by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After previewing the “West” of the Mountain West in our previous installment, we focus on the “Mountain” half of the loop, which features both of the new head coaches in the league, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Wyoming’s Craig Bohl. Once again, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with last year’s SU and pointspread records included.

It was fair to expect some drop-off last year at Utah State (2013 SUR 9-5, PSR 9-5) after program reconstruction wizard Gary Andersen left Logan to succeed Bret Bielema at Wisconsin. After all, 11-2 football seasons happened about as often in the Cache Valley as Jay-Z and Beyonce’ stop by for a visit. And the Aggies were going to be upgrading their conference affiliation as they joined the Mountain West after a decade-long stint in the disintegrating WAC. But no one expected the floor to collapse beneath the Utags, either, as there was some continuity between the regimes of 2012 & ‘13 thanks to new HC Matt Wells, promoted from offensive coordinator. Some of the Andersen staff, and almost all of the terminology, also remained from 2012. And the roster returned 15 starters from a Potato Bowl-winning side.

What no one, including new HC Wells, was expecting was for star QB Chuckie Keeton, who had generated some fringe Heisman Trophy chatter entering last season, to go down with a knee injury in early October, or for USU to start three different QBs during the season. So when the smoke finally cleared and the Utags had pipped favored Boise State to win the Mountain half of the loop and then upset one-time BCS contender Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl, there was not much discussion about what sort of hands the program was in, post-Andersen. Utag AD Scott Barnes (once upon a time a hoops PF for some of Boyd Grant’s better Fresno State teams in the early ‘80s) was impressed enough with Wells’ work to offer his coach a contract extension after the season.

The 2014 football season is fast approaching! And we're ready at TGS with discounted JUNE subscription prices! Click here for more special JUNE subscription info on THE GOLD SHEET now!

Now, it’s time to talk about an encore in 2014. Only this time Wells will have to proceed with less than half as many returning starters (just seven) as he had a year ago. Fortunately for Wells, the electric Keeton is back in the fold. Better yet, just in case Keeton goes down again, Wells has an experienced pilot in reserve in soph Darrell Garretson, who eventually took over the QB chores last season and helped the offense to five single season school records while winning 6 of 7 starts, saving a campaign that was teetering at 3-4 in mid-October.

Which also begs the question how Utah State could nab two such ringers at QB, when other schools west of the Rockies, including several in the higher-profile Pac-12, can’t seem to find one capable QB.

But as long as Keeton is fully recovered from his knee injury (which also kept him out of spring drills), he remains the focal point on the attack end. As he should; prior to the knee injury vs. BYU, Chuckie had completed 136 of 198 throws for 1388 YP and 18 TDs, to go along with just two interceptions, after passing for 3373 yards and 27 TDs last and adding another 619 yards and 8 rush TDs during a full season of work in 2012. Just in case Keeton isn’t ready, or goes down again, Garretson is available in the bullpen after passing for 1444 yards and 10 TDs in half-a-season’s worth of work in 2013.

The offensive returning starter number (three) deceives further when realizing it also doesn’t include RB Joe Hill, who was playing with the first string and had gained 252 yards and almost 5 ypc before going down with his own knee injury last September. Hill will be ready in the fall, although Wells and co-o.c.’s Kevin McGiven and Luke Wells are legitimately concerned about Hill’s durability, as his 5'11, 190-lb. frame is not designed for heavy-duty work as have been some other recent featured Aggie runners, including muscle-bound Robert Turbin, now a member of the Super Bowl champ Seahawks. Wells also moved some of this better athletes to WR positions in spring, hoping to find a complement for highlight-reel JoJo Nelson, a 5'7, 151-lb. electron who caught 59 passes a year ago and was the only player in the country last season to record multiple TDs via rushing (three), receiving (two), and returns (two punt returns). The kicking game appears in good hands (or feet, we suppose) with sr. PK Nick Diaz, who nailed 17 of 23 FG attempts a year ago.

Where the returning starter angle might cause concern is along the OL, as only one regular (the deceivingly-named LT Kevin Whimpey) returns from 2013. Wells, however, was encouraged with what he saw in spring work. “Our guys are talented,” said Wells of his new-look OL. “They’re just youthful and inexperienced.” Still, MW sources indicate that replacing key C Tyler Larsen (in the Miami Dolphins’ camp this summer) could be a tall order.

