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August 18, 2010

Broncos aim to continue WAC domination

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Say this for the WAC: This is the last season anyone will say the conference is Boise State and eight also-rans.

This is the WAC's last chance to take shots at Boise State, but this might be the toughest season to knock the Broncos off their perch. Boise State returns 21 starters to an undefeated team that hasn't lost a conference game since Nov. 23, 2007. The Broncos have built enough momentum to be considered dark horses to reach the national championship game.

Elsewhere in the conference, teams are at crossroads. Fresno State and Nevada are consistent bowl teams, but they haven't been able to score major upsets over Boise State or their non-conference competition in recent seasons.

A year after Robb Akey led Idaho to an eight-win season and a Humanitarian Bowl appearance, New Mexico State, Utah State and Louisiana Tech are hoping to return to the postseason with coaches hired within the last two seasons.

Each conference school has taken strides to try to catch up with Boise State. Even if the Broncos leave with their eighth WAC title, improvements conference-wide could be Boise State's greatest legacy.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State QB Kellen Moore. Moore has lost one start in two seasons (17-16 to TCU in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl). He threw 36 more touchdowns than interceptions and finished second in the nation in passing efficiency last season. But there's still room to grow and milestones to reach. He doesn't have the best arm strength, but he's looking to improve his ability on the deep ball this season. If that happens, Boise State's potent offense could be even more dangerous as the Broncos make a run at a third BCS game in the past four seasons. He remains the perfect fit for Boise's spread offense, completing at least 20 passes to six receivers last season.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State E Ryan Winsterswyk. The senior anchors the top defense in the WAC and one that could challenge to be among the best in the country. The Broncos ranked in the top 15 nationally last season in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Winsterswyk finished last season with a career-best 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick. The senior has proven he can run and pass against WAC opponents, including Boise State. The questions start to come against non-conference teams. Last season, Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns and one interception against WAC foes but five TDs and four picks outside of conference play. He also was bottled up in the run game - 8.6 yards per carry against the WAC, 5.3 yards per carry outside of the WAC. True, those non-conference numbers aren't awful, but Nevada went 1-4 in its non-conference schedule. If Kaepernick is more consistent in non-conference play, particularly with his arm, Nevada could approach a 10-win season.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Boise State CB Jamar Taylor. Considering Boise State and Louisiana Tech were the only WAC teams to finish in the top 90 nationally in total defense, 77 defensive starters should be on the spot in this league. Still, fewer individuals will feel more pressure than Taylor. Although Taylor redshirted last season, he beat out Jerrell Gavins, a Fiesta Bowl starter, for the starting cornerback job. Maybe that doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is the only spot on defense without a returning starter. With the departing senior being first-round pick Kyle Wilson, Taylor is under even more pressure.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Utah State QB Diondre Borel. The Aggies are looking to become the 2010 version of Idaho, a WAC bottom-feeder turned bowl participant. Like Idaho, Utah State has a major playmaker at quarterback. Where Nathan Enderle is a classic dropback passer, Borel is a dual-threat spread quarterback. Borel passed for 2,885 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for 458 yards last season. More will be on his shoulders this season with standout RB Robert Turbin likely out for the season with a torn ACL.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Boise State LB Derrell Acrey. The Broncos' most heated position battles will be at linebacker. Acrey, a part-time starter the past two seasons, could erase any doubt at one position if he capitalizes on his potential. The Broncos need Acrey to become a more complete linebacker, especially against the run. If he can do that, the Broncos will have little reason to sub for Acrey.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Fresno State WR Davon Dunn. Ryan Mathews is the bigger departure on the offense, but losing Seyi Ajirotutu and two other senior receivers hurts, too. Dunn, a four-star signee, should step in immediately and compete with Devon Wylie for QB Ryan Colburn's attention. Dunn may have the highest ceiling of any of them.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Nevada S Corbin Louks. The Wolf Pack's pass defense has been a problem for a few years. New coordinator Andy Buh will turn to a former quarterback to help correct that. Louks was in the running for Utah's starting quarterback job last summer before falling behind Terrance Cain and Jordan Wynn and deciding to transfer.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Fresno State's Pat Hill. The school is having budget issues, causing Hill to take a pay cut and for members of his staff to take furloughs. Fresno State has not won the WAC since 1999 and has fallen way behind Boise State and, to a lesser extent, Nevada. The Bulldogs are 36-28 over the past four seasons, including 26-14 in the WAC and 1-3 in bowl games.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Boise State. It's tough to argue with a staff that has gone 49-4 under Chris Petersen. Remarkably, the staff has remained largely intact. Six assistants have been with Petersen since his first season in 2006. The departure of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Tennessee led to the promotion of line coach Pete Kwiatkowski. The Broncos plugged that hole with Bob Gregory, a former Boise State defensive coordinator who had been coordinator at California before deciding to give that post up.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Boise State's Bryan Harsin. Personnel dictated Boise State needed to move from an offense centered on RB Ian Johnson to a more wide-open scheme geared toward Moore. All Boise State did after the transition was to lead the nation in scoring offense.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Louisiana Tech's Tommy Spangler. New coach Sonny Dykes made a wise decision by retaining Spangler. The Bulldogs were among the worst defenses in the country in 2006 before Spangler's arrival. Last season, Louisiana Tech allowed 368 yards per game, its lowest average in at least a decade. That ranked 60th in the nation, but the Bulldogs and Boise were the only WAC defenses to allow fewer than 400 yards per game.

