WAC preview: Bulldogs toughen up for title run
|||UH ready for fresh start|
|||Prized freshman elusive on, off field|
By Scott Sonner
When Pat Hill arrived at Fresno State five years ago, he told his boss to toughen up the schedule.
This year, Hill's wish has been granted, and if his Bulldogs make it through Colorado, No. 11 Oregon State and No. 22 Wisconsin, they'll likely crack the Top 25 as well as claim the Western Athletic Conference title they are heavily favored to win.
"If you want to sit at the table with those guys, you've got to play with them and beat them," Hill said after his team finished third in the WAC last season after tying for the title in 1999. "We are considered a mid-major and it makes my blood boil. But until we beat these teams, we're going to be stuck with that."
David Carr, among the most efficient passers in the nation last season, is one of nine starters back. Six starters are back on defense, including two-time all-league tackle Alan Harper.
With Texas Christian moving to Conference USA, co-champ UTEP, Hawai'i and league-newcomer Boise State are picked to fight it out for the title, with San Jose State and Tulsa rated a notch below.
Deonce Whitaker, San Jose State's star tailback, could be one of the nation's top players if he is academically eligible. He averaged 7 yards per carry last season.
Hawai'i's Tim Chang threw for 3,041 yards as a freshman last year, fifth in the nation in total offense at 299 yards per game. Five 2,000-yard quarterbacks return, including Carr, San Jose State's Marcus Arroyo, Tulsa's Josh Blankenship, Nevada's David Neill and Louisiana Tech's Luke McCown.
Miners no fluke
Also returning are the league's top three receivers Tulsa's Donald Shoals, UTEP's Lee Mays and Hawai'i's Ashley Lelie. Each had more than 1,000 yards receiving in 2000.
The schedule could make the league race interesting. UTEP and Fresno State do not meet, while the Miners open the WAC season at Boise State on Sept. 22. Boise State beat UTEP, 38-23, in the Humanitarian Bowl last year.
"Our goal is to win another championship," Mays said. "We have to go out and try to prove to everyone that last year's title wasn't a fluke."
UTEP's biggest chore is replacing quarterback Rocky Perez, most likely with Wesley Phillips, the son of former NFL coach Wade Phillips.
Boise State, which led the nation in scoring last year with 44.9 points per game playing in the Big West, faces the same problem with the departure of Bart Hendricks.
"Our expectation is to win, but we've got a lot of question marks," new coach Dan Hawkins said. He plans to start sophomore Ryan Dinwiddie at quarterback with tailback Brock Forsey, who ran for 914 yards last year.
Hawai'i returns all but one starter from an offensive line that gave up just 10 sacks in 2000 while Chang led an offense that averaged 323 yards passing per game.
The Warriors went from worst to first 0-12 in 1998 to co-champions in 1999 at 9-4 overall. But then slumped to 3-9 last year.
Warriors will win
"That's where immaturity comes in," said assistant coach George Lumpkin. "Instead of making it happen, I think they thought it was going to happen. But I think we'll be a winning club this year. We think we're going to be a pretty good football team on offense."
Lumpkin had been filling in for head coach June Jones, who was seriously injured in a Feb. 22 car crash but rejoined the team for pre-season workouts. He said team unity has been strong in the face of Jones' injury.
"I'm not sure I'd call it rallying behind him but I think they wanted to make sure he'd have nothing to worry about when he got back," he said.
Tulsa could surprise
Hawai'i must fill a void at running back, with freshman Mike Bass expected to help.
"He's a little guy, but he's real durable," Lumpkin said.
"Lelie has the speed to do anything he wants. He's a big target and he has the hands to catch anything thrown at him," he said.
Tulsa could be one of the surprises with the Blakenship-to-Shoals connection and eight starters back on defense.
San Jose State's trouble has been on defense but that will change if new coach Fitz Hill has his way.
"We're going to stop the run," said Hill. "I told my defensive coordinator that is one penalty I'll accept I'll let you play 12 players if we can stop the run."