I began working on my WAC preseason poll on my flight the other day. Here's how I think it will shake out as of right now. I want to state this right off the bat and I can't reaffirm it enough: THIS POLL IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE! It's only June and media days are a full month away so I can change my mind from now until the beginning of the season. There are still some tricky spots to navigate through here. There are others I feel comfortable with.
1) Boise State: To tough to pick against the Broncos although there are some teams that I think can make some noise. Louisiana Tech and Nevada both come to mind. But at the end of the day, you gotta pick the Broncos. I think it's important to point out that I picked BSU to win last year when the chic pick was Fresno State. BSU prevailed.
Pros: They have a great quarterback in Kellen Moore; They have an intriguing running back in Jeremy Avery; They have a great secondary; And they have the tradition of excellence that's hard to top. Simply put, they don't lose in conference and it will be tough for anyone to knock them off their thrown. Until that happens, I'll stick with them.
Cons: They have to lose eventually and everyone is gunning for them. That target on the Broncos' back gets bigger and bigger each year.
2) Louisiana Tech: This team will make noise, just wait. Last season I selected them to finish high when many didn't give it any thought. They were strong after all and ended up going to the Independence Bowl, where they won. Again, I pick them to surprise. Second to some might be high but I don't think so. They run the ball, they stop the run. They play hungry and coach Derek Dooley is all business. They also get Boise at home this season and I smell an upset in that one. It's a Friday nighter on ESPN.
Pros: Strong on defense and special teams; Good D-line anchored by tackle D'Anthony Smith and end Kwame Jordan.
Cons: They need a good year out of QB Ross Jenkins, who hasn't done it yet; I like Daniel Porter as the feature running back, but can he carry the load? He will get a lot of carries; Wide receiver Phillip Livas has been an Aggie killer during his tenure at La. Tech. Outside of that, this unit is unproven.
3) Nevada: I respect Fresno State a lot but I also think highly of the Wolf Pack. I expect Chris Ault to coach this team with his usual hard-edged attitude. They will run the ball with authority. That's what happens when your best runner is your quarterback, and signal caller Colin Kaepernick is special. He is erratic throwing the football, but with his legs, he can get the job done and he opens things up for the other running backs on the team. RB Vai Tua had a monster season last year, simply because Luke Lippincott went down with an injured knee. Lippincott is back now, and I expect him to be at full force, giving Nevada the best ground game in the conference.
Pros: Best team in conference at running the football; Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a difference maker and the toughest single player to defend in the WAC.
Cons: The Wolf Pack love their receiving corps going into the new season, but the unit has to prove it. Two players to watch are junior Chris Wellington and redshirt freshman Brandon Wimberly; Same deal on defense. Word is that the secondary is improved and it better be. The last two years this team has lived and died in shootouts on the scoreboard.
4) Fresno State: The Bulldogs will always play with an attitude and I mean that in a good way. I do think losing quarterback Tom Brandstater to the NFL will hurt — he went to Denver in the draft. They will be able to run the ball as always and will be strong along both the offensive and defensive lines — as always. I also would keep an eye on wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu, who was explosive last season. I like them, just not as much as the top three.
Pros: A stable of running backs led by junior Ryan Mathews; Play with an attitude along both lines; I expect them to be nothing short of solid defensively; Ajirotutu has the size and ability to be an elite WAC receiver.
Cons: They lose key offensive pieces in quarterback Tom Brandstater and tight end Bear Pascoe. It's tough to replace talent and leadership.
5) San Jose State: It's hard for me to pick the Spartans this low. I like quarterback Kyle Reed and respect their defense tremendously — they had three defensive players drafted this year with Chris Owens and Jarron Gilbert each going in the third round. They also lose their top receiver from a season ago in David Richmond — he's in Bengals' camp if anyone's interested. One intriguing piece will be wide receiver Kevin Jurovich, who had a big year in 2007 but was injured for all of last season. Ultimately think this team will score just enough points and play just stout enough defense to win games. They will be a respectable fifth-place team in the conference.
Pros: The Ihenacho brothers — Carl (defensive end) and Duke (safety) — not only make a cool story but also form a strong 1-2 punch; Quaterback Kyle Reed is dangerous and I believe underrated.
Cons: Do they have enough weapons on offense?; Can they sustain the loss of NFL-quality players on their usually-strong defense?
6) Hawaii: I am not in love with this team and the only reason I'm putting them here is because their homefield advantage is so strong. I could see them dropping and the more I look at it, I think the bottom-four spots in the WAC are wide open. Another way to put that is that they're weak. QB Greg Alexander quietly put up good numbers here last year, with 14 TDs and just five picks. I've always liked running back Leon Wright-Jackson, but he hasn't produced. Wide receiver Greg Salas is gritty. The days of June Jones are over.
Pros: Great homefield advantage. Nobody travels well the The Islands.
Cons: Defense has some holes; I question overall talent of team.
7) New Mexico State: The Aggies are here, which is better than where many are picking them. I see the team scratching and clawing their way to wins under Walker and I also like the way their schedule works out. They host Utah State and Idaho and I think they will win both of those games. I think the Aggies will be a tough team at home. I also see them upsetting either Fresno State or Nevada when those teams visit Las Cruces. They will surprise one of them.
Pros: The Aggies will be a good rushing team, with Marquell Colston, Tonny Glynn and whoever else they give the ball too; Defense will be better. I think the secondary will play better; DeWayne Walker will bring a fresh attitude.
Cons: As of now, the team is thin in talent; Quarterback remains a major question mark. Whoever plays best between Jeff Fleming, Trevor Walls and Tanner Rust deserves the chance to lead the team. From afar I like Walls but a lot will be dictated this fall heading into the season.
8) Utah State: I wrestled with Utah State, simply because I think they are going to be a better team this year. They have some talent here, along with one of the more underrated offensive players in the league in quarterback Diondre Borel. He made their offense explosive at times last year and is a scary player to defend with his run/pass abilities. I also think the defense will be respectable with Paul Igboeli leading the charge. New coach Gary Anderson is a defensive guy. They host Nevada, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State and Boise State. I think they can upset two of those teams in Romney Stadium this year.
Pros: Exciting quarterback; Underrated defense; I expect them to be a tough home team this year at Romney, particularly when the weather gets rugged.
Cons: They are used to losing; Road schedule takes them to Idaho, NMSU and Hawaii, three teams they could beat at home but will have trouble with away.
9) Idaho: It pains me to say it, but I do not think the Vandals will be much improved this year. This team has failed to compete under coach Rob Akey, with the one shining moment for the program in his tenure coming when they beat NMSU in Moscow last season. I do see a few winnable WAC games — at home against Hawaii and also at home against Utah State. This team will forever play hard under Akey. The talent level just hasn't been there.
Pros: Idaho has an underrated quarterback in Nathan Enderle; I also am a fan of running back Deonte Jackson, who was a WAC monster two seasons ago and faded a bit last year. I think he'll be back and form a nice 1-2 punch with RB Princeton McCarty; If a team goes into the Kibbie Dome dozing off, the Vandals can ambush them; Look out for offensive tackle Matt Cleveland.
Cons: One has to question the team's talent level; Will the defense hold down the fort?