The Mountain West is a conference in flux.
This year, it welcomes Boise State, but is also giving conference stalwart Texas Christian a swan song before it heads to the Big East.
Gone are Utah and BYU.
Next year, Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada join the conference, creating a 10-team league for football which—even as Texas A&M’s imminent departure from the Big 12 looms in the world of college athletics—hopes to be the standard for the Mountain West for the foreseeable future.
All of this is in hopes that the conference receives automatic qualifying status and receives an automatic bid into the BCS each year.
This upcoming season—which begins this weekend with high-profile Mountain West games (Boise State versus Georgia, TCU versus Baylor)—will be the final in a four-year process that will determine whether or not the MW achieves its ultimate goal—BCS status.
“All of the Mountain West teams need to perform well,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It is important not only that our highest-rated team or teams finish in the Top 25, as they have each of the past three years, but that all eight institutions contribute towards a high conference average ranking.”
If the league wants (or needs) high ranking teams, it has got them.
Boise State and TCU are both ranked in the top 25 preseason AP and Coaches Polls. Air Force is receiving votes in both polls as well.
And the Broncos—if they run the table—can do something no non-AQ team has ever done—go to the BCS title game.
Boise State is ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll and No. 7 in the Coaches Poll (which is included in the BCS rankings). And its inclusion in the Mountain West this year is being heralded on all sides.
The Broncos are the favorite to win the conference in their first year and placed seven players on the MW’s preseason all-conference team—the most of any team in the conference.
Air Force and TCU were second with four players each on the all-conference team.
It may be a new conference, but Boise State still feels the heat of being the favorite.
“We just expect that every week,” Broncos senior quarterback Kellen Moore said at the Mountain West media day in July. “We expect everyone to bring their best shot and best game plan. We prepare for that and we’re excited week in and week out. We know it will be challenging with the new opponents and we’re looking forward to it.”
But Boise State isn’t the only team trying to make noise.
TCU is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, two consecutive BCS appearances and returns with what is probably the toughest defense in the nation.
Air Force returns 14 starters from a team that went 9-4 last season, including quarterback Tim Jefferson. Those 14 returning starters are the most head coach Troy Calhoun’s tenure with the Falcons.
And then there’s San Diego State, who is coming of its first bowl victory in 12 seasons. The Aztecs also went 9-4 last year and return quarterback Ryan Lindley—who threw for 3,830 yards—and running back Ronnie Hillman, who was named the conference’s freshman of the year last season.
With such a tough slate, Boise State may not leave conference play unscathed.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Broncos head coach Chris Peterson told the Casper Star-Tribune.
Optimistic might be the key word for everyone in the conference. While teams may want to take down Boise State, and undefeated Broncos team may give the conference what it needs to become a member of the BCS elite.
That is, after all, what the Mountain West has been trying to gain for years—respect and entrance into the highly lucrative adult’s table known as the BCS.
The conference is in flux. We won’t know where it settles until after January.
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