Mike Sorensen: Mountain West Conference teams are winning big games

Published: Monday, Sept. 15 2008 12:28 a.m. MDT

A red-letter day is commonly known as a day of special significance, so you could certainly say Saturday was one of those days for the Mountain West Conference.

And for the fans of BYU, Air Force and TCU who might be uncomfortable with that designation, you could call it a blue-letter or purple-letter day as well.

The oft-maligned and disrespected MWC enjoyed perhaps the finest overall foot-

ball day in its 10-year history Saturday. The league went 7-1 overall, including four victories over Pac-10 schools. Only San Diego State spoiled things with a loss to San Jose State.

BYU's 59-0 thrashing of UCLA was astonishing because of the way the Cougars manhandled the Bruins in every which way in handing the SoCal boys their worst loss in 79 years.

Utah's victory over Utah State was expected but impressive in the fact that it was the largest margin of victory in the 108-year series and the most points ever scored by one team in the rivalry.

TCU shut out Stanford in the second half of a 31-14 victory, Air Force went on the road and beat Houston and New Mexico held off unbeaten, 11-point favorite Arizona by eight.

The most impressive MWC victory, however, was UNLV's 23-20 late-night overtime victory over Arizona State.

The Sun Devils came into the game as 25-point favorites and were ranked No. 15 in the nation. There was already talk in Tempe about a BCS Championship Bowl game, particularly since No. 2-ranked Georgia was coming to town the following week. But the Rebels came back from a 10-point deficit to spoil the Sun Devils' season.

The Pac-10 has generally been considered the second-best conference in America in recent years behind the SEC, thanks in large part to the success of USC. However, the MWC is now 5-0 against the Pac-10 this season with a couple of more games remaining (Colorado State at Cal, Oregon State at Utah).

To date, the MWC is 15-5 as a league in non-conference games and well on its way to topping last year's 24-16 mark as well as the 22-13 record in its inaugural season of 1999.

While the MWC isn't on par with the SEC (5 teams in the top 10), Big 12 (5 teams in the top 20) or Big 10 (4 teams in the Top 25), it is creeping up on the other BCS conferences.

Outside of No. 1 USC, the Pac-10 has just one other ranked team. And, with BYU ranked 11th and 14th in the two polls, Utah at No. 20 and TCU just outside the Top 25, the MWC is looking better than both the Big East (two ranked teams) and ACC (Wake Forest the highest of three ranked teams at No. 18).

With 16 non-league contests remaining, the MWC will likely be prohibitive underdogs in just three games — CSU at Cal and TCU at Oklahoma on Sept. 27, and Wyoming at Tennessee on Nov. 8.

I see the Mountain West shaping up in three different tiers this year — the good, the pretty good and the ugly.

In the top tier are local favorites BYU and Utah, along with TCU. All three teams should end up with double-digit victory totals and each has a chance to get into a BCS bowl game, although TCU's chances are longer, unless it manages to beat No. 2 Oklahoma later this month.

The next tier includes unbeaten Air Force, New Mexico and UNLV. All three are capable of stepping up and knocking off one of the top three on a given Saturday, as each proved by their performances Saturday.

Then there's the other three — Wyoming, Colorado State and San Diego State, who shouldn't be favored in any games except when they're playing each other.

The Cowboys are 2-1, but needed second-half rallies at home to beat both Ohio and North Dakota State, by one and three points, respectively.

Colorado State got blasted by Colorado and needed to come from behind to defeat Sacramento State of the Big Sky before taking last week off.

San Diego State looks just plain awful, after losing to Cal Poly at home and to San Jose State by 25, although the close loss to Notre Dame showed some promise.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged after Saturday's blowout win that his team was one of the best in America, but prefers not to talk about the polls or other teams.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says "there's a lot of football left," but he thinks it's great the way the league has started off.

"We've got four teams out of nine that are still unbeaten," he said. "I'd be surprised if TCU doesn't start sneaking into the Top 25. That's huge for the league. I can't remember if that's ever been done since the inception of the Mountain West Conference or even in the old WAC. It's nice to get the recognition."

The key will be if the MWC will be getting the same recognition come November.


E-mail: sor@desnews.com

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