by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After countless iterations over the past half century, the Mountain West finally seems to be entering a period of calm. The successor to a selection of leagues beginning with old Skyline and Border Conferences, and decades of the WAC, the Mountain has endured more changes than Hillary Clinton’s hairstyles. But there finally appears to be a period of relative calm, with no membership movement over the past year. After a wild few seasons of subtractions and additions to its ranks, the Mountain has temporarily settled upon a 12-team football configuration, split into two creatively-names halves (try “Mountain” and “West”...we’re hoping loop commish Craig Thompson didn’t pay a consulting firm to come up with those labels).

Still, insiders confirm, and history suggests, that more changes in membership could be coming at any time. The diesel truck parked outside of the MWC driveway continues to be BYU, which bolted the league for independent status four years ago but now enters a period of growing uncertainty with an even narrower path to the big bowls and national recognition than during the final years of the BCS. It’s worth noting that at last July’s league media day, commish Thompson kept the BYU door wide open when asked if the loop would consider reinstating the Cougars if they asked. So far, BYU hasn’t moved, and most sources are indicating that nothing along membership lines is imminent. So, unless something changes, don’t expect any movement, or much discussion, really, regarding BYU’s future plans until next year at the earliest. Sources also say that UTEP (Conference USA since 2005) and New Mexico State (now re-enlisted with the Sun Belt for football) have finally stopped calling about the chances either could get co-opted into the Mountain.

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On the field, the Mountain might have a bit different look in 2014, although in truth those changes began to surface a year ago. The days of Boise State dominance ended in 2013 when the Broncos couldn’t even win their half of the Mountain (Utah State did instead), and HC Chris Petersen has finally moved to greener pastures, in his case the University of Washington. Former Bronco o.c. Bryan Harsin has been summoned from his most recent assignment as HC at Arkansas State to take over in the land of the blue carpet. The other coaching change to note in the Mountain is at Wyoming, where Dave Christensen’s turbulent five-season tenure came to an abrupt halt after 2013. Craig Bohl, fresh from leading North Dakota State to three straight FCS titles, now takes over in Laramie, though some are wondering how much of a promotion that might be from the mighty Bisons and their lower-level dynasty.

The Mountain has also found a way to give itself a fighting chance to get involved in the successor to the BCS, the creatively-named College Football Playoff (a label perhaps coined by the same consultants who gave us “Mountain” and “West” for the two MWC divisions), or more specifically the newly named “New Year’s Six” bowl brigade that had added the Peach (Chick fil-A) and Cotton to the old BCS lineup. The top team from a consortium of the Mountain, MAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and American will get a call from the selection committee, which begs the question if Condoleeza Rice, one of the esteemed committee members, is going to be spending part of her Saturdays keeping track of how the New Mexico Lobos and UAB Blazers, among many others, are faring. (Actually, it’s kind of funny to imagine Ms. Rice dipping in and out of one of the Palo Alto wine-and-cheese affairs she likes to frequent on the Saturdays when Stanford isn’t playing at home, and checking her score ticker for updates on the UTEP-Louisiana Tech matchup). Whatever, at least there is a road into the promised land of bowls for the Mountain West champ, although it will be a congested highway, to be sure.

Following is our preview of 2014 MWC action, broken into the two divisions. Straight-up and pointspreads marks from the 2013 season are included with each team, presented in predicted order of finish. We begin with the West before analyzing the Mountain half of the loop in our next installment.

“Nepotism” as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “...favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship.” While there was no official family connection between longtime NFL exec Bill Polian and the football program at Nevada (2013 SUR 4-8, PSR 6-6), the nepotism word was clearly muttered a lot around the Mountain last season in regard to Wolf Pack HC Brian Polian, who not only happens to be Bill’s son but also presided over a pretty rough baptism as the head coach in Reno. It did not help that Brian had never been as much as a unit coordinator in past assistant jobs, always a position coach, unless considering his stint as a special teams coordinator at previous stop Texas A&M as akin to running an offense or defense.

Along the way last season, Polian’s Wolf Pack set a couple of dubious marks, as not only the first Nevada team in nine years to miss a bowl, but also lose the heated Fremont Cannon battle vs. hated state rival UNLV to the south. Which also prompted many regional gridiron insiders to reiterate what they had been saying for the past decade...that the Wolf Pack program had been previously held together almost solely due to the presence of HOF coach Chris Ault, who retired in December of 2012 after resurrecting Nevada football once more in his third term on the sidelines. The Pack, as many observers liked to remind, had fallen off drastically after Ault’s previous retirements (especially his second retirement, when Jeff Trisdel and Chris Torney failed to win enough while Ault assumed AD duties at the school). With funding and facility concerns in Reno, the sage Ault was camouflaging all of the shortcomings in the program, or so went the theory. After the regression under Polian last season, however, it was hard to find anyone in the region willing to dispute those many oldtimers who warned of the Pack’s demise as soon as Ault retired again.

