Breaking down the WAC schedules

For years, Boise State has been the class of the WAC and that probably won’t change in 2010, but the rest of the conference needs to catch up. With a couple new coaches and some in their second season, the WAC looks like it could have more parity.

Boise State is at the top, but it’s anyone’s game after that, and teams such as Nevada and Fresno State are looking to keep their spots near the top of the heap.

The WAC released its schedule earlier this week, so I decided to take a look at the nonconference slates, as well as the key games and stretches in the conference schedule.

Boise State Broncos

Sept. 6: Virginia Tech at FedEx Field (10-3)

Sept. 18: at Wyoming (7-6)

Sept. 25: Oregon State (8-5)

Oct. 9: Toledo (5-7)

Combined record: 30-21

Combined winning percentage: .588

FCS schools: 0

2009 Top 25 teams: 1

Bowl teams: 3

Key conference game/stretch: Boise State plays back-to-back Friday night games against Fresno State (Nov. 19) and Nevada (Nov. 26). Those two teams will once again be the top challengers for the WAC title and playing them late in the season will help Fresno State and Nevada gather some momentum leading up to the Boise State game. Fresno State shouldn’t be too tough at home, but going to Reno will be interesting, especially since Nevada made a late comeback attempt in the last meeting there in 2008.

Nonconference skinny: This is one of the best nonconference schedules Boise State has played in quite some time, and it could give the Broncos the boost they need to be in the national championship picture. The first game against Virginia Tech is the key, but the fact that it’s early helps the Broncos. The Broncos will probably open the season ranked in the top 3 in the country, and depending what happens above them in the first couple of weeks, they could push into the No. 1 spot before the end of the nonconference season. Boise State should be 4-0 in nonconference play.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Sept. 4: Cincinnati (12-1)

Sept. 18: at Utah State (4-8)

Sept. 25: at Mississippi (9-4)

Oct. 2: Cal Poly (4-7)

Combined record: 29-20

Combined winning percentage: .592

FCS schools: 1

2009 Top 25 teams: 2

Bowl teams: 2

Key conference game/stretch: Fresno State will face one of the tougher stretches in the conference when it plays Louisiana Tech, Nevada and Boise State in back-to-back-to-back weekends. This stretch will determine where the Bulldogs will fall in the WAC standings and might even determine their bowl status. Louisiana Tech is going to be better than many think, and Nevada and Boise State are the toughest competition in the league. Fresno State hasn’t beaten Boise State since 2005 and hasn’t topped Nevada since 2007. This stretch will really prove the mettle of a young team.

Nonconference skinny: While Fresno State does have two BCS teams that were ranked in 2009, this is actually a much easier nonconference slate than it has had in awhile. The Bulldogs will face Cincinnati in the season opener, the first AQ team they’ve hosted in a season opener since 1996 (Oregon). And Cincinnati lost some key offensive contributors and coach Brian Kelly. The game at Mississippi will be tough, but again, a lot of key players are missing off that team. I think the Bulldogs could come out of the nonconference season 3-1, but 2-2 is probably more realistic.

Hawaii Warriors

Sept. 2: USC (9-4)

Sept. 11: at Army (5-7)

Sept. 18: at Colorado (3-9)

Sept. 25: Charleston Southern (6-5)

Dec. 4: UNLV (5-7)

Combined record: 28-32

Combined winning percentage: .467

FCS schools: 1

2009 Top 25 teams: 1

Bowl teams: 1

Key conference game/stretch: Hawaii will play 10 consecutive games before a bye, which could wreak havoc on the Warriors' season. The toughest stretch is early against Louisiana Tech (Oct. 2), at Fresno State (Oct. 9) and against Nevada (Oct. 16), but Hawaii has the players and the skill to pull off some upsets here. Hawaii caught fire late last season after struggling early. The nonconference slate isn’t too daunting, and if the Warriors can stay healthy, they might be the surprise in the conference.

Nonconference skinny: As noted above, the nonconference schedule as a whole is not nearly as tough as it has been in the past. The season opener against USC will be tough, but at least the Warriors get the Trojans at home. Then the next four nonconference games are against FBS teams with losing records and an FCS team. Hawaii can gain some early confidence with this schedule, especially if the Warriors play well against USC, and it could go into the conference season with momentum and maybe pick off some of the better team early in the conference schedule. I like the Warriors to go 4-1 in nonconference play.

Idaho Vandals

Sept. 4: North Dakota (6-5)

Sept. 11: at Nebraska (10-4)

Sept. 18: UNLV (5-7)

Sept. 25: at Colorado State (3-9)

Oct. 2: at Western Michigan (5-7)

Combined record: 29-32

Combined winning percentage: .475

FCS schools: 1

2009 Top 25 teams: 1

Bowl teams: 1

Key conference game/stretch: The rivalry game between the Vandals and Boise State will be interesting because it’s at the Kibbie Dome and it’s on national television. Boise State is the benchmark in the conference, and for Idaho to even stay close with its in-state rival would be a major accomplishment. I have no doubt that Idaho, with all it’s returning, will become bowl eligible again. However, this game is the one circled on the calendar and will be a good measuring stick for how good Idaho really is.

