Dr. Saturday

Mountain West Forecast: Evolving Mtn. welcomes its new Bronco overlords

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

Eight hyper-specific predictions for the Mountain West Conference. Part of Mid-Major Week.

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Different conference, same old story for Boise State, which will do to the Mountain West what it did to the WAC: Dominate it. Quarterback Kellen Moore is on pace to break the FBS career mark in wins — he's 38-2 in his three seasons — and returns the bulk of the offensive line and running game that has made the Broncos such a consistent offensive threat. Look for Boise to take down the MWC's reigning power, TCU, on Nov. 12, with a little nod to the conference bigwigs who moved the game to the blue turf.

TCU's 25-game regular season winning streak will come to an end before its visit to Boise in November. The defense will be alright despite heavy attrition, but with a new quarterback (sophomore Casey Pachall) and four new starters on the offensive line, the Frogs will go down at some point in the first eight games with less than 17 points on the board.

After snapping a seven-year drought in 2010, Air Force will take the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy as the top service academy for the second year in a row. Prior to last year, the Falcons last held the trophy for six consecutive seasons from 1997-2002. But since 2003, the honor had belonged exclusively to Navy, which ripped off 15 straight wins over it Commander-in-Chief rivals until Air Force snapped the streak last October.{YSP:MORE}

Colorado State will improve its rushing output by 50 yards per game on and finish in the top half of the conference on the ground. That's a bold statement, considering the Rams finished near the bottom of the league on the ground in 2010 and don't have any of the MWC's four returning 1,000-yard rushers. But they do return backs Raymond Carter and Chris Nwoke, four of the five starters from last year's young offensive line and a sophomore quarterback, Pete Thomas, who has the arm and now the chops to open up defenses after taking more than his share of lumps as a true freshman.

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San Diego State's scoring average will fall back below 30 points per game despite the return of prolific quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman, the MWC's leading returning rusher. The Aztecs put up 35 points per game in 2010, easily their highest mark since 1996, but will sorely miss Michigan-bound offensive coordinator Al Borges and NFL-bound targets Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, the two most productive receivers in the conference by a very wide margin.

Wyoming will win more games over the first half of 2011 than it did in all of 2010, when it finished 3-9. True, the Cowboys will be forced to start a true freshman quarterback after watching four veterans ride into the sunset since the end of last season, but they also get Weber State, Texas State, Bowling Green, Utah State and UNLV before a mid-October bye week. The Pokes should be favored to win at least four of those before the going gets much tougher down the stretch.

UNLV will win exactly as many games this year as it did a year ago — two. It's not that UNLV didn't get better during the offseason or even as the season progressed a year ago. It's that the Rebels still aren't where a lot of the other Mountain West teams are in terms of confidence, and a non-conference slate that includes games at Wisconsin, at Washington State and against Hawaii probably won't do too much to boost that swagger. (Though that Washington State game just might.) Coach Bobby Hauck knew he'd have a rebuilding project when he took over a year ago, but with just nine returning starters, the turnaround is probably not going to happen this year.

New Mexico coach Mike Locksley will make it through the season without being accused of punching anyone on his own sideline, but he won't survive into 2012 as the Lobos' head coach. Locksley avoided the ax last year thanks to a $1.5 million obligation to the state to buy out the rest of his contract, and his third team in Albuquerque should be better than his first two. But that's not saying quite enough: As embarrassing as the Lobos were in 2009-10, even dramatic improvement leaves them well behind the pack.

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Some predictions contributed by Graham Watson.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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