As for Polian, he did little to change the minds of his many naysayers, especially with some curious in-game strategic maneuvers, including keeping multiples of timeouts in his pocket while BYU ran out the clock in a narrow 28-23 loss to the Cougs that closed the regular season. But we’re willing to give Polian a mulligan for a couple of reasons, one of which being a brutal schedule last fall that included UCLA and Florida State on the road before mid-September, and road games at all of the MWC heavyweights, including Boise State, Fresno State, Colorado State, and San Diego State. A slew of injuries also thinned the ranks and contributed to six losses in the last seven games down the stretch. Given those hurdles, we’re not sure Ault would have reached the .500 level, either.

Secondly, we found Polian to be a rather refreshing change of pace from the normal run-of-the-mill “coachspeak” at last summer’s Mountain West media days in Las Vegas. Though a bit brash, even bordering on cocky, Polian was well-versed and impressed many of the assembled media members by putting the whole football coaching exercise into perspective. “If any of my coaches has a family, I want them to have breakfast with their kids and take them to school, and be home with them at night,” said Polian, shooting holes in the normal workaholic coaching b.s. spewed by many across the country.

Some misguided sorts might believe that to be a confirmation of Polian’s shortcomings. To that, we wholeheartedly disagree...although we admit to needing much more evidence before we are convinced Polian to be a worthy successor to Ault.

This fall ought to provide more answers, especially with a schedule that appears a bit more forgiving than a year ago. On the non-conference side, UCLA and Florida State have been replaced in the early going by Washington State and Arizona, tough challenges but games in which this version of the Wolf Pack figures to have at least a puncher’s chance, unlike last year vs. the powerhouse Bruins and Seminoles. BYU remains on the slate, but the majority of Mountain West heavies, including Boise, Fresno, San Diego State, and Colorado State, all must trek to Mackay Stadium.

There is plenty of experience on hand for Polian, with eight starters back along both the offensive and defensive units. On the attack end, senior triggerman Cody Fajardo, the successor to Colin Kaepernick and now entering his fourth year running the familiar Pistol formation first introduced by Ault in 2005, is back for an encore. NFL scouts have taken notice of Fajardo’s dual-threat capabilities (he rushed for 621 yards and passed for 2668 yards a year ago despite battling nagging leg injuries for much of the season), though keeping Fajardo healthy for a full slate has been a difficult chore the past few years, as the Pistol takes a toll on QBs. Backup Devin Combs was also hurt in 2013 but stepped into the breach to lead a couple of wins when Fajardo went down in 2012, so Polian and o.c Nick Rolovich at least have depth at the all-important QB spot.

The major difference between the Polian Pistol and the Ault Pistol, however, was the inability of the Polian version to establish the same sort of infantry diversion that was on display in the Ault years. After consistently ranking in the top ten rushing stats over the past decade, Nevada dipped to 51st a year ago (179 ypg), as injuries also thinned the RB corps. When healthy, however, senior Kendall Brock (812 YR in 2013) and former juco Don Jackson (332 YR a year ago) are capable slashers, and four starters are back along the OL, although one that isn’t is decorated tackle Joel Bitonio, a second-round choice by the Browns in May’s NFL Draft. Fajardo also has some established receiving targets led by sure-handed Ricky Turner (61 catches in 2013) and a big, Plaxico Burress-sized weapon, 6'5 Hasaan Henderson (29 catches LY).

The Pack can score all of the points it wants, but the fact is that unless a defense that has consistently ranked in triple digits over the past few years can’t develop better traction, all of Fajardo’s work might be for naught. Polian also had to scramble for a new coordinator in the offseason after last year’s d.c., Monte Kiffin disciple Scottie Hazelton, took a job on Gus Bradley’s NFL Jaguars staff. Tapping into the family connections, Polian reached across the country and tabbed Scott Boone, the architect of highly-ranked William & Mary defenses the past three years, and Bill Teerlinck, son of longtime NFL aide John Teerlinck and a member of the NFL Colts staff (where, for a couple of years he worked for Brian’s dad Bill Polian), to succeed Hazelton as co-coordinators, becoming the Pack’s third (and fourth, we suppose) d.c.’s in three years.

Teerlinck, whose responsibility was the DL with the Colts, will focus on the same positions in Reno, with Boone concentrating mostly on the back seven. The 4-3 alignment preferred by Hazelton will be retained, though spring work was mostly a crash course in familiarity for the new coaches and players. Boone, in particular, was known for his blitz-happy defenses at W&M, and likely follows the same course in Reno. The pair also spent spring teaching tackling fundamentals, a glaring shortcoming for recent Pack stop units.

Like the offense, eight starters return on defense, and 13 with starting experience altogether, which might or might not be a good thing, considering the Pack’s overall 117th national defensive ranking (and dead last 122nd vs. the rush) a year ago. There are some green shoots in the landscape, however, especially an All-MWC DE, sr. Brock Hekking, who has 17 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss in his career and has reminded some regional observers of long-ago Utah State DE Rulon Jones, who enjoyed a lengthy NFL career with the Broncos. Despite the woeful rush defense numbers of a year ago, the DL is still considered a possible strength with returning players (including Hekking) who have combined for 84 career starts. Boone also plans to make better use of athletic OLB Brian Lane, Jr., who likely lines up on the outside after splitting time between safety and LB a year ago. Spring work suggested that Lane could emerge as the sort of blitzer Boone can utilize effectively.

