BOISE, Idaho || With all the offseason talk about what might happen to the Western Athletic Conference in the future, some of the talk has gotten around to what might happen this fall on the football fields that span the 4,035 miles and five time zones from Halawa to Ruston, La.
Can Hawaii live up to its preseason hype?
Or will Boise State successfully defend its championship despite a tough road schedule?
What about Fresno State? Can the Bulldogs pull an early season coup like in 2001 and come out of games against Tennessee, Oregon State and Oklahoma not only alive, but the toast of college football?
And if they do, will they falter in the WAC as they also did in 2001?
Will Nevada, San Jose State or Louisiana Tech -- or more than one of them -- climb into the top rung of the WAC?
Who is the best quarterback in a QB-rich conference? UH's Timmy Chang, BSU's Ryan Dinwiddie, LaTech's Luke McCown or San Jose State's Scott Rislov?
Will Texas-El Paso quarterback Jordan Palmer (brother of Carson) and Rice speedster Gary Anderson Jr. (son of the former NFL star running back), both freshmen, get chances to show if they are as talented as their relatives?
What about Bernard Berrian and Chance Kretschmer? The Fresno State receiver and kick returner and the Nevada running back are coming back from serious injuries after spectacular 2001 seasons.
UH safety Hyrum Peters is the only returnee from the All-WAC first-team defense last year. Does that mean the league will be dominated even more than usual by offense?
The answers begin to unfold Aug. 23, when San Jose State hosts Grambling in the Martin Luther King Jr. Literacy Classic -- the first game of the season, nationwide.
Hawaii coach June Jones said the level of coaching in the WAC makes the league interesting as much as the on-field talent does. But it makes his job harder.
"This is the most difficult conference to coach against because it's so unpredictable and you get a variety of things," he said. "The coaches are fundamental guys who aren't afraid to take chances. You've got the wishbone at Rice. Sometimes Fresno has three tight ends, sometimes five wideouts. You don't see this variation in a lot of conferences. You see it all in one game here.
"San Jose State beat Illinois last year. There's a reason for that. When a coach does things that seem off the wall they can beat teams that are better than they are."
The following is a look at the teams in the WAC, listed in order of predicted finish by media members who cover the league:
Last year: 10-4, 7-1 WAC (2nd); lost to Tulane 36-28 in ConAgra Foods Hawaii Bowl Coach: June Jones (31-20 in four seasons at Hawaii). Key losses: 11 starters, including All-WAC WR Justin Colbert, OL Vince Manuwai, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa and P Mat McBriar. Starting OL Wayne Hunter and Lui Fuata, LB Chris Brown. Returnees: 52 lettermen, including 14 starters (6 offense/7 defense/1 kicker). DB Hyrum Peters was All-WAC, QB Tim Chang, DL Isaac Sopoaga and DB Kelvin Millhouse were second-team All-WAC. Intriguing newcomer: DE Mel Purcell has the quickness, strength and length to be a destructive pass rusher. Watch for this: Jones has hinted at running more early to protect Chang while a young line gets experience. Shots at Goliaths: At USC, Sept. 13; Alabama at home, Nov. 29. Fun to know: The last time Hawaii played six road games was 1992, and one was the Holiday Bowl victory against Illinois at a neutral site. Jones says: "We have a tremendous defensive line. You have to have those kind of guys when you go play a USC who wants to get physical and pound you off the ball. We used to be a finesse team and we weren't physical enough to play when someone wanted to mash us."
2. Boise State
Last year: 12-1, 8-0 WAC (1st); beat Iowa State 34-16 in Humanitarian Bowl; finished season ranked 12th by coaches and 15th by media. Coach: Dan Hawkins (60-16-1 in seven seasons, 20-5 in two seasons at Boise State). Key losses: 14 starters, including All-WAC OL Scott Huff and Rob Vian, RB Brock Forsey and DB Quintin Mikell. Two-time All-WAC Mikell and Forsey took the defensive and offensive player of the year awards. Returnees: 31 lettermen, including 11 starters (3/7/1). All-WAC QB Ryan Dinwiddie and second-team All-WAC DB Gabe Franklin. Intriguing newcomer: RB Dallas Bernstine was one of the top players in Northern California and rushed for 555 yards in a game as a junior. Watch for this: Hawkins hopes his defense keeps BSU in games while a retooled offensive line becomes a cohesive unit. Plays Hawaii: At Aloha Stadium, Dec. 6 Shot at Goliath: At Oregon State, Sept. 20 Fun to know: The Broncos are the fourth winningest Division I program since 1999 (40-10), and with 39.5 points per game, trail only Miami with 40.3 points per game over the same time period. Hawkins says: "I understand when you win you wear the target a little bit. When the Yankees play I root for the Yankees. I root for the Lakers. I know how hard that is to keep winning. Our motto is 'Prove it.' When you make a trick shot to win a horse game, the guy you beat says, 'OK, prove it.' That's what we have to do now."