Nonconference skinny: This is a great nonconference schedule to keep the momentum from last year’s 8-5 finish going. Just on the strength of its offense, Idaho should (and likely will) start the season 4-1. The game at Nebraska will be tough, especially since the Vandals haven’t exactly been stellar on the defensive side of the ball. Defense will be the key for the Vandals once they get into conference play, but none of their non-AQ or FCS opponents lit up the scoreboard in 2009.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Sept. 2: Grambling at Independence Stadium (8-5)

Sept. 11: at Texas A&M (6-7)

Sept. 18: Navy (10-4)

Sept. 25: Southern Miss (7-6)

Combined record: 31-22

Combined winning percentage: .585

FCS schools: 1

2009 Top 25 teams: 0

Bowl teams: 3

Key conference game/stretch: The conference opener against Hawaii will be key because it will be Louisiana Tech’s new offense going against another potent offense in Hawaii. It looks like Boise State and Nevada are going to be the top teams, then it will be a race for third. Louisiana Tech loses a lot of its offensive production from last season, but has a lot of young players who will be eager to learn the spread system. Beating Hawaii early will get the Bulldogs off on the right foot.

Nonconference skinny: This is not an ideal nonconference schedule for a new coach installing a new system. It helps that three of the four games will be played in the state of Louisiana, but all four of those teams will be better than they were a year ago. Louisiana Tech is going to go through some growing pains early as they continue to adjust. The optimist in me says the Bulldogs can pull out a 2-2 record in nonconference play, but the realist thinks it will be 1-3.

Nevada Wolf Pack

Sept. 2: Eastern Washington (8-4)

Sept. 11: Colorado State (3-9)

Sept. 17: Cal (8-5)

Sept. 25: at BYU (11-2)

Oct. 2: at UNLV (5-7)

Combined record: 38-27

Combined winning percentage: .585

FCS schools: 1

2009 Top 25 teams: 1

Bowl teams: 2

Key conference game/stretch: The Nov. 26 game against Boise State is already a topic of discussion for the Wolf Pack because every year that Boise State has been a part of the WAC conference, Nevada has fallen short. Nevada has been close to an upset in each of the past three meetings, and with this game on senior night with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and top running back Vai Taua graduating, it could get interesting.

Nonconference skinny: Nevada ended last season on a terrible note, so starting the year with three consecutive home games will be a good way to gain some confidence. Trust that this is not an easy schedule. Cal and BYU will be tough and Colorado State is a bit of a wild card, but that’s a winnable game at home. I think the Wolf Pack will head into conference play 3-2, which is better than last year’s 0-3 start.

New Mexico State Aggies

Sept. 11: San Diego State (4-8)

Sept. 18: at UTEP (4-8)

Sept. 25: at Kansas (5-7)

Oct. 9: New Mexico (1-11)

Combined record: 14-34

Combined winning percentage: .217

FCS schools: 0

2009 Top 25 teams: 0

Bowl teams: 0

Key conference game/stretch: New Mexico State wants to show progress this season, and that begins with separating itself from the rest of the bottom of the league. The Aggies play San Jose State (Oct. 30) and Utah State (Nov. 6) back-to-back and all three of these teams will be fighting not to finish in last place this year. It’s going to be tough for New Mexico State to get bowl eligible, but there are enough potential wins on the schedule to get pretty close.

Nonconference skinny: No one in the WAC has a worse nonconference schedule than New Mexico State and I mean that in a good way. For a team that won three games last season and is looking for some early confidence, this is an ideal slate. It stands to reason that San Diego State, UTEP and New Mexico all will be better this year, but New Mexico State can also be better if its new quarterback and running back end up being as good as advertised. My gut feeling is 2-2, but it could easily be 3-1. I think the Aggies drop at least one of their nonconference contests.

San Jose State Spartans

Sept. 4: at Alabama (14-0)

Sept. 11: at Wisconsin (10-3)

Sept. 18: Southern Utah (5-6)

Sept. 25: at Utah (10-3)

Oct. 2: UC Davis (6-5)

Combined record: 45-17

Combined winning percentage: .726

FCS schools: 2

2009 Top 25 teams: 3

Bowl teams: 3

Key conference game/stretch: It doesn’t help that right after the Spartans' brutal nonconference schedule they drop into consecutive games at Nevada (Oct. 9) and against Boise State (Oct. 16) and Fresno State (Oct. 23). That’s a brutal stretch that could easily result in an 0-3 start to conference play. San Jose State is going to be learning a new system and a new coaching staff. It’s had trouble the past couple of years getting consistency on offense, and those three teams will put points on the board.

Nonconference skinny: What can you say about San Jose State’s nonconference schedule except, wow. I mean really, wow. The three games against FBS foes are essentially body-bag games, especially the ones against Alabama and Wisconsin. The Spartans did give Utah an early run for its money in San Jose last season. SJSU does have two FCS games to lessen the blow of the rest of the nonconference schedule, but this is a brutal way to begin Mike MacIntyre’s head coaching career.

Utah State Aggies

Sept. 4: at Oklahoma (8-5)

Sept. 11: Idaho State (1-10)

Sept. 25: at San Diego State (4-8)

Oct. 1: BYU (11-2)

Combined record: 24-25

Combined winning percentage: .490

FCS schools: 1

2009 Top 25 teams: 1

Bowl teams: 2

Key conference game/stretch: Utah State’s 3-9 record doesn’t show it, but the Aggies were pretty competitive last season. They lost three games by four or fewer points and were one of the top offensive teams in the country. If there’s a key game, it’s probably against Hawaii on Oct. 23 because that’s coming off a bye week. There are going to be a bunch of teams tangled up for the third and fourth spots in the WAC standings and Utah State has the ability to be in that mix. Losing running back Robert Turbin for possibly the entire season is a big blow. So, this spring will be key in finding some offense to fill that void.

Nonconference skinny: This nonconference schedule looks a lot like last year’s and it will probably net the same 1-3 result. The game against San Diego State will be telling since both the Aggies and the Aztecs are teams on the rise. The Aggies have a shot at starting the season 2-2, but it’s not going to be easy.