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Mid-Major Monday: Binding Picks, the Mountain West

Is it still Monday? Did I make it?
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Mountain West predictions brought to you by the associate editors of the national libertarian magazine Reason: Small. Local. It's a beautiful thing.
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  1. TCU
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TCU dominated the MWC its first season (8-0 in 2005) and was effectively its cruel overlord again last year despite a couple early losses to BYU and Utah, as Phil Steele notes while pointing to the Frogs' unmatched 181-yard-per-game advantage over the rest of the conference, which spent the second half of the season cowering under its bed. TCU outgained BYU and was minus-four in turnovers in those two losses, and didn't come close to losing again. The defense was so good, there's no way it can match last year's numbers (12.3 points per game, 2.2 yards per carry, top seven nationally across the board - rushing, pass efficiency, total and scoring D - which only Florida could also claim) and it might still justify the hype. They stop the run, they rush the passer, they force turnovers, and they've done it all consistently since Gary Patterson took over the program.

The red carpet to the trophy case is only waiting on the emergence of a quarterback who won't blow the goodwill of writers (i.e., voters) who think the Frogs might be good enough to upset Texas and roll into the BCS, Boise State style, only with more hype and less skepticism. The win at Texas is synonymous with the hypothetical January payday, and this is also the point BYU would like to remind readers that actually winning the Mountain West is probably a key to that dream, too, and that - the consensus of close and excruciating examination notwithstanding - that title comes through Provo.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: You have to admire the self-supporting logic of the Patterson administration's position towards public disclosure of its starting quarterback: The classified status is legal if it's necessary to protect strategic security, and the fact that we're not willing to discuss it shows it's necessary to protect strategic security. This combination of unilateralism and secrecy is handy for a football coach but dangerous for a constitutional republic.--Jacob Sullum.

  2. BYU
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BYU's in the same place as TCU re: its quarterback and its chances of winning the MWC again - if the

Max Hall earned the coveted "unsung messiah" jersey in the spring
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Cougars find their man in well-received Arizona State transfer Max Hall, there are no other pieces glaringly missing from the championship puzzle. Their suffering is more likely to transcend TCU's, though, not because Hall isn't a better a quarterback than Marcus Jackson or Andy Dalton, but because BYU asks its quarterbacks to do so much more, and Hall is less likely to approximate the transcendence of departed hero John Beck in the essential role than Jackson/Dalton is to his more cog-in-the-machine-style predecessors. Aided by turnovers (+14) and the clock changes, BYU's defense literally cut its points allowed in half, from 29.2 to 14.7, which for returning personnel and old fashioned precedent does not measure up to the same scale of sustainability as TCU's comparable but much less anomalous finish. Hall's in fine shape in terms of his receivers and line and might ring up much better stats, especially against the league's underlings, but he'll have more to overcome, too.

That said, I waffled on this decision because BYU has a great chance in the micro to beat TCU again, at home, in the November cold, when Hall has had some time to gel a bit. But in the larger picture, even if the Cougars do take out TCU, Beck is a potentially colossal loss whose absence is more likely to cost BYU at some other juncture.

This exciting moment in championship tension is brought to you bah VERSUS.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: This oddly bifurcated view of an enumerated transitive logic helps explain why the frontrunner debate in this conference is so acrimonious. When one side considers the most recent head-to-head outcome a nullity and the other side thinks it counts for something, there is no safe middle ground for the courts in cases challenging the ban on previews that conceal the information.--Jacob Sullum

  3. Utah
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I think the Utes are a legitimate third wheel on the MWC's unstoppable Tricycle of Hypothetical Glory, having beaten TCU last year and come within a miracle finish of knocking off BYU, then returned nine starters on offense. That doesn't include Brian Johnson, unanimous all-conference quarterback this summer based on 2005 numbers, and neither did either of those games - Johnson was a terrific all-purpose threat as a sophomore (much more productive than Alex Smith at the same juncture, in fact) but decided to take 2006 as a redshirt year rather than attempt to play hurt and/or lose the job to Brett Ratliff, who was more than viable as a passer. Johnson is more mobile, though, and if the Utes' offense doesn't quite match its outsized '04 peak, it ought to rival or pass BYU's as the most productive in the conference for now.

