Mountain West spring preview: Chris Petersen looking to replace 17 starters at Boise State

The Mountain West is losing a longtime bully to the Big 12 and bringing in three teams from the WAC.

There’s some symmetry there, actually: While TCU is gone to the “big time,” second-year member Boise State again gets to beat up on Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada – just like in the old days in the WAC.

Fresno State and Hawaii also arrive with new coaches; holdovers Colorado State and New Mexico also made coaching hires. Fresno and New Mexico went with defense-minded guys, while Colorado State and Hawaii chose offensive coordinators.

While Boise State is used to dominating its league opponents, the Broncos face a massive turnover in personnel. They are losing 17 starters, more than any other school in the nation. That means that their last season in the Mountain West before they and San Diego State head off to the Big East could be time for some payback from those they have bullied in the past.

[ Related: The Mountain West-Conference USA merger is now a reality ]

Here’s a look at the Mountain West’s 10 teams as they prepare for spring practice.

AIR FORCE
Spring practice opens: Feb. 24
Final spring practice: March 22 (no spring game)
Buzz: There are holes everywhere. The Falcons have to replace eight starters on both sides of the ball. The secondary and offensive line lost three starters each, and also gone are QB Tim Jefferson and leading rusher Asher Clark. Connor Dietz should be an able replacement at quarterback, but the holes in the line, in the secondary and at tailback could prove tougher to fill.
BOISE STATE
Spring practice opens: March 12
Spring game: April 14 (practice ends April 16)
Buzz: This will be a busy spring for coach Chris Petersen and a revamped staff, as the Broncos have to replace 17 starters. Among the missing starters: QB Kellen Moore, TB Doug Martin, three-fifths of the offensive line and the entire defensive line. Will this simply be a case of Boise State reloading, or is this going to be a rebuilding job? Three assistants moved on, including offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who now is at Florida.

[ Related: Boise State among 10 hot spots for spring practice in 2012]

COLORADO STATE
Spring practice opens: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: New coach Jim McElwain arrives from Alabama, where he won two national titles as the offensive coordinator. Trust us: McElwain already knows he’ll have a lot less talent to work with in Fort Collins. While McElwain oversaw a run-heavy offense with the Tide, he will be more wide-open with the Rams – if he can. His first task is finding a new starting quarterback; Pete Thomas, who held that spot for two seasons, decided to transfer. Improving the run defense, which was 116th nationally last season, will be the first priority for the new defensive staff. One reason last season’s defense struggled is that a number of younger players saw time. Perhaps that seasoning will help this fall.
FRESNO STATE
Spring practice opens: Feb. 28
Spring game: March 25
Buzz: The Bulldogs are one of three teams new to the league, and they enter with a new coach. It’s Tim DeRuyter, who had been the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. But before that, he was defensive coordinator at Air Force, so he knows all about this league. The Bulldogs need a defensive makeover after ranking 100th nationally overall and 106th in scoring defense last season. The back seven on defense has potential, but the line is shaky. Offensively, DeRuyter can build around junior QB Derek Carr, who threw for 3,544 yards and 26 TDs last season, his first as the starter. There is some solid skill-position talent on hand in TB Robbie Rouse and WR Jalen Saunders. The offensive line needs two new starters. There are four new coaches in the league, and DeRuyter inherits the best situation.
HAWAII
Spring practice opens: March 17
Spring game: April 28
Buzz: Here’s another new program with a new coach. Norm Chow, a Hawaii native who had been offensive coordinator at Utah, takes over the Warriors. Chow’s hiring was heralded as great news on the islands, but this program needs an infusion of talent on defense and along the offensive line. Finding a new quarterback, a new go-to receiver and a feature back are must-do items this spring. Linebacker and tackle are potential trouble spots on defense.
NEVADA
Spring practice opens: March 30
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: The Wolf Pack, the last of the three newcomers from the WAC, has won 20 games in the past two seasons, and coach Chris Ault’s “Pistol” offense has been the big reason. QB Cody Fajardo is a good, well, trigger-man for the “Pistol.” But a new tailback needs to emerge. Nevada also needs a new go-to receiver and has to replace two starting offensive linemen. Defensively, the front seven needs to be rebuilt after the loss of the best lineman and the two best linebackers.
NEW MEXICO
Spring practice opens: March 27
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: This will be the first spring practice overseen by new coach Bob Davie since 2001, when he was at Notre Dame. He takes over a program that has won a combined three games in the past three seasons. A majority of the starters return, but so what? Davie and his staff need to find offensive playmakers and try to fashion a defense that knows how to stop the run. While Mike Locksley had a disastrous reign as coach, he did bring in some talented players. Now, it’s up to Davie to wring the potential out of those guys.

[ Related: Big-money recruiting wars are on the rise for college football assistants ]

SAN DIEGO STATE
Spring practice opens: Feb. 21
Final spring practice: March 22
Buzz: The Aztecs’ best players on offense last season were TB Ronnie Hillman and QB Ryan Lindley. Both are gone. Two of the three best defensive players are gone, too, in LB Miles Burris and CB Larry Parker. In short, then, this is an important spring for coach Rocky Long. TCU’s departure would seem to open up the field, so to speak, behind Boise State, but will the Aztecs have enough offense? Finding a quarterback, a tailback and two new tackles this spring would be a good start.
UNLV
Spring practice opens: March 12
Spring game: April 20
Buzz: The Rebels have won two games in each of the past two seasons. Third-year coach Bobby Hauck had big-time success at FCS member Montana, but he took over a UNLV program that was bereft of talent. The defense was atrocious last season, against the run and the pass. And the passing offense was the third-worst in the nation and lost star WR Phillip Payne. Quarterback play has been a mess, and finding a guy who is consistent should be the highest priority. UNLV was small in the front seven on defense last season, and that could be a problem again.
WYOMING
Spring practice opens: March 19
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: The Cowboys won eight games last season, their most wins since 1998. But despite their 8-5 record, they were outscored by 22 on the season, so there is room for improvement, especially against the run (the Cowboys were 115th nationally in rush defense). Brett Smith was one of the best freshman quarterbacks in the nation last season, but he’ll operate behind a rebuilt line and with a new starting tailback. He has a nice group of receivers, though. Defensively, the Cowboys need to find as way to get more size on the field. Coaches also need to find some pass rushers.

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