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Grid parity leaves a vacancy on front seat

Back in July, all nine Mountain West Conference football coaches sat around a table at the Coronado Marriott in San Diego.

They discussed the impending season and league play. They'd all seen the preseason publications, read all the prognostications and even heard how the media that cover the MWC had voted.

The coaches all kind of scoffed and shook their heads. Predict the season? Go cure cancer.

To a man, being honest with one another, refusing to shoot feathers or play word games, none of the coaches had any idea who should be favored to win the MWC football title. CSU's Sonny Lubick didn't know. Neither did veteran AFA coach Fisher DeBerry, or New Mexico's Rocky Long. Both Utah and BYU coaches, Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall, filed in with the rest, and although they had their expectations they pleaded ignorance as to how this fall would unfold.

They all shrugged their shoulders in mutual respect and collective fear of one another.


They were as confused as teen boys at a Miss America pageant. And they're the experts.

Today, we'll know more about Wyoming and Air Force. On Thursday, we found out TCU, who could lose to anybody (SMU), could also defeat Oklahoma in Norman and preseason favorite Utah in the Frog bailiwick.

New Mexico, which should defeat New Mexico State today and go 3-0, with a win at Missouri in Columbus, may be the first team to break into the BCS poll when released on Monday.

So, who is in the driver's seat? Who knows. The coaches were right. Parity is indeed here in the MWC.

In Provo this week, Mendenhall emphasized his own team's progress, throwing a diet of repetitive execution and focus issues at his club. "We want to be excellent. Everything we do this week will be to make our team better, all it can be — and we've got work to do."

While Mendenhall gave his squad Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, Whittingham put his troops through weekend drills to fix some gaps exposed in the overtime loss to TCU while working on preparation for the Air Force run-pitch and now pass attack.

The Cougars? Jury is still out.

The BYU offense that went without a touchdown against Boston College is nothing like the one displayed against Division I-AA Eastern Illinois. And, quite frankly, it was nothing like the Cougar offense on display in fall practice.

Credit Boston College. But some of that had to be game plan and play-calling. It was vanilla that day. Totally watered down and conservative.

Now it remains to be seen how good BYU's defense is in 2005. It was decent against Boston College, a ranked team. It's had its moments with a talented front seven leading the way.

But in fall drills, BYU's offense had its way with the defensive counterparts. In the red zone or blue zone, pink zone or whatever, it was very, very productive.

That's the mystery of what was on display against Boston College.

"We scored a ton when in the red zone against our first defense in practice in fall camp," quarterback John Beck said. "It made us mad, we came out with a chip on our shoulder the next game, but then got up 31-0 and lost focus."

So, if BYU transfers its practice prowess to game day, are the Cougars better, perhaps even explosive, in MWC play? Anybody's guess.

Beck said this week that the Cougars made practice a stop at Tunex, emphasizing ball security, cutting down penalties and retaining an edge — focus. He called this week's practices outstanding, and Monday's session the best of the fall.

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae preached "togetherness" and "support for one another" this week. In Cougar practices. You saw a lot of cheerleading breaking out. And the squad did look precision-sharp. Anae attacked the Boston College problems that led senior wideout Todd Watkins to answer "no comment" when asked if he could have been utilized more that day.

It showed during the bye week. But what does that mean?

"Maybe we're a team that plays better when we're loose and we play our best ball when we're having fun," Beck said.

It might need to start with Beck. Like Beck just having fun. Last Saturday he went home after a 45-10 win, dissected his own performance, and labeled it "disappointing."

The pressure cooker doesn't get any easier, only tougher. Fun would be good.

With TCU now leading the pack after taking the favored Utes down one notch, all nine coaches are feeling the tension grow.

If parity has indeed arrived at this club, a couple of plays, calls and bounces of the football likely could be the determining factor in the MWC championship of 2005.

We saw that Thursday night in Fort Worth, in an overtime game.

How big are a few plays? Parity?

Ask Whittingham.