Quick! Name the Western Athletic Conference football team that's an overwhelming favorite to win the league's 1998 championship. It's the same team that, during the past four years, has won more WAC games, finished in first most often and played in more bowl games than any league member.
Need another hint? The team's head coach was heard to say the following during this week's WAC football media meetings: "We've got a chance to be a pretty good football team."That sounds like something straight out of annual preseason script of Brigham Young University's LaVell Edwards, the dean of WAC coaches and legendary leader of the league's longtime powerhouse program. Besides, isn't the aforementioned list of WAC dominance - being the favorite as well as the wins, the finishes and the bowls - just part of the Cougars' ongoing conference conquests?
But the lofty perch that has in the past been the traditional turf of Edwards' BYU team and an occasional stopping ground for the likes of the Air Force Academy and the University of Utah now belongs to Colorado State University and Rams coach Sonny Lu-bick.
The Rams are the nation's WAC darling this year, being the only league team as a consensus Top 25 pick in the preseason publications. And CSU will find itself on ESPN or ESPN2 three times in the first 20 days of the 1998 college football season, including an in-state battle against the University of Colorado in a first-ever setting at Denver's Mile High Stadium.
"That's someting new for our football team," said Lubick of the national attention and the TV attraction. "It's uncharted waters for us."
Edwards says CSU's position as WAC leader "comes as no great surprise," adding that the Rams' retooling from league has-been into conference contender first started during the tenure of Earle Bruce, Lubick's predecessor. "Sonny has come in and added a different dimension," Edwards said.
Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry credits the Rams' nine-game winning streak as being a catalyst for increased national exposure. "They've got the momentum in the conference, especially since they've got one of the longest winning streaks in the nation."
Ironically, DeBerry's Falcons were the last team to beat the Rams, a 24-0 shutout in Fort Collins four games into the 1997 season.
And DeBerry also salutes Lubick as a key reason to success, since the CSU coach turned down job offers elsewhere and instead signed a long-term contract to stay with the Rams. "They have a great continuity like BYU and ourselves in the staff, and the kids have built up a lot of pride . . . It only takes a year or two to start to develop that pride and continuity."
In CSU's cases, it's been the result of a four-year effort. Look at the comparisons of the top four WAC football programs during the past four seasons:
Overall record: CSU is 36-13, just a game behind BYU at 37-13. Air Force is 32-17, and Utah is 31-15. If one recalculates CSU's 1997 loss to Colorado as a forfeit victory - the Buffaloes were ruled to have played an ineligible player last year and forfeited all their games - the Rams are 37-12 overall.
WAC victories: CSU is 26-6 over the past four years; BYU is 24-8, while Utah and the Air Force are both 23-9.
First-place finishes: The Rams claimed sole possession of first in the old 10-member WAC in 1994 and then shared the top spot with BYU, Utah and Air Force the following season. CSU also won last year's Pacific Division and beat New Mexico for the conference championship. BYU won the Mountain Division two years ago and the inaugural WAC championship game for its only other first-place finish.
Bowl games: CSU has gone bowling three times - all three to the Holiday Bowl as the WAC representative. The other three teams have received two bowl invitations each during the previous four seasons.
CSU could easily tack on another season of WAC dominance, since the Rams return all but two of their defensive starters from last year. And the offense brings back a stellar nucleus along the line, two 1,100-yard running backs and a fifth-year senior as a starting quarterback. Lubick is positive and optimistic as he anxiously awaits the start of the 1998 season, his sixth at CSU and the first year the team is entirely the result of his recruiting.
"I'm saying all of these things as if we're going undefeated," said Lubick, trying to downplay his optimism and the media's favoritism of his team's preseason poll position. "I'm just taking your lead in picking us first, and I'm running with it for the next three weeks until, as we used to say in Montana, everything hits the fan."