By KENNY FRANEK
Last year the BCS Buster came from the Mountain West in the Utes of Utah, their second BCS Bowl trip, while the WAC's Boise St. is no stranger to crashing the party. They are the favorites with other MWC clubs BYU and TCU on the cusp.
The Favorites: Utah & Boise State: The Utes bring back ten of their top-11 tacklers and nine starters overall from last year’s defense. Defensive end Koa Misi and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester will anchor the tenacious defensive group, which should be one of the MWC’s top defenses again (ranked second overall in the conference in 2008). They do, though, have big holes to fill on offense. Almost every skill position will need to be filled, starting with the quarterback. Freshman Jordan Wynn and junior Terrance Cain step in to replace the departed MWC Offensive Player of the Year, Brian Johnson. First-team All-MWC tackle Zane Beadles looks to break in new starters on the offensive line. Utah’s schedule starts off easy and gets tougher as the year rolls along. The true test will come in the final four games of the season when they travel to UNLV, Colorado State, TCU, and BYU. Should they weather that storm, they will be hoisting the MWC trophy at year’s end. This season will test the adage “defense wins championships”. The blue field darlings of Boise State are back to stake their claim as the BCS giant killers once again in 2009. Quarterback Kellen Moore looks to continue the offensive onslaught the Broncos have shown in years’ past. The departure of some key offensive players, including running back Ian Johnson, will make this task a bit more difficult, but Broncos are not lacking for offensive tools. Moore has a strong offensive line on front of him, a unit which only gave up 11 sacks in 2008 and should give him plenty of time in the pocket. The defensive front seven will be extremely depleted with defensive end Ryan Winterswyk the only upper-classmen on the defensive line. However, they will be helped by a secondary that returns almost fully intact, with only one player earning his first full-time gig. They may not be the number one WAC defense again this year due to the inexperience of the defensive line, but they still should be able to hold their own. A tough home opener against Oregon will be a good test to see how good these Broncos will be in 2009. Despite road trips against Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, and Fresno State, they will be WAC champs yet again.
The Contenders: TCU & BYU: The Horned Frogs return seven offensive starters, including all but one skill player. Quarterback Andy Dalton will look to build upon his 2008 success and will have numerous weapons on the offensive end to do so. The Frogs’ top receiver from last season, Jimmy Young, will be Dalton’s go-to guy and should help the offensive run smoothly. The defense will return a bit depleted, but will still have some firepower. The Frogs have five returning starters on defense, including defensive end Jerry Hughes who must get pressure on the quarterback to ease the burden of the new starters. The secondary brings back three starters from a year ago and will look to remain stout. Like most of the BCS busters, the Frogs have a rough spot in their schedule. They have trips Air Force and BYU in October. It definitely won’t be an easy task to run through this schedule, but they do have the talent to get through it with a convincing record. The Cougars of BYU are coming off a great season and hope to carry that momentum into 2009. The offense will try to duplicate last season’s success but it will not be easy as they return only four starters from a year ago. Quarterback Max Hall and tight end Dennis Pitta will be the focal points of the offense. The offensive line brings only one returning starter, left tackle Matt Reynolds. If the Cougars have an Achilles heel, this would be it. They will have a tough task ahead of them trying to keep Hall upright. If the offensive line can hold defenders at bay, this offense should be able to click like so many that came before it. The defense boasts seven returning starters. Defensive end Jan Jorgensen will be the leader of this potentially potent defense, while senior linebackers Matt Bauman and Coleby Clawson look to be a big part of stopping both the rush and the pass. Their schedule is going to be brutal, to say the least. Their opening game is an indication of that as they take on the Sooners at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Luckily, they get Florida State, Colorado State, TCU, Air Force, and Utah all at home. But they will have to go on the road for tough matchups against UNLV, San Diego State, Tulane, and New Mexico. This will be one of the toughest seasons for the Cougars to endure.
The Sleepers: Nevada vs. East Carolina: Nevada has the best offense of all the potential BCS busters. The Wolf Pack attack ranked third in the nation in rushing with 277.8 yards per game. Quarterback Collin Kaepernick was a big part of achieving that total, rushing for over 1,000 yards himself. He also passed for over 2,000 yards and had 39 total touchdowns. The second part of those 277.8 yards per game is running back Vai Taua, who rushed for 1,521 yards in 2008. The Pack also has running back Luke Lippincott who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all but two games last season. Lippincott rushed for 1,420 yards in 2007 so it should be interesting to see how both backs are utilized in 2009. Although they had two players with double-digit sack totals last season, the Wolf Pack ranked dead last in the nation in pass defense, giving up 311.6 yards per game. They should be an improved secondary in 2009 and with this offense any improvement in defense should turn into more wins. The Pirates of East Carolina are coming off a great year. They have eight starters returning on offense and eight on defense as well. Quarterback Patrick Pinkney is behind center again this season which makes this offense a good one. He will have All-Conference selection Sean Allen back at center along with a slew of upper-classmen to help keep defenders at bay. Dwayne Harris returns to play the Z receiver role and should be Pinkney’s first look. The defense returns almost fully intact. Defensive end C. J. Wilson and free safety Van Eskridge will be the anchors of the defense. The Pirates have a fairly easy schedule, playing only one team currently in the pre-season top 25 (Virginia Tech).
