Did you see the 2009 Mountain West Conference preseason media poll? TCU is picked to win the conference (a reasonable choice), BYU second, Utah third, and so on down the list — Air Force, UNLV, Colorado State, New Mexico — so far, so good…AND THEN, San Diego State and Wyoming.
WHAT? How, exactly, did Wyoming beat out San Diego for last place? Yes, the two teams were tied at the bottom in 2008, but SDSU easily won the tie-breaker with a 2-10 overall season record, and for good measure, played its worst season in 25 years. And do not gloss over Aztec pedigree — San Diego has not won a bowl game in 40 years.
On the phone is Austin Ward, 26, Cowboys beat reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper and the only one distributed statewide. Ward is a walking trifecta: raised, educated, and working in Wyoming. I’m ranting about the MAC media poll — “They had Wyoming coming in last. How could that be? We’ve been holding onto that position as a birthright.”
Ward says, “I don’t necessarily agree with [Wyoming’s ranking], but it’s a reflection of coaching changes and offensive struggles [in Wyoming] for the last couple of years. That’s been the traditional way for media around the league: they look at coaching changes and give other teams a little more credit for continuity.”
I call that and raise. “San Diego has had three head football coaches in the last three and a half years.” (No need to mention 17 head coaches in 40 years of Division I play, which works out to one new guy every 2.35 years.) “As for recruiting, it’s tough to recruit being in Southern California, next to the beach and all that. How’s recruiting up there?”
Ward laughs, “I wouldn’t say they’re stealing a lot of players from TCU, but Dave Christensen [new head coach] had a more successful month and a half of recruiting than Joe Glenn [previous head coach, six-year tenure, 30-41 record] had in his entire career. The team hadn’t been higher than seventh under Joe Glenn. He didn’t spend a lot of time on recruiting. This is a group that’s much more committed to recruiting and doing it year ’round, which is a big change. They feel like they’ve had a lot of success so far.”
I ask, “How old is Christensen?”
“Not quite 50, but he’s been in the business for awhile. He was the offensive coordinator at Missouri.”
“Yeah, when I read that I thought, ‘Sixteen years as assistant coach at Missouri. Either he’s not good enough to get offered a job early on, or he’s over the hill and Wyoming couldn’t find anyone better.’”
“That whole staff at Missouri was very loyal,” Ward says. “There was one point around 2004, before Christensen changed the spread, when Missouri wanted to run [head coach] Pinkel and his group out of town. But, they’ve had so much success over the last couple years [12-2 and 10-4 seasons with two bowl wins], Dave had his pick of jobs, at least between Washington, New Mexico, and Wyoming. He’s got a good fit right now, and sometimes you have to wait for that chance.”
“How do you see their year? What’s their toughest game?”
“Obviously, Texas is an unwinnable game [Texas plays at Laramie September 12th].”
“What’s the spread, 30?”
“I think I saw one line around 35,” Ward says. “The end result is going to be up to Texas. Inside the league, look at any of the top three. TCU and BYU are both in Laramie. Christensen can get a little better crack at them depending how the quarterback play develops. Then, they’re going to Utah — that’s a place they’ve never had any success or luck. Utah will probably be back in form by then, after sorting out their quarterback situation, so that seems like the toughest conference game.”
“What’s your prediction?”
“I’m more optimistic than most around here. I always use the comparison with Colorado State. I don’t see why 6 and 6 would be out of the question for them…if they can win at Florida Atlantic and go 2 and 2 outside the league, then they have a realistic shot at going 4 and 4 in conference play. That would be a huge boost for them.
“You look at last year with Steve Fairchild. I think he exceeded expectations at Colorado State by a good measure. All you’ve got to do is get up to 6 and 6 and then win your bowl game. You look pretty good. That can happen in one year. You never know how everyone is going to respond to a new coaching staff and if things click right away.”