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January 19, 2011

MWC: Deserving of a better fate

MORE NON-BIG SIX BREAKDOWNS: C-USA | MAC | Sun Belt | WAC

The Mountain West Conference perhaps deserves a better fate.

If realignment had gone just a little bit differently, the MWC could have been on the verge of earning an automatic BCS bid. A conference lineup that featured Boise State, BYU, TCU and Utah certainly would have been BCS-worthy.

But the revolving-door nature of the MWC will prevent those four schools from ever being part of the league at the same time.

This marked the last season in the MWC for BYU and Utah. BYU has decided to seek independence in football, while Utah is part of the new Pac-12. Boise State has left the WAC to join the MWC in 2011, but TCU will leave for the Big East in 2012.

All that upheaval couldn't prevent the MWC from staging a memorable season in 2010. The Nov. 6 showdown between TCU and Utah marked the first time two MWC opponents had faced each other while ranked in the top 10. TCU went on to finish undefeated and win the Rose Bowl.

The MWC now gets one season of a TCU-Boise State rivalry before the Horned Frogs head for the Big East. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada will come over from the WAC to join the MWC in 2012.

While the MWC champion has reached a BCS game three consecutive seasons and has won its BCS contest in two of those seasons, the league won't earn more respect until it achieves more balance. The bottom four teams in the conference -- Colorado State, UNLV, Wyoming and New Mexico -- posted a combined record of 9-40 this season. Six of those nine wins came against one another.

Biggest surprise: San Diego State. The Aztecs went from 4-8 in 2009 to 9-4 with a Poinsettia Bowl title in 2010, a dramatic improvement that helped earn Brady Hoke the Michigan coaching job. Much of the credit for that resurgence belongs to a rejuvenated rushing attack. San Diego State averaged 78.3 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry last season to rank 116th nationally in rushing offense. This season, the Aztecs averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 161.3 rushing yards per game to rank 48th nationally. Ronnie Hillman, a Rivals.com second-team Freshman All-America selection, ran for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns and was the conference's leading rusher.

Biggest disappointment: Wyoming. After leading the Cowboys to a 7-6 record and a New Mexico Bowl title in his first year on the job, Wyoming coach Dave Christensen suffered a serious sophomore jinx this season. Wyoming went 3-9 and scored seven or fewer points in four of its first six games against FBS opponents. The Cowboys ranked 100th or worse in passing offense (100th), total offense (116th), scoring offense (107th) and run defense (109th). The Cowboys suffered another loss after the season when sophomore QB Austyn Carta-Samuels announced he was transferring.

Best postseason performance: TCU. The Horned Frogs capped their perfect season by knocking off Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin had averaged 67 points in its last three regular-season games, but the Badgers struggled to establish a rhythm all day against a TCU team that led the nation in total defense and scoring defense. When Wisconsin finally scored a potential tying touchdown with two minutes remaining, LB Tank Carder batted away Scott Tolzien's two-point conversion pass attempt to preserve the Horned Frogs' victory.

Worst postseason performance: Utah. In their last game as a Mountain West member, the Utes suffered the conference's only bowl loss by falling 26-3 to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. Utah committed three turnovers and didn't take full advantage of Boise State's four giveaways. Joe Phillips, the Utes' normally reliable kicker, went 1-of-3 on field-goal attempts. Of course, this result still was good news for the conference's future, since Utah is becoming part of the Pac-12 next season while Boise State moves in from the WAC.

Underclassmen leaving early: Utah CB Brandon Burton, Utah DT Sealver Siliga.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Boise State WR Tyler Shoemaker. Now that Austin Pettis and Titus Young have completed their eligibility, Shoemaker should emerge as Kellen Moore's new favorite target. Shoemaker caught 32 passes for 582 yards and five touchdowns this season. He produced 100-yard efforts in back-to-back games against Hawaii and Louisiana Tech, and he caught five passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game. He could develop into a 1,000-yard receiver as a senior.

Next season's breakout defensive players: TCU S Jonathan Anderson and DE Matt Anderson. The two Andersons aren't related, but each should make a name for himself this fall. Matt Anderson is a former high school running back who earned playing time as a true freshman in 2010. Jonathan Anderson redshirted, but he's a physical defender who can step in at either safety position as the Horned Frogs try to replace Tejay Johnson and Colin Jones. Every season, TCU has to fill major defensive holes but still ends up ranking among the NCAA leaders in just about every defensive category. The Andersons should help the Frogs continue that tradition in 2011.

Player most on the spot: TCU QB Casey Pachall. He's the front-runner to replace four-year starter Andy Dalton at quarterback, though Pachall first must hold off a challenge from Matt Brown. Dalton ended his career as TCU's career leader in completion percentage, touchdown passes, passing yards and completions. He also won 42 games as a starter. Pachall played well in 2010 as a backup -- going 6-of-9 through the air and averaging 6.3 yards per carry -- but the Horned Frogs will miss Dalton's experience and leadership.

Next season's conference champion: Boise State. This should be a great race. TCU has proved time and time again during the Gary Patterson era that it can withstand significant graduation losses and continue to win at least 10 games. But it's hard to ignore that Boise State will have one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Moore while TCU breaks in a first-year starter at that position.

National title contenders: Boise State and TCU. TCU went undefeated and Boise State lost just once in 2010, but neither team should be quite as strong in 2011. TCU lost loads of talent on both sides of the ball and has a new quarterback, while Moore will be throwing to a new group of receivers at Boise State. But these programs have shown they're consistent BCS threats. While neither is likely to play for the national title in 2011, both should be ranked all season, and the conference winner has an excellent chance to earn a BCS bid for the fourth consecutive season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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