The fun has just begun: Looking at the future of MWC football

The Mountain West Conference had one of its best years in 2005, sending four teams to bowl games, as five finished with winning regular season records.

Almost every conference game was a battle into the fourth quarter in 2005, and in 2006 it should be even better.

Here’s what to look for from each team in the MWC.

TCU Horned Frogs

(11-1 in 2005)

Key Losses: CB Quincy Butler, OL Michael Toudouze, CB Drew Coleman, QB Tye Gunn, S Jeremy Modkins

Key Returners: QB Jeff Ballard, WR Cory Rodgers, RB Aaron Brown, OL Herbert Taylor, DE Tommy Blake, DE Chase Ortiz

With Ballard (7-0 as starter), Rodgers, and Brown, the MWC Freshman of the Year, the Horned Frogs should have plenty of offense to defend their MWC championship.

They were tied for fourth in the nation by playing 21 freshmen in 2005, and several should be ready to step up to fill the defensive voids.

2006 projection: They’ll have a big test at home against Texas Tech, but should look good all year.

2007 projection: They’ll be without Ballard and Rodgers, but with easy non-conference games against Baylor, Stanford and SMU, they should still be near the top of the conference.

Utah Utes (6-5)

Key Losses: OL David Dirkmaat, OL Jesse Boone, WR Travis LaTendresse, WR John Madsen, DL Steve Fifita, RB Quinton Ganther, LB Spencer Toone

Key Returners: QB Brian Johnson, QB Brett Ratliff, WR Brent Casteel, WR Brian Hernandez, WR Derrek Richards, S Eric Weddle, S Casey Evans, DL Martail Burnett

The Utes will also return a slew of weapons for 2006.

Weddle, the MWC Defensive Player of the Year, Evans and Burnett will return to lead the defense, while the Utes will have their choice of Brian Johnson, Brett Ratliff and Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady to lead their high-powered offense.

Utah’s biggest question marks are at the running back and defensive back positions.

2006 projection: The Utes will start the year with a tough road trip at UCLA but should win more than six games in Kyle Whittingham’s second season as the Ute head coach.

2007 projection: They’ll have a tough non-conference schedule as they’ll host UCLA, play at Oregon State and possibly Louisville. They’ll have a young defense, but the offense should still be intact.

BYU Cougars (6-5)

Key Losses: WR Todd Watkins, OL Lance Reynolds, LB Justin Luettgerodt, DL Manaia Brown, RB Naufahu Tahi

Key Returners: QB John Beck, RB Curtis Brown, TE Jonny Harline, LB Cameron Jensen

BYU will have to be ready for some shootouts next year. It will return most of its offensive line, along with its top three scoring threats in Beck, Brown and Harline all returning for their senior seasons.

But the Cougar defense is a mess. Only five defensive starters should return, led by Jensen, so a year of defensive growing pains is likely in store for Bronco Mendenhall’s second season at the helm.

2006 projection: The Cougars will probably score more than their basketball team on some occasions, but they may allow just as many points. A road trip at Boston College to kick off the season should be a good indication of how the year will be for the Cougars.

2007 projection: They’ll be without Beck, Brown and Harline, so it will likely be a rebuilding year. They’ll play at UCLA and host Arizona.

Colorado State Rams (6-5)

Key Losses: QB Justin Holland, WR David Anderson, S Travis Garcia, S Miles Kochevar, LB Courtney Jones

Key Returners: RB Kyle Bell, WR Johnny Walker, WR Kory Sperry

The losses of Holland and Anderson-their top receiver-along with their top three tacklers in Garcia, Kochevar and Jones, should cause the Rams some early troubles.

But they’ll get Bell, Walker, and Sperry to help quarterback Caleb Hanie pilot the offense, as they all return for their junior seasons.

2006 projection: The Rams will have tough non-conference games against Colorado, at Nevada, and Fresno State could leave the Rams with an 0-3 mark before facing several tough MWC opponents.