There are also concerns in the secondary that might have been spared more damage a year ago because foes were running roughshod through the Pack defense instead. There are starters back on the corners, where sr. Charles Garrett is considered one of the MW’s best, thought the undersized Elijah Mitchell was picked on incessantly as a frosh in 2013. Juco Duran Workman is a big hitter who will likely slide right into a starting slot at a strong safety position.

In conclusion, with 16 starters back, including exciting QB Fajardo, and a more favorable schedule than a year ago, the Pack is set to rebound strongly, get back to a bowl, and maybe even win the MWC West. But we’re not going to give Brian Polian another mulligan if he comes up short again this season.

There are still a few oldtime San Diego State (SUR 8-5, PSR 7-5-1) fans who remain cranky and yearn for a return to the days when Don Coryell was the HC in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Those high-flying Aztecs, with future NFL starting QBs Don Horn, Dennis Shaw, and Brian Sipe, set stratospheric standards, albeit during a different era. And there has been little resemblance to the thrill-packed Coryell years with a succession of mostly-plodding Rocky Long-coached teams the past three seasons.

But Long’s teams have done more than tread water, qualifying for a bowl each term, and even finally winning one of those last December in Boise when blowing out the University of Buffalo. The Aztecs have never had a bowl appearance streak as long as the current four, which includes Brady Hoke’s last season in 2010, when Long was the defensive coordinator. Rocky’s defense-centric formula might not be Coryell fireworks-like, but it also worked to get his New Mexico teams bowling for most of his years in Albuquerque (and the Lobos haven’t had a whiff of the postseason since they forced Long out after the 2008 campaign). And compared to the succession of mostly-underachieving Doug Scovil, Denny Stolz, Al Luginbill, Ted Tollner, Tom Craft, and Chuck Long SDSU teams that preceded the brief Hoke regime, Rocky ought to be a bit more appreciated by the locals who still care enough about the Aztecs to show up at Qualcomm Stadium and not waste all of their energies cheering for the hometown NFL Chargers.

There is similar bowl hope for 2014 on Montezuma Mesa. Mostly because Long and vet o.c. Bob Toledo found a capable QB last fall after early-season starter Adam Dingwell proved anything but in a couple of disappointing efforts that included a lopsided home loss to FCS Eastern Illinois in the 2013 opener. By the third game vs. Oregon State, former juco walk-on Quinn Kaehler had replaced Dingwell and stayed in the lineup for the rest of the season, passing for 3007 yards and 19 TDs while winning 8 of 11 starts. Kaehler returns with some established weapons at his disposal, including speedy wideout Ezell Ruffin, who caught 68 passes for 1136 yards in 2013, the headliner of a loaded receiver corps that had o.c. Toledo raving in spring.

There is also good balance on the attack end; though two-time 1000-yard rusher Adam Muema opted to leave the program early and declare for the NFL Draft (where he wasn’t selected) before announcing he would pursue a boxing or MMA career (huh?), soph scatback Donnell Pumphrey displayed plenty of pop as a frosh when scampering for 752 YR and 10 TDs. At a slight 170 pounds, Pumphrey, however, is not constructed to be a workhorse, and Long and Toledo are going to want to spot his carries while hoping that more-physical components such as Chase Price or Dwayne Garrett can emerge as semi-dependable between-the-tackle threats. There is also some experience up front as three starters return along the OL.

Where Long must find some answers, however, is in the kicking game which cost the Aztces an OT loss to Fresno State and nearly did them in a couple of other times a year ago. After Aztec PKs converted only 8 of 16 FG attempts last season, Long is hoping juco Donny Hageman can better handle those chores.

Long’s defense, and the pet 3-3-5 alignment he prefers, was a bit leakier than usual last season, conceding almost 32 ppg, but injuries took a toll last fall, and Long’s notorious scheming and blitz packages can never be overlooked. The numbers might have been better in 2013 had sr. MLB Jake Fely not gone down with a foot injury in later September; he’s back to anchor an experienced LB corps that also includes big-play sr. OLB Derek Largent.

Rocky has some reloading to do elsewhere on his stop unit with almost a complete overhaul needed up front and in the secondary. But if DT Sam Meredith and DE Dontrell Onuoha can return to active duty after missing spring work due to injury, MW sources believe they could team with USC transfer DT Christian Heyward for a rather robust DL. Long’s greater challenge might be breaking in a whole corps of young safeties to replace the five seniors from the two-deep who graduated after last season. Meanwhile, there is at least some experience on the corners, where srs. J.J. Whittaker (3 picks LY) and Domontae Kazee still roam.

Spread-wise, historically, at least, Long’s teams have generally fared better in underdog roles than as chalk, so it’s not too surprising that the Aztecs were 4-0-1 in their last five as a dog in 2013.

Looking to the fall, the schedule is not easy, with early non-MWC road trips to bowl winners North Carolina and a rematch vs. Oregon State (a 34-30 winner at Qualcomm in Kaehler’s first start), and most of the MWC tough tests are on the road. But, like recent years, expect Rocky to at least get the Aztecs back to another bowl...which has become rather de rigueur for Long’s teams, whether the SDSU support base appreciates it or not.

