I am traveling to Las Vegas Monday for Mountain West media days. You already saw my top questions for the league headed into the annual interview extravaganza. Now you get my predicted order of finish for 2011:
1. Boise State
3. Air Force
4. San Diego State
5. Colorado State
8. New Mexico
I have the Broncos as the champion based on a few factors. First, they have a huge advantage with Kellen Moore returning at quarterback. Moore was a Heisman finalist last year, and has a huge challenge on his hands without his top receivers in Austin Pettis and Titus Young. But Moore will make guys like Tyler Shoemaker, Kirby Moore and Geraldo Hiwat into solid standouts. Moore and Doug Martin form the best quarterback-running back duo in the league. On defense, the line should be one of the best in the league with veterans Billy Winn, Shea McClellin and Chase Baker returning. Factor in Boise State getting Air Force and TCU at home, and that completes my prediction.
The Horned Frogs, of course, would love nothing more than to leave the league as champion. But I am not sure the team will be able to match the heights it reached the last two seasons without an experienced quarterback. Casey Pachall may end up being one of the greats at TCU, but we have no idea right now. Replacing Dalton is going to be incredibly hard, and the TCU schedule is tough this year with trips to Air Force, San Diego State and Boise State.
I placed Air Force ahead of San Diego State for a few reasons: the Falcons have consistency in a coaching staff returning, and Tim Jefferson proved last season he has the capability of dominating the league. This is no shot at Ryan Lindley, who also came into his own last season. But the Aztecs are going to have a huge challenge on their hands at receiver.
Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson are gone, and now comes word that Dominique Sandifer and redshirt freshman Jay Waddell are going to miss the season with injuries. Teams no doubt will load the box to stop Ronnie Hillman and force Lindley to beat them with a group of inexperienced receivers. The good news for San Diego State is their talent at the tight end position is the best in the league.
The departures of Utah and BYU leave an opening for another team to break through into a bowl game. My pick is Colorado State, which has one of the most experienced teams returning in the league and has a schedule that should make the Rams bowl-eligible. Pete Thomas is a rising star at quarterback.
The bottom three all have issues to work out. Quarterback is a big question for all three.
My preseason choices for players of the year should not come as a huge shock: Moore for offensive POY; TCU linebacker Tank Carder for defensive POY; Air Force return specialist Jonathan Warzeka for special-teams POY.