3. Fresno State
Last year: 9-4, 6-2 WAC (3rd); beat Georgia Tech 30-21 in Silicon Valley Classic. Coach: Pat Hill (46-30 in six seasons at Fresno State). Key losses: 8 starters, including All-WAC OL Joe Schey, PK Asen Asparuhov, DL Nick Burley and Jason Stewart and DB Cameron Worrell. Returnees: 42 lettermen, including 16 starters (10/6/0). 2001 All-WAC WR Bernard Berrian. WAC Freshman of the Year QB Paul Pinegar. All-WAC second-teamers WR Marque Davis, RB Rodney Davis and LB Bryce McGill. Watch for this: Another contender with questions on offensive line. The Bulldogs plan to start two juniors and three sophomores up front. Plays Hawaii: At Aloha Stadium, Oct. 11. Shots at Goliaths: At Tennessee, Aug. 30; Oregon State at home, Sept. 5; at Oklahoma, Sept. 13. Fun to know: That green "V" on the back of Fresno State's helmets? It means the Bulldogs represent the entire San Joaquin Valley. Hill says: "The strength of this team is our chemistry. The young players have taken ownership of the team. They've worked very hard in the summer and bought ownership of their team."
Last year: 5-7, 4-4 WAC (T4th) Coach: Chris Tormey (43-48 in seven seasons, 9-22 in three seasons at Nevada) Key losses: 6 starters, including All-WAC WR Nate Burleson. RB Matt Milton left the program. Returnees: 53 lettermen, including 18 starters (6/10/2). Preseason Defensive Player of the Year DE Jorge Cordova, 2001 NCAA rushing leader Chance Kretschmer. Intriguing newcomer: JC transfer Willie Johnson has the credentials to fill at least some of the void caused by Burleson's departure. Watch for this: If everything falls into place, the Wolf Pack could contend for the title, or at least a bowl bid. They have some star power in Kretschmer and Cordova, and loads of experience. The schedule is favorable if Nevada avoids injuries. Plays Hawaii: At Nevada, Nov. 15 Shots at Goliaths: At Oregon, Sept. 6; at Washington, Oct. 11. Fun to know: Lights have been installed at Nevada's Mackay Stadium, and the Pack host three night games early in the season to get off the hot FieldTurf. Tormey says: "Hawaii and Fresno State come to Reno in November. That could benefit us if we get some bad weather, what we like to call Wolf Pack weather."
5. Louisiana Tech
Last year: 4-8, 3-5 WAC (T6th) Coach: Jack Bicknell (18-17 in three seasons at LaTech) Key losses: 11 starters, including All-WAC OL Damian Lavergne, RB Joe Smith, LB Curtis Randall. Returnees: 53 lettermen, including 13 starters (6/5/2). 2002 WAC Preseason Player of the Year QB Luke McCown. Second-team All-WAC K Josh Scobee. Intriguing newcomer: 6-7, 320 OT Kevon Bagot wasn't highly recruited, but he reminds Bicknell of Willie Roaf. Watch for this: McCown vows to cut down on 19 interceptions last year. Three starting OL returning should help, but Smith (1,216 rush yards) won't be around to take some pressure off. Plays Hawaii: At Louisiana Tech, Oct. 18 Shots at Goliaths: Miami at home, Aug. 28; at Michigan State, Sept. 13; at Louisiana State, Nov. 1. Fun to know: When Miami plays Louisiana Tech, the long-awaited first college start for the Hurricane's Brock Berlin will also be a homecoming for the Shreveport resident. Bicknell says: "Luke McCown is to me one of the better quarterbacks in the country. He's an even better person than player, if that's possible."
