The best and worst of the WAC

Originally Published: December 11, 2003
By Ed Graney | Special to

Afinal team-by-team look at the WAC.

Boise State
How dominating were the Broncos in conference play? Through its first seven WAC games, Boise State scored at least 43 points five times and won by an average score of 47-16. The team few thought could be better than the 11-1 version of 2002 ran over league foes at even a more impressive rate. Entering the Hawaii game, Boise State has a 51-11 record over the last five years, with the number of wins just second to Oklahoma by any team west of the Mississippi. The Broncos have also won 32 of their last 33 games, including 18 straight. Also, the 77 points scored against San Jose State this year ties No. 1 Oklahoma for the most in a single game.

MVP: QB Ryan Dinwiddie. The quarterback has matured more off the field than on it, which says a ton when you consider all the records he set leading Boise State's offense. With two collegiate games remaining, Dinwiddie had career numbers of 9,165 yards and 79 TD passes.

Biggest Disappointment: Wow, a tough one. But assuming If we have to pick, it's the 26-24 loss at Oregon State remains the only low point. The Broncos led 17-16 at halftime, but then gave up 10 straight points and couldn't recover.

What's Next: Boise State will meet Texas Christian in the Fort Worth Bowl. It's the fourth bowl appearance in five years for the Broncos, who won the Humanitarian Bowl in 1999, 2000 and 2002. Hawkins must replace Dinwiddie next season, but we know what happened the last time some felt the Broncos could be down. They won it all again.

Fresno State
It's difficult not to wonder what could have been had starting quarterback Paul Pinegar began the season healthy. Instead, Fresno State struggled through another brutal nonconference slate and was again a much better team for it late. The Bulldogs are now 18-4 in November games since 1997 and have won at least eight games for three straight seasons. Fresno State won five of its final six to finish 8-5 overall and 6-2 in conference. The absence of Pinegar early led to Fresno State ranking just ninth in total offense among conference teams.

MVP: WR Bernard Berrian. The senior wide receiver/kick return specialist returned from a serious knee injury to post impressive numbers. Berrian has caught a pass in 36 straight games (the league's longest active streak) and this season had a team-best 61 catches for 667 yards and four scores. He also led Fresno State in punt and kickoff returns. Berrian has 5,385 career all-purpose yards, sixth most in WAC history.

Biggest Disappointment: The Bulldogs had everything a team could want on Nov. 21. They had won four straight. They were at home, where Fresno State has won 85 percent of its games under coach Pat Hill. They were playing defending conference champion and then-No. 20 Boise State for a share of first place. And they lost 31-17.

What's Next: More of the same. Hill has built one of the nation's top non-BCS programs. Pinegar returns to direct the offense and leading rusher Dwayne Wright is just a sophomore. The defense is also littered with talented underclassmen. Fresno State is slated to meet UCLA in the Silicon Valley Bowl, the Bulldogs' fifth straight postseason berth.

Visions of a conference championship were ruined with road losses to Tulsa and Nevada, but the Warriors still clinched their third bowl berth in five seasons. June Jones' team will host Houston in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas. It was a good but not great Hawaii team, one that lost early nonconference games to USC (61-32) and Nevada-Las Vegas (33-22). Consider: Hawaii has not had a 100-yard rusher since Mike Bass went for 146 against UTEP in 2001 (34 games ago). And still, the Warriors remain an annual WAC contender. If Hawaii ever added any semblance of balance to its attack, there is no telling how dangerous it could be.

MVP: QB Timmy Chang. If he remains healthy and doesn't flirt with leaving early for the NFL, the junior quarterback will depart college the NCAA's career passing leader. He is at times a high-risk passer in a wide-open offense, so Chang will throw more picks than others. But his value to Hawaii's record is unquestioned.

Biggest Disappointment: The final 30 minutes of a 27-16 loss at Tulsa. It evened Hawaii's conference record at 1-1 when the Warriors were prime for a sizzling start (they won their next four). Hawaii led Tulsa 16-10 at halftime, but was shut out thereafter.

What's Next: Opponents will continue to struggle in games at Hawaii, which will continue to spread the field and average close to 200 more pass attempts than conference foes each season. There likely won't ever be much of a run game in this system, but Chang and top receiver Chad Owens return. And you thought they threw a lot this season ...

Louisiana Tech
Use the word underachieved when describing the Bulldogs, who finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in conference. This, a team that looked so promising early with a 20-19 win at Michigan State. But the WAC's worst defense (Tech surrendered averages of 32.8 points and 510 yards) never allowed the team to be consistently competitive. Jack Bicknell's team won consecutive games just once all season and gave up at least 40 points six times, including in four-of-five conference losses. The college career of quarterback Luke McCown ends with 12,666 passing yards, which ranks second in school history and No. 4 all-time in the NCAA. His 87 career TD passes is tied for ninth in NCAA history. McCown did throw 14 interceptions to 19 TDs this season.

