The news coming out of the Western Athletic Conference football meetings Wednesday morning was that Boise State — again — had been voted by coaches and media as the overwhelming favorite to capture the league crown again this year.
The soundbite that might raise the most eyebrows, however, came from conference commissioner Karl Benson, who declared the WAC is every bit as recognizable on a national and regional scale, if not more so, than the Mountain West Conference.
Boise State is the WAC's flagship football program with nearly 100 victories this decade alone and a dramatic Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma following the 2006 season.
But after Hawaii broke the BCS in 2007, the Mountain West has clearly had more depth and greater prestige. According to Benson, though, the WAC still has decades of history, tradition and even a little misunderstanding working in its favor.
"It's how you define 'recognizable,' " Benson said.
"The history that the WAC has had and the tradition that the WAC has had is what still allows us to claim that we're more recognizable than the Mountain West."
But little of the recognition Benson refers to comes from schools presently in the conference. And because of that, Benson admits, the conference must play at a higher level and must have schools like Utah State, New Mexico State and San Jose State climb higher in the national poll of public perception.
"The competition comes back again to see who is the most dominant in our region," Benson said, admitting the MWC has had the upper hand the last couple of seasons. "We want to see if we can reclaim the bragging rights."
The WAC is working to increase its national and regional profile by getting more teams into bowl games. A year ago, Boise State jumped out of WAC bowl tie-in games and matched up with TCU in one of the few bowl games pairing Top 10 teams. Louisiana Tech, likewise, was invited to play in the Independence Bowl, with Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada getting other postseason games.
But when it comes to "bragging rights," Benson knows it's all about the BCS and pointed to a pair of WAC schools earning invites while only Utah has the same claim from the MWC.
"This past year the Mountain West, not only with what they did in the Sugar Bowl but in the last six months, they've been on more media outlets," Benson said. "They have received more post-football (season) media attention than they have in the nine previous years."
And while administrators and fans might spend a little extra time worrying about conference rivalry, first-year Utah State coach Gary Andersen thinks it's a little overblown.
"I've been on the other side, and from the way I see it, I don't feel there's a rivalry there," said Andersen, the former defensive coordinator at Utah. "Both conferences do have, and should have, a lot of respect for each other."
Depth is an issue. The WAC has been weighed down in national perception by teams like New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State — each ranked 106th or worse by CBSSports.com. The MWC, similarly, has had its share of dreadful programs. San Diego State, Wyoming, New Mexico and UNLV all wrapped up the 2008 season ranked No. 90 or lower by CBSSports.com.
"In the WAC," Andersen said, "maybe we haven't been as strong top to bottom. But now that I'm seeing it from the other side, I really don't see a huge gap overall."
Still, Benson — who tries to leverage reputation and history into sponsorships and contracts with ESPN — wants to find any advantage he can when sitting at the bargaining table.
"There isn't a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me or make reference to a Mountain West team thinking they're in the WAC," Benson said. "That says it right there that sports fans and college football fans in the West still have a thought in their brain about the WAC."
Whether that means the WAC is more recognizable or that the MWC has an identity problem, however, is moot in many regards.
With the door cracked open for this year's BCS-buster to sneak into the tradition-laden Rose Bowl, Boise State — or another team if the chips fall the right way — wants to establish any "recognition" for the conference on the football field, not the bargaining table.
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