The real legacy left behind in Logan by Andersen was a defensive monster that was his creation and passed on to new d.c. Todd Orlando a year ago. The Orlando version of the 3-4 “D” posted similar impressive numbers, including top ten national rankings in scoring (7th at 17.1 ppg) and rushing (8th at 107 ypg). The returning starter number (four) for this platoon deceives as well, with several holdovers having rotated in and out of the lineup a year ago.

Still, there are some potential areas of concern, including up front, where DE B.J. Larsen is the only returning starter on the line, and the secondary, which graduated four starters. The D-backs still have an upper-class look about them however, with three seniors in the projected starter mix, with FS Brian Suite the most familiar with live action. The strength of the platoon again figures to be an active LB corps featuring a pair of All-MW selections, OLB Kyler Fackwell and ILB Zach Vigil.

For our purposes, especially noteworthy about the Ags has been their pointspread prowess, with both Andersen and Wells, covering 20 of 27 chances the past two seasons. Being hidden in Cache County is apparently preventing the oddsmakers from placing too much of a premium on this notorious overachiever vs. the number.

The 2014 schedule is fairly intriguing, with an opening game at Tennessee, a rare visit to Logan by an ACC school (Wake Forest), and trips to Arkansas State and BYU. The Utags also trek to Colorado State and Boise in MW Mountain showdowns, but miss what figures to be the top three teams (Fresno, Nevada, and San Diego State) from the Western half of the loop. Anything less than another bowl bid would be a major letdown, and a repeat of last fall’s Mountain Division title (which the Utags won in 2013, essentially without Keeton) would come as no surprise.

There wasn’t anyone in the Mountain who was terribly surprised when Boise State’s (SUR 8-5, PSR 6-7) ultra-successful HC Chris Petersen decided to leave town after last season. After all, Petersen had set a pretty high standard for himself on the blue carpet, with a couple of undefeated seasons (2006 & 2009) on his watch, a pair of BCS bowl wins, and an 92-13 SU record, only slightly worse than Harlem Globetrotters’ win percentage against the Washington Generals. (Technically, Petersen should not be saddled with the loss in last year's Hawaii Bowl vs. Oregon State, after he left the program and d.c. Bob Gregory coached in the bowl.) But fully one-third (more if counting the bowl result) of Petersen’s career losses with Boise occurred in 2013 alone, and while he was still considered a hot coaching commodity, Petersen was ripe for a move. So, when the University of Washington came calling, and Petersen had the chance to move to Seattle (an easier transition for his family than some of the locales of other suitors in recent years), few were caught off-guard, especially since Petersen was no longer working for the AD (Gene Bleymaier, now at San Jose State) who hired him at Boise. Although a few were quick to note that past successful Bronco coaches, such as Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins, were not able to translate their Boise success to new locales, the consensus opinion was that it would only be a matter of time before Petersen spread his coaching wings elsewhere, too.

Now, however, there is legit concern in potato country that Boise State might be slipping off of the lofty perch it has maintained for the past 15 years. The Broncos had promoted from within (Hawkins and Petersen) to hit homeruns with their last two coaching hires and have tried to do the same, sort of, post-Petersen. “Sort of” because new HC Bryan Harsin hasn’t been in Boise since 2010, working at Texas as the o.c. and then at Arkansas State as the HC a year ago, but he knows about the blue carpet and Taco Bell Arena and everything about Boise after serving as Petersen’s o.c. during a highly-successful Bronco era from 2006-10. If anything, the job is familiar territory for Harsin, who now also has some HC winning experience after taking the Sun Belt Red Wolves to Danica Patrick’s favorite GoDaddy.com Bowl last season.

But no longer are the Broncos regarded as a fringe national title contender as they were the last time Harsin was on staff, or for most of Petersen’s tenure. In fact, no preseason publication that we have seen has rated Boise anywhere close to the Top 25. With 15 straight bowl appearances, the program hasn’t exactly dropped off of the map, but the surroundings and expectations are now a bit different in Boise than the last time Harsin was in town, including a new and upgraded conference affiliation (Mountain West as opposed to the old WAC).

