The MWC Turns Five

Labor Day Weekend continues its stealthy approach from the horizon bringing with it a cavalcade of games as the frenzy of the 2003 college football season is unleashed. The Mountain West Conference enters its fifth campaign still thirsting for the widespread recognition it has sought since 1999.

MWC Commish, Craig ThompsonPRETENDERS OR CONTENDERS? Head coaches and athletic directors of MWC institutions have uttered a plaintive cry bewailing inadequate television exposure, the need to play games on "off-peak" days, kickoff times more befitting brunch than football and a second class status in the eyes of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) where the parade of post-season bowl games is concerned. Some of these complaints are legitimate while others are groundless.

Delving into the composite records of the eight MWC teams over the past four seasons helps to shed light on the areas in which the conference's constituents need to improve in order to win an increased measure of acclaim from a football-maddened nation.

A SONNY FORECAST. Since the MWC opened for business in 1999, the league has had the distinct look of CSU and CSU coach Sonny Lubickthe Seven Dwarves. Another chapter in the same saga may be set to unfold this fall as every preseason publication and daily journal covering the conference has chosen Sonny Lubick's CSU Rams to win another MWC title. While CSU's consistency is a boon to the fans in Fort Collins, it could inadvertently paint the MWC as a one trick pony in the minds of college football fans living outside the mountain time zone. Variety is not only the spice of life, but an essential element in establishing the competitive legitimacy of a conference trying to heighten its identity. A seemingly unbroken string of titles garnered by one MWC team leaves college football fans scratching their heads as to whether or not the conference will ever extricate itself from the competitive rut into which it has fallen. The good and bad news for the conference is that--as its champion--CSU has represented the MWC in the Liberty Bowl in three of the past four post-seasons. Here are the composite standings for the members of the MWC since 1999 which help depict CSU's dominance.


OVERALL STANDINGS
1.CSU 35-15 .700
2.BYU 31-19 .620
3.AFA 29-19 .604
4.Utah 26-20 .565
5.UNM 22-26 .458
6.UNLV 20-27 .426
7.SDS 15-31 .326
8.Wyo 12-33 .267

The MWC teams have a combined 190-190 record, including bowl games, since the start of the 1999 season. In the Las Vegas Bowl in 1999, Utah beat Fresno State by the score of 17-16 in a game in which the Utes were favored by ten points. Southern Mississippi beat CSU, 23-17, in that year's Liberty Bowl. The Rams were favored by a single point. Marshall bested BYU in the Motor City Bowl, 21-3, and covered the two points by which it was favored.

In the 2000 post-season, UNLV won the Las Vegas Bowl by a 31-14 score over an Arkansas team which was a five point favorite. CSU won the Liberty Bowl defeating Louisville, 22-17, and covered the three point spread. Air Force rounded out an unblemished record for the MWC in bowl games that year with its 37-34 win over Fresno State in the initial Silicon Valley Classic which the Bulldogs had been favored to win by eight points.

CSU kicked off the 2001 post-season festivities for the MWC by winning the New Orleans Bowl over North Texas State in easy fashion, 45-20, and beat the twelve point spread in so doing. Utah edged Southern Cal in the Las Vegas Bowl, 10-6, in a match the Trojans had been favored to win by seven points. The MWC couldn't quite make it six straight bowl wins as BYU fell to Louisville, 28-10, in the Liberty Bowl as the Cardinals topped the two point spread they'd been asked to cover.

Last December was nothing less than a nightmare for the MWC. Start with the fact that the conference failed to be able to provide an entrant for the now defunct Seattle Bowl as only three of the conference's constituents were bowl qualified. Add to that three more losses in bowl games in which the MWC was able to place teams and the league now finds itself in the unenviable position of entering the 2003 post-season encumbered with the weight of a four game losing streak in its past four bowl appearances. UCLA beat New Mexico in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl, 27-13 and covered the 12 point line. Texas Christian flexed its considerable defensive muscle in crushing--what had previously been--a versatile CSU offense, by a 17-3 score in the Liberty Bowl for which the Rams had been installed as an eight point favorite. (A modicum of hope in 2003 for MWC fans of teams other than CSU, may be found in the fact that the Rams lost their final two games in 2002 to UNLV and TCU.) Air Force spent New Year's Eve in San Francisco on the short end of a 20-13 score against the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Falcons took no consolation from staying within the 15 point spread which had favored coach Frank Beamer's squad.

