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U. league favorite; Cougars picked 3rd

SHARE U. league favorite; Cougars picked 3rd

LAS VEGAS — Maybe it's a sign of the times. Or maybe it's just an aberration.

But when it comes to preseason predictions, the Utah and BYU football programs, respectively, find themselves in unfamiliar positions. For the first time in years, the Utes are favored to win a conference football title. The Cougars, perennial preseason darlings, are picked to finish third.

Utah topped both the Mountain West Conference coaches and media polls, which were released Tuesday morning to kick off MWC football media day. Colorado State was voted second.

"It means people have respect for our program," Ute coach Ron McBride said of the polls. "Other than that, it doesn't mean a lot. The key is to play hard every day and stay consistent."

While it's rare for Utah to be picked to claim a conference football title — the last time was 1996 — BYU had not been forecasted to finish lower than second since 1975, when the Cougars were tabbed for a fourth-place finish. From 1976-1999, dating back to its membership in the Western Athletic Conference, BYU was picked to be either the champion or runner-up.

Not that lower expectations bother BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who doesn't put much stock in preseason polls anyway. "All those years we were picked

first and second and it never meant anything," he said.

Edwards added that the 2000 polls might reflect BYU's rough ending last year, when it lost its last three games.

Besides, the 69-year-old coach says that because of the parity in the league, he wouldn't be surprised to see three teams sharing the crown again. In 1999, CSU, Utah and BYU were MWC tri-champions with a 5-2 record.

McBride agrees. "If you go 5-2, you will get a share of something," he said. "Every year, it's going to be tight. There will be four teams that will be there at the end. There's no runaway team in this league. Nobody's going to go undefeated."

Last season, CSU, which was projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference race, ended up representing the MWC as league champ in the Liberty Bowl.

This year, both the coaches and the media like Utah, Colorado State, BYU and Air Force to finish 1-4. New Mexico is the consensus cellar-dweller. However, positions 5-7 varied. The coaches picked San Diego State in fifth place, followed by Wyoming and UNLV. The media selected Wyoming, UNLV and San Diego State, in that order.

In the coaches' poll, Utah garnered four of the eight first-place votes while CSU earned three and BYU one. In the media survey, the Utes grabbed 17 first-place votes. CSU had 10 and BYU three.

Utah returns eight starters on defense and nine on offense, including the projected player of the year Steve Smith. The Utes posted a 9-3 record and a share of the inaugural MWC title in 1999.

"Utah's reloaded this year," said CSU coach Sonny Lubick. "They have both quarterbacks back and a lot of people returning."

Lubick believes his team's preseason rating was probably too high. "Our conference is very balanced," he said. "I look at our team and if we' re supposed to be one of the best teams, I don't see us running away from teams like Wyoming or San Diego State. It's very difficult for a team to go undefeated in this conference. If you go 5-2, you'll probably be right there. Maybe someone will go 6-1, but I don't know who that will be."

Lubick revealed that he was the lone coach to pick BYU to win the conference. "I've been here (at CSU) a long time and BYU is our benchmark. I don't care what anybody says, they are the standard-bearer of our conference. BYU will always be there."

The last time Utah was picked to win a title (in the WAC) was 1996. That year, BYU, which was picked second, ended up winning the championship and was ranked No. 5 in the national polls following a 14-1 season and Cotton Bowl victory.

E-MAIL: jeffc@desnews.com