Pack hired Buh, an alum, to repair the pass defense, which was one of the worst in the country in 2009. In one season, Nevada improved its pass defense totals by 54 yards per game. Nevada also finished the season with a top-20 rush defense. Not bad for one season on the job.

BEST POSITION COACH: Nevada OL coach Cameron Norcross. He also holds the title of run game coordinator, but Norcross' work with the line in recent seasons has been impressive. The Wolf Pack had allowed fewer sacks each season since 2006 before allowing 11 in 14 games last season. Nevada's offensive line earned the nickname "The Union" last season for plowing the way for Kaepernick and Taua.


California vs. Fresno State in San Francisco, Sept. 3

Nevada at Oregon, Sept. 10

Hawaii at Washington, Sept. 10

Nevada at Boise State, Oct. 1

Hawaii at Louisiana Tech, Oct. 8

Fresno State at Nevada, Oct. 22

Louisiana Tech at Utah State, Oct. 22

Hawaii at Nevada, Nov. 19

Fresno State at Hawaii, Nov. 19

BYU at Hawaii, Dec. 3

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Utah State. Injuries decimated the Aggies' offense last season, with TBs Robert Turbin and Michael Smith and WRs Stanley Morrison and Matt Austin missing all or nearly all of the season with injuries. If each is healthy, Utah State should have the offense to compete. The Aggies will be that much better if junior college transfer Adam Kennedy or redshirt freshman Alex Hart can adequately replace QB Diondre Borel. In addition, coach Gary Andersen is switching the defense to a 3-4 and taking over coordinator duties himself. Andersen is a former coordinator at Utah.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Hawaii. All of the teams in the WAC are flawed, even the Warriors, the team we picked to win the conference. So how can a projected league champ be disappointing? Here's how: Hawaii won 10 games last season, and though they return the league's only established quarterback, the Warriors have enough holes to make another 10-win season a dream. The offense is almost entirely on the shoulders of Moniz, who will work with a rebuilt line, a new tailback and new go-to receivers. The defense should be OK, but it will have trouble replacing S Mana Silva and his eight interceptions. Hawaii should win the WAC, but the Warriors easily could have two league losses. That means the WAC - which is used to having its league champ finish in the top 20 or even top 10 of late - has no shot at having a team in the final poll.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Hawaii at Nevada, Nov. 12. Only a six-point loss to Hawaii at Aloha Stadium separated Nevada from an undefeated season in 2010. This game almost certainly will play a big role in this season's WAC race (along with Hawaii's and Nevada's games against Fresno State). Nevada is 4-1 against Hawaii in Reno.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Fresno State. Nevada deserves mention for its brutal opening salvo - four consecutive road games, including contests against Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State. But Fresno State's schedule makes you shake your head. Indeed, it could be a major barrier to the Bulldogs winning the conference. Fresno State faces Nevada and Hawaii on the road, and the non-conference schedule will be as tough as usual: California, at Nebraska, Ole Miss, Boise State and San Diego State.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Hawaii. The Warriors always will be aided by their home-field advantage, where a long plane ride and a hostile crowd cause problems for teams from the mainland. In non-conference play, Hawaii won't face a team that finished better than 7-6 last season. The toughest game will be a road trip to Washington in the second week of the season. The Warriors also face BYU on Dec. 3. The remainder of the non-conference schedule is Colorado, at UNLV, UC Davis and Tulane. In the WAC, a trip to Reno on Nov. 12 could settle the conference title, but the Warriors get fellow WAC contender Fresno State at Aloha Stadium.

EXPERT PICKS We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the WAC. Here are their responses:

Olin Buchanan: Nevada
Tom Dienhart: Hawaii
David Fox: Hawaii
Mike Huguenin: Hawaii
Steve Megargee: Hawaii

Olin Buchanan: Idaho
Tom Dienhart: Nevada
David Fox: Fresno State
Mike Huguenin: Nevada
Steve Megargee: Nevada

Olin Buchanan: Ninth
Tom Dienhart: Ninth
David Fox: 10th
Mike Huguenin: 11th
Steve Megargee: 10th

Olin Buchanan: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz
Tom Dienhart: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz
David Fox: Louisiana Tech TB Lennon Creer
Mike Huguenin: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz
Steve Megargee: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz

Olin Buchanan: Louisiana Tech TB Lennon Creer
Tom Dienhart: Fresno State TB Robbie Rouse
David Fox: Nevada TB Mike Bell
Mike Huguenin: Nevada TB Mike Bell
Steve Megargee: Louisiana Tech TB Lennon Creer

Olin Buchanan: Hawaii's Bryant Moniz
Tom Dienhart: Hawaii's Bryant Moniz
David Fox: Hawaii's Bryant Moniz
Mike Huguenin: Hawaii's Bryant Moniz
Steve Megargee: Hawaii's Bryant Moniz
Olin Buchanan: Hawaii WR Royce Pollard
Tom Dienhart: Hawaii WR Royce Pollard
David Fox: Hawaii WR Darius Bright
Mike Huguenin: Hawaii WR Royce Pollard
Steve Megargee: Hawaii WR Royce Pollard

Olin Buchanan: Hawaii LB Corey Paredes
Tom Dienhart: Utah State LB Bobby Wagner
David Fox: Hawaii LB Corey Paredes
Mike Huguenin: Utah State LB Bobby Wagner
Steve Megargee: Utah State LB Bobby Wagner

