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Tuesday, November 27
Updated: November 28, 3:33 PM ET
 
BYU dominates the Mountain West

By Ed Graney
Special to ESPN.com

The Mountain West has done all it can to this point, producing a football team it feels worthy of a Bowl Championship Series berth.

"We've said all along the only way we're going to crack in is somebody's going to have an unbelievable season," said MWC commissioner Craig Thompson. "BYU has had four fourth-quarter miracle finishes, but the bottom line is they're 11-0."

The Mountain West's Best
MVP
Luke Staley, BYU. Some might think this a close vote between the junior running back and his teammate, senior quarterback Brandon Doman. But when you average nearly a first down every rush (8.5 yards, tops in the nation) and lead the country in scoring (17.0) and come up with the type of big-game efforts Staley did (see the final few minutes against Utah), you deserve the honor. Heck, on an undefeated team, you deserve to win the Doak Walker Award and be a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Coach of the Year
Gary Crowton, BYU. Like with Staley, this should be a unanimous pick. Talk all you want about inheriting great tradition. Crowton also took over what was a very average bunch and turned it into a Top 10 team that leads the nation in scoring average (47.5) and is second in total offense (537.8). Even on off days (there were few), Crowton's team found a way to win and continue its magical run. He is a solid coach whose offense has just begun to show its power in this conference.

Biggest Surprise
BYU's dominance. It isn't because the Cougars weren't talented enough to go 7-0 in conference, but the fact it hadn't happened in the league's two previous seasons speaks to the parity among the eight teams. There isn't a big difference in skill level top to bottom, making BYU's season all that more impressive.

Biggest Disappointment
San Diego State. The Aztecs returned 19 starters and finished 3-8 to clinch a third straight losing season and fourth in five years. Eighth-year coach Ted Tollner was fired a week before the season finale against Wyoming and an offense that has grown progressively worse hit rock-bottom by leading the conference in turnovers. If not for running back Larry Ned and a courageous defensive effort, this could have been a one-victory season.

And so in the first post-LaVell Edwards season at BYU, the Cougars proved themselves the class of this league. BYU has games at Mississippi State on Saturday and at Hawaii (Dec. 8) remaining. Win both, and the Cougars are a perfect 13-0 and knocking on the BCS door.

Stumble at all, and it's off to the Liberty Bowl.

The league was good enough to produce enough bowl-eligible teams (BYU, Utah, Colorado State and New Mexico) to fill its three guaranteed spots, but again struggled proving its worth against the major conferences. MWC teams are 2-13 against BCS teams with one game remaining.

In the Mountain West's three seasons, it is 12-36 against the BCS.

Why such fuss about BYU and the BCS? The four BCS-affiliated bowls pay $11 million to $13 million to each participant, which after travel expenses and other costs is divided equally among members of each team's conference.

Last year, the Liberty Bowl paid $1.25 million.

Air Force
There are few years when disappointment will define Falcons football like this one. Two weeks ago, Fisher DeBerry's team had a chance at finishing bowl eligible. Now, it must beat visiting Utah on Saturday to avoid just a third losing season in 18 years. The Falcons (5-6 overall, 2-4 MWC) have lost five of their last six, drowning themselves in a sea of mistakes on both sides of the ball. "We had higher expectations for this team," said DeBerry. "But there's a time when you have to accept reality."

MVP: Keith Boyea, quarterback: This is a tough call considering how much the Falcons struggled in recent weeks, but the senior Boyea still ranks third among conference leaders in total offense (211.3). A case can also be made for senior linebacker Andy Rule, who leads the team with 78 tackles, nine for loss.

Biggest Disappointment: How the Falcons have finished the season. DeBerry has long preached about the importance of his team playing its best in November, but it has been outscored 138-95 so far this month.

Did You Know: Boyea became just the 13th major-college player and fourth from Air Force to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season.

