By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
Imagine being a fly on the wall in the offices of the Mountain West conference when the folks there first saw the pictures of American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco standing at a podium in front of a backdrop touting his conference as the (very) unofficial sixth “Power Conference.”
At MW HQ, surely there was a mixture of smirks, twisted smiles and surprised chuckles. Even at conference Media Days, the notion was quickly dismissed for what it is – rhetoric designed to help the AAC get a better TV rights deal, nothing more. In college football, there will continue to be a “Power Five” and a “Group of Five” for at least the next nine years, per contracts. That doesn’t mean any of those “on the outside” will stop trying to knock down the door.
Mountain West schools are not standing pat or relying on gimmicks or slogans to upgrade. Colorado State, for example, will debut a brand-new state of the art on-campus football stadium when they host Pac 12 member Oregon State in the new season’s very first game on August 26th. The spectacular new building sends a clear signal that this “G5” program has no intention of remaining a secondary player. It’s every bit the facility – and more – that many Power Five programs have. It’s a game changer.
There was a time not long ago, even after the tumultuous period of realignment between 2010 – 2013, when the MW would have been a clear cut choice as the best of the conferences not designated among the “Power Five.” That’s when Boise State was beating Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl and the MW’s non-conference record – including games against Power Five schools – was north of .500. That’s not been the case in more recent seasons.
Last season, Western Michigan from the lightly regarded Mid-American Conference earned the coveted “New Year’s Six” bowl slot, gaining a Cotton Bowl bid. MW schools have not been in that mix since Boise State’s latest Fiesta Bowl triumph. San Diego State has won the MW title the past two seasons, but wasn’t close to getting into the New Years Bowl discussion. (At the end of last season however, the Aztecs did beat up on AAC power Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl, fwiw.)
The upcoming 2017 season offers CSU, Boise State, San Diego State and many G5 schools and conferences another chance to step up and prove they belong with the big boys. For Mountain West teams, that means winning big games on big stages – as they were doing a few seasons ago – AND winning games against Group of Five conference members that MW teams should win.
After christening their new stadium against the Beavers, the Rams jump right into the Rocky Mountain Showdown against another Pac 12 foe, in-state rival Colorado. Two weeks later, it’s a trip to Alabama to face the SEC behemoth Crimson Tide. Taking the two winnable Pac 12 match ups and making a decent showing in Tuscaloosa would be a huge boost for the school and the conference.
Conference pride doesn’t rest on the Rams. Boise State will tangle with Pac 12 member Washington State, host Atlantic Coast Conference foe Virginia and visit former MW power BYU. They too, could help elevate their conference. Defending champ San Diego State has a trip to Arizona State as well as hosting Stanford in a couple more MW – Pac 12 match ups; Air Force goes back to Ann Arbor to face Big 10 power Michigan; defending Mountain Division champ Wyoming also travels to Big 10 country when they face Iowa…and two weeks later the Pokes host Oregon.
There are roughly a dozen of those “sacrificial lamb”/money games for MW schools (probably including CSU at ‘Bama and AFA at Michigan) where the outcome isn’t really in doubt going in. Any close calls or upsets would simply be a nice bonus.
What would send the right message to the rest of the G5 (and beyond) would be for Boise State to go 3-0 against their marquee foes, Wyoming and San Diego State to each split their two, and of course, the Rams win both against their early season Pac 12 competition. That’d be a start.
More importantly, the Mountain West needs to not only perform well, but potentially dominate games against other Group of Five schools: Nevada vs. Toledo, SDSU vs. Northern Illinois and New Mexico vs. Tulsa among them. Plus, there are a pair of opening games – Boise State hosting Troy and San Jose State hosting South Florida – that are really big G5 match-ups. Both those opponents have been mentioned as dark horse candidates for that all important New Year’s Six bowl game. It would also behoove the MW schools to win the majority of six games against conference turncoat BYU.
Remember, the team chosen as the New Year’s Six participant doesn’t have to be unbeaten. They just have to be the highest ranked conference champion. That means that if some MW teams have a good non-conference performance followed by a well played and competitive conference season, the winner of the MW could get that New Year’s Day assignment and return the conference to the top of the very unofficial Group of Five power rankings.
Then we can sit back and wait and see what kind of pre-season logo gimmick the folks in the MW home office come up with for next summer, just for kicks.