Part of our job in analyzing the college football landscape is to nitpick, which some might accuse us of doing in regard to Fresno State (11-2, 4-8), which has recorded a 20-6 SU mark since HC Tim DeRuyter arrived from the Texas A&M staff two years ago, and threatened to become a BCS Buster last fall before stubbing a toe in the final regular-season game at San Jose State. Thus, from afar, it would seem as if DeRuyter is on the coaching fast-track to some decorated locale away from the Central Valley.

Count us, however, among those who wonder if DeRuyter really is going to remain a coach du jour on the college football landscape. The buzz surrounding DeRuyter seemed to subside a bit last season despite the Bulldogs’ flirtation with the BCS. Indeed, after being seriously courted by Cal and Colorado after the preceding 9-4 campaign in 2012, DeRuyter was somewhat surprisingly overlooked when the coaching carousel was spinning last winter, eventually signing a nice contract extension in the offseason with Fresno instead.

While not completely down on DeRuyter, we suspect his Bulldogs might have been a bit of a mirage the past two seasons and could be due for a downturn in the fall. DeRuyter, a defensive coach by trade, did not exactly inherit a bare cupboard from predecessor Pat Hill, with a roster than included gunslinger QB Derek Carr, who really flourished when DeRuyter installed a no-huddle spread to take advantage of Carr’s quick release and big arm, as well as a collection of homerun wideouts and slashing runners.

Last fall, however, Fresno’s unbeaten mark thru late November deceived, with four hair-raising wins, including one-pointers vs. Rutgers and Boise State at the Dog House, plus OT at San Diego State and an unnecessary thriller at Hawaii when the winless Warriors were bombing into the end zone to win at the end of the game as they tried to complete a miraculous rally from a 42-3 deficit. For the most part over the past two years, DeRuyter seemed anxious for Carr to pile up points and stats when the opportunities presented themselves vs. lesser opposition, and suspicions about last year’s Bulldogs were confirmed when they lost the aforementioned 62-52 track meet at San Jose to end BCS hopes in the regular-season finale. After squeezing past a Utah State squad using its backup QB in the MW title game, Fresno was undressed again, this time by Southern Cal, 45-20, in the Las Vegas Bowl, just as DeRuyter’s Bulldogs were similarly exposed in the previous year’s Hawaii Bowl by SMU.

DeRuyter no longer can count upon the decorated QB Carr, taken early in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft by the Raiders, or homerun wideouts Davante Adams (2nd round Packers) and Isaiah Burse (Broncos camp), as more than half of the starters must be replaced from a Carr-led offense that scored a whopping 43.4 ppg (sixth nationally) a year ago. The likely new QB wasn’t even around for spring football; Duke sr. transfer Brandon Connette, who earned his economics degree last December (hence his immediate eligibility) but did not want to again take only occasional snaps with Blue Devil starter Anthony Boone this fall, is the likely heir apparent to Carr’s job, although holdover Brian Burrell was running number one in spring.

DeRuyter has said he won’t name his starter until fall camp, though most expect it will be Connette, a jack-of-all-trades used more as a change-of-pace option by Duke HC David Cutcliffe and who brings a different skill set to the QB spot than Carr or the holdovers, like Burrell. Connette does have experience running the spread option, which DeRuyter and o.c. Dave Schramm will likely add to the pure spread style they have utilized the past two years. Which would bring a decidedly different look to the Fresno offense than the air show we were used to seeing with Carr.

Carr had three 1000-yard receivers at his disposal in last year’s pass-happy attack; with Adams and Burse having joined Carr in the NFL, that leaves Josh Harper (79 catches LY for 1011 yards and 13 TDs) as the only holdover from that trio. Harper, however, has been dealing with knee problems since late last season and was a non-factor in spring work, when other promising wideouts such as Da’Mari Scott, Darrell Feury, and Delvon Hardaway all missed large chunks of action due to injury as well. With a new QB, their health will be crucial this fall. Meanwhile, three starters are back along the OL, with sr. RG Cody Wichmann an honors candidate. But the forward wall did not open as many holes a year ago as it did in 2012 when RB Robbie Rouse was running wild; Rouse successors Joel Quezada (a BYU transfer) and Marteze Walker did not motor with similar flair a year ago. Redshirt frosh RB Dontel James is thus likely to get a long look in fall camp as DeRuyter and Shcramm contemplate a much-different offensive style from the past two seasons.

DeRuyter’s defense returns eight starters from a blitz-happy platoon coordinated by the well-respected Nick Toth (considered a possible successor to DeRuyter should Tim be lured away from Fresno). But the Bulldog stop unit was not nearly as disruptive as it was in 2012 when forcing 35 turnovers; last fall the number dipped to 23. Which made it a bit harder for Fresno to extend margins as it did more consistently the previous year.

Though defensive stats can be a bit misleading for a team that has posted the sort of offensive numbers the Bulldogs did the past two years, resulting in several back-and-forth shootouts, some of the stop unit breakdowns were nonetheless alarming in 2013, especially a pass defense that yielded nearly 300 ypg and ranked a distant 117th nationally, looking helpless against the likes of Rutgers, San Jose State, and Southern Cal.

