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The best and worst of the WAC

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.

Hawaii

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.

Nevada

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.

Rice

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.

SMU

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.

Tulsa

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.

UTEP

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.