Perhaps no conference in the country has more at stake in the opening week of the season than the Mountain West.
By the time Labor Day rolls around, we should have a good idea of whether the Mountain West has a decent shot at earning a BCS bid for a fourth consecutive season. TCU opens its season Friday night at Baylor, while Boise State faces Georgia in Atlanta on Saturday night.
With apologies to Air Force and San Diego State, Boise State and TCU are the only MWC programs in the national rankings and the only schools in the league with a realistic shot at going undefeated. And no matter how much TCU and Boise State have proved themselves as annual national contenders, it's tough to imagine either team earning a BCS invitation without going undefeated.
"Just the fact it's a big game motivates us," Boise State tailback Doug Martin said. "We're really excited for this first game. When we have a big game like this early in the season, it helps us in workouts. It makes us push harder."
This marks a season of transition for the Mountain West. The league lost BYU to independence and Utah to the Pac-12 in the offseason while welcoming Boise State from the Western Athletic Conference. Next year, TCU heads to the Big East while Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada arrive from the WAC.
For now, though, the Mountain West has legitimate BCS contenders in Boise State and TCU. Boise State closed perfect 2006 and 2009 seasons with Fiesta Bowl victories. TCU lost to Boise State in the Fiesta two years ago before beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last year to cap an undefeated season.
Although Boise State and TCU are favored in their openers, both teams have reasons for concern.
TCU must replace quarterback Andy Dalton, the conference's offensive player of the year each of the past two seasons. And the Horned Frogs open the season at Baylor and at Air Force, which both played in bowls last season.
The Frogs had no problem with either team last season, as they won 45-10 over Baylor and 38-7 over Air Force. But they return just three players on offense and four on defense who made at least seven starts last season.
"We've got quite a challenge the first two weeks with Baylor and Air Force on the road," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We've been talking about it since January, and really since the schedule came out, of what we were going to have to do as a football team to get to where we need to. And now that day's coming a lot closer."
Boise State at least enters its opener with the benefit of an experienced quarterback in Kellen Moore, who finished fourth in last year's Heisman balloting. The Broncos also boast an All-America candidate at left tackle in Nate Potter, a 1,200-yard rusher (Martin) and one of the nation's best defensive lines.
But the loss of star receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young plus the lack of an experienced kicker could prove costly. Boise State also must quiet a partisan crowd in what should be a raucous environment.
Then again, Boise State shouldn't be intimidated by its surroundings. The Broncos opened the 2010 season by beating Virginia Tech in front of a pro-Hokies crowd at Landover, Md.
"I kind of expect it to be the same as last year," Martin said. "It kind of felt like our first game was a bowl game. The atmosphere was just crazy. It was so intense and loud. The fans were into it. It pumped all of us up."
Martin compares it to a bowl game, but it actually should seem more like a playoff game. Since the Mountain West champion doesn't have an automatic BCS invitation, that playoff mentality is necessary each week for every team in the league.
Lose one game, and you just might fall out of the BCS picture.
Best matchup: Georgia offensive line vs. Boise State defensive line. Georgia will have a tough time beating Boise State if it can't run the ball effectively, but the Bulldogs don't have a proven tailback. Richard Samuel, who's back at his natural position after playing linebacker last season, and true freshman Isaiah Crowell are going to need plenty of help from their offensive line. C Ben Jones and T Cordy Glenn are All-SEC candidates, but the Bulldogs must replace three starting linemen. This relatively young line will be matching up with a Boise State front four that helped the Broncos lead the nation in sacks and rank second in tackles for loss last season. T Billy Winn is a legitimate All-America contender, and E Shea McClellin earned first-team All-WAC honors last season. Boise State's chances of recording a season-opening win over a major-conference foe for the third consecutive season depend in part on whether its defensive line lives up to its preseason acclaim in this matchup.
Players on the spot: TCU QB Casey Pachall. Nobody's expecting Pachall to step right in and match the production of predecessor Andy Dalton. Heck, nobody's even expecting Pachall to be the best quarterback on the field Friday when TCU faces Robert Griffin and Baylor. But the Horned Frogs need him to manage the offense effectively to avoid getting upset. Pachall has plenty of upside. He arrived on campus as a four-star prospect who was the nation's No. 9 dual-threat quarterback in the 2009 recruiting class. But he can't afford too many jitters in his first college start. A Friday night game at Baylor is no walkover.