In spring, Toth juggled the defensive front in his 3-4, moving All-MWC NT Tyeler Davison to DE in hopes of getting his three best linemen in the lineup, with 304-lb. Maurice Poyadue a “pure nose” and able to slide into Davison’s old spot. We’ll see how it works in the fall. The entire LB corps returns, led by jr. LB Ejiro Ederaine (10 sacks LY), and three starters are back in the secondary, including ball-hawking All-MWC FS Derron Smith, who has 14 career picks. Strong safety Charles Washington is versatile enough to be used on the corner, where he started a few games last season. But there were times the platoon simply disappeared a year ago, and it needs to revive the big-play bent that made it more menacing in 2012.

After catching a break in the schedule last season, DeRuyter gets no favors this fall, beginning with a return match vs. Southern Cal at the L.A. Coliseum in the opener, preceding another road game at Utah, before welcoming Nebraska to Bulldog Stadium in a festival of red. So, we could easily be talking about an 0-3 Fresno team before Mountain West play commences.

Without Carr, and with the offense likely to look much different if Connette indeed is at the controls, we suspect it will not take the oddsmakers long to downsize the Bulldog pointspreads after overadjusting a bit much last season when Fresno covered just 4 of 12 on the board after an 11-1 regular-season spread mark in 2012.

With that rugged non-conference slate, DeRuyter will be doing well just to get Fresno back to a bowl game this fall. We hope the unappealing and unnecessary all-black and all-white versions of the Bulldog uniforms and helmets get trashed along the way as well.

The modern era of football at San Jose State (SUR 6-6, PSR 6-6) has featured numerous brief spurts of glory surrounded by extended stretches of gloom. How the Spartans have often shifted gears from good to bad, or vice versa, on short notice almost amazes. In recent decades, only when San Jose experimented with coaches, bringing veteran John Ralston out of retirement in the mid ‘90s, or the failed Fitz Hill adventure early in the last decade, have the Spartans not been able to make brief rallies. Perhaps no tenure reflected that rollercoaster pattern as much as Dick Tomey’s between 2005-10, when he took San Jose from the depths, to a bowl win, and back to the depths in his six-season stint.

The pattern, however, has been in place for decades. During the regimes of Lynn Stiles, Jack Elway, Claude Gilbert, Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Dave Baldwin, Tomey, and Mike MacIntyre, the Spartans would occasionally arise and play some breathtaking football between several disastrous campaigns.

Which brings us to the current regime of 2nd-year HC Ron Caragher, brought in from the U. of San Diego last fall to succeed MacIntyre, who left for Colorado. Some believed that Caragher, a former UCLA QB under Terry Donahue, appealed to the Spartans because he had won at USD, where Jim Harbaugh had also succeeded before getting the call at Stanford. Others suspected that Caragher’s connection to UCLA might have proved beneficial with AD Gene Bleymaier, Boise State’s former AD and like Caragher a Bruin alum.

The jury, however, is probably still out on Caragher after last year’s 6-6 mark that had its shares of ups and downs in a single season, straying from the usual San Jose all-or-nothing pattern. Undeniably affable and articulate, Caragher nonetheless raised a few eyebrows around the Mountain last year when he announced he was going to alter the Spartans record-setting spread offense that had showcased former juco QB David Fales in 2012, when Fales passed for 4193 yards and 33 TDs. Instead, Cargaher was hellbent to balance an offense that ranked 106th in rushing the previous season, and installed a pro-set “multiple” look with a pair of running backs, an alignment not seen in San Jose since the last millennium.

By the end of last September, many were wondering what on earth Caragher was doing, as the offense had stalled while trying to balance itself, and Fales’ passing numbers had dropped precipitously in an unsightly 1-3 start that included a 40-12 home loss to Utah State. Proving he was no fool, however, Caragher, while not completely ditching his “multiple” offense theme, began to incorporate more of the MacIntyre regime’s spread concepts, to the delight of Fales, who would end up exceeding 4000 passing yards once more as the Spartans won 5 of their last 8 and only barely missed a bowl invitation. Included was a rousing 62-52 upset over Fresno State when Fales passed for 547 yards and 6 TDs in the regular-season finale.

When the dust cleared in 2013, the new Caragher offense had improved slightly from 106th to 97th in national rush stats, but make no mistake, it was the prolific Fales (a steal for the Chicago Bears when they picked him in sixth round of the recent NFL Draft) who made the attack purr. Now, with Fales off to the NFL, along with the top two receivers in school history, Chandler Jones (Browns camp) and Noel Grigsby (Raiders camp), it is fair to speculate what sort of a dropoff might be forthcoming from a Spartan offense that scored over 32 ppg in 2013.

As fall camp approaches, the identity of Fales’ successor at QB was still unknown, as nothing was resolved in spring between jr. Joe Gray and sr. Blake Jurich, both beaten out by a then-unheralded Fales two years ago. Caragher has said he will wait until fall camp to name his starter before the August 28 opener vs. North Dakota at Spartan Stadium. That battle vs. the Fighting Sioux will be a chance for the new QB to have a dress rehearsal before live ammunition starts to be fired in the Spartans’ direction the next week at defending SEC champ and narrow BCS title game loser Auburn.

