college football:

Mountain Best: League has a few tricks and treats left heading into November

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Associated Press

Boise State running back D.J. Harper dives across the goal line for a touchdown as Wyoming linebacker Siaosi Hala’api’api tries to tackle him in Laramie, Wyo. on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. The Broncos enter the final full month of the season with a shot at a BCS bowl game.

As the season enters the final full month of action, there’s a clear distinction between the Mountain West’s “haves” and its “have-nots.” The former group has a lot to play for in November, from a potential BCS bowl for Boise State to a bowl berth and a rivalry victory for Air Force. Should the Broncos trip up, Fresno State is close behind with its eyes on the trophy while San Diego State could actually do the deed itself and move into first place on Saturday in Boise.

For the rest of the league, there are more modest goals at stake, namely pride, a trophy or two and momentum into next season. The latter group consists of New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming and Hawaii. After its bludgeoning last week against Air Force, it's tempting to toss UNR into that mix, as well, but the Wolf Pack are already bowl eligible, and they will have a chance to make a statement with games against Boise State and Fresno State still on tap.

That bottom group includes three first-year coaches who are fighting uphill battles. How they, and a guy like third-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, finish the year could tell us a lot about the immediate future of their programs.

For the guys on top, games will become more and more important as November wears on and everyone chases the team at the top of the rankings:

    • 1. Boise State (7-1, 4-0)

      Previously ranked first

      Last week: Won, 45-14, at Wyoming

      This week: vs. San Diego State (5-3, 3-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network

      Line: -13.5 (5-3 ATS)

      Breakdown: Last year’s Boise State team could certainly defeat, and perhaps blow out, this year’s version, but 2012 has a chance to do something 2011 never got to: play in the BCS.

      The road isn’t easy for the Broncos right now. To be an automatic qualifier, they must finish in the top 12 of the final BCS rankings, a tall task considering they currently rank 19th and their remaining schedule includes dead weights Colorado State and Hawaii. Even blowouts won’t impress anybody in those games.

      The more likely path for Boise is finishing in the top 16 and ranking ahead of another conference champion. Currently, Nebraska (6-2) is the highest-ranked Big Ten team at No. 20. If Ohio State or Penn State were eligible this year, there probably wouldn’t be room for Boise, but with a watered down Big Ten, the Broncos have a chance to finish ahead of the Cornhuskers if the latter lose one more game but still win the league.

      Chris Petersen on the BCS rankings: “We’ve got so much football left to play that we honestly don’t pay attention to that. I’m not even sure what we’re ranked because it honestly doesn’t matter at this time.”

    • 2. Fresno State (6-3, 4-1)

      Previously ranked second

      Last week: Won, 49-32, at New Mexico

      This week: vs. Hawaii (1-6, 0-4) at 4 p.m. Saturday

      Line: -33.5 (8-1 ATS)

      Breakdown: On the road, down 21-0 in the second quarter, the outlook looked bleak for Fresno State.

      “We got punched in the nose,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRyuter said.

      Six consecutive touchdowns have a way of easing that pain. Fresno trailed 24-7 and then scored just before halftime to make it 24-14. The Bulldogs’ offense then did whatever it wanted against New Mexico in the second half, piling up 600 yards on its way to a 49-24 lead.

      The journey was certainly more interesting than one could expect, but this outcome isn’t surprising. Fresno has quietly built arguably the most balanced offensive attack in the league, and it is clearly second only to Boise State in the conference hierarchy.

      DeRuyter on the Bulldogs’ chance to win the conference: “We’re going to need help from somebody to knock off Boise State, but if we take care of ourselves, we believe we have a chance.”

    • San Diego State's Walter Kazee goes over the top for a 1-yard touchdown against UNLV during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in San Diego.

      3. San Diego State (6-3, 4-1)

      Previously ranked fifth

      Last week: Won, 24-13, vs. UNLV

      This week: at Boise State (7-1, 4-0) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network

      Line: +13.5 (5-4 ATS)

      Breakdown: Last April, months before he coached his first game at San Diego State, Rocky Long decried Boise State’s blue turf on a conference call.