MVP: RB Ryan Moats. Some might think McCown an obvious choice here, but the sophomore Moats led the conference in rushing with 1,300 yards. He scored 10 TDs and fell 52 yards shy of breaking Tech's single-season rushing record by Jason Davis in 1991. Moats also caught 27 passes for 251 yards and a score.

Biggest Disappointment: The defensive breakdowns. You can't rank last among 10 teams in rush and pass defense and still hope to win games. Never was the ineptness so apparent than the season finale, which saw Tech surrender 733 yards to Rice in a 49-14 loss. Earlier, the Bulldogs allowed 732 yards to Boise State.

What's Next: Moats is a good start for the offense, which must replace McCown. Some are calling for Bicknell's job now that the Bulldogs have posted consecutive losing seasons after winning the conference in 2001. Unless the defensive scheme and those trying to execute it vastly improves, Tech's immediate future can't be considered bright.

You know what kind of year it was when your head coach is fired a few days following the final game. Chris Tormey is out at Nevada after the Wolf Pack fell apart in the second half. It certainly didn't help the coach's cause that Steve Kragthorpe at Tulsa did in one season what Tormey couldn't do in four. Nevada was 16-31 under Tormey, 12-20 in the WAC, 0-4 against instate rival UNLV and made zero bowl appearances. This season, a sixth-place conference finish wasn't nearly good enough for a team many thought should and would contend for a post-season berth. The Wolf Pack was far too inconsistent offensively, particularly with the pass.

MVP: DE Jorge Cordova. The senior defensive end more than did his part, ranking second among WAC leaders in sacks with 11.5. Cordova also had 16 tackles for loss and a conference-best four forced fumbles. Another with a fine season was running back Chance Kretschmer (1,162 yards, 12 TDs).

Biggest Disappointment: The 27-10 home loss to Fresno State. This is where Tormey really began to lose the faith of his athletic director. The Wolf Pack offered a listless performance in dropping their third straight conference game, falling behind 21-3 and not showing much fight at all.

What's Next: The return of the Chris Ault era. The winningest coach in Nevada history, Ault, the school's athletic director, will return to the head coaching job for a third time to try to snap a five-year stretch without a winning record.

The Owls finished strong, winning three straight and four of their last five to end with a 5-7 overall record, 5-3 in conference. The nation's best run game began steam-rolling opponents late, putting up more than 40 points in each of those final three games. But it's tough to overcome an 0-4 start and still manage a winning season. How much better was Rice at season's end? The Owls scored 66 points their first four games; they scored 163 the last four. Rice was the only WAC school to rush for more than 320 yards in a game and did so five times. The Owls finished with a school-record 3,800 rushing yards. Robbie Beck scored 12 TDs, giving the back 35 for his career, second most in school history.

MVP: OL Ben Stephens. The gaudy rushing numbers are certainly impressive, and someone had to open many of the holes to produce them. Stephens is a 6-foot-2, 300-pound senior lineman who made it possible for four players to average more than 59.8 yards rushing.

Biggest Disappointment: The slow start. Losses against Houston, Duke, Texas and Hawaii never gave Rice a chance to contend for the post-season. Things might have been different if quarterback Kyle Herm was healthy early and injuries didn't limit running back Clint Hatfield to just four games.

What's Next: Coach Ken Hatfield owns 47 wins over 11 years in the WAC, having also coached Air Force in the conference. He has to be optimistic about next season considering how well his young team finished 2003. Herm is gone at quarterback, but the Owls do return fellow signal-caller Greg Henderson, who threw for 485 yards this season and ran for 615.

San Jose State
The team many felt was good enough to contend for an upper-tier finish and bowl berth finished 3-8 overall and 2-6 in conference. The Spartans opened with a 29-0 win against Grambling and promptly lost their next four games by an average score of 41-17. Fitz Hill's team couldn't stop anyone all season, allowing averages of 35 points and 386 yards. It's a strange record for a team that was actually plus-five in turnover ratio. But the Spartans mustered little to no run game (104.3 average), which didn't allow a steady quarterback in Scott Rislov (18 TDs to just five interceptions) enough balance to keep opponents honest. Defensive back Gerald Jones had six interceptions (two for touchdowns) and finished his career with 14, the 18th most in WAC history.

MVP: QB Scott Rislov. The senior's passing numbers -- 261-of-437, 3,016 yards -- deserved a better fate than 3-8 at season's end. Rislov is the only quarterback in school history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons and he completed a school-record 60.5 percent of his career passes.

