Just 3 short weeks. That is all that separates us from kickoff. Now if we can just get past the dog days of August, everything will be fine. In this edition of our conference previews, we come to the Mountain West, the strongest of the mid-major leagues. To see how the forecast went last year, follow this link.
The Mountain West: A League in Flux
From the beginning, the Mountain West was basically a stronger version of the WAC, or if you prefer, the WAC on steroids. Its 8 original members, Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Wyoming had all been members of the WAC. Some had been in the WAC since the beginning (BYU, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming were founding members in 1962), while others were of the Johnny Come Lately variety (UNLV joined in 1996 when the WAC ballooned to 16 teams). So its no surprise that the Mountain West has again poached the WAC's best, with Boise State joining the conference in time for the 2011 season, replacing outgoing BYU and Utah. The Mountain West will have even more former WAC teams in 2012 when Fresno State, Hawaii, and Nevada join up. The Mountain West has made itself the preeminent mid-major league, but looking back on its brief history, its clear there have been two distinct periods in Mountain West history.
The Mountain West has been around for 12 seasons. From 1999-2004, they were an 8-team league. Prior to the 2005 football season, TCU joined, giving the conference 9 teams. Not that the conference intended it this way, but the Mountain West played 6 seasons with 8 members and 6 seasons with 9 members. Comparing each team's cumulative league record among both periods yields some interesting results. Results I'm sure many college football fans had forgotten.In the period from 1999-2004, the team with the best record in the Mountain West was Colorado State, a team that is just 2-14 over the past 2 seasons in league play. The Rams were still peaking under legendary coach Sonny Lubick when the Mountain West was formed in 1999. They won or shared 3 of the first 4 league titles and posted just a single losing conference record in the first 6 years of the Mountain West's existence. Utah, buoyed by a combined 13-1 league mark in 2003 and 2004, that coincidentally made household names out of Alex Smith and Urban Meyer, was a close second. New Mexico, which reeled off 3 consecutive 5-2 league marks from 2002-2004 was also a league power. Air Force floundered around the middle of the pack and Wyoming brought up the rear. So, what happened when the league expanded to Fort Worth?The New Kid in Town, TCU, promptly ran roughshod over the conference, losing just 7 league games in 6 season. And what of former league overlord Colorado State? The Rams fell on hard times, winning 5 league games in 2005, but failing to finish with more league wins than losses since. BYU finished a close second to TCU, winning a pair of conference titles, but failing to go unbeaten overall and missing out on the bounty that BCS bowl appearances brought Utah (2008) and TCU (2009 and 2010). Another former contender, New Mexico, also fell on hard times, winning just 4 times in their last 24 league games.
The Mountain West will go through a one-year transition period in 2011 with a pair of mid-major national powers (Boise State and TCU) on board. However, in 2012, TCU will leave for the greener pastures of the Big East and the league will add the aforementioned trifecta of WAC schools to replace the Horned Frogs. When 2012 gets here, a new era will dawn for the Mountain West. The 3 teams that led them to mid-major notoriety (BYU, TCU, and Utah) will be gone, 2 of them to conferences with automatic BCS bowl tie-ins and another to conference independence. What will the next 6 years of Mountain West football bring? One can't be sure, but with 3 overlords departing and only one ascending to take their place, there will be ample opportunity for a team like Air Force, or Nevada, or San Diego State to become part of the ruling class in the Mountain West.