by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After a wild few seasons of subtractions and additions to its membership ranks, the Mountain West has temporarily settled upon a 12-team football configuration for 2013 with the additions of WAC refugees San Jose State and Utah State to the mix. Which has prompted the league to be split into two divisions, aptly labeled "Mountain" and "West" (don't accuse the MWC and Commisisoner Craig Thompson of lacking creativty!). Of course, the decisions of Boise State and San Diego State last December to abandon their ill-conceived dreams of the "big time" with the Big East and stay in the MWC were not wholly unexpected by anyone with connected sources in the region.

As for the future, don't think the Mountain West is finished shiuffling its deck. Word from regional insiders is that UTEP continues to knock on the door as it looks to reunite with some of its former comrades from its days in the old WAC, and rumors continue to float in the region that BYU might decide to re-enlist as it ponders its independent status with the forthcoming changes to the BCS. As always, stay tuned throughout the fall for further developments.

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In the meantime, we present our 2013 MWC preview, broken up by divisions and in predicted order of finish. Straight-up and pointspread records for each entry from 2012 are included. With 12 members and two divisions, the league is also going to conduct a championship game at the end of the season, to be held at the home of the division winner with the best record.


With the thought of trips to places like Memphis, Tulane, and South Florida hardly quickening the pulse, Boise State (SUR 11-2; PSR 6-7) surprised no one by making an about-face on its previous decision to enlist on the football side with the Big East after last season. Good idea, as the Big East isn’t even the Big East anymore, at least on the football side, where sorts such as the aforementioned trio, Louisville (for one more season), UConn, Cincinnati, Temple, and a few other Conference USA refugees make up what is now called the American Athletic Conference. And with any anticipated big-money conference TV deal evaporating and changes to the BCS beginning next season further lessening the appeal of a move, the Broncos wisely decided to stay put in the Mountain West.

That said, Boise fans have had enough of qualifying for the Las Vegas Bowl three years running; wild success earlier in the past decade that included a pair of trips to BCS bowl games under HC Chris Petersen have set the bar pretty high in the land of the blue carpet. The question entering the fall is if the Broncos are up to the out-of-orbit standards they have set for themselves in recent years.

The answer for 2013? Maybe.

While Petersen doesn’t have QB worries as he did at this time a year ago, when Joe Southwick was a relatively untested jr. and succeeding the wildly-successful Kellen Moore, the 2012 Broncos were positively pedestrian compared to recent Boise editions that often posted scores that made Leon Rice’s Bronco hoopsters envious. While Boise’s 30.2 ppg from last fall sounds healthy enough, it was only good for 54th in national scoring stats, and Boise hadn’t ranked as low in total offense (68th nationally) in this millennium. Sensing the offense needed a tune-up, Petersen steamlined the playbook in spring in hopes of taking advantage of Southwick’s accuracy (67% completions last fall in his first campaign as a starter) with more timing patterns and short three-and-five step drops that should also make things a bit easier for a partially rebuilt OL that most believe could eventually become a strength with a couple of All-MWC anchors in C Matt Paradis & LT Charles (Jay) Leno, Jr.

Supporting weaponry appears ample, with four of last year’s top five rushers and six of the top eight receivers from 2012 back in the fold. New featured RB Jay Ajayi displayed plenty of pop when gaining 6.7 ypc while spelling the graduated D.J. Harper in 2012, while rangy, 6'3 jr. wideout Matt Miller (66 catches LY) might be one of the Mountain’s best. It’s getting late in his career, but many in the region also believe that sr. Dutch import homerun WR Geraldo Boldewijn has a breakout season within him.

How things have also changed on the blue carpet lately is reflected in the fact that the Bronco defense has actually been the featured platoon in recent years, and Boise again ranked among the national leaders in scoring (15.8 ppg; 8th) and total (316 pyg; 12th) defense in 2012. In addition, that opportunistic stop unit contributed mightily to a +20 TO margin, second best in the nation. But more reloading is required than normal in 2013.

