LAS VEGAS -- Sitting atop the Mountain West Conference in a preseason poll is nothing new for the Colorado State Rams.
The team has had a winning record every year since 1994, a year after Sonny Lubick took over what had been a struggling program. What is new this year is the desire to erase the memory of last season's bitter finish -- a 36-33 loss to UNLV and a 17-3 loss to TCU in the Liberty Bowl.
"The UNLV game was a tough one to take..... You sat there and you thought about that game," said linebacker Eric Pauly. "That's no way to end the regular season."
Under Lubick, the Rams have played in seven bowl games and earned six conference titles. The Rams are favored to repeat this year, and Lubick believes team effort will be the key to another championship.
"Nobody's going to take over. They're not going to be more important than the team," Lubick said. "The walk-ons know that. They know they're just as important as (quarterback) Bradlee Van Pelt."
In a preseason survey of media representatives who cover the conference, Colorado State, New Mexico and Air Force finished 1-2-3. Colorado State claimed 18-of-21 first-place votes, and New Mexico, Air Force and BYU each received one first-place vote.
The ranking was the highest ever for New Mexico in the annual preseason poll, and the Lobos are out to prove they deserve it.
"I don't think we've done enough to earn the respect yet," Lobos coach Rocky Long. "It will be very interesting to see how our players can handle it because we're used to being picked seventh and eighth."
A capsule look at the eight-team Mountain West Conference, based on predicted order of finish:
-- COLORADO STATE: The Rams will benefit from the return of 17 starters, including Van Pelt, who was the conference Offensive Player of the Year. Last season, he completed 150 of 287 passes for 2,073 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Lubick will have to deal with the loss of running back Cecil Sapp, who signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos. Sapp led the MWC for the second time last season with 1,601 yards and 17 touchdowns. Early contenders to fill the void are Rahsaan Sanders and redshirt freshman Tristan Walker. The Rams also lost longtime defensive coordinator, Larry Kerr, to UCLA. His replacement is Steve Stanard, who left New Mexico State.
-- NEW MEXICO: With 19 starters returning, the Lobos are out to earn respect. "People keep acting like all of the sudden we've played good. But that's not true," said Long, who was named MWC Coach of the Year. The team went 7-7 (5-2 MWC) last year and finished second in the conference. Playing in only the team's second bowl game in 41 years, New Mexico lost 27-13 to UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl. Running back DonTrell Moore, who was MWC Newcomer of the Year, was named one of the preseason All-MWC-honorees, along with offensive linemen Claude Terrell and Jason Lenzmeier, defensive linemen D.J. Renteria and Daniel Kegler and defensive back BrandonRatcliff.
-- AIR FORCE: For the Falcons, the emphasis will be on their passing game. "I've always said that if we could be a better passing team we will be a better running team, and that's how we're going to make our living," coach Fisher DeBerry said. The Falcons have 16 starters returning, including preseason All-MWC honorees offensive lineman Jesse Underbakke and kicker Joey Ashcroft, the nephew of Attorney General John Ashcroft. The team will have to do without standout linebacker Anthony Schlegel, who transferred to Ohio State.
-- BRIGHAM YOUNG: The Cougars followed up a MWC crown in 2001 with a less than stellar 5-7 (2-5 MWC) run last season. With the return of 16 starters this year, coach Gary Crowton is hopeful the team will return to the top of the conference. "I felt like we were finishing in the right direction, but our record wasn't what it could've been," he said. "I just want to get back on top. I think BYU has got a lot of good things going for it, and I think we can." The team will receive some help from defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall, who left New Mexico to join the Cougars.
-- UTAH: After firing Ron McBride, the Utes look to Urban Meyer to improve on last season's 5-6 (3-4 MWC) record. Meyer will build on the team's strong running game, which will be boosted by the return of running backs Brandon Warfield and Marty Johnson, who had a combined 12 touchdowns last season. The quarterback spot could be split between Brett Elliott and Lance Rice. The team also will have to do without offensive lineman Jordan Gross and defensive back Antwoine Sanders, who were NFL draft picks. "The Mountain West Conference is one of the top conferences in the country," Meyer said. "And, it's not exactly receiving the respect it should be."
-- UNLV: After back-to-back losing seasons, the Rebels will be without starting quarterback Jason Thomas, who is trying to catch in the NFL after being waived by the Atlanta Falcons. His replacement is Kurt Nantkes, the hero of a season-ending 36-33 upset victory over Colorado State. "This conference is ... pretty much top to bottom up for grabs. I don't see anybody as a clear favorite," coach John Robinson said.
-- SAN DIEGO STATE: Tom Craft returns for his second season as head coach and plans to add more depth to his offensive line. "I feel like with more diversity at the wide receiver position that our passing game has the opportunity to change a little bit this year," he said. Twelve starters return, including quarterback Adam Hall who completed 60 percent of his passes last season for 3,253 yards, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
-- WYOMING: Joe Glenn takes over as head coach after the Cowboys went 2-10 (1-6 MWC) last year. In three seasons at Montana, Glenn's team went 39-6 and won the Division I-AA national championship in 2001. Glenn said he will focus on bringing stability to the program after troubles last year under Vic Koenning. "They did the best they could to win, but you had a turnstile of coaches coming in and out," Glenn said. "That is terrible on the kids and terrible on the program and impossible. From that standpoint, it was just a mess."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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