Just as CSU has led the pack in overall standings among MWC teams since 1999, so too, have the Rams forged their way to the top in composite conference play spanning the past four football seasons. Here are the league standings for the period from 1999 to the present.

MWC STANDINGS ONLY
1.CSU 22-6 .786
2.BYU 18-10 .643
3.UNM 15-13 .536
3.Utah 15-13 .536
5.AFA 14-14 .500
6.SDS 12-16 .429
7.UNLV 11-17 .393
8.Wyo 5-23 .179

Falcon lossesAFA fans should note the Falcons have lost an alarming number of games to SDS, UNLV and Wyoming--the three teams with worse overall MWC records than theirs since the formation of the conference. Air Force has lost twice to Wyoming (at home in 1999, on the road in 2002), twice to UNLV (on the road in 2000, at home in 2001) and once to SDS (at home in 2002). That three of these losses to MWC bottom feeders have occurred in Falcon Stadium should be unnerving to Falcons' fans, coaches and players. Since the beginning of MWC play in no year has Air Force swept SDS, UNLV and Wyoming--the three teams with worse composite conference records than the Falcons. The record shows that 1997 is the last time Air Force defeated UNLV, SDS and Wyoming in the same season. Until such time as the Falcons are able to beat this triumvirate of mediocrity they cannot be considered as serious contenders for the league title.


Couple this worrisome trend with the fact that since the inception of the MWC, Air Force has lost three of four games to New Mexico and there is ample reason for Falconatics to temper their enthusiasm for the coming season with a measure of concern. The Falcons' lone victory against the Lobos in the past four seasons came last year in Falcon Stadium. For those who don't fully recall the game let me remind them that AFA did not secure victory until a pass was successfully defended in the Falcons' end zone on a fourth down play in overtime. It was hardly a one-sided affair. The Falcons had no answer all afternoon for Quincy Wright who shredded the defense on 25 carries for 152 yards. The Falcons countered Wright's moves with Leotis Palmer's stellar 115 yard, 1TD rushing and 70 yards, with 1TD passing, performance.

While AFA has a better overall record than does UNM since the inception of the MWC, it is the Lobos who own the better conference record since 1999. Both teams are loaded with returning starters this year--particularly in the offensive line. The teams' battle in Albuquerque on November 15th is likely to have a major impact on which MWC teams go to what bowls in the post-season. The last two trips to the Land of Enchantment have been debacles for the Falcons. In 1999, after taking a two TD lead early in the second quarter, Air Force authored a come-from-ahead, 33-28, season ending loss. In 2001 it was even uglier for the Falcons. A week after being torched in Provo by a 63-33 score at the hands of BYU, Air Force played a second consecutive conference road game and was thoroughly embarrassed, 52-33, by a New Mexico team that proved the previous year's win in Falcon Stadium, in 2000, had been no fluke.

AFA fans may have their blood boil when BYU is the Falcons' opponent of the week. There may be understandably heated rivalries with neighboring CSU and Wyoming on which to focus. On a competitive basis since the formation of the MWC the team closest to AFA in terms of ability and success in league play has been New Mexico. (Yes, Utah has an identical record to New Mexico's, but that's a story for another day.) In three of the past four seasons the Lobos have beaten and finished ahead of Air Force in the MWC standings. Since winning the final WAC title in 1998 before that aggregation of schools ended its ill-conceived sixteen team alliance, the Falcons have not seriously challenged for a conference title. A major factor in the Falcons' inability to mount a title run has been their failure to beat New Mexico on a regular basis.

FINDING A REMEDY. A lack of competitive balance and ludicrous non-conference game schedules are matters which must be addressed by MWC schools if the conference hopes to establish competitive balance among its members, win the plaudits of college football fans on a national basis and earn recognition from the BCS.