Playmakers have abounded on recent Boise defenses, and it is expected that former juco DE Demarcus Lawrence (9.5 sacks last fall) is about to emerge as the next dominator. Along with cat-quick soph DE Sam Okwuachu and surprisingly nimble 303-lb. sr. NG Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, Boise has plenty of potential disruptors up front after recording 38 sacks (good for 11th nationally) a year ago. Intense pressure from the defensive front helped contribute to the nation’s fifth-rated pass defense a year ago, but Petersen is breaking in a pair of new corners, including jr. Bryan Douglas, who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL.

Speaking of breaking in newcomers, Petersen was conducting auditions in spring at both PK and punter. Shrewd Broncos fans are paying attention, as the graduated Michael Frisina (15-20 FGs in 2012) at least provided a serviceable presence on field goals last season after faulty place-kicking had haunted Boise in key games during 2010 & ‘11.

As usual, Boise looks a threat to run the table and could once more emerge as a peripheral BCS threat, especially considering that Petersen’s last four editions that featured a returning starter at QB (three of those including Kellen Moore) lost a total of two games. The schedule could prove a problem, however, with most of the key battles on the road, including the opener at revenge-minded Washington (beaten 28-26 by Boise in last December’s Las Vegas Bowl) and later at BYU. The toughest-looking conference games are also off of the blue carpet (at Fresno State, Utah State, and San Diego State, which won at Boise last fall).

And, speaking of the blue carpet, that old pointspread magic at home has disappeared the past two seasons, as the Broncos are only 2-10 vs. the line as host since 2011. But we’re hardly convinced the oddsmakers are about to remove some of the pointspread premium they routinely place on Boise when it plays at Bronco Stadium.

Finally, Utah State (SUR 11-2, PSR 11-2) is aligned where it always thought it should be, as it makes the jump from the WAC to the Mountain West. The “old WAC” was a target of the Utags for decades, from the origination of the league in 1962, but for decades, in-state Utah and BYU provided effective roadblocks to USU’s membership. Instead, the Ags took a roundabout path from their days in the old Skyline Conference, to independence, then a quarter-century affiliation with the PCAA/Big West, all the while hoping to get an invitation to the WAC. When the Big West abandoned its football operations, USU briefly aligned with the Sun Belt before a restructured and newer version of the WAC, shorn of many of its marquee entries who bolted to form the Mountain West in the late ‘90s, finally obliged the Utags with an invitation.

Before the “new WAC” expired as a football alliance, however, USU was able to finally parachute safely into the Mountain West, which no longer counted Aggie antagonists Utah and BYU in the mix. Now, the Utags carry the banner for the Beehive State in the loop.

And it looks as if USU picked a good time to make the jump to the MWC, even if it came on the heels of HC Gary Andersen taking his act to Wisconsin after a wildly-successful 2012 campaign that saw the Utags just five points from an unbeaten season, exiting the WAC in style as champion of its final gridiron campaign and winning big in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl over Toledo.

The Utags promoted from within to succeed Andersen, tapping o.c. Matt Wells for the HC job with hopes of sustaining the momentum generated from two straight bowl trips and that landmark 2012 campaign. On the surface, things look promising with eight starters back from an offense that averaged close to 470 yards per game, while the defense gets back most of the key parts after finishing 14th in the nation in yards allowed and seventh in scoring.

Wisely, Wells has kept most of the schemes from the Andersen regime in place, and gets a further break with many of the key components remaining in the fold from 2012. The offense has an almost all-upperclass look led by the return en masse of a physical OL as well as exciting jr. QB Chuckie Keeton, a starter since his frosh campaign who passed for 3373 yards and 27 TDs last fall and added another 619 yards and 8 rush TDs. In fact, they’re so excited about Keeton’s presence that a modest Heisman campaign has been launched from the Cache Valley, though we doubt the message floats east of the Continental Divide.