Harsin isn’t just picking up where Petersen left off, either, already installing some changes in the familiar, high-octane Boise offense that, like everything else with Bronco football, has slipped just a bit the past couple of years (last year ranking a still-respectable 19th in scoring at 37.5 ppg and 20th in total offense with 475 ypg). No matter, Harsin has authorized some schematic changes for new o.c. Mike Sanford (whose dad Mike was once upon a time Urban Meyer’s o.c. at Utah and UNLV’s HC; young Mike has been hired off of David Shaw's Stanford staff), with a no-huddle, shotgun-based attack that will include some of the shifts and motions that have been the trademarks of the Bronco offense for more than a decade.

Five starters return on the attack end, where the better news is that several key playmakers remain in the fold. They would include sr. QB Grant Hedrick, who took the snaps down the stretch last season and added a different run element to the offense that Joe Southwick (who went down with an ankle injury at midseason) didn’t provide. Hedrick produced 22 TDs via run or pass in a half-season of work but was also responsible for nine turnovers, an area of his game that must improve.

Hedrick’s supporting weaponry should help, led by jr. TB Jay Ajayi, who rushed for 1425 yards and 18 TDs last season, and sr. WR Mike Miller, who is on pace to break the school record for career receptions, catching 88 passes in 2013 and finishing last season on a serious roll (636 receiving yards and 10 TDs in the final five games, as he developed an instant rapport with Hedrick). Junior WR Shane Williams-Rhodes, all 5'6 of him, is a dynamo who caught 77 passes a year ago. Harsin and Rhodes also plan to reintroduce the TE as a featured component of the Boise offense.

While there is no shortage of established skill-position weaponry, the major questions for the “O” are on the line, where the only two starters who return have changed positions (jr. Marcus Henry from G to C and jr. Ross Odhiambo from RT to LT). The frosh and soph classes will likely compose the rest of the forward wall. Meanwhile, sr. PK Dan Goodale missed only 2 of 19 FG tries last season, although one of those was a potential game-winner at the end of regulation vs. San Diego State, before the Aztecs went on to win in OT and effectively deny the Broncos of the league’s Mountain Division crown.

If there was a real culprit to the program’s downturn a year ago, it was probably the stop unit, which slipped noticeably from several highly-ranked Broncos platoons in recent years, all of the way down to a 75th national ranking in total defense, the worst on the blue carpet in well over a decade. To further illustrate the defensive erosion, Boise allowed at least 30 points in five of its six road games. The pass defense, in particular, was bullet-ridden, dropping to 88th nationally after ranking in the top five in the country three times in the previous five seasons. Marcel Yates, a former Bronco DB who served as the secondary coach on Boise staffs along with Harsin before taking a job at Texas A&M the past two years, returns to the blue carpet with the first coordinator assignment of his career.

The adjustments authorized by Yates will include utilizing five defensive backs, although the “nickel” will be sr. Corey Bell, who was a strongside LB last year. With 76 tackles last season (second on the team), Yates is hoping Bell’s playmaking bent will be better served in the new alignments and schemes. There is plenty of experience in the back seven which also includes jr. CB Donta Deayon, whose six picks LY helped him to second-team All-MW honors. Last year’s leading tackler with 89 was soph Ben Weaver, who lines up as a WLB in the Yates defense.

Still, there are concerns, especially along the DL, which suffered some unwelcome attrition in the offseason when former juco DE and sackmeister Demarcus Lawrence opted to bolt early for the NFL Draft, where he was a 2nd-round pick of the Cowboys. He leaves a gap that will attempt to be filled by jucos Antoine Turner and Rondell McNutt. But junior DT Armand Nance is the only returning starter up front, and the newcomers must hit the ground running to not only take Lawrence’s place, but provide much-needed depth.

The schedule begins with a major intersectional test vs. Ole Miss in Atlanta, where one of Petersen’s better teams beat Georgia a few years ago, but most of the Mountain heavyweights will visit Boise, including Utah State in a possible Mountain Division showdown at the conclusion of the regular season. Still, with the changes in the coaching staff and questions on both lines, we’re not sure the Broncos quickly get back to their old dominating ways, especially with mostly the same core of players that fell short of expectations a year ago. Let’s also see if the oddsmakers continue to impose pointspread premiums on the Broncos at home, where they were once a dominant performer vs. the number but have covered only 5 of their last 20 on the blue carpet.

