No Respect

Fifth out of nine. That's what the rest of the league expects from the Cowboys in 2007. What do we expect? Well, that goes without saying. Still, with all the returning talent and everything we showed in conference play last season, you have to ask yourself, "Where's the love?"

I know it's been more than three weeks since Mountain West Conference pollsters picked the Pokes to finish two spots worse than they ended last season, so I may be kicking a dead horse here. Still, I can't seem to get over what seems like downright media elitism, and I thought a column might be the best way to blow off some steam.

The whole thing just bugs me. Take 2004, for example. Picked last in preseason polling, the Cowboys finished in the top half of the league and slapped the faces of disrespecting pollsters with perhaps their biggest win this decade, a 24-21 victory over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Media voters rewarded us with their highest preseason projection in the history of the conference the next year (third place). A bit of an honor, yes, but when Wyoming struggled down the stretch in ‘05, pollsters were quick to drop the Pokes to the bottom rung of the league again, picking Wyoming dead last for the second time in three years. Despite some quarterback problems, we still managed to finish third in the league in 2006—six spots higher than sports pundits said we should have.

Don't get me wrong. It's not fair to expect perfection out of these voters, and we all know they get their picks wrong every year. What bothers me is that in the end, these people's seemingly meaningless off-season guesses may actually matter a whole lot more than any of us would like to think they do—which doesn't bode well for this year's squad.

Take the words of Provo Daily Herald writer Darnell Dickson, for example.

"Coaches and players like to scoff at the idea that any of it (preseason voters' various predictions) matters," he writes. "Oh, it matters, and don't let anyone tell you different."

"The reason it matters is because preseason predictions help to shape the opinions of the voters in the national polls, the beauty contest that passes for truth and justice in college football."

Dickson has a point—one that's possibly best illustrated by what happened to the Cowboys at the end of last season. With a tough home battle against eventual top-10 and undefeated powerhouse Boise State and two road games at BCS conference schools (Syracuse and Virginia) early in the season, the Cowboys wound up 1-4 before coaches had time to say "Karsten Sween." Playing behind the rest of the conference, record-wise, they eventually found their way back to the upper half of league standings, getting big wins over Utah, Colorado State and San Diego State at home, while edging out New Mexico and UNLV on the road. In the end, the Pokes lost just three conference games in all—one to Air Force before the quarterback change, and two more at top 25 schools TCU and BYU. But with a rough start throwing bowl voters off their trail for most of the year and the media counting them out before they ever set foot on the field in '06, the Cowboys were left home come postseason play.

The worst part may not have been the fact that the team got left out of the bowl banquet as much as the fact that other, perhaps less-deserving teams found their way into the postseason party.

"The Cowboys qualified to go to one of the MWC's four bowl games," writes Deseret Morning News reporter Dick Harmon. "(They) had a better finish in the MWC standings than New Mexico, beat the Lobos in a head-to-head matchup and had an identical record (as) the Lobos, yet the Lobos hosted their own New Mexico Bowl."

"The poll deal is predictable," Harmon continued. "It's rarely accurate and unscientific. Even elevating TCU as the favorite (in 2007) could be misleading. But the 2006 bowl snub really hurt Wyoming players, coaches and fans at the end of last season."

A second look shows there may be even more to the Pokes' '06 snub story. Four of the Cowboys' six losses came by seven points or less, with two of the games being decided in overtime. How much different would the end of the season have been, not only for Wyoming and its fans, but for the rest of the conference and the team's non-conference opponents, if the Pokes had pulled out their three early season contests against Boise State, Syracuse and Virginia? It's a question Wyoming fans have asked countless times since last December and one they pray they won't have to pose again this year.

Still, with a schedule highlighted by more tough battles with Virginia, Boise State, Ohio and TCU in the first five games of '07, Wyoming may have a hard time staying above .500 early on this year. Don't get me wrong. I think the Pokes can beat any team on their schedule, but the first half appears far more daunting than the last half.

So what happens if we lose three or four of our opening five and have to play catch-up again all year? Even if we were to win out and finish 8-4, we might not get noticed by voters until the season was practically over.

And as Dickson writes, "Many of those voters, because of the sweet (and by ‘sweet' I mean ‘crappy') Mountain West Conference television deal with CSTV, don't get to see those teams (which are picked to finish in the bottom of the league) very often during the regular season."

"What it comes down to is this," Dickson continues. "Where you start in the preseason has a profound effect on where you finish. Preseason recognition means you're in the minds of voters early and if you keep winning, good things can happen."

It's a sobering thought for Cowboys fans, and one which I would love to see the Pokes prove wrong. But when you add the "sweet" TV deal to the fact that we're already under-respected and underestimated as a program, the magic eight ball says there's a 90 percent chance that the only people outside of Wyoming watching the Cowboys this year will be the scouting teams of their upcoming opponents. Even with an 8-4 record, we'd probably have to pull teeth just to get some Ivy League all-women's college to give us an invite to the Mary Kay Maternity Bowl (which I'm 100 percent positive would not be available on pay-per-view).

And speaking of the conference TV deal, am I the only one that smells a rat here? As a Dish Network subscriber, I have access to more than 100 all day, all-the-time music and audio channels, including "Sirius Left of Center College Rock," "Hair Nation-80s Hair Bands" and the "Universo Latino-Latin Pop Mix" station, 25 arts and "public interest" channels—stations like "The Pentagon Channel" and "The Starfish Television Network"—at least three health networks, six religion stations, seven home shopping networks, four networks produced by colleges and universities I will never attend, 16 all-news channels, 17 all-movie channels, 18 all-cartoon channels, 22 learning channels and at least 128,340,753 daily hours of programming that I have absolutely no interest in ever watching, and yet I can't catch a few Mountain West Conference football games. How did we let things get to this point? I'm writing my Congressman.

In the meantime, I may have to break down and buy a local cable package that includes "The Mountain" (if that channel actually does exist [has anyone ever seen it, by the way?]), and hope like crazy that after Wyoming knocks off both TCU and BYU in War Memorial Stadium, the station's top anchor does an interview with media voters and asks them what they do to prepare for the league's preseason polls. I hope the cameraman catches them squirming in their chairs.

On a positive note, the UW coaches and players seem ready to take some disrespected frustration out on their 2007 opponents.

"We took it personally, the New Mexico Bowl taking (UNM) and not us," cornerback Michael Medina said at media days in Las Vegas last month. "We beat Utah, we beat New Mexico, finished ahead of both those schools and both those schools got taken to bowls. We're ready to strap it on, and Virginia will be the first to taste our fury."

"I wish we could move up six spots again this year," Head Coach Joe Glenn said. "Then we'd finish in first, plus one."

My thoughts exactly.

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