Sorting out the haves from the have-nots in the wake of this spring's conference-expansion brinksmanship isn't as easy an exercise as it appears. Even the so-called "winners" rarely got as much as they were hoping for; perhaps the better groupings would be "satisfied" and "disappointed." If that's the case, then the Mountain West Conference surely belongs in the latter category.
The MWC has had a hungry eye on automatic qualification to the BCS ever since Utah became the first "BCS-buster" in college football history, earning a Fiesta Bowl bid with an 11-0 record in 2004 and subsequently laying waste to Big East champion Pittsburgh. As more Mountain West champions seized BCS berths in following years -- Utah again in 2008, humiliating Nick Saban and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, TCU last year -- hopes increased that the MWC might be able to pass another conference, most likely the Big East, and work its way into the top six conferences based on the BCS's criteria for automatic qualification.
Those hopes swelled dramatically as the Pac-10 appeared poised to field-strip the Big XII earlier this month; had the Big XII lost basically its entire South Division to the Pac-10, one AQ conference would've effectively been wiped off the map, with the Mountain West the obvious choice to take their place as an automatic qualifier. For that matter, the MWC could've solidified their case by snapping up some of the Big XII's left-behinds (i.e. Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State). When the smoke cleared, however, not only was the Big XII still standing -- with the Texas-Oklahoma power axis intact, despite the loss of two other teams -- but the Mountain West had had one of its best teams poached: The Pac-10 swiped Utah (along with Colorado of the Big XII) to expand to 12 and implement a conference-championship game. In the end, the MWC had to bring Boise State over from the WAC just to hold steady at nine teams.
There's a case to be made that exchanging Utah for Boise State is a 1:1 trade, but it still complicates the MWC's quest to earn AQ status. The BCS's rules for qualification state that "results from the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 regular seasons" will be the determining factor in evaluating the fitness of a seventh AQ conference, but there's an ominous footnote stating that "The computations will be made according to the conference's membership on Dec. 4, 2011." That means the MWC will get to count Boise State's achievements as its own -- the Broncos officially join the conference on July 1 of next year -- but probably not Utah's, as the Utes are scheduled to begin Pac-10 play right around the same time.
As far as the MWC is concerned at the moment, that makes no difference with respect to the BCS's first criterion ("the ranking of the highest-ranked team in the final BCS Standings each year"), as they're effectively trading Utah's sixth-place finish in the final BCS rankings of 2008 for Boise State's sixth-place finish in '09. They will, however, take a small hit in the third, the "Top 25 Performance Rating" that awards points based on how many teams finished in the top 25 of the final BCS rankings and where they ended up.
And they'll still be just as hamstrung in the second criterion, "the final regular-season rankings of all conference teams in the computer rankings used by the BCS each year." It's no secret to anyone that the MWC has been a top-heavy league for a while now, with a lot of dead weight at the bottom -- for every Utah or TCU there's a UNLV, San Diego State, or New Mexico -- and it would've been nice to have both Utah and Boise State on hand to dilute those bottom-dwelling teams' negative effect. It might have been even nicer to keep Utah, keep Boise State, and add a couple other promising teams from the mid-major ranks -- say, Houston and Nevada -- to push the league's bell curve further forward and add a money-making conference-title game in the process. The MWC elected to kibosh any further expansion efforts, though, after Utah's departure set them back at nine teams.
All is not lost for the MWC's ambitions, of course: The math still looks OK, mostly, for the league with respect to the BCS's qualifying conditions -- for a couple of the criteria, at least -- and will only get better if Boise, TCU, and BYU continue to win at their present paces. And to hear many pundits tell it, Dan Beebe's 11th-hour effort to save the Big XII only postponed its collapse for a few more years, meaning we could be having this same conversation -- and MWC could once again be licking its chops -- in 2014 or '15. For right now, though, the fact that the Mountain West could bring in the nation's winningest program of the 2000s and still not be appreciatively closer to the BCS mountaintop has to rank as a frustration for the league and its devoted (and frequently powerful) fans. It's fair to expect MWC teams to continue earning BCS bids, which one day may even have the "at-large" modifier taken off of them -- but the Great Realignment Missile Crisis of 2010 will still seem, in retrospect, like a missed opportunity.
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Matt Hinton is on vacation this week.