There is an odd sort of Catch-22 scenario with mid-level college football programs. Of course, mid and lower-level programs are usually no more tolerant of mediocrity than the big boys. But if these sorts of programs get too good, the coach who delivered that success likely gets lured to a higher-profile destination.

Which brings us to Colorado State (SUR 8-6, PSR 10-4), which might soon find itself in one of those dilemmas with its bright HC, Jim McElwain, whose credentials are sterling (including a stint as Nick Saban’s o.c. for a BCS-winning Alabama side) and is now showing signs of becoming an in-demand commodity after leading the Rams to their first bowl (and first bowl win) in five years last December at the New Mexico Bowl (more on that in a moment).

Of course, CSU recalls being an exception to that mid-major rule when the legendary Sonny Lubick started winning at Fort Collins in the mid ‘90s and never thought it was a good idea to leave, despite being courted by several powerhouse programs. Lubick’s Rams became bowl regulars and cracked the national rankings on many occasions, heady stuff for a CSU program that had experienced the depths more than a few times (such as Sark Arslanian’s 0-12 season in 1981).

Loyalty such as Lubick’s is rare at outposts such as CSU (Nevada, with recently-retired Chris Ault, was another such rare example). Ask most MW observers, and they suspect McElwain will soon enough be presented with the same sort of opportunities that Lubick routinely turned down (including, apparently, a chance at the USC job in 2001 that went to Pete Carroll instead).

In the meantime, CSU is undoubtedly a program on the move, not only because of McElwain, but facility upgrades including a new football complex and a proposed new stadium that would be in the middle of campus instead of the current Hughes Stadium, about five miles away in the foothills. As for that new stadium, it appears about as far over the horizon as some new proposed interstate highway, or airport, which often projects a decade or more into the future. In CSU’s case, it is currently in the “silent” fundraising portion, hoping to raise $110 million by October. If successful, the project apparently proceeds, but even if all goes well, projections are that the Rams would not play a game in their new home until 2020...by which time Hillary Clinton could be preparing for her second term in the White House. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, the Rams and McElwain are plotting an assault on the Mountain half of the MW, but the team did lose some significant star power from last season when record-setting RB Kapri Bibbs (1741 YR and 31 TDs in 2013) declared early for the NFL Draft, ending up in the Denver Broncos camp as a FA after being bypassed at Radio City Music Hall. Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year LB Shaquil Barrett (another Broncos FA) also exhausted his eligibility, as did All-MW C Weston Richburg (Giants 2nd-round pick) and key TE Crockett Gilmore (Ravens 3rd round pick). That’s a lot of prime-cut talent for a Mountain West bowl winner to lose.

Don’t feel too bad for McElwain, however, as he does return seven starters on defense, including almost the entire back seven, and five on offense including another school record-setter, sr. QB Garrett Grayson, who passed for a CSU record 3696 yards in 2013 while piloting one of the most productive offenses in Rams history, averaging 471 yards and ranking 24th nationally while scoring a whopping 36.2 ppg (ranked 22nd). But the departure of the prolific Bibbs, and his capable backup Donnell Alexander (428 YR in 2013), who left the program after last season and transferred to Akron, has created a wide-open race for carries behind Grayson. McElwain and respected o.c. Dave Baldwin conducted auditions at RB all spring, with converted safety Jawen Oden and RS frosh Bryce Peters generating the most buzz. Come fall, however, some true frosh recruits such as Deron Thompson and Johnathon Lewis might get into the frame.

Whoever the backs are will be running behind a mostly rebuilt OL that returns only one starter, LT Ty Sambralio. Grayson will at least have several established receiving targets as five components return who caught 20 or more passes a year ago remain in the mix. Soph Rashard Higgins displayed some real flair when catching 68 passes last season, and TE Kevin Cartwright (27 catches LY) could be a star-in-the-making. In case drives bog down in the oppoennt end of the field, All-MW PK Jared Roberts has converted 30 of 34 FG tries the past two seasons...we can think of a few NFL teams who could use his services.