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Collin Kaepernick (Nevada) vs. QB Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan): This is a classic battle between a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks. Collin Kaepernick has outstanding weapons on offense, including himself. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season while throwing for over 2,000. He is intelligent, makes great decisions, and flusters defenses with his athletic ability. The return of running back Luke Lippincott should only make Kaepernick more dangerous. If his defense is as porous this season as it was last season, then look for him to be more involved in both the passing and running game in 2009, which could lead to some off-the-chart stats. Dan LeFevour has the ability to make everyone around him better. He is a leader and makes great decisions on the field. His arm is going to be heavily relied upon this season as it has in years past. He failed to crack the 3,000-yard passing mark for the first time in three seasons due to injuries, so as a senior, you would have to expect that he wants to show both fans and scouts what he is capable of and go out with a career season. He has two good wide receivers to help him out in Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson; both eclipsed 800 yards receiving last year. LeFevour can also be a version of Kaepernick and run with the ball as well. He led his team in rushing with 592 yards in 2008 and 1,1122 yards in 2007. If he can be as offensively sound as he has in the past, he should have the career year he is looking for.
Honorable Mention: QB Case Keenum (Houston), QB Kellen Moore (Boise St.), QB Max Hall (BYU), Tim Hiller (Western Michigan), QB Rusty Smith (Florida Atlantic), DeAndre Brown (Southern Miss.), TE Dennis Pitta (BYU)
Defensive Player of the Year: Jerry Hughes (TCU) vs. Stevenson Sylvester (Utah): Jerry Hughes is a do-it-all defensive end. He can get to the quarterback, defend against the run, and create turnovers. He had 52 tackles, 15 sacks, one forced fumble, and two interceptions last season. He makes the defensive unit of the Horned Frogs a feared one. He often needs the attention of a second blocker because of his unmatched physical ability and overall skill set. TCU’s defense will be a tough one to crack again this season, which will most likely lead to another great stat-stuffing year for one of the best defensive ends in football. Stevenson Sylvester is a terrific linebacker. He has great speed and vision and is a big help to the Utes’ rush defense. He had 69 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, which are very respectable numbers. He hits very hard, causing two forced fumbles last season. His total tackles were not as high as in 2007 (86), but with the veteran defense he has around him this season he will be able to match or surpass that number. Look for him to go out with a bang and catch scouts’ eyes as the season progresses.
Honorable Mention: DE Justin Cole (San Jose St.), DE Brandon Lang (Troy), CB Kyle Wilson (Boise St.)
Breakout Seasons: RB Jeremy Avery (Boise St.), QB Andy Dalton (TCU), WR Chris Wellington (Nevada): Jeremy Avery steps in as the No.1 tailback as Ian Johnson departed for the NFL. He has had two years to learn the system and be mentored by Johnson, so he should make the most of his first full-time starting role. He not only can rush with a good yards per carry average (6.5 in 2007 and 5.5 in 2008), but he can also be a receiving threat out of the backfield. He had 30 receptions for 379 yards and two touchdowns over the past two seasons in his limited role. Look for him to play a big role in the offensive success of the Broncos in 2009. Andy Dalton showed a big improvement last season after a not-so-hot freshman campaign. He rebounded to throw 11 touchdowns and only five interceptions last season after throwing 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2007. Now that he has experience at the position, he is poised for a big 2009. Having a stellar defense that can create turnovers should help him by taking away a come-from-behind offensive mentality and the need to throw the ball instead of the choice to do so. He should thrive in the Horned Frogs balanced attack. Chris Wellington showed much promise last season, catching 42 passes for 632 yards and six touchdowns. The Wolf Pack have a spectacular running game, which should relieve pressure on him in the secondary and give him freedom to roam. He is sure handed and will be a nice option for quarterback Collin Kaepernick. The porous defense of the Wolf Pack made them get into shootouts in 2008, so if that happens to be the case this season then Wellington’s numbers should increase dramatically.
Best Pro Prospect: Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan): Dan LeFevour is the complete package. He can stand in the pocket and deliver crisp passes and if the pocket collapses he can create positive yardage with his legs. He has Jay Cutler type qualities, which have proved to be a great asset in the NFL. He may not get the chance to start immediately, but down the line he will pay off big for whichever team takes him in the 2010 Draft.
College Football Insiders Picks:
BCS Busters Top Team: Boise State: This seems to be the trendy pick every season, but for good reason. They have a great leader at quarterback in Kellen Moore and a very tough defense. Their schedule is fairly friendly, with their toughest matchup against Oregon at home on September 3rd for their season opener. If they can pull that game out they will be flirting with another undefeated season in 2009.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Collin Kaepernick, Nevada: Considering he was one of only five players in college football history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season last year, it’s hard to pick against him. He also has a great running back in Vai Taua to take pressure off the passing game and keep defenses honest. There is way too much talent here to think he can’t eclipse 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing again this season.
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Jerry Hughes, TCU: He had 15 sacks last season and has another great defense alongside him in 2009. That makes me think 15 sacks are very reachable and that he could flirt with 18-20 by season’s end. I don’t care who you are playing with, that many sacks should earn you something, so why not Defensive Player of the Year?
Photos Courtesy of Media Relations Boise St. University, Central Michigan University & TCU Athletics Media Relations
Thursday, September 3, 2009
By KENNY FRANEK