THE OTHER STUFF

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs seemed poised for a breakout last season, but that never materialized. Maybe it does this season. With E Matt Broha, LB Adrian Cole and S Tank Calais, the defense should outperform most units in the WAC. Meanwhile, Dykes and new coordinator Tony Franklin are among the nation's top offensive minds.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Idaho. The Vandals stunned the conference last season by reaching their first bowl game since 1998. Idaho won't catch anyone by surprise this season. Meanwhile, the Vandals have their own set of issues. The defense returns nearly intact, but it allowed at least 450 yards in five of the last six games. The offensive line also must recover from losing four starters, including first-round pick Mike Iupati.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 6. The first game of the season is the most important for Boise State and the WAC. If the Broncos beat the ACC favorite, they will have a shot at the BCS. If not, they would have to change their goals for the rest of the season. With either result, WAC opponents could catch a Boise State team either looking forward to a major bowl or feeling dejected from an early loss.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: San Jose State. The Spartans face two FCS opponents, but those will be well-earned respites. San Jose State goes on the road to Alabama, Wisconsin and Utah, each of whom should finish in the top 20. The Spartans' WAC schedule does them few favors, either, with road trips to Nevada, Hawaii and Idaho. At least the San Jose fans get to see Boise State come to town.

EASIEST SCHEDULE New Mexico State. If the Aggies are going to make a move in DeWayne Walker's second season, the schedule will be a big reason. The Aggies won't face a bowl team in the non-conference schedule, and only one opponent (Kansas) comes from a Big Six conference.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBKellen Moore, Boise State (6-0/187, Jr.)
RBJeremy Avery, Boise State (5-9/173, Sr.)
RBVai Taua, Nevada (5-10/220, Sr.)
WRAustin Pettis, Boise State (6-3/201, Sr.)
WRGreg Salas, Hawaii (6-2/210, Sr.)
WRTitus Young, Boise State (5-11/170, Sr.)
TRob McGill, Louisiana Tech (6-6/310, Sr.)
TKenny Wiggins, Fresno State (6-7/310, Sr.)
GAndrew Jackson, Fresno State (6-5/225, Sr.)
GNate Potter, Boise State (6-6/293, Jr.)
CJoe Bernardi, Fresno State (6-2/280, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EDontay Moch, Nevada (6-1/245, Sr.)
TBilly Winn, Boise State (6-4/288, Jr.)
ERyan Winterswyk, Boise State (6-4/264, Sr.)
LBAdrien Cole, Louisiana Tech (5-11/250, Jr.)
LBBen Jacobs, Fresno State (6-3/225, Sr.)
LBJames-Michael Johnson, Nevada (6-2/240, Jr.)
LBBobby Wagner, Utah State (6-1/230, Jr.)
CBDavon House, New Mexico State (6-0/190, Sr.)
CBBrandyn Thompson, Boise State (5-10/180, Sr.)
FSShiloh Keo, Idaho (5-11/216, Sr.)
SSJeron Johnson, Boise State (5-11/194, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KKevin Goessling, Fresno State (6-0/195, Soph.)
PKyle Brotzman, Boise State (5-10/201, Sr.)
KRTitus Young, Boise State (5-11/170, Sr.)
PRShiloh Keo, Idaho (5-11/216, Sr.)

