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February 10, 2011

Mountain West spring primer: Parting shot

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This season of transition in the Mountain West Conference is evident from the league's unusual eight-team lineup.

Goodbye, BYU and Utah. Welcome, Boise State. Let's make it a final season to remember, TCU.

The new lineup could result in a fierce one-year rivalry between Boise State and TCU, which posted a combined 25-1 record last season after facing off in bowl games in 2008 and '09.

This rivalry may have gained some intensity last month when the MWC announced the Boise State-TCU game this season would be played at Boise, even though it was originally scheduled to take place at TCU. MWC officials said they made the move because it was in the best interest of the conference. TCU announced late last year it would leave the MWC for the Big East after this season.

Of course, this isn't just a two-team league.

Air Force and San Diego State won bowl games last season. Air Force will spend the spring trying to find a new fullback, while San Diego State is adjusting to a coaching change. Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico and Wyoming are trying to bounce back from losing seasons.

Here's a look at where each MWC team stands heading into spring practice.

Practice begins: Feb. 23
End date: March 16 (no spring game)
The buzz: Air Force must find a new No. 1 fullback now that Jared Tew and Nathan Walker have graduated. Tew rushed for 1,569 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two years despite missing much of the 2010 season with a broken leg. Walker ran for 470 yards and six touchdowns last season to help give Air Force the nation's second-ranked rushing attack. Linebacker is the biggest spring question mark defensively.
Practice begins: March 7
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: Boise State must adjust to the loss of offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who accepted the same position at Texas. There shouldn't be too much of a transition period because the new offensive coordinator is Brent Pease, who worked as the Broncos receivers coach last year and returned to Boise after spending about a week as Indiana's offensive coordinator. New receivers coach Robert Prince must find replacements for Austin Pettis and Titus Young, who each caught 71 passes last season. A revamped secondary will get most of the spring attention on defense.
Practice begins: March 24
Spring game: April 23
The buzz: Colorado State needs to sort out the safety position now that Elijah-Blu Smith is moving from free safety to his natural position of cornerback. The Rams also have competition at strong safety, as incumbent starter Ivory Herd faces competition from sophomore Ezra Thompson, redshirt freshman Austin Gray and Drew Reilly, a 21-year-old returning from a Mormon mission. True freshmen Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis also will compete for playing time at safety once they arrive on campus. The Rams also need to rebuild their defensive interior after the loss of both starting tackles.
Practice begins: March 22
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: New Mexico will try to figure out how Division I transfers Deon Long (West Virginia) and Lamaar Thomas (Ohio State) fit in at receiver and determine whether junior college transfers Destry Berry and Deshon Marman can compete for immediate playing time in the secondary. New Mexico also will have a quarterback competition that includes sophomores Tarean Austin and Stump Godfrey plus true freshman Dustin Walton, an early enrollee who threw for threw for 89 career touchdowns and more than 8,000 yards at Raton (N.M.) High.
Practice begins: Feb. 26
Final practice: March 24
The buzz: San Diego State must adjust to a new coaching staff, though the transition could prove relatively smooth. San Diego State promoted defensive coordinator Rocky Long after Michigan hired away coach Brady Hoke. Former California offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has come aboard as the replacement for Al Borges, who followed Hoke to Michigan. The new staff figures to utilize the same pro-style offense and 3-3-5 defense that helped San Diego State earn its first bowl bid since 1998 last season. The receiving corps has to be rebuilt, and defensive end could prove to be a troublesome spot.
Practice begins: March 5
Spring game: April 7
The buzz: TCU is seeking a quarterback to replace two-time MWC offensive player of the year Andy Dalton, who set almost every school passing record during a career in which he posted a 42-7 record as a starter. Sophomore Casey Pachall is the front-runner after backing up Dalton last season, but he must hold off a challenge from redshirt freshman Matt Brown. TCU also must replace Thorpe Award finalist Tejay Johnson, Colin Jones and Alex Ibiloye at safety.
Practice begins: Feb. 28
Spring game: April 2
The buzz: UNLV begins the competition to see who will replace Omar Clayton, who started the most games of any quarterback in school history. Contenders for the job include sophomore Caleb Herring, junior college transfer Sean Reilly and sophomore Taylor Barnhill. The two most likely contenders are Herring and Reilly. Herring backed up Clayton last season and went 28-of-56 for 365 yards with four touchdown passes and three interceptions, but he also is more of a spread quarterback who was recruited by former coach Mike Sanford's staff. UNLV has since shifted to more of a pro-style attack, and Reilly is more of a drop-back passer recruited by the current staff. After throwing for 2,425 yards and 26 touchdowns with six interceptions last fall at Saddleback College, Reilly enrolled at UNLV in time to participate in spring practice. Rebuilding the linebacker corps is the top priority on defense.
Practice begins: March 5
Spring scrimmage: April 9
The buzz: Wyoming must find a new quarterback following the surprising transfer of Austyn Carta-Samuels. The Cowboys don't have any experienced candidates. Redshirt freshman Emory Miller is the only returning scholarship quarterback, but true freshman Brett Smith already has enrolled and will be able to participate in spring practice. Spring practice should allow Miller and Smith to get a head start over true freshman Adam Pittser, who will arrive on campus this summer. Coaches also need to find a go-to receiver and rebuild the secondary, which lost three starters.

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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