Keeton is an exciting playmaker, though Wells has some concerns with depth at the skill positions, especially at RB where few of the candidates have much if any playing experience beyond jr. Joe Hill, who gained 269 YR and scored 7 TDs in spot duty behind Kerwynn Williams (Colts draftee), who this fall tries to become the second Utag RB in as many years to make the NFL after powerful Robert Turbin (Seahawks) made the jump last season. But at only 185 pounds, the slashing Hill might not be built for a heavy duty workload as were Turbin and Williams. Keeton is also looking for receiving targets who auditioned for playing time in spring following the departure of the top five pass catchers from the potent 2012 attack.

Defense, however, was the specialty of Andersen (Utah’s d.c. before taking the job in Logan), and his ability to upgrade the stop unit was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his four-year run in Logan. Andersen has left a platoon that, as mentioned, ranked 7th in scoring (15.4 ppg) and 14th in total defense, heady stuff for a program that had routinely featured stop units ranked in triple digits in many national stat categories.

New d.c. Todd Orlando, most recently at Florida International, is the sort of firebrand Wells believes can continue the recent tradition of rock-ribbed Aggie stop units. Orlando inherits an experienced LB crew featuring three returning starters (Kyler Fackrell, Jake Doughty, & Zach Vigil) who earned All-WAC honors in 2012. Safety Maurice Anderson, suspended in 2012, reclaimed a starting role in spring and adds another playmaker to the secondary. Orlando, however, will be challenged to match the blitz packages employed by Andersen and his d.c. Dave Aranda (also off to Wisconsin) that resulted in a whopping 42 sacks in 2012, which ranked sixth nationally. In all, seven starters return from a platoon that also led the nation in red zone defense, allowing foes to score TDs on only 29.6% of their excursions inside the 20-yard-line.

Andersen’s neatest trick, however, was preparing the Utags to physically dominate the opposition, as they did consistently en route to last season’s success when burying the majority of their foes. Indeed, in USU’s season-ending 7-game win streak, only one team (La Tech) came closer than 22 points. It will be up to Wells to sustain those gains made by the Ags in the weight room during the Andersen regime in hopes of continuing the recent momentum in what promises to be a tougher alliance than the weakened WAC from a year ago.

We’ll find out quickly if USU is ready for the jump to the Mountain and if Wells is prepared to hit the ground running as Andersen’s successor. The first half of the schedule is murderous, with four of the first five on the road, including trips to revenge-minded Utah, as well as Southern Cal, plus conference foes Air Force and San Jose State, all before September is complete. The Utags finally return to Logan for a homestand in October, but bowl winners BYU and Boise State await at Romney Stadium. If USU isn’t too beaten up by mid-October, the Ags could close fast like they did a year ago, as the slate eases up considerably down the stretch, culminating with four very winnable November dates, three of which are at home.

Let’s also see if oddsmakers begin attaching premiums to the Utags, who covered 11 of 13 a year ago. Also note USU’s 29-11 spread mark as an underdog since 2007.

Not long ago, Air Force (6-7 SU, 3-10 PSR) HC Troy Calhoun was considered a hot commodity in the coaching ranks, mentioned prominently for openings at Colorado and Tennessee in recent years and even flying across the radar of the NFL Denver Broncos before they hired John Fox in 2011. After all, Calhoun (who also has pro coaching experience on Gary Kubiak’s Houston Texans staff) recorded a 34-18 mark in his first four seasons as Falcon coach after succeeding Fisher DeBerry, whose regime lost altitude in the middle of the last decade.

Fast forward a couple of years, and while the Force hasn’t exactly fallen off the map (indeed, Calhoun’s bowl streak now includes all six of his Falcon teams), the record of 13-13 the past two seasons hasn’t had AD Hans Mueh’s phone ringing off the hook with calls of interest for his football coach, especially after a humbling 33-14 beatdown administered by Rice in the Armed Forces Bowl. Not to mention losing both games vs. Commander-in-Chief rivals Army and Navy for the first time in the Calhoun tenure.

