Before most teams in the country kick off their seasons, Boise State - and the WAC - will know where it fits in the BCS picture.
The Broncos open with Oregon on Thursday, Sept. 3. That is the only game this season for the Broncos against a major-conference foe, and it could be the only one against a ranked team. A victory would make Boise State the front-runner for an at-large BCS bid. A loss could signal to Nevada and others that a WAC championship might not be out of reach.
Other than Hawaii's undefeated run to the WAC title in 2007, the other seven teams in the conference have done little to dispel the notion the WAC is a one-team league of late. Boise State is 23-1 in WAC games under fourth-year coach Chris Petersen, and all but four of those wins came by double digits.
The possible usurpers include Nevada, a team with three 1,000-yard rushers on the roster, upstart Louisiana Tech and Fresno State - whose days with Pat Hill as coach could be coming to a close after a disappointing 7-6 season.
The rest of the conference is trying to catch up. A year after experiencing wholesale turnover at the offensive skill positions, Hawaii looks to be in rebuilding mode again as it tries to replace almost its entire starting defense. San Jose State is looking for an offense to match its attacking defense. Idaho needs some playmakers to emerge. League doormats Utah State and New Mexico State hope new coaches will make them competitive.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, a junior, is the centerpiece of Nevada's "pistol" offense and leads a team that looks to be the biggest threat to Boise State's hunt for a sixth WAC title in seven seasons. In 2008, he became only the fifth quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season. He rushed for more than 100 yards in four games last season, including 240 against UNLV. If he's going to lead Nevada to the conference title, he'll need to improve on the 19-of-50 passing day he had against Boise State last season.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State CB Kyle Wilson. Wilson could have entered the NFL draft after last season, but instead he stayed in school for another run at a BCS game. Wilson, a senior from Piscataway, N.J., is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. He had five interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season. He also returned three punts for touchdowns.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: San Jose State QB Kyle Reed. The Spartans' offense is in desperate need of improvement. The running game has struggled mightily, but Reed must produce, too. Reed was considered one of the nation's top five dual-threat quarterbacks when he signed with California as part of the 2004 recruiting class. But he left Cal after the 2006 season, sat out '07 and passed for 1,563 yards and nine touchdowns last season while fighting through a groin injury. With the return of 1,000-yard receiver Kevin Jurovich, the arrival of offensive coordinator Terry Malley and pressure from junior quarterback Jordan La Secla, the time is now for Reed.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER(S) ON THE SPOT: Boise State's linebackers. Derrell Acrey is the Broncos' only returning starter at linebacker, and his job isn't secure. The biggest obstacles to an undefeated season for the Broncos are home games against Oregon and Nevada, two teams with dominant ground games. The linebackers need to be ready.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Fresno State QB Ryan Colburn (or whoever wins the starting job). Tom Brandstater wasn't a star quarterback, but he was good enough to handle the starting job for three seasons. The Bulldogs could use a veteran like that this season. As it stands, Colburn, a junior, is battling true freshman Derek Carr and redshirt freshman Ebahn Feathers for the job. Carr has the added pressure of being the brother of former Bulldogs star David Carr - the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL draft. A solid quarterback could be the difference between Fresno having a mediocre season and competing for the league title.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Nevada WR Chris Wellington. Colin Kaepernick needs a new target in the passing game after the departures of Marko Mitchell and Mike McCoy. Wellington is the only proven receiver returning to the team; he had 42 catches for 632 yards last season.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Boise State LB Hunter White. The Broncos are starving for a difference-maker at linebacker. White, a small (5 feet 11/215 pounds) but speedy sophomore, might be the one. He had an outstanding spring, beating out returning starter Derrell Acrey at middle linebacker.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: San Jose State RB Lamon Muldrow. The Spartans can trace their offensive troubles (18.7 points per game) to the lack of a ground game. In each of the past two seasons, they have failed to average even 90 yards per game. Can Muldrow change that? He rushed for 44 touchdowns in two seasons in junior college.