MWC Preview: TCU will have to get by BYU and Utah this time to win Mountain West

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Gary Patterson went on a premeditated rant before TCU played its Mountain West Conference opener last season.

The Horned Frogs had just held Texas Tech without a touchdown to extend the nation's longest Division I-A winning streak to 13 games when the coach seethed about how "people have been underselling our kids for years." He griped about lack of respect and his team being "treated like a stepchild" in Texas.

The only problem was that his team didn't back up the talk.

"I don't know if it hurt us any, except that we lost two games in conference," Patterson said. "It did serve its purpose by getting attention, but we didn't follow it up. ... If it works for you, it's unbelievable."

Five days later, the Horned Frogs -- who had been told by the coach what he was going to do after the Tech game -- lost at home to BYU. Then they lost at Utah the following week.

"If we beat those two teams, then we could have run the table," Patterson said.

TCU recovered to win its last eight games, including a 37-7 bowl romp over Northern Illinois, and still finished with its third 11-win season in four years.

Now the Horned Frogs, with nine starters back on a dominating defense, are heavily favored to win the MWC title.

"We were last year too," Patterson quipped. "If it proves anything, it doesn't matter what people say about you in August. It's what they say in December."

The main obstacles for the Frogs again will be defending champ BYU and Utah. The Cougars went undefeated in the league like TCU did in its inaugural 2005 season and the Utes capped last season with their sixth straight bowl victory.

"We're excited about the chance to prove some consistency in our program," third-year BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Our players are just simply carrying themselves like they expect to win."

The Cougars still have a 10-game winning streak, but must replace their top offensive weapons after averaging 37 points a game last season.

Gone are quarterback John Beck, the MWC offensive player of the year who threw for 3,885 yards and 32 touchdowns, running back Curtis Brown (1,010 yards rushing, team-high 62 catches) and top receiver Jonny Harline (935 yards receiving, 12 TDs).

Utah gets back a top-notch quarterback with the return of Brian Johnson after he sat out last season because of knee surgery.

Johnson threw for 2,892 yards (with 18 TDs) and ran for 478 yards in 2005, when he led the MWC and was fourth nationally in total offense. Plus, he has plenty of proven receivers -- all six who started games last season are back.

"I think it definitely ended up being the right decision," Johnson said. "It gave me a year to mature, not only physically, but mentally as well."

All-MWC defensive ends Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz lead the TCU defense that ranked among the top three nationally last season in rushing defense (61 yards per game), total defense (235 yards a game) and scoring defense (12.3 points per game).

As good as his defenders are, Patterson -- the Frogs' former defensive coordinator -- believes the best way to play defense is by standing on the sideline watching the offense move the ball.

TCU should be able to do that with Aaron Brown, who ran for 801 yards and caught 34 passes for 455 yards last season. The junior tailback has been tabbed the league's preseason offensive player of the year.

"It won't matter if I don't do what I have to do," Brown said, sounding a lot like his coach. "Everyone's going off last year's stats and I haven't even played. We'll see once December hits."

A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:

TCU -- Horned Frogs have at least 10 victories four times the last five seasons. ... Unlike last year, TCU will have to wait to play Utah (Oct. 18) and BYU (Nov. 8) in conference play. ... Three of TCU's non-conference games are against instate and former SWC rivals: Baylor, Texas and SMU.

UTAH -- Gone is two-time MWC defensive player of the year Eric Weddle, who also got plenty of snaps at quarterback and running back while also holding and returning kicks in his 48-game career. "It will take three or four guys to fill his shoes," coach Kyle Whittingham said. ... Only Boston College (seven) has a longer bowl winning streak.

BYU -- Coach Bronco Mendenhall, 17-8 through two seasons, got a restructured contract through 2011. ... The Cougars' last loss was in double overtime at Boston College. ... RB Manase Tonga won't play in the season opener. Mendenhall suspended Tonga after the player pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors tied to a traffic stop.

WYOMING -- Cowboys won five of their last seven games in '06 after Karsten Sween took over at quarterback. The losses in that span were to BYU (55-7) and TCU (26-3). Their 6-6 overall record included four straight losses (two in overtime) in September by a touchdown or less. ... Sween, a sophomore, has six of the top seven receivers back.

NEW MEXICO -- Lobos return 10 defenders who started at least 10 games last year. ... Junior RB Rodney Ferguson led the MWC with 1,234 rushing yards last season. ... Despite four bowl appearances last five seasons, New Mexico hasn't won a postseason game since 1961. ... Head coach Rocky Long is in his 10th season, but has four new offensive assistants, including coordinator Dave Baldwin.

COLORADO STATE -- Sonny Lubick enters his 15th season as Rams coach, but hasn't had a winning record since 2003. ... Junior RB Kyle Bell returns after missing 2006 with a torn ACL in his right knee. Bell ran for 1,288 yards in '05.

SAN DIEGO STATE -- Aztecs return nine offensive starters for second-year coach Chuck Long. ... San Diego State hasn't had a winning season since 1998 at 7-5. ... Third-year starter Kevin O'Connell is back at quarterback. He missed five games last season after breaking his thumb.

AIR FORCE -- Troy Calhoun is first Academy grad to be the Falcons head coach. ... Air Force has three consecutive losing seasons, the only time that happened in former coach Fisher DeBerry's 23 seasons before he retired in December.

UNLV -- After consecutive two-win seasons, UNLV faces seven bowl teams, four in September. ... Receivers are the strength of the team. Ryan Wolfe led MWC with 911 yards as a freshman last season and Casey Flair led the league with 5.58 catches per game.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-08-06-07 1054MDT

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