The Western Athletic Conference has two Bulldogs (Fresno State, Louisiana Tech), two Aggies (Utah State, New Mexico State) and two coaches referred to as Mack (Hawaii’s Greg McMackin, San Jose State’s Mike MacIntyre).
But there is a singular goal: win the WAC regular-season title.
Even Boise State, which has held the title seven of the past eight seasons, has set that as the primary goal — a questionable proclamation given the Broncos’ announced secession from the WAC at the end of the coming academic year.
Several players and coaches said they will miss the Broncos.
"You always want to chase the big dog in the conference," New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker said.
Of the in-state rivalry, which may or may not be continued, Idaho coach Robb Akey said: "I want to beat those guys this year. It’s the last chance to do it in the conference."
But whether Boise State is in the WAC, Akey said, "Your goal is supposed to be to win your conference championship. It’s not like we’re all going in there and take a knee."
WAC teams open training camp this week. (UH’s first practice is Thursday.) Here’s a look:
1. Boise State
Head coach: Chris Petersen.
2009: 14-0, 8-0 WAC.
In short: Like basketball legend John Wooden (and TV game-show host Dick Clark), the Broncos adhere to a pyramid scheme to success. At the top is a third appearance in a BCS game. "There’s so much we don’t control," Petersen said. What is at hand is 20 returning starters, an offense that features more than 500 plays, and a collar that is as blue as the Bronco Stadium turf. Participation was nearly 100 percent — again — for unsupervised summer workouts. Because the stadium was closed for repairs, the players went indoors. But don’t think the conditions were better. "There was no A/C going on," quarterback Kellen Moore (above) said. "It wasn’t always the nicest. One day they turned up the heat on us. It was 110 degrees. It was terrible, but we got through it."
The star: During a summer camp organized by the NFL’s Peyton and Eli Manning, Moore, a Heisman Trophy candidate, received an award as Most Likely To Be Carded. "I get that a lot," he said, rubbing his hairless chin. "I don’t know how to look any older." Moore’s youthfulness belies his toughness. He also is a competitor who does not accept defeat easily. "We did a softball game the other week for charity," Moore said. "I was at first base, then I came in to close. They hadn’t seen the lefty yet. They homered off of me. That hurt."
Fun fact: Because BSU is the rare team that does not stay in a hotel the night before home games, Moore said, "The only time I was in a Boise hotel was during my recruiting trip."
Quote: Moore, who was raised in a two-stoplight town in Oregon, said: "From where I come from, Boise is considered a big city."
Head coach: Chris Ault.
2009: 8-5, 7-1 WAC.
In short: At the halfway point of the 2009 season, Ault pledged his allegiance to the run game. In the first six regular-season games, with a one-back offense, the Wolf Pack averaged 292.83 rushing yards and 29.33 points in going 3-3. In the next six, often aligning a second back, it averaged 431.67 rushing yards and 51.83 points in finishing 5-1. "Our run game exploded," Ault said. This year’s lesson? Force Colin Kaepernick (right), one of the top scrambling quarterbacks in college football, to throw more. Kaepernick spent spring ball and the summer working on becoming a more efficient passer. In the past, Kaepernick would throw to receivers; now he is throwing to areas where the receivers will end up. "We’re all on the same page now," he said. At least in the offensive playbook. Disappointed in the defense, Ault hired Andy Buh as co-coordinator and brought in Mike Bradeson to work with the safeties.
The star: Kaepernick is all business this year — in the classroom, where he will earn a business degree in December, and on the field, where he passed on a chance to apply for the 2010 NFL Draft. "I still feel I have something to prove here," Kaepernick said. "I still don’t have a championship here." Kaepernick did not even bother to request a projected draft rating. As for seeking an insurance policy against injury, puh-leeze. "It’s a game," he said. "It’ll take care of itself."
Fun fact: Kaepernick, who has 2,906 collegiate rushing yards, had minus-50 yards rushing in high school.
Quote: On motivating his players to move forward, Ault said: "A kick in the ass is moving forward."
3. Fresno State
Head coach: Pat Hill.
2009: 8-5, 6-2 WAC.
In short: Record-setting running back Ryan Mathews decided to leave a year early for the NFL, and punter Matt Darr decided not to come to Fresno at all, wiggling out of a commitment to go to Tennessee. But Hill, who has lost 35 assistant coaches in the past 13 years at Fresno, still gets his REM sleep. Of losing people to other places, Hill said, "Why try to pound a square peg into a round hole?" Robbie Rouse will get the handoffs now, and Ryan Colburn will enter training camp as the No. 1 quarterback. If Derek Carr can’t unseat Colburn, he likely will redshirt. "We’ve been pretty standard since I’ve been here," Hill said. "We’re going to play good, hard competitive football."
The star: Defensive end Chris Carter, who had 13 backfield tackles in 2009, has noticed Hill has eased on the full-contact practices. "Football is a brutal sport," Carter said. "You can’t go and hit every day of the week or your injuries will go through the roof." Carter has maintained that theory this summer as organizer of the unsupervised practices. Carter even supplies the water.
