TCU: The Horned Frogs are the top-heavy favorite after a 12-0 season and a narrow Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. Senior quarterback Andy Dalton is set to be the triggerman on a passing game that returns all three starting receivers. The offensive line is mostly intact, as sophomore running back Ed Wesley played well in a limited role last year. Defensively, TCU is similarly strong up front. The five-man secondary is the only potential area of concern, with two returning starters. But they do have mostly experienced backups ready to step in, so that should help mitigate the transition.
UTAH: Utah's 9-3 season and bowl win over Cal are almost as impressive as their unbeaten run of 2008 when you consider how much rebuilding the Utes had to do. The offense will reap the rewards of experience this time around, with a quality front five clearing the way and protecting returning sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn. Senior running back Eddie Wide is as good as any in the MWC. It's the back seven on the defensive side that's going to hold Utah back. A completely new linebacking corps and three new secondary starters--including a freshman at free safety--mean vulnerability to the passing game.
BYU: The Cougars joined Utah in helping the Mountain West trump the Pac-10 last bowl season, with a surprisingly easy win over Oregon State. There's some rebuilding ahead in Provo this year, starting with freshman quarterback Jake Heaps and a whole new cast of skill players. The front seven on defense will also be new. BYU will have to fall back on the offensive line, which brings back four starters and the secondary, which brings back three senior starters. If you have to be experienced, those are the places to start with, since the O-Line and secondary take the longest to develop cohesiveness. But is it enough to compete with TCU & Utah?
AIR FORCE: Air Force did the service academies and those of us remaining fans of option football proud, when they battered pass-happy Houston in their bowl game. This year, returning talent in the backfield serves to obscure a truckload of rebuilding that has to be done everywhere else. Every offensive lineman will be new. Two new sophomores start at linebacker in the Falcons' 3-4 scheme. The secondary should be good. But overall, it's tough to do much of anything without controlling the trenches and it's hard to see the Falcons doing that this year.
WYOMING: Another Mountain West team that won its bowl game, beating Fresno State. The Cowboys are another conference team with a quality secondary, with all four starters returning. And they are another conference team that looks soft up front on defense. Wyoming runs a four-receiver spread on offense, and three of Austin Carter-Samuels favorite targets are back in the fold. Last year, Wyoming snuck into a bowl at 6-6. Just maintaining at .500 would be a victory this year.
SAN DIEGO STATE: The Aztecs have surprise potential. Ryan Lindley is back at quarterback and has Vincent Brown leading up an experienced receiver corps. If the offensive line can successfully integrate two new sophomores into the lineup, the team should move the ball and score points. The defense has all seniors anchoring its 3-4 alignment up front and the secondary looks similarly prepared. San Diego State won four games last year. Jumping to six or seven and a bowl bid should be the expectation this year.
COLORADO STATE: Colorado State's fallen on hard times since the glory days of the Sonny Lubick era, the man whom their stadium is named after. I don't see where things get much better this year. The Rams have a freshman at quarterback and a mostly new offensive line, which means returning backs John Mosure and Zac Paugha have to carry the load themselves. If nothing else, the defense should be improved and keep them in games, with nine returning starters, including the entire secondary.
UNLV: The Rebels won five games last year and have a shot to be a bowl team in 2010. Senior quarterback Omar Clayton is back in the fold. He has targets, and with a pair of returning seniors manning the tackle spots, he'll likely be kept upright. While the defensive only returns five starters, they have experience ready to step in--four of the six new starters are seniors and the other two are juniors.
NEW MEXICO: Only one win last year, and while improvement has to be almost inevitable, there's not a lot of reason to be get excited about the Lobos. The offense is a mostly new cast, and the defense is the reverse of UNLV's. While the Rebs are deceptively experienced, bringing in seniors to fill in open spots the Lobos bring back mostly young starters. Any improvement in this program will come in 2011, not this fall.
NOTEBOOK PICK: You know on paper this all adds up to TCU, but there's just something in my gut that likes Utah. Maybe it's the way they kept winning last year when Jordan Wynn was a true freshman at center. The offense is going to be championship-caliber this year and I'm going to roll the dice they can rebuild the back seven. It's Utah to win the Mountain West as a parting shot, but with one caveat--no BCS bid for the conference this season.
The previews of the six BCS conferences can be found by scrolling down. On Saturday, the Notebook will look at The Best of the Rest, headed up by Boise State.
Image from zimbio.com