How tough is this league?

The top of the Mountain West, led by TCU's undefeated and No. 4 ranking heading into the postseason, has never been as rugged as the past two seasons. Now, if the bottom dwellers will only get themselves off the mat.

With BYU and Utah ranked with the Frogs in this week's top-25 polls, plus Utah's BCS win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, I think the league is entering a new era of respect. It's taken a decade, but the MWC has elevated itself above the other non-automatic qualifying conferences, even with some cellar material.

If you survey the college football scene, it's easy to make a case the league has three of the best coaches in college football in Gary Patterson, Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall.

With parity hitting the Pac-10, irrelevance of Notre Dame, mutiny in Ann Arbor, brain hiccups at LSU, the Big 12 failing to produce an at-large BCS team, aging legends holding on at Penn State and Florida State and cliff-hanger gymnastics in Boulder, the MWC has very impressive products in the 12-0 Frogs, 10-2 Cougars and 9-3 Utes.

With the Cougars ranked No. 14 in the BCS standings this week, it is clear the Cougar loss to Florida State on their own field was the league's most disappointing setback.

Why? Because the Cougars' record (10-2) is equal to or better than No. 7 Oregon (9-2), No. 8 Ohio State (10-2), No. 9 Iowa (10-2), No. 10 Georgia Tech (10-2) and No. 11 Penn State (10-2).

If the Cougars, ranked in the top 10 before that FSU loss, had won, an 11-1 BYU could be in the top 12 and eligible for an at-large BCS berth. BYU would not be given that berth, but they'd be eligible.

And Utah? The Utes have an equal record of No. 12 Virginia Tech and No. 13 LSU. Had they not lost to the Cougars and had held on to defeat Oregon, they'd have made the top dozen.

Second- and third-biggest MWC downers? That UNLV couldn't get one more win and go bowling, and that SDSU lost its final four games.

How did it look back in August and how accurate were the pundits, including me? Well, let's take a look and hold folks accountable.

Reporters that cover the MWC pretty much nailed the top-half of the league finish with TCU, BYU, Utah then AFA. Their biggest mistake was picking Wyoming to finish last, in ninth place when it was CSU, picked No. 6 that went 0-8.

In my personal forecast published in a college football wrap the fourth week of August, these were my predictions and commentary:

1. TCU (12-0) Will sport another impressive defense but Gary Patterson will open up the offense? The Frogs ended 12-0.

2. BYU (10-2) It all comes down to that showdown in Provo with TCU? The Cougars finished 10-2, an unprecedented fourth double-digit win season in a row.

3. Utah (9-3) Look for questions of consistency at QB to cost the Utes losses to Oregon, TCU and BYU. The Utes finished 9-3.

4. SDSU (7-5) May have solved its beach party reputation when New Mexico coach Rocky Long became the defensive coordinator. The Aztecs actually finished No. 7 at 2-6.

5. Air Force (6-6) I think this team will get worn down and take a step back this season. If the Falcons can beat Army at home, they'll have a winning season. If not, they'll break even but get to a bowl game. Troy Calhoun's team actually finished 5-3 in league play, good for No. 4.

6. CSU (6-6) Breaking in a new QB will be a challenge in Fort Collins ... this program won a bowl game and if the Rams can beat UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming, Air Force and San Diego State, it will signal a big step forward. I see losses to the Big Three, plus SDSU, Nevada and the opener against Big 12 Colorado. In reality, the Rams lost nine-straight games to end the season.

7. UNLV (4-8) Is a mystery team because of the defensive secondary. Actually, the Rebel defense was a disaster, a big enough disaster to cost Mike Sanford his job, but the Rebels finished better than I predicted in fifth place, 3-5.

8. Wyoming (4-8) Didn't fire its coach to take a step back but the work before that new staff is a tough one, especially with Texas coming to Laramie. I see UNLV and Wyoming as two teams battling to gain respect and make a bowl game then failing. In reality, it was Wyoming and Dave Christensen that pulled off a 4-4 league mark, good for No. 5 and a bowl game.

9. New Mexico (1-11) Brutal, but I think the only win comes against New Mexico State with an opener against Texas A&M, Tulsa, AFA and then Texas Tech after the instate Aggies, then the wheels fall off. Nailed this one, but the Lobos only win was not over NMSU but Colorado State.

Who could foresee Mike Locksley assaulting an assistant?

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com