BYU
The Cougars have nearly made their case and will soon present it to the jury known as the BCS. Ranked No. 12 in the latest BCS standings, BYU is now eligible for one of the four major bowl games. The Cougars positioned themselves here by outscoring opponents (to date) 522-286, by holding off upset bids from New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. "In college athletics, every sport has a chance to play for a national championship except football," said coach Gary Crowton. "We won our conference but we've still got to beat everybody. We can't stumble one time or we're out of it."

MVP: Luke Staley, running back. Some more facts to digest about his sensational season: Staley has rushed for over 100 yards in eight of 10 games. He twice scored a conference-record five touchdowns (vs. Utah State and Colorado State) and holds the school's career (48) and single-season (28) records for TDs. And he has two games and a bowl remaining. Wow.

Biggest Disappointment: The non-conference schedule didn't work out as planned. It is the one thing that has not allowed BYU to solidify a BCS bid if it goes undefeated. Tulane, Cal and Mississippi State all had down years. Call it bad luck in a season of great results.

Did You Know: Since the MWC was formed three years ago, BYU is 14-4 when ranked.

Colorado State
If it's one thing Sonny Lubick-coached teams have taught us over the years, it's to never count them out. Ever. Once 2-4 overall and 0-1 in conference, CSU won four of its final five to finish 6-5 overall, 5-2 in conference and no worse than a second-place tie with Utah. CSU is also bowl eligible and likely headed to either the inaugural New Orleans game. It is the third straight postseason appearance for CSU, a first in school history. CSU was involved in seven games decided by seven points or less, going 4-3 in such contests.

MVP: Special teams. You are looking at a main reason for CSU's late-season success. The Rams led the conference in kickoff returns (26.5), net punting (40.3), punt returns (12.8) and were 26-of-26 on extra-points. You can't overestimate the importance of outstanding special teams.

Biggest Disappointment: Inconsistent quarterback play. Whether it was D.J. Busch early or Bradlee Van Pelt late, the position lacked enough talent to make CSU a championship contender this season. Several injuries at running back didn't make for much offensive flow, either.

Did You Know: Eric Pauly, a sophomore linebacker who inherited his position from former CSU standout Rick Crowell (last season's Defensive Player of the Year), responded with a conference-best 115 tackles.

New Mexico
Baby steps, but significant ones. At 6-5 overall and 4-3 in conference, the Lobos have just their fifth winning season since 1979. Now bowl eligible, it remains to be seen if New Mexico can secure a postseason berth. One major key to New Mexico winning five of its last seven was sophomore quarterback Casey Kelley, who took over the starting job and threw for 1,412 yards and seven scores. Another key was a rush defense that allowed just an average of 87.4 yards, eighth best nationally. Since Rocky Long became coach in 1998, the Lobos' victory total has increased by one each season.

MVP: Gary Davis, linebacker. The league's best defense statistically is led by this senior, who finished the regular season with 100 tackles and league highs in sacks (8) and tackles for loss (20). Davis will likely battle Nevada-Las Vegas cornerback Kevin Thomas for league Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Biggest Disappointment: The 24-17 home loss to Colorado State. Everything was set up for the Lobos, a chance to finish as high as second in conference, knock CSU out of the bowl picture and guarantee themselves a postseason game. But only 29,304 showed up and the Lobos couldn't get it done.

Did You Know: By finishing with a 113-yard effort against New Mexico State on Saturday, senior back Jarrod Baxter now has 2,090 career yards. That ranks seventh in school history and pushes Baxter past his head coach on the all-time list.

UNLV
This is not what Rebel coaches and players and fans expected. Not at all. A season after winning eight games and defeating Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl, UNLV tripped and collapsed to a 4-7 finish, including a 3-4 conference mark. An offense that was billed as explosive instead sank to a one-dimensional run attack. Special teams -- UNLV's return teams are among the nation's best -- and some outstanding defensive players kept UNLV in most games. Said coach John Robinson: "We have some fundamental things that have to improve that we have to deal with."

MVP: Kevin Thomas, cornerback. The senior finishes his career with a school-record 62 passes defended. He started a school-record 46 straight games and ranks second all-time with 14 interceptions. Next stop: Playing on Sunday.

