The MWC has been pretty great lately with the stellar play of Utah, TCU and, perhaps to a lesser extent, BYU. They sent five teams to bowl games last season and went 4-1 with wins over Oregon State, California, Houston, and Fresno State. Heading into it’s twelfth year and with continued expansion rumors raging across the country, the MWC looks to add another great year to its BCS conference application before the official additon of BSU to the conference.
Even with some big name losses to the TCU‘s defense, they are a team that ranked VERY high statistically on both sides of the ball and seem poised for another great year. Utah returns 8 offensive starters and both Cain and Wynn are working with plenty of game-time experience. BYU faces the challenge of replacing Max Hall, BYU’s all-time winningest QB, but has two good options in Nelson and Heaps. They also face the loss of TE Dennis Pitta and RB Harvey Unga.
The conference’s continual struggle has been depth and could really use 2 or 3 other teams to get bowl eligible to give the conference a little more swagger. AFA and Wyoming are both coming off bowl wins of their own last season and the potential third candidate seems to be a toss up between UNLV (who went 5-7 last year and were fighting right up to the last couple of games to get bowl eligible) and SDSU (who returns 16 starters on offense and defense). UNM and CSU continue to rebuild, but it's only up from here, right?
The next step I expect from this conference on a BCS/national level is the possibility of a one loss team making a BCS game. (ie If TCU loses to OSU, Utah, BYU, or otherwise they could/should still make it to a BCS game if they play well before & after)
That all being said, here are my opinions about non-conference & conference games of the year, the team on the spot, and the toughest & weakest non-conference schedules.
Game of the year: (non -conference) Oregon State vs. TCU, Sep 4. TCU appears to be the team in the best position to make a BCS run, and maybe even a championship run. However, it all starts here for the Horned Frogs, who face their toughest non-conference opponent in the opening week of the season. Fortunately, for TCU, the game will be played in Dallas where TCU hasn’t lost a game since Utah's win back on Oct. 18, 2007. The loss of Daryl Washington and Jerry Hughes hurts, but if they win, then they won’t really be tested again until BYU comes to town on October 16 (at which point TCU should be 6-0 and ranked in the top-10).
Honorable Mentions: Utah @ Notre Dame Nov 13, Boise State @ Wyo Sep 18, & BYU @ FSU Sep 18
Game of the year: (conference) BYU vs. Utah, Nov 27. The round robin winner of BYU-TCU-Utah generally goes on to be the MWC champion. By the time this game rolls around I expect TCU to be undefeated against both teams and for BYU and Utah to both have two losses. That being said, this is the biggest rivalry game in the MWC and with TCU being out in front this will be a big time pride game for both teams. If, by some fluke, BYU beats Washington AND FSU and Utah beats Pitt AND ND, then this game becomes a battle between pretty highly ranked one-loss teams where, depending on BSU’s status at this point, the winner could be looking at a BCS game and the loser a trip to Vegas. All kinds of cards would have to fall just right for that situation, but even without it this game is always the best conference game of the year.
Honorable Mentions: BYU @ TCU Oct 16, Utah @ TCU Nov 6
Team on the spot: Brigham Young. After a big win over then number three Oklahoma in Dallas, BYU went on to get waxed by both FSU and TCU. They remain the only member of the MWC “Big Three” who has yet to crack the BCS. BYU’s defense will be hurt with only 4 returning starters, but 3 are defensive backs and the back-up defensive linemen have had plenty of playing time from injuries to starters over the past two seasons. BYU’s defense should be no worse than what it was in 2009 (it is never really their strength anyway). The offense loses All-American TE Dennis Pitta and All-MWC TE Andrew George who were numbers 1 and 3 respectively on the team in both receptions and yards. The offense also loses veteran QB Max Hall, but has options with Riley Nelson (USU transfer who saw limited game time last season as Hall’s back-up) and Jake Heaps (highly touted QB recruit out of Washington state, number one QB recruit according to some websites). They also will replace Unga (BYU's leading rusher, but DiLuigi and Karya saw significant time and freshman Joshua Quezada showed well in Spring practice). BYU is on the spot this year, and probably years following, until they can prove that they belong in the BCS discussion along with Utah, TCU, and now BSU as well.
Honorable Mention: TCU (Can they make the NCG?), AFA (Can they live up to last year and the current media hype?)
Toughest non-conference schedule: Wyoming. No team in the conference this year has more than two difficult games on their schedule. TCU has SMU and Oregon State (no, Baylor doesn’t count), Utah ha s Pitt and ND, BYU has Washington and FSU, and UNM has Oregon and Texas Tech. That being said, nobody in the conference plays two teams as tough as the one’s on Wyoming’s schedule. The Cowboys open against Southern Utah before taking a trip to Austin to take on the Longhorns of Texas. Seven days later the Cowboys will be in Laramie for a showdown with Boise State before finishing their conference play at Toledo. Like I said, two fluff games, but nobody has two tougher non-conference games than UT and BSU back-to-back. Good luck Cowboys, I think you are going to need it.
Honorable Mentions: Utah, TCU, AFA, & BYU
Easiest non-conference schedule: San Diego State. The Aztecs will open against Nicholls State (3-8 last year in Div 1-AA) before heading off to face WAC bottom dweller New Mexico State (3-10 in ‘09). The Aztecs then face their only non-conference foe that had a winning record last year traveling to face Missouri (8-5 in ‘09) before finishing their schedule at home against Utah State (4-8 in ‘09).
Honorable Mention: none