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2013 MWC Turnaround Team: Wyoming vs. UNLV

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Quarterback Brett Smith is back for his third season as Wyoming's starter. Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images.
Tailback Tim Cornett is one of a conference-high 19 returning starters for UNLV. Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

The question seems reasonable and simple enough: Which Mountain West Conference program that didn’t play in a 2012 bowl game will rebound and qualify for the 2013 postseason?

Only it’s not that simple.

With the additions of Utah State and San Jose State from the now-defunct Western Athletic Conference, the 2013 MWC will feature no fewer than seven programs which reached the postseason a year ago.

Meanwhile, the conference will kick off the season with six guaranteed bowl slots, meaning ... well, you can do the math.

In other words, making the jump from a bowl-less 2012 to the 2013 postseason in the conference is going to take an extraordinary leap, and even a 7-5 or 8-4 record might not be enough.

So we’ll phrase the question another way: Which MWC program that didn’t play in a 2012 bowl game will have the best chance to qualify for the 2013 postseason?

Glad you asked.

Let us debate:

The Case For Wyoming

It’s hard to make noise at any level without a talented and proven quarterback, but the Cowboys have that covered and then some with Brett Smith. The junior led the Mountain West in passing efficiency (157.7) and finished third in total offense (308.5) last season despite missing two games due to injury.

Smith also has plenty of weapons at his disposal in returning wide receivers Robert Herron, Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran, who combined for 104 receptions, 1,676 yards and 18 TDs a season ago.

Sure, the Pokes’ defense arguably was the worst in the conference, allowing 470.2 yards and 33.4 points per game in 2012, but there are seven returning starters on the defensive side, including the entire secondary, and there are several promising newcomers who will get shots at plugging the remaining gaps.

As for the schedule, three of UW's four non-conference games (Idaho, Northern Colorado and Texas State) are winnable, and fellow sub-.500 2012 MWC squads (New Mexico, Colorado State and Hawaii) comprise three-fourths of the conference home slate.

Finally, fifth-year head coach Dave Christensen has taken the Cowboys to a bowl game every other season in his four years in Laramie, and if the pattern holds, the Pokes will be bowling come the holidays.

The Case For UNLV

Don’t laugh.

Yeah, we realize coach Bobby Hauck and the Rebels have all of six wins during the last three seasons — two each year — but there are signs of a revival on the desert wind.

First, Hauck has one of the most experienced squads in the conference with 43 returning lettermen and a league-high 19 returning starters, including sophomore QB Nick Sherry and 10 starters back on defense.

Both coordinators (ex-NFL QB Timm Rosenbach on offense and Hauck’s younger brother Tim on defense) are new, but a fresh outlook and a new attitude certainly were needed in Sin City.

Meanwhile, UNLV’s schedule is one of the most favorable in the MWC. The Rebels are one of two league teams with seven home games, and none of the 12 dates has “Boise State” beside it.

Central Michigan, Western Illinois, Hawaii and New Mexico comprise one-third of the slate, and even the non-conference contests against AQ conference foes — at Minnesota and home versus Arizona — aren’t automatic losses by any means.

Don’t be shocked if the Rebels post more wins this fall than in Hauck’s first three seasons combined and save his job by becoming postseason-eligible.

The Winner

Wyoming.

To be sure, a UNLV turnaround would make for a much juicier storyline, but foreseeing the Smith-led Cowboys finish above .500 for the third time in five seasons playing in a slightly more manageable division is more feasible.

However, as aforementioned, that still might not result in a bowl bid in the suddenly-stacked MWC.