CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT. No team in
the MWC has played more than two league encounters as October nears the end of
its second full week. It's the time of the season when coaches, players and fans
all delude themselves into thinking anything and everything is still possible
where claiming a league title or snatching a bowl berth is concerned. Such
thinking is nothing less than optimism run amok. For New Mexico or UNLV to win
the conference title, either of them would need to assay a greater comeback than
the one made by Lazarus.
Coaches will forge ahead in undaunted manner, though clueless, as to the impossibility of what lies before them. There is no script waiting to be performed which will see various emerge as champions of the MWC. The Sonny days which followed coach Lubick's arrival in Fort Collins have been replaced by the stark reality that there will be no league title forthcoming this fall.
In advance of the next six weeks of games and their outcomes, here's a glance at which teams may remain in the chase for bowl bids while awaiting what seems to be an inevitable repeat performance by the Utah Utes.
AIR FORCE. Fisher DeBerry's twenty-first team did not begin the season with one of the fast starts which have been his hallmark. Not only have the Falcons lost two of three home games against division 1-A opponents, they've done so in disquieting fashion. On three occasions thus far, Air Force has failed to score a point in the third period, including the past two games in Falcon Stadium against Navy and New Mexico.
Air Force has limped, rather than sprinted, to the finish line in the past three seasons having posted 2-5 marks over the final seven games of each season.
Since the formation of the MWC as a football entity for the1999 season, the Falcons have compiled a 9-9 record in the month of November and an even more inept 4-8 record in league games in the same month.
Freshman QB Shaun Carney has established himself as a poised and capable tactician in leading the Falcons' option oriented attack. While not as fleet afoot as most of the QBs who have led DeBerry's offense over the past two decades, Carney has already demonstrated he may become the best passer in the DeBerry era of academy football. If offensive coordinator, Chuck Peterson, and Carney can lift AFA from its third quarter doldrums the team should be able to be competitive in every game remaining on its schedule.
With three of the team's remaining conference games scheduled for Falcon Stadium and the other in Laramie, the Falcons won't have to battle travel fatigue. This team should remain in the chase for a bowl bid.
BYU. The Cougars will enter this weekend's game against Wyoming ranked last--117th--in rushing among division 1-A teams. Gary Crowton's team is averaging a shade less than 67 yards a game on the ground. Ironically, its inability to run the ball is cause for concern for both BYU and its opponents.
If the Cougars were able to generate some semblance of a ground attack they would relieve pressure from their passing game. Because the Cougars have been unable to move the ball effectively via the rush, they have been forced to attempt 40-50-60 passes a game. A team which throws the ball that often needs only to have sporadic success against pass defenses in order to move the ball down the field and into scoring position. No defensive coordinator in the MWC relishes a game in which his charges are faced with the prospect of having to defend 50 or more BYU pass attempts. The Law of Averages mandates the Cougars will hit a few bombs along the way, and perhaps just enough to keep them in the contest.
On an annual basis BYU plays the most difficult non-conference schedule in the MWC. A victory this year against a far better Notre Dame team than was forecast and a road contest versus Boise State have prepared the Cougars for the rigors of the conference tour awaiting them. The Cougars came within a hair's breadth of stopping the nation's longest winning streak in Boise on the Broncos' blue turf. The Cougars were gored by Southern Cal, but there's no surprise or dishonor in that result. Losing at home to UNLV is entirely another matter.
If RBs Fahu Tahi and Curtis Brown can give the Cougars enough proficiency in the running game to keep opposing defenses off-balance to a greater degree than has been the case thus far in 2004, the BYU QB du jour, should enjoy more success in throwing the ball. Road games against AFA--to whom BYU has lost two straight--and Utah are the biggest obstacles in the Cougars' path to a bowl game bid.
CSU. An arduous non-conference schedule featuring games against Colorado, Minnesota and Southern Cal submerged the Rams to an uncustomary depth from which they appear unlikely to rise by season's end.
