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August 12, 2008

Cougars lead the way in Mountain West

MORE: 2008 Mountain West Conference Preview

You don't have to study the Mountain West Conference unit rankings too closely to get a good idea about the league's two factions. BYU, Utah and TCU sit atop the conference. And then there's everyone else.

BYU, Utah or TCU is atop the rankings at every position. In fact, BYU may have separated itself from its two closest rivals. The Cougars are atop every offensive ranking and also enter the season with the league's top defensive line.

The offensive backfield ratings reflect that many Mountain West teams have stockpiled plenty of talented running backs. Those backs should find plenty of running room because the majority of teams in the league are returning veteran offensive lines.

Air Force's low rankings in the offensive backfield and at wide receiver show the tough challenge facing the Falcons as they try to replace quarterback Shaun Carney and all-purpose threat Chad Hall. Then again, Air Force's track record suggests that some heretofore unknown player will step up and try to make our rankings look foolish by the end of the season.

Here are our Mountain West Conference unit rankings entering the 2008 season:

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
1. BYU
Max Hall earned first-team all-conference honors after throwing for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. Harvey Unga set a conference record with 1,840 all-purpose yards last season as a freshman.
2. UTAH
When he's healthy, Brian Johnson is one of the top 20 quarterbacks in the country. Darrell Mack gained 1,204 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season, making him the MWC's top returning rusher.
3. NEW MEXICO
Donovan Porterie threw for 3,006 yards last season, the highest total by a New Mexico quarterback since 1994. Rodney Ferguson has rushed for 2,411 yards over the past two seasons.
4. TCU
Andy Dalton gives the Frogs a nice two-way threat as long as he can avoid interceptions. The Frogs also have a solid tailback tandem with Aaron Brown and Joseph Turner.
5. WYOMING
After a promising freshman season, Karsten Sween took a major step backward last year and threw 17 interceptions. He does have a couple of good running backs in Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon.
6. UNLV
Omar Clayton, who threw five interceptions and four touchdown passes last year, is the clear starter now that Travis Dixon has moved to safety. Frank Summers, known as "The Tank," might be the toughest Mountain West runner to bring down.
7. COLORADO STATE
Billy Farris will have a difficult time replacing Caleb Hanie, who led the MWC in passing efficiency last year. The Rams will be solid at running back if Kyle Bell returns to his 2005 form after two consecutive injury-riddled seasons. Bell now splits carries with Gartrell Johnson III, who gained 957 yards in 2007.
8. AIRFORCE
Air Force doesn't have any experienced candidates to replace quarterback Shaun Carney. The Falcons also don't have many experienced running backs, though their track record suggests they'll find someone to carry the load effectively.
9. SAN DIEGO STATE
Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley is the likely candidate for one of the toughest jobs in the conference filling the shoes of quarterback Kevin O'Connell. The top returning rusher is Brandon Sullivan, who gained 220 yards last year.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT END
1. BYU
Austin Collie caught a league-high seven touchdown passes last season and had 946 receiving yards, more than any returning player in the conference. BYU also boasts one of the nation's best tight ends in Dennis Pitta, who caught 59 passes a year ago.
2. UNLV
Ryan Wolfe and Casey Flair combined to catch 120 passes for 1,406 yards last season. Wolfe led all returning receivers in the MWC with 66 receptions in '07.
3. UTAH
Brandon Godfrey is back after catching 50 passes last season. The Utes also should get a boost from the return of Brent Casteel, who caught 39 passes two seasons ago before hurting his knee last season.
4. TCU
The Frogs are expecting big things from tight end Shae Reagan, who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch last season. Walter Bryant and Jimmy Young each caught at least 23 passes in '07.
5. SAN DIEGO STATE
Vincent Brown and Darren Mougey each caught at least 30 passes last season and should help the Aztecs withstand the losses of seventh-round draft picks Brett Swain and Chaz Schilens.
6. COLORADO STATE
The Rams should get a huge lift from the return of tight end Kory Sperry, who missed most of 2007 after catching a combined 78 passes in 2005 and 2006. Sperry will need to deliver a big season because Colorado State lost its top three receivers.
7. WYOMING
The Cowboys lost three of their top four receivers, but they do return Greg Bolling, who caught 35 passes for 375 yards a year ago. The Cowboys are crossing their fingers about Chris Sundberg, a tight end who has battled injuries the past two seasons.
8. NEW MEXICO
Roland Bruno caught 21 passes last season, but no other returning wide receiver had more than 12 catches. The Lobos must replace Marcus Smith and Travis Brown, who combined for 167 catches and 2,156 yards in '07.
9. AIR FORCE
The Falcons get a boost here from the return of tight end Travis Dekker, who had 25 catches for 382 yards last season. Air Force will have a hard time replacing Chad Hall, a third-team Rivals.com All-America.

