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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Reviewing the WAC’s 2012 Dance Card

It’s here. Finally. Are you excited? Weeks after the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and A.C.C. lifted the curtain and unveiled their league-wide schedules for the 2012 season, the WAC has joined the party. Some names will be familiar: Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Idaho and Utah State. Another, Texas State, is new to the WAC. A third, Texas-San Antonio, is not only new to the WAC but new to college football altogether: 2011 marked the Roadrunners’ first season of football on any level, so it’s been a quick move from nothing to the WAC — and please save your jokes about there being little difference between the current WAC and utter nothingness.

There’s something ironic about the fact that the WAC’s two new members are led by the league’s most accomplished head coaches. Texas State is run by Dennis Franchione, the former head coach at New Mexico, T.C.U., Alabama and Texas A&M. Larry Coker, who won a national title at Miami, has been with U.T.S.A. football since its inception.

While the two new members provide the WAC with some intrigue — How will they play? Can they win? How does Coker look? — all eyes should be on Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs, underrated contenders for a double-digit win season, have a few early-season opportunities to crash into the national conversation.

The year begins for Thursday, Aug. 30, when Louisiana Tech hosts a Texas A&M team in transition. Out is Mike Sherman; in comes Kevin Sumlin and his Air Raid offense. One difference between the two: Louisiana Tech is entering its third season running the Air Raid under Sonny Dykes. In addition, A&M has several key skill players to replace on the offensive side of the ball.

While A&M has a distinct advantage in overall talent, the Bulldogs — thanks in some part to what should be a rowdy home crowd — have a strong shot at giving the Aggies all they can handle. Tech couldn’t ask for better timing, at least: A&M will only get better as the year goes on, but will still be working out the kinks in late August.

A week later, on Sept. 8, the Bulldogs take on Sumlin’s former team, Houston. Tech had the Cougars on the ropes last fall, ahead 34-7 in the third quarter, but allowed 28 unanswered points in a painful loss. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs visit Illinois; on Sept. 29, the Bulldogs travel to Charlottesville to play Virginia.

Want more irony from the WAC? While the league as a whole is the nation’s weakest — by leaps and bounds — the WAC’s top three in 2012 may very well be as strong as it was a year ago, when Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno State were still in the fold. Utah State, the most capable threat to Louisiana Tech, is on the rise after last year’s bowl berth. It would be very disappointing if San Jose State didn’t reach postseason play in its third season under Mike MacIntyre.

Both teams need to learn how to close games in the fourth quarter. Utah State’s fourth-quarter woes have been well-chronicled in this space: each of the Aggies’ six losses in 2011 came as a result of a late-game meltdown, capped by a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl collapse against Ohio.

Six of San Jose State’s seven losses came by 13 points or less, including losses to Idaho and the Aggies over back-to-back weeks by a combined four points. Utah State scored the game’s final 14 points in its 34-33 win. Idaho scored 22 fourth-quarter points, turning a 22-17 S.J.S.U. lead into its lone conference win of the season.

One thing to keep in mind for the WAC in 2012: Because of the six-game league schedule, non-conference results will be key for a team’s at-large bowl eligibility. The WAC will have only two bowl tie-ins in 2012 — Poinsettia and Famous Idaho Potato, for the top two conference finishers — so a team like San Jose State, which seems destined for a third-place finish, would probably have to go at least 2-4 outside of the WAC to warrant a spot in bowl play.

Outside of the WAC, the Spartans take on Stanford, San Diego State and Navy on the road and U.C. Davis, Colorado State and B.Y.U. at home. Utah State hosts Southern Utah, Utah and U.N.L.V.; non-conference road games come against Wisconsin, Colorado State and B.Y.U. — and as an aside, the three Utah-based F.B.S. programs will meet during the regular season after not doing so in 2011.

Non-conference play is key for the WAC as a whole. Don’t look for this league to garner any positive publicity during conference action; Louisiana Tech won’t earn Top 25 recognition for beating Texas State or Idaho, for example. But the Bulldogs can earn some national admiration for beating a Virginia on the road, or by giving A&M all it can handle on the first Thursday of the season.

Far more often than not, the WAC’s seven teams will be on the receiving end of a one-sided slaughter during non-conference play. Idaho will visit U.N.C., B.Y.U. and L.S.U. on the road, with each acronym less kind than the last. New Mexico State hosts the Cougars and visits Auburn in November.

And what of the new guys? U.T.S.A. kicks off its season with the 2012 Transition Bowl: the Roadrunners, the newest program in the F.B.S., will take on South Alabama, a transitional member of the Sun Belt. Next up, on Sept. 8, is Texas A&M-Commerce — not a misprint — in the program’s first home game on the F.B.S. level.

That’s followed by a trip to Georgia State, which has F.B.S. ambitions of its own. On Sept. 22, the Roadrunners host Northwestern Oklahoma State. The program won’t face its first F.B.S. foe until Sept. 29, when it kicks off WAC play against New Mexico State in Las Cruces. It’s home debut against a WAC foe comes nearly a month later, on Oct. 20, with a game against San Jose State.

Texas State is an old hand compared to U.T.S.A.; the Bobcats are annual fodder for Texas-based F.B.S. programs like T.C.U., S.M.U. and Houston. Before the calendar turns to October, Texas State will have played Houston, Texas Tech and Nevada, with the latter two coming to San Marcos. That home-slanted non-conference slate is tempered by the fact that the Bobcats play four of their seven WAC games away from home.

The WAC game of the year during non-conference play is Louisiana Tech’s date with Texas A&M on Aug. 30. A win would have a two-pronged effect on the conference: Tech would immediately justify some of the hype surrounding its season, and with a win would grant the WAC some much-needed respectability.

The conference game of the year is on Nov. 17: Utah State at Louisiana Tech. There’s your two WAC favorites; last fall, U.S.U. led the Bulldogs by a field goal entering the fourth quarter before losing by a touchdown. But that was in Logan — this time, the Aggies go to Ruston.

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Comments

  1. Burnt Orange says:

    A few points- La. Tech is a very physical football team- something you would not expect out of an air raid sort of program. Look for them to win a couple of the non conference games.

    Second, great point by Paul about the upper teams in this conference – La. Tech, Utah State, and an improving San Jose State team – all underrated.

    Third, they did play better at the end of the season but you have to wonder if UTSA has rushed into this too quickly. One of their losses last year was at home to a Division III school – McMurry.

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