Olin Buchanan: Hawaii
Tom Dienhart: Fresno State
David Fox: Hawaii
Mike Huguenin: Hawaii
Steve Megargee: Hawaii

Olin Buchanan: Fresno State
Tom Dienhart: Nevada
David Fox: Hawaii
Mike Huguenin: Fresno State
Steve Megargee: Fresno State

Olin Buchanan: New Mexico State
Tom Dienhart: San Jose State
David Fox: New Mexico State
Mike Huguenin: San Jose State
Steve Megargee: New Mexico State

QBBryant Moniz, Hawaii (6-0/205, Sr.)
RBLennon Creer, Louisiana Tech (6-1/215, Sr.)
RBRobbie Rouse, Fresno State (5-7/185, Jr.)
WRNoel Grigsby, San Jose State (5-11/170, So.)
WRRishard Matthews, Nevada (6-2/215, Sr.)
WRRoyce Pollard, Hawaii (6-1/174, Sr.)
TBryce Harris, Fresno State (6-6/300, Sr.)
TAundrae McGaskey, N. Mexico St. (6-6/290, Sr.)
GChris Barker, Nevada (6-4/305, Jr.)
GPhilip Gapelu, Utah State (6-2/299, Sr.)
CJeff Meads, Nevada (6-1/230, Sr.)
EMatt Broha, Louisiana Tech (6-4/255, Sr.)
TLogan Harrell, Fresno State (6-2/275, Sr.)
TKaniela Tuipulolu, Hawaii (6-2/300, Sr.)
ELevi Koskan, Utah State (6-4/250, Sr.)
LBCorey Paredes, Hawaii (6-0/235, Sr.)
LBKeith Smith, San Jose State (6-2/225, So.)
LBBobby Wagner, Utah State (6-1/232, Sr.)
CBIsaiah Frey, Nevada (6-0/190, Sr.)
CBPeyton Thompson, San Jose St. (5-11/180, Sr.)
FSPhillip Thomas, Fresno State (6-1/205, Jr.)
SSDuke Ihenacho, San Jose State (6-1/210, Sr.)
KKevin Goessling, Fresno State (6-0/210, Sr.)
PBobby Cowan, Idaho (6-5/229, Jr.)
KRKerwynn Williams, Utah State (5-9/184, Jr.)
PRRishard Matthews, Nevada (6-2/215, Sr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Hawaii: Bryant Moniz passed for 5,040 yards last season. The rest of the WAC quarterbacks in contention to start this season have 4,813 career yards combined. The Warriors are counting on a junior college transfer (Sterling Jackson) and/or a redshirt freshman (Joey Iosefa) to replace 1,000-yard back Alex Green, but this is Moniz's show.

2. Fresno State

3. Nevada

4. Louisiana Tech

5. Idaho

6. Utah State

7. San Jose State

8. New Mexico State


1. Hawaii: Even without the top two receivers from last season, this will be a productive group. Sure-handed Royce Pollard (64 catches, 901 yards, seven touchdowns) is the top returning receiver. Junior college transfer Darius Bright, who is 6-3, gives Hawaii a size element they've rarely had at the position.

2. San Jose State

3. Nevada

4. Louisiana Tech

5. Utah State

6. Fresno State

7. Idaho

8. New Mexico State

Offensive line

1. Nevada: The Wolf Pack rushed for 292 yards per game and allowed only 11 sacks in 14 games last season. G Chris Barker, C Jeff Meads and T Jeff Nady return.

2. Utah State

3. New Mexico State

4. San Jose State

5. Fresno State

6. Louisiana Tech

7. Hawaii

8. Idaho

Defensive line

1. Hawaii: Kaniela Tuipulotu and Vaughn Meatoga form the WAC's best tackle tandem. End Paipai Famealu was tied for the team lead with five sacks.

2. Louisiana Tech

3. Fresno State

4. Nevada

5. San Jose State

6. Utah State

7. Idaho

8. New Mexico State


1. Hawaii: Corey Paredes (151 tackles, four interceptions) and Aaron Brown (83 tackles, three interceptions, five sacks) lead what has been a big-play defense.

2. Utah State

3. San Jose State

4. Nevada

5. Fresno State

6. Louisiana Tech

7. Idaho

8. New Mexico State


1. Nevada: Once the Wolf Pack's greatest liability, the secondary now is a strength for the Nevada defense. Isaiah Frey is the WAC's best cornerback, and S Duke Williams could be headed for a breakout season.

2. Hawaii

3. Fresno State

4. San Jose State

5. Louisiana Tech

6. Idaho

7. Utah State

8. New Mexico State

Special teams

1: New Mexico State: If only the rest of the team were as solid as the Aggies' special teams. Tyler Stamper made 16-of-19 field goals last season, and Taveon Rogers was second in the WAC in kickoff returns (27.1 yards). The Aggies also led the WAC in punt coverage.

2. Fresno State

3. Nevada

4. Idaho

5. Louisiana Tech

6. San Jose State

7. Hawaii

8. Utah State

Coaching staff

1. Nevada: Chris Ault knows what he is doing on offense, and the defense finally has started to catch up.

2. Hawaii

3. Fresno State

4. Idaho

5. Louisiana Tech

6. Utah State

7. New Mexico State

8. San Jose State

David Fox is a national writer for He can be reached at

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