FRESNO State favored to take WAC

Monday, August 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When Pat Hill arrived at Fresno State five years ago, he told his boss to toughen up the schedule.

This year, his 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 TCU moving to Conference USA, co-champ UTEP, Hawaii 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.

Hawaii's Timmy 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-yards quarterbacks return, including Carr, San Jose State's Marcus Arroyo, Tulsa's Josh Blankenship, Nevada's David Neill and Louisiana Tech's Luke McCown.

Also returning are the league's top three receivers _ Tulsa's Donald Shoals, UTEP's Lee Mays and Hawaii'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.

Hawaii returns all but one starter from an offensive line that gave up just 10 sacks last season while Chang led an offense that averaged 323 yards passing per game.

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, a former Arkansas assistant. ``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.''

Rice returns nine starters and its five leading rushers from an offense that ranked 11th in the nation last year at 233 yards per game.

SMU is led by running back Kris Briggs, who had 828 yards in '00, and linebacker Vic Viloria, who led the league in tackles with 10.8 per game.

Louisiana Tech, another WAC newcomer, went 3-9 last year, including road losses at Kansas State, Penn State, Auburn and Miami. ``It's tough even for myself to figure out where we're going to be,'' coach Jack Bicknell said.

Nevada finished last in its WAC debut last year and is picked to do the same under second-year coach Chris Tormey.