June 26, 2012
New Mexico Lobos Football - A June Look At The Mountain West
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In a way, looking down the road at Mountain West football is kind of like guessing what kind of soup a chef is brewing when he hasn't even tossed in the main ingredient.
Chicken or beef? Red or green? Boise State or not?
And there is still a season of fall preparation before any of the Mountain teams take to the grass or turf. Regardless of all the uncertainty and change ahead, national publications have gone to print -- or to the internet -- and inked out their preseason predictions.
Of course, even if the Broncos decide to bolt to the Big East in 2013, they are locked into the MW in 2012 and are predicted to be the bully on the Mountain block. They are excellent even without quarterback Kellen Moore and running back Doug Martin.
What we know for sure is that the Mountain West of 2012 also will feature Fresno State, Wyoming, San Diego State, Nevada, Air Force, Hawaii, Colorado State, UNLV and our Lobos. We also know the Lobos have much to prove and Bob Davie's program is challenged by being placed at the bottom of the Mountain.
If you divide this conference into simplified tiers, you probably have:
Tier One: Boise State
Tier Two: Fresno State, Nevada, Wyoming, San Diego State and maybe Air Force.
Tier Three: Everybody else; New Mexico, Hawaii, Colorado State, UNLV and maybe Air Force.
It will be tough for anyone else to challenge Boise State for a spot in Tier One and it would take a lot of overachieving for anyone in Tier Three to slip past any of the teams in Tier Two. Air Force might be the best bet to fall into Tier Three. But the games still have to be played. We'll see what happens.
The Mountain West loses TCU this season as the Horned Frogs first bolted to the Big East but changed the direction of their leap and ended up in the Big 12. The Mountain will add Utah State and San Jose State in 2013 and lose SDSU to the Big East.
We'll figure out the 2013 participants next year.
If you want to take the time to study the Mountain West schedule, you probably can see ways that Boise State, Nevada, SDSU, Fresno State, Air Force and Wyoming can slip into bowl games. CSU might be the best bet in Tier Three.
The Lobos took a mild slap from Athlon Sports Magazine as only one Lobo was named to the pre-season All-Mountain Team (Reggie Ellis, 2nd Team), but Davie knows his Lobos have some climbing and proving to do. He is realistic in evaluating his program.
Both Athlon and Lindy's Sports picked the Lobos to finish in the Mountain's cellar. A chip on the Lobos' shoulder might not be a bad thing to carry into the season.
The problem with evaluating a program in June is that there are still jobs to be won or lost in all football camps and there will be some injuries - and possibly some defections. But football has grabbed this nation's passion and summer will soon melt into August drills and September games.
The Mountain has a new look for time-tested Lobo fans, but Davie is looking at this conference as a Mountain coach for the first time. He likely will concentrate more on what his Lobos are about - and what they need to be. For Lobo fans, the look is more twisted. Gone are Brigham Young, Utah and TCU. Boise State and San Diego State might both be gone in 2013.
However, there are exciting changes and new rivalries on the way. Here is a June thumbnail look at the Lobos' Mountain opponents:
Boise State: The Broncos lose Moore and Joe Southwick appears to be the heir to the huddle. The defense returns a single starter and that rebuilding project should give other Mountain teams some hope. However, the Broncos have been outstanding for several years and their rebuilding issues typically are more an issue of reloading. Tradition rarely lacks talent. Boise has won 50 games over the past four seasons. There hasn't been much rebuilding.
Nevada: The Wolf Pack comes out of the WAC as a top tier team and should fall into the same tier in the Mountain. But below Boise State's tier. Nevada's quarterback Cody Fajardo was the 2011 WAC freshman of The Year throwing for more than 1,700 yards and running for almost 700. The UNM Lobos are trying to move to a "Pistol" attack, but the Wolf Pack are already there - with lots of weapons and a revamped coaching staff. They should be solid.
Wyoming: The Cowboys also produced a Freshman of The Year in quarterback Brett Smith. His numbers were even more impressive than Fajardo's. Smith threw for 2,622 yards and ran for more than 700. Wyoming beat every team in the Mountain last year except for TCU and Boise to finish a surprise third and go bowling. The Wyoming defense is ornery and Wyoming has another edge. They believe.
Fresno State The Bulldogs are one of four MW teams with a first-year coach. They are expected to spread their offense out a bit and utilized the one-two punch of quarterback Derek Carr and tailback Robbie Rouse. They lost a top-notch receiver via transfer and need to fill some holes on defense. The key might be Carr's adaptation to the spread offense. Rouse likely will run well out of that formation. The Bulldogs also are moving from a 4-3 defensive look to a 3-4. There are lots of new tricks to teach these old dogs.
San Diego State: The Aztecs, like Boise, lost a top-notch arm in Ryan Lindley. SDSU needs to find a capable replacement and Oregon State transfer Ryan Katz is in the mix along with the returning Adam Dingwell. The Aztecs also lost RB Ronnie Hillman. Those holes probably won't be filled at the same level, but the Aztecs' defense appears to be improving each year under Rocky Long's 3-3-5 look and might take some of the pressure off the offensive unit. The Aztecs are looking for their third consecutive bowl trip and are strong in receiving positions.
Air Force: The Falcons have tradition, too, but they lost a lot and return eight starters -- total. The biggest blow is the loss of four-year starting quarterback Tim Jefferson. They also lost a stud in the backfield in tailback Asher Clark, who had two seasons of 1,000-plus yards. The Falcons' holes on offense also are a key blow to the defense. Air Force's veer was ball control and clock control and that helped keep a porous defense on the sidelines. If the Falcons don't improve on defense under a first-year coordinator, the Air Force veer will need to stay on the field a whole lot in 2012.
Colorado State: The Rams are getting a lot of credit for snatching Jim McElwain away from Alabama where he coached the offense for two seasons. There is that first-year-coach energy in Fort Collins and a tough running back in Chris Nwoke, a 1,000 yard runner. McElwain won't have the same offensive talent that he had at Alabama and needs to solidify an inconsistent CSU defense. If the Rams can add a little luck in 2012, they have the talent to produce a bowl season.
Hawaii: The Warriors also have a first-year head man in Norm Chow, who has had considerable success as Hawaii's offensive coordinator. He also did well at Brigham Young. The Warriors lost a lot of talent from 2011, but Chow's teams have always moved the football. But can they play defense? That might be the Warriors' key in 2012. That defense will be tested early. The Warriors open at Southern Cal and also visit BYU.
UNLV: Can anyone say "hot seat?" Hot might be the chair temperature for Rebels' Bobby Hauck, whose squads have gone 4-21 over the past two seasons. It's easy to see the Rebels' keys for 2011. It's called offense and defense. UNLV did not move the ball very well in 2011 and did not stop the ball very well either. The Rebs' running game should be better in 2012 with all starters back on the OL. There are a lot of other questions about the Rebs, but their talent level and depth has improved.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.