The rub for the majority that doesn't seem to consider Utah quite in the BYU-TCU class is the defense and specifically the secondary, though the yardage totals matched up eerily with the Cougars' last year (Utah allowed only four more yards per game than BYU, but five more points, thanks largely to turnovers) and Utah has been stingier than BYU for years. The cool reception to the Utes' first place bid comes at least partly from the two frontrunners being on the road, and partly from their inconsistency and near-total absence from the race since the Meyer-Smith exodus, but I like Utah and think of them almost as a 1(c) option to the favorites if Johnson is healthy.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: The exclusionary rule creates other problems in the replay system. True, cases of murderers and rapists going free because the evidence is dismissed on the proverbial technicality are fairly unusual, but what of early whistles on obvious fumbles? What's far more common is replay officials lying to cover up technical improprieties in a review, and coaches accepting these lies so as to avoid dismissing valid and reliable calls later in the game. But as a result, public confidence in replay credibility can be severely undermined. And sometimes--as in the Malakai Mokofisi case, when the linebacker entered the Wyoming backfield without a warrant on the blatantly false pretext of having seen the center begin to snap the ball--this lack of credibility can lead fans to suspect a frame-up.--Cathy Young

  4. New Mexico
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Defenses struggled to get a grasp on Donovan Porterie. I know how they feel.
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I don't suppose perpetual six/seven-game-winner New Mexico is ever really poised for a true breakout season, but this would probably be it if that were ever going to happen, based on the sheer volume of returning starters (18) alone. Those prospects are dependent on two long-time Lobo bugaboos, a) sorry pass defense, and b) competent-at-best quarterbacking. Four starters return in the secondary in the first case, which may or may not be promising, but the return of Donovan Portrerie on the second front is unabashedly positive - he came off the bench as a freshman to deliver UNM's two highest scoring games of the year against UNLV (39) and Utah (34), was 3-0 in exclusively wild comebacks as a starter and was playing well (7 of 10) against TCU's hellions when he was knocked out until the bowl game. Which was, it so happens, by far his worst. So Portrerie comes back with a 1,200-yard rusher (Rodney Ferguson) and two receivers who topped 850 yards (Travis Brown and Marcus Smith) and anxious eyes on the competency of his encore.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: Hardly anyone expects New Mexico to win the conference's Las Vegas Bowl nomination. The Lobos consistently poll in the mid-single digits, well behind the three front-runners. They have none of their interest group support either, and they haven't stood out in debates or in a six-game losing streak in bowls. But UNM is a strong contender for its home-state New Mexico Bowl nomination, and Long knows his libertarian approach to the "Lobo" position on defense has boosted his image. The "roving safety" brand still sells, whether or not the prognostoscenti itself is buying. --David Weigel

  5. Colorado State
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CSU has always been in the business of running and running and then maybe doing a little something off the run and then running, and not surprisingly collapsed when all the running netted 2.5 per carry last year. CSU was 4-1 at the end of September and 4-8 at the end of the year. The Rams were also shamefully run on, 318 yards by Air Force and 205, 350 (!) and 184 to close the year by Utah, TCU and San Diego State. They've got the same guys up front dealing with that, but at least great white tailback hope Kyle Bell brings his deceptive speed and power back to the pursuit of running into the backs of his linemen and singlehandedly plowing the pile forward for three yards after an injury year. And the offense (16.8 points per game) desperately needs it.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: Lubick's concern about humanity's alienation from the power running game has a long pedigree. The foremost philosophical proponent was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that man's natural predilection for drive-blocking has been corrupted by civilization's myth of the "Noble Quarterback." Romantic poet William Wordsworth penned the lines, "Nature never did betray, The Fullback that Loved her." Lubick himself paints a picture of a prelapsarian idyll, but the former two-back adherents are voting with their playbooks. While some people may be pushed by poverty or drought, or by undersized linemen into the spread, most people today are pulled in by the prospect of reinventing themselves, escaping from the narrow strictures of the I, far-near and wishbone, and a shot at really making it.--Ronald Bailey

  6. UNLV
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We've obliged one-time USC transfer Rocky Hinds the "omigod, USC transfer at UNLV" vibe the last two preseasons, and he's uniformly failed to seize on it. So here we go again: Hinds was unquestionably bad last year (8:13 TD:INT ratio, 1-10 against the Bowl Subdivision), but he played the entire season on a partially torn ACL, which is only barely possible, and closed it with a career game against Air Force (26-34, 251 yds., 2 TD) that snapped the season-long losing streak. I might consider falling for a healthy Hinds if the defense wasn't generally atrocious (about five touchdowns allowed per MWC game), or if this guy wasn't his coach:

