Sunday, August 1, 2004


Rest of WAC looking
up at Boise State

But the Broncos are not short of
capable challengers in WAC football


Apologies to the Egyptians, the extra-terrestrials, or whomever.

But the hierarchy of Western Athletic Conference football over the past two seasons has been a pyramid scheme that looks something like this:

Boise State
Hawaii, Fresno State
Rice, Nevada, Tulsa, LaTech
SMU, Texas-El Paso, San Jose

There's been a little movement between levels, such as when Tulsa elevated itself from 1-11 in 2003 to 8-5 and a bowl game under new coach Steve Kragthorpe.

For the most part, though, undefeated, two-time champion Boise State has been clearly better than the rest of the league, and Hawaii and Fresno State usually a notch above the rest.

If more convincing is needed, here are the league records of the four levels in 2002 and 2003:

Boise State 16-0.
UH and Fresno State 24-8.
Rice, Nevada, Tulsa and LaTech: 29-35.
SMU, UTEP and San Jose State: 11-37.

The biggest question going into this season is if Boise State can continue its domination without its most well-known players, WAC offensive player of the year quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie, receiver Tim Gilligan and 1,000-yard rusher David Mikell.

Well, if history means anything, the Broncos are quite capable of winning with offensive stars out of the lineup.

Hawaii fans are well aware of this phenomenon. In 2002, Dinwiddie was out with injury when the Broncos blasted the Warriors 58-31 on the Smurf Turf at Boise. Last year at Aloha Stadium, Mikell and Gilligan were hurt, but it didn't matter as the Broncos won 45-28 to wrap up their second consecutive unbeaten WAC season.

So although the Broncos lose seven offensive and five defensive starters going into 2004, they are still considered a slight favorite over Hawaii and Fresno State to win the league.

"I don't think I've ever been in a place before where people are so much on the same page," BSU coach Dan Hawkins said. "When you get in a canoe and everybody rows together, that's a powerful thing."

It's also easier to row when you're in familiar waters -- the 2004 WAC schedule looks great for the Broncos. They have seven of 11 games at home, including those against the Warriors and Bulldogs.

The biggest offensive question mark remains at quarterback, where sophomore Jared Zabransky or senior Mike Sanford will try to replace Dinwiddie as effectively as B.J. Rhode did in 2002.

The replacement might not be asked to throw the ball that much, anyway, since the Broncos figure to have a very strong defense led by end Julius Roberts, linebacker Andy Avalos (WAC preseason defensive player of the year) and rover Chris Carr.

"We've had the top defense in the WAC the last two years and our guys have quietly established themselves as a force," Hawkins said.

Most of the media who cover the WAC give Fresno State a better chance than Hawaii of challenging Boise State this season. That's because the Bulldogs return almost everyone who mattered on last year's team that won six of its last seven games, including a 17-9 Silicon Valley Classic win against UCLA.

Junior quarterback Paul Pinegar is one of the best in the league, but hasn't always been able to show it because of a beat-up offensive line and his own injuries.

Pinegar is healthy, and so are his bodyguards, including left tackle Logan Mankins, who missed all of 2003 with a knee injury. But Fresno State has given itself another challenging early nonconference schedule, with road games at Washington and Kansas State to start things off.

Hawaii starts off a little slower, with Florida Atlantic at home Sept. 4 followed by a bye and the conference opener at Rice on Sept. 18. The Rice game -- with the Owls running the wishbone -- will be a staunch test for a Hawaii defense that has many good athletes but little overall experience.

UH quarterback Tim Chang, the league's preseason offensive player of the year, will get UH and the WAC national attention as he makes his run at Ty Detmer's career passing yardage record. Although Chang has overcome adversity at times in his UH career (such as when he led the Warriors to victory at Fresno in 2002), he must be more consistent, cut down on interceptions and remain healthy if Hawaii is to contend for the conference title ... and for Chang to become a serious Heisman Trophy candidate.