If it’s Gray at QB, expect the offense to look something like it did the second half of last season, as Gray has a similar (if perhaps not as refined) skill set as Fales; if it’s Jurich, a much better runner, expect the Caragher offense to feature a few new wrinkles.

Only four listed starters return on offense, but the cupboard is not completely bare, even at WR, where sr. Jabari Carr has already amassed 120 career receptions, and soph Tyler Winston returns after being named MW Frosh of the Year with his 58 receptions last fall. Some of the modest progress displayed by last year’s infantry could resonate further this season with the three-headed RB monster consisting of sophs Jarrod Lawson, Thomas Rucker and Tim Crawley that combined for 1345 YR and 65 pass receptions a year ago. But Caragher must replace three OL starters, including ALL-MW G Nicholas Kaspar.

Confirming the UCLA connection in San Jose, Caragher’s biggest staff move of the offseason was enlisting the well-traveled Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator after 2013 d.c. Kenwick Thompson joined Derrick Mason on Vanderbilt’s new staff. Robinson might be better known as Mack Brown’s emergency d.c. last year at Texas, after previously washing out as head coach at Syracuse. Once upon a time, Robinson was considered as one of the rising assistants in the country, and was Mike Shanahan’s d.c. for a pair of Denver Broncos Super Bowl winners in the late ‘90s. The UCLA connection with Caragher goes back to Robinson’s days on Terry Donahue’s Bruins staff in the ‘80s when Caragher was a player in Westwood.

Robinson spent spring overseeing a transition of his defense from 3-4 to 4-3 alignments that were used by MacIntyre’s d.c. Kent Baer in 2011-12 and considered a better fit for much of the existing personnel (many of whom now back in their natural positions). Seven starters return from a platoon that might not have been as bad as last year’s stats (103rd in total and scoring defense) made it seem due to the accelerated pace of the San Jose games.

Robinson has four vet D-linemen returning, led by DT Travis Raciti, a three-year starter who seemed a bit miscast as a DE in Kenwick Thompson’s 3-4 alignment last season after winning All-WAC honors at the tackle spot in 2012. Another defender who played out of position last season was LB Vince Buhagiar, an All-WAC pick as a MLB in 2012 but said to be uncomfy on the outside in workouts leading to the 2013 campaign before a season-ending shoulder injury. Bughagiar’s return somewhat mitigates the graduation of All-MW LB Keith Smith. Four players also return with starting experience in the secondary, including CB Jimmy Pruitt, who made a nice switch from a safety position last season.

By us, however, we are not convinced that Robinson’s hire was a stoke of genius by Caragher, as Robinson’s days as a featured coach were almost a generation ago. And “back to the future” has failed more than it has worked n coaching circles. We’ll see if it works, or doesn’t work, in the fall.

Those who were able to cash in on MacIntyre’s pointspread prowess in 2011-12, when the Spartans covered 19 of their last 24 on “Coach Mac’s” watch, realized early that Caragher did not have the same sort of poitnspread mojo, although the 2013 Spartans improved enough from their early form to cover half of their games.

We like Caragher and would like to see him succeed in San Jose, but evidence remains mixed. We’ll give it another season before making more definitive judgements, although we will say that if Caragher can fashion another 6-6 mark as he did a year ago, without Fales to save the day, we might begin to think the Spartans made the right hire.

Things have quickly returned to normal in Las Vegas, which survived destruction in the new Godzilla movie. But that hissing sound you might have heard in the background this spring had nothing to do with the cinema, rather all of the air escaping the balloon at UNLV (SUR 7-6, PSR 8-5) after the Rebels were ruled ineligible for 2014 bowl competition by the NCAA due to subpar APR (Academic Progres Rate) scores.

Mind you, for more than a decade, that sort of news would have either seemed redundant or unnecessary, because the Rebs had not been bowling since John Robinson’s 2000 team. Until a year ago, that is, when the beleaguered HC Bobby Hauck pulled a Mariano Rivera-like save of his coaching career out of his hat with a rare UNLV postseason invitation. Now, however, this APR development and resultant bowl ban, which wouldn’t have been a blip on the UNLV radar the previous 13 years because the Rebs never went bowling when eligible, comes on the heels of the berth in the Dallas Bowl and some long-absent momentum for the program.


This recent lifeline for Hauck came about after he looked to be more of a lame duck than Eric Cantor in the current session of the U.S. House of Representatives. After three straight 2-win seasons, Hauck was on the thinnest of ice last fall, especially after the AD who hired him, and the only one in Vegas besides perhaps Wayne Newton who thought Hauck should return for a fourth year, AD Jim Livengood, tendered his resignation last May. Fortunately for Hauck, he was on good terms with Livengood’s interim successor, Tina Kunzer-Murphy, who had recently served as Executive Director of the Las Vegas Bowl. Nonetheless, word from MW sources was that school prexy Neil Smatresk was ready to hit the eject button on Hauck if the Rebs lost their first three games of the 2013 campaign. Which looked to be a pretty good bet after UNLV was smoked by both Minnesota and Arizona, allowing more than 50 points to each, in the first two games of the season. Then, falling behind Central Michigan 21-0 in the 2nd Q of Game Three, Hauck seemed ready to be fitted for a noose by halftime.