On the stop end, the defense made some noteworthy strides last season, such as reducing opponent third-down conversions from near 50% down to 37%, despite some glaring weaknesses, mostly in pass defense where the Rams allowed 33 TDs and ranked 114th nationally. To that end, McElwain’s recruiting class loaded up on DBs, with seven inked in the offseason, though all starters return in the secondary. Spring drills also focused heavily on finding a new DL after all of the 2013 starters graduated, and co-d.c.’s Al English and Marty Simmons came out of April with 11 candidates for the open DL positions.

Even with playmaker deluxe Barrett moving to the NFL, the LB corps is likely to be the strength of the platoon, with leading tacklers Max Morgan and Aaron Davis, both ILBs in the Rams’ 3-4, back to wreak more havoc.

CSU brings much momentum into 2014 thanks to the aforementioned win in the New Mexico Bowl, perhaps the wildest bowl of all last season, when the Rams rallied late to erase what had been a 22-point Washington State lead, gifted a chance to win when the Cougars simply failed to take a knee in the last two minutes to throw CSU an incredible lifeline. The Rams would end up winning 48-45 on a last-second Roberts FG, completing a whirlwind 18-point explosion in the final 2:52. Whew!

We’ll find out early if the Rams are ready to take the next step, as the first two games are away from Fort Collins, at Denver in the annual grudge match vs. CU, then at Boise State. But expected West contenders San Diego State and Fresno State are off of the schedule this season, and most Mountain observers believe McElwain should probably get the Rams back to another bowl, even if Utah State and Boise remain a bit out of reach in the Mountain half.

There’s one more reason to like McElwain...his Rams have covered 13 of their last 17 on the board since late 2012.

We’re going to miss Wyoming (SUR 5-7, PSR 5-7) HC Dave Christensen, who had no problem speaking his mind and was one of the coaching favorites of the Mountain West press corps that knew it could always get a worthwhile quote from the affable former Missouri offensive coordinator. We were especially humored by his tirade at quirky Air Force HC Troy Calhoun, accused of gamesmanship (and called a “F__ing flyboy”) by Christensen after a 2012 game.

After Christensen was suspended following that colorful rant, most in the Mountain knew Dave was on thin ice in 2013. And when the defense collapsed at midseason, the handwriting was on the wall in Laramie. Wyo missed out on a bowl again, all the justification that Cowboy AD Tom Burman needed to hit the eject button on Christensen. Who, by the way, has landed quite nicely in Salt Lake City as Kyle Whittingham’s new o.c. for the Utah Utes.

Exit Christensen and enter Craig Bohl, a decorated coach at the FCS level where he led the raging North Dakota State Bison to three straight national titles. No FBS coach enters 2014 with a longer win streak than Bohl’s 24, causing some to wonder if Bohl really is taking much of a step up with this move to remote Laramie, which makes Fargo look like Chicago by comparison.

Bohl reminds of a similar move made by Wyo early in the last decade when hiring Joe Glenn after a successful lower-division run at Northern Colorado and Montana. Wyo backers such as alum Dick Cheney can only hope the Bohl hire works out better, as Glenn could not sustain early success and was run out of Laramie after the 2008 campaign.

The similarity between the Christensen and Bohl Wyo teams, however, likely begins and ends with the Nike-branded collection of uniforms in various shades and combinations of brown and gold. For starters, Bohl ditched Christensen’s pet spread offense in spring and installed a new pro-style attack in its place. But not before Bohl was thrown a couple of nasty curveballs shortly after his hiring, with prolific QB Brett Smith declaring a year early for the NFL Draft (he was bypassed, but signed a FA deal with the Bucs) and his likely successor, soph Jason Thompson, transferring to Utah to reunite with Christensen.

By default, almost, Bohl is likely to go with sr. QB Colby Kirkegaard, who started once for an injured Smith in 2012 but redshirted last season. Bohl, however, is likely to keep the QB competition open into fall camp, when sr. Sam Stratton and soph Tom Thornton will be given one more chance to win the job. The concern for Cowboy backers is that the dropoff from Smith to Kirkegaard was substantial two years ago, raising concerns that the offense will be hard-pressed to come close to the 31.3 ppg it scored a year ago.