      “I think they ought to get rid of that blue turf. I think it’s unfair,” Long said at the time. “… It takes the visiting team a quarter or two to get used to that different field.”

      More than a year later, Long has reversed his position just in time for the Aztecs’ trip to Boise.

      On Tuesday, Long said this preseason his team went to a local high school with blue turf — most likely West Hills High in Santee, Calif. — and practiced on it to see how long it took them to adjust. The result?

      “After being on it more, I don’t think it makes a darn bit of difference either way,” Long said.

      That’s good because, despite a four-game winning streak, Long knows his team has far more to worry about Saturday than the color of the field.

      “We’ve got to get a whole lot better to have a chance up there,” Long said.

      Long on the chances he’ll go for it on fourth down or attempt two-point conversions: “If it’s a close game, there’s a good likelihood we’ll do that.”

    • 4. Air Force (5-3, 4-1)

      Previously ranked fourth

      Last week: Won, 48-31, vs. UNR

      This week: at Army (1-7) at 9 a.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network

      Line: -7.5 (3-5 ATS)

      Breakdown: From the outside, two offensive systems rarely look as much alike as the two that will take the field in West Point on Saturday.

      Army and Air Force rank first and second, respectively, in the nation in rushing yards per game. They also both rank in the bottom four in passing offense.

      It’s a similar situation each year when any of the three academies, including Navy, get together. Saturday just happens to be an extreme case of accomplishing the same things in the area.

      With such similar-looking attacks, the game may ultimately come down to who stops the run better. And in that case, this is Air Force’s game to lose.

      Troy Calhoun, who doesn’t see the comparison between the two teams: “When you look at the offenses, there are so few similarities.”

    • 5. UNR (6-3, 3-2)

      Previously ranked third

      Last week: Lost, 48-31, at Air Force

      This week: Idle; next game Nov. 10 vs. Fresno State

      Breakdown: UNR’s previous two losses this season were by a combined two points. They were gut-wrenching defeats that left Wolf Pack fans wondering what could have been.

      This was different. UNR doesn’t have a history playing against Air Force, and it really showed as the Falcons piled up 461 rushing yards despite playing without leading rusher Cody Getz.

      “We never really stopped them and never really slowed them down,” UNR coach Chris Ault said.

      The good news is the Wolf Pack get a week off to rest up and prepare for a brutal closing stretch: Fresno State, at New Mexico and Boise State. Fresno and Boise are head and shoulders above everyone else in the conference right now, and Albuquerque is no longer a gimme.

      Chris Ault on Saturday’s outcome: “We certainly deserved to lose the game.”

    • 6. New Mexico (4-5, 1-3)

      Previously ranked sixth

      Last week: Lost, 49-32, vs. Fresno State

      This week: at UNLV (1-8, 1-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday on Time Warner Cable SportsNet

      Line: +3.5 (6-3 ATS)

      Breakdown: Bowl games are fun to talk about as a fan base. New Mexico’s first-year coach, Bob Davie, knows this and said it can be fun for the team, too. Right now it’s just not realistic.

      “We know what we are,” Davie said. “I told our players when we were 4-3 that we will be the underdog in every game that’s left on our schedule. We’ve won four, and it will be a tremendous challenge to win five.”

      I expected the Lobos to be favored at Sam Boyd Stadium this Saturday, but Las Vegas disagrees, making the Rebels 3.5-point favorites. And to be fair, UNLV coach Bobby Hauck is 7-1 against the spread in Division I games this year and great covering at home in his tenure.

      The quarterback isn’t crucial to what the Lobos do — they’re the fifth-best rushing team in the country and dead last in passing — but it doesn’t hurt that Davie expects both Cole Gautsche and Quinton McCown to be available. Gautsche is the team’s least threatening passer, but he’s the second-leading rusher behind only Kasey Carrier, who has 13 rushing touchdowns this season.

