Work in Sports
Right on schedule
Mountain West on mission to play with big boys
By Michael C. Lewis, Special to CNNSI.com
Nobody wants the Mountain West Conference to be considered among the college football elite more than the conference itself, and the fledgling league has just the plan to achieve that goal.
Play big games. Lots of them. Oh, and win.
Easier said than done, of course. But that's the best way the league knows to shed a shaky reputation that has helped keep it from locking up more than two automatic bowl berths or being taken seriously as a national player.
That goal is so important that the league directed each of its teams to strengthen its non-conference schedules, so nobody will ever go 10-2 and not be invited to a bowl game again. That happened to Wyoming when it was still in the Western Athletic Conference in 1996, and helped inspire the very notion of forming a new conference.
"We're not afraid to play the best, not in the least," said San Diego State Coach Ted Tollner.
Improving its standing in the college football hierarchy has been among the league's top priorities ever since its teams announced plans to break away from the WAC two years ago. Members were disgusted that BYU was denied an invitation into a major bowl game affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series (then the Bowl Alliance) despite its 13-1 record and No. 5 national ranking in 1996, the same year Wyoming was shut out altogether. Part of the reason, they knew, was that the Cougars and Cowboys were perceived as having played soft schedules. So aside from improving the strength of their conference schedules by leaving the weak teams of the WAC behind, the teams that formed the Mountain West abided that directive to improve their non-league games. And —- hooo, boy! —- look at what they came up with.
After going 7-5 against teams from the six BCS conferences last season, the Mountain West will play 20 of its 32 non-conference games against such competition this year. Each of the eight teams plays at least one BCS team, and several have non-conference lineups that look like Murderer's Row.
BYU, for example, opens the season in the Pigskin Classic against defending national champion Florida State, then goes on to play Virginia, Mississippi State and Syracuse. San Diego State has Arizona State, Illinois, Arizona and Oregon State on its list. Utah practically joins the Pac-10, too, taking on Arizona, Cal and Washington State to start the season. Wyoming goes on the road to play Auburn and Texas A&M.
Gone, for the most part, are the days of Murray State and Louisiana-Monroe.
Not all of the coaches think the scheduling upgrade is a great idea, however. BYU's LaVell Edwards has said the Cougars' schedule this season is too loaded, and that two big non-conference games a year is usually plenty.
MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson has agreed, to a point. While the Cougars have a schedule that nobody envies -— it came about when they were offered the FSU game long after the rest of the schedule was set —- Thompson said "the alternative is to play somebody who is not going to help you. We're looking at rankings. We're trying to propel ourselves into the top six" conferences.
To that end, even losing to top teams can be better for the league as a whole than beating weak ones.
"If you prepare to play teams like that, it keeps your game up on that level," said Wyoming quarterback Jay Stoner, who said his team benefited from losing to Tennessee in the season-opener last season. "It's good for you, even if you lose, because you experience what it takes to play at the top."
Not only do teams become accustomed to playing at a higher level, but they fare better in the computer rankings that use strength of schedule as a component in their calculations. Those rankings are an integral part of the BCS system.
And joining the BCS is the Mountain West's greatest dream.
The league even made a big deal recently about accepting an invitation to become a "non-signatory" member of the BCS for the next six years, even though it will have no more say in the BCS operations than it did last year. The agreement allows the league to have a representative present at all BCS meetings, but that rep will have no say and no vote. Still, Thompson thinks a mere presence might keep the Mountain West on the minds of the men who make the decisions at the highest level of college football.
"If the BCS ever changes and decides to add a fifth bowl game or decides to add a seventh or eighth conference, we're closer now than we were yesterday," Thompson said. "I'd rather be in the room."
Maybe one day, the rest of college football will believe they belong there.
Michael C. Lewis covers the Mountain West for the Salt Lake Tribune. His CNNSI.com conference insider appears weekly during the season.