Bohl will instead be trying to implement a power run game, not the focus of the offense in Laramie since the days of Jim Kiick in the ‘60s, with slashing jr. Shaun Wick (979 YR in 2013) likely to get the bulk of the workload. All five projected OL starters have starting experience, anchored by jr. RG Jake Jones, who has started every game of his career. The Cowboys ran well enough with Wick to rank a respectable 41st (190.4 ypg) in national rush stats last year, so there’s hope this strategy might work. Three of the top four receivers are also back in the fold, led by glue-fingered sr. Dominic Ruffran, who caught 75 passes, good for 8 TDs, a year ago.

Christensen’s offense, however, wasn’t the reason he was dismissed after last season. It was the defense that was a recurring disaster in recent campaigns and something Christensen couldn’t get right after last year’s woeful platoon finished 109th in scoring (36.7 ppg) and 111th (482 ypg) in total “D” in 2013. It got so bad that Christensen had to fire longtime chum and d.c. Chris Tormey at midseason after a defensive collapse at San Jose State in a 51-44 loss. The Pokes allowed 48 or more points in each of a five-game stretch late last season, suggesting that the platoon might require an exorcism instead of a rebuild.

Having eight starters return from that shredded 2013 stop unit might not be the best of news, but as Bohl has done with the offense, he is altering the defensive look, too (good idea), switching from 3-4 to more-traditional 4-3 looks. Bohl coaches a Tampa 2 defense, which is usually zone-oriented, with the safeties each responsible for half of the field at the back. Already that sounds better than last year, when the safeties performed as if they had no responsibilities.

For what it’s worth, Bohl has said that he likes the look of his DL, All-MW DE Eddie Yarbrough in particular, although we recall the defensive front looking more like it was carpet-bombed a year ago. Bohl and d.c. Steve Stanard, a one-time Sonny Lubick aide at CSU and who had been with Bohl at NDSU, also made position switches at the LB spots (which return all starters), with sr. Mark Nzeocha (the star of spring drills) now manning the strong side and sixth-year sr. Devyn Harris moved from the middle to the weak side. We’ll see if the changes work. Both starters, one-time Frosh All-American (in 2011) Blair Burns, and DeAndre Jones, return on the corners, as well as ex-juco Tyran Finley, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in last year‘s opener at Nebraska after winning a starting job. Stanard will be wanting them to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage as opposed to the loose coverage on display last season.

Wyo has hired a proven winner in Bohl, but the transition to FBS has often been a tricky one for successful lower-division coaches (note the Cowboys’ Joe Glenn example), and the fact he is turning the operation inside-out in Laramie suggests that the adjustment phase could last most of the fall. A schedule that sends the Cowboys to Oregon and Michigan State in September does Bohl no favors, either. Unless QB Kirkegaard is a lot more effective than the last time we saw him in 2012, we really doubt Wyo makes a serious bowl push. Wait until 2015 instead.

Upon reflection, we wonder if a coach has ever decimated a program the way Mike Locksley did at New Mexico (SUR 3-9, PSR 6-6) between 2009-11. In fact, Locksley didn’t last all of 2011, forced to walk the plank early in the season, while assistant George Barlow coached the team for the final eight games. The Lobos won one game in each of those three years (Barlow gets the credit for the 2011 win over UNLV), but we got a better idea of the destruction wrought at last summer’s Mountain West media day in Las Vegas, when listening to current Lobo HC Bob Davie quietly recount what he inherited in Albuquerque. It’s a wonder he didn’t take the aerial tram up to Sandia Peak and just stay up there, rather than deal with the mess at University Stadium.

“We had 51 kids left in the program, and hardly any upperclassmen who had been signed by (Locksley predecessor) Rocky (Long),” said Davie, noting that was 34 below the scholarship limit, and some of those he inherited were walk-ons. “We were starting from scratch, and knew it was going to take us a few years to get the program back to the sort of numbers it needed.” Indeed, Davie was finally able to conduct full-contact workouts in April, a first in his three years of spring ball at UNM, finally having enough bodies on hand.

Davie also recalled his immediate decision to slow down the games with an option-oriented, ground-based attack detonated out of a Pistol formation. “We had to do it,” said Davie, ”because we had to try our best to keep the defense off the field. Shortening the games was our best alternative.”

