Dick Harmon: It's 'put up or shut up' time for MWC

Published: Tuesday, July 22 2008 12:05 a.m. MDT

Mountain West football coaches believe their teams can compete with anybody.

They say the league is up-and-coming and will receive even more attention this year now that DirecTV is onboard with television coverage.

But feeling that way and being seen in that light are two different issues that shackle this non-BCS football conference.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham put it best: It doesn't matter how much progress the league is making if its teams don't win against nonleague foes.

Like the game he has at Michigan in the Big House televised nationally on ABC.

It's a stage with a great script. It catapulted Appalachian State last year, sunk Michigan and led to a coaching change at Ann Arbor.

Those kinds of games, Whittingham says, get respect and attention. The rest is idle chit-chat.

The favored Cougars have Pac-10 games with Washington and UCLA; Colorado State opens up with Colorado at Invesco Field atMile High and then plays at Cal. New Mexico sees Texas A&M and Arizona early; SDSU plays at Notre Dame; TCU takes on Stanford and plays at Oklahoma; UNLV gets ASU and Iowa State while the Utes get a rematch with Oregon State at home.

They're all statement games. The league edict is clear in the respect folder. Put up or shut up.

Whittingham believes the MWC could have three teams in the Top 25 when all is said and done. "It's improving each and every year. Maybe we'll have three teams in the Top 25; we'll have to see how it shakes out. It's a long and arduous process."

TCU's Gary Patterson says BYU and Utah could be ranked most of the season.

"There is potential to have three. BYU and Utah have shown they are capable. I am one of the voters, and I'll lean that direction. I wouldn't put us there yet. We're an unknown commodity right now," Patterson said. "We have to see how we get out of two-a-days and how our young guys react. We don't have a week off until the last game of the season with Air Force and we have Oklahoma and Stanford."

Other MWC coaches with votes are Joe Glenn (Wyoming), Mike Sanford (UNLV) and Rocky Long (New Mexico).

The addition of DirecTV, however, will help, according to Long.

"I've got daughters who want to watch our games and they haven't been able to tune in no matter what. Now, they can go to about any sports bar in the country and have them turn on the satellite and see our games. This is a big, big deal for our conference and getting the exposure will have a huge impact. All our games will be on TV this year for the first time."

Specifically, Long sees the MWC as a league in which much of the country knows little about. "Once they tune in and see us play, they'll understand what we're all about."

"The TV situation this year we've remedied will go a long ways for the credibility of this conference to continue to get respect. But it has to win the nonleague games, that is the best way for this league to put itself on the map.

Long is the old dog in these parts. He is the only surviving coach from the 1999 season in which the MWC broke ground after defecting from the 16-team WAC.

Long remembers the coaches at that time and they were legends. "You had John Robinson at UNLV, LaVell Edwards at BYU, Ron McBride at Utah, Sonny Lubick at CSU, Ted Tollner at San Diego State and Fisher DeBerry at Air Force. Those are some pretty good coaches who put together some pretty decent seasons at their schools. Sometimes LaVell would let some of the rest of us win."

While he hasn't won a league title yet, he sees the MWC as competitive, talented and capable as any league around. "We've proven that by our bowl records and we've shown that by some of our nonleague wins."

Today, sans Edwards, Robinson and others, is back, says the Lobo master.

"We've gotten better. BYU is back and we've added TCU. You have to remember TCU is in the Dallas area and is able to tap into one of the top recruiting regions in the country right in their backyard."

Glenn believes the league is better than when he entered the conference. "The league has changed. BYU was down when I came. TCU wasn't in the league, UNM has made some great strides under Rocky and we believe we're better. We have seven home games and we want to play 12 games and get back in a bowl."

BYU's Bronco Mendenhall, whose team is picked to finish first in the MWC, has been ranked as high as 15th in some preseason polls. It's an edge he acknowledges gives the Cougars (and the league) some exposure this fall.

But even that doesn't matter if the Cougars lose to UCLA at home or to Washington in Seattle early.

"It just means we start with a chance to get a higher ranking rather than coming from nowhere and getting to No. 16 or so. The focus for us is still getting better every day, winning at home and taking care of conference games," Mendenhall said.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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