Who knew what to expect of the Western Athletic Conference in its final football season as a 16-team league?
Would 1998 serve as a swan song for the nation's largest and most geographically diverse conference? Would a strong showing by the eight teams leaving the WAC help the new group make itself attractive to bowl and TV officials? Would an equally strong showing by the eight remaining WAC team suggest that they could still survive and thrive?Four weeks into the season, this much is obvious - if the current WAC, the new-league breakaway eight or the holdover WAC eight are trying to make a 1998 statement, it's somewhere between a whisper and a whimper.
Bowl berths going bad
Sure, the WAC is guaranteed one of two at-large spots in the 1998 Bowl Championship Series - but only if one of its team is ranked among the top six in the BSC standings, a formula involving polls, computer rankings and strength of schedule. But the WAC currently doesn't even have a team ranked in the AP or CNN/USA Today Top 25 polls.
In the previous two seasons, the WAC champion was either selected by the Cotton Bowl (BYU in 1996) or the Holiday Bowl (Colorado State last year) in an automatic-berth arrangement between the two.
But with the changing of the WAC membership, both bowls have reshaped their WAC ties starting this season - the Cotton Bowl will pit a Big 12 team against an SEC representative, while the Holiday Bowl is changing its host to a No. 2 Pac-10 team against either the No. 3 team from the Big 12 or the WAC champion, whichever is ranked higher.
In the current Top 25 polls, the Big 12 features four ranked teams - Nebraska, Kansas State, Colorado and Texas A&M. Again, no WAC team is ranked.
Meanwhile, the Cotton and Holiday bowls are making long-term arrangements that seem to shut out both the breakaway eight and the holdover WAC. The Cotton's Big 12/SEC deal runs for four years, while Holiday officials have openly embraced the new Pac-10 tie and are awaiting word from the Big 12 about the other spot.
That means that the WAC this year has just two guaranteed bowl berths - in the Las Vegas Bowl and the Jeep Aloha Christmas Classics doubleheader. The league will be holding its breath for consideration from the likes of the Independence, Liberty and new Music City bowls - not only this year, but in seasons to come for the two new leagues.
Small small-screen exposure
Both the holdover WAC teams and the breakaway eight are scrambling to create TV deals. But the WAC's past track record on TV, coupled with the conference's record against nonconference competition this season, isn't going to automatically open doors and pave pathways for either eight-team league.
This year, 10 games involving WAC teams were broadcast in the first month of the season. However, all but one - ABC's regional telecast of BYU at Washington - were on either ESPN or ESPN2 and not on the national networks. Also, the WAC isn't scheduled to be seen again until Oct. 29, with just four more regular-season games to be televised, and the only network appearance is the ABC regional showing of Fresno State vs. San Diego State in November.
If both leagues continue the WAC's TV trends of the past, there likely will be very limited telecasts - and equally limited broadcast revenues - to be had by either conference.
One note: All but three of the 14 regular-season games being televised feature at least one team from the breakaway eight.
Diminished drawing power
Mention the WAC, and football fans nationwide think of some of the league's standout positions of the past - the BYU quarterback and high-octane offense, the Air Force option attack, the San Diego State running backs and receivers, the Colorado State defense, to name a few.
So far, Air Force is gearing up its typical ground game. But the BYU passing attack has struggled, the SDSU offense is nowhere to be found and the CSU defense is mired in the middle of national statistical rankings.
Also, recall the players who were the preseason picks to blossom into this year's WAC superstars: CSU's tandem 1,100-yard backs Damon Washington and Kevin McDougal, Rice's all-around runner Michael Perry, New Mexico QB Graham Leigh and BYU RB Ronney Jenkins. Plus, the WAC was supposed to be deep in experienced placekickers and punters.
All are well off their expected pace after four weeks of play - only Leigh and Perry have cracked the national Top 20 in total offense and all-purpose yards, respectively. A UTEP back (Paul Smith) leads the league in rushing, a Tulsa twosome (WR Wes Caswell and QB John Fitzgerald) are tops in receiving and passing. And the only statistical category where the previously pass-happy WAC has a national leader is in interceptions, with TCU's Joseph Phipps and BYU's Jason Walker Nos. 1 and 2.
Maybe all this changes when WAC teams move from their dominantly nonconference competition to a predominantly league schedule - and start beating up on each other.
Nondescript nonleague play
Last year, the WAC compiled a 26-24 record against nonconference opponents, but it took a pair of Colorado forfeits against CSU and Wyoming - the Buffaloes were penal-ized after the season for playing an ineligible player - to bring the mark over .500.
The WAC is faring even worse this season - in the past two weeks alone, league teams have managed just two nonconference victories, and they came against I-A independent Louisiana Tech (Wyoming) and I-AA's Murray State (BYU).
Following is a glance at how the WAC is measuring up against the Division I-A conferences, how many games have yet to be played and how the WAC did against the same conference last season:
- ACC (1-0, one game remaining; 0-1 in '97): Air Force waxed Wake Forest in the season-opener. San Jose State visits Top 10 Virginia this weekend, so a .500 mark is expected.
- Big East (0-1, no games remaining; 0-0 in '97): West Virginia, ranked in the Top 25, dispatched Tulsa last week.
- Big Ten (1-5, two games remaining; 2-4 in '97): After CSU rallied to win at Michigan State in an early opener, the WAC has dropped five straight to the likes of Northwestern Purdue and Wisconsin Hawaii hosts Michigan and Northwestern later this year - likely another pair of losses.
- Big 12 (2-6, no games remaining; 3-5 in '97, including 2 forfeit wins vs. Colorado): TCU upset Iowa State early and Tulsa shocked Top 25 wannabe Oklahoma State for the only two WAC wins. Losses were to Colorado Oklahoma Texas and Texas Tech
- Big West (3-5, two games remaining; 8-2 in '97): The best the WAC can hope for against a league considered its weaker sister is .500, but only if UNLV upsets Nevada this weekend and CSU downs New Mexico State later this month. Utah State has made two WAC teams happy, with the Aggies falling to Utah and New Mexico; the other WAC win was CSU downing Nevada. Beating WAC competition were Boise State Nevada New Mexico State and Idaho
- Conference USA (1-2, no games remaining; 2-2 in '97): Utah's thumping of Louisville was the bright spot, while Mississippi and Tulane claimed wins over WAC opponents.
- Pac-10 (2-6, no games remaining; 1-5 in '97): San Jose State surprised Bay neighbor Stanford and BYU downed 13th-ranked Arizona State. Winning over WAC foes were Arizona Oregon Southern Cal and Washington
- SEC (1-3, one game remaining; 1-2 in '97): Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia all have dispatched WAC teams; TCU hosts Vanderbilt this weekend.
- Division I-A independents (1-1, four games remaining; 3-3 in '97): Wyoming held off Louisiana Tech last weekend, while Hawaii lost to Big West member-to-be Arkansas State. Air Force still has its Commanders Cup series with Army and Navy, while SMU meets Navy and New Mexico visits Central Florida.
- Division I-AA opponents (4-0, no games remaining; 6-0 in '97): The WAC is undefeated in four tries against lower-level competition - the only place where the league boasts a winning nonconference record.