August 13, 2008

Can the WAC crash the BCS party again?

MORE: 2008 Western Athletic Conference Unit Rankings

In each of the past two seasons, the WAC has put a team in a BCS bowl. Boise State reached the Fiesta Bowl in 2006, while Hawaii went to the Sugar Bowl last year.

Can the conference make it three in a row?

That's not out of the question. Although Hawaii is facing a rebuilding season, Boise State and Fresno State appear solid contenders to make a BCS appearance.

At the other end of the spectrum, Idaho, Utah State, New Mexico and San Jose State are hoping to bounce back from disappointing showings last season.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State tailback Ian Johnson. He has exceeded 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and did so in 2007 despite missing time with a bruised kidney and weak ankle. He's healthy now and should return to his '06 form, when he was second in the country in rushing with 1,714 yards.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Hawaii linebacker Solomon Elimimian. He is the WAC's top returning tackler and an all-conference selection. Last season, he was named league defensive player of the week three times. He posted double-digit tackles totals in six games. A freshman All-American three years ago, he has steadily improved every season.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Boise State wide receiver Jeremy Childs. He's one of the WAC's best receivers when he's on the field. Childs has been suspended for unspecified reasons for the season-opener against Idaho State. He also was suspended for last season's Hawaii Bowl and spring practice. He has all-conference credentials.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Nevada linebacker Josh Mauga. After two seasons as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Mauga moves to the middle in a 4-3 set. He's potentially among the best linebackers in the WAC, but is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss five games last season. If he stays healthy, he will give a boost to a defensive unit that needs one.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Hawaii's quarterback. Senior Tyler Graunke was supposed to be the guy to follow Heisman Trophy finalist Colt Brennan, but Graunke has been suspended and his status is uncertain. If Graunke remains unavailable, the Warriors will look to junior Inoke Funaki or junior college transfers Brent Rausch and Greg Alexander. Regardless of who emerges as the starter, it will be impossible to replace Brennan, who passed for 4,343 yards and 38 touchdowns a year ago.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Hawaii wide receiver Greg Salas. Despite losing its quarterback and top four receivers, Hawaii still will throw frequently. Somebody has to catch all those upcoming passes, and Salas - a sophomore - figures to catch a bunch of them. Last season, he had three catches, but it would come as no surprise if he grabs 20 times that many this season.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Louisiana Tech defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith. He had a solid sophomore year with 43 tackles, seven for losses, and three sacks. Considered an NFL-caliber talent, he'll be counted on for more as the only returning starter in the Bulldogs' front four.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Louisiana Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett. He struggled last season with Georgia Tech, but still has significant experience against top competition. Bennett started against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl after the 2006 season and passed for 326 yards. He has graduated and has immediate eligibility with the Bulldogs because he is following a Masters degree track in a subject not offered by Georgia Tech.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: San Jose State cornerback Coye Francies. Once a junior college All-American and then a starter at Oregon State in 2006, Francies will upgrade San Jose State's secondary. Last season he sat out as a redshirt after transferring from Oregon State and distinguished himself on the scout team. He also will help on kick returns.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Utah State's Trent Guy. In terms of talent and facilities, Guy hasn't had much to work with. Still, six wins in three seasons isn't conducive to job security - not even in Logan, Utah. Last season, the Aggies managed only two victories and lost fourth-quarter leads against UNLV, Wyoming and San Jose State. Another dismal season might be the last straw for athletic director Scott Barnes, who didn't hire Guy.

Mountain West
4. Hawaii [Team Preview]
7. San Jose State [Team Preview]
8. Utah State [Team Preview]
9. Idaho [Team Preview]
BEST COACHING STAFF: Flip a coin between Boise State and Fresno State. Heads it's Boise. Chris Petersen is 23-3 in two seasons in Boise, and that includes the '07 Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin is respected and on the fast track.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Boise State's Harsin. In two seasons with Harsin as coordinator, Boise State has averaged more than 420 yards and more than 39 points. And that's with two different quarterbacks.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Boise State's Justin Wilcox. Entering his third season as Boise State's coordinator, Wilcox already has made a significant splash. His unit led the WAC in total defense and scoring defense in each of the past two seasons, and the Broncos ranked 14th nationally in total defense in 2006.