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD

1. Boise State: With 26 wins in two seasons, Kellen Moore could challenge Colt McCoy's career wins record for a starting quarterback. The running back group is deep with Jeremy Avery (1,150 yards), Doug Martin (15 touchdowns) and D.J. Harper (284 yards in three games before being injured).

2. Nevada

3. Idaho

4. Utah State

5. Fresno State

6. Hawaii

7. Louisiana Tech

8. New Mexico State

9. San Jose State

RECEIVERS

1. Boise State: Titus Young and Austin Pettis (a combined 1,896 yards and 24 touchdowns last season) are among the best receiving duos in the country. At tight end, blocker Tommy Gallarda and pass-catcher Kyle Efaw aren't too bad, either.

2. Hawaii

3. Nevada

4. Idaho

5. Louisiana Tech

6. Utah State

7. Fresno State

8. San Jose State

9. New Mexico State

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Fresno State: The unit includes three All-WAC first-teamers (G Andrew Jackson, C Joe Bernardi and T Kenny Wiggins). Ryan Mathews led the nation in rushing behind this line last season.

2. Nevada

3. Boise State

4. Louisiana Tech

5. Utah State

6. Idaho

7. New Mexico State

8. Hawaii

9. San Jose State

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. Boise State: The Broncos' numbers against the run should improve with better linebacker play. The top defensive player in the WAC may be E Ryan Winterswyk, while the tackle tandem of Billy Winn and Chase Baker is underrated nationally.

2. Nevada

3. Fresno State

4. Louisiana Tech

5. New Mexico State

6. Hawaii

7. Idaho

8. Utah State

9. San Jose State

LINEBACKERS

1. Boise State: The Broncos have four linebackers with starting experience for two spots (Aaron Tevis, J.C. Percy, Daron Mackey and Derrell Acrey). Throw in former E Byron Hout, and the Broncos are flush with depth and versatility.

2. Nevada

3. Fresno State

4. Louisiana Tech

5. Utah State

6. Idaho

7. Hawaii

8. San Jose State

9. New Mexico State

SECONDARY

1. Boise State: This group should have good chemistry. Safeties Jeron Johnson and George Iloka and CB Brandyn Thompson are starting together for the third year. S/LB hybrid Winston Venable is a valuable weapon.

2. New Mexico State

3. Louisiana Tech

4. Hawaii

5. San Jose State

6. Fresno State

7. Utah State

8. Idaho

9. Nevada

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. Boise State: K/P Kyle Brotzman is the nation's active leading scorer (332 career points). His 43.9 yards per punt would have led the WAC had he punted enough to qualify. Kyle Wilson will be missed on punt returns, but Titus Young has proven to be an elite kick returner.

2. Nevada

3. Idaho

4. Louisiana Tech

5. Utah State

6. Fresno State

7. Hawaii

8. New Mexico State

9. San Jose State

COACHING STAFFS

1. Boise State: If there are any questions about the Broncos' coaching staff, it is how the team will respond to losing defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Replacement Pete Kwiatkowski has been at Boise State since 2006, so the staff still has continuity.

2. Nevada

3. Fresno State

4. Idaho

5. Utah State

6. Hawaii

7. New Mexico State

8. Louisiana Tech

9. San Jose State

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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