The best and worst in the Mountain West

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

A team-by-team look at how the Mountain West fared so far this season.

Air Force
Things appeared so promising for the Falcons early. Air Force began the season 6-1 overall and 3-0 in conference, only to fall apart down the stretch and finish 7-5, 3-4. It has become somewhat of a constant with Air Force in recent years, this ability to play well early and then not respond when opposing defenses have a better feel for defending the option later in a season. The season was also marked with a loss to Navy, which likely cost the Academy another Commander-In-Chief's Trophy should the Midshipmen defeat Army (Dec. 6). Entering the final week of regular-season play, it appeared doubtful Air Force would be extended a bowl berth.

MVP: LB Marchello Graddy. The senior linebacker ranked fourth among conference players in tackles (113), second in sacks (six) and tied for the lead in fumble recoveries (five). He was the main reason Air Force ranked among the league's top defenses.

Biggest Disappointment: The final two games. Air Force still had its post-season life to play for, but ended with road setbacks of 24-12 against New Mexico and 24-3 against San Diego State. It certainly didn't finish like a team that is 58-28 since 1997.

What's Next: Fisher DeBerry's team must replace 26 seniors from its 2003 roster, but that only means elevating names from the junior varsity squad. Air Force, which will be directed by a new quarterback now that Chance Harridge graduates, will always be difficult to scheme against.

BYU
It makes you wonder how quickly the natives will be calling for head coach Gary Crowton's head if BYU begins slowly in 2004. On the season, injuries forced Crowton to play four different quarterbacks, a fact that led to the consistent offensive woes. Think about it: BYU averaged just 215 yards passing this season and totaled 13 TD passes to 22 interceptions. The Cougars were even more inept running the ball with an average of 99.6 yards. One once -- once! -- did BYU score at least 30 points in a game. It's the first time since 1970-71 that BYU has posted consecutive sub-.500 seasons.

MVP: S Aaron Francisco. The junior safety had 116 tackles (57 solo) to rank third among conference players. BYU won its four games and stayed close in several losses for extended periods because of the Francisco-led defense.

Biggest Disappointment: Utah 3, BYU 0. Talk about hitting rock bottom. BYU had scored in an NCAA-record 361 straight games before ending the season with a shutout loss to in-state rival Utah. Prior to the setback, BYU had last been blanked in 1975.

What's Next: Crowton has admittedly not dealt well with the wacky recruiting numbers BYU can offer annually due to return Mormon missionaries. But he has more than 20 scholarships to offer this season and needs to be diligent in his evaluation. BYY fans will only stomach so much more mediocrity.

Colorado State
In most programs, a 7-5 overall record and 4-3 conference mark with a bowl berth would be considered a rousing success. But the Rams were an overwhelming pick of most to repeat as league champion and fell short with a third-place finish. Unlike in recent seasons, the Rams fell apart defensively for long stretches of games. They struggled defending both the pass and run, and were a woeful minus-11 in turnover ratio. CSU uncharacteristically lost big at home to a very good but not great Miami (Ohio) team 41-21. It was also the first time in recent memory CSU did not have a running back listed among the league's top eight in average.

MVP: QB Bradlee Van Pelt. The senior quarterback did everything possible to lead CSU to another championship, ranking No. 1 among conference players in total offense (293.8) and pass efficiency (158.3). He rushed for a team-best 844 yards and accounted for 27 touchdowns.

Biggest Disappointment: Utah 28, CSU 21. In past years, CSU would not have lost such a critical home game by turning the ball over as it was driving for a possible game-winning field goal. But when Arnold Parker returned a fumble 80 yards for a score with 1:33 remaining, a shift in Mountain West power had occurred.

What's Next: The Rams are set to play Boston College in the San Francisco Bowl on Dec. 31. Justin Holland -- who will replace Van Pelt as starting quarterback next season -- is taking snaps in practice while Van Pelt (broken hand) hopes to be healthy for the bowl game.

New Mexico
Prognosticators pegged the Lobos correctly as the league's second-best team this year, a side that finished its regular-season 8-4 overall and 5-2 in conference. Once again, coach Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense confused opponents on a weekly basis. New Mexico allowed opponents a rushing average of just 80.4, and only seven players have managed 100 yards against the Lobos since 2000, a span of 47 games. Long's team led the league in scoring (31.4) and added enough of a competent passing attack behind improved quarterback Casey Kelly to allow a potent running game opportunity for success. More impressively, New Mexico scored 45-of-49 times in the red zone, coming away with TDs on 31 of those occasions.

MVP: RB DonTrell Moore. As the conference Freshman of the Year in 2002, he rushed for 1,134 yards and 13 TDs. But his true skill shined late this season, when he went for 242 yards against CSU, 188 against Air Force and 153 against Wyoming. In those three games, he scored six times.

Biggest Disappointment: A 10-7 home loss to BYU on Sept. 13. First, the Lobos were much better than the Cougars across the board. But when you finish a game out of first place to Utah, looking back on this defeat stings even more.

What's Next: New Mexico makes its second straight Las Vegas Bowl appearance when it plays Oregon State on Christmas Day. It's the first time the program has made consecutive postseason appearances since 1945-46 and considering Moore returns for his junior season and the defense only gets better each year, bowling could become an annual thing.