Fun fact: For the first time in Hill’s 14 seasons at Fresno, the Bulldogs will play more games at home than on the road.
Quote: Hill said: "When I played college (football), I remember meeting in a room where I sat on a tractor. Are you kidding me? We still went out and got after people. It doesn’t make any difference. You give them a sandwich and they’ll be fine."
4. Utah State
Head coach: Gary Andersen.
2009: 4-8, 3-5 WAC.
In short: Blind faith is not foreign to the Aggies. Last year, several players decided to go sledding. On trash-can covers. At 3 a.m. "When we relax, we relax," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "When it’s time to get serious, we get serious." There is optimism in Cache Valley, despite the knee injury that likely will sideline running back Robert Turbin for the season. That’s because quarterback Diondre Borel, who led the WAC in total offense (278.6 yards), provides a dual threat. Depleted running attack because of Turbin? Not according to Fresno State coach Pat Hill, who said of Borel’s elusiveness: "I don’t know how he gets wet in the shower." Although Borel is from California, the plan is to get more local recruits. A start came in the spring, when 450 prospects showed up for the Aggies’ Junior Day.
The star: Each tattoo — on both arms, on his neck, on his legs — tells a story. The happily-ever-after tale is yet to be written. "I want to go to a bowl game," Borel said. He has done his share toward that goal, training to stay fit, and studying videos to become a more complete quarterback. Borel, who can throw a football 70 yards on the fly, signed as a quarterback, then was reassigned to receiver. Back at quarterback the past two years, Borel is confident he can lead with his arm. "We’ll see what happens," he said.
Fun fact: The roster includes 15 players who are shorter than 5-foot-10.
Quote: On the need to succeed, Andersen told reporters: "If that doesn’t improve, three years from now, somebody else is standing here wearing the same shirt I am."
Head coach: Greg McMackin.
2009: 6-7, 3-5 WAC.
In short: Dave Aranda, who has been promoted to defensive coordinator, served an internship with the Cincinnati Bengals the past week. In addition to learning new schemes and coaching tools, Aranda discovered that three Bengals have their own reality shows. "I’m trying to stay away from the cameras," he said. The reality is it will be difficult for Aranda and Nick Rolovich, who was promoted to offensive coordinator, to avoid the spotlight this season. Aranda is trying to rev up what he hopes will be an attacking defense. Rolovich must improve an offense that can move the ball, but not always into the end zone.
The star: In his first UH season in 2009, defensive end Liko Satele (right) made nearly as many starts (six) as older brother Brashton Satele (eight) did in his five-year UH career. Brashton Satele is now with the New York Jets, and Liko Satele is on the verge of a breakout season. Aranda has praised Satele’s first-step quickness, strength (he has gained nearly 20 pounds the past year), and the ability to stop the run and heat-seek the quarterback.
Fun fact: Of the 22 projected starters, seven joined as walk-ons and seven entered as transfers.
Quote: Asked recently how long the UH coaches’ meeting would last, Rolovich said: "December 24th."
Head coach: Robb Akey.
2009: 8-5, 4-4 WAC
In short: The pulsating 43-42 victory in the Humanitarian Bowl? The ensuing parade through downtown Moscow, Idaho? No, the declaration of the Vandals’ arrival was becoming the official team of ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt Show. After the host mocked Akey’s raspy voice, the Vandals coach called the show, and after that, the Idaho helmet became a fixture on the studio set. "What better publicity?" Akey said. Three years ago, Akey moved 8 miles down the road from Pullman, where he was a Washington State assistant coach. Since then, he has driven the Vandals from the WAC cellar to a bowl berth. "We had to deal with adversity to get to the point where you could win," Akey said. "Now it was dealing with success." The Vandals have developed enough of a base. Nate Enderle, who was expected to be displaced as the starting quarterback in 2009, instead completed 61 percent of his passes (TD-to-interception ratio of 22 to 9), and now is considered a 2011 draft prospect. Much of the defense returns, this time with "a swagger," Akey said. "It’s not a one-shot-wonder team."
The star: No wonder Enderle sometimes feels like he entered a video game. "Some of the quarterbacks in this league have ridiculous stats, stats you hardly see anywhere in the country," said Enderle, a fifth-year senior whom scouts have thrust into the discussion of the WAC’s best passers. But Enderle, displaying diplomacy as accurate as his passes, said, "Quarterbacks don’t play in a vacuum," crediting his line and backs. Still, he is the face of the offense. "I don’t know if (people) recognize me more, but they say, ‘Hi,’ more," he noted. "It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, good game,’ than, ‘Hey, tough loss.’"
Fun fact: Linebacker Jeffrey Bediako, who is from the Netherlands, originally came to Boise High School as an exchange student.