But we've seen too many Force teams, including most of Calhoun's editions, punch above their weight to ever completely dismiss the Falcs.

The fact there is once again considerable turnover on the Air Force roster (only nine starters return) is not a real concern, since reloading on the fly is almost standard operating procedure at the Academies. But the fact that Calhoun’s recent teams have lacked the type of defensive playmakers they regularly featured a few years ago is a reason why we doubt the Falcs can progress much beyond the .500 mark and, at best, another minor bowl this fall.

The offensive formula will probably remain much the same, meaning an option-based emphasis on the rushing game that once again ranked among the nation’s leaders (2nd at a whopping 316 ypg) in 2012. But sources believe Calhoun might be paying more than lip service to his seemingly annual threat of opening up the Falcon offense to feature more passing, which was on display during spring drills.

If Calhoun opts for smallish 5’9, 175-lb. junior Kale Pearson as the successor at QB to the graduated Connor Dietz, we doubt the ground-based emphasis will change. But if Calhoun instead has strong-armed soph Jaleel Awini taking snaps, then the “air” might really be in the Force’s future. Awini is reported to be a superior thrower to recent QB Tim Jefferson, who called signals between 2008-11 and is regarded as the best Falcon passing QB in the option era that dates to Kenny Hatfield’s regime over 30 years ago.

Still, expect the infantry to be able to move the chains effectively, with homerun threats in the backfield featuring jr, Jon Lee (545 YR in 2012) and converted DB Anthony LaCoste. Senior wideout Ty McArthur, who caught a team-best 24 passes a year ago (not bad for an option offense), has deep-threat speed. Veteran OL coach Clay Hendrix has also had more daunting tasks in the past than replacing the three starters he has lost from the 2012 team.

Calhoun has also found it hard to resist the temptation to simply try to jam the ball down the throat of any unsuspecting foe that might be vexed by the option. Rewind to last year's Nevada game at Falcon Stadium, when Calhoun made up his mind early that the Wolf Pack could not stop the Air Force infantry, and the Falcs not only eschewed the pass all night, but punts as well, going for it on 4th down whenever the situations arose. Calhoun was right; Nevada never was able to stop the Force on downs as the Falcs won 48-31. The ability to dominate with that sort of rushing attack will likely trump whatever ideas Calhoun has about streamlining his option into more of a balanced look. Like it was during the days when Calhoun's predecessor and mentor DeBerry would also annually promise as much, we'll believe it when we see it.

But how Calhoun and d.c. Charlton Warner can best scheme with another undersized defense will determine how much of a nuisance the Falcs might become this fall. The Falcs had no pass rush to speak of last season (only 17 sacks to rank a poor 106th) and also surrendered nearly 200 yards per game on the ground (ranking 99th in rush “D”). After routinely forcing TOs a few years ago, that quality has almost disappeared totally from the Force equation, as the “D” was caused a mere 16 giveaways all of 2012, ranking 100th. A revamped front seven featuring an all-new LB corps will be worth watching in Warren’s version of the 3-4 that projects to have only one sr. starter and, as of spring, no starters over 265 pounds.

Calhoun’s one-time pointspread magic has also waned, especially in recent years at home where the Falcs have covered only 5 of 19 games on the board since 2010.

Calhoun would be doing well to get the Force to their seventh straight bowl on his watch; that and reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy would make this an acceptable gridiron season for Gregg Popovich’s alma mater.

For the first time in several years, there was some real coaching going on last fall at New Mexico (SUR 4-9; PSR 6-7), where former Notre Dame HC Bob Davie inherited a program that had disappeared into the abyss in the disastrous 2 1/2-season tenure of predecessor Mike Locksley, who dismantled the Lobos to the point they could only win one game in each of 2009 and 2010. Locksley has had already been dismissed by the time UNM won its only game of the 2011 campaign vs. UNLV.

