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January 19, 2011

WAC: Looking for a new identity


The WAC looks like it could have an identity crisis in 2011.

Boise State is leaving the league for the Mountain West, with Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii to follow in 2012. But even with a change at the top of the conference in 2011, no team appears to be poised to take full advantage of the Broncos' departure.

Boise State, Nevada and Hawaii finished tied for the WAC championship this season. The Wolf Pack (13-1) enjoyed their best season as an FBS member. Hawaii (10-4) had its best season since going 12-1 in 2007.

But Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State could have trouble finishing atop the league in 2011. Nevada's Pistol offense will have a new quarterback and running back. Hawaii returns quarterback Bryant Moniz, but he will guide an offense that loses wide receiver Greg Salas, running back Alex Green and four senior linemen. Fresno State also loses veteran offensive linemen and also will have to replace quarterback Ryan Colburn and five key seniors on defense.

While the contest to win the WAC could be just as tight as it was in 2010, several teams need to grow up in a hurry if they are to earn the national attention WAC teams earned this season when Boise State and Nevada finished ranked in the top 11.

Biggest surprise: Nevada. The Colin Kaepernick-led offense finished the season ranked fourth nationally in yards, eighth in scoring and third in rushing. That came as little surprise. But Nevada did all the things it hadn't done in recent years on the way to a 13-1 season -- it beat a Big Six opponent (California) in the regular season, it defeated another in its bowl game (Boston College) and, most important, it defeated Boise State for the first time under Chris Ault. Only a six-point loss at Hawaii prevented Nevada from going undefeated.

Biggest disappointment: Idaho. Just when you thought things were turning around in Moscow, the Vandals returned to form. A year removed from a rare bowl appearance, Idaho slipped to 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the WAC. The defense struggled again and the rushing attack averaged only 88.2 yards per game without G Mike Iupati, a first-round draft pick. The silver lining: Six victories for Idaho still is the second-best win total since 1999.

Best postseason performance: Boise State. The Broncos hope their Las Vegas Bowl performance is a sign of things to come in the Mountain West. In both teams' final game in their respective conferences, Boise State pounded Utah 26-3. The Broncos outgained the Utes 543-200. QB Kellen Moore and RB Doug Martin, who will return for one more season, combined for 486 yards of total offense.

Worst postseason performance: Hawaii. This distinction easily could go to Fresno State, which lost 40-17 to a Northern Illinois team led by an interim coach. But Hawaii earned its spot here by losing 62-35 to Tulsa in the Hawaii Bowl -- on its home field. Defense was optional for both teams, but Hawaii helped Tulsa to the upset with six turnovers.

Underclassmen leaving early: None.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Nevada RB Mike Ball. Don't expect the Wolf Pack to revert to their pass-happy days because Kaepernick and Vai Taua are gone. Nevada has high hopes for redshirt freshman RB Cody Fajardo, but he's still young. Look for Ball to make the most of increased opportunities. He has three career games with at least nine carries, and he was productive in two of them: He rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns against Idaho in 2010 and 184 yards and five touchdowns against UNLV in 2009.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Hawaii S John Hardy-Tuliau. He was the Warriors' nickel back this season as a freshman. He excelled in that role with five tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and 49 tackles. With both starting safeties gone, Hardy-Tuliau should move into a starting role.

Player most on the spot next season: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz. He was the nation's only 5,000-yard passer, but he had problems in the bowl game against Tulsa's shaky secondary, tossing four interceptions. If Hawaii is going to win the WAC, much depends on Moniz. Not only does he need to rebound from his bowl performance, he needs to provide leadership for an offense that loses two receivers who combined for 2,195 yards and 29 touchdowns (Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares) and a 1,200-yard rusher (Alex Green).

Next season's conference champions: Hawaii. A year after Boise State, Nevada and Hawaii tied for the league title, the WAC should be just as tightly contested. Just don't expect three teams to challenge for a spot in the national rankings. Hawaii is our pick because of the return of Moniz as well as that of leading tackler Corey Paredes. Nevada loses Kaepernick and Taua, but the Wolf Pack have high hopes for their young backfield. Fresno State should contend even though the Bulldogs lose Colburn, four offensive linemen and DE Chris Carter. The sleeper could be Louisiana Tech if the Bulldogs can find a quarterback to run Sonny Dykes' offense.

National title contenders: None.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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