The Mountain West begins the season with three ranked football teams, a sign of progress in the league that began just over a decade ago as an offshoot from the unwieldy 16-team WAC.
What this means is the top teams will hand the others losses. The Big Three will take one another out, just like 2008.
TCU is picked to win the league title for good reason. The Horned Frogs play great defense, and they return Andy Dalton at quarterback. The Cougars and Utes will be chasing the Frogs all season, because TCU has a great chance of starting with a month of wins in September.
This is a league where returning quarterbacks propel programs to success. In this regard, BYU has a great chance to challenge the Frogs for the title, because the Cougars are consistently holders of the trophy when they have good senior QBs and they get the Frogs at home.
Other programs with returning QBs that could prove key include UNLV (Omar Clayton), New Mexico (Donovan Porterie), Air Force (Tim Jefferson) and San Diego State (Ryan Lindley).
The QBs who are gone — Utah's Brian Johnson, Colorado State's Billy Farris, Wyoming's Chris Stutzriem/Dax Crum/Kartsen Sween — combined for 54 touchdowns and 6,715 yards.
For the Utes, it wasn't Johnson's total stats that made the difference; it was crunch-time numbers in which he delivered.
This year's predictions:
1. TCU (12-0) will sport another impressive defense, but Gary Patterson will open up the offense and not rely on his defense to win games. If the Horned Frogs get by Virginia and Clemson on the road in September, they may not lose another game.
2. BYU (10-2), with Max Hall, has some great weapons in two NFL-caliber tight ends and running back Harvey Unga. Add McKay Jacobson to the mix, and the Cougars may be in position to win a title if the defense is improved. It all comes down to that showdown in Provo with TCU — losses to Oklahoma and either Florida State or TCU at home.
3. Utah (9-3) because that excellent season a year ago featured a big-time playmaker in Brian Johnson, experienced receivers and a pair of lock-down corners. That talent is gone, and what is left, albeit talented, will be challenged to duplicate. Look for questions of consistency at QB to cost the Utes losses to Oregon, TCU and BYU.
4. San Diego State (7-5) may have solved its beach-party reputation when New Mexico coach Rocky Long became the defensive coordinator. I think this, plus a returning experienced QB, is big enough to launch the Aztecs past Air Force this year in the standings. Losses will be to UCLA, Air Force on the road, BYU, TCU and Utah.
5. Air Force (6-6) has a tough schedule with Minnesota on the road when they face all the service academies, which are upgraded, plus BYU, TCU and Utah. I think this team will get worn down and take a step back this season. If the Falcons can beat Army at home, they'll have a winning season. If not, they'll break even but get to a bowl game.
6. Colorado State (6-6) Breaking in a new QB will be a challenge in Fort Collins. Gartrell Johnson was a big-play back who is gone. But this program won a bowl game, and if the Rams can beat UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming, Air Force and San Diego State, it will signal a big step forward. I see losses to the Big Three, plus SDSU, Nevada and the opener against Big 12 Colorado.
7. UNLV (4-8) is a mystery team because of the defensive secondary. It will be total open tryouts this month, and who knows what they'll get. But on offense, the Rebels are more than capable, with Omar Clayton throwing to Ryan Wolfe. Rebel wins come over CSU, New Mexico, Hawaii and Sacramento State.
8. Wyoming (4-8) didn't fire its coach to take a step back, but the work before that new staff is a tough one, especially with Texas coming to Laramie. I see UNLV and Wyoming as two teams battling to gain respect and make a bowl game, then failing. The Pokes should lose to the Longhorns, Colorado, Air Force, Utah, BYU, SDSU, TCU and CSU.
9. New Mexico (1-11) isn't exactly an endorsement for Lobo football after Long's departure, but it is tough to see this program playing at the same intensity level that Long brought it in the glory days that included Bronco Mendenhall. Brutal, but I think the only win comes against New Mexico State after opening against Texas A&M, Tulsa, Air Force and then Texas Tech.