RENO, Nev. (AP) _ Favored to battle for its third straight Western Athletic Conference title, Boise State's football team is finally getting some of the respect coach Dan Hawkins thinks it deserves.
But Hawkins warns the Broncos' 18-game conference winning streak means little entering the season, especially with a loaded Fresno State squad that coach Pat Hill says could be his best yet, a Heisman Trophy candidate at Hawaii in quarterback Timmy Chang and several dark horses in a league the coaches say is as balanced as it's ever been.
``I think it is the most underrated league in the country,'' said Mike Price, who debuts as coach at Texas El-Paso after being fired a year ago at Alabama.
``I think from top to bottom we have 10 very good football teams,'' said Steve Kragthorpe, second-year coach at dark horse Tulsa.
Media voted Boise State the WAC favorite in July, followed by Fresno State, Hawaii, Tulsa, Nevada, Rice, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, SMU and San Jose State.
``I think at this stage of our career we've established ourselves as a player in the conference and nationally,'' said Hawkins, whose biggest task is replacing record-setting quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie.
Riding an 11-game winning streak, the Broncos' last WAC loss came in 2001. They've won back-to-back bowl games and finished 16th in last year's AP poll. Their goal is to consistently rank among the nation's Top 25.
``I think we're close,'' Hawkins said. ``I think people knew about Boise State before because of the blue turf. And that's still part of it, but I think people understand now that we're a good team as well.''
Hawkins' other concern is a young offensive line. Only three starters return on offense and six on defense, but the defenders include some of the league's best in backs Gabe Franklin and Chris Carr, end Julius Roberts and linebacker Andy Avolos _ the preseason pick for WAC defensive player of the year.
``Me personally, I don't care about the polls. Our pressure comes from us,'' Carr said. ``I think we have a heart of a champion.''
The Bulldogs are stocked with running backs behind a strong offensive line.
``I think this team can be as good as any team we have had. It could be the best. And the last five years we've had some outstanding teams coming out of the gate,'' Hill said. That includes the 2001 edition _ led by now-NFL quarterback David Carr of the Houston Texans _ which went 11-3.
Quarterback Paul Pinegar, the WAC's 2002 freshman of the year, is healthy after missing part of last year due to injury, and defensive back James Sander leads a secondary that Hill says will be the strength of his defense.
A fast start is important what with season-opening road games at Washington _ ``a must win'' _ and at Kansas State, Hill said.
``We're going to know how good we are early because we play four of our first six on the road,'' he said. That includes an Oct. 23 date at Boise. ``Hopefully that game will have everything on the line.''
Hawaii lists 12 returning starters on offense because six different linemen started at least eight games last year.
Coach June Jones said it's his best offensive line ever, anchored by sophomore lineman Samson Satele, who Jones predicts will be a first-round NFL pick.
Chang, the WAC's preseason offensive player of the year who threw for 4,199 yards last year, needs 2,218 yards to overtake BYU's Ty Detmer as the NCAA's all-time leading passer. His favorite target is Chad Owens, who ranked second in the NCAA last year averaging 7.7 receptions per game and led the WAC averaging 103.1 yards per game.
The defense is young but full of potential.
``All in all, if our defensive guys grow up fast, we've got a chance I think to be a pretty good football team,'' Jones said.
Hawaii's four road games include trips to Fresno and Boise.
Tulsa returns eight starters on each side of the ball, including quarterback James Kilian, from a team that finished 8-5 last season after going 1-10 and 1-11 the two years before.
``Overall, as you look at our team on paper you would think we will have a chance to be a better football team,'' Kragthorpe said.
``But we will have to be a much better football team to be able to compete in this league because the teams are much better. ... We won't have an element of surprise like we did last year.''
Five of Tulsa's first six opponents played in bowls last year.
Chris Ault is back for a third stint as coach at Nevada after spending the last eight years as athletic director. The Wolf Pack hasn't had a winning season since 1998 when it played in the Big West Conference.
``I feel a little like a 3-pound chicken trying to lay a 4-pound egg,'' Ault said. ``We've got some challenges. The anxiety is there.''
Easing the tension a bit is one of the league's best running backs in Chance Kretschmer, who led the NCAA as a freshman with 1,732 yards rushing in 2001 and bounced back from an injury to run for 1,162 yards last year. He should have an improved offensive line led by Harvey Dahl, who is on the watch list for the Lombardi Trophy.
The Owls have seven starters back on each side of the ball, plus punter Jared Scruggs, whose 45.9-yard average was fourth in the NCAA.
``I'm excited about the way we finished last year, winning four of our last five,'' Coach Ken Hatfield said.
``I don't think there is a dominant team starting out in the conference this season.''
The Bulldogs also have eight starters back on each side of the ball, including junior Ryan Moats, who led the WAC with 1,300 yards rushing last year. Coach Jack Bicknell agrees the competition is getting tougher.
``I get so depressed reading these little (media) guides they give us because everybody is so good,'' he said.
The biggest concern is quarterback. Louisiana Tech is one of only two teams in the country without one on the roster who has taken a snap in a major college game.
``It's a little bit scary,'' Bicknell said. On the bright side, the Bulldogs have more depth at receiver than ever before. ``I think we have a lot of talent.''
Price's biggest job will be rebuilding UTEP's confidence after posting a combined record of 6-30 the past three years.
``Anybody who has only won two games a year for the last three years, they haven't had a lot of fun. The best way to have fun is to win on Saturday,'' Price said.
UTEP has nine starters back on defense, eight on offense. The headliner is running back Howard Jackson, who ran for 1,146 yards last year and was fourth in the NCAA in all-purpose yards at 165.1 per game.
At 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Jackson is ``so little but so fast,'' the coach said. ``I don't know if the clocks are different in Texas or what, but he is running faster than any athlete I've ever had. ... and he can stop on a dime.''
UTEP's strength is defense. Linebacker Robert Rodriguez is ``a tough-hitting son of a gun with a nose for the ball,'' Price said. Price worries about the offensive line and an untested quarterback.
The Mustangs list eight returning starters on offense and 12 on defense from a team that coach Phil Bennett believes was better than its 0-12 record.
``We are going to have to be better offensively. You can't win with 11 points a game. We're going to more of a spread offense.''
SAN JOSE STATE:
The Spartans have only two starters back on offense, five on defense. But Coach Fitz Hill said he's working with 18 linemen of Division I caliber instead of the six or seven he's had in the past.
``We are not the most experienced thing by any stretch of imagination, but we have the most depth since we've been here,'' he said.
``On defense, we look to be much improved,'' he said, after hiring ex-Tulsa coach Keith Burns to lead the unit.
``Sometimes this league is a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. You've got to score a lot of points in this league to win because of all the high-octane offenses.''