It's hard to imagine that CSU is still looking for its first win against a division 1-A opponent as mid-October dawns on college football's landscape. While defensive coordinator, Larry Kerr, has been replaced since leaving for UCLA two years ago, the team's lackluster performance on defense continues to underscore his absence.
A conference opening loss at home to BYU, in which the Rams surrendered more than 200 yards rushing to major college football's worst ground attack, serves to demonstrate how drastic the situation is confronting the CSU's defenders.
The Rams are scarcely better than BYU when it comes to running the ball as the team's 112th ranking attests. The hullabaloo surrounding RB Marcus Houston's arrival two years ago, now seems nothing more than a footnote consigned to the pages of intercollegiate football history.
On offense, the team enjoys the fifth most productive passing regime in division 1-A with QB Justin Holland directing an attack gaining over 320 yards per contest through the air. WR David Anderson is as electrifying a receiver as there is in the MWC. The combination of any sign of improved running, a measure more of defense and Holland's ability to avoid untimely interceptions could result in the Rams being able to mount a threat for a bowl bid. Road dates with SDS, Utah and AFA will present stern, individual and collective challenges.
SAN DIEGO STATE. Tom Craft's squad is the most schizophrenic bunch in the MWC. Blessed with enough talent to build a, 21-17, half-time lead against Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Aztecs are also cursed by a maddening inability to produce when the situation necessitates it.
SDS has lost all three of its road games and done so in a distressing manner. In losing to Michigan and Wyoming the Aztecs failed to register a second half point. Against UCLA San Diego State managed only a single TD. Three games, which yield a grand total of seven points, won't equate to many--if any--road wins.
The Aztecs' undoing in Laramie proved to be a punting game which saw the team total 25 yards on three third quarter efforts. The Cowboys scored the first 10 of their second half 17 points in the stanza and seized control of the outing.
LBs Kirk Morrison and Matt McCoy anchor a defense that will keep SDS competitive in most games. Unless and until QB Matt Dlugolecki and RB Michael Franklin can become more productive behind a patchwork offensive line, decimated by injuries, the Aztecs will have problems scoring enough to help their defensive counterparts. In short, the Aztecs' history of playing just-well-enough to lose to more talented teams and just-poorly- enough to lose games it shouldn't seems to be continuing in 2004. Road meetings with Air Force and BYU will show if the trend vanishes or victimizes the Aztecs.
UNLV. It's tempting, but cynical, to posit that John Robinson's failure to announce his impending retirement earlier than he did, is the major obstacle against which the Rebels have had to struggle this season. Still, it's true that UNLV dropped its first four games this year, but have won two in a row since Robinson said he'll bid adieu to the coaching ranks come year's end.
Inconsistent play by QBs Kurt Nantkes and Shane Steichen has kept UNLV's offense from growing teeth with which to bite opposing defenses. HB Dominique Dorsey is a dervish, but without the stature to carry the team's entire offensive load on his shoulders throughout the season. WR Earvin Johnson is an island surrounded by a sea of defenders because UNLV has no legitimate second threat to whom it can throw the ball on a regular basis. Indeed, the team's fortunes may rise and fall on the play of linebacker Adam Seward, the MWC's career tackling leader. The team's offense ranks 85th in the nation, while the defense is slightly more accomplished coming in at 80th. Opposing teams need not fear a game altering performance on the part of either bunch.
It's difficult to assess with any degree of accuracy for what period of time Robinson's departure will continue to motivate this underachieving outfit. Playing home games in front of a largely unfilled Sam Boyd Stadium does little to inspire heroic efforts from the Rebels. With a loss to Air Force already on the books and road games with Utah, CSU and SDS still to be played, UNLV is a longshot to win the requisite number of games to become bowl qualified.
New Mexico. Rocky Long's Lobos were bona fide contenders for the MWC last fall, but have already fallen deep into the ranks of also-rans. UNM has lost two conference games and must travel to Las Vegas, Fort Collins and Provo during the remainder of league play.
