What is supposed to serve as the congenial opening of a new college football season in the Western Athletic Conference and the inauguration of two new division alignments instead signals the end of a brief but embattled era of the 16-team league.

Welcome to the 1998 WAC football meetings, the first official league function since eight member schools - including Utah and Brigham Young - announced earlier this summer that they were splitting, both literally and figuratively.The eight - BYU, Utah, Air Force, Colorado State, Nevada Las Vegas, New Mexico, San Diego State and Wyoming - are bolting the WAC to create their own eight-team conference, hoping to begin anew in the fall of 1999.

In WAC media meetings Tuesday and Wednesday at the MGM Grand, the league's 16 head coaches will provide roster previews and season outlooks, while player representatives from each school will be available for interviews. Utah's Ron McBride and BYU's LaVell Edwards will join the WAC Pacific Division coaches Tuesday, with the BYU duo of tackle John Tait and linebacker Brad Martin and the Utah combo of linebacker Phil Glover and wide-out Daniel Jones scheduled to be interviewed Tuesday morning.

This season was to kick off the second phase of the rotating four-quadrant, two-division football alignment, with the quadrant of Utah, BYU, New Mexico and Texas El Paso moving from its Mountain Division assignment the previous two years (with Rice, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian and Tulsa) to now comprise the Pacific Division with the likes of San Diego State, Hawaii, Fresno State and San Jose State.

One complaint of the quadrant-division alignments and the mammoth 16-member league is the inability to regularly play all member schools and to maintain traditional rivalries. For example, under the expanded-WAC alignment plan, BYU and Utah would not be scheduled to face Rocky Mountain rivals Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming between the years 1996 and 2000.

All of that frustration will be changed by next season for the aforementioned fivesome, thanks to the much-debated creation of a new league.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what kinds of needling and animosities might be expressed this week at the WAC meetings, particularly from those representing the eight schools left holding the WAC bag. Those with the biggest reasons to gripe include the threesome of Rice, SMU and TCU, the former Southwest Conference members who have been jilted by league members for the second time in four years; and tenured WAC members Hawaii, Fresno State and UTEP, who are being pushed aside as league leftovers.

Not only may it make for interesting WAC meetings fodder, but the resentments may spill over and provide the WAC with some of the high-intensity, final-season rivalries it has lacked during the two previous seasons of the expanded, 16-member conference.

For example, consider the bad blood likely to spill when rivals meet for the last time as conference peers: UTEP travels to neighboring New Mexico, Fresno State makes one last trip to West Coast counterpart San Diego State, and former Falcon head coach Ken Hatfield takes his Rice team back to his old stomping grounds to meet former assistant Fisher DeBerry and his Air Force squad.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

WAC football: Hello ... and goodbye

Brigham Young University and the University of Utah are just two of the many players in the revolving-door league known as the Western Athletic Conference. Here's how the WAC will have looked during the last half of the 1990s, along with next year's new conference of WAC defectors, which includes the U. and BYU.

WAC before 1996

Air Force

Brigham Young

Colorado State

Fresno State

Hawaii

New Mexico

San Diego

Texas El Paso

Utah

Wyoming

Approved in 1994 for 1996 expansion

Nevada Las Vegas

Rice

San Jose State

Southern Methodist

Texas Christian

Tulsa

WAC divisions

1996-97 Mountain

Brigham Young

New Mexico

Rice

Southern Methodist

Texas Christian

Texas El Paso

Tulsa

Utah

1996-97 Pacific

Air Force

Nevada Las Vegas

Fresno State

Hawaii

Nevada Las Vegas

San Diego State

San Jose State

Wyoming

WAC divisions

1998 Mountain

Air Force

Colorado State

Nevada Las Vegas

Rice

Southern Methodist

Texas Christian

Tulsa

Wyoming

1998 Pacific

Brigham Young

Fresno State

Hawaii

New Mexico

San Diego State

San Jose State

Texas El Paso

Utah

1999 conference splits

Remaining WAC

Fresno State

Hawaii

San Jose State

Texas El Paso

Rice

Southern Methodist

Texas Christian

Tulsa

New unnamed conference

Air Force

Brigham Young

Colorado State

Nevada Las Vegas

New Mexico

San Diego State

Utah

Wyoming