Circumstance, not calculation, would then amazingly save Hauck. Desperate for an answer, Hauck benched struggling soph QB Nick Sherry after his slow start vs. the Chippewas, and rolled the dice with former starter, sr. Caleb Herring, one of the last holdovers from the long-ago Mike Sanford regime and who had been Hauck’s starter in 2011 before being beaten out by Sherry in 2012. Hauck had thought so little of Herring the year before that his former QB was being used as a wide receiver. But with no other viable option at QB, Hauck summoned Herring to relieve Sherry. The coach, perhaps hours from losing his job, had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Herring entered with the score 7-0 in CMU’s favor, and the score quickly mushroomed to 21-0. Then, something happened. The offense suddenly responded to Herring, who appeared cool and composed in the pocket and in control of the proceedings. UNLV got on the board just before halftime as Herring led a 76-yard drive in six plays to cut the deficit to 21-7 with a 12-yard TD pass to WR Devante Davis. All a prequel to a memorable second half in which Herring would toss two more TD passes, including a 42-yarder to Davis to tie the score late in the 3rd Q, before the Rebs would wind up 31-21 winners. It was the biggest comeback in school history, and Herring was the reason, finishing with 24 completions in 28 attempts, including those 3 TD passes!

Herring had effectively saved the season that night at Sam Boyd Stadium, and stayed in the lineup the rest of the campaign by keeping drives alive with his many scrambles and dart-like throws, several of those to the long-striding Davis, who caught 87 passes for 1290 yards and 14 TDs. The more-inquisitive UNLV fans began to wonder what on earth Hauck might have been thinking to keep Herring on the bench in the first place.

The Rebs would win 7 of their 10 reg.-season games with Herring to qualify for the Dallas Bowl, where they would lose in the venerable Cotton Bowl to regional flavor North Texas, playing only 40 or so miles from home. Continuing Hauck’s good luck, ally Kunzer-Murphy was eventually named the full-time AD, and Hauck got a contract upgrade that previous AD Livengood did not provide the year before. Moreover, school president Smatresk, the man who was reportedly close to firing Hauck, left for a similar post at North Texas.

But did the program really turn the corner? The schedule would eventually break just right last fall for UNLV, especially with the Mountain in a weakened state, and the likes of Hawaii, Nevada, and Air Force, all Reb victims, enduring uncommonly awful years. Now, Herring and record-setting RB Tim Cornett have departed, and that was before the APR news. Can Hauck keep the ship afloat?

With the former starting QB Nick Sherry having disappeared like the Invisible Man last fall once Herring got into the lineup, Reb fans can be excused if wondering whether Sherry still is enrolled at school. He is, and was on the field for spring work battling it out with Scottsdale Community College transfer Blake Decker for the starting job, one which Hauck says will not be decided until fall. MW sources, however, believe the mature Decker, who has already served a 2-year LDS mission in Mexico and a prolific juco passer, will likely win the job. Lanky WR Davis, a consensus NFL prospect, and whippet-like Marcus Sullivan are returning starters at wideout spots.

If Hauck has developed a something of a trademark at UNLV, it is an often suicidal resolve to run the football, something the Rebs tried almost to their detriment in Hauck’s first few seasons. But the payoff finally came last season when UNLV was able to move the ball rather consistently on the ground, ranking a respectable 61st nationally at 173 ypg, behind its big forward wall that returns four starters led by honors candidates LT Brett Boyko and LG Cameron Jefferson. Explosive school career-rush leading RB Tim Cornett (in the Arizona Cardinals’ camp this summer) has departed, which is a potential concern because his likely replacement, Northwestern transfer Adonis Smith, left school in spring, leaving scatback Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, who gained a staggering 9 ypc on just 47 totes last season, as the probable featured back. Whether the smallish Murray-Lawrence (5-8 and 180 lbs.) is durable enough for heavy-duty work, as was Cornett, remains to be seen.

Another concern for Hauck is at PK, where long-time starter Nolan Kohorst has graduated, and expected replacement local recruit Conor Perkins instead informed the staff in spring that he was going to take his LDS mission. Auditions for Kohorst's replacement will continue into fall camp.

In context, the Rebel stop unit also progressed somewhat a year ago, improving from roadkill status to the point where only the rush defense ranked in triple digits nationally in the four main defensive categories (rushing, passing, total, and scoring defense). Not much, but it was a start, coinciding with the appointment of Bobby’s brother Tim, a former NFL DB and pro assistant coach, as coordinator. Tim prefers a 4-3 base defense that features a collection of DEs, led by Jordan Sparkman and Sonny Sanitoa, although they would combine for just three sacks last fall. The Haucks hit the juco ranks hard as they looked for immediate help at the DT spots in order to shore up the leaky rush “D” that allowed over 215 ypg. The Haucks will also have to find a new collection of LBs after graduation ripped that position group asunder. The strength of the platoon, such as it is, is likely in the secondary, where three starters return, including jr. SS Peni Vea, who had a team-high 108 tackles in 2013 (you know what they say about defenses where the strong safety leads the team in tackles).