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Boise State S/LB Winston Venable. The Broncos moved to a 4-2-5 defense midway through last season to counter the WAC's spread offenses. They decided to stick with it this year. Venable, a junior college transfer, will take over the linebacker/safety hybrid spot on a full-time basis if he beats out converted running back Doug Martin.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: New Mexico State WR Marcus Anderson. Anderson's name appeared on a couple of preseason All-WAC teams, but his production (617 yards, nine touchdowns) could take a hit this season. He moves into the No. 1 receiver spot, but the departures of coach Hal Mumme and quarterback Chase Holbrook mean a return to a more conventional, balanced offense for the Aggies - and a drop in production for Anderson.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Utah State QB Diondre Borel. Colin Kaepernick and Borel were two of the seven quarterbacks to lead their teams in rushing last season. That list also has Florida's Tim Tebow, Texas' Colt McCoy, USF's Matt Grothe, Illinois' Juice Williams and UAB's Joe Webb. After starting nine games as a sophomore, Borel should be able to improve his numbers (632 rushing yards, five rushing TDs, 1,705 passing yards, 11 TD passes, 10 interceptions, 56.2 percent passing) in his first full season as a starter.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Idaho's Robb Akey. Idaho is one of the most difficult jobs in the country, so Akey deserves something of a pass. Still, he's 3-21 in two seasons. Fellow WAC bottom-feeders New Mexico State and Utah State hired big-name coordinators as their new coaches in the offseason. Will Idaho officials feel the pressure to change coaches if the team struggles again?
BEST COACHING STAFF: Boise State. The school has been a launching pad for several coaches' careers - Houston Nutt, Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins - but the staff under Chris Petersen might be the best of them all. The Broncos are 35-4 in three seasons under Petersen, including two undefeated regular seasons. The staff has had remarkable stability. Only one assistant on this season's staff wasn't a part of the staff in some capacity in 2006, when the Broncos went undefeated. They have a formula for winning big at Boise State, and this group hasn't strayed.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Boise State's Bryan Harsin. Harsin, 32, did a great job last season when he oversaw an offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Moore. The Broncos moved away from an offense centered on running back Ian Johnson to one that spread the ball around in both the passing and running games.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Boise State's Justin Wilcox. He's another 32-year-old coordinator for the Broncos, and he has a résumé as impressive as Harsin's. The Broncos have led the WAC in total defense and scoring defense in each of Wilcox's three seasons. With an outstanding secondary and a young but stout line, this season's unit could be his best defense in Boise.
1. Oregon at Boise State, Sept. 3
2. Nevada at Notre Dame, Sept. 5
3. Louisiana Tech at Auburn, Sept. 5
4. Fresno State at Wisconsin, Sept. 12
5. Missouri at Nevada, Sept. 25
6. Fresno State at Cincinnati, Sept. 26
7. Louisiana Tech at Nevada, Oct. 9
8. Boise State at Tulsa, Oct. 14
9. Fresno State at Nevada, Nov. 14
10. Nevada at Boise State, Nov. 27
GAME OF THE YEAR: Oregon at Boise State, Sept. 3. This opener will set the tone for the Broncos' season. It's the toughest game on their schedule. Boise State won last season's meeting in Eugene 37-32, when the Ducks were down to their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Fresno State. San Jose State is the only team in the country to play two winners of BCS games, and it plays USC and Utah in the first two games of the season. As usual, though, Fresno State finds a way to have the most challenging schedule in the league. The Bulldogs face Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Illinois on the road this season. In conference, they travel to Hawaii and Nevada. Fresno State gets Boise State at home, but that is one of only five games at Bulldog Stadium this season.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Boise State. The opener against Oregon will be a make-or-break game for Boise State's BCS hopes, but the Broncos are favored by 5.5 points. That almost certainly will be the smallest point spread they see all season. They should cruise through the rest of the non-conference schedule (Miami University, at Bowling Green, UC Davis, at Tulsa). Boise State has lost just one WAC game under Petersen and outscored WAC opponents by 27.8 points in their 23 conference wins over the past three seasons.
MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: New Mexico State at Ohio State, Oct. 31. Seven of the league's nine teams face a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, but none of those games are too outrageous by today's standards. The Aggies travel across the country to Columbus on Halloween for one of the biggest mismatches of the season between FBS schools.