Part of the Doc's Mid-Major Week.
The Y on high. I see the annual three-way tussle at the top of the Mountain West moving back where it lived in 2006-07, when BYU won 16 straight MWC games and took four straight over Utah and TCU by a combined 28 points. With even higher expectations, the Cougars clearly regressed last year, losing to TCU by 25, Utah by 24 and Arizona by 10 in the bowl while barely squeaking by Washington, UNLV and Colorado State in the final two minutes of each of those games. Of the MWC's "Big Three," BYU was clearly No. 3.
This time around, though, the Cougars return easily the best quarterback in the conference, Max Hall, and maybe the best receiver in tight end Dennis Pitta; Harvey Unga was an 1,100-yard rusher. Last year's youth movement on defense yields eight returning starters, the highest number in the league outside of Wyoming, under the same coordinator (Jaime Hill) who coached the units that finished 10th nationally in scoring defense two years in a row in 2006-07. But the real difference in the optimism here is Hall, the runaway favorite as the MWC's best offensive player as a senior, when Utah replaces last year's star, Brian Johnson, and TCU forges ahead with the adequate but uninspiring Andy Dalton. The Utes and Frogs both visit Provo, too.
(With the opener against Oklahoma and Florida State coming in two weeks later, there won't be a significant BCS challenge this time around. If the Cougars manage to escape those games, well, it's probably not worth thinking about.)
On not fighting the last war. I've laid out the case against Utah before, which goes something like this:
• The Utes lost 60 percent of last year's yards from scrimmage -- most of them created one way or another by Johnson, the MWC offensive player of the year -- as well as the three leading receivers.
• In addition to Johnson, they lose five of six first-team All-MWC picks, including an All-American kicker/punter who was 11 for 11 on field goals in four wins decided by a field goal or less.
• They won four games by a field goal or less, a red flag for any team losing so much of the core of its team, especially when the numbers say they were largely outplayed in the last-second comebacks against Oregon State and TCU.
• They have to travel to TCU and BYU.
• None of Kyle Willigham's first three Utah teams finished higher than third place.
Given the obvious holes on offense and the sheer volume of talent departing, it's a concession to the Utes' success as a program that they're not considered vulnerable to anyone from the bottom half of the conference. The defense should still be pretty good.
Fresh meat. Three of the bottom four teams here have new coaches from the Midwest -- Mike Locksley (Illinois offensive coordinator/recruiting guru) at New Mexico, Dave Christensen (Missouri offensive coordinator) at Wyoming and Brady Hoke (Ball State head coach) at San Diego State -- all of whom figure to liven up a fairly stodgy offensive enivronment. Of that group, the one to watch is probably Locksley at New Mexico. The Lobos had been to three straight bowl games before last year's second half collapse (five losses in the last six) and have a potentially dangerous, Juice Williams-esque option in the shotgun, Donovan Porterie, who missed the last seven games last year. As Troy Calhoun and Steve Fairchild proved with quick turnarounds at Air Force and Colorado State the last two years, there's usually an opening for a new coach to make a quick impact.