San Diego State
A 6-6 season marked improvement in coach Tom Craft's second year guiding the program, and enough skilled bodies return to think the Aztecs might contend for a conference title in 2004. But what was often a pathetic offense inside the red zone must now replace Adam Hall at quarterback, although Craft got a taste of that when the senior missed all or parts of five games with injuries. Missed opportunities with close losses at Ohio State (16-13) and UCLA (20-10) kept SDSU from making a major jump. The defense was fantastic most of the season, but playing two I-AA schools in Samford and Eastern Washington didn't allow the team to be bowl eligible at season's end.

MVP: LB Kirk Morrison. The junior linebacker might flirt with leaving early for the NFL, but it would be in his best interest professionally (and certainly for SDSU) if he returns. Morrison finished the season with 115 tackles (70 solo, 15 for loss), four forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. He was everywhere.

Biggest Disappointment: A 30-7 home loss to New Mexico. All you need to know about this game: SDSU had out-gained the Lobos 274-103 and owned possession time by nearly 20 minutes in the first half. And still trailed 17-7. Teams with serious thoughts about being a player in the conference race have this game won by that time.

What's Next: Guarded optimism abounds within the program, especially if sensational freshman running back Lynell Hamilton (1,087 yards, four TDs) can fully recover from major knee surgery. More competency is needed at wide receiver and the quarterback spot remains unproven for now, but that defense is a great place to start next year's run.

UNLV
The team that began 4-1 and looked so impressive in winning 23-5 at Wisconsin lost five of its last seven to finish 6-6 overall and a disappointing 2-5 in league. A porous passing game never allowed the Rebels enough balance to hurt people consistently, as junior quarterback Kurt Nantkes battled injury and inconsistent efforts. UNLV never really took advantage of leading the conference in turnover margin (plus-13), ranking last in total offense with a 309.2 average. In a span of three consecutive league defeats, the Rebels scored a combined 37 points. That didn't count a 7-0 home loss to SDSU.

MVP: DB Jamaal Brimmer. A finalist for the Thorpe Award, this junior defensive back had a conference-best six interceptions, 77 tackles and three sacks. He broke onto the national scene at Wisconsin, where he returned a fumble for one score, set up two more with interceptions and had two sacks among a game-high 11 tackles.

Biggest Disappointment: The frustrations on offense. Injuries at running back didn't help UNLV's cause, but any semblance of more consistency likely would have produced eight wins instead of six. John Robinson-coached teams should never be this average at reaching the end zone.

What's Next: Robinson has said he will return for a sixth season leading the program. There is enough talent returning to think the Rebels can improve their conference standing, but it took just a year for them to go from one of the Mountain West's best offenses to its worst. Big improvement is needed.

Utah
The conference champion methodically made its way through the schedule to finish 9-2 overall and 6-1 in league. The only losses in Urban Meyer's first season as coach was a two-pointer at Texas A&M and a 47-35 home setback to second-place New Mexico. This is a team that lost its starting quarterback in the season's second game and promptly followed with five straight wins, including ones against Pac-10 teams Cal and Oregon and defending league champ CSU. It is Utah's first outright title since winning the Skyline Conference in 1957. Did we mention Utah also lost leading rusher Brandon Warfield for three games with a serious knee injury?

MVP: QB Alex Smith. The kid who began the season as a backup completed 66.7 percent of his passes and went 181 attempts before throwing an interception at Air Force. He threw 2,037 yards while completing 160-of-240. Something tell us it is his job to lose next season.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be the loss to New Mexico, considering that is what kept Utah from a perfect conference record. Utah completely fell apart in the third quarter, being outscored 28-6. When it was over, the Lobos had gained 633 yards to 300 for the Utes.

What's Next: For the first time since 1964, Utah will play in the Liberty Bowl when it meets Southern Mississippi from Conference USA on Dec. 31. There is also little question Utah will be the preseason pick to repeat as next year's Mountain West champion.

Wyoming
Joe Glenn's first year brought a sense of excitement and passion that has lacked from the Cowboys in recent times. The final record -- 4-8 overall, 2-5 in conference -- is a definite first step for a team that posted just five wins the previous three seasons. Two of the eight losses were by a touchdown or less. Wyoming made some strides defensively, but still allowed a conference-worse 30 points per game. The Cowboys were hurt most on the ground, where they surrendered an average of 230.4. They gave up far too many first downs (284) for only having 14 sacks all season.

MVP: QB Casey Bramlet. In a league with some very good quarterbacks, this senior stood his ground among the best. Bramlet led the conference in passing (253.1 average) and threw 22 TDs to just nine interceptions. He ranked third in total offense (244.7).

Biggest Disappointment: Not being able to sustain good play. At one point, the Cowboys were actually 2-2 in conference and looking very much like a possible bowl team. But three straight losses (the last two at home) to end the season never allowed Glenn's team to know what-might-have-been.

What's Next: There is no question Glenn has already instilled a better attitude in Wyoming players. The Cowboys are likely still a few recruiting classes away from contending with the league's best, but things haven't appeared this bright in some time.

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