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Stevens: A June Look At MWC Football
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  06/23/2011
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

June 23, 2011

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    By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

    The College football season is here. The sports magazines are tossing out their preseason predictions, placing coaches on hot seats, predicting all-conference players and talking about big games.

    Big games like maybe Oklahoma vs. Alabama in the national championship game; TCU vs. Boise State for the Mountain West crown; Oregon vs. Stanford for the Pac-12 title and on and on.

    And one of the bigger games of the 2011 collegiate season will be played September 3 in University Stadium when the New Mexico Lobos host the Colorado State Rams.

    Sure, it's not exactly a marquee game that will dominate national headlines or steal major minutes on ESPN's SportsCenter. But this game is huge for both programs, both head coaches, and could be pivotal to the Lobos and the Rams' shot at postseason play.

    It's a game marked by similarities. Both the Lobos and the Rams want to make up for back-to-back seasons of underachievement and charge into postseason play. In Fort Collin, they are eyeing a 6-6 season that includes a win over New Mexico.

    The preseason picks for the 2011 Mountain West race are still rolling in, but there are some distinct marks of separation that should be consistent in evaluating this restructured conference. Here's a thumbnail June look at the upcoming MWC race and UNM`s league opponents:

  • At The Top: With Utah and BYU out of the race, Boise State and TCU will be the heavy favorites in the race for the 2011 title.

    Expect Boise State to be given the edge over TCU, the reigning MWC champ. Boise State has one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in Kellen Moore (38-2 as a starter) a great tailback in Doug Martin (6.0 yards per carry), a massive offensive line, and a defensive that could prove to be the best in the conference.

    The Broncos have another huge edge. They get to host the TCU Horned Frogs on Nov. 12 in Boise.

    TCU lost quarterback Andy Dalton and there are some questions about how well TCU will pass the ball behind sophomore QB Casey Pachall. There shouldn't be any questions about the TCU running game. The Frogs are loaded and deep in the backfield. TCU has some major holes to fill on the offensive line. The TCU defense should be exceptional, if the secondary matures quickly.

  • The Second Tier:The second tier in the MWC probably will be looked at as a two-horse race in most major publications. The combatants at this level are the Aztecs from San Diego State and the Falcons of Air Force. Expect both teams to reach the postseason.

    The Aztecs have a new head coach, but ex-Lobo (11 seasons) Rocky Long is no rookie to the MWC wars. He has a stud in quarterback Ryan Lindley, who threw for 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns a year ago. The Aztecs running game is solid behind Ronnie Hillman, the MWC's 2010 Freshman of The Year, who ran for 1,532 yards last season.

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    The SDSU O-line looks good with four starters back, but the Aztecs lost two 1,000-yard receivers. SDSU has lots of talent and speed on defense and that unit is one more season into Long's aggressive 3-3-5 attack. The Aztecs went 9-4 in 2010. SDSU might be hard pressed to repeat that record, but look good enough to return to the postseason.

    To beat Air Force you have to slow down the option attack that rolled out almost 4,000 rushing yards in 2010. That task might be easier if teams only had to stop the run, but the Falcons have a dual-threat weapon in quarterback Tim Jefferson. Jefferson threw the ball 159 times last year for 1,459 yards. He also ran for 794 yards.

    Air Force is once again small up front on both lines, but the Falcons play fast, determined and focused. If their defense can bend and not break much, the Air Force's offense is good enough to win a lot of games.

  • The Rest: The dogfight at this level will be a nasty and intense one simply because there are four teams looking at maybe one postseason bid for the MWC's No. 5 team.

    That's why the Lobos/Rams opener looks to be one of the more interesting openers in college football. This is a game of significance right out of the gates.

    It will be interesting how football publications rank New Mexico, Colorado State, Wyoming and UNLV in their preseason polls. CSU probably will be given the edge, but you could list these four teams in any order. CSU and Wyoming went 3-9 last year, UNLV went 2-11 and the Lobos posted a 1-11 mark. All four of these teams have much to prove in 2011.

    Like it or not, admit it or not, but Colorado State's Steve Fairchild (back-to-back 3-9 seasons) is teetering above the proverbial hot seat of coaching and eyeing New Mexico Lobos as part of his escape route.

    One thing the Rams and Fairchild do admit and that's the need to post some turnaround numbers on the scoreboard and in the win column. Of course, that puts immediate emphasis on the Rams' trip to University Stadium.

    CSU has a young, but good, quarterback in sophomore Pete Thomas, who completed 64 percent of his throws for 2,662 yards. He will be standing behind an experienced offensive line and will have decent running backs.

    The Rams lost their only All-MWC defender and CSU has a lot of question marks on defense. One thing the Rams seem to embrace with a passion is that toughness can make up for a lack of talent. The Rams play hard.

    CSU's ho-hum non-conference slate includes Northern Colorado, San Jose State, Utah State and UTEP. You can bet that the Rams are eying Lobos, Cowboys and Rebels as part of their ticket to the postseason. CSU rolled up 584 total yards in beating UNM 38-14 last year in Fort Collins. The Rams also lost 44-0 to Wyoming.

    UNLV lost quarterback Omar Clayton and that will hurt. The Rebs are looking at sophomore Caleb Herring and transfer Sean Reilly to fill that hole. CSU also has some major holes to fill on the O-line, but there is talent in the backfield and UNLV has good receivers.

    The Rebs' defense gave up 39.7 points per game last year and is looking at a major rebuilding year. If these Rebs can scratch their way into the postseason, UNLV coach Bobby Hauck should be a candidate for MWC Coach of The Year.

    Does anyone remember who won the New Mexico Bowl in 2009? It was the Wyoming program that went 3-9 in 2010 and handed UNM its only win.

    The Cowboys lost two-year starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels and that was a major blow producing a hole that probably can`t be filled this season.

    Actually, Wyoming has a lot of major holes to fill on offense and the Cowboys obvious strength this season will be up front on defense. The Cowboys need to get into low-scoring games in 2010 in order to find success. That might be a tough thing to accomplish.

    So, in a thumbnail June look at MWC football, it stacks up like this:

    Boise State and TCU battling for the crown. SDSU and Air Force looking like locks for bowl bids, but surely dreaming of upsets and MWC titles. Lobos, CSU, Wyoming and UNLV looking for dramatic improvement in their records and hoping to be the MWC team that scratches its way to 6-6 and into a bowl.

    And don't forget about that big game: Sept. 3 at University Stadium.

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