Biggest Disappointment: Funny, but the season's final game. A 34-32 loss to Tulsa defined the 2003 season. So many missed opportunities. The Spartans led 26-14 at halftime and Tulsa quarterback James Kilian was on the bench injured. But the Spartans found a way to lose one final time, having two touchdowns called back due to penalty and failing on a few two-point conversions.

What's Next: It's a mystery. San Jose State went 6-7 and upset Illinois in 2002, when Hill was awarded a contract extension. But the Spartans now must replace Rislov. Still, Hill is adamant his team made progress this season and is confident it can contend in 2004.

There is no way around 0-12 overall and 0-8 in conference, no way around being outscored 386-134, no way around getting out-gained 389-260 on average. The Mustangs were the WAC's youngest team and paid for it with a winless season. Not surprisingly, second-year coach Phil Bennett has already taken steps to improve the product. Bennett will hire a new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in the coming weeks and will move former coordinator Larry Edmondson to a position coach. Also, tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Johnny Ringo and offensive line coach Blake Miller will not be retained. This is what happens when your offense ranks last among 10 conference teams and your team is a minus-13 in turnover ratio.

MVP: RB Keylon Kincade. You can't overstate how impressive his effort was. Despite the Mustangs having a woeful passing attack and opponents stacking the line with eight and nine defenders, the senior Kincade rushed for 1,280 yards and four touchdowns. He also had 271 receiving yards.

Biggest Disappointment: That the momentum gained from winning three of the last five games in 2002 didn't carry over. It's the first time SMU has had a winless season, and the Mustangs were really only in five games.

What's Next: Even at 0-12, you can see some reason for optimism. True freshman quarterback Chris Phillips will be much better for the experience of playing five games and completing 54 percent of his passes. Also, Bennett last spring signed the program's best recruiting class in nearly 20 years, a group that was considered tops in the WAC and among the 50 best nationally.

The Golden Hurricane is a perfect example of what a little success can do for the confidence of a floundering program. First-year coach Steve Kragthorpe gave his players -- a majority of whom won two games the previous two seasons -- a blue print for achievement and they dutifully followed. And once one win was followed by another, which was followed by another, Tulsa was on its way to the remarkable turnaround. Kragthorpe's expertise might be with quarterbacks, but it was his defense that allowed Tulsa such an impressive showing this season. The team ranked second to conference champion Boise State in scoring and total defense and did not allow a TD pass to the league's top quarterbacks in Ryan Dinwiddie, Timmy Chang and Luke McCown.

MVP: QB James Kilian. The promise of another season for the junior will no doubt help season-ticket sales. Before being tutored by Kragthorpe, Kilian had completed just 38-of-90 career passes for 401 yards with one TD and three interceptions.

Biggest Disappointment: It's awfully difficult to find one for a team headed to the postseason after being picked last in a 10-team conference. If Tulsa could have found a way to win one or both of two games (consecutive losses to Nevada by a 28-21 score and to Boise State by 27-20) a great season could have been an incredible one.

What's Next: Tulsa is rewarded for its season with a Humanitarian Bowl berth against Georgia Tech. Kragthorpe will hard pressed to improve on this first-year showing in 2004, but the eventual switch to Conference USA should improve regional recruiting even more. Kilian is not a bad name to start with for next season.

Like at Nevada, losing too much cost a head coach his job. Gary Nord was fired after his team finished 2-11 overall and 1-7 in conference. In four years, Nord was 14-34. The Miners even lost to Division I-AA Cal Poly at home this season and have defeated just three I-A opponents the past three years. UTEP ended Nord's tenure with seven straight losses. The Miners played musical chairs at quarterback all season, switching between Orlando Cruz and Jordan Palmer. Neither was very good, combining for 13 TD passes and 24 interceptions. The leading receiver (Chris Marrow) had just 34 catches. Worse yet, the defense allowed an average of 38.3 points.

MVP: LB Robert Rodriguez. For a second season, the junior linebacker led the WAC in tackles, this time with 135 (70 solo). The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder from El Paso has a conference-best 137 tackles as a freshman.

Biggest Disappointment: Nord's reputation locally was one of a kick-back persona who allowed players far too much freedom and whose squad lacked the discipline needed to be consistently successful. In short, he was probably too nice. But no discipline in football usually means no winning on the scoreboard, which usually means losing your job.

What's Next: Nord's entire staff was let go and athletic director Bob Stull is in the midst of a national search to find someone capable of rebuilding the program yet again. The Miners actually won a share of the WAC in 2000 and played in the Humanitarian Bowl.

Ed Graney covers college football for the San Diego Union-Tribune.