Imagine, for a moment, what might have happened if BYU, Utah and TCU had stayed in the Mountain West Conference. While the Cougars appear to be content with independence and the Utes and Horned Frogs appear to be happy with their new places in new power conferences, is everyone really better off than if they would have stayed in the MWC?
Rewind to June 2010. The Mountain West Conference was seemingly in position to challenge for automatic qualifying status to the BCS. The "Big 3" of the conference already had national respect.
Bronco Mendenhall had taken BYU to four straight 10 or more win seasons. Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs finished in the Top 10 of both major polls twice and would finish the 2010 season at No. 2. Kyle Whittingham and the Utes stunned the nation by dominating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and finishing No. 2 in the AP.
Then that June, Boise State accepted an invitation to join the Mountain West starting in 2011. At that time, head coach Chris Petersen had taken the Broncos into a golden age that included two Fiesta Bowl wins and three Top 15 finishes.
Better still, the MWC watched eagerly as new Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott made a bold bid for Big 12 powerhouse programs, including Texas and Oklahoma. The conference was already reeling from the loss of Nebraska to the Big Ten, and Colorado decided not to wait and promptly accepted Scott's invitation.
With most of the Big 12's core schools gone, the MWC was in terrific position to pick up the pieces and land programs such as Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. Such teams would have established the Mountain West as a true power conference in basketball and also would have clinched an automatic bid to the BCS in football.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
Texas and Oklahoma decided that they could make things work in the Big 12 after all and save on travel money. Scott, not content at staying at 11, turned around and invited Utah to become the newest member of the new Pac-12. The Utes accepted that invitation on June 16, just five days after the MWC announced the coming of Boise State.
That day, the Mountain West's dream of joining the ranks of the "Big Six" vanished like smoke.
About two months after Utah left for the new Pac-12, BYU announced its bold plan to go independent. The MWC tried to impede BYU's exit by cutting the WAC down at the knees, but no dice. The Cougars teamed up with ESPN and parked most of the rest of their sports in the WCC.
It wasn't long before TCU was on its way out the door as well. That November, the Horned Frogs received an invitation to join the crumbling Big East. TCU accepted for a while before the Big 12 gave the Horned Frogs a conference much closer to home.
That left Boise State, and for a time the Broncos thought they were headed out for the Big East along with San Diego State. However, the Big 12, ACC and Big Ten carved up that conference and the Broncos and Aztecs decided to stay in the Mountain West after all.
So, the Mountain West survived as a football conference. It absorbed most of the WAC to stay afloat, but it lost most of its momentum and prestige headed into the 2010 season. While basketball in the MWC remains strong with SDSU, New Mexico and UNLV still around, the Mountain West is a mere shell of what it could have been.
And it hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows for the teams that left. BYU is 26-13 since leaving the MWC, but it also has finished in the Top 25 just once during that period. Utah is 18-19 and 9-18 in conference play since joining the Pac-12. TCU is 11-14 and 6-12 in conference play in the Big 12.
While fans of BYU, TCU and Utah may argue among themselves about who is better off, the sad truth of the situation is that all three teams have lost a considerable amount of national prestige since leaving the MWC. The only ones laughing at this mess are people like Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who infamously hinted that TCU was akin to the "Little Sisters of the Poor."
Even Boise State has fallen from national grace. The Broncos finished with less than 10 wins for the first time in the Petersen era last season, and Petersen finally left for greener pastures at Washington. Who knows if his successor can rebuild Boise State to the heights that Petersen obtained.
That isn't to say that the Broncos, Cougars, Horned Frogs and Utes can't get things turned around. That said, all four programs face uphill battles. Boise State has to regain national acclaim without Petersen or nationally recognized competition in the MWC. BYU needs to find a way to play a hard enough schedule to earn national attention while having a good enough team to beat big-time teams.
Utah and TCU at least have the benefit of being in power conferences. However, both programs have to somehow compete with programs that will always have more money and bigger fan bases. Utah has to compete with the likes of USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford while TCU has to deal with Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Simply put, neither TCU nor Utah has the resources to dominate their new homes the same way they were able to do in the MWC.
Meanwhile, had those four teams stayed put in the MWC, they would likely have taken turns winning the conference. The conference would have had at least two ranked teams and maybe as many as four ranked teams in the final polls year in and year out. This foursome could have formed as fierce of a rivalry as exists in the FBS.
Now, the closest thing any of these four teams have to a rivalry these days is Utah's with Colorado.
The MWC could have talked its way into a better bowl deal under the new playoff system. It wouldn't have been as sweet as the Pac-12 or SEC would get, but it would likely be better than playing the fifth or sixth best team from the Pac-12 in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. The only team that might even consider coming back to the MWC is BYU. Of course, the Mountain West has only itself and its horrible TV deal to blame.
Lafe Peavler is a sports writer for the Deseret News.
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