Mountain West Conference
by Trevor Whenham - 09/18/2008
The Mountain West Conference may not get much attention or respect, but it's certainly riding high these days. Last Saturday, four teams from the conference played Pac-10 foes. A mismatch, right? Well, yes - if you are saying that the Pac-10 was outmatched. The Mountain West not only covered all four spreads, but they won all four games outright. Included in that group was Arizona State, a team ranked No. 14 coming into their game against UNLV, and Arizona and UCLA - two teams that had shown real signs of much-needed life earlier in the season. The win over the Sun Devils was the second victory over a ranked team for the conference on the season.
Not surprisingly, people are starting to pay attention to the conference. There are four undefeated teams, and at least two - Utah and BYU - have legitimate ambitions to be the next mid-major BCS Buster. The Mountain West has three ranked teams this week. That's impressive on its own, but even more so when you consider that the Big East has just one and the Pac-10 has only two. Maybe one of those conferences should do the noble thing and give their automatic bid to the MWC this year.
It's all well and good to get excited about this conference now, but are we getting ahead of ourselves? Here's a look:
BYU - In order for a team to be successful it has to have the ability to make adjustments. If something didn't work they need to learn from it then move on. No team this year has done that better than the Cougars. They squeaked by with a one-point win at Washington, and benefited from a terrible call from the officials to get it. Instead of panicking and throwing away a promising season, the Cougars did something superhuman in practice, and came out and beat UCLA - a team that virtually everyone would have agreed at the time was better than Washington after their upset of Tennessee - 59-0. It was a stunningly dominating win (obviously), and served notice that BYU is a force.
The offense is absolutely loaded, led by QB Max Hall, the guy who threw seven TDs against UCLA. They have impressive talent in the skill positions and the line. If they can stay healthy then they are deadly. That's a big if, though. QB depth behind Hall is a big question, so they are one misstep away from potential peril. The defense is obviously able to do a thing or two right, too. The line is excellent and makes up for some issues in the secondary. Teams will be hard pressed to run effectively against the Cougars.
Their lone remaining non-conference game is against woeful Utah State, so they will be unscathed out of conference. In conference presents the same problem for them as the whole conference - every team plays every other one in the nine-team conference, so the league has the potential to cannibalize itself. Still, all that stands between BYU and a likely BCS berth is road wins at TCU and Utah. If everything plays out perfectly, their season ending showdown against the Utes could be one of the classics of this season. If it happened it would be by far the biggest game in Utah football history.
Utah - They started their season with a win over Michigan that is proving to be less impressive with each game the Wolverines play. The Utes had real issues with discipline in that game, though, so the most promising thing since has been their control of that problem. Brian Johnson, the Utah QB, is one of those guys that seems like he has been in college for about a decade - this is the guy that backed up Alex Smith. Johnson has struggled with injuries, but he is healthy and looking great. He has the tools he needs on offense, too. The defense has the opposite problem as BYU - a nice secondary, but huge questions in the front seven. The biggest problem this team faces is concentration. They have a frustrating ability to turn their brains off, like last year when they followed up a 44-6 drubbing of UCLA (a team that should never play the MWC again) by losing 27-0 to lightly-regarded UNLV. If they can keep the mistakes and costly penalties to a minimum then they could be poised for that season-ending spectacle.
TCU - The Horned Frogs are the third legitimate contender in the conference, and the one who wants to move the party from Utah to Texas. This team is fine offensively, but they are all about defense. You only need to know one thing about what they can do without the ball - they lost super studs Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz this year, yet they still have the second ranked defense in the country. This team can't keep up offensively with BYU or Utah when those teams are at their best, so it comes down to which team is smarter and luckier in the Frogs two games against those teams. Before they play those games, though, they will almost certainly have a loss on their record from playing Oklahoma on Sept. 27. On the other hand, they will be wildly motivated for that game, and a win would send ripples through the football world.
Other contenders - Air Force is undefeated, but that should end this week against Utah. They are decent, but not of the class of the others. New Mexico had a frustrating start against tough opponents before their win over Arizona, but that game proved that they are dangerous. They have experience and talent across the offense, and could catch any team that takes them lightly off guard. They aren't a threat to the top three at their best, though. UNLV was lightly regarded coming into the year, and the most likely outcome to the season was the firing of coach Mike Sanford. But then their shocking win over Arizona State happened. It was impossible to see that one coming, though they did earn a push against Utah the week before. On paper this team isn't a contender, but then they were 25-point dogs last week, so it's clearly dangerous to dismiss them.