Quote: Recalling his optimism at last year’s WAC football media preview, nose tackle Jonah Sataraka noted: "We said we were going to surprise some people, and (the reporters) were looking at us, like, ‘What? You guys are from Idaho, right?’ "
7. Louisiana Tech
Head coach: Sonny Dykes.
2009: 4-8, 3-5 WAC.
In short: For last February’s Super Bowl party, New Orleans native Rob McGill made jambalaya. The pot was supposed to serve 16 to 20 people. It made enough for McGill and six other offensive linemen. "Good sauce, good chicken, good rice, and time," McGill said. "It takes three, four hours because I cut up my own vegetables. The key is work and the right ingredients." If food is a metaphor for football, the Bulldogs appear to have the recipe for improvement. Dykes is bringing in the all-points blitz packages he learned as an assistant under Arizona’s Mike Stoops, and the Air Raid passing attack from his time at Texas Tech. The one-back Air Raid requires the blockers to line up in a two-point stance, and to be in top condition. "There’s going to be more running around, no-huddle stuff," McGill said.
The star: Phillip Livas scored touchdowns in four different ways, and Tank Calais is an appropriately named hard-hitting linebacker. But the star of the Bulldogs? "It’s Sonny D," Calais said of the head coach. "He’s a good dude. Everybody loves to work for him. At practices, we’re flying around, trying to compete. … Ruston (La.) is a good place, a small family place. He brings excitement to Ruston."
Fun fact: Calais earned the nickname "Tank" from his grandmother. "I was a chubby, fat baby," he said. "She used to say, ‘Oh, my little Tank.’ It stuck."
Quote: On the Bulldogs’ cover-zero scheme, in which there are no safeties back as safety nets, Calais said: "You have to eat some kind of way. This is how we feed our family."
8. New Mexico State
Head coach: DeWayne Walker.
2009: 3-10, 1-7 WAC
In short: At NMSU, there is only one way — the front entrance to the locker room. "We’re not allowed to go out the back door," running back Seth Smith said. "Everybody has to come out the front. That’s not bad. You get to meet more of your teammates." In Walker’s second year as head coach, the players will be introduced to a new offensive style. Mike Dunbar was hired as offensive coordinator to implement the spread attack — which he operated successfully at Minnesota, California, Northwestern and Toledo — although he does not want to be known solely as a coach of the spread. Dunbar will have sets with two backs and no backs. The quarterback — Jeff Fleming and Matt Christian are bracketed at No. 1 — will have rollout assignments to keep defenses guessing. Kenny Turner, who had a controversial background, was recruited to complement 1,000-yard rusher Seth Smith. Last year, the Aggies won half of their first six games before stumbling the rest of the way.
The star: Despite a painful right shoulder, Smith appeared in every game, racking up 1,016 rushing yards. Not bad for a player who first entered the program without a football scholarship.
Not-so-fun fact: The Aggies are not allowed to wear earrings, jewelry or caps.
Quote: "The fans are actually for us now," defensive back Davon House (above) said. "You don’t see signs in the stands that say ‘Go Home’ or ‘You suck.’ That’s a great thing for us. We’re excited to play on Saturdays instead of worrying about who’s going to throw something at us."
9. San Jose State
Head coach: Mike MacIntyre.
2009: 2-10, 1-7 WAC.
In short: Since the start of the year, first-year coach MacIntyre has had the Spartans on the run. During spring practice, there are six stations set up. Players do cardiovascular drills for 2 minutes, then move to the next station. "Nonstop," safety Duke Ihenacho said. During the summer, there are regular conditioning sessions, in which the players run 28 110-yard sprints, with rest breaks corresponding to position (14-second resets for skill guys to 20 for linemen). Failure to sit in the first three rows of each class results in running up and down the stadium stairs. "We run more than any team in America runs, I promise you," MacIntyre said. MacIntyre, who was an assistant under Bill Parcells in Dallas, is rebuilding the Spartans with speed, athleticism and discipline. Noting the playmakers in high school were tailbacks and perimeter linemen, MacIntyre’s first recruiting class included seven with experience at tight end, defensive end or fullback, and six high school tailbacks. "I kind of copied that from Bill Parcells," MacIntyre said. He said he will rotate up to eight players on the defensive line, move some of the tailback recruits to other positions, and trim the waistlines. As defensive coordinator at Duke, the Blue Devils collectively lost 739 pounds. Weight losses are the only ones MacIntyre will tolerate.
The star: Ihenacho does not believe in reliving the past. Of being the fourth Spartan to be named All-WAC two years in a row, he said, "That’s old news." Ihenacho has embraced MacIntyre’s intense conditioning program. "It’s not punishment," he said, "it’s part of getting better." Ihenacho also has not used any vacation time or sick leave. He has started 25 consecutive games.
Fun fact: The freshmen will have 11 p.m. curfews.
Quote: On recruiting in the Golden State, McIntyre said: "There are seven Division I schools in the state of California. There are 1,048 high schools playing football. There are 72 junior colleges playing football. Why in the world can’t I find 22 to 25 young men who can be competitive in the WAC? I can, and I will."