But Davie, a surprise hire the preceding winter after leaving his cushy job as an ESPN analyst and the good life in Scottsdale, was able to camouflage some of those deficiencies and make the Lobos not only competitive, but fuel unexpected bowl talk by midseason when UNM was sitting at a very surprising 4-3. The Lobos faded down the stretch, losing their last six games, but were close in most of those, and indeed suffered five defeats of seven points or fewer, a far cry from the many blowouts absorbed in the preceding Locksley-influenced three seasons.

Inheriting a carcass of a program with barely 50 scholarship players, Davie and o.c. Bob DeBesse made radical changes to an offense that had stalled when using Locksley’s ineffective spread the previous three years. Instead, Davie and DeBesse employed a version of the Pistol that would emphasize the run and option elements of the attack, hoping to take advantage of a pretty good RB (Kasey Carrier, who would gain a whopping 1469 YR) while also moving the chains and clock and hopefully shortening the games enough to keep a porous defense off the field.

The strategy worked, to a degree, although for the Lobos to take the next step they are going to have to introduce some sort of balance to an attack that completed only 79 passes (more than only Army a year ago) last fall. Soph QB Cole Gautsche has limitations as a passer, which opens the possibility that juco transfer Clayton Mitchem, a true dual-threat who got a long look in spring, might emerge as the starter at some point this fall.

Still, expect the infantry to be the focus of the attack in Albuquerque, especially with four starters back along a better-than-expected OL. Besides, moving the chains and keeping the “D” off the field as much as possible still seems like a pretty good idea.

To his credit, Davie (along with d.c. Jeff Mills) actually did a pretty decent job with a stop unit that was also routinely overrun in the Locksley years. Without much talent along the defensive front, Davie switched to a 3-4 look last season and called upon all of his experience as a defensive schemer from his days at Notre Dame and Texas A&M to best utilize the only asset, some degree of speed, owned by the platoon.

Davie loses eight starters from last year’s defense but the depletion is not as severe as it might seem, as several underclassmen were able to rotate into the stop unit mix last fall. So, there’s more experience on the “D” than the depth chart might suggest. The strength of the platoon lies in a pair of returning starter LBs, seniors Dallas Bollema and Rashad Rainey. Another sr., DE Jacori Greer, showed flashes of emerging as a disruptive on-field presence last season when recording five sacks. Davie’s defense, however, was porous vs. the pass (ranking 103rd nationally), and the Lobos spent much of the spring looking for four new starters in the secondary; one of those is likely to be juco SS David Guthrie. Goosing a pass rush that only generated 20 sacks all of 2013 would help the pass defense as well.

The Lobo schedule gets a lot tougher down the stretch, with three MWC road dates in November at San Diego State, Fresno State, and Boise State, so a quick break from the gate will be necessary if Davie hopes to get the Lobos in position for their first bowl visit since Rocky Long’s penultimate season in 2007. Expect more improvement and more competitive efforts from the Lobos this fall, although the bowl reward might have to wait another year. At least the New Mexico cherry-and-silver uniforms remain one of the best in college football.

There’s been a zig-zag pattern the past few years at Wyoming (SUR 4-8; PSR 7-5), where fifth-year HC Dave Christensen might be entering a sort of crossroads campaign this fall. Though absent the pressure of an SEC entry like Florida or Alabama, Dick Cheney’s alma mater has still never been too tolerant of its coaches who do not win, and several regional sources suggest that Christensen is well advised to get the Cowboys back into the bowl frame or risk the consequences from the Laramie folk.