"I think he's ready to have his best season," UH coach June Jones said. "In week five, six, maybe four, he will be on every television screen. Should he shoot the lights out in those games ..."

Overconfidence and lack of depth did in Hawaii in 2000, after Jones strolled in the previous year to turn UH around from a winless team to a bowl team. Tulsa hopes to avoid a similar double reverse.

The Golden Hurricane has a wealth of returnees on both sides of the ball, including tough-guy QB James Kilian. It's conceivable for Tulsa to solidify itself as a league contender, but it will have to get as many breaks as last season when it beat Rice and San Jose State by a combined five points.

Some say UTEP is poised to be this year's Tulsa because of the addition of coach Mike Price. Price will bring energy and coaching credibility to El Paso, and he hopes to mix a good returning core with 10 newcomers.

Nevada hopes a new coach helps, too. Actually, he's an old coach: Chris Ault turns 58 this season, and this is the former Wolf Pack AD's third go-round leading the 'Pack.

Rice, which won its last three games of 2003, has a chance to contend in its last WAC season before bolting for Conference USA along with SMU, Tulsa and UTEP. Its ground-pounding offense can confound defensive coordinators who spend the rest of the year preparing for air attacks. And the schedule-maker was friendly, giving the Owls home games against Hawaii and Fresno State and leaving Boise State off altogether.

San Jose State coach Fitz Hill promises to be more patient with his running game this year. He should, considering he has several capable running backs, a huge offensive line, and no Scott Rislov to throw passes this time.

"I'm a microwave guy," Hill said. "But now I'm gonna make popcorn the old-fashioned way this time. The grease is hot."

LaTech is minus slinging Luke McCown, but that just means more action for explosive tailback Ryan Moats. He rushed for 1,300 yards and -- here's the scary part -- all five of the Bulldogs' starting offensive linemen are back.

The problem for this team is the schedule. Consecutive games against Miami, Tennessee, Fresno State and Auburn won't likely do much for LaTech's confidence, won-loss record, and available space in the training room.

SMU can't help but improve after going 0-12 last year. Coach Phil Bennett's outstanding recruiting classes of the past two years should begin to translate into victories. If not, he could be gone.

Western Athletic Conference



1. Boise State

Last year: 13-1, 8-0 WAC (1st); beat Texas Christian 34-31 in PlainsCapital Fort Worth Bowl.

Coach: Dan Hawkins (73-17-1 in eight seasons, 33-6 in three at BSU).

Key losses: 13 starters, including QB Ryan Dinwiddie, WAC offensive POY.

Returnees: 34 lettermen, including first-team all-WAC defenders DE Julius Roberts and LB Andy Avalos and versatile DB/KR Chris Carr.

Plays Hawaii: Oct. 29, at Boise.

Hawkins says: "We don't look at starters as much as contributors and we have a lot of contributors coming back."

2. Hawaii

Last year: 9-5, 5-3 WAC (T4th); beat Houston 54-48 (3 OT) in Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

Coach: June Jones (40-25 in five seasons at UH).

Key losses: 4 first-team all-WAC defenders, including POY DE Travis LaBoy, and five other defensive starters.

Returnees: 12 offensive starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate QB Tim Chang and all-WAC WR Chad Owens.

Jones says: "Defensively, the jury's out. We don't know exactly what we have. Potentially, athletically, we're the best we've been. Young, exciting."

3. Fresno State

Last year: 9-5, 6-2 WAC (T2nd); beat UCLA 17-9 in Silicon Valley Classic.

Coach: Pat Hill (55-35 in seven seasons at FSU).

Key losses: All-WAC WR/ST Bernard Berrian.

Returnees: 47 lettermen including 19 starters.

Plays Hawaii: Nov. 12, at Fresno.

Hill says: "Last year it was like we were playing with one hand tied behind our back (due to injuries). We have to be balanced and score points, but sometimes we have to control the ball. If our guys are pass rushing 60 or 70 plays a game, they need some rest."

4. Rice

Last year: 5-7, 5-3 WAC (T4th).