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: The Bush administration recently released its mid-session review of preseason picks for football years 2004-06. The new data reveal that in spite of repeated promises of responsibility towards UNLV-based optimism by Athlon and its political benefactors, congressional Republicans, things are bad and getting worse. After years of overrating the Runnin' Rebels on the dubious merits of Jason Thomas and Rocky Long, it's time for small-government conservatives to acknowledge that the GOP has forfeited its credibility when it comes to forecasting breakout mid-major quarterbacks.--Veronique de Rugy and Nick Gillespie

  7. Wyoming
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Our hearty, down-to-earth friends in Wyoming simply lack the big play pizzazz to compete offensively, though they do like sophomore Karsten Sween at quarterback. The bigger problem than scoring, in fact, might be the defensive front: the Cowboys had their best season of the decade by far against the run last year, but lose four senior starters. My earlier guess of 4-4 in the conference was probably optimistic; in fact, change "might be"and "probably" in the preceding two sentences to "definitely will be" and "insanely" and call it a rebuilding year.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: Wyoming boasts that, thanks in part to a 24 percent across-the-board reduction, total discretionary pass defense will grow by only 1.1 percent in FY 2007, which is below the likely rate of inflation following the repeal of Rule 3-2-5-2. This line of thinking, however, resembles the old joke about a man who fell out of a plane without a parachute. Fortunately, there was a haystack below him. Unfortunately, there was a pitchfork in the haystack. Fortunately, he missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately, he missed the haystack. Here, the Cowboys have again missed the haystack. Discretionary pass defense accounts for only a fourth of the total defense budget, and with an entirely new defensive line, the other three-fourths are growing.--Jonathan Rauch

8. San Diego State
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San Diego State's enduring a rough stretch of offseason, in general, from minor violations and disgust from the university over "cash-control weaknesses to losing key linemen and enduring the sudden transfer of its leading returning passer, but no audits, movements, reprimands, riots, pay-offs or lawsuits will distract from the real problem with SDSU football, which is that its offense only scored about two touchdown a game last year. That was way down from Chuck Long's first season (26.9), but still the third time the Aztecs have finished under 20 since 2001. That number might go back up again as Kevin O'Connell reassumes the starting quarterback job and Atiyyah Henderson takes over full time at running back after a good freshman finish, but not enough to overcome the yields of a much younger defense.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: That San Diego State is a mess of an athletic department is an understatement. However, like many messes, it is a metastasizing one. SDSU quarterbacks have panicked in the past, and in so doing made many more mistakes than they needed to make, but head coach Chuck Long has the right instincts in believing that the only way to prevail amid desperation in a place like San Diego State is to make an open-ended commitment to one of the Kevins, with no talk of withdrawal.--Michael Young

  9. Air Force
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It's a little sad to see the option go here as a full-fledged system, but the major problem with the Falcons has always

Granted, Shaun Carney is a little teapot. But a dangerous passer?
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been their lack of size and speed on defense. This year's front three averages a little under 250 per man, backed by safety-sized linebackers (the biggest by far is 235-pound tackle machine Drew Fowler); Fisher DeBerry is still lamenting the pigmentary status of his secondary, or would be. The presumed move away from the flexbone - new boss Troy Calhoun has been wishy washy about this despite seriously diminished returns from the offense last year - is traditionally rough going until less tailor-made personnel is on hand, especially at quarterback, so though Shaun Carney may be suited to throw more often than he's been asked to his first three years, just maintaining the status quo would probably be overachieving. And the status quo, with the defense, spells doom for the moment.

An associate editor at Reason magazine says: It has been less than a decade since demonstrators clogged the streets of Colorado Springs, locking arms, blocking traffic, and accusing the U.S. of shoving the flexbone down the Air Force Academy's throat. But despite vague rhetoric of implementing more passing, as the latest round of strategic talks on balancing the run and pass collapses in Geneva, it's clear that the U.S. government is, in fact, one of the greatest institutional barriers to multiple receivers. Asked to choose between freedom and the hard-line option lobby, Washington will opt for reading the approach of the playside end almost every time.--Jesse Walker