Given what he inherited, Davie has done quite well to record 4 and 3-win seasons the past two years. But the further the program moves away from the Locksley years, the more Davie is going to have to justify his employment by producing more wins. And the former Notre Dame coach is quickly reaching the point where the mess caused by Locksley can no longer be an excuse (though, to his credit, Davie has never directly criticized the previous regime publicly, instead rather matter-of-factly pointing out what he inherited).

Davie’s version of the Pistol ran the ball 77% of the time last season, helping it to a 4th national rank (309 ypg) in rushing, but has lost top producer Kasey Carrier (2588 YR the past two seasons). Still, Davie and o.c. Bob DeBesse are convinced the Pistol can move the chains without Carrier or his expected successor, Crusoe Gongbay, who was suspended due to legal issues in April. There are no shortage of other alternatives, led by perhaps the fastest man in the program, jr. Jhurell Presley (273 YR and a staggering 9.4 ypc in 2013), and other fast alternatives soph Teriyon Gipso and jr. Carlos Wiggins, who also returned a nation’s best three kickoffs for TDs last fall.

But the man who pulls the trigger for Davie’s version of the Pistol continues to be jr. QB Cole Gautsche, a powerful runner who gained 777 YR and nearly 7 ypc a year ago. Gautsche, however, has two major problems...he can’t throw (only 44% completions last year) and he has had more concussion problems than Ingemar Johansson did against Floyd Patterson in 1960, frequently keeping Gautsche out of the lineup. Former juco and backup Clayton Mitchem, a much better passer (59% completions last season) but not nearly as good a runner as Gautsche, figures to get plenty of snaps again this fall. Six of the top seven pass-catchers return, although we’re not sure Fred Biletnikoff in his prime could do much with Gautsche’s inaccurate throws. Three starters, plus 2012 starting C Garrett Adcock, remain in the fold along the OL.

We’ve been talking a lot about the Lobo offense because the less said about the New Mexico “D” the better. Even Davie, a noted tactician who forged his reputation as a coordinator of the Texas A&M "Wrecking Crew" defenses in the early ‘90s, has been unable to squeeze much out of the limited personnel he has had on hand. Last season, the Lobos were close to a near-impossible trifecta of nation’s worsts in three different defensive stat categories (scoring, 42.8 ppg at 118th, rushing 257 ypg at 120th, and total”D” at 517 ypg and 119th...ouch!). Among other ignominies, New Mexico allowed a staggering 10 TD passes of 30 yards or more last season, and one of last year’s starting CBs, SaQwan Edwards, was suspended in April. Five brave souls who started last season are back for more abuse this fall, including SS David Guthrie, who will be encouraged to play a more aggressive style...which seems a good bit of advice for everyone involved with the platoon. Soph ILB Dakota Cox played with some flair as a frosh last fall when he lead the team in tackles. Juco reinforcements could assume starting roles in Davie’s 3-4 looks, including three incoming defensive linemen plus LB Ryan Langford and CB Daniel Henry (who should be ready for fall after missing spring work).

The schedule is not especially intimidating, and nearby foes UTEP and New Mexico State represent real chances at non-MW wins as they did a year ago (especially the Aggies, bombarded by a 66-17 count early last October). But even if all goes well, we suspect New Mexico is still at least a year away from contending for a bowl berth. Right now we can’t project as much for this season, at least until we see evidence of tangible improvement on the defensive side. Davie’s tactics, however, have been enough to keep the Lobos as a viable pointspread entity the past two seasons, and more of the same, along those lines at least, would come as no surprise in the fall.

We spent a lot of time talking about Air Force (SUR 2-10, PSR 3-9) in our retrospective piece because there might not be much to talk about with the current version of the Falcons, off of their worst-ever SU record (2-10) in program history. Which is troubling news for HC Troy Calhoun, who not only is dealing with another superintendent at the Academy (Michelle Johnson, the first female superintendent, who will serve a three-year stint as have all of her predecessors), but also the prospect of a new AD after Hans Mueh, the man who hired Calhoun, announced he would be retiring from his position at the end of the academic year.

Practically speaking, Calhoun is coaching himself into trouble, with back-to-back sub-.500 records for the first time in his Air Force tenure, and presiding over a general erosion in the program that he inherited from mentor Fisher DeBerry in 2007. Worse, the team seemed to stop competing late last season, a rarity for service academies. By the time of the finale at Colorado State, the Force looked ready to be deployed anywhere else, as the Rams were trying to hold down a score that reached 58-0 before graciously allowing the Flyboys to score twice late and avert complete humiliation.