Spread-wise, UNLV has been an interesting read in the Hauck years. The Rebels were a full-blown go-against on the road, where they had lost 21 straight and covered just 3 for Hauck until a win at New Mexico sparked three wins and covers in a four road-game stretch. Hauck’s Rebs have always offered good value as a dog at Sam Boyd Stadium, sporting a 13-5 mark in that role since 2010.

The revised NCAA ruling on bowl eligibility (6/26) has reinstated the bowl carrot for the Rebels, but they are still minus 2013 catalyst Caleb Herring, who fueled turnaround in 2013, and we suspect that UNLV falls back beneath .500 this season. Bobby Hauck, however, can now probably survive that sort of a dip, which he couldn’t have done a year ago. Progress can be measured in such small steps at a place such as UNLV.

And then we get to Hawaii (SUR 1-11, PSR 7-5) and native son HC Norm Chow, whose return to the islands has been greeted much less enthusiastically than the remake of Hawaii Five-O. Indeed, there were some who believed Chow, just 4-20 SU in two seasons in charge, was not going to survive last year’s 1-11 nightmare. In the end, he was given one more chance to get things right, perhaps because the Rainbow Warriors (the Rainbow has been reinstated as a proper nickname for the school!) were close in several of their losses last season and did win their finale, 49-42, over visiting Army, at least dodging the big donut for the season. Five losses also came down to the last play a year ago, including a wild 42-37 setback against visiting Fresno State when Hawaii almost made up a 42-3 deficit, and was bombing into the end zone in the final seconds.

Chow, however, has no margin for error this fall with the demanding Hawaii fan base that contributes to one of the nastiest fish bowls in college sport, for there is no place for a coach to hide on the islands, and certainly not on Oahu, where every move by the team and coach is dissected by the sports-crazed locals and media. And as an indicator that the pressure is mounting, Chow channeled his inner Steve McGarrett and banned a local reporter from spring practice after the scribe had been critical of Norm's regime. Book 'em, Danno! Tension is indeed rising in Honolulu.

Chow had started to make adjustments last season, when he junked the pro-style, 2-back attack used in his 2012 debut season and returned to something more familiar to the Honolulu natives who had become used to watching the pass-happy Red Gun attacks of June Jones and successor Greg McMackin since 1999. Unlike the Red Gun, the Chow offense uses a TE, but there were one-back looks again in 2013. Unfortunately, slamming RB Joey Iosefa wasn’t lined up often enough due to a foot injury that kept him out most of the season until November, when he roared down the stretch to rush for 586 yards and 5 TDs in the final four games. A healthy Iosefa, a 6'0, 245-lb. slammer in the classic Hawaii “downhill” mode, provides the thunder and will be complemented by slashing Steven Lakalaka (468 YR in 2013), an all-name candidate who adds the lightning portion to the mix.

Of course, Chow still has to decide who will be handing the ball to Iosefa or Lakalaka, and from all indicators it will be dual-threat Ikaika Woolsey, who was shaky in two starts last fall but seemed to have a much better grasp of the offense in spring. Woolsey provides a different dimension, a running one, than other QB candidates Jeremy Higgins and former Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham, each of whom also having started games last season. If Woolsey is to start the opener vs. Washington, it will mark the fourth different opening-game starting QB for Hawaii in as many seasons.

The passing game, which improved markedly to a 19th ranking in the country last season, mostly due to the efforts of former Duke transfer QB Sean Schroeder, might be hard-pressed to replicate those numbers unless Utah transfer WR Quinton Pedroza delivers as expected, and provides another target opposite sure-handed sr. Scott Harding (56 catches in 2013). MW sources say Chow is confident his OL, which moved C Ben Clarke to LTY in spring, can hold up adequately as long as injuries don’t expose what could be a lack of depth.

Where Chow has really needed some help the past couple of seasons has been with a defense that has ranked in triple digits in almost every meaningful category. Forced to implement some sort of change, Chow has enlisted a new d.c. from Utah State, Kevin Clune, who immediately went about altering the defense by changing alignments from a 4-3 to a 3-4 that, theoretically at least, takes advantage of a deeper group of LBs. That LB corps did lose its top two tacklers, Brenden Daley and Art Laurel, to graduation, but the addition of UCLA transfer Jason Castro, who has been granted immediate eligibility, should come in handy at one of the OLB spots. ILB Julian Gener was also off to a fast start in 2013 before being sidelined by a season-ending injury, and appears ready to pick up where he left off. The platoon’s most versatile asset is probably big-play DE Beau Yap, who recorded 12 tackles for loss last season but was being tested at an OLB spot in the spring in Clune's new 3-4 looks.

Depth concerns, however, are still a major concern for the stop unit, especially in a secondary that is tested weekly in the pass-happy Mountain West, though Clune believes the returning starters at CB, Ne’Quan Phillips and Dee Maggitt, are comparable to any in the MW.

Still, there are plenty of questions for Chow to get answered at Aloha Stadium, starting at QB and continuing through most of the roster. Depth issues have hampered Hawaii the past two seasons, and a spate of injuries in spring had Chow fretting again. He’s got enough to worry about already. And now that legendary Hawaii play-play-play man Jim Leahey has retired from his announcing duties, we can’t even enjoy the late-night telecasts from the islands as we have done for many years. We wonder if Chow will be joining Leahey away from the action next season.


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