July 16, 2011
Eight hyper-specific predictions for the Western Athletic Conference. Part of Mid-Major Week.
• Nevada will average significantly more yards passing than rushing for the first time since 2007, after three consecutive seasons as one of the most dominating ground attacks in any conference. With prolific quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the trigger of the "Pistol," the Wolf Pack led the nation in rushing in 2009, finished third in 2008 and 2010 and sent both Kaepernick and fullback Vai Taua over 1,000 yards on the ground all three years. (Taua graduated as the nation's leading active rusher over the course of his career; Kaepernick leaves as No. 4 in rushing yards and No. 1 in rushing touchdowns.) New quarterback Tyler Lantrip is more of a classic drop-back type who will quickly discourage the option and other designed QB runs that made his predecessor such a nightmare.
• Fresno State will leave for the Mountain West next year with a share of its first WAC championship since 1999, when the Bulldogs split the crown with TCU and Hawaii, but will also leave without a single outright conference title in 14 years under coach Pat Hill. Yes, the Bulldogs do start their final WAC seasons as a bit of a dark horse with just six total starters (two on offense, four on defense), but new quarterback Derek Carr — younger brother of former Fresno great David Carr — and 1,000-yard rusher Robbie Rouse should give the Bulldogs the most balanced attack in the conference.
• Hawaii quarterback Bryan Moniz will be the conference's player of the year. Yeah, yeah, big stretch here, but the former pizza delivery guy has never had a fair crack at the award with more high-profile stars Kellen Moore and Colin Kaepernick in his path. But with both guys gone — along with every other starting quarterback in the entire conference in 2010 — Moniz has a leg up on the competition. His top receivers, Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares, have moved on, but the Warriors do still have senior Royce Pollard and a well-established knack for discovering new targets to plug into the run-and-shoot.
• Idaho will double its rushing output after finishing 2010 as one of just eight teams nationally that failed to crack 100 yards per game on the ground. With NFL-bound quarterback Nathan Enderle pulling the trigger, there wasn't much incentive to hand off, but with Enderle gone and Arizona State transfer Ryan Bass — once a top-100 overall recruit out of high school — joining the backfield, the personnel lends itself to a decidedly more old-school equation.
• Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron will emerge as the best of the conference's many new starters under center. On paper, the Bulldogs look like a run-oriented outfit with 1,000-yard back Lennon Creer and juco transfer Brock Waters opening up the possibility of running more out of the "Wild Dawg" formation. But former "Air Raid" protégé Sonny Dykes is a pass-first coach at heart, and with opposing defenses keyed into the ground game, Cameron will be able to find the comfort level on display in his 275-yard, five-touchdown performance in the spring game.
• San Jose State will follow last year's 0-8 flop in WAC play by upsetting one of the conference's "Big Three" contenders and flirting with a winning conference record. The Spartans open the season as the reigning doormat, thanks to intersection of a first-year head coach, a killer schedule that included five ranked opponents in the first seven games and the most injury-riddled lineup in the nation, resulting in the longest losing streak in the nation — 10 games — to open the season. But four of the final five defeats in that streak came by a touchdown or less, and every starter is back from a defense that can't possibly be worse.
• Utah State will fail to top four wins for the eleventh consecutive season, the second-longest streak in the country behind Eastern Michigan. The Aggies are going through the same transition at quarterback as the rest of the conference, but don't have the prospects there that some of their rivals do, and there's no telling if 2010 injury casualty Robert Turbin can be the same back who rushed for 1,296 and 18 scores in 2009. Utah State has never won more than three games in WAC play and gets no breaks outside of the conference with trips to Auburn and BYU.
• DeWayne Walker will leave New Mexico State at the end of the season for a high-profile defensive coordinator job in a "Big Six" conference, becoming the first I-A/FBS head coach anyone can remember voluntarily leaving to become an assistant at another school. After watching him struggle through his third consecutive 10-loss season at a program that sometimes struggles to feed its own players, though, everyone will understand.