And a bowl shouldn’t seem too far out of the question for Wyo, which has indeed qualified for the postseason twice on Christensen’s watch. To get back there in 2013, however, will require some significant improvement from a defense that hit the juco ranks pretty hard for reinforcements that Christensen and d.c. Chris Tormey (a former HC at Idaho and Nevada) believe will add a necessary edge to a stop unit that has lacked playmakers the past few years. Christensen is also counting on a number of 2012 redshirts (the most in his first four years at Wyo) to make an impact this fall.

Newcomers who are expected to add some bite to the stop unit include juco transfers such as LBs Malkaam Muhammad and Jordan Stanton, S Jesse Sampson, and DT Troy Boyland, while redshirt NT Use Olive appeared to win a starting spot on the DL in spring. It is hoped the 300-lb. Olive keys an upgraded rush defense that was bulldozed repeatedly last fall when allowing a whopping 232 ypg, ranking a distant 117th nationally vs. the rush. The Pokes also generated only 14 sacks in 2012, ranking a poor 109th nationally.

Triple digit national statistical ratings are tell-tale signs of distress, so it was May Day in Laramie last season when Wyo ranked in the 100s in three of four top defensive categories (total, rush, and pass), and barely managed to avoid triple digits in scoring “D” when sneaking into the 9th spot while conceding a hefty 33.4 ppg. Those are not the sorts of numbers that usually translate into a bowl bid, hence the first order of necessary upgrades for Christensen and Tormey this fall.

But not all hope is lost for the stop unit, as some of the jucos and redshirts made positive impressions in spring, and Torney does have a pair of returning starters on the corners in jr. Blair Burns & sr. Marqueston Huff. Tormey experimented with the aggressive Huff at a safety spot in spring and might consider making that move a permanent one if he can identify another worthy starting CB to team with Burns in the fall.

Christensen is also taking over play-calling duties for the offense after last year’s o.c. Gregg Brandon left for a similar spot on Doug Martin’s New Mexico State staff. Such chores are not foreign to Christensen, who made his mark as a decorated o.c. on Gary Pinkel’s Missouri staff before taking the job in Laramie. Christensen spent much of the spring trying to implement a faster pace in his preferred spread looks, which will require jr. QB Brett Smith (2837 YP & 27 TDP in 2012) staying healthy and avoiding the numerous nagging injuries (including a pair of concussions) that plagued him last fall and even sidelined him for a couple of games.

One change for 2013 will be the employment of a tight end, where 6'6 juco transfer J.D. Krill could emerge as a weapon. An experienced group of wideouts led by deep threat sr. Robert Herron (8 TDs in 2012) and sure-handed Dominic Ruffran (leading returning receiver with 39 catches last fall) figure to again provide plenty of quality targets for Smith. Some regional observers wonder, however, if Christensen is going to be able to coax any balance out of an offense that has made little attempt at developing a viable infantry diversion the past few years. The ground game gained only a paltry 3.4 ypc in 2012, and leading returning rusher soph D.J. May gained only 374 YR last fall as a true frosh. A possible backfield sparkplug could be frosh Omar Stover, who opened plenty of eyes in spring and could end up stealing some carries from May.

After a brutal opener at Nebraska, the Cowboy schedule doesn’t appear overly daunting until midseason, when most of the major Mountain West challenges begin to appear. If the defense improves as hoped, and QB Smith stays healthy, Christensen should have no excuse in missing another bowl game, which should be enough to keep the Wyo faithful (who were getting a bit edgy last fall before a late 3-game win streak) satisfied for another year. But if the Cowboys fall short, the war drums will beat loudly in Laramie.

Was that a buy signal late last season from Colorado State (SUR 4-8; PSR 6-6), which won three of its last five games? That got the Rams to the “magic” four-win mark, which was one more than each of the three preceding teams coached by Steve Fairchild, who was forced to walk the plank after the last of those in 2011.

