The ongoing agitation for a playoff, while not without its intelligent and principled adherents, nevertheless is in some quarters largely a knee-jerk reaction born primarily of greed and envy. Last night’s Fiesta Bowl once again exposed the hypocrisy of this position, as two supposedly disheartened teams played their hearts out before two allegedly dejected fan bases who cheered lustily for what they knew was a great and important game. Why a sincere college football fan would gripe about the unfairness of it all when the alternative quite likely was watching another team get cremated by the Florida Gators while the Boise St. Broncos and TCU Horned Frogs went to Liberty Bowl-level contests is anyone’s guess. No one makes documentaries about second-round playoff losses.
Last night’s exciting duel in the desert produced both a loser and a question. The question is whether Boise State is close to shattering the glass ceiling on the Broncos’ encouraging and inevitable march to elite status in a sport that exemplifies American striving and advancement. The loser, obviously, is the Mountain West Conference, which had the opportunity to cap off a glorious bowl season for the league with an emphatic statement in support of its worthiness for inclusion as an automatic qualifier in the Bowl Championship Series. This the MWC failed to do, and, while this does not render the argument moot, it does make it easier for its application for admission to be denied.
Fortunately, there is a solution that addresses both problems. Boise State and the Mountain West are in positions which enable them to help one another. Here’s how:
The Mountain West, like the United States in the 1770s and the Confederacy (briefly) in the 1860s, was born of the secessionist impulse, as its most prominent member institutions broke away from the Western Athletic Conference to form a league of their own. (Please pardon the unfortunate turn of phrase at the end of the last sentence, although the film of the same name is worth recalling in the post-Tim Tebow era, because there’s no crying in football!) The WAC struggled, but it adapted and avoided becoming the new Big West.
As with Gus and Call at the start of "Lonesome Dove," it’s time to go on another raid.
The Mountain West currently consists of nine teams. The Air Force Falcons, BYU Cougars, Colorado St. Rams, New Mexico Lobos, San Diego St. Aztecs, TCU Horned Frogs, UNLV Rebels, Utah Utes, and Wyoming Cowboys form a lineup featuring three outstanding programs and arguably a couple of good ones but too many poor ones. The bottom feeders are dragging the MWC down. The best team in the conference in any given year is very, very good, but the worst team in the conference in any given year is very, very bad . . . worse than the Vanderbilt Commodores, worse than the Washington St. Cougars, worse even than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
There is very little the league can do to make New Mexico do something other than suck (although the revenue split from Texas Christian’s major bowl appearance ain’t going to hurt). As the Warren Court articulated when advocating "the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open," the solution to bad speech isn’t to squelch it, it is to offset it with good speech. So it is with the weak sisters we inevitably find in every league.
The Mountain West is bottom-heavy, to a greater degree than any of the automatic BCS qualifying conferences. To make itself more top-heavy, the MWC needs to poach Boise State, along with the Fresno St. Bulldogs and Nevada Wolf Pack, from the WAC. That makes the Mountain West a twelve-team conference, allows the league to split into two divisions and establish a championship game, and makes the MWC an even more valuable property than it already is.
Yes, the WAC likely would fold, but there always is a price to progress. Thomas Edison was responsible for many job losses in the candlemaking industry, but that was a necessary cost of the invention of the light bulb. The addition of Boise State (with its 2-0 record in BCS bowls), Fresno State (with its reputation as a giant-killer), and Nevada (the in-state rival of current MWC member UNLV) to the mix would bolster both the league’s television profile and the largely accurate natural perception of its strength. There would be no serious argument that such a league did not deserve inclusion as the seventh major conference.
Is this a radical departure from what has come before? No more so than the Pac-10 bringing in the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona St. Sun Devils, the Big Ten bringing in the Penn St. Nittany Lions, the SEC bringing in the Arkansas Razorbacks and South Carolina Gamecocks, the Big Eight merging with the best of the Southwest Conference (well, the best of the Southwest Conference, and the Baylor Bears), or the ACC bringing in the Boston College Eagles, Miami Hurricanes, and Virginia Tech Hokies.
This is the new norm in college football. The distinction isn’t between the haves and have nots; the Mountain West and the WAC will be crying all the way to the bank over the fact that their inclusion among the haves is de facto rather than de jure (although it’s largely de jure, albeit with a formula). Conference USA and the MAC certainly do not feel the Horned Frogs’ pain.
The choice, rather, is between adaptation and extinction. By skimming the cream off the top of the Western Athletic Conference---a natural evolutionary act which merely repeats the historic event which gave birth to the league in the first place---the Mountain West Conference can take the final step. From fledgling league first formed in 1999 to major player in 2010 . . . the amazing aspect of the Mountain West’s rise to prominence is not its glacial slowness but its blazing swiftness. The sprint to the top is nearly complete. The journey of a thousand miles also ends with a single step.