OFFENSIVE LINE
1. BYU
First-team All-MWC selections Dallas Reynolds and Ray Feinga lead a line that features four returning starters.
2. UTAH
Second-team All-MWC selections Zane Beadles at tackle and Robert Conley at guard headline a group that returns four starters.
3. TCU
The Frogs return four starters on the line, including second-team All-MWC selection Blake Schlueter at center.
4. AIR FORCE
The Falcons return Keith Williams and second-team All-MWC pick Nick Charles on the left side of a line that helped Air Force rank second in the nation in rushing last season.
5. WYOMING
The good news: Wyoming returns all its starters on the line. The bad news: Those same guys gave up 30 sacks last season (UNLV and Colorado State were the only teams in the league to allow more).
6. COLORADO STATE
Four starters return from a line that helped the Rams rank third in the MWC in rushing last season. Then again, the Rams also allowed a league-high 37 sacks.
7. UNLV
The Rebels return four starters on the line, but they're going to need better production from this unit. UNLV allowed 32 sacks and averaged 3.9 yards per carry last season.
8. NEW MEXICO
Versatile center Erik Cook, who has played every position on the line, is the Lobos' only returning starter. This is an inexperienced group, with just 15 combined career starts.
9. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs could open the season with redshirt freshmen starting at both tackle spots and at center.

DEFENSIVE LINE
1. BYU
Jan Jorgensen recorded a league-high 13.5 sacks last year and ranked fifth in the nation in sacks per game. Ian Dulan also returns from a line that didn't allow a single 100-yard rusher last season. Plus, standout tackle Russell Tialavea is back after missing last season with a knee injury.
2. TCU
The Frogs lose standout defensive ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz, but they get back nose tackle James Vess from a year-long suspension. Vess and Cody Moore could make it tough for anyone to run on TCU.
3. WYOMING
Second-team All-MWC tackle John Fletcher and Fred Givens lead a line that helped the Cowboys rank 27th in the nation against the run last season.
4. UTAH
Koa Misi and Paul Kruger combined for 15.5 tackles for loss last season, but the Utes could struggle to replace end Martail Burnett.
5. AIR FORCE
Ben Garland and Ryan Kemp return at end after combining for seven sacks last season. The Falcons could move up this list if nose tackle Jared Marvin recovers from a knee injury that knocked him out of spring practice.
6. NEW MEXICO
Nose tackle Wesley Beck is the only returning starter from a line that helped the Lobos rank third in the league in run defense last season. The Lobos must upgrade their pass rush after ranking eighth in the MWC in sacks a year ago.
7. UNLV
Malo Taumua and Jacob Hales return at tackle and will attempt to upgrade a line that gave up more than 4.5 yards per carry last season.
8. COLORADO STATE
Tommie Hill is back after leading the team with 5.5 sacks, but he's the only returning starter on a line that allowed nearly 5 yards per carry last year. The Rams will need Hill at full strength after he injured his shoulder during spring practice.
9. SAN DIEGO STATE
UAB was the only team in the country with a worse run defense last year than the Aztecs, who gave up 5.3 yards per carry and 241.5 rushing yards per game. The Aztecs also recorded a league-low 15 sacks.

LINEBACKERS
1. TCU
Jason Phillips is the best linebacker in the conference and has earned All-MWC honors in each of the past three seasons. Phillips should get plenty of help from senior Robert Henson and promising junior Daryl Washington.
2. WYOMING
Ward Dobbs recorded 98 tackles last season and leads a talented group that also returns Mike Juergens.
3. BYU
The Cougars are counting on a big season from David Nixon. He is the only returning starter in a linebacking corps that loses Bryan Kehl and Kelly Poppinga, who combined for 204 tackles a year ago.
4. UTAH
Stevenson Sylvester returns after ranking second on the team with 86 tackles 10 for loss last season. The Utes otherwise lack experience at this spot.
5. COLORADO STATE
The Rams have plenty of experience with all three starters returning. Now they just need more production after ranking eighth in the league run defense, total defense and scoring defense last season.
6. SAN DIEGO STATE
The return of Russell Allen, Luke Laolagi and Andrew Preston make this the strongest area of the Aztecs' defense. Then again, that's not saying much, considering San Diego State ranked last in the league in every major defensive category last season.
7. NEW MEXICO
Although the Lobos must replace all three starters from last season, Zach Arnett and Herbert Felder combined for 95 tackles in reserve roles a year ago.
8. AIR FORCE
Hunter Altman will have to step up this fall to help the Falcons absorb the losses of Jon Rabold and Drew Fowler, who combined for 193 tackles last season.
9. UNLV
The Rebels will sorely miss 2007 MWC defensive player of the year Beau Bell, though the return of Starr Fuimaono should soften the blow.