Biggest Disappointment: Jason Thomas, quarterback. It is not entirely the fault of this junior, for it became obvious early that coaches had overestimated his ability as a passer. They expected too much and Thomas -- who was slowed to begin with offseason shoulder surgery never found consistency.

Did You Know: UNLV lost twice this season on an opponent's final drive (Arkansas and BYU) and three of its four losses were by four points or less.

San Diego State
Another tough non-conference schedule (losses to Arizona, Arizona State and Ohio State) again left the Aztecs with little margin for error. The offense ranked last among league teams with averages of just 16.7 points and 323.1 yards. Ted Tollner's tenure is over as coach, producing a 43-48 record, no conference championship and one bowl appearance in eight years. Defensively, SDSU again played good enough to win by ranking third behind New Mexico and Utah. One player sure to be missed is defensive tackle Jerome Haywood, who started every game of his career, a string of 45 straight.

MVP: Larry Ned, running back. The senior spent one week as the nation's leading rusher and currently ranks fourth with an average of 140.8. He played the final four games with a badly sprained ankle, and still managed to finish his career with 3,562 yards, second only in school history to Marshall Faulk. Ned scored 15 of the team's 22 TDs this season.

Biggest Disappointment: Quarterback. It is the biggest irony of Tollner's time given his offensive background, his inability to recruit a competent player at this position. Both starter Lon Sheriff (87.2 efficiency rating, three TDs, 12 interceptions) and backup Adam Hall (103.2, two TDs, three picks) were unable to produce much of anything.

Did You Know: The Aztecs are likely within 10 days of hiring Tollner's replacement, with odds still favoring Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford being offered the position first. A late name to watch: Former CSU offensive coordinator Jeff Fairchild, now an assistant with the Buffalo Bills.

Utah
The Utes can secure a tie for second place with CSU and a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl on Christmas Day by winning at Air Force this week. At 7-3 overall and 4-2 in conference, Utah has produced a solid season after last year's disappointing 4-7 record. Head coach Ron McBride's job status, a topic of conversation before the season, now appears solid. Utah got it done on the ground behind seniors Dameon Hunter (117.0 average, seven TDs) and Adam Tate (67.9, 10 TDs) and by relying on an outstanding defense.

MVP: Sheldon Deckart, linebacker. The junior has been a consistent force for the league's most physical defense. Deckart ranks among the league's top 10 players in tackles (78), sacks (5) and tackles for loss (14). He is a main reason the Utes allow averages of just 16.6 points and 311.6 yards.

Biggest Disappointment: BYU 24, Utah 21. Talk about a heartbreaker for the Utes. McBride's team had the game in hand in Provo, only to watch the first-place Cougars clinch an outright conference championship by scoring twice in the final few minutes. The loss denied Utah a shot at sharing the league title.

Did You Know: Utah has held three MWC opponents (Wyoming, UNLV and SDSU) without an offensive touchdown this season.

Wyoming
Another forgettable season has closed on the program, this one ending with a 2-9 record. It now appears Vic Koenning will get one more season -- his third as head coach -- to either turn the team's fortunes or be replaced. The Cowboys have been hit with major injuries in each of Koenning's first two seasons, and have played far too many underclassmen to have a chance at competing most weeks. That, and a lack of defensive strength and competent run game made the idea of beating anyone good (and some not so good) a big challenge.

MVP: Casey Bramlet, quarterback. Just a sophomore, he leads the conference in passing average (279.0) and had seven 300-yard efforts. Bramlet set a conference record with 60 attempts against UNLV and his 33 completions in the game ranks fourth-best all-time among league players.

Biggest Disappointment: Another season, another 0-7 conference record. The Cowboys came close a few times -- 30-29 to New Mexico, 41-34 to BYU -- but couldn't make enough plays to avoid a second straight winless record in league.

Did You Know: Wyoming is annually one of the league's least penalized teams, averaging just 41.7 yards this season.

Ed Graney covers the Mountain West for the San Diego Union-Tribune.




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