PIGSKIN PREVIEW TAB -- WAC not lightweight

Associated Press

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.

The four teams that contended for the conference title last season are expected to be atop the standings again. Louisiana Tech, Boise State, Fresno State and Hawaii all return strong squads.


BOX; 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.

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