Coach: Ken Hatfield (164-122-4 in 25 seasons, 51-60-1 in 10 at Rice).

Key losses: All-WAC OL Ben Stephens.

Returnees: 23 offensive lettermen, including five senior linemen slated to start and three-year starting QB Greg Henderson.

Plays Hawaii: Sept. 18, at Houston.

Hatfield says: "Tommy Henderson is Greg's younger brother and knows the offense inside-out. We have three quarterbacks right now who all run the offense and run it effectively. I think we'll be in good shape."

5. Tulsa

Last year: 8-5, 6-2 WAC (T2nd); lost 52-10 to Georgia Tech in Humanitarian Bowl.

Coach: Steve Kragthorpe (8-5 in one season at Tulsa).

Key losses: All-WAC OL Austin Chadwick.

Returnees: 17 starters, including second-team All-WAC QB James Kilian.

Plays Hawaii: Oct. 2, at Aloha Stadium.

Kragthorpe says: "It's important we keep things in perspective. It was a challenge during the stretch last year when we started to get some positive accolades. We embraced those, and we're certainly happy and pleased to hear those things, but we're not satisfied. If we turn around to see who's patting us on the back, when we turn back around we'll get hit in the mouth."

6. Nevada

Last year: 6-6, 4-4 WAC (6th).

Coach: Chris Ault (163-63-1 in 19 seasons at Nevada).

Key losses: All-WAC DE Jorge Cordova and LB Daryl Towns, 10 other starters.

Returnees: Seven offensive starters, including RB Chance Kretschmer and all-WAC OT Harvey Dahl.

Plays Hawaii: Oct. 9, at Aloha Stadium.

Ault says: "The game hasn't changed. It's blocking, tackling, motivation and convincing them that what you have is good. That part's the same. But now, I see a lot of college teams beat you by scheme. In the past it was just with personnel, and I think that's interesting."

7. Southern Methodist

Last year: 0-12, 0-8 WAC (10th).

Coach: Phil Bennett (3-13 in two seasons at SMU).

Key losses: 9 starters.

Returnees: 22 starters, including 12 on defense.

Does not play Hawaii.

Bennett says: "I believe winning and losing is a very fine line. If we're able to get some positive things going early, I think we can be looking at a much improved team in 2004."

8. Texas-El Paso

Last year: 2-11, 1-7 WAC (10th).

Coach: Mike Price (129-122 in 22 seasons).

Key losses: All-WAC OL Trey Darilek.

Returnees: LB Robert Rodriguez (322 career tackles), All-WAC RB Howard Jackson and 17 other starters.

Plays Hawaii: Oct. 16, at El Paso.

Price says: "Believe me, something will go bad. When it does, that little voice has to say not, 'Here we go again,' but, 'Hey, here's the opportunity we've been waiting for.' "

9. Louisiana Tech

Last year: 5-7, 3-5 WAC (7th).

Coach: Jack Bicknell (27-32 in five seasons at LaTech).

Key losses: Four-year starters QB Luke McCown, K Josh Scobee, P Dustin Upton.

Returnees: All-WAC RB Ryan Moats among 54 lettermen.

Plays Hawaii: Nov. 6, at Aloha Stadium.

Bicknell says: "We open up with Nevada, high noon in Ruston, Louisiana. Three o'clock, the fourth quarter will be tough for both teams."

10. San Jose State

Last year: 3-8, 2-6 WAC (8th).

Coach: Fitz Hill (12-24 in three seasons at San Jose State).

Key losses: QB Scott Rislov and seven other offensive starters, S Gerald Jones.

Returnees: 34 lettermen.

Plays Hawaii: Oct. 23, at Aloha Stadium.

Hill says: "I'm in love with my team. They all stayed in San Jose this summer. You can't get an apartment for $250 a month. It's six or seven guys staying in one apartment, sleeping on the floor. We've never been closer as a team."

Teams listed in order of predicted conference finish by Star-Bulletin reporter Dave Reardon.

Western Athletic Conference


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