Moreover, Calhoun is a peculiar sort, more reminiscent of a CIA spook than a college football coach. The Air Force beat writers for the Colorado Springs Gazette have been rotated more often than Buck Showalter has replaced Baltimore Orioles pitchers, so difficult has it been to work around Calhoun, who offers nothing other than the most mundane “coachspeak” if that much to the media. Calhoun would rather talk about fishing or hunting than football, which would be fine if he were guesting on the old episodes of The American Sportsman with Curt Gowdy. But since he’s a football coach, that’s a problem, at least for the flustered press corps covering the team.

Speaking of problems, Calhoun had plenty with his Falcon team last fall, though he caught no breaks with injuries, especially with his QBs who kept going down like bowling pins. By the end of last season, the Air Force offense was almost unrecognizable, with few of the basic option tenets that have been the program’s trademark for the past 35 years. The Falcs were hardly even running option, or doing it well, late in November after veering away from the old-style attack throughout the season as Calhoun preached a more-diverse look.

The Force still ranked 12th nationally last fall in rush stats at 262 ypg, but even those numbers were down from most recent versions that would routinely rank in the top ten. Calhoun and o.c. Clay Hendrix will have to decide if the offense is to return to more of its option roots this fall; if not, Nate Romine, the rare Air Force QB who is a better passer than runner, likely gets the nod as on-field pilot. If Calhoun wants to go more old-style, option-wiz sr. Kale Pearson, who went down early with a knee injury n 2013 and is the type of QB we have gotten used to seeing at the Force since the early ‘80s, will be the trigger-man. There is another run-first alternative, Karson Roberts, who took many snaps last fall when Romine and Pearson were hurting.

What might help the “O” a bit more is if ballyhooed RB Jon Lee, a rare combination of size, speed, and power for a Falcon RB, can stay healthy after nagging ankle and elbow injuries have curtailed his effectiveness. Leading returning rusher Broam Hart, who gained only 449 YR in 2013, could switch from FB to TB if Lee continues to stay on the sidelines.

Up front, however, will be perhaps the biggest OL in Force history, with four likely starters all tipping the scales at 280 pounds or more. Meanwhile, big (6'3"),fast and gifted soph WR Jalen Robinette has caused some Mountain observers to wonder why on earth he would want to play football for the run-oriented Force as his skills better match the many pass-happy programs in the league (we’re sure he wanted to attend the Academy for other reasons than football; if not, we’d say he made the wrong choice).

While the offense dropped from sight last season, the defense never even got on the radar, so comically inept that it allowed a staggering 40 ppg (ranking 116th) and was similarly near the bottom in rush “D” (215 ypg, ranking 119th) and total defense (a staggering 490 ypg, ranking 114th). Which is why the return of seven starters might not be such a positive development.

The best Falcon defenses of the DeBerry and early in the Calhioun era featured ball-hawkers and playmakers (as did the 1958 Falcon team we rhapsodized about in the retrospective piece), but those sorts have been in short supply the past few years, including last season when the Force was -4 in TO margin, ranking 86th nationally. A few key position switches by d.c. Steve Russ in spring could change those dynamics, as SS Dexter Walker moved to OLB and S Jordan Mays moved to a corner spot. Anther problem has been the smallish DL that has had trouble reaching opposing passers lately and features no one weighing more than 265 pounds. Which prompted Russ to experiment with some radical ideas in spring, including unorthodox 2-5 alignments after employing three down linemen much of last season. We would try something different, too, after the platoon conceded a staggering 51 TDs in its eight Mountain West games last season.

Calhoun and the program seem to have lost their way and must get back to Air Force fundamentals (focusing on the option, not the balanced stuff) if the coach wants to save his job, which appears to be in real jeopardy for the first time in his tenure. Calhoun’s once-gaudy pointspread marks have taken a beating lately, too, and there has been no home advantage lately (certainly not vs. the spread) at wind-swept Falcon Stadium, where the Force has dropped 20 of its last 26 vs. the line.

At least Falcon backers still have 1958 to reminisce about. If you haven’t done so yet, read about it in our retrospective piece.


Return To Home Page