Coming off its best football season ever, the Mountain West Conference has been basking in the national spotlight.
The league commanded attention and demanded respect after Utah posted an undefeated season, capped by the Utes' dismantling of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The MWC then placed three teams (No. 2 Utah, No. 7 TCU and No. 21 BYU) in the final Associated Press poll.
As the 2009 campaign approaches, that spotlight is about to get more intense as the college football world waits to see what the MWC does for an encore.
During the offseason, the MWC rocked the Bowl Championship Series boat with public protestations by commissioner Craig Thompson, who has been outspoken about his contention that MWC teams are performing at a level worthy of an automatic bid.
Thompson met with BCS officials and proposed a performance-based system for automatic inclusion to the BCS, though that proposal was dismissed.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called for congressional hearings to investigate the BCS and University of Utah President Michael Young testified before Congress.
For now, however, the BCS remains the BCS.
During the summer, the MWC grudgingly signed the latest BCS contract, meaning there won't be major changes to the current system for at least several more years.
Yet in the MWC's fight for change, the pressure's on to keep winning high-profile games and building on the momentum generated in 2008.
With that, here are five compelling storylines entering the '09 season:
1. Despite the overall strength of the MWC, particularly at the top, the past five league champions have gone undefeated in conference play. Will this trend continue?
It seems unlikely that one team could emerge unscathed in league games once again, but it seemed unlikely in each of the past five years, too.
Utah won the outright league championship with a perfect record in 2004 and 2008. BYU accomplished the feat in 2006 and 2007. TCU ran the table in 2005.
In the MWC preseason poll, TCU was favored to win the league, followed by BYU and Utah. The league's top three teams won't meet until late in the season as TCU visits BYU on Oct. 24; Utah travels to TCU on Nov. 14; and Utah plays at BYU on Nov. 28. The top three will also have to avoid being ambushed by one of the improved teams in the league, such as Air Force, Colorado State and UNLV.
2. Which MWC team has the best shot at busting the BCS?
It's probably TCU, which boasts a stingy defense, led by consensus All-America defensive lineman Jerry Hughes, and returning quarterback Andy Dalton.
Utah is breaking in a new quarterback while BYU faces a challenging non-conference schedule with question marks on the offensive line and on the defense.
Certainly, earning another BCS berth would be huge for the MWC, giving the league its third BCS breakthrough. The only other non-automatic qualifying conference to place a team in the BCS is the Western Athletic Conference (Boise State in 2006 and Hawaii in 2007).
3. Can an MWC team be a BCS-buster with one loss?
Yes, under the right circumstances.
Since 2004, every non-automatic qualifying team that broke into the BCS did so with an undefeated record. But the MWC's success of a year ago has helped the national perception of the conference. We could see a one-loss MWC team in the BCS, as long as that one loss is to a team that finishes the regular season with a respectable ranking and record.
On the other hand, if a team like Boise State goes undefeated, it might be difficult for a one-loss MWC team to get in.
4. Which of the MWC's non-conference games will the country be paying attention to this fall?
All eyes will be on the BYU-Oklahoma game in Arlington, Tex., on Sept. 5 in a contest televised by ESPN. The Cougars face a Sooner squad from the Big 12 that fell to Florida in the BCS championship game last season and returns Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford. Oklahoma is expected to be ranked in the top 5 in the preseason polls. BYU also hosts Atlantic Coast Conference foe Florida State on Sept. 19.
TCU has a pair of road games at ACC opponents (Virginia on Sept. 12 and Clemson on Sept. 26). Utah visits Pac-10 opponent Oregon (Sept. 19) and entertains Louisville of the Big East (Sept. 26).
Other key non-conference games: New Mexico travels to the Big 12's Texas A&M (Sept. 5) and Colorado State plays at the Big 12's Colorado (Sept. 6). On Sept. 12, Air Force journeys to Big Ten country to square off against Minnesota; Texas of the Big 12 travels to Wyoming; and Oregon State of the Pac-10 meets UNLV in Las Vegas. On Oct. 3, New Mexico goes on the road to face the Big 12's Texas Tech.
5. Which first-year MWC coaching staff has the best chance of establishing a winning record in 2009?
The MWC's three worst teams a year ago — New Mexico, Wyoming and San Diego State — each hired a new head coach.
The Lobos' Mike Locksley was an assistant at Maryland, Florida and Illinois before landing the job in Albuquerque. Dave Christensen was the offensive coordinator at Missouri before taking the reins in Laramie. And Brady Hoke was a successful head coach at Ball State before bolting for San Diego.
In a twist, Rocky Long, who was the longtime coach at New Mexico until the end of the 2008 season, was hired by Hoke to be the Aztecs' defensive coordinator. That should add intrigue to the MWC race.
Interestingly, SDSU, New Mexico and Wyoming are switching to no-huddle spread offenses.
With a non-conference schedule that features Southern Utah, Idaho and New Mexico State, SDSU should have the best chance at a winning season.