SECONDARY
1. UTAH
Cornerbacks Brice McCain and R.J. Stanford and free safety Robert Johnson return from a secondary that helped the Utes lead the nation in pass efficiency defense last year. Utah had 17 interceptions and allowed only nine touchdown passes last season.
2. TCU
The Horned Frogs welcome back third-year starters Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders at cornerback plus second-team all-conference safety Stephen Hodge. The Frogs ranked 11th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season.
3. NEW MEXICO
First-team all-conference corner DeAndre Wright leads a veteran secondary that returns five starters (the Lobos run a 3-3-5 set). New Mexico's final two opponents last season went 28-for-71 with two interceptions and no touchdown passes.
4. BYU
This area represents the biggest concern for BYU, which will have four new starters in the secondary. The Cougars have plenty of talent here, but inexperience is a major worry.
5. WYOMING
Michael Ray and Quincy Rogers provide experience at safety, but the Cowboys have two new starting cornerbacks. San Diego State was the only team in the league to allow more touchdown passes last season.
6. AIR FORCE
Strong safety Chris Thomas is back after making 110 tackles last season, but the Falcons must break in new starters at the other three secondary spots.
7. SAN DIEGO STATE
Strong safety Chris Thomas is back after making 110 tackles last season, but the Falcons must break in new starters at the other three secondary spots.
8. UNLV
The Rebels need a big season from cornerback Quinton Pointer, the only returning starter in the secondary. UNLV moved Travis Dixon to safety from quarterback to help shore up depth problems.
9. COLORADO STATE
Safeties Jake Galusha and Mike Pagnotta anchor a secondary that has two first-year starters at cornerback. That might not be a bad thing, considering the Rams ranked eighth in the league in pass efficiency defense last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. UTAH
The Utes will miss departed punt returner Derrek Richards, but Louie Sakoda gives them arguably the best combination kicker-punter in the nation.
2. AIR FORCE
Ryan Harrison went 19 of 27 on field-goal attempts including 3-for-4 from at least 50 yards and averaged 42.9 yards per punt last season. The Falcons must find a new return man to replace Chad Hall.
3. COLORADO STATE
Jason Smith is back after going 16 of 20 on field-goal attempts last season, but the Rams must find a new punter. Dion Morton was the MWC's leading kick returner last season.
4. BYU
Mitch Payne went 10-for-14 on field-goal attempts last season, but he was only 1-for-4 from at least 40 yards. C.J. Santiago averaged 39.7 yards per punt last season.
5. TCU
The Horned Frogs could have a hard time trying to replace Chris Manfredini at kicker and Derek Wash at punter.
6. WYOMING
The departure of Billy Vinnedge leaves Wyoming with holes at kicker and punter. Jake Scott gets a chance to regain the kicking job after going 2-for-4 on field-goal attempts two years ago.
7. NEW MEXICO
James Aho, who arrived on campus as a walk-on, now must replace John Sullivan - who led the nation with 29 field goals last season. The Lobos also will have a new punter.
8. UNLV
UNLV has a new kicker and punter, though Frankie Solomon and DeAndre Wright give the Rebels experienced return men.
9. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs are breaking in a new kicker and punter. Mekell Wesley averaged 21.8 yards per kickoff return last season and returned one for a touchdown.

COACHING STAFF
1. BYU
Bronco Mendenhall has returned the Cougars to the status they enjoyed in the glory years of the 1980s under LaVell Edwards. All he has left to accomplish is a BCS bid.
2. TCU
Gary Patterson loves to beat up on Big 12 programs. The Frogs upset Oklahoma in 2005, upended Texas Tech in 2006 and beat Baylor each of the past two seasons. It makes you wonder why a Big 12 team hasn't hired him yet.
3. UTAH
Urban Meyer isn't around anymore, but Kyle Whittingham learned from him and has continued the winning ways his former boss started.
4. NEW MEXICO
Rocky Long quietly has made New Mexico a program that earns a bowl bid just about every season.
5. AIR FORCE
What can Troy Calhoun do for an encore after leading the Falcons to a surprising 9-4 record last season?
6. WYOMING
Joe Glenn needs to stop the late-season slides that have haunted the Cowboys two of the past three seasons.
7. COLORADO STATE
It's hard to argue with the track record of first-year coach Steve Fairchild, a former Colorado State assistant who served as an offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills. Fairchild already made one great move in hiring defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, who held the same position during Colorado State's glory years from 1993-2002.
8. SAN DIEGO STATE
The hiring of former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long was seen as a coup, but the ex-Heisman Trophy runner-up hasn't turned things around yet.
9. UNLV
The Rebels have gone 6-29 in three years under Mike Sanford, who will feel more heat if the team doesn't make progress this season.

MORE: 2008 Mountain West Conference Preview

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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