WAC up for grabs

Sunday, August 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Fresno State raised the profile of the often-overlooked Western Athletic Conference last season by briefly entering the national-championship picture.

But casual fans might forget that after David Carr's Bulldogs beat Wisconsin, Oregon State and Colorado, they lost twice in WAC play and didn't even win the conference. It was the most convincing proof yet that this geographically sprawling league doesn't deserve its lightweight reputation.

``I'll never understand why people don't respect this conference on the same level as anybody else,'' Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. ``I know I say the same thing every year, but it's still true. We play some outstanding football in the WAC _ good games, close games, exciting games.''

For seemingly the first time in years, the WAC has stability. No teams were added or subtracted, and none of the 10 schools appears significantly worse than it was a year ago.

The four teams that contended for the conference title last season are expected to be atop the standings again this fall in a league that stretches from the South to the edge of the Pacific Northwest to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Louisiana Tech, Boise State, Fresno State and Hawaii all return strong squads.

The WAC also added a third bowl affiliation with the new Hawaii Bowl, opening the possibility that Boise State (Humanitarian), Fresno State (Silicon Valley) and Hawaii all could play in bowls in their backyards. What's more, the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., also has the option of choosing a WAC team.

``We think we stand in a very strong position for bowls,'' WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. ``We've just got a strong lineup of teams this season.''

The WAC's reputation for revved-up offense, which was forged back in the days when LaVell Edwards' high-flying BYU teams dominated the league, hasn't changed much.

Five of the last 11 national rushing champions came from the WAC, including Nevada's Chance Kretschmer last season, and Carr _ the top pick in the NFL draft by the Houston Texans _ left behind a solid contingent of quarterbacks, including Louisiana Tech's Luke McCown and Boise State's Ryan Dinwiddie.

A capsule look at the WAC, in predicted order of finish:

BOISE STATE: Ended Fresno State's unbeaten season last fall with a remarkable victory at Bulldog Stadium. Boise State was selected first in the preseason media poll and lost just 11 lettermen from last season's 8-4 team.

FRESNO STATE: Though the Bulldogs play the NCAA's longest season this fall, starting on Aug. 23 at Wisconsin and ending Dec. 5 at Louisiana Tech, they are expected to adjust quite well to life after Carr. Jeff Grady will get the first chance to throw to a talented receiving corps that includes Bernard Berrian, Marque Davis and Jeremy Johnson.

LOUISIANA TECH: Coach Jack Bicknell has high hopes for his team to defend the conference title it won in its first WAC season. McCown, who threw for 3,665 yards and 29 TDs last season, lost his top two receivers and three starting offensive linemen to graduation, but running back Joe Smith returns.

HAWAII: In his fourth season, coach June Jones has built a team that should contend, even after the departures of QB Nick Rolovich and WR Ashley Lelie. Sophomore Timmy Chang is expected to excel in Jones' four-wideout offense, and the defense looks mostly solid.

NEVADA: Kretschmer, the former calf-roper and walk-on who rushed for 1,732 yards as a freshman, will be the focus of every defense facing the Wolf Pack.

SMU: Should improve under new coach Phil Bennett, the former defensive coordinator at Kansas State.

TULSA: Seems much improved from last season's 1-10 squad.

UTEP, RICE: Both are rebuilding.

SAN JOSE STATE: A foreboding schedule _ 13 games in 13 weeks, but just four home games _ could be lightened by the inspirational return of Neil Parry, who lost part of his right leg to amputation after he broke it during a game against UTEP in 2000. Wearing a special prosthesis, Parry expects to play on special teams at some point in the season's first few weeks.