The MWC does nothing to raise its profile in the minds of football fans and the existing post-season czar--the BCS--by playing an unending carousel of division 1-AA milquetoast buffoons. On this front AFA is a primary offender. While the Falcons have twenty-nine wins to their credit since the start of the 1999 campaign, eight of those wins have come over rivals Army and Navy. No, I'm not suggesting that AFA disband the practice of playing their military brethren each year. However, wins over Villanova in 1999, Cal State Northridge in 2000 and Tennessee Tech in 2001 did nothing to raise the MWC's banner in the consciousness of the American football public. While I'm at it, a win over coach Fisher DeBerry's alma mater, Wofford, on opening day 2003 will do nothing to further the cause of either the AFA or the MWC.

By no means are the Falcons the sole culprits when it comes to indefensible scheduling of non-conference games. Have a look at some of the refuse on the schedules of MWC teams this fall. CSU hosts Weber State. New Mexico plays Southwest Texas State. San Diego State plays host to Eastern Washington and Samford. Gee, I'll bet that pair of games sent season ticket sales through the roof for the Aztecs. Wyoming plays Montana State.

On the other end of the scale full credit goes to BYU for its five non-conference games each of which features a readily identifiable, division 1-A, football playing school. The Cougars will tackle Georgia Tech, Southern Cal, Stanford, Boise State and Notre Dame.

Each team in the MWC has one or more bona fide division 1-A teams on its non-conference schedule, but only BYU doesn't have a designated, non-conference patsy for a Homecoming or Parents' Weekend game. If the MWC yearns for legitimacy then it needs to put an end to the practice of scheduling games against division 1-AA teams. San Diego State is playing two such games this season. A conference cannot simultaneously bemoan the lack of notoriety it has in the minds of the football public, pollsters and the BCS while turning a blind eye toward the continued practice of substandard, noncompetitive scheduling by its constituents.

Enacting and enforcing a policy which allows only division 1-A teams to be part of an MWC team's non-conference schedule will raise the competitive level of play amongst the league's constituents. There are a number of benefits which will ensue from the implementation of such a policy. Season ticket sales will increase, athletic budgets will become more robust, student-athletes seeking the highest caliber of competition will apply in increased numbers to league schools and the BCS may finally consider the MWC's inclusion in its post-season party.

Fans of the MWC may rail against the seeming injustice of the league's exclusion from BCS affiliated bowl games. Based on the performance of the conference's teams over the past four seasons the exclusion has been warranted and well merited.

AFA, BYU, CSU and New Mexico seem to be the picks to finish in the top half of the conference this year.
The Falcons don't play a schedule this fall which merits BCS bowl consideration. Non-conference wins over the University of North Texas and Northwestern will hardly capture the fancy of pollsters.

CSU needs to beat Colorado on Labor Day Weekend. Pursuant to such a victory, the Rams will need the Buffaloes to have an impressive season to make the Rams' victory that much more significant in the eyes of BCS moguls. In truth, the Rams probably need a perfect season to entertain realistic hopes of rising high enough in various polls to generate a problem at BCS headquarters. If you keep in mind the Rams lost at home to UNLV last season, then it's fair to question CSU's ability to focus on the task at hand, namely, producing the requisite undefeated season for the purpose of capturing the attention of the BCS.

BYU certainly plays the league's most attractive schedule this season, but to gain a BCS bowl bid the Cougars would need unrealistic performances by a defense which seems ill-suited to the task before it, particularly in light of the road games it faces at USC and Notre Dame.

New Mexico has a wealth of talent returning on offense and defense, but victories over Southwest Texas State, New Mexico State and Utah State aren't likely to impress anyone with enough clout to extend an invitation to a first tier bowl game.

Unless CSU produces the season of a lifetime, the MWC sits poised to enter a season in which there is no realistic hope for one of its own to play with such brilliance so as to distance itself from the muck and mire of teams playing in the shadows tangential to the spotlight's glare of BCS affiliated bowl games.


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