      Davie on UNLV: “When you look closely at (the Rebels), they’re doing it the right way. … I can see them making progress. It’s a battle of two teams that are trying to get better.”

    • 7. Colorado State (2-6, 1-3)

      Previously ranked ninth

      Last week: Won, 42-27, vs. Hawaii

      This week: at Wyoming (1-7, 0-4) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday

      Line: +8.5 (2-6 ATS)

      Breakdown: Is defeating Hawaii really worthy of moving up two spots? Probably not, but I won’t tell if you don’t.

      Colorado State won for the first time since its first game of the season by pounding the lowly Warriors, ending the conversation this season about figuring out the worst team in the league.

      Could it propel the Rams to back-to-back victories? That’s unlikely. This weekend is for the Bronze Boot, the trophy given to the winner of the border rivalry between CSU and Wyoming, and CSU seniors have never won the trophy. Many have never even seen it in person.

      It takes more than just one victory to change that, especially when any one of three guys could be playing quarterback for the Rams.

      Jim McElwain on whether several Colorado-born players on Wyoming’s roster could play at CSU: “You watch us play. Of course they can.”

    • UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry looks for an open receiver against San Diego State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in San Diego.

      8. UNLV (1-8, 1-3)

      Previously ranked seventh

      Last week: Lost, 24-13, at San Diego State

      This week: vs. New Mexico (4-5, 1-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday on Time Warner Cable SportsNet

      Line: -3.5 (7-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: There’s a lot of potential in UNLV’s remaining schedule. A 4-0 finish would certainly be surprising, though not a complete shock, and two victories are all but required to be able to put any type of positive spin on the season.

      The most intriguing of these remaining games, at least on paper, is Saturday against New Mexico. The Lobos run a similar system to Air Force, which the Rebels defeated at home back in September. But can UNLV do that again? Will Nick Sherry and the offense completely snap out of the funk that’s trailed them since the second half against UNR?

      This game is far more unknown going into it than any other UNLV game in the past month, which at least makes things interesting.

      Bobby Hauck on the status of the team: “We’re tired of being close. We want to win.”

    • 9. Wyoming (1-7, 0-4)

      Previously ranked eighth

      Last week: Lost, 45-14, vs. Boise State

      This week: vs. Colorado State (2-6, 1-3) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday

      Line: -8.5 (4-4 ATS)

      Breakdown: The records may favor Colorado State, but make no mistake, Wyoming is the decided favorite to win the Bronze Boot against Colorado State. The line suggests as much, as does recent history.

      The Cowboys’ seniors have never lost to CSU, and they have no intention of starting now. And while Wyoming may have only one victory this season, it is not that bad. Three of the seven losses are by a combined six points, and another came in overtime.

      With this game and then road trips to New Mexico and UNLV on deck, the Cowboys have their sights set on finishing the year strong.

      Dave Christensen on the Bronze Boot rivalry: “Biggest game in our program each and every year. … It’s something we focus on 12 months a year.”

    • 10. Hawaii (1-6, 0-4)

      Previously ranked 10th

      Last week: Lost, 42-27, at Colorado State

      This week: at Fresno State (6-3, 4-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday

      Line: +33.5 (2-7 ATS)

      Breakdown: With the Colorado State game behind them, there isn’t much left for which the Warriors to play. Pride comes to mind, but beyond that, Hawaii’s conference record is all but set with zero victories. Its best remaining chance is UNLV at home on Nov. 25, and despite the Rebels’ lengthy road losing streak, this would still be a big upset if the Warriors pulled it off.

      There is a winnable game left, though. Hawaii closes the season with a bizarre home game against the Sun Belt’s South Alabama (2-6) that could either give first-year coach Norm Chow a soft landing to the season or a kick in the teeth into the offseason.

      Norm Chow citing stats after saying he doesn't look at stats: "If you look at statistics, which I don't, you know we ran 93 offensive plays compared to their 52. We possessed the ball 13 minutes longer than they did, but they capitalized on our mistakes."

    Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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