San Diego State football coach Denny Stolz said he would know a lot more about the championship race in the Western Athletic Conference after he watched Brigham Young open its season Wednesday against Pittsburgh.
The Cougars lost, 27-17, in a game in which their offensive line allowed nine sacks. BYU, which last year failed to win the conference title for the first time in 11 seasons, again has shown its vulnerability.
That could mean a repeat championship for San Diego State or the opportunity for another WAC team to take a piece of what had been BYU property for a decade.
"The league is showing some real balance," Stolz said. "And that's good. A competitive race means more exposure, more interest, more excitement."
Once the conference race was a case of everyone trying to stop BYU, but this year could feature one of the most wide-open races since the Cougars began their domination.
BYU and San Diego State were selected as co-favorites in a preseason poll of conference coaches. But Air Force, Hawaii and Wyoming all received strong support in the balloting.
"This really could be the year where you could lose two games and still win the title," Stolz said. "It could be that close."
Last season's record: 5-2, 6-5.
Coach: Fisher DeBerry (26-10, third year).
Top returnees: Chad Hennings (6-5, 266, Sr., DT), Robert Krause (5-10, 175, Jr., HB), John Steed (6-2, 230, Sr., NG).
Top newcomer: None.
Outlook: The Falcons were the only WAC team to defeat San Diego State last season, but that was the high point of an otherwise disappointing year as they failed to reach a bowl game for the first time in five seasons. Air Force has had to rebuild its defense as only two starters return, but one is Chad Hennings, one of the leading tackles in the country.
Steve Letnich has beaten out Dee Dowis in a competition between two sophomore quarterbacks to lead the Air Force wishbone offense. The rest of the backfield shows promise, but the most experienced returner, halfback Robert Krause, will miss the opener at Wyoming Saturday with a separated shoulder. Running back Albert Booker, who averaged seven yards per carry through seven games before being sidelined with a knee injury, has the best speed among the backs.
Last season's record: 6-2, 8-5.
Coach: LaVell Edwards (137-45-1, 16 years).
Top returnees: John Borgia (6-3, 280, Sr., OG), David Futrell (6-1, 265, Sr., NG), So.), Brian Rodoni (6-5, 270, Sr., C), Rodney Thomas (5-10, 195, Sr., CB).
Top newcomers: Matt Bellini (6-0, 175, Fr., RB), Rodney Rice (5-8, 180, Jr., CB).
Outlook: The Cougars are off to a rough start, having lost to Pittsburgh, 27-17, Wednesday, with games at Texas and Texas Christian to follow. The offensive-minded Cougars are young and inexperienced in the backfield. Junior quarterback Bob Jensen started only two games last year.
Injuries already are taking a toll. Three of their best offensive linemen--John Borgia (ankle sprain), John Hunter (broken hand) and Brian Rodoni (knee)--are at less than full strength. Running back Matt Bellini, a redshirt freshman and the brother of former BYU wide receiver Mark Bellini, injured his knee against Pitt and was to undergo an arthroscopic examination Thursday. On defense the Cougars must replace Jason Buck and Shawn Knight, both of whom were selected in the first round of National Football League draft. Nose guard David Futrell and all-conference defensive back Rodney Rice are the leading returners.
Last season's record: 4-4, 6-5.
Finish: Tied for fourth.
Coach: Leon Fuller (23-34, fifth year).
Top returnees: Ron Cortell (5-7, 160, Jr., CB), Doug Fiala (6-7, 275, Sr., OT), Pete Pavlakis (6-0, 215, Sr., LB), Todd Tyrell (6-0, 184, Sr., FL).
Top newcomers: Tony Carr (6-0, 170, Fr., RB), Scotter Molander (6-2, 190, Jr., QB).
Outlook: This should be a rebuilding year for the Rams, who lost most of their offense in quarterback Kelly Stouffer and running back Steve Bartalo, the conference's all-time leading rusher.
The loss of Bartalo will force the Rams to switch from a one-back to a pro-style offense. The backfield will be all new. Scooter Molander, a community college transfer, takes over at quarterback and two freshmen--halfback Tony Carr and fullback Todd Yert--will try to make up for the loss of Bartalo. Wide receiver will remain a strong spot. Only three starters return on defense, led by linebacker Pete Pavlakis and cornerback Ron Cortell, a small but hard-hitting junior from Sweetwater High School.
Last season's record: 4-4, 7-5.
Finish: Tied for fourth.
Coach: Bob Wagner (first year).
Top returnees: Marco Johnson (5-9, 165, Sr., WR), Pat McCray (6-1, 196, Sr., S), Al Noga (6-2, 250, Sr., DT).
Top newcomers: Larry Khan-Smith (5-9, 178, Fr., WR), Ken Masterson (5-11, 225, Sr., ILB).