2007 projection: They’ll play at California and Colorado, but will have most of their offense return.

New Mexico Lobos (6-5)

Key Losses: RB D DonTrell Moore, WR Hank Baskett, DE Evroy Thompson, LB Mike Mohoric, C Ryan Cook, CB Gabriel Fulbright

Key Returners: QB Kole McKamey, LB Cody Kase, OL Robert Turner

The loss of Moore, the MWC Offensive Player of the Year, as well as Baskett and three first-team all MWC defenders will leave the Lobos with several new faces to try to avoid a disastrous rebuilding season.

2006 projection: With tough non-conference home games against Missouri and UTEP, the Lobos will look to McKamey to lead the young team.

2007 projection: It depends a lot on how well they rebuild. At UTEP and Arizona.

San Diego State Aztecs (5-7)

Key Losses: WR Jeff Webb, WR Robert Ortiz, DB Marcus Demps, LB Freddy Keiano, S Reggie Grigsby

Key Returners: QB Kevin O’ Connell, RB Lynell Hamilton, DB Terrell Maze, S Brett Strum, LB Joe Martin

New head coach Chuck Long, the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator, will have to help turn around the Aztecs without two exciting scorers in Webb and Ortiz and three of their most important defensive players in Demps, Keiano and Grigsby.

However, the Aztecs will have O’Connell and Hamilton back for their junior seasons, as well as Maze, Strum and Martin to lead the defense.

2006 projection: The Aztecs will have to play UTEP, and at Wisconsin, to start the year, and it’s never easy in the first year of a coaching transition. But they have a good chance of surprising some teams.

2007 projection: They’ll take on Washington State and Fresno State, but they’ll return an experienced offense with a senior nucleus.

Wyoming Cowboys (4-7)

Key Losses: WR Jovon Bouknight, DL Dusty Hoffschneider, DE John Flora, SS Ron Rockett, QB Corey Bramlet

Key Returners: RB Wynell Seldon, LB Ward Dobbs, OT Chase Johnson, OG Jason Karcher, CB Derrick Martin

Bouknight was one of the most potent scoring threats Wyoming has had this decade, so the team will certainly miss him next season.

The Cowboys lost six straight to end a disappointing year, and it’s unlikely they’ll have any immediate answers for next season. They have run the Bramlet well dry, so a new quarterback will have to emerge in Laramie.

2006 projection: With early non-conference games against Boise State and Virginia, the Cowboys’ losing streak will probably continue for quite a while.

2007 projection: Once again they’ll take on Boise State and Virginia, and unless some stars arise, it could be a rough year.

Air Force Falcons (4-7)

Key Losses: WR Jason Brown, WR Greg Kirkwood, TE Robert McMenomy

Key Returners: QB Shaun Carney, FB Jacob Kendrick FS Bobby Giannini

The Falcons will return most of their defense and will have Carney back to lead the offense, so it could be a turn around year for Air Force.

The loss of Brown leaves a wide gap at the receiver position, and if it isn’t fixed, it will add unneeded pressure to Carney.

2006 projection: Head coach Fisher DeBerry has had some problems politically, and he’s also had two straight losing seasons, so he may get the boot by the start of the 2006 season. The Falcons have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the MWC with games against Tennessee and Notre Dame.

2007 projection: Carney will return for his senior year, and they’ll play at Notre Dame.

UNLV Rebels (2-9)

Key Losses: TE Greg Estandia, DB Joe Miklos, DE Leon Moore

Key Returners: QB Shane Steichen, LB Beau Bell

The Rebels will return 16 of 24 starters and will get Steichen back from injury. But those starters only won two games so they’ll need good recruiting to steer the ship in the right direction.

2006 projection: The Rebels will have non-conference games at Iowa State and Nevada. It’ll probably take head coach Mike Sanford another year to set it up the way he likes it.

2007 projection: They’ll take on Wisconsin and Nevada.