The Mountain West Conference is in the midst of a fairly significant face lift that will reshape the college football landscape.
Gone will be conference stalwarts Utah and Brigham Young University, two schools that have been with the conference from the beginning, and both dating their rivalries within the conference back to the old Western Athletic Conference that featured most of the current MWC teams.
Added will be football power Boise State, along with WAC upper-echelon teams Fresno State and Nevada.
For a brief period of time, before the impending loss of Utah and BYU, the MWC was poised to become a stronger conference than at least one of the Bowl Championship Series conferences, perhaps two. Based on the strength at the top, the MWC would have easily vaulted the Big East, and been very close to the Atlantic Coast Conference in overall football quality.
But, alas, what is good for one conference in terms of raiding teams from other conferences is also good for another. The Pac-12 picks up a very good school in Utah, and BYU is likely hoping to move into the Big 12, or another power conference, in future years with independence meant as a brief stop on that road.
With their fan base and history, they’ll get the bid they covet soon enough. While I hold out a small amount of hope that BYU will think better of independence and return to the fold, that now seems unlikely.
So, where does this leave the Mountain West Conference? Basically, it leaves the conference very close to where it is at today as a very good conference that competes favorably with the weaker BCS conferences. The additions basically cancel out the departures.
Right now and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the two best non-BCS teams in the country are Texas Christian and Boise State. They have been consistently good for the past decade and have already started developing a rivalry after splitting bowl games in the past two years.
They are also two of the best coached teams in the country and as long as Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson stay in place, they will remain national powers. These two teams give the Mountain West strength at the top to rival most of the BCS leagues, although each will have one loss guaranteed each season now that they'll meet in conference play.
The problem, at least for the moment, is that the Mountain West will go from a big three to a big two league. The conference would benefit significantly if one of the middle echelon teams can step forward to become a consistent power to create a trio at the top.
The conference will get stronger down the middle with the changes. Conference newcomers Fresno State and Nevada, who hope to move into the conference as early as next year pending a legal challenge, will join Air Force to form the league’s middle echelon.
Air Force, under Troy Calhoun, will remain an just below the upper-echelon teams in the conference. He is an excellent coach and will keep the Falcons competitive. Last year, the Falcons lost to TCU and Utah by a field goal, falling to the Utes in overtime. Historically, they have performed fairly well against the better conference teams with the exception of Brigham Young, who had been a thorn in their side for decades.
Fresno State is a great addition. It is a quality program that has some history with many of the teams in the league. The Bulldogs were briefly part of the old WAC before realignment and Fresno was the one team that I wish would have been included as part of the Mountain West when it was first created. They have a great fan base and history of fielding quality teams.
Nevada is also a quality program and has performed well in the WAC. It remains to be seen how effectively they will compete in the new conference, since they have little history against the current MWC teams. But, I would suspect they would comfortably move into the middle tier of teams.
They also provide a second team from Nevada, which adds a conference rivalry element with UNLV. Geographically, both teams are good adds.
The addition of the three top Western Athletic Conference teams to the MWC essentially wrecks the WAC, which is unfortunate. It is hard to conceive a scenario in which the conference survives, at least in a football sense. Somehow, I don’t think raiding the Sun Belt is what they have in mind.
The MWC currently has five teams in the bottom echelon, which is its biggest problem. Colorado State, Wyoming, UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State have struggled in recent years. Each has shown flashes of promise, but have been unable to sustain any level of consistency.
In the early season, none of these teams have shown much promise, with the possible exception of San Diego State. New Mexico’s 72-0 drubbing by Oregon was particularly depressing, although Oregon may be a national championship contender.
What the MWC most needs is for a couple of these teams to make real strides forward to strengthen the conference. The most likely candidate is Colorado State, who has shown that they can be a consistently good team over a long period of time. During the 1990s, CSU was a very good football team under Sonny Lubick, one of the best in the conference.
Their fall was surprising when it happened, and has lasted for a longer time than I expected. They have the potential to climb back to respectability. None of the other teams has had a sustained run of good football, although each has had a few good years here and there.
So, how does this leave the MWC in relation to the BCS conferences? That is the real question.
Clearly, the MWC does not matchup to the SEC, Big 12 or the Big 10.
I would rank the MWC slightly ahead of the Big East based on their strength at the top. The Big East does not have two teams at the moment that matchup with TCU and Boise State. Their top football schools this year are Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Cincinnati, and West Virginia, not exactly a murderer’s row of football power schools. Pittsburgh dropped a game to current MWC power Utah while Cincinnati dropped to future MWC school Fresno State.
It is not inconceivable that all of the top Big East teams could finish outside the top 25, although conference play will probably push a couple of them into the lower half of these rankings.
The Big East has a bit more depth in the middle, but not much. And they are also burdened with a few bottom feeders at the moment.
I would rank the MWC slightly behind the ACC, who also boasts a few respectable schools. But the conference is off to a disastrous start and most of their marquee names have not done much lately.
Where the ACC is stronger than the MWC is at the bottom. There are very few football disasters in the conference. The same can be said for the Pac-10, a conference that has rarely featured more than three power teams in any given year, usually USC plus two more. The bottom line is that the MWC compares very favorably with the weaker of the BCS conferences.
If the MWC was given BCS status, their bottom feeders would improve with increased revenues and better recruiting and the conference would have the potential to become even better.
The conference has earned the right to be added as a BCS conference with an automatic BCS berth. It is the right thing to do and should get done.