6. San Jose State
Last year: 6-7, 4-4 WAC (T4th) Coach: Fitz Hill (9-16 in two seasons at San Jose State). Key losses: 7 starters, including All-WAC WR Charles Pauley. Returnees: 43 lettermen, including 15 starters (7/8/0). DB Gerald Jones was second-team All-WAC. Intriguing newcomer: RB Tyson Thompson, a JC transfer, was a top prospect coming out of Irving (Texas) two years ago and could make an immediate impact. Watch for this: The Spartans' improved depth and not having to play without byes give them a better chance to finish the season strong. Plays Hawaii: At San Jose State, Nov. 1 Shots at Goliaths: At Florida, Aug. 30; at Stanford, Sept. 6 Fun to know: CB Trestin George is a published poet. Hill says: "The most embarrassing thing for me is people tell me we had a great season when we went 6-7. I come from a place where championship football is expected and demanded. You lose games at Arkansas and you have a 'For Sale' sign in your yard."
7. Southern Methodist
Last year: 3-9, 3-5 WAC (T6th). Coach: Phil Bennett (3-9 in one season at SMU). Key losses: 7 starters, including 2-time All-WAC LB Vic Viloria. Returnees: 36 lettermen, including 16 starters (8/8/0). Intriguing newcomer: Richuel Massey was one of the top RBs in Texas and is the jewel of the conference's top recruiting class. He chose SMU over Miami. Watch for this: A more diverse offense. SMU hopes Keylon Kincade rushes for 1,279 yards again, but he won't get 327 carries again to do it. Plays Hawaii: Not again until 2005. Shot at Goliath: Home against Oklahoma State, Sept. 20. Fun to know: Freshman K Ryan Wolcott is a grandson of Doak Walker. Bennett says: "We've had great tradition and tarnished tradition. After 15 years, we're just now coming out of that. Athletics and academics can co-exist."
Last year: 4-7, 3-5 WAC (T6th) Coach: Ken Hatfield (159-115-4 in 24 seasons, 46-53-1 in nine seasons at Rice) Key losses: 13 starters, including 2-time All-WAC DL Brandon Green. Returnees: 38 lettermen, including 11 starters (6/3/2). Intriguing newcomer: WR/DB/KR Gary Anderson Jr. runs a 4.37 and his father is the former NFL standout. Watch for this: Air Hatfield, at least a little. Don't expect a switch from the wishbone to the run and shoot, but the coach is too smart to limit a talent like WR Marcus Battle. Plays Hawaii: At Aloha Stadium, Sept. 27 Shot at Goliath: At Texas, Sept. 20 Fun to know: Hatfield has participated in the Cotton Bowl as a player, assistant and head coach. Hatfield says: "Our goal is to win the (conference) championship. It's the only way we're guaranteed a bowl. ... Bowl alliances are about (helping) certain conferences. It's to the detriment of college football."
9. Texas-El Paso
Last year: 2-10, 1-7 WAC (T9th). Coach: Gary Nord (12-23 in three seasons at UTEP). Key losses: 8 starters, including All-WAC DB D.J. Walker. Returnees: 53 lettermen, including 16 starters (8/6/2). Intriguing newcomer: OL/DL Oniel Cousins was All-CIF. Watch for this: RB Howard Jackson has added strength to speed that gave him 2,143 rush and return yards over last two seasons. Plays Hawaii: At Aloha Stadium, Oct. 25. Shot at Goliath: At Arizona, Aug. 30. Fun to know: Redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Palmer is the brother of Heisman winner Carson Palmer. Nord says: "In our last game, of the 60 kids who traveled 49 were freshmen and sophomores. We were virtually playing with a JV team."
Last year: 1-11, 1-7 WAC (T9th). Coach: Steve Kragthorpe (first season as head coach). Key losses: 8 starters, including 4 players with eligibility remaining. DL Sam Rayburn was first-team All-WAC. Returnees: 41 lettermen including 15 starters (7/6/2). Intriguing newcomer: WR Broderic Jones was one of the top prep players in the Dallas area as a senior in 2001. He joins the Hurricane after sitting out last year. Watch for this: A return to Tulsa's history of a strong passing game. Kragthorpe grew up around Brigham Young, where his father coached, and worked with Drew Bledsoe as the Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach. Plays Hawaii: At Tulsa, Oct. 4. Shots at Goliath: At Minnesota, Aug. 30; at Arkansas, Sept. 6. Fun to know: It's Howard Twilley -- not NFL Hall of Famer Steve Largent -- who dominates the receiving section in Tulsa's record book. Twilley led the nation in receptions in 1964 and '65. Kragthorpe says: "I miss college football. I miss the game, I'm not really fond of the business, and that's a lot of what the NFL is."