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Boise State's Harsin. Peterson has been mentioned as a candidate for higher-profile jobs in each of the past two offseasons. If he's lured away after the season, Harsin could be promoted.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Fresno State at Boise State, Nov. 28. Although both teams have some high-profile non-conference opponents, the regular-season finale figures to be for the WAC championship. A BCS bowl bid could be on the line, too.

Fresno State at Rutgers, Sept. 1
Texas Tech at Nevada, Sept. 6
Hawaii at Oregon State, Sept. 13
Wisconsin at Fresno State, Sept. 13
Boise State at Oregon, Sept. 20
Fresno State at UCLA, Sept. 27
Hawaii at Fresno State, Oct. 4
Nevada at Fresno State, Nov. 7
Boise State at Nevada, Nov. 22
Fresno State at Boise State, Nov. 28
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Fresno State. Coach Pat Hill is willing to play anyone anywhere, and the Bulldogs certainly are backing up that claim this season. When Kansas State opted out of a game, Fresno responded by scheduling a matchup with Rutgers. Wisconsin, UCLA and Toledo also are on the non-conference schedule. Fresno also goes on the road for a showdown with Boise State.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: San Jose State. No WAC schedule is really easy. WAC schools play high-profile opponents to fund their programs. By comparison, though, San Jose State's schedule isn't as treacherous as most. The Spartans' toughest non-conference opponent projects to be Nebraska, which is coming off an abysmal '07 season. In fact, none of San Jose State's four non-conference opponents posted winning records last season and were a combined 18-29. In WAC play, San Jose State has to travel to Hawaii, but at least has an open date the following week. And the Spartans are at home against Fresno State and Boise State.

WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Idaho. Again, this is relative, but the least challenging would appear to be Idaho's. The Vandals face Arizona, Western Michigan and San Diego State, who were a combined 14-22 last season. They also play Division I-AA Idaho State, which went 3-8 in '07. Then again, Idaho was 1-11 last season, so no schedule can really be called weak.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: Hawaii at Florida, Aug. 30. The last time Hawaii faced a Southeastern Conference opponent well, it didn't go so well. The Warriors were blasted by Georgia 41-10 in the Sugar Bowl and that was with Brennan and four receivers who had at least 60 catches in '07. Brennan and those receivers are gone, and this game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. in Gainesville. That's 6:30 a.m. Hawaii time. And it's quite humid in Florida at that time of the day in late August.

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Nevada. Although Nevada's victory total has dropped from nine to eight to six, the Wolf Pack figure to hit an upward trend again. Five of Nevada's seven losses in '07 were by touchdown or less. That includes a four-overtime loss to Boise State and a two-point loss to Hawaii on a final-play field goal. Eight offensive starters are back, including sophomore quarterback Colin Kaepernick and senior running back Luke Lippincott.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Hawaii. The Warriors don't have anywhere to go but down. The defending WAC champion lost its quarterback, its four leading receivers and its coach. The defense is expected to be better, but banking on a defense that allowed at least 30 points five times last season doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

IN THREE YEARS, BOISE STATE WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: Boise has been a model of consistency since 1999. The Broncos have posted at least 10 victories in seven seasons in that span and never won fewer than eight. That doesn't figure to change. The Broncos' past two recruiting classes were the best in the WAC.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Chase Holbrook, New Mexico State
RB Ian Johnson, Boise State
RB Luke Lippincott, Nevada
WR Kevin Jurovich, San Jose State
WR Chris Williams, New Mexico State
TE Bear Pascoe, Fresno State
T John Bender, Nevada
G Cole Popovich, Fresno State
C Dominic Green, Nevada
G Andrew Woodruff, Boise State
T Bobby Lepori, Fresno State
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Jarron Gilbert, San Jose State
T Jon Monga, Fresno State
T D'Anthony Smith, Louisiana Tech
E David Veikune, Hawaii
LB Solomon Elimimian, Hawaii
LB Quin Harris, Louisiana Tech
LB Adam Leonard, Hawaii
CB Christopher Owens, San Jose State
CB Kyle Wilson, Boise State
SS Shiloh Keo, Idaho
FS Antonio Baker, Louisiana Tech
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Daniel Kelly, Hawaii
P Chris Keagle, Louisiana Tech
KR A.J. Jefferson, Fresno State

MORE: 2008 Western Athletic Conference Unit Rankings

Olin Buchanan is a senior national football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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