QB Casey Kelly graduated last spring and his successors--Kole McKamey and Tali Ena--have done nothing to make fans in Albuquerque forget him. UNM ranks 115th in passing yardage in division 1-A and has completed less than 40% of its attempts. The Lobos' 2 TD passes are tied for the lowest such total in major college football. When it comes to the passing game New Mexico seems to have taken a page from the Clinton Administration by employing the "don't ask, Don'Trell " system of throwing the ball.
Sensational TB, DonTrell Moore, suffered a knee injury while returning a punt against New Mexico State last month and has been a faded and fading facsimile of the runner he was in 2003. The Lobos' punchless offense leaves the team's defense having to spend lengthy stretches of time on the field. Undersized at 5-11/209 (and both figures are generous) LB Fola Fashola is having a season worthy of all-conference recognition, but it's going largely without notice because the team is 2-4.
Should Moore's knee recover to an extent where he can begin to produce the dazzling runs that were his trademark through the entire 2003 season, the Lobos could spring an upset or two on unwary conference foes and have an effect on the chase for bowl berths. New Mexico is a team which certainly won't be making travel plans for the postseason.
UTAH. Annually, the brass at the mythical headquarters of the BCS lives in fear and trembling that an interloper from--gasp--a non-BCS conference will play well enough to snake and sneak its way up enough slippery slopes in the national polls to warrant inclusion in its postseason gala. Oh, the horror of it all!
One by one the would be intruders fall by the wayside allowing the BCS bozos to offer invites to its rank and file members, and leaving them to hope: thus will it ever be.
Enter this year's ongoing nightmare for the BCS, Utah. Leading the MWC in total offense, total defense, scoring average and fewest points allowed Urban Meyer's Utes seem to be a team without a loose thread at which to pull.
Texas A & M--currently 4-1 and ranked in the top 25 in several polls--opened its season by finding itself on the short end of a, 27-0, score with three minutes remaining in the first half when it traveled to Salt Lake to face Utah. In the parlance of twenty and thirty somethings, Utah is the real deal.
In a conference generally bereft of teams capable of playing representatively against the best teams in BCS affiliated conferences, Utah is the current voice in the wilderness crying to be heard.
With just two roads game left in the conference, the schedule certainly weighs in the Utes' favor where compiling an undefeated record is at issue.
QB Alex Smith, WRs Paris Warren and Steve Savoy along with RB Marty Johnson provide more than enough firepower to scorch any team in the MWC. An offense which averages well over 200 yards a game on the ground and through the air, affords opposing defenses few soft spots to exploit.
In theory, every team has weak points. After having watched Utah play three times this season I'll be damned if I know what the Utes' Achilles' heel is right now. You can be sure the BCS hopes someone discovers and exploits Utah's foibles, tout de suite. Until it been shown to be suspect Utah remains an overwhelming choice to repeat as MWC champ and crash the BCS' postseason gala.
WYOMING. Let the naysayers have their day. It's true that Wyoming has posted half its wins this fall over some of the most talent impoverished have-nots in college football. Appalachian State is a division 1-AA entrant and Louisiana-Monroe is a bottom feeder in the Sun Belt Conference, division 1-A's version of the Keystone Kops with shoulder pads.
There are often more empty seats in War Memorial Stadium than filled ones. Fans wanted Wyoming to win before they bought tickets to attend games. Now Joe Glenn's team is doing that, but people haven't been there in person to take notice. Its their loss, and while I'm at it, shame on them as well.
Let the record show that over the course of its most recent dozen games Wyoming has posted a 7-5 record. There will continue to be bumps in the road before the 'Pokes become competitive on a weekly basis in the MWC.
The Cowboys need to establish a forceful running game to make its offense more robust and give QB Corey Bramlet assistance in moving the ball.
The team's perceived upset of San Diego State last week, opened eyes throughout the conference. While critics saw yet another Aztecs' flop more astute observers recognized the continuing transformation wrought by Glenn in less than a season and a half. Back to back road games against BYU and CSU in the next two weeks will reveal with piercing clarity if the 'Pokes are going to be among the cluster of teams scrambling for bowl bids allotted to those eligible and qualified MWC teams.
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