But fans at Hughes Stadium (perhaps in its final years of use, as the dream of a new on-campus facility to replace the very off-campus Hughes is getting closer to reality as a fund-rasing effort moves inexorably forward as it tries to beat a 2014 deadline) should not get carried away, because those three CSU successes came against teams with a combined nine wins last season. Add in the opening-week triumph vs. a wretched Colorado team in a state rivalry game played in Denver, and the Rams’ four wins a year ago came at the expense of teams (Colorado, Hawaii, UNLV, and New Mexico) that fashioned a combined 10-40 SU mark. Moreover, CSU’s eight losses in 2012 were by nearly 20 ppg.

In other words, let’s not get too excited.

The Fort Collins faithful were also less than impressed by the debut season of first-year HC Jim McElwain, hired from Alabama, where he had served as the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban’s 2011 BCS champions. There is certainly room for improvement from a CSU “O” that ranked a subpar 100th in both scoring and total offense last fall. Although McElwain had some legit injury excuses, there was nothing special-looking about the Rams’ pro-style attack, similar in design to the one employed by McElwain with the Crimson Tide but obviously without a lot of the NFL-caliber manpower that made things much easier in Tuscaloosa.

Undaunted, McElwain appears to be hellbent on doubling down on his offensive approach this fall as he seeks to develop the sort of bone-jarring infantry that was a hallmark of his Bama offenses. Which is pretty ambitious stuff for a ground game that ranked 95th in the country (129 ypg) a year ago. Regardless, to that end, expect to see the first double-TE looks in many years in the Mountain West as McElwain plans to employ both sr. Crockett Gilmore and jr. Kevin Cartwright in the lineup at the same time. Along with all five starters back along the OL, it is hoped that more holes could be opened for a stable of north-south runners led by soph Donnell Alexander (team-best 597 YR in 2012) and punishing 216-lb. sr. slammer Chris Nwoke, a 1000-yard rusher in 2011 who added another 570 YR in an injury-marred 2012.

The best news for the running game, however, might be the availability of jr., QB Garrett Grayson, who missed more than half of last season with a broken collarbone but adds a unique escapability dimension to the offense when healthy. Garrett took every snap with the first-team offense in the spring game, suggesting he has secured the starting spot over soph Conner Smith (who started four games in 2012), although McElwain was not prepared to make an official announcement on the first stringer until fall camp. There remain questions in a wideout corps that lacked a true homerun dimension in 2012; leading returning receiver Charles Lovett (35 catches last fall) barely gained 12 yards per reception a year ago.

Improvement from the offense will be a necessity if the defense can’t do a better job slowing the run after getting routinely trampled a year ago when ranking 103rd in national rush defense stats. A brand new set of defensive linemen were being auditioned for a rebuilt defensive front in the 3-4 looks preferred by co-d.c.’s Marty English and Al Simmons, where juco DT additions Terry Jackson and LaRyan King are likely to provide immediate help. The top returning playmaker in the front seven is hybrid sr. DE/LB Shaquil Barnett, who has more tackles the past two years than any returning Mountain West defender.

The strength of the “D” a year ago was in pass coverage, where CSU ranked a respectable 26th nationally in pass defense. Although many Mountain West sources suggest those numbers are skewed because opposing offenses simply decided to instead run the ball down the throat of the Rams a year ago. Still, sr. C Shaq Bell is rated as one of the best cover men in the Mountain West. More push from the rebuilt DL (which ranked 82nd in sacks last year with only 20) would be a plus, and remember that the platoon allowed a whopping 48% conversion rate on third downs a year ago, one of the worst such marks in the country (ranking 112th).

Sticking out like a sore thumb on the schedule is a September 21 trip to Alabama, where McElwain will be hoping that former boss Saban shows some mercy. Don’t count on it. The MWC’s new schedule provides a bit of relief, as the Rams miss Western half powers Fresno State and San Diego State, but also don’t face beatable UNLV.

Most Mountain West insiders suggest that McElwain is at least a year away from making any real progress in the W-L column. We won’t disagree.


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