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What is a Mountain West Championship Worth?

Fotodog is wondering why the early season bowl matchups have not been competitive. Similarly, Sunday Morning Quarterback has asked whether the Mountain West is that good.

While I believe that B.Y.U.'s and T.C.U.'s resumes are relevant when judging their respective 11-2 ledgers, we must at least pause to consider whether we have underestimated the Mountain West. For my part, I didn't believe the M.W.C. would be strongest non-B.C.S. league and partisans of the conference were decrying its sorry state earlier this season, but those reports of the league's demise may have been premature.

Contrary to popular belief, Mountain West football didn't fold up its tents and disappear after Nancy Meyer defected to Gainesville.

Let us, therefore, put aside our East Coast bias and give the best mid-major conference its due. How good is the Mountain West?

At a minimum, I believe we might safely say, "Good enough that its champion ought to be playing later than December 21." The Cougars' Las Vegas Bowl victory took place a day before Troy's New Orleans Bowl win, two days before Tulsa's appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl, five days before Central Michigan's and Middle Tennessee's showdown in the Motor City Bowl, 10 days before Nevada's scheduled date in the MPC Computers Bowl, and 17 days before conference runners-up Ohio (Ohio) and Southern Miss will take the field in the GMAC Bowl. Surely, Brigham Young deserves better than that.

At the other extreme, though, is it fair to claim that the Mountain West deserves an automatic bid to the B.C.S., now that two additional major bowl berths have been added? This year's champion, B.Y.U., won 11 games and beat Oregon convincingly, but the Cougars also lost on the road against Arizona and Boston College. Last year's champion, T.C.U., won 11 games and opened the season with a surprising upset of Oklahoma, but the Horned Frogs also lost to S.M.U. and won a three-point ballgame over Iowa State in the Houston Bowl on New Year's Eve.

In 2004, of course, the Mountain West hit its high water mark when Utah posted a 12-0 ledger that included regular-season wins over Texas A&M, Arizona, and North Carolina, followed by a 35-7 demolition of Big East co-champion Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. Prior to that, however, a December 31 date in the Liberty Bowl awaited the first-place finisher in the Mountain West, as the Utes' 10-win 2003 championship season yielded a win over Southern Miss in Memphis, Colorado State's 10-win 2002 title campaign produced a loss there to future M.W.C. mate Texas Christian, and Brigham Young's 12-win 2001 league-winning season culminated in a New Year's Eve trip to Graceland accompanied by an 18-point setback suffered at the hands of Louisville.

Contrary to what William Faulkner may have told you, folks sometimes go to Memphis for such perfectly honorable and legitimate purposes as playing a football game.

Along the way, there were some wins over B.C.S. conference teams, as the Cougars defeated California and Mississippi State in 2001, the Rams got the better of Colorado and Virginia in 2002, and the Utes claimed victories over California and Oregon in 2003. Including bowl games, each of the last six Mountain West Conference champions has beaten at least one B.C.S. conference team, five of them have beaten at least two such opponents, and one of those conference champions defeated opponents from the A.C.C., Big East, Big 12, and Pac-10.

As is true of every conference, the cellar-dwellers in the Mountain West are not competitive, either within their league or outside of it, and a valid case may be made for the proposition that the worst teams in the M.W.C. are weaker than those in many, and maybe most, of the B.C.S. leagues . . . although it is tough to imagine that the weak sisters of the Mountain West are as bad as the most woeful squads in, say, the Sun Belt or the W.A.C.

At the top of the conference, though, the victories consistently tallied by Mountain West champions against major conference opposition are indicative of the league's legitimacy. But for an overtime loss at Chestnut Hill by B.Y.U. earlier this season, six consecutive M.W.C. champions would have posted multiple wins over B.C.S. conference teams. That ain't bad for a league that was formed in 1999.

Contrary to what I may have led you to believe at one time, the Mountain West got the better end of the deal when its member institutions bolted the W.A.C.

An automatic bid to a B.C.S. bowl might be more than the Mountain West deserves on an annual basis . . . although, based on the evidence of the last three seasons, the M.W.C. likely would have at least as good an argument, year in and year out, as the A.C.C. or the Big East. Would a New Year's Day tie-in be reasonable, though?

Suppose, for instance, that the Mountain West's best team not bound for the B.C.S.---New Mexico in 2004; the conference champion in every other year---had been able to lay claim to the spot opposite the Big 12 representative in the Cotton Bowl or the berth against the Big East representative in the Gator Bowl.

Here are the matchups those scenarios would have produced:

Cotton Bowl:
1999 - Utah v. Texas
2000 - Colorado State v. Kansas State
2001 - B.Y.U. v. Oklahoma
2002 - Colorado State v. Texas
2003 - Utah v. Oklahoma State
2004 - New Mexico v. Texas A&M
2005 - T.C.U. v. Texas Tech
2006 - B.Y.U. v. Nebraska

Gator Bowl:
1999 - Utah v. Miami (Florida)
2000 - Colorado State v. Virginia Tech
2001 - B.Y.U. v. Virginia Tech
2002 - Colorado State v. Notre Dame
2003 - Utah v. West Virginia
2004 - New Mexico v. West Virginia
2005 - T.C.U. v. Virginia Tech
2006 - B.Y.U. v. West Virginia

Obviously, the Lobos are bringing down the Mountain West's batting average there, as I cannot imagine that New Mexico, the conference silver medalist in the year Utah became the first would-be B.C.S. buster to make good on its threat, would have been competitive against either the Aggies or the Mountaineers on January 1, 2005 . . . although the Lobos did beat Texas Tech and lose narrowly to Washington State during the 2004 season, so perhaps I am selling them short.

Likewise, some of those matchups might have been mismatches; for instance, the 2002 Longhorns likely would have had their way with that year's C.S.U. squad . . . but, then again, the Rams opened that autumn with a win over the rival Buffaloes, who hammered a Texas Tech team that defeated Texas.

Many of those, though, would have been intriguing games. Had the 2003 campaign concluded with a showdown between the Utes and the Mountaineers, or had last season culminated in a contest between the Horned Frogs and the Red Raiders in Dallas, I suspect we would have seen some entertaining games.

Contrary to what you may have heard, this would have been just as much fun in the postseason as it was during the regular season.

If you are not convinced that the Mountain West is consistently ready to ring in the new year with a January 1 bowl bid, though, what about assuring the M.W.C. champion of a December 31 bowl berth? The league's affiliation with the Liberty Bowl met with enough success on the field to indicate that a renewal of those ties is warranted.

Keep the Liberty Bowl's S.E.C. tie-in, replace the Conference U.S.A. champion with the Mountain West champion, and move the game in Memphis back to New Year's Eve. By upgrading the time slot of the eighth-oldest existing bowl game and improving the quality of the conference champion allotted the other berth, the Liberty Bowl could move up a notch in the S.E.C. pecking order and get a better team to go up against the Mountain West champs.

As I write this, of course, San Jose State is leading New Mexico in the first of two bowl games taking place today involving Mountain West teams, so the league's depth remains to be seen. What do you think? Does the M.W.C. champ deserve a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Liberty Bowl, a New Year's Day game, or a B.C.S. contest?

Go 'Dawgs!