Keep an eye on: The Rams have garnered some preseason attention as a team that could improve quite a bit after going 3-9 each of the past two seasons. An early indication of Colorado State's potential comes Saturday at New Mexico when we see how well the Rams' line protects QB Pete Thomas. Washington State and Rutgers were the only FBS teams to allow more sacks per game last season than Colorado State. Thomas, a sophomore who started every game for Colorado State as a true freshman, is a promising young quarterback. But he needs more help from a line that returns four starters.
Numbers game: Boise State is 38-2 and TCU is 36-3 since the start of the 2008 season. Alabama (36-5) is the only other FBS team with at least 36 wins during that stretch.
What they're saying
"They're bigger and faster than we are and bigger and faster than [what] we normally see." - Boise State coach Chris Petersen, on Georgia
"It's never about touchdown passes or about yardage. We learned that with Andy Dalton as a freshman. He threw for over 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns [in a 20-17 loss to Air Force in 2007], but he threw three picks and turned the ball over in the red zone and we got beat in overtime. Our whole thing is about managing the game and winning. Casey understands that. I told him, 'You don't have to be Andy Dalton.' All we're looking for is a guy who gets the ball in the hands of the people we want to. ... I talked to somebody who was at a New England Patriots practice, and that was one of the things they said about the quarterbacks; that coach who everybody knows up there basically stated you never see a guy say an incomplete pass lost us a ballgame or throwing the ball away [cost us a game]. It's always the interception or throwing the ball to the wrong person. It's not always bad to punt." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, on his expectations for first-year starting QB Casey Pachall
"None of our guys yet have consistently shown they can go get the deep ball. That's the best thing [QB] Ryan [Lindley] throws, the deep ball." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, to the San Diego Union Tribune on the state of the Aztecs' receiving corps. The Aztecs must replace first-team All-MWC selections Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson
"It definitely spurred a competition that a lot of people probably didn't expect. But it was a competition that the Rebels needed ... to bring out the best of both of us, to definitely know nobody's job is secure." - UNLV QB Caleb Herring, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about having to beat out JC transfer Sean Reilly this summer to win the starting job
"It's hard to say who the starter is. They're all going to play. It's a three-headed monster." - Colorado State offensive coordinator Pat Meyer, to The Denver Post on how the Rams will divide carries among TBs Raymond Carter, Chris Nwoke and Derek Good
Etc.: Air Force shouldn't expect a blowout Saturday just because it's opening its season against an FCS program that went 4-7 last season. South Dakota returns 21 starters from a team that knocked off Minnesota 41-38 last September. ... Boise State's band is not making the trip to the Georgia Dome for the opener with Georgia. The marching band at Morris Brown, a historically black college in Atlanta, will fill in for Boise State's band by playing the school's fight song in the stands. The Idaho Statesman reported that game organizers have bought the Morris Brown band orange and blue T-shirts to wear at the game. ... Boise State's lack of a proven kicker - the Broncos haven't decided whether to go with redshirt freshman Dan Goodale or junior college transfer Michael Frisina - could affect the Broncos' strategy Saturday if a drive stalls on the outskirts of typical field-goal range. Coach Chris Petersen said both kicking candidates have been "adequate" in preseason workouts. "Those guys have done the job in kind of 'near' field-goal range," Petersen said. "They're not long field-goal guys, but that's OK. As long as they make the ones that we send them out for, we'll be happy." ... Colorado State typically opens the season against Colorado in Denver. Because Colorado already had scheduled a 2011 season opener with Hawaii before extending its contract with Colorado State, this season's game between the Buffaloes and Rams will take place on Sept. 17. ... The Colorado State-New Mexico game represents a long-distance high school reunion for Lobos quarterback Tarean Austin and Rams receiver Charles Lovett, who were teammates at Tampa Hillsborough. ... San Diego State coach Rocky Long has discussed the possibility of having All-MWC cornerback Leon McFadden return punts more often this season. McFadden returned five punts last season - all in the first three games - in order to make sure he stayed healthy enough to play defense. "There's no concern with Leon returning punts if we think he's the best," Long told the San Diego Union Tribune. ... TCU has led the nation in total defense three consecutive seasons and five of the past 11 seasons. ... Wyoming is opening the season with three true freshman starters: QB Brett Smith, WR Dominic Rufran and OLB Mark Nzeocha. Cowboys starting FS Kenny Browder was suspended indefinitely Monday, one day after his arrest on a DUI and underage drinking charge. JC transfer Luke Anderson is expected to start in Browder's place Saturday against Weber State.