Friday, July 15, 2011

Debriefing: Evolving Mountain West still defined by clash of the titans

The least you need to know about the Mountain West Conference. Part of Mid-Major Week.

? Same as the old boss. The conference may resent the implications for its ongoing quest for a better seat at the BCS table, but it's hard to remember the last time the Mountain West wasn't a lopsided conference dominated by two or three teams in an entirely different class than the rest. Since TCU came aboard as the MWC's ninth member in 2005, the "Big Three" ? BYU, TCU and Utah ?combined to go 106-20 against the rest of the league and took turns hoisting the next six conference championships. (Eight, if you count Utah's back-to-back titles under Urban Meyer in 2003-04. The last time the MWC was carried by one of the "Little Six": Colorado State in 2002.) The Cougars, Horned Frogs and Utes finished in the top 25 eleven times in that span, four times in the top ten. The rest of the league appeared in the polls for a grand total of two weeks.

The number at the top is smaller this year, with Boise State's arrival from the WAC offsetting Utah and BYU's departures for the Pac-12 and independence, respectively, but the gap is as wide as ever. Boise and TCU have cut parallel courses as kingpins of the Have-Not circuit, both turning in multiple unbeaten regular seasons and BCS appearances, and both taking 23 of their last 24 conference games. TCU goes into the season with 17 straight wins in Mountain West play dating back to 2008; before its last second loss at Nevada last November, Boise had won 22 straight in the WAC, all but one by double digits.

? Actually, in this case, "they" really are against you. When the Broncos and Horned Frogs' paths cross again on Nov. 12, then, the winner is in the driver's seat not only for the Mountain West crown, but also for the at-large BCS berth the MWC champ has earned each of the last three years ?�and maybe, if the chips fall exactly right, even a spot in the BCS Championship Game. Clearly, the conference wants the winner to be Boise State.

Nothing personal against TCU. But this happens to be the Horned Frogs' last season in the conference before they hop to the Big East in 2012. It also happens to be the last season in the crucial 2008-11 BCS evaluation period, the results of which will be fed into a formula to determine which conferences get one of the coveted automatic berths in the big money bowls for their respective champions beginning in 2013. The Mountain West desperately wants to be one of those conferences, and for one time only, it gets to claim the successes of both Boise State and TCU over the 2008-11 evaluation period. Last year, however, was the start of another evaluation period, encompassing 2010-13. The MWC gets to count Boise State's record in those years as part of its own numbers, but not TCU's: The Horned Frogs' record over that span will be transferred to the Big East ? the conference whose automatic bid the Mountain West hopes to take for itself.

So the MWC did the only thing it could do: It voted to move the TCU-Boise State date from Forth Worth to Boise, where the Broncos haven't lost a regular season game in a decade, specifically to improve their chances of winning and bolstering the conference's BCS cred after this year. Good luck, Frogs!

? Falcons crest. The biggest beneficiary of the downsizing from "Big Three" to "Big Two" is Air Force, which has easily been the best of the conference's second tier under coach Troy Calhoun: Since he was hired in 2007, Air Force is 3-9 against BYU, TCU and Utah (two of those wins coming in '07) and 18-2 against everyone else. The Academy has yet to lose under Calhoun to a team that finished with fewer than eight wins.

Last year, the Falcons came within three points of upsetting Oklahoma, five points of upsetting then-undefeated Utah and two points of knocking off upstart San Diego State, which kept them from Air Force's first 10-win season since 1998. This year, an upset in South Bend on Oct. 8 could put them on the path to a double-digit win column before the end of the regular season.

? Rams on parade. Fair warning: There's a better than even chance you're going to wake up on Nov. 1, glance at the standings and see the numbers "7-1" next to Colorado State. If you do, it's not a typo. True, the Rams have only won six games combined over the last two seasons, but their non-conference schedule ?�Northern Colorado, Colorado, Utah State, San Jose State, UTEP ?�is a golden opportunity for at least four wins, and two of the first three MWC games are against bottom dwellers New Mexico and UNLV. Over the first two months, only Boise State looks like a certain loss.

The story should change in a hurry, with San Diego State, TCU and Air Force waiting down the stretch. But CSU should already be bowl-eligible by then, and coach Steve Fairchild should already be making plans to be back in Fort Collins for Year Four.

? . Via (who else?) Nike, Wyoming in unveiling nine new jersey combinations ?�at least three of which will feature the elusive brown helmet:


Considering what they're working with there, color-wise, that's probably about as much as the Pokes can hope for.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

Minki van der Westhuizen Katharine Towne Malia Jones Jennifer ODell Jenny McCarthy

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