Flash back to the summer of 2009: The previous season, Utah had just ambushed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to wrap up an undefeated record, TCU had turned in its first top-10 finish in 50 years and BYU had won ten games to give the Mountain West a third team in the final polls for the first time. And with the Bowl Championship Series wrapping up negotiations for a new television deal with ESPN, the MWC was in the midst of an extended campaign to use its success as a springboard to a more prominent, lucrative seat at the table. When its efforts (inevitably) failed, it looked for a brief moment in early July like the league was actually considering walking away from the ESPN deal in protest.
That was then. Two years later, BYU and Utah are both on their way out of the conference, and TCU will be hot on their heels after the upcoming season. With Boise State's arrival this fall and the addition of fellow WAC refugees Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada next year, almost half of the Mountain West's ten-team lineup in 2012 will be different than it was in 2008, or just last year. But that isn't going to stop it from renewing its fight for a bigger slice of the pie while the numbers are (more or less) on its side:
The Mountain West Conference almost certainly won't be able to qualify for automatic membership into college football's most lucrative club for 2012 and 2013, according to data obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
But it's close enough that it likely will have a strong case to gain automatic entry into the Bowl Championship Series for those two years under a special appeal next year to the BCS presidential oversight committee.
BCS rules allows for appeals by leagues that come close to qualifying. The MWC currently is faring better in two of the criteria than one league — the Big East — that already does get an automatic annual BCS berth. Because of that, the committee likely would face pressure to grant an appeal by the MWC, especially as the U.S. Justice Department considers whether the BCS is violating federal antitrust law.
The appeal would be heard by the BCS presidential oversight committee, which consists of presidents and chancellors from 12 universities, including San Jose State, Penn State and Notre Dame. The committee would vote on it next year if the MWC came close but didn't qualify.
First some background on what it takes to qualify as "a BCS conference." Technically, all Bowl Subdivision leagues are "BCS conferences," since they all signed the contract. But since 2004, automatic entry at the conference level is determined by three factors, applied to all 11 FBS leagues over a given four-year period:
a) The average ranking of the conference's highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings;
b) The average final ranking of all conference teams in the six BCS computer polls; and
c) The conference's score in something called the Adjusted Top-25 Performance Ranking, a calculation based on the number of teams it places in the top 25 of the final BCS standings relative to its size and the specific rankings of those teams.
Conferences that finish among the top six in all three categories get automatic bids for their conference champions, and the full payout — last year, that was $21.2 million for each of the "Big Six" conferences — that goes with it. Conferences that don't earn automatic bids are forced to earn at-large bids (which essentially require a conference champion to go undefeated in the regular season), accept a significantly smaller payout and then divvy that share up with the other have-not leagues.
So it's no secret why the Mountain West wants out of "Have Not" purgatory, and the most recent numbers show it's close to getting there: Through the first three years of the 2008-11 evaluation period, the MWC ranks fourth according to requirements a) (average BCS ranking of its top-ranked team) and fifth according to c) (adjusted Top-25 performance), the two criteria that restrict their scope to the conference frontrunners. It's only according to the third criteria, the only one that measures the entire membership from top to bottom, that its perennial doormats — New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming — leave it wanting: The MWC currently ranks seventh under requirement b), and even though its numbers will include the stellar resumés of both TCU and Boise State, it's a distant enough seventh there that it would take "nothing short of a miracle" this fall to overcome the gap, according to BCS analyst Jerry Palm. "It's mathematically unrealistic," Palm told the Union-Tribune, "if not impossible."
It is possible, however, that the conference will get the full and fair hearing upon appeal that it did not get in 2009. In the first place, one of the current "Big Six" leagues, the Big East, will likely have to make the same appeal: It ranks seventh according to the first criteria (the average rank of its highest-ranked team) and is hanging on at sixth according to the other two — and unlike the ACC*, it doesn't have a specific tie-in to any of the four BCS bowls to take it out of the line of fire. In the second, with the Justice Department and politicians of all stripes perennially threatening to bear down on its more monopolistic aspects, a full-fledged promotion for a Have-Not conference would be the strongest argument yet that the system allows for some upward mobility.
On the other hand, with BYU and Utah permanently out of the mix, the Mountain West's official numbers will also be anchored by a team that hadn't played in the conference before the 2011 season (Boise State) and a team that won't play in the conference after 2011 (TCU). If there is a time for the MWC to give the campaign everything it's got, now is the time.
- - -
* The ACC also finishes outside of the top six according to the third criteria, but is almost certainly